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Warmbier Dies, What Will White House Do?; Democrats Wage War on Secrecy; Decision Day in Georgia. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired June 20, 2017 - 04:00   ET



[04:00:10] DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Otto Warmbier just passed away. He spent a year and a half in North Korea. That's a brutal regime and we'll be able to handle it.


DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: The U.S. vowing to hold North Korea accountable after the death of an American college student detained more than a year. Otto Warmbier's family is in mourning. Lawmakers are seething. How will the White House respond?

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Senate Democrats vowing to bring business to a crawl. While you were sleeping, they weren't. This is over the Republican secrecy on health care. Now, GOP leadership is demanding a vote by late next week.

BRIGGS: And a big special election in Georgia seen as a referendum on the first months of the Trump presidency. Can Democrats nab a seat that's been Republican 1979? The costliest House race ever.


BRIGGS: Good morning. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Dave Briggs.

ROMANS: That's right. The money is flowing there.

I'm Christine Romans. It is Tuesday, June 20th. It is 4:00 a.m. exactly in the East.

Nice to see you all this morning.

Up first, North Korea facing outrage over the death of Otto Warmbier. The American college student has died less than a week after his release by Pyongyang. His family believes he was tortured into a coma, while being held in captivity for 17 months. Warmbier's passing quickly sparking anger, outrage, sadness in Washington.

Senator John McCain, a former prisoner himself, not mincing words. He says this: Let us state the facts plainly. Otto Warmbier, an American citizen, was murdered by the Kim Jong-un regime. BRIGGS: High-level talks between the U.S. and China begin tomorrow in Washington. And there's growing pressure on President Trump to take a harder line with Beijing to help rein in North Korea. Listen to the president's reaction to Warmbier's death.


TRUMP: Otto Warmbier has just passed away. He spent a year in North Korea. A lot of bad things happened, but at least we got him home to be with his parents where they were so happy to see him even though he was in very tough condition. But he just passed away a little while ago. That's a brutal regime, and we'll be able to handle it.


BRIGGS: So, what does the president mean by "handle it"?

Let's go live to Seoul and bring in CNN's Paula Hancocks.

Paula, good morning to you.

What options does the United States really have here?

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Dave, they're pretty much the options the U.S. has always had, and not of them are great options. There is, of course, the option of sanctions. They could try and strengthen that to put more pressure on North Korea. For that, the United States needs China.

And, of course, it's going to be crucial at that meeting in Washington with the U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson, the Defense Secretary Mattis meeting their Chinese counterparts. Will they be putting more pressure on China to try to counter the North Korean threat?

Bear in mind, it's difficult to see exactly what the U.S. can do when they still have three Americans detained in North Korea. There are two academics, one businessman, Korean Americans who were still being held in North Korea at this point. You also have a number of South Koreans being held, a Canadian. It's very difficult to get any access to them. Still dealing with the Swedish embassy to try and gain access to those three.

But, of course, that is a priority now, as well, as Otto Warmbier and his family, to try and get those three out. Now, we understand that they have been pushing for that. Secretary Tillerson saying it's a delicate situation.

So, clearly, it's going to be a bit of a balancing act. If they are going to put more pressure on China, they're also asking China to do more when it comes to the missile and the nuclear program that North Korea has. It's an awful lot that they're asking for at this point.

But you can see there is real anger, not just in Washington, not just in the U.S., but around the world and shock that this situation has been allowed to happen. I've spoken to a number of North Korean watchers. They say nobody would have expected this. They were blindsided that the North Korean regime could stoop this low.

BRIGGS: We are seeing tour groups stopping trips to North Korea. But that, of course, minimal impact. Paula, thank you.

ROMANS: And then there's this grieving family, the family of Otto Warmbier releasing a statement in the hours after their son's passing. It reads: It would be easy at a moment like this to focus on all that we lost -- future time that won't be spent with a warm, engaging, brilliant young man whose curiosity, enthusiasm for life knew no bounds. We choose to focus on the time that we were given to be with this remarkable person.

When Otto returned to Cincinnati late on June 13th, he was unable to speak, unable to see, and unable to react to verbal commands.

[04:05:03] He looked very uncomfortable, almost anguished. Although we would never hear his voice again, within a day, the countenance of his face changed. He was at peace. He was home, and we believe he could sense that.

Funeral arrangements for Warmbier have not yet been announced.

BRIGGS: Democrats holding the Senate floor late into the night, demanding Republicans go public with their plans for repealing and replacing Obamacare. The Democrats' speeches overnight, more than theatrics -- more theatrics than lawmaking as they try to spotlight the secretive process Republicans are using to draft their health care bill.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer calling it, quote: The greatest miscarriage of legislative practice that he's seen during his decades in Congress.


SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: When you do a bill in dark of night, things happen that no one knows about. There are unintended consequences that only a thorough vetting can reveal. When you do things in the dark of night, there are individual accommodations that are made that are going to look ugly when they become public.

So, the only consolation we on this side have, small consolation that it is, is the political blunder that our colleagues on the other side of the aisle are making.


ROMANS: The Democrats' coordinated effort to hold the floor last night won't actually stall any work on the GOP health bill. Now, we're learning that Republican leaders are taking real steps toward a vote and soon.

For now, let's bring in CNN's Phil Mattingly on Capitol Hill.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Dave and Christine, if you talk to Senate Democrats they recognize this is an urgent moment in their effort to try and derail Republican efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Why? Well, sources tell me Mitch McConnell has made very clear, the Senate majority leader, that he wants this Senate to vote on that repeal and replace plan before the July 4th recess. That means next week. I'm told a vote likely to come on Thursday if things continue to progress. And that is exactly why on Monday you saw Senate Democrats take to the floor and start to register their objections.

Now, what will those entail? Well, trying to slow down Senate business. Nothing can move forward in the Senate without every senator agreeing for just that to happen. And that's exactly what the Senate Democrats are going to try and stop from happening. That means floor business, committee hearings, all sorts of things that they want to do to try to gum up the works a little bit.

Now, guys, the most interesting element is there is still no bill. Republicans haven't come to agreement on some of the key outstanding issues from the Medicaid expansion to the scope of the cutback of the Obamacare regulations, structure of the tax credit, where they stand on abortion funding. All of those issues are expected to be worked out this week.

I'm told from several Senate GOP sources that Mitch McConnell will at some point tell his colleagues, tell the members of his conference, many of whom are very different ideologically when it comes to health care, that it's time to make a deal. There's no more talking. There's no more negotiating. Everybody needs to come to an agreement.

That vote is happening, or at least that's the plan at this point. They need a bill first. We'll see when they actually get to that point and how long Senate Democrats can try and hold things up in the meantime -- Dave and Christine.


ROMANS: See that White House briefing yesterday?

BRIGGS: No. I missed it.

ROMANS: Was there a White House briefing yesterday? No, I didn't hear it. I didn't see it either.

BRIGGS: No. Looks like a move is imminent in the White House press room even though that's not being used much lately.

Press Secretary Sean Spicer may be bumped to a new role. His latest briefing came off camera with no video or audio recording allowed and more than a week since the last on-camera briefing. White House officials believe the messaging operation needs a reset with CNN and the mood in the West Wing has soured.

ROMANS: That's what they're telling us. A source says all of the president's advisers have tried to convince

him to stop tweeting about the Russia investigation. How's that going? Without success.

Sources say the president is frustrated he can't execute his agenda. He seems agitated, exhausted, even -- even disengaged at briefings. All of this no doubt on the mind of anyone being considered for the press secretary job. So, what's next for Sean Spicer?

CNN's Jim Acosta has more from the White House.


JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Dave and Christine, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer appears to be moving into a different role in the West Wing, leaving an opening at the podium in the briefing room. White House sources tell us Spicer may be shifted into a role that oversees both the job of press secretary and communications director. Spicer's tenure at the podium has been filled with controversial moments from the first day of the administration. Yesterday, he held an off camera, no-audio briefing that barred reporters from recording any of his comments.

Despite those restrictions, Spicer could not answer whether the president has any recordings of his conversations at the White House. Spicer said that we may have an answer to that by the end of the week. But, of course, they said that last week -- Dave and Christine.


ROMANS: I've got to tell you, my colleague, Jim Acosta, I got to game him two thumbs up and a high five for how he handled things yesterday.

[04:10:02] He was -- he was visibly frustrated and he made a really good point. If you were going to a city council meeting and you were trying to, you know, tell the people of your town what was happening at the inner workings of the city council meeting, you would have more clarity than you do at the White House. And that's really, really the sense --

BRIGGS: The struggle for house and Senate Republicans is they want us to stop emphasizing these tweets, right? Well, that's all we have.

ROMANS: Right.

BRIGGS: We don't have press briefings. We don't have press conferences. That's all we have to go on as the president's tweets.

So, here we go. He's the president's secretary of everything. And now, we're finally hearing his voice.


JARED KUSHNER, PRESIDENT TRUMP SENIOR ADVISOR: We are here to improve the day-to-day lives of the average citizen. That's a core promise, and we are keeping it. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BRIGGS: That's what the voice of Jared Kushner sounds like. Finally making it heard. What he told technology leaders, next.


[04:15:01] ROMANS: Good morning, everybody.

Silicon Valley may clash with the president over climate change and immigration. But tech CEOs agree that the government's tech needs modernizing.


TRUMP: Many of our agencies rely on painfully outdated technology. And yet we have the greatest people in technology that the world has ever seen right here with us in this room.


ROMANS: It's so true. That disconnect is so odd and true.

The president's American tech council met for the first time. Some of the great minds in that room: the heads of Apple, Amazon, IBM, and Google parent Alphabet. Look at that lineup.

The agenda was upgrading tech infrastructure. But many leaders saw the meeting as an opportunity to broach more sensitive subjects. Think immigration, think encryption.

Silicon Valley has been a vocal critic of the president's policies. For example, the travel bans and decision to leave the Paris climate deal. Tesla CEO Elon Musk even quit his role over that decision, his advisory role to the president. He was not at the meeting.

But most large tech companies, the idea here is they can't afford to sever White House ties. The risk is greater if they're not at the table than if they are. The federal government is a huge customer for many of them. And several stand to reap billions, tens of billions from tax reform.

Another headline from this event -- you know the so-called secretary of everything, Jared Kushner? He has finally spoken on camera. He opened the meeting, explaining how business sensibilities will help modernize this government.


KUSHNER: We are here to improve the day-to-day lives of the average citizen. That's a core promise, and we are keeping it. Together, we will unleash the creativity of the private sector to provide citizen services in a way that has never happened before.

(END VIDEO CLIP) ROMANS: That is probably the first time many of you have ever heard his voice. Despite his very prominent role, he is really in the background. He doesn't appear on television interviews or on televisions. It's rare to sort of hear him --


BRIGGS: It's remarkable, is it not?

ROMANS: Secretary of everything.

BRIGGS: That we've had such an integral part of the White House having never been heard -- I don't remember anything quite like this.

ROMANS: We heard him yesterday.

BRIGGS: It was fascinating to hear.

ROMANS: I love -- let's be honest, everyone is all for modernizing technology in the government. Anybody who's ever interfaced with this government --

BRIGGS: If you listen to some of the things he said, he's talking about floppy disks and he's talking about technology that dates back 20, 30 years in the government.

ROMANS: Oh, man.

BRIGGS: All right. Meanwhile, Georgia voters going to the polls today in a special congressional election. The race for the open seat in Georgia's sixth congressional district seen nationally as a referendum on the Trump presidency.

Polls show Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff running neck and neck in what's become the most expensive House race in American history, and it ain't even close folks. Georgia sixth -- up until now, the definition of reliably Republican, in GOP hands since 1979.

We get more from CNN's Kaylee Hartung.


KAYLEE HARTUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: On this election day in Georgia's sixth district in the northern suburbs of Atlanta, neither campaign comfortable with where they stand as this could be a race decided by just a few thousands votes come tonight. Early voting numbers give both camps reason to be optimistic, though, that's because 140,000 people cast their ballots before today. That's more than double the number of voters who voted early in April, and that includes 36,000 who didn't participate in that election. So, no comfort here. Optimism, yes, but also reason for both camps to be tense as the vitriol in this campaign has picked up in the final days, including this attack ad.

CAMPAIGN AD ANNOUNCER: The unhinged left is endorsing and applauding shooting Republicans. When will it stop? It won't if Jon Ossoff wins on Tuesday.

KARTUNG: Both candidates have denounced that ad from the Principled PAC, an organization that supports conservative leaders.

But it's not just the attacks on the airwaves that we've seen in the lead up to this election. Jon Ossoff traveling with a security detail, as he says a number of threats against him have intensified. And Karen Handel and her neighbors receiving envelops in their mailboxes last week that included a threatening letter and a white powdery substance. That substance turned out to just be baking soda. Karen Handel told me on that Thursday night, she couldn't sleep with the image of men in hazmat suits in her home.

Stakes are high tonight in Georgia's sixth.

Christine, Dave, back to you.


ROMANS: They are. And welcome aboard. Here's a great assignment.

BRIGGS: Kaylee. Yes.

ROMANS: And you're going to be up late tonight.

You know, there's a lot been made about all the money in here, especially Republicans making a big deal about the $23 million or something that Ossoff has raised. But we're told of that outside money outside the district, outside the state, it's -- most of the donations are under $200, you know? So, they seem to be smaller donations. But we'll see.

BRIGGS: It's a fascinating race.

[04:20:01] And it's not clear who needs it more because Democrats need a win.

ROMANS: Right.

BRIGGS: They've been losing these specials. They need a win. It's a -- reliably Republican district. It's hard to know what to make of it. We'll make a lot of it tonight.

ROMANS: Reliably Republican is Relublican --

BRIGGS: Did I do that?

ROMANS: You used that. I love it.

BRIGGS: Relublican. Let's do that. We just coined that term.

All right. Up next, as if the U.S. and Russia didn't have enough issues, Moscow now with a threat to U.S. fighter jets. It stems from this weekend's shoot-down of a Syrian warplane. We're live in Moscow next, on EARLY START.


[04:25:04] ROMANS: Russia is now threatening to treat American fighter jets as targets after the U.S. shot down a Syrian warplane over Raqqah. The White House says it is working to keep the lines of communication open with the Kremlin in order to avoid any conflicts.

But the president's spokesman, Sean Spicer, says the escalation of hostilities among many factions in the region is not helping.

So, what does this mean moving forward?

Let's go to Moscow and bring in Jill Dougherty. She's a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a former CNN Moscow bureau chief.

And, let's be very clear here -- we're talking about Syria. We're talking about a place where you have U.S. warplanes, Russia warplanes, competing factions on the ground, some backed by the Assad regime, some backed by the U.S., and it is a potential mess if you have Russian and American warplanes targeting each other.

JILL DOUGHERTY, GLOBAL FELLOW, WOODROW WILSON CENTER: Right. And what the Russians are trying here, I think, is to tell the U.S. to back off because the U.S. has been supporting its allies. These are fighters on the ground that it considers moderates. And what they're trying to do is kick out ISIS from Raqqah.

And so, you're right that all of these groups, the Iranians, the Russians, the Syrians, the Americans helping the moderate fighters are all coalescing kind of in the same area. And the Russians are angry because the United States shot down a plane.

So, what are they saying? Stay out of our area. Do not come in with any planes.

But they're not saying specifically -- here's where it gets complicated -- they're not saying specifically, we will shoot down American planes. They're saying, we will consider you targets. So, it's a direct threat, but it's also an implied threat.

And then the other thing that is just as important, they are saying, the Russians are saying that they will temporarily -- I should say they will suspend. They're not even saying for how long. They will suspend this deconfliction, let's call it a hotline, a communications mechanism between Russia and the United States, that's supposed to prevent any type of, let's say, collisions in the air between Russia and the United States.

So, the question is, is this real? Is it bluffing? Would they actually shoot down an American plan? Nobody can really say that at this point.

It would seem that the Russians would not want to do that. That would be hugely provocative and very dangerous. But the situation is dangerous, Christine, precisely because you have planes in the air and no understanding of what could happen even accidentally. ROMANS: I mean, it's a hornets nest, no question with all kinds of --

rife with potential for further conflict. We certainly hope that cooler heads will prevail on all sides. Thank you for that.

Just -- I mean, when the U.S. shot down that plane, that Russian jet over the weekend, you just knew --

BRIGGS: Syrian --

ROMANS: Sorry, Syrian, my gosh, Syrian, yes -- you just knew that that was going to be a new high point in the tension.

BRIGGS: So much of the thawing of the U.S./Russian relations in the Trump administration, huh?

ROMANS: Right.

All right. Well, the world is waiting to see how the White House will respond after the death of Otto Warmbier. Senator John McCain says the American was murdered by North Korea. We're live with what the president could have in store for Pyongyang.