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Undermining Mueller's Probe; Trump Legal Team Shuffled; Simpson to Go Free; Earthquake Rocks Greek Island & Nearby Turkey. Aired 4- 4:30a ET

Aired July 21, 2017 - 04:00   ET


[04:00:10] MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN ANCHOR: New this morning, reports the president's legal team is looking to undercut the special counsel on Russia. It could set up a major conflict between the White House and Robert Mueller.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: The president's legal team shaken up. Who is stepping away from the spotlight and why.

MARQUEZ: And O.J. Simpson set to go free. What he's saying about his past as he looks forward to life on the outside.

Good morning and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Miguel Marquez. Happy Friday.

ROMANS: I'm Christine Romans. Happy Friday to you. It is Friday, July 21st. It is 4:00 a.m. in the East. Good morning, everyone.

Up first, exclusive new reporting this morning. The president's lawyers are looking for ways to undermine the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller. "The Washington Post" and "The New York Times" report attorneys and aides are scouring the backgrounds of Mueller and his staff, searching for conflicts of interest they can use to undercut the Russia probe. The paper cites several sources familiar with this research efforts.

MARQUEZ: "The Washington Post" also reporting the president has asked about his power to pardon aides, family members, even himself. One adviser told "The Post" the president was simply curious about the reach of his pardoning authority. This follows the president's earlier attacks on Mueller and other officials connected to the Russian investigation.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny has more from the White House.


JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Christine and Miguel, President Trump and the White House increasingly focused on that special counsel's investigation, that independent investigation into the Russian meddling of the 2016 election. There are indications that the investigation is spreading beyond simple election meddling. President Trump made that's indication in his interview with "The New York Times" earlier this week when he talked about special prosecutor Robert Mueller and the idea that he could be looking into the Trump family's finances.

Now, the president said he thought that would be outside of the purview of that. But this is increasingly dominating much of the conversation here at the White House, as the legal team is look at strategies here. "The Washington Post" and "New York Times" are both reporting this morning that the president is also looking into ways to disrupt this investigation. They're looking into the background of the attorneys working on this investigation. It just shows how much time and attention here at the White House is being focused on this.

So much fallout reverberating from that interview with "The New York Times" earlier this week about the president expressing his blistering disappointment with the attorney general. It has sent shockwaves throughout the West Wing of the White House largely because the attorney general is one of the most loyal soldiers in the Trump army. He was one of the earliest supporters. He was in fact the earliest Republican senator to sign on. But as we end this week, the sixth- month mark of this presidency is Russia investigation dominating many things here at the White House -- Christine and Miguel.


ROMANS: All right. Jeff Zeleny, thank you for that.

As for the attorney general, he is shrugging President Trump's biting attack. The president said he'd have hired someone else if he knew Sessions would recuse himself in the Russia probe. The attorney general is determined to stay put for the time being.


JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I have the honor of serving as attorney general. It's something that goes beyond any thought I would have ever had for myself. We love this job. We love this department. And I plan to continue to do so, as long as that is appropriate.


ROMANS: With more on the attorney general's response and damage control a t the White House, CNN's Jessica Schneider for us in Washington.


JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Christine and Miguel, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, he seems to be rebuffing speculation that he might resign in the wake of President Trump's harsh words about him in "The New York Times". Well, of course, the president criticized his anger at Sessions' decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation back on March 2nd. The president saying in that "New York Times" interview that the decision was, quote, unfair to the president, and that President Trump wouldn't have asked him to become attorney general if he knew Sessions would remove himself from overseeing the investigation.

Of course, those comments drew a lot of speculation. But White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, she's clarified, in part, saying that the president does have confidence in Sessions. But really was just disappointed in the decision Sessions made to recuse.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: Clearly, he has confidence in him or he would not be the attorney general. I think you know this president well enough to know that if he wanted somebody to take an action, he would make that quite clear.

SCHNEIDER: Christine and Miguel?


MARQUEZ: Thanks, Jessica, for that.

Now, with all that in mind, the president is reshuffling the legal team charged with helping him navigate that Russia probe. Two sources tell CNN the president's long time personal attorney, Marc Kasowitz, will see his role as lead lawyer on the Russia investigation diminish. And now, veteran Washington attorney John Dowd, and attorney Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow will lead the president's personal attorneys as on that Russia inquiry.

[04:05:05] ROMANS: The sources say by working outside the White House, Dowd and Sekulow's dealings with the president will be protected by the same attorney-client privilege afforded all U.S. citizens. Inside the White House, Attorney Ty Cobb will take the lead on legal and communications strategy for Russia. He'll be effectively replacing communications strategist Mark Corallo who resigned on Thursday.

MARQUEZ: Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley threatening to subpoena both Donald Trump Jr. and Paul Manafort to appear before his committee.


SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R), IOWA: We asked them for voluntary appearance. I've indicated that we would subpoena if they don't come.

REPORTER: Is there a deadline associated with that?

GRASSLEY: We are having hearings next Wednesday. So, obviously, we want to hear right away.


MARQUEZ: Trump Jr. and Manafort are scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. But neither has publicly confirmed he will appear. The top Democrat on the committee, California Senator Dianne Feinstein also reiterating the subpoena threat.

ROMANS: We're learning this morning, Jared Kushner's closed door session with the Senate Intelligence Committee next week will be with staff. It's not yet clear when he will meet with senators. This is now being called, Miguel, an interview, not testimony. MARQUEZ: Meantime, CNN has exclusively learned Jared Kushner's status

as a top aide for President Trump is still being used to lure Chinese investors to his family's New Jersey development. Kushner's name being used on an online promotion by two businesses working with Kushner companies, describing him in Chinese as, quote, the celebrity of the family and Mr. Perfect, Jared Kushner. It comes after his family apologized in May for using Kushner's name during a sales pitch.

ROMANS: All right. A confidant of President Trump now under consideration for White House communications director.

Two senior administration officials telling CNN, Anthony Scaramucci has been interviewed for the job and was spotted at the White House Thursday night. He is a hedge fund manager. He was an adviser for the president's transition.

If he is hired, the big question, what happens to the other key members of the communications team? Sean Spicer, the press secretary, has stayed mostly behind the scenes during the communications director search. It's unclear what happens once that post is filled.

All right. The U.S. is fining ExxonMobil for violating Russian sanctions while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in charge. The Treasury Department is slapping a $2 million fine on the company, claiming it demonstrated reckless disregard for those Russia sanctions. This steams from a 2014 deal between Exxon execs and this man, Igor Sechin. Sechin runs the state-run oil company Rosneft and is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. His assets were blocked as part of U.S. sanctions in 2014 on Russia for annexing Crimea.

Now, the Treasury Department did not specify the Exxon executive involved. It did not name Tillerson. Tillerson stepped down as CEO last year, but had personal business dealings with Sechin when he ran ExxonMobil. And this move raises concerns again over his deep business ties in Russia. Exxon says the fine is fundamentally unfair and in response, filed a complaint against the Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, adding that the chargers are inconsistent with the explicit guidance the White House issued at that time.

Fascinating, isn't it?

MARQUEZ: The Treasury Department versus the State Department, bizarre. I don't know if we've ever had --

ROMANS: Not versus State Department, versus ExxonMobil, and the guy who runs the State Department, used to run ExxonMobil at that time.

MARQUEZ: It is a tangled web.

ROMANS: Really.

MARQUEZ: O.J. Simpson will be a free man.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) O.J. SIMPSON, FORMER NFL STAR: My time. You know, I've done it as well and as respectfully as I think anybody can.


MARQUEZ: A Nevada parole board agreed. More on when Simpson will go free and what's next for the former football star.



[04:13:03] UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Simpson, I do vote to grant parole when eligible. And that will conclude this hearing.

SIMPSON: Thank you.


MARQEUZ: Orenthal James Simpson will soon be a free man. The Nevada parole board granting the 70-year-old release from prison now that he's served nine years behind bar. He's expected to be released by the fall. What's next for the former football star?

CNN's Sara Sidner has more from Carson City, Nevada.


SARA SIDNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Christine and Miguel, the O.J. Simpson parole hearing got off to a pretty light start actually, when the chairwoman of the parole board actually made a mistake and said that O.J. Simpson was 90 years old and then corrected herself, reminding him that he was 70. Everyone laughed.

But then things got quite serious. O.J. Simpson spoke for himself, so did one of his friends, and his eldest daughter. They all testified, trying to get him released from prison.

Some of the things that O.J. Simpson said were itself self- aggrandizing. He talked about how great he was in prison. How he led a conflict-free life. Some of those things disputed if you look at his history.

SIMPSON: I've done my time. You know, I've done it as well as respectfully as I think anybody can. I think if you talk to the wardens, they'll tell you. I've been -- I gave them my word. I believe in the jury system.

I've honored their verdict. I've not complained for nine years. All I've done is tried to be helpful and encourage the guys around me. Hey, man, do your time. Fight in court. And don't do anything that's going to extend your time.

And that's the life I've tried to live, because I want to get back to my kids. SIDNER: The parole board decided that what he had done in prison, the

programs that he had taken part in, the help that he had given to some other inmates, and the fact that he never got in trouble in his nearly nine years while he was in prison, on that armed robbery and kidnapping charge. He was charged with 12 counts.

[04:15:00] It all involved the situation in Las Vegas, back in 2008, where he had decided to go and try to take back what he said was property, memorabilia, that was stolen from him, personal items, he said.

As it turned out, he went in. He was with several other men. Two of those men had guns. And so, in the end, O.J. Simpson and one other man was convicted in the case. Now, O.J. Simpson has been granted parole, which means that he will get out of prison but not immediately. He's scheduled to get out in October -- Miguel, Christine.


ROMANS: All right. Sara Sidner for us in Nevada, thank you for that.

A stunning loss in the music world. The lead singer of the rock band Linkin Park has died.

Unique sound.

Forty-one-year-old Chester Bennington was found dead Thursday. According to a spokesman for the Los Angeles County coroner, authorities say they are treating this case as a possible suicide. Bennington had been open about troubles in his life, including drug addiction. Linkin Park's latest album "One More Light" was released in May. The ban was set to kick off the tour in Boston next week.

The police chief of Minneapolis speaking for the first time, saying the officer who killed bride-to-be Justine Ruszczyk failed to protect and serve.


JANEE HARTEAU, MINNEAPOLIS POLICE CHIEF: Justine didn't have to die. Based on the publicly released information from the BCA, this should not have happened. On our squad cars, you'll find the words, to protect with courage and serve with compassion. This did not happen.


MARQUEZ: Pinning blame solely on Officer Mohamed Noor, the police chief said the shooting resulted from the actions and judgment of one individual who failed to meet department expectations. The chief also admitting that officers' body cameras should have been on, pledging to review the department's policy.

Last night, mourners gathered in the alley where Ruszczyk was shot and marched through the neighborhood, calling for justice. For Ruszczyk's relatives, they say they are stunned by the killing and have hired an attorney who has experience in handling police-involved killings.

ROMANS: A group of Florida teens who taunted and filmed a man as he drowned will not face criminal charges, according to police. In a video more than two minutes long, five teenage boys can be heard laughing as 31-year-old Jamel Dunn struggles to stay afloat in a pond. They can be heard laughing and warning him he was going to die and they were not going to help him. Police call the boys' actions beyond heartless, but there is no law in Florida requiring a citizen to summon help for someone in distress.

MARQUEZ: Oh my gosh.

New overnight, big earthquake rattles Greece and Turkey, several people are dead, hundreds of thousands fleeing in impact. We are live in Istanbul.


[04:22:26] ROMANS: At least two tourists were killed when an earthquake struck the Greek island of Kos this morning. Officials say the quake registered magnitude 6.7, with its epicenter about 10 miles north of the island, an estimated 200,000 people in Greece and Turkey felt some degree of shaking.

CNN producer Gul Tuysuz is live in Turkey with the very latest.

Bring us up to speed.

GUL TUYSUZ, CNN PRODUCER: Well, just moments ago, we heard from Turkish officials who had completed their initial assessments and what they just said was that 80 people were injured and that there were no casualties in the 6.7 magnitude earthquake that hit both Turkey and Greece. There have been more than 160 aftershocks after that initial large earthquake. And, Turkish officials coming out and saying there was a mini tsunami that took place because of the earthquake.

And, of course, we saw manager that resembled a small tsunami in those social media videos that came out from the Turkish side where you see water washing up on to hotels and resorts that are in this area. The two people who lost their lives on the Greek side, Greek authorities have come out and said, one is a Swedish national. The other is a Turkish national who were there just enjoying the summer, the beach, and the sea that's there.

And that's what's really scary about all of this was that the earthquake hit at 1:30 a.m., and this is a place where tourists go, both local and foreigners. And it's about having an idyllic time for the summer. But, unfortunately, that's not what happened.

In terms of damage to property on the Greek side, we saw older buildings taking damage. On the Turkish side, the minaret of a mosque taking damage and spewing stones out to a nearby area. Rescue workers have shut that part off.

And a lot of people are still out on the streets -- are still out on the streets and waiting for the aftershocks to subside -- Christina. ROMANS: Certainly, those aftershocks can be terrifying after

something like that. Thank you so much, Gul, for us this morning in Istanbul, covering that story.

MARQUEZ: Now, back in the U.S., no relief from the miserable heat today on the eastern half of the country. More than 75 million people under excessive heat warnings of advisories.

We want to bring in meteorologist Karen Maginnis.


KAREN MAGINNIS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Well, this Friday, it is going to be sizzling hot, Miguel and Christine, where you guys are, in the Northeast, in New England. Yes, all the way up that I-95 corridor and into the Central United States, where we've got a very strong ridge of high pressure.

[04:25:06] So, it's like a dome extending all the way from the Central Plains toward the mid-Atlantic into the Northeast, St. Louis is going bake with 102 degrees. That's the actual outside air temperature. That's what's forecast.

It's going to feel a whole lot different. If you're traveling toward St. Louis, or Wichita, or into Kansas City, watch out because it is going to be oppressively hot. You might get a little bit of a break, but not until late on Saturday, then going into Sunday.

And we start to see the heat really start to break down rather dramatically. New York from 90s to around 80 degrees on Sunday. Cleveland from temperatures close to 90 to the low 80s. So, there is some heat relief, but it's going to be brief.

Back to you, guys.


ROMANS: All right. Karen, that looks hot.

Everyone, please check on your elderly neighbors, please? If you live in Boston or New York City.

MARQUEZ: And that humidity doesn't help.

Will the president really use his pardoning power to undermine the Russia investigation? Reports this morning say the Trump legal team is looking into it.