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NSTB: Speed A Factor in Amtrak Crash; House and Senate to Vote on Tax Bill; Trump Unveils "America First" Security Strategy. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired December 19, 2017 - 04:00   ET



[04:00:13] BELLA DINH-ZARR, NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD: The train was traveling at 80 miles per hour in a 30mile-per-hour track.


DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: An Amtrak train going nearly three times the speed limit when it jumped the tracks in a deadly derailment. New questions this morning about a safety system installed on the track but not yet activated.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: And the Republican Congress poised to pass an extensive rewrite of the tax code today. This bill is widely unpopular. We'll break down what the final numbers mean for you.

Good morning and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

BRIGGS: I'm Dave Briggs.

Looks like it has all but secured passage that our vote in the House, perhaps a vote in the Senate today.

ROMANS: They're moving quickly, very quickly.

BRIGGS: All right. It is December 19th, 4:00 a.m. in the East, 1:00 a.m. in Washington state.

That's where we start this morning. Federal crash investigators on the ground in DuPont, Washington, to probe the deadly derailment of an Amtrak passenger train. At least three people were killed, about a hundred injured when all but one of the 14 cars jumped the track. Overnight, the NTSB confirmed speed was a critical factor.


DINH-ZARR: Preliminary indications are that the train was traveling at 80 miles per hour in a 30-mile-per-hour track.


ROMANS: There are also questions this morning about positive train control, that's the technology that automatically slows down trains that senses are going too fast. Amtrak CEO says it was not yet activated, even though the owner of the tracks has installed positive train control on that stretch.

BRIGGS: Amtrak Cascades 501 was making its first run on a new route between Seattle and Portland when some cars tumbled onto the rush-hour traffic on the interstate below, others left dangling over the edge. We'll have more on this show -- throughout the show.

ROMANS: Overnight, Amtrak pledged its full cooperation with the NTSB investigation. The government-subsidized rail carrier has opened a family assistance center in Tacoma to work with affected passengers and their families.

BRIGGS: All right. President Trump generating some controversy with his response to that deadly train derailment. Here's his first tweet after the incident. Quote: The train accident that just occurred in DuPont, Washington, shows more than ever why are soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly. Seven trillion dollars spent in Middle East while our roads, bridges, tunnels, railways and more crumble. Not for long.

No mention of lives lost in that first reaction.

ROMANS: Yes, no one disputes infrastructure upgrades are needed, but maybe that tweet should have come after this one. An hour later, the president expressed sympathies for the victims had offered heartfelt prayers.

This is not the first time the president referred to tragedy very quickly to make a political point of his own. After the Pulse nightclub in the New York City truck attacks, his first response concern radical Islam and terrorism.

BRIGGS: Also not clear if infrastructure would have prevented that accident. We don't know that just yet.

Meanwhile, two votes and President Trump's signature the only hurdles left to clear before the first major overhaul of the U.S. tax code in decades becomes reality. The House set to vote first today on what's shaping up to be the only significant legislative achievement of the Trump administration so far. The Vice President Mike Pence postponing a trip to Egypt and Israel to be close by in case he has to serve as the tie-breaking vote in the Senate, especially with John McCain absent.

More now from CNN's Phil Mattingly on Capitol Hill.


PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Dave and Christine, today is the day Republicans say they have the votes, they have the votes in the House, they have the votes in the Senate, and now, they are actually going to take that vote. Now, caveat here, nothing's ever done until it's actually done. But the House is expected to vote Tuesday afternoon, the Senate is expected to follow suit a short time later, as soon as they're possible once they get the bill once they get their debate, and with the goal of bringing the tax reform bill to President Trump's desk by Wednesday, for a signing ceremony.

Look, Senate leaders aren't hedging their words right now, they feel very confident. Take a listen to what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had to say.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: The historic accomplishments and the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act will bring immediate relief to struggling families and set America on a trajectory towards greater strength and prosperity. I look forward to voting for its passage and I would urge all of our colleagues to join me and voting and give the Americans families the relief they need and richly deserve.

MATTINGLY: Now, guys, top Senate advisors that I've been speaking to over the course of the last couple days made clear they were confident about where things were but that confidence grew about tenfold with two yes votes that came out on Monday night, Senator Susan Collins, Senator Mike Lee. That leaves only one vote that's left unaccounted for, Senator Jeff Flake. He still has not made his final decision yet. However, at this point, based on the numbers, even with Senator John McCain flying back to Arizona, not going to be in attendance for the Senate vote, Republicans barring some major change, some major votes switch, have the votes they need to move this plan forward.

[04:05:03] The president said he wanted it on his desk by Christmas. By all accounts, at this point in time, they're certainly on that track -- Dave, Christine.


ROMANS: All right. On that track, Phil Mattingly.

The tax bill is most significant -- is the most significant overhaul since the Reagan administration, and while it will hit everyone differently, there are clear winners and losers. The biggest winner: companies. The corporate rate slashed, along with the tax burden for pass-throughs, with no guarantee -- the hope of course -- but no guarantee it will raise wages or add jobs. Certain industries fare best like retailers, tech companies and the Trump family business commercial real estate.

In fact, a last-minute change expanded real estate tax breaks that caused some to question why GOP Senator Bob Corker switched his vote to yes. Corker has significant real estate holdings. He denies knowing about this last-minute provision slipped in there that really helps a real estate and real estate investment.

Of the wealthy, also win, fresh analysis finds the biggest tax savings go to the high-income households. The bill also keeps tax breaks for student loans grad students and teachers, and doubles the child tax credit. But it caps the state and local tax deduction, hurting homeowners in high tax states.

Other potential losers; the elderly. Medicare faces a 4 percent cut, people buying health insurance, eliminating Obamacare's mandate could hike premiums, and those individual tax cuts, remember, they expire by 2025 to keep the cost of the bill below $1.5 trillion.

You're starting to hear the point that if they're going to automatically extend those, then this isn't a one and a half trillion dollar tax bill. It's something much more than that.

BRIGGS: Well, policy analysis yesterday was well north of $3 trillion --


BRIGGS: -- if they do extend those individual rates. So, to that point what was addressed for deficit concerns to get Corker onboard? Nothing.

ROMANS: You know, and where is the deficit concern from Republicans?

BRIGGS: Endangered species if you are a fiscal conservative.

Meanwhile, the White House says the government now believes North Korea was behind the WannaCry cyberattack earlier this year. Homeland security adviser Thomas Bossert writes in a "Wall Street Journal" op- ed that the U.S. has evidence for the claim, and that the U.K. and Microsoft have reached similar conclusions.

ROMANS: That WannaCry attack brought down computer systems around the world, including critical banking and hospital networks. Bossert says the administration wants the private sector to do more to prevent such attacks. CNN reported in June, British intelligence believed a group connected Pyongyang was behind WannaCry.

BRIGGS: A nominee for the federal bench has withdrawn after struggling mightily to answer basic legal questions at his confirmation hearing last week. President Trump dominated Matthew Petersen for a lifetime appointment to the D.C. Circuit Court. Video of him flailing at softball legal questions from Republican Senator John Kennedy went viral last week.

ROMANS: In a letter to the president, Petersen said he does not want to be a continued distraction adding I had hoped that my nearly two decades of public service would carry more weight than my worst two minutes on television.

Before Petersen withdrew, Senator Kennedy said this.


SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R), LOUISIAN: But just because you've seen my cousin Vinnie, you're now qualified to be a federal judge.


ROMANS: Petersen currently serves as a commissioner on the Federal Election Commission.

He made a funny -- you think that was funny.

BRIGGS: My cousin Vinnie reference, oh, my applause.

ROMANS: You don't get one of those every day.

BRIGGS: Senator, well done, identical.

OK. Some Democrats are having second thoughts about whether Senator Al Franken should resign. Senators Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Joe Manchin of West Virginia both expressing regret over Franken's impending departure, like he urged Franken to step down in the wake of inappropriate sexual misconduct allegations. Now, he says he wishes he'd waited until the Senate Ethics Committee investigated.

ROMANS: For his part, Manchin who never called for Franken's resignation now says this.


SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D), WEST VIRGINIA: The political rancor in here is just -- it's just unbelievable to me how you can destroy a human being's life and his family and everything that they stand for without giving them a chance. He should not resign. I think he should submit himself, which he has willingly done and offered to do and go through this complete process of an extensive ethics review.


ROMANS: Senator Franken, by the way, has not yet set a date for his departure, but there is little real momentum for him to reverse course. An aide telling CNN Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer still thinks Franken should leave. Schumer already met Monday with Franken's replacement, Tina Smith.

BRIGGS: Coming up, President Trump taking on foreign powers as he lays out his "America First" national security strategy.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We also face rival powers, Russia and China, that seek to challenge American influence, values and wealth.


ROMANS: So, what's the reaction overseas? We're live in Moscow.


[04:14:02] ROMANS: President Trump outlining a national security strategy that he says will put America first. Trump Monday casting his election as a pivot away from policies that have left the U.S. cheated and taken advantage of by other countries, all while leaving Americans ill-served at home.

The president took direct aim at his predecessors in both parties.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) TRUMP: A nation that does not protect prosperity at home cannot protect its interests abroad. A nation that is not prepared to win a war is a nation not capable of preventing a war. A nation that is not proud of its history cannot be confident in its future. And a nation that is not certain of its values cannot summon the will to defend them.


BRIGGS: Trump called Russia and China, quote, rival powers who seek to challenge American influence values and wealth but stop short of calling out Moscow for its election meddling.

[04:15:02] CNN's Nic Robertson is live in Moscow for us.

Good morning, Nic.

The document, the written document far different than the words we heard from the president there in that speech. What's the reaction in Russia?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Sure, I mean, the document some 80-odd pages long. there were 25 references to Russia, most of them negative, and I guess it did get into how Russia tries to meddle in the internal affairs of other countries.

The reaction here, as you might imagine, has been a pretty strong push back. President Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov has called this document and called this announcement imperial and he says that clearly the United States rejects a multi-polar world he did leave open that sort of what President Trump alluded to that there could be areas of Cooperation in the future but we've heard from other lawmakers here and it is that big negative pushback. Another lawmakers saying clearly this is all about the United States hegemony. They want a unipolar world and there's no space for other nations in that. I mean, that's the view that's being held here.

We have another lawmaker as well that says don't -- essentially don't blame Russia and China for the situation the United States in around the world. This is all of the United States doing the war in Iraq then a decision just recently to announce Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. These are all actions by the United States that puts the United States in the position it finds it in.

So, what you have here is big pushback there was one interesting line from one lawmaker here, where he said that none of this helps redress the critical phase in relationships between the United States and Russia. That is an underlying worry here among some politicians, win an election cycle in Russia, so I don't think we were going to expect huge positive replies.

BRIGGS: No, Nic Robertson live for us in Moscow -- thank you, sir.

We should note, overnight, the Chinese embassy in the U.S. said cooperation between China and the United States is a win-win, but adds, the U.S. should adapt to and accept China's development. ROMANS: A powerful federal judge abruptly retires after a number of

former clerks and junior staffers accused him of sexual misconduct. In a statement released by his attorney, Judge Alex Kozinski apologized for his actions, but a defended his broad sense of humor and candid way of speaking to both male and female law clerks. Kozinski sits on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals covering the West Coast. Kozinski said family and friends had urged him to stay on to defend himself, but says he cannot be an effective judge while he fights this battle.

BRIGGS: ESPN president John Skipper stepping down to address a substance abuse problem he says he struggled with for years, unclear what triggered his decision to quit. Skipper's contract was recently renewed. Former ESPN president George Bodenheimer takes over as acting chair for 90 days until the replacement is found.

It has been a rough year at the worldwide leader similar to almost Uber and just the amount of things that they have mishandled.

ROMANS: Yes, wow.

BRIGGS: Gets cleaned up.

ROMANS: About 18 minutes past the hour.

Have aliens visited earth? The former Defense Department official isn't dismissing the idea. What he says about the presence of UFOs, next.


[04:22:41] BRIGGS: It's not every day a former Pentagon official heading up a program to research UFOs that it's possible we are not alone, but there he was. A pair of news reports, "The New York Times" and "Politico", say the effort was called, quote, the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program. The reports say it was launched largely at the behest of then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

ROMANS: Lewis Elizondo led the program and on CNN's "ERIN BURNETT OUFRONT", he strongly implied there is evidence alien aircraft have visited earth.


LUIS ELIZONDO, FORMER PENTAGON INTELLIGENCE OFFICIAL RAN UFO UNIT: I can't speak on behalf of the government. Obviously, I'm not in the U.S. government anymore. My personal belief is that there is very compelling evidence that we may not be alone.


ROMANS: Elizondo told "The Times" he resigned from the Defense Department in October to protest what he called excessive secrecy surrounding the program.

BRIGGS: Some feel that's just another evidence of wasteful government spending.

Meanwhile, Toronto police treating the death of a billionaire couple as suspicious. Barry and Honey Sherman found strangled and there's seven million dollar home last Friday, dangling from the railing of their basement lap pool. Authorities say they died of ligature neck compression a form of strangulation. The Sherman's made billions in the pharmaceutical industry and gave away a large portion of their fortune to charity.

ROMANS: The fire that knocked out power at Atlanta's Hartsfield- Jackson airport was caused by a switch gear box failure. That's according to fire investigators. The switch gear box was located in a restricted area where there is video surveillance and key cards are required to gain access. Authority to say there is no evidence of foul play.

BRIGGS: Delta Airlines announcing operations have stabilized at the airport. The majority of its customers have now been rebooked. Not all the issues have been cleared up though. A whole lot of lost luggage still clogged in the north terminal as you can see in the baggage claim area.

ROMANS: Charlottesville's police chief retiring unexpectedly no reason being given for Al Thomas's departure. Thomas was in charge of the department's response to last summer's deadly white nationalist rally. He has been criticized for reacting too slowly to the violence.

A woman was killed when a car plowed into a crowd of protesters, killing one woman. Charlottesville City officials expect to appoint an interim chief in the next week.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen heading to Puerto Rico today. She'll be addressing the relief effort three months after hurricane Maria.

[04:25:02] Survivors are still in urgent need of help, according to a field report from the independent and organization Refugees International. Food, bottled water, medical service are widely available on the island but thousands of people still lack access to drinkable running water, electricity, and adequate housing.

ROMANS: Puerto Rico's governor ordering a recount of the death toll from Maria. The number currently stands at 64, but a CNN investigation found it to be much higher than that. House Republicans now proposing an $81 billion dollar package, disaster aid package for areas hit by hurricanes and wildfires this year. That is almost double the $44 billion figure the Trump administration requested.

BRIGGS: Yes, Bill Weir doing some great reporting there.

ROMANS: Oh, yes.

BRIGGS: So, it's still a third of Puerto Rico without power.

ROMANS: Remarkable. BRIGGS: Months later.

All right. The train that jumped the tracks in Washington state going more than twice the speed limit. The latest on the deadly derailment, next.

ROMANS: And we could be as little as a day away from the president signing a major tax overhaul, the first since the Reagan administration. How much would you pay under the new rules?