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Mueller Focuses on Comey & Flynn; Trump Asked McCabe to Reveal Vote; Kentucky School Shooting. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired January 24, 2018 - 04:00   ET


[04:00:13] CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: New developments in the Russia investigation. The special counsel narrowing his focus. Why Michael Flynn and James Comey's firings could be critical.

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: And new reports say the president asked the acting attorney general who he voted for in 2016 in the Oval Office. It comes as the White House beats back claims Andrew McCabe job was targeted by the attorney general.

ROMANS: And a Kentucky community is reeling after yet another school shooting. Two teens are dead as the epidemic of shooting continues.

BRIGGS: Pardon me, we said acting attorney general, that is acting FBI director who the president asked in the oval office who did you vote for, the insinuation that he voted for Hillary Clinton. But we'll tell you who he did vote for or whether he did or not in a moment.

ROMANS: All right. Good morning and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

BRIGGS: I'm Dave Briggs. It's Wednesday, January 24th. It is 4:00 a.m. in the East.

We start with the Russian special counsel Robert Mueller now focusing on the firings of former FBI Director James Comey and former national security adviser Michael Flynn as he prepares to interview President Trump. Two sources confirming to CNN a story first reported by the "Washington Post" that Mueller is aggressively scrutinizing efforts by the president or others to hamper the investigation.

CNN sources say the terms for the questioning the president are far from set.

ROMANS: The president's lawyers want him to answer questions in written form only but understand there may also be in-person interviews. Press Secretary Sarah Sanders was asked why the president has not simply fired Mueller. She says he hasn't partly because of how the media would react.


REPORTER: Why doesn't the president just get rid of Bob Mueller, just fire him? Mr. Gidley also said it's wasting taxpayers' money. In that regard, why doesn't he just end the investigation? Because it's wasting the taxpayers' money.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We want to see this come to a complete and full conclusion. I think we all know what everybody in this room would do if the president did that, and I don't think that's helpful to the process.


BRIGGS: The report on Mueller's plans coming as we learn two critical players in the probe have already spoken to Mueller's team including a member of the cabinet.

More now from CNN's Jessica Schneider in Washington.


JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Dave and Christine, we do now know that both the attorney general and former FBI Director James Comey, they have both been interviewed by the special counsel's office. The attorney general was questioned for several hours by Mueller's team last week on Wednesday. That's according to a source close to Sessions.

And former FBI Director Comey, he spoke with investigators last year. Now, the interviews, we know, focused on two things. First, Russia's meddling in the election. And second, whether or not President Trump obstructed justice since taking office, especially as it concerns his firing of James Comey back in May.

Jeff Sessions and James Comey, they are of key interest. Sessions for his meetings with the Russian ambassador during the campaign, and, of course, the fact that he was involved in the firing of James Comey. Of course, as for former FBI Director James Comey, he took many notes that he's talked about, about his interactions with the president, and, of course, the special counsel will be interested in Comey expanding upon those.

The president actually weighed in on Sessions' interview on Tuesday.

REPORTER: Are you concerned about what the attorney general told the special counsel?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATE: No, I'm not at all, Kristen. Not at all.

REPORTER: Did you talk to him about it?

TRUMP: No, I didn't, but I'm not at all concerned.

SCHNEIDER: Jeff Sessions' interview is a major development in shoot probe. The White House has continually said that it is cooperating with Mueller's investigation -- Christine and Dave.


ROMANS: All right. Jessica, thank you for that. Robert Mueller's team is also reportedly interested in why the

president asked the FBI deputy director, Andrew McCabe, who he voted for in the 2016 election. McCabe was acting director at the time of the discussion. According to a story first reported by the "Washington Post" and then "The New York Times," the president and McCabe met in the Oval Office shortly after the president fired James Comey.

BRIGGS: McCabe described the exchange as disturbing. He reportedly told the president he did not vote. After declining comment to "The Post", the White House told "The Times", Mr. Trump did ask a question. A White House official tells "The Times" after Trump asked McCabe about his family, with the discussion pivoting to politics and McCabe's wife who ran for Virginia Senate as a Democrat and received huge donations from Terry McAuliffe, an ally of the Clintons.

ROMANS: The FBI is not commenting. All this as President Trump denies FBI Director Christopher Wray threatened to resign over pressure from Attorney General Jeff Sessions to fire or reassign McCabe.


REPORTER: Did Christopher Wray threaten to resign?

TRUMP: No, he didn't at all.

[04:05:02] He didn't. He did not even a little bit. Nope. And he's going to do a good job.


BRIGGS: White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders could not explain how President Trump would know Wray has not threatened to resign. She guesses he found out from conversations he had with the FBI director.

ROMANS: New signs that former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates may be negotiating with special counsel Robert Mueller's team. Gates has quietly added high power Washington defense attorney Tom Green to his legal team. That indicates ongoing talks with prosecutors. Green was spotted at Mueller's office twice last week.

In October, Gates pleaded not guilty to eight charges of money laundering and failing to register foreign lobbying and other business. His longtime partner, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, has pleaded not guilty to nine counts in the same case.

BRIGGS: President Trump inclined to allow the release of the memo spearheaded by Congressman Devin Nunes. It said to allege the FBI has abused surveillance laws. A person familiar with the matter telling CNN the move is contingent on the House Intelligence Committee approving declassification. That vote could come as early as next week. The White House insists no decision has been made on the release. ROMANS: Now, conservatives have rallied around this memo, but

Democrats say it is Republicans' latest attempt to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.


SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: I think it is sloppy, careless, and again, I think has no grounding in fact.


ROMANS: The top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee said it was profoundly unfair the House Republicans have not shared the memo with the FBI and Justice Department, the very agencies the memo claims to unmask.

BRIGGS: New details this morning from the latest cache of text messages exchanged by two FBI officials who were later removed from the Russia investigation. In one newly revealed text, counter-intel specialist Peter Strzok seems to suggest he doesn't think there is any there there in the Mueller investigation and for that matter doesn't want to be part of the investigation. In other, Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page discussed a, quote, secret society, and ways to, quote, fix damage done by the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton's e-mail server.

ROMANS: This is the latest ammunition for Republicans already suggesting there may be something nefarious behind the loss of months of text messages between the pair. The Republican chairman of the Senate Intel Committee says don't read too much into that.


SEN. RICHARD BURR (R-NC), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: It may be a technical glitch. The bureau, the fact that they have provided the rest of them certainly doesn't show an intent to try to withhold anything.


ROMANS: Attorney General Jeff Sessions promising to leave no stone unturned, looking into why the texts were not saved by FBI retention software.

BRIGGS: Efforts in Congress to find common ground on an immigration bill are not off to a great start today. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer has pulled funding for the border wall off the table. Schumer offered the wall in exchange for DACA protection for DREAMers in talks with President Trump last week over cheeseburgers.

ROMANS: Late last night, the president lashed out at Schumer's change of heart: Crying Chuck Schumer fully understands especially after his humiliating defeat that if there is no wall, there is no DACA.

John Cornyn, the second ranked Republican in the Senate, called Schumer's move a step backward. But Dick Durbin, the second ranked Democrat said Schumer offered wall funding as part of the negotiation and for the White House to just bank his offer was unfair.

BRIGGS: The White House is now saying this about the only bipartisan compromise --


SANDERS: It would not secure or border, encourage more illegal immigration, increase chain migration, and retain the visa lottery system. In short, it's totally unacceptable to the president and should be declared dead on arrival.


BRIGGS: One of the deals architects, Republican Lindsey Graham, responded, the White House, quote, better start telling us what you're for rather than what you're against.

ROMANS: Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen got a similar message, pushing for her agency's immigration priorities on Capitol Hill Tuesday. Missouri Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill says she told Nielsen that without commitments from President Trump, it was impossible to negotiate with her.

BRIGGS: Tonight, President Trump heads to Swiss ski resort of Davos. Not on vacation but on global business, attending the World Economic Forum.

Gary Cohn, the director of National Economic Council, says the president will sell his accomplishments high and remind world leaders the U.S. is open for business. Many cabinet members will travel with the president, including Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. There are also planned meetings with British Prime Minister Theresa May and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

ROMANS: He heads to Davos as trade tensions are running high. The TPP is back on that trade deal, remember, but not for U.S. Just as President Trump restricts Asian imports, Trump ditched the Trans Pacific Partnership one year ago.

[04:10:03] But the remaining 11 Pacific nations have forged ahead without the U.S. Japan, Canada, Mexico and others say their new trade deal will help combat rising protectionism. There's concern that the U.S., a longstanding leader in global trade, is turning inwards as other world leaders preach globalization in Davos this week, Trump will defend his America first policies.

Here's the president yesterday.


TRUMP: My administration is committed to defending American companies. They've been badly hurt from harmful import surges that threaten the livelihood of their workers, of jobs actually all over this country.


ROMANS: Trump signed an order slapping tariffs on foreign solar panels and washing machines to help U.S. companies. But that could likely hurt some consumers. Americans buy washers from other countries. So, a tariff will make all washers more expensive. Foreign makers will need to offset higher import costs. And with less competition, U.S. companies can raise prices.

BRIGGS: Tammy Duckworth is about to become the first U.S. sitting senator to give birth. The Illinois Democrat announcing she's expecting her second child in April. Nine other women have had babies while serving in Congress, but none were in the Senate. Duckworth says her daughter Abigail is ecstatic to welcome her baby sister home adding, as tough as juggling the demands of motherhood and being a senator can be, I'm hardly alone or unique as a working parent.

Duckworth is a retired army lieutenant colonel who served as a helicopter pilot in the Iraq war. She was elected to Congress in 2013. She is a double amputee, folks. This is one of the toughest women or men in all of Congress -- women or men in all of Congress.

ROMANS: Yes, I think that's just fantastic. Great for her and her family. Just really wonderful --

BRIGGS: Yes, nice to know.

ROMANS: It's really important to have working women all over government, right?

BRIGGS: I can agree with that, my friend.

ROMANS: All right. Eleven minutes past the hour. A Kentucky community mourning the loss two of high school students. A 15-year- old facing charges for opening fire at their school.


[04:16:18] ROMANS: All right. A 15-year-old student facing murder and attempted murder charges after police say he opened fire at Marshall County High school in Western Kentucky. Two people were killed. Police identifying those victims as 15-year-olds, Bailey Holt (ph) and Preston Cape (ph). Fourteen others suffered various injuries. The victims range in age from 14 to 18 years old.


GOV. MATT BEVIN (R), KENTUCKY: These children belong to this community and to specific families in this community. And this is a wound that is going to take a long time to heal.


BRIGGS: Mourners held vigils around the area last night, and students attending a basketball game between two other Kentucky high schools wore Marshall County High orange and blue as a tribute to the victims. ROMANS: The Alabama House of Representatives has advanced a bill to

eliminate special elections when vacancies occur in the U.S. Senate. It would instead allow senators appointed by the governor to serve out entire terms. The Republican-backed bill passed along party lines and now moves to the state senate.

BRIGGS: The House member who sponsored the bill says he wants to spare taxpayers the cost. The race to replace Jeff Sessions did cost $11 million. But House Democrats say voters should have a say, clearly aware a governor in deep red Alabama is likely to appoint a Republican senator. And this, of course, just weeks after Democrat Doug Jones won a narrow victory over Roy Moore.

ROMANS: All right. Formal sentencing expected later today in the trial of disgraced USA gymnastics Dr. Larry Nassar. Court resumes at 9:00 a.m. Eastern with more of Nassar's sexual abuse victims scheduled to deliver impact statements. There have been 163 so far, including an 18-year-old who demanded an apology and got one.


EMILY MORALES, LARRY NASSAR ACCUSER: I believe in forgiveness, Larry. You and I are human beings. We make mistakes. Although you have hurt me, I want to forgive you and feel closure and move on to healing in my life. I want you to apologize to me right here. I want to forgive, but I also want to hear you tell me that you regret all the hurt that you've caused.


MORALES: Thank you.


BRIGGS: The NCAA is investigating Michigan State University for its role in the scandal. Nassar was also a doctor for student athletes there. Faculty members have called for an emergency meeting of the school's faculty senate for a vote of no confidence in president Lou Anna Simon.

ROMANS: All right. Florida voters will decide in the fall whether a million and a half felons will get their voting rights back. If 60 percent of voters approve, the petition amendment would restore voting rights to state residents with felony convictions after they complete their sentences, including parole or probation.

The petition spearheaded by the group Floridians for Fair Democracy would not apply to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses, those ex-cons would still be permanently barred from voting.

BRIGGS: The San Francisco Board of Supervisors appointing one of its members to serve as interim mayor but not without some serious drama. Mark Farrell was approved after the board voted down president London Breed. She has been the acting mayor since the sudden death of Ed Lee last month. The vote coming after hours, the public comment with charges of racism toward Breed who is black. But some argue who breed who is running for mayor in the citywide election in June should not have a leg up over other candidates. Farrell is not on the ballot.

The secretary of state with some harsh words for Moscow. Rex Tillerson says Russia is complicit in Syria's use of chemical weapons.

[04:20:03] We're live in Moscow.


BRIGGS: Breaking news overnight. At least two dead and 12 injured in a suicide attack outside a Save the Children aid office in Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan. Officials say one attacker detonated a suicide bomb at the gate, and another attacker was killed by security forces inside the building. Police are still working to clear part of the building. We'll bring you updates as they become available.

ROMANS: President Trump and the Turkish President Recep Erdogan scheduled to speak by phone today amid a growing rift over Turkey's assault on Kurdish troops in Northern Syria. The U.S. and the Kurds are allies. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders says the goal is to get Turkey to de-escalate. A top adviser tells CNN the U.S. assured Turkey it would only support Kurdish militias until ISIS was defeated.

[04:25:03] Turkey considers ISIS eliminated and says the ongoing military operation is necessary to protect the border with Syria.

BRIGGS: A school in Aurora, Illinois, closing for a week due to a flu outbreak. One in six students that attend the Illinois math and science academy were absent Monday. School officials confirm most of them were suffering from flu-like symptoms. Thirteen of the 55 faculty members were also out with flu symptoms. Illinois math and science is a residential high school where students live in dorms on campus.

Flu remains widespread in 49 states and Puerto Rico. At least 30 children have died from the illness. The hard part at this point, as you know, is no one has the flu shot. They are out across the country. The vaccine, there might be one clinic in a given city or town which is deep trouble for parents.

ROMANS: It's also -- you know, this is January. A lot of people tried to get the flu shot in October, the beginning of the flu season. Now there's this rush as people are reading headlines. Look, 30 children dying from the flu.

BRIGGS: And it doesn't peak until March.

ROMANS: That's triple from last year. So, it gives you some perspective there.

ROMANS: The firings of James Comey and Michael Flynn under increasing scrutiny by the Russia special counsel. Rapid developments in the Russia investigation, more next.