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Mueller Zeroes In on Flynn & Comey Firings; Trump Asked McCabe to Reveal Vote; Kentucky School Shooting. Aired 4:30-5a ET

Aired January 24, 2018 - 04:30   ET


[04:30:27] DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: Some major developments in the Russia investigation. The special counsel narrowing its focus. Why Michael Flynn and James Comey firings could be critical.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: New reports say the president asked the acting FBI director who he voted for in 2016 right there in the Oval Office. It comes as the White House beats back claims Andrew McCabe's job was targeted by the attorney general.

BRIGGS: And a Kentucky community is reeling after yet another school shooting. Two teens are dead as the epidemic shootings continue across the country.

Good morning, everyone, welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Dave Briggs.

ROMANS: I'm Christine Romans. It is 31 minutes past the hour this Wednesday morning.

Russia 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's sources say the terms for questioning the president are far from set.

BRIGGS: Mr. Trump's lawyers want him to answer questions in written form only but understand there may be in-person interviews. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked why the president has not simply fired Mueller. She said he hasn't in part because of how the media might 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.


ROMANS: 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.


BRIGGS: Jessica, thank you.

Robert Mueller's team also reportedly interested in why the president asked FBI Director Andrew McCabe who he voted for in the 2016 election. McCabe was the acting director at the time of the discussion according to a report 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.

ROMANS: McCabe described the exchange as disturbing. He reportedly told the president he didn't vote. After declining comment to "The Post," the White House told "The Times" Mr. Trump did ask the question. A White House official tells "The Times" it happened after Trump asked McCabe about his family, with the discussion pivoting to politics and McCabe's wife. His wife ran for Virginia state Senate as a Democrat.

BRIGGS: And received $500,000 in donations from a PAC tied to Terry McAuliffe, a Clinton ally. 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?

[04:35:00] TRUMP: No, he didn't at all. He didn't. He did not even a little bit. Nope. And he's going to do a good job.


ROMANS: 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 with the FBI director.

President Trump inclined to allow the release of the memo spearheaded by Congressman Devin Nunes said to allege the FBI has abused surveillance laws. A person familiar with the matter is telling CNN the move is contingent on the House Intelligence Committee approving declassification. That could come next week. The White House insists no decision has been made on the release.

BRIGGS: Conservatives have rallied around the 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.


BRIGGS: Top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee said it was profoundly unfair that House Republicans have not share the memo with the FBI and Justice Department, the verhy agencies the memo claims to unmask.

ROMANS: All right. 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.

BRIGGS: 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. But 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.


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

ROMANS: 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.

BRIGGS: 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 Chuck Schumer's move a step backward. But Dick Durbin, the second-ranked Democrat, said Schumer offered wall funding as part of a 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.


ROMANS: 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.

BRIGGS: 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.

ROMANS: All right. A group of scientists is suing the EPA. They claimed the agency illegally removed from its advisory the boards and committees as they received illegal grants. The EPA announced it would not allow scientists to serve on the panels to keep advisers independent and free from potential interference. The scientists argue their removal was arbitrary and a violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act. An EPA spokesman refused comment because of pending litigation.

BRIGGS: Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia telling colleagues he will run for re-election this year, that's according to "The New York Times." Manchin's flirtation with retirement triggered talks among Democrats who feared losing the seat to a Republican in solid red West Virginia. Manchin has been very vocal about his displeasure with Washington and admits telling Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and others, quote, this place sucks. But he plans to file re- election paperwork before Saturday's deadline. Democrats must defend ten states in November and states President Trump carried.

ROMANS: 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.

[04:40:04] There are also planned meetings with British Prime Minister Theresa May and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

It comes at a time when the U.S., there's a lot going on in the trade front. They're in the final stage of renegotiating NAFTA. That's not going well. The United States has imposed tariffs that are popular among the crowd that is at Davos. So, it would be very interesting to see --

BRIGGS: How do you think he'll be greet there? You've been there.

ROMANS: Yes, he will be the star.

BRIGGS: He likes pomp and circumstance and pageantry to welcome him. He won't get that.

ROMANS: He will get a lot of attention. He is now the marquee guest for sure.

BRIGGS: Fascinating dynamics.

OK. Ahead, a Kentucky community mourning the loss two of high school students. A 15-year-old facing charges for opening fire at their school. Another deadly shooting.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [04:45:05] ROMANS: All right. America's most powerful economic job has just been filled. Maybe the most powerful job in the world actually. The Senate confirmed Jerome Powell as the next Federal Reserve chair. Powell won with strong bipartisan support. A current Fed governor, he helped shape policy for five years under current head Janet Yellen.

And Powell's leadership will likely mirror Yellen's. He praised her patient approach, gradually raising interest rates and slowly unwinding the $4.5 trillion balance sheet the Fed acquired during the financial crisis. Powell says he'll find appropriate ways to ease rules on banks while preserving core pieces of Dodd-Frank like annual stress tests for banks.

Yellen steps down February 3rd. She was first woman to lead the most influential bank. The first Fed chair in nearly 30 years ton get a second term.

BRIGGS: 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 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.


ROMANS: Mourners held vigils around the area last night. Students attending a basketball game between two other Kentucky high schools wore Marshall County High orange and blue as a tribute to the victims. Police have yet to reveal a motive. Gabby Giffords, a victim of gun violence herself, issuing a statement saying this is the 13th mass shooting this year.

BRIGGS: This calendar --

ROMANS: This year. It is January 24th.

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. 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. 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.


ROMANS: 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.

David and Louise Turpin will appear at a court hearing today. Prosecutors are seeking a criminal protective order that would bar the parents from contacting the children before the case goes to trial. It would prohibit direct or indirect contact in person, written, or electronic. Authorities allege the Turpins held the kids, age 2 to 29, captive in their home, chaining them, not feeding them or letting them shower. Both parents are being held on $12 million bail.

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.

A series of storms barreling toward the Pacific northwest could dump over a foot of rain through the weekend. Meteorologist Pedram Javaheri with the latest.


PEDRAM JAVAHERI, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Good morning, Dave and Christine.

We've got an interesting setup here across the Pacific Northwest. A series of storms working across the region. One of which comes in later on today. We bring in heavy rainfall with it. Not too unusual for this time of year. A break between Wednesday and Thursday, and a couple more systems line

up with the moisture source directed toward portions of the northwest going into, say, Saturday and Sunday.

[04:50:07] So, how much moisture are we talking about? Winter weather advisories, storm warnings, already in place across the region for significant mountain snow and certainly heavy rainfall along the coast. Generally six to ten inches, some areas could see more than a foot of rainfall.

That's on the immediate coast. Get into the mountains, the snow amounts could accumulate to over four feet across parts of the Cascades and even into the Siskiyou, as well.

So, big story developing over the next couple of days across the Pacific northwest. Really beyond that, generally quiet. We have snow showers, much of it lake enhanced, across the Great Lakes.

Temperatures across Chicago into the 30s. Little Rock, around 60. Dallas, middle 60s. New York, normal for this time of year, call it around 40. It will stay around the same trend for the next couple of days around the Northeast -- guys.


ROMANS: All right. Thank you very much.

Netflix just joined an exclusive club of companies worth $100 billion or more. We'll tell you why on CNN "Money Stream" next.


[04:55:25] BRIGGS: Breaking overnight, two dead and at least 12 injured after an attack outside an aid office in Afghanistan. Officials say one attacker detonated a bomb at the gate. Another 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: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says Russia bears responsibility for failing to hold the Syrian regime accountable over using chemical weapons against its people. Tillerson in Paris at a meeting with high-level diplomats to discuss a new international effort to combat chemical weapons.

Let's go live to Moscow and bring in CNN's Frederik Pleitgen -- Fred.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, good morning, Christine. And all this comes after what appears to be another chemical attack that recently happened on the outskirts of Damascus there in Syria. And, clearly, the U.S. firing at Russia over all this holding Russia accountable.

One of the things Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said toward the Russians, he said that Russia's failure to resolve the chemical issue in Syria called into question its usefulness in trying to find a resolution for the conflict as a whole.

Now, after Tillerson made those comments, there was a big diplomatic battle of words at the United Nations between Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., and the Russian ambassador to the U.N. both sides trading barbs there. Nikki Haley saying, look, this should weigh heavily on the conscience of the Russians. The Russians for their part firing back and putting forward their own resolution on how to deal with chemical weapons that the U.S. calls a ploy to try and distract from what's going on.

All this coming, Christine, as the Russians apparently are looking for new ways to influence U.S. policies. One of the main think tanks that's close to Vladimir Putin put out a paper saying that the Russians will create a lobby inside the U.S. to try to influence things going on there -- Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Fred Pleitgen for us in Moscow this morning, thanks, Fred.

BRIGGS: President Trump and Turkish President Erdogan scheduled to speak by phone today amid a growing rift over Turkey's assault of 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 to Erdogan tells CNN the U.S. assured Turkey it would only support toured issue militias until ISIS was defeated. Turkey considers ISIS eliminated and says the ongoing military operation is necessary to protect the border with Syria.

ROMANS: All right. Let's get a check on CNN "Money Stream" this morning. Global stock markets are lower after the U.S. stocks hit fresh record highs. The Dow closed slightly lower, but look at the S&P 500, the Nasdaq, all-time highs helped by a strong earnings season.

Netflix, big story there, surged 10 percent. Reported record subscriber growth, now worth more than $100 billion. It joins an exclusive club of only 59 companies in the S&P 500 worth at least $100 billion.

The new tax bill is a gift to big banks and JPMorgan Chase is giving some of that gift back to its employees, 22,000 workers will get a raise. Mainly frontline employees like bank tellers and customer service representatives. The bank will also open 400 new branches, hiring 3,000 new workers. JPMorgan credits tax cuts, less regulation, and an improved business climate for the investment.

It's not so rosy for all companies, though. The makers of Huggies and Kleenex is laying off 5,000 workers. Kimberly Clark blamed low prices and poor sales of consumer goods.

Toys "R" Us is planning to shut one-fifth of its stores, closing 180 stores as soon as next month. Toys "R" Us declared bankruptcy in November based on the shift toward online shopping. It will close unprofitable stores. This news comes after a brutal year for retailers. U.S. store closings hit a record high in 2017.

There's so much change happening in the retail space. And in many ways, it's good for consumers, you know. When there's --

BRIGGS: How's that?

ROMANS: There's so many more choices and competition for your dollar, especially on line. But --

BRIGGS: A lot of people are crushed that their local Toys "R" Us is closing.


BRIGGS: The new ones I guess will emphasize experience and babies are us, a successful model.

All right. EARLY START continues with a major day in the Russia investigation.


BRIGGS: New developments in the Russia investigation. The special counsel narrowing his focus. Why Michael Flynn and James Comey's firings could be critical.

ROMANS: New reports say the president asked the acting FBI director who he voted for in 2016, in the Oval Office. It comes as the White House beats back claims Andrew McCabe's job was targeted by the attorney general.