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Mueller Zeroes In On Flynn And Comey Firings; Trump Asked McCabe To Reveal Vote; Two Dead In Kentucky School Shooting; Suspected Chemical Attack In Syria. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired January 24, 2018 - 05:30   ET


[05:30:22] 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 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.

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

Welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

BRIGGS: I'm Dave Briggs. It is 30 minutes past the hour.

We start with all these developments on the Russia special counsel. Bob Mueller is 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 questioning the president are far from set, though.

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 hasn't simply fired Mueller. She said partly because of how the media would react.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why doesn't the president just get rid of Bob Mueller -- just fire him?

Mr. Gidley also said today that it's wasting taxpayers' money. In that regard, why doesn't he just end the investigation because it's wasting the taxpayers' money? SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, 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 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.

And, 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 very interested in Comey expanding upon those.

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

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

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No, I'm not at all because -- no.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did you talk to him about it?

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

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

(END VIDEOTAPE) ROMANS: All right. Thank you so much, Jessica.

This morning, we have CNN political analyst Errol Louis. He's also a political anchor for "SPECTRUM NEWS." Good morning.


BRIGGS: Good to have you.

ROMANS: Let's talk about, sort of, the rapid headlines in the Russia investigation. Mueller seeks to question Trump. We don't know what that's going to look like. Will it be a written Q&A, will it be sitting down with investigators and -- wow, that's an amazing possibility to think of.

All of these developments, does this look to you -- what you see on your screen there -- like winding down or a crescendo -- I guess maybe winding down toward the end?

LOUIS: Winding down but heating up at the --


LOUIS: -- same time. The way prosecutions go, the way prosecutors act -- and make no mistake, that's what this is -- a search for possible crimes and whether or not the law has been broken.

What you get is only at the end do you bring in the real target. Only at that point do you really bring in the president, negotiate carefully, just as you've suggested. Whether or not he's going to do it in person, videotape, at the White House, near the White House. How's it all going to work out -- all carefully choreographed.

But at that point, you really have to very carefully figure out whether or not there are charges that could lead to something like impeachment. I mean, that's the remedy for if the president has broken certain laws.

The question of obstruction seems to be front and center. You could, I think, infer that from the fact that there's so much of a focus on why was Comey fired, what was the president thinking?

And now, he said on national television -- the president did -- well, it was because of the Russia probe and how he handled it, and that he didn't like any of that.

[05:35:12] Well, it's one thing to say that to Lester Holt on "NBC NEWS."

ROMANS: Right.

LOUIS: It's another thing to say it under oath.

And so, the stakes are going to be very, very high. Even just a few words out of order can get the president, legally speaking, in a lot of trouble.

BRIGGS: Yes, and with his lack of precision with words that can present a problem.

No one should be shocked, though, that Jeff Sessions was interviewed by the special counsel nor that James Comey was.

How significant is it, though, that the acting FBI director Andrew McCabe was asked in the Oval Office by the president, who did you vote for in 2016? What does that mean?

LOUIS: It's a startling breach of any kind of protocol or etiquette, you know. It's -- he's a civil servant. He's a -- he's a career civil servant. He's not somebody that you're supposed to ask that.

I mean, the ballot is secret for a reason. We have all kinds of provisions legally in almost every jurisdiction, but --

ROMANS: But there's a reason why because his wife had run as a Democrat for state Senate in Virginia, right? And so that was --


ROMANS: -- why. He and his wife had --

BRIGGS: And was given $500,000 by a PAC tied to Terry McAuliffe, a Clinton ally.

ROMANS: I guess that's right but is that why the president might have felt compelled to ask about that?

LOUIS: Well, I mean, the president seems to have had, pretty early on, a lurking suspicion that people who worked for his predecessor, even if they're civil servants, even if they've never been involved in politics, even if there's a sort of a tenuous connection like your wife ran for office, he seemed to be convinced that there was some sort of deep state conspiracy that he needed to be worried about. That's one way of looking at it.

Side by side with that, you have a president who seems to think that almost everybody he encounters in the federal government somehow is supposed to work for him. And he needs to sort of figure out if they're doing their job properly by attending to his needs, protecting him, looking out for him, clearing him, telling him who they voted for, and everything else.

So it seems to be something that he does quite frequently, is sort of test everybody out and sort of say are you with me, are you here for me and nobody else, not understanding, I think fully, that's a grossly inappropriate thing to say to somebody from the Justice Department.

BRIGGS: Many, though, in Congress are with this president and they are doing his bidding right now by talking about releasing the memo, by talking about these missing text messages between Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. And, talking about a secret society that was floated apparently in a text message, not Homer Simpson's Stonecutters. But there was a problematic text lost in that and it was that Peter Strzok insinuated that he didn't want to be part of the special counsel because, in his gut, there was no there there.


BRIGGS: He was only interested -- the implication being -- in taking down this president.

James Gagliano, a former retired FBI supervisory agent, told us moments ago he thinks this needs an independent set of eyes. Is there anything there there?

LOUIS: I think it cries out for more investigation.


LOUIS: It cries out for scrutiny and explanation.

You know, when you are in an agency of that kind if your career path means you want a big bust -- and, you know, I'm only hypothesizing -- I never worked for the FBI.

If what you want to do get ahead is get a big case, catch a big crook, be part of something big and important then yes, you want to be where the action is. And maybe that's, you know, some counterfeiting ring on the other side of the country or maybe it's a potential impeachment investigation.

And so, I would suggest that we find out from them exactly what did you mean by this.



LOUIS: Did you mean that you think that there's really nothing there and the Justice Department should be doing nothing about it or were you just talking as a careerist sort of, you know, maybe hoping to catch --

BRIGGS: That's a good point.

LOUIS: -- some drug dealers instead of a political investigation?

ROMANS: Let's talk about -- let's talk about immigration. February eighth is when the government is running until February.

What is (sic) the chances of a deal on immigration there?

LOUIS: My guess would be nil.

ROMANS: He says with a laugh before answering.

LOUIS: Well, I mean, look, we've had this conversation, right? I mean, dial back 10 years ago. ROMANS: Yes.

LOUIS: You could -- you could go back 20 years ago --


LOUIS: -- as a matter of fact.

I mean, this is a very, very --

ROMANS: Could we actually have had this conversation.

LOUIS: We've literally had this conversation.

ROMANS: We have had this conversation since the early 2000s and we are still here.

LOUIS: Well, that --

BRIGGS: Remarkable.

LOUIS: Exactly. We stay and so does this issue.

ROMANS: Right.

LOUIS: But the reality is it's the Republican base that has one set of views on immigration that are fundamentally different from the Democratic base. And so, the lawmakers, in trying to do their job, have a very hard time bringing those extremes into the middle into some kind of a workable compromise.

When you hear people talking about DACA, the Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals, as amnesty -- you know, we don't want this 5-year-old who was brought here from Poland, doesn't speak the language, and is now a practicing doctor in the Midwest.


LOUIS: We don't want to give him amnesty. We don't want him to get away with something -- that 5-year-old.

You know, it's -- to some people's ears, it sounds ridiculous. But to other people, it's a real serious concern.

[05:40:02] And so, I think the lawmakers are going to need -- let's put it this way. They're going to need more time than between now and February eighth to work out these very, very difficult issues.

ROMANS: Do you think -- do you think chain migration, you know -- suddenly, chain migration has become this dirty word where we're -- you know, it's like chain migration -- wait a second. America's built on chain migration where somebody would come here and then bring another --

BRIGGS: Well, they're not even using the term --

ROMANS: -- and brings --

BRIGGS: -- on the left. They call it family unification.

ROMANS: Right, right, and they're trying to brand it that very carefully. I mean, so both sides are branding it.

But it is -- it's difficult, even things -- these terms are being thrown around are pretty -- you know, pretty difficult.

BRIGGS: But, 87 percent of Americans favor a deal for Dreamers. Seventy-nine percent of Republicans even want Dreamers to stay, according to the polling.

But, the president tweeting, "Cryin' Chuck Schumer fully understands, especially after his humiliating defeat, that if there is no wall there is no DACA." He goes on.

But the president -- we don't know what he wants and that point has been emphasized over and over again.

The Senate could get a deal. Has no implication on what passes the House in part because they don't know what the president wants.

So what is the biggest holdup here?

LOUIS: Well, I think we do know what the president wants, honestly. If you look back at everything he said during the campaign -- and not just what he said but how he said it, and the vulgarity, the obscenity -- sort of the rough talk around it even just recently -- and you look at what the people around him are saying because they didn't wander into the White House. These are his top advisers and they can speak with some authority -- his chief of staff and so forth.

And what they are saying is they want to put a -- they want to put restrictions on legal immigration.

BRIGGS: Right.

LOUIS: They want to eliminate undocumented and they want to do an enforcement at a level that we haven't seen before to run raids, build a wall, chase people down. It's not something that he's ever really waivered on. I mean, they've been very consistent about this.

And it's important to keep in mind, as well, that for part of the Republican base they think of this as existential. They think that all of these immigrants -- legal, not legal -- are going to eventually become Democratic voters and that they've got to do something about it or they have a long-term problem with staying in power.

BRIGGS: The prospects for a deal are dim, indeed.

All right, Errol Louis, we appreciate you getting up early.

ROMANS: Nice to see you, Errol. Thank you.

BRIGGS: Great to have you. LOUIS: Good to see you.

ROMANS: All right.

A Kentucky community, this morning, is mourning the loss of two high school students; a 15-year-old facing charges for opening fire at their school. More than a dozen wounded.


[05:47:12] ROMANS: America's most powerful economic job has now been filled. The Senate confirmed Jerome Powell as the next Federal Reserve chief. 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 has praise for patient approach, gradually raising interest rates and slowly unwinding the $4.5 trillion balance sheet the Fed acquired during the financial crisis.

Powell also says he'll find appropriate ways to ease rules on banks while preserving core pieces of Dodd-Frank, like those annual stress tests for banks.

Janet Yellen steps down February third. She was the first woman to lead the world's most influential Central Bank. The first Fed chair in nearly 30 years not to get a second term and she goes out on a high note. A lot of praise for how the Fed has handled itself over the past few years.

BRIGGS: 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 teenagers were killed. Police identifying those victims as 15- year-old Bailey Holt and Preston Cope. Fourteen other teenagers were hit by gunfire, four more suffered other injuries.


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 and students attending a basketball game between two other Kentucky high schools wore the Marshall County High orange and blue as a tribute to the victims.

Police have yet to reveal a motive.

BRIGGS: The Alabama House of Representatives has advanced a bill to eliminate special elections when vacancies occur in the U.S. Senate. The bill 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.

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 a deep red Alabama is likely to appoint a Republican senator.

This, of course, just weeks after Democrat Doug Jones won a narrow victory over Roy Moore.

BRIGGS: Formal sentencing expected later today in the trial of disgraced U.S. gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar.

It was expected yesterday but was pushed again to allow sexual abuse victims to deliver impact statements. And thus far, there have been 163, including an18-year-old who demanded and received an apology.


EMILY MORALES, LARRY NASSAR VICTIM: 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 you but I also want to hear you tell me that you regret all the hurt that you caused.


MORALES: Thank you.


ROMANS: The NCAA is now investigating Michigan State University for its role in the scandal. Nassar was also a doctor for student- athletes there.

Faculty members have now called for an emergency meeting of the school's Faculty Senate for a vote of no confidence in president Lou Anna Simon.

A school in Aurora, Illinois closing for a week due to the 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.

Flu remains widespread in 49 states and Puerto Rico. At least 30 children have died from the illness.

Just everybody, please take it seriously. You're probably getting these notes -- these letters from your school -- BRIGGS: Yes, you are.

ROMANS: -- saying wash your hands, this is a problem this year. We really want to encourage people if you don't feel well to stay home.

BRIGGS: And to get that vaccine, which many communities are running out of --


BRIGGS: -- and still only gives you a 30 percent chance --

ROMANS: Right.

BRIGGS: -- of taking out H3N2.

ROMANS: All right, 51 minutes past the hour.

Netflix just joined an exclusive club. The company's worth $100 billion or more. "CNN Money Stream" is next.


[05:55:54] BRIGGS: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says Russia bears responsibility for not holding the Syrian regime accountable over using chemical weapons against its own people.

Tillerson, in Paris at a meeting with high-level diplomats to discuss a new effort to combat chemical weapons.

Let's go live to Moscow and bring in CNN's Frederik Pleitgen. Fred, good morning to you.

We just got some reaction from the Russians. What do we hear?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Dave, we literally did a couple of minutes ago.

We managed to get in touch with the Kremlin with the spokesman for Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Peskov, who told us that the Russians wholeheartedly disagree -- not surprisingly, I guess -- with the Americans on this issue and said it was the Americans, in their mind, who were twisting that any sort of efforts to try and get any investigation into chemical weapons attacks in Syria going.

Now, as you mentioned, this comes after a big trading of barbs between the U.S. and Russia over this issue. Secretary of State Tillerson also saying in his comments that the fact that the Russians have not yet been able to resolve the chemical weapons issue in Syria calls into question whether they're useful at all in trying to solve the entire crisis in Syria. So, some very strong words.

Afterwards, you had some big diplomatic wrangling at the United Nations between U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley and the Russian ambassador to the U.N. Both sides accusing each other of not being helpful in the process and especially, the U.S. ripping into the Russians over this issue, Dave.

BRIGGS: Wow, good stuff. Fred Pleitgen live for us. It's about 2:00 p.m. there in Moscow. Thank you.

ROMANS: All right, it's that time of the morning. Let's get a check on "CNN Money Stream" this morning.

Global stock markets right now are mixed after U.S. stocks hit fresh record highs. Now, the Dow closed slightly lower yesterday but the S&P 500 -- that's the bigger, broader index, of course -- and the Nasdaq, all-time highs there helped along by a strong earnings season.

Netflix surged 10 percent after reporting record growth. It's 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, so JPMorgan Chase is giving some of that gift back to its employees. Twenty-two thousand 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.

It's not so rosy for all companies, though. We also heard the maker of Huggies and Kleenex is laying off 5,000 workers. Kimberly-Clark blamed low prices and poor sales of consumer goods.

Over at Toys R Us, they plan to shut a fifth of its U.S. stores, closing about 180 stores as soon as next month. Toys R Us declared bankruptcy in September brought on by increased competition and a shift to online shopping. Toys R Us planned to improve its Website but also close unprofitable stores.

This comes after a brutal year for retailers. U.S. store closings hit a record high in 2017. So much destruction happening in the retail space.

All right, thanks for joining us this morning. I'm Christine Romans.

BRIGGS: I'm Dave Briggs.

"NEW DAY" has one of the victims of gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar and Chris Cuomo's talking to Joe Manchin of West Virginia. He's not retiring.

We'll see you tomorrow.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If they really are trying to interview the president, that is very good news for the president because it means they are starting to wrap up.

SANDERS: We're going to be fully cooperative with the special counsel.

SCHNEIDER: The attorney general and James Comey, they've both been interviewed by the special counsel's office.

TRUMP: I'm not at all concerned.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is not appropriate for the President of the United States to ask a federal official who they voted for.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He doesn't understand the separation of powers.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you concerned about the senior leadership at the FBI?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDIBLE) that we're talking to.

TRUMP: Let's see how it all works out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These people hostile to the president have not been conducting themselves in a manner that befits the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is all part of trying to save this president's bacon by damaging the FBI and the Department of Justice.


ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: All right, it's Wednesday. You know what that means.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: What, you're exhausted?

CUOMO: Not coffee.

Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is NEW DAY. It is Wednesday, January 24th, 6:00 here in New York.

This is what we have on the "Starting Line." Significant developments in the Russia investigation.