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Florida School Massacre: Students Press for Tighter Gun Laws; Mueller Expands Interest in Kushner; The Rest of Rite Aid Being Sold. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired February 20, 2018 - 04:00   ET



[04:00:13] CAMERON KASKY, SURVIVED FLORIDA HIGH SCHOOL MASSACRE: Are you for taking steps to save us or are you for taking NRA blood money?


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Students from Florida and across the country mobilizing to bring change to the nation's gun laws and a new poll this morning shows Americans think Congress is failing.

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: The special counsel's interest in Jared Kushner now extends beyond Russia. His business efforts went to the other investors including China now under the microscope.

ROMANS: And business news, breaking overnight, the rest of drug store chain Rite Aid is being sold off. Who's buying it and why it matters of consumers in a fast evolving retail landscape?

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

BRIGGS: I'm Dave Briggs. Good to see you. Good to have you back from vacation.

ROMANS: A couple days off.

BRIGGS: It is Tuesday, February 20th, 4:00 a.m. in the East.

We start with the latest on gun rights in this country. Six days after the school massacre in Parkland, Florida, the nation's youth are seizing the megaphone, demanding changes to America's gun laws. More than 100 teens and their supporters staging a lie-in outside the White House on Presidents' Day in an effort to pressure lawmakers to toughen gun regulations.

ROMANS: Today, about 100 students will board buses from Parkland to the Florida state capitol. They'll speak to state lawmakers tomorrow. Last night, students in Florida were rallying and promising to take their message to Washington.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) KASKY: This is simply a matter of are you with us or are you against us? Are you for taking steps to save us or are you for taking NRA blood money?

We are not letting the United States be run by that terrorist organization. My friends and I, my community and I have stared down the barrel of an AR-15 the way you have not. We have seen this weapon of war mow down people we know and love the way you have not. How dare you say we don't know what we're talking about? You have no idea what you are talking about.


BRIGGS: There is support for the students' view that Washington is falling short. "The Washington Post"/ABC News poll found 77 percent of Americans believe Congress is not doing enough to prevent mass shootings, 62 percent say the same of the president.

More momentum is growing behind a bipartisan effort to improve the background check system. The president speaking with Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn about a bill he introduced with Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy.

ROMANS: Now, the measure is a modest proposal. It ensures state and federal authorities comply with the existing law to report criminal history to the national background check system. With consequences if they don't. The White House says the president supports efforts to improve the background check system, although this bill does nothing to expand that system at all.

BRIGGS: Worth noting, the president did not push for the Cornyn- Murphy bill when it was first introduced. The White House scheduled what he called a listening session for the president tomorrow. He'll meet with high school students and teachers, although it's unclear if students from Parkland will attend.

ROMANS: All right. Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland has announced plans to reopen gradually. Now, staff members return Friday morning. A voluntary campus orientation for parents and students set for Sunday. The goal is for classes to resume on a modified schedule next Tuesday. Officials say support services will be able to students and staff during the reopening process.

BRIGGS: Funerals and viewings for five of the victims are set for today. They are students Peter Wang, Cara Loughran and Carmen Schentrup, along with Stoneman Douglas High's athletic director Chris Hixon and football coach Aaron Feis.

ROMANS: All right. The gun violence cause also apparently been taken up by Russian bots. "The New York Times" reports suspected Russian bot accounts are flooding Twitter. With hundreds of posts on various size of the gun violence issue, the tweets starting just one hour after news broke about the Florida high school shooting. Before then, many of those same accounts focused on the Mueller investigation into Russian election meddling. Experts say these automated messages are meant to widen the divide on the emotional issue of gun violence. BRIGGS: Elsewhere, special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation

moving further into the Trump inner circle. CNN has learned exclusively that Mueller's interest in Jared Kushner has expanded beyond its contact with Russia. The probe now includes the first son- in-law's efforts to secure financing for his real estate company from foreign investors during the transition.

CNN's Shimon Prokupecz has the latest from Washington.



CNN has learned that the special counsel Robert Mueller is now asking questions about Jared Kushner's personal business dealings during the presidential transition. We are told by people who are familiar with the investigation, then Mueller's lawyers are asking about discussions Kushner had with potential Chinese and Qatari investors.

[04:05:05] Now, this is the first indication that Mueller wants to know about contacts the president's son-in-law had with foreigners outside of Russia. The discussions revolved around this building in Manhattan. At 666 Fifth Avenue, which Kushner's company owns. The financing on the building is in debt by over $1 billion.

Now, it's not clear what is behind the Mueller's specific interest in the financing, but we're told that the special counsel hasn't asked the Kushner companies for information. He also has not asked for interviews with other executives from the Kushner companies.

A spokesman for the special counsel has declined to comment. But we do have a statement from Jared Kushner's attorney, Abbe Lowell, responding to our story.

And Lowell had this to say. Quote: Another anonymous source with questionable motives now contradicts the facts -- in all of Mr. Kushner's extensive cooperation with all inquiries, there has not been a single question asked nor document sought on the 666 building or Kushner Company deals. Nor any reason to question the regular business transactions.

And it's important to note that while his attorney seems to think the story was based on one anonymous source. We can tell you that we spoke to several sources for the story who explain to us that these inquiries and this line of questioning has been under way by the special counsel team for several months -- Dave, Christine.


ROMANS: All right. Shimon, thank you so much for that reporting this morning.

Now, the president -- the president's weekend Twitter barrage on Russia extended into the holiday. He dropped another tweet Monday on Presidents' Day, heaving frustration, but a little light on facts. Obama was president up to and beyond the 2016 election. So, why didn't he do something about Russian meddling?

BRIGGS: Here are now some facts. Obama officials insist they took immediate steps to stop Russian interference, including the confrontation between Presidents Obama and Putin at the September 2016 G20 Summit in China. The Obama administration also hit Moscow with sanctions in December of 2016. An Obama aide says for him to speak out more vocally against Russian meddling would have seemed overly political, especially candidate Trump was claiming the election was rigged.

ROMANS: Yes, they expelled some diplomats. They seized some property, I believe, right, and imposed sanctions.

BRIGGS: Yes, could have done more indeed.

ROMANS: There were those who said they should have done more. But they certainly didn't do nothing as the president -- current president suggests.

BRIGGS: Some suggest he is currently doing nothing.

ROMANS: Yes, that is the question. What is he doing specifically about fighting, you know, something that he sort of called a hoax?

OK. The U.S. Navy building a presence in the Black Sea to counter similar move from Russia, the arrival of the guided missile destroyer USS Carney marks the first time since last summer that two Navy war ships have patrolled the Black Sea. Russia has been strengthening its military presence in the region following its seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

On Sunday, Russia announced its own naval deployment in the area for a series of exercises. But the commander of the sixth fleet says the decision to assign two ships to the Black Sea is, quote, proactive, not reactive.

BRIGGS: The United States and South Korea will conduct joint military drills once the 2018 Winter Olympics come to a close in Pyeongchang. A spokesman for the South Korean military says it will soon announce the schedule for the exercises. North Korea has long objected to the military drills. The thaw between the North and South at the Olympics had some wondering if the drills would be put off.

ROMANS: Ethical concerns also clouding Donald Trump Jr.'s trip to India. His schedule includes dinners in at least two cities. Dinners with buyers of Trump branded apartments. It fuels questions about the links between the president and his family business.

BRIGGS: One of the dinners was promoted by front page ads in the two biggest newspapers. The other sit down is in Calcutta where an invitation by CNN says 65 percent of the Trump Tower apartments have already been sold.

ROMANS: President Trump has endorsed Mitt Romney in his bid to replace retiring Utah Senator Orrin Hatch. The president tweeting about Romney. Quote: He will make a great senator and worthy successor to Orrin Hatch and has my full support and endorsement.

The endorsement marks the latest chapter in what has been a tumultuous relationship between these two mean at times. Romney was a frequent Republican critic of Trump was a critic of Trump's behavior during the 2016 campaign. Romney responded last night, late Monday night, thanking the president with a tweet of his own, saying he hopes to earn the support and endorsement of the people of Utah, sort of taking that national endorsement and focusing it right back in on his home state.

BRIGGS: Interesting alliance, how long can that one last?

Elsewhere, President Trump may feel like he has entered the lion's den with some of the journalists he has been criticizing for a year. Plus, the president is set to attend the Gridiron Club next month. He opted out of last year's invite-only white tie dinner where the journalistic elite dine and perform comic musical numbers.

[04:10:01] The West Wing says no decision has been made about attending this year's White House Correspondents Dinner. The president, of course, skipped that event last year as well.

ROMANS: All right. President Trump is quick to tout his greatness. But in a new survey, experts say otherwise. He ranks historically low in the 2018 American Political Science Association's Presidential Greatness Survey. It was released on Monday, Presidents' Day.

President Trump came in dead last. We should note, 57 percent of the respondents were Democrats. Only 13 percent were Republicans. So, factor that in.

Still, President Trump ranked 40th out of 44 Republicans.

BRIGGS: The seven greatest presidents are unchanged from the last time the survey was done in 2014. They are in order. Lincoln, Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower.

Nothing in the modern presidents, you agree with the order there?

ROMANS: I don't know about the order, but I do think those are some pretty --


BRIGGS: Hard to argue, yes.

ROMANS: All right. Congressional lines for Pennsylvania are out and they could play a big role in which party controls the House of Representatives next year.


[04:15:18] ROMANS: Albertsons and Rite Aid plans to merge in a $24 billion deal as the increasing threat of both Amazon and Walmart forced big retailers to combine. Rite Aid is currently selling a chunk of its stores to Walgreens. This morning, "The Wall Street Journal" the Albertsons, the grocery store chain will buy the rest of the Rite Aid, creating a new company of 4,900 stores and 4,300 pharmacies across 38 states.

The heads of both Albertsons and Rite Aid told "The Journal" scale matters. This deal is the best way to take on the online retailers lie Amazon and Walmart. Amazon is expanding into groceries possibly in pharmacy. While Walmart's digital offerings have exploded in recent years. However, the merger is not a done deal yet. It still needs government approval.

BRIGGS: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court imposing a congressional map that appears to give Democrats a big boost ahead of the midterm elections. The new boundaries follow a ruling that Republicans unlawfully redrew the state's districts to maximize GOP gains. The biggest changes come in the Philadelphia suburbs where three Republican-held seats were already Democratic targets.

Republicans in the state legislature say they will challenge the new maps in court. The U.S. Supreme Court also considering other cases from Wisconsin and Maryland addressing limits on partisan gerrymandering.

ROMANS: All right. Fergie apologizing for her widely panned rendition of the national anthem at the NBA all-star game.


ROMANS: The singer -- it goes on from there. The singer issuing a statement saying she wanted to try something different, but didn't quite the intended target. Fergie went on to say, I love this country and honestly tried my best.

You know, critics slammed her sultry --

BRIGGS: Killed her.

ROMANS: -- two and a half minute performance, saying her sexy delivery wasn't exactly a typical song for a patriotic song.

BRIGGS: Some saying it was the worst of all time. I didn't think it was even close.

ROMANS: The look on my mom's face the whole time was just like hysterical. My mom couldn't believe it.

BRIGGS: Yes, I could imagine. Less is more, we're not a little long.

Kentucky Fried Chicken forced to close hundreds of locations in the U.K. after running out of? Wait for it. Chicken. About 800 of the 900 KFC locations in Britain had to close at least for the day. Some were able to reopen for business.

Company officials say the shortage was due to problems with its new delivery partner DHL. The shipping acknowledged some deliveries had been incomplete or delayed because of operational issues. KFC said it's too early to say how long it will take to restore normal service. I guess they still had, what, mashed potatoes.

ROMANS: I know. It makes me hungry. The whole -- the fried chicken story is making me hungry.

BRIGGS: Indeed.

All right. One of the most anticipated event at the Winter Games, can an American woman find the podium in figure skating for the first time in 12 years? Coy Wire is live in Pyeongchang, next.


[04:2:43] BRIGGS: A brother and sister pair of ice dancers become the first U.S. double medal winners. You know, it's Wednesday. Tuesday?

ROMANS: Tuesday.

BRIGGS: Can I have that -- that was my preliminary run at this event.

ROMANS: Coy Wire has more from Pyeongchang. That was your practice run.

COY WIRE, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: I hope you didn't jinx me, Mr. Dave. I hope you didn't jinx me.


ROMANS: All right, Coy.

WIRE: Yes, we'll cover that later in the morning.

But, listen, hey, Mai and Alex Shibutani or the Shibs as they're affectionately called, started skating together when Maia was 4 and Alex was 7. They came away from the 2014 Games empty handed. But now, they have two medals here in Pyeongchang, taking the bronze in the ice dance while you were sleeping likely, most likely.

The pair said they were so happy with their performance that bronze felt like gold. It was their mom Naomi who had the idea of pairing them up when they were young. And it looks like in this case, mom was right.

All right. The comeback. Lindsey Vonn missing the last games with an injury. We waited eight years to see the legend compete in the Olympics. The 33-year-old said after the debut in the super g, that her body in the terminator anymore. she failed to medal. She was then trolled on Twitter because of her earlier comments that she wouldn't visit the White House if she were invited as medalist.

Now, all eyes would be on her in the downhill, her best event later tonight Eastern Time. She is not only racing competition, she's battling father time, too. Listen.


LINDSEY VONN, AMERICAN SKIER: I think it's stubbornness. You know, I never want to wave the white flag. I always want to continue to try and work hard and to be physically as strong as I was before takes a lot more work and a lot of more maintenance. You know, I have to get up earlier and warm my knee up. You know, my knee takes some tender loving care.


WIRE: Also later, the crown jewel, if you will, of the Winter Olympics. Women's figure skating begins later tonight on the East Coast. At 20 years old, Bradie Tennell is the current U.S. champ out of Carpentersville, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. It hasn't had been all skating on her rise to the top. She he had to fight through stress fractures and persevere.

[04:25:03] Bradie Tennell is graceful and tough.


BRADIE TENNELL, FIGURE SKATER: Last few years, I've had back injuries. So, this year, not being injured really helped my season. I think with my injuries in the past and how I feel now, I'm coming into my own. I'm so excited to see where the sport takes me.


WIRE: Let's start on your medal count. Here we go: Norway leading the way with 28 medals overall medals, pulling away. Germany in second with 20. Canada has 19. Netherlands in fourth with 13 and USA rounding out that top five and a tie with France at 12 medals overall.

One more note, Dave and Christine, on Lindsey Vonn, if she wins a medal later tonight on the East Coast time, she would be the oldest woman ever to win an Olympic alpine medal.

BRIGGS: Is that right?

ROMANS: Thirty-three?

BRIGGS: We have been disappointing. Are you surprised by the medal performance of the U.S.?

WIRE: Actually, I just talked to a silver medalist Nick Goepper who won in freestyle ski here, slope style. He was saying that they kind of realize what's going on. They're like this is disappointing. But he held up his silver medal and says, I'm doing my part.

ROMANS: Good, good for him.

WIRE: So, we'll see if Americans can catch up in this medal count, yes.

BRIGGS: Hopefully a late push. All right. Thank you, Coy.

ROMANS: A late push by motivated teenagers. Can they dent the power of the NRA? The Florida shooting survivors and their allies are taking their gun violence message to the halls of government. Can they get lawmakers to sign on to real changes to gun laws?