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Battle Lines on Gun Control; Kushner Battles Kelly on Security Clearance; U.S. Olympic Struggles. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired February 21, 2018 - 04:00   ET



[04:00:12] UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We are here to ask yes or no questions -- are you for or are you against the killing of students? It's a yes or no question. There is no in between. There's no gray area. It's a black-and-white statement.


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Florida students taking their gun violence message to the state capitol this morning. It comes a day after state lawmakers dealt a blow to their efforts. The president now weighing in but without a concrete plan.

ALEXANDER MARQUARDT, CNN ANCHOR: In a new report this morning says that Jared Kushner is annoyed with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. He thinks that Kelly is targeting him with changes to security clearances.

ROMANS: And Team USA's struggles continue at the Olympics. Figure skaters struggle, men's ice hockey is done, and Lindsey Vonn very emotional after her final Olympic downhill.

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

MARQUARDT: And I'm Alex Marquardt. It is Wednesday, February 21st. It's 4:00 a.m. in the East, 11:00 a.m. in Damascus, and 6:00 p.m. in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Great to be back with you.

ROMANS: Nice to have you here.

MARQUARDT: Always fun.

In a few hours, students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, will lobby lawmakers in Tallahassee to tighten Florida's gun laws. Activists and Parkland students and teachers will also rally in front of the state capitol. Now, the students are already getting a quick listen that demanding change is easier than persuading someone to vote for it.

ROMANS: Last night, Florida's Republican-led statehouse rejected a ban on assault weapons and large capacity magazines. The bill was defeated by a vote of 36-71. Of those 71, all but four had strong ratings from the NRA. The Florida House vote came as some Stoneman Douglas student watched from the gallery, emotions run high during the vote and after.


SHERYL ACQUAROLI, JUNIOR, STONEMAN DOUGHLAS HIGH SCHOOL: The next death of someone with an assault rifle here in Florida is going to be on them. It's going to be on them, and it's going to be their fault that those people are dead and that those people aren't going to go home to their families and that there's going to be an empty space in people's lives. And it's going to be their fault.


MARQUARDT: Despite the setback, students are vowing to march on with that message.

CNN's Dianne Gallagher has been in Florida and has a preview of the events today in Tallahassee.


DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, Christine, Alex, this is a really big day for the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. It isn't just because they're going to be meeting with state lawmakers in a few hours. This is the one-week anniversary of the shooting at their high school that claimed 17 of their classmates, and teachers, and coaches. They are marking that anniversary by demanding change here in the state capitol.

When they got off the buses last night after our seven-hour journey or so from Parkland to Tallahassee, they were greeted by other high school students who say they are encouraged by what they consider a movement here. They're going to begin their day, they have 70 meetings. They're breaking off into really small groups of ten students so they can address these lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats individually. They're going to sit in on different committees.

They're going to listen to different lawmakers talk about things, they're meeting with the attorney general, and at the end of the day, Governor Rick Scott, a man who many had been waiting to have words with, they want to make sure that he knows what they're after. They are talking about gun control, mental health, and ways that they can prevent anybody else, any other school, any other community from experiencing what they had experience one week ago today -- Alex, Christine.


ROMANS: All right. Dianne, thank you so much for that.

Ahead of Governor Scott's sit-down with the students, he has a new plan for getting something done quickly on gun violence.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) GOV. RICK SCOTT (R), FLORIDA: My goal is Friday I'm going to come up with a proposal. My goal is to come up with something that is going to move the needle and make parents feel more comfortable that their kid's going to go to a safe school. That's the goal. I mean, these kids have got to go to safe schools.

We have two weeks left to sessions. Those two weeks after Friday, we're going to get something done.


MARQUARDT: Last week, Scott told CNN that everything is on the table in the effort to solve the gun violence problem. President Trump is also weighing in on gun regulation twice yesterday.

Last night, he called for reforming gun purchase background checks in a tweet saying: whether we are Republican or Democrat, we must now focus on strengthening background checks. That edict however included no specific proposal.

But in a new Quinnipiac poll, it shows support across the board, including from gun owners for putting all gun buyers through a background check.

ROMANS: Now, earlier Tuesday, the president said he has directed Attorney General Jeff Sessions to propose a rule banning bump fire stocks. That, of course, is the device the Las Vegas gunman used to make his rifle fire like a fully automatic weapon.

[04:05:01] Again, the president was not officially ordering a new regulation. This wasn't an executive order. This was a memorandum of understanding to his attorney general asking for quicker delivery of proposals.

MARQUARDT: And bump stocks were not even used in the Parkland shooting, nor were they used in the Sutherland Springs massacre that followed the Vegas massacre. So, it's not quite relevant in this case.

ROMANS: Right.

MARQUARDT: Now, the NRA has reserved comment on this bump stock issue, saying it would wait for an actual proposal. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, also noncommittal at the podium yesterday on, several gun measures, getting a new look in the wake of the Florida school shooting.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Background checks are something that the president's supportive of making more efficient and looking at better ways to improve that process. The president supports not using bump stocks, and that we expect further action on that in the coming days.

REPORTER: Does the president believe there should be an age limit for those who buy an AR-15?

SANDERS: I think that's something on the table for us to discuss and that expect to come up over the next couple of weeks.


ROMANS: Remember, the accused killer in Florida not old enough to buy a beer, old enough to buy an AR-15, and that's something that really has the attention and outrage of so many of those students.

MARQUARDT: And not old enough to buy a pistol.

ROMANS: That's right.

MARQUARDT: You have to be 21 years old and you need to -- there's a waiting period of three days.

ROMANS: All right. Sanders' says the listening session on guns today will include members of the Parkland community, but no word yet on who exactly. There will be others affected by previous school shootings, including Columbine and Sandy Hook.

MARQUARDT: Now, in the wake of this horrific massacre, there will be a town hall tonight hosted by Jake Tapper on guns. It's calmed "Stand Up: The Students of Stoneman Douglas Demand Action." Officials attending the town hall include Senator Marco Rubio who will be taking questions. That's tonight at 9:00 Eastern, only on CNN.

ROMANS: All right. "The New York Times" this morning reporting overnight that Jared Kushner and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly are feuding over the presidential son-in-law's access to classified information. Kushner has held an interim security clearance for more than a year in his role as a senior White House adviser. "The New York Times" says Kushner is resisting giving up access. He is also concerned he's a specific target of Kelly's recent directive overhauling the White House clearance system.

MARQUARDT: This is a guy who's in charge of -- who has an enormous portfolio and doesn't have access to -- permanently to classified information.

Now, Kelly's order cancels top-level clearances at the end of this week for any staffer whose background investigation has been pending since last June. The White House clearance process has been under scrutiny since staff secretary Rob Porter was forced to resign after both of his ex-wives accused him of domestic abuse. In a statement last night, Kelly expressed confidence in Kushner's ability to continue performing his foreign policy duties. Those many duties.

ROMANS: Right. Vice President Mike Pence came very close to meeting secretly with the North Korean delegation at the Winter Olympics. Pence's office says he was set to meet with North Korean officials including Kim Jong-un's sister, but the North Koreans pulled out of the planned meeting two hours before it was to start.

Officials believe the abrupt cancelation was a sign that attempts by the U.S. to exert pressure on the regime were working. President Trump has signed off -- had signed off on the Pence meeting with the caveat that he would not back off the U.S. demand that Pyeongchang abandon its nuclear weapons. The State Department says it regrets North Korea's failure to, quote, seize this opportunity.

And on the heels of a new denial from President Trump, one of the women accusing him of sexual misconduct says she won't be bullied into silence. Rachel Crooks claims that Trump forcibly kissed her as she worked as a receptionist in Trump Tower in 2006. Crooks' story landed on the front page of the "Washington Post" on Tuesday, prompting a Twitter denial from the president. Crooks responded to that on CNN last night.


RACHEL CROOKS, TRUMP ACCUSER: Not surprised that he called me a liar. I mean, that's not the first time. It is the first time I guess he's attacked me personally on Twitter. I would think as our president, he would have more important things to do than to tweet at me and try to discredit my story.

I know what's true. He knows what's true. I think he should be afraid of that.


MARQUARDT: Rachel Crooks is now running for the Ohio House of Representatives as a Democrat.

ROMANS: All right. Federal courts will now begin tracking and releasing data on sexual harassment complaints against judges. As it stands, the U.S. courts system is closely controlled, cloaked in secrecy. Some investigations are even ended if a judge retires. Most times with a full pension.

A CNN investigation learned that of nearly 5,000 judicial misconduct cases over the past 11 years, very few are investigated, and judges rarely if ever punished.

[04:10:00] All right. Ten minutes past the hour.

A new breaking point for the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Hundreds killed in the latest regime shelling. The U.S. literally at a loss for words.


ROMANS: All right, investors. Wall Street's six-day winning streak is over. Both the Dow and S&P 500 fell yesterday.

The Dow dragged down 1 percent by Walmart's worst day in 30 years. Walmart's stock fell 10 percent. You can blame disappointing online sales. Walmart's digital sales have exploded in recent years, but it didn't make as much money, it didn't earn as much over the holidays as expected, and cutting prices to compete with Amazon left profit margins thin. Walmart dropped weight on stocks as did bond prices. This week, the

government is auctioning off debt to help pay for tax cuts and increased spending. That sent yields to a four-year high making investors nervous.

Two reasons -- better returns on bonds makes stocks less attractive, and a rapid rise in bond yields could signal inflation and faster interest rate hikes from the Federal Reserve.

[04:15:01] We may get a clue about that timing today. The central bank will release the minutes of its June meeting this afternoon -- January, rather, meeting this afternoon.

The fear of higher rates sparked the recent sell-off, leading to a month of wild swings including a correction and a rebounds, still, the drop, it could likely continue. Right now, when you look at futures, Alex, futures are lower. So, that volatility, remember we told you that volatility was back? It's still there.

MARQUARDT: How long do we expect it to continue? Is that the name of the game is?

ROMANS: I think that is the name of the game. I mean, after stocks going straight up for so long, now you've got a bond market that's telling you it's not going to be so easy.

MARQUARDT: And regular folks, as you've said, can't play that.

ROMANS: No, I don't think you play that.

MARQUARDT: This is a game for professionals?

ROMANS: Absolutely. I think you need to look at how long until you retire. And the older you are, the closer you are to retirement, the less of your money should be in stocks.

MARQUARDT: And I will not be playing that either.


MARQUARDT: Now, tensions between the U.S. and Palestinians were on full display at the U.N. Security Council. The Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley saying that the Trump administration will not change its decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Haley also responded to comments this month by top Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, who said that Haley should shut one her criticism of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.


NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: I will decline the advice I was recently given by your top negotiator. I will not shut up. Rather, I will respectfully speak some hard truths. The United States stands ready to work with the Palestinian leadership, but we will not chase after you.


MARQUARDT: Haley says she won't chase after anyone because Abbas had left the room before she started speaking. Haley urged compromise in the Middle East saying that absolutist demands, hateful rhetoric, and incitement to violence will continue to lead to nothing but hardship for the Palestinian people.

ROMANS: A major escalation by Syrian regime forces targeting one of the last remaining rebel strongholds. At least 250 civilians killed by shelling and air strikes over the past few days in Syria's eastern Ghouta, outside Damascus. That's according to the U.K. -based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Now, the situation so desperate it left UNICEF, that's the U.N. Children's Fund, literally no words. It issued a statement on the bloody siege that was blank. We warn you, some of the video you're about to see is disturbing.

CNN's Jomana Karadsheh following developments. She joins us live from Jordan.

What's happening there?

JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Christine, according to activists in eastern Ghouta, the bombardment has not stopped. They're reporting air strikes overnight on parts of that enclave and also barrel bombs raining down on other parts this morning, reports of more casualties. Of course, it's very difficult for us to verify and independently confirm these casualty figures.

So we depend on medical workers, rescue workers there, and also local activists who are reporting more than 250 people killed since in uptick in violence that began on Sunday with this regime offensive. Hundreds of others have been wounded. And it is so difficult to treat the wounded.

According to the United Nations and other aid groups, hospital after hospital have been taken out by air strikes. At least six hospitals so far. These are medical facilities that were already struggling to cope because this part of Syria has been under siege since 2012.

And aid groups have been warning since late last year that it was becoming impossible to live, to survive in eastern Ghouta. And people there are absolutely terrified that the worst is yet to come. They fear that what we are seeing is a repeat of that scenario we saw in eastern Aleppo at the end of 2016, Christine.

ROMANS: All right, 250-plus civilians killed. Just a tragedy there. Continue to follow it for us, and we'll keep our viewers up to date. Thank you so much for that, Jomana Karadsheh.

MARQUARDT: Actually horrific pictures coming out of Ghouta there.

Now, Lindsey Vonn makes the medals stand in her final Olympic downhill at the Pyeongchang Olympics. It is a welcome bright spot at a rough games for Team USA. Coy Wire is live, next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[04:23:46] ROMANS: Skiing superstar Lindsey Vonn brings home the bronze in what will likely be her final Olympic downhill run.

MARQUARDT: And Coy Wire is live in Pyeongchang.

Coy, it's a medal but not quite the games that she had hoped for, right?

COY WIRE, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: Exactly right, Alex. Good morning to you and Ms. Christine.

And for the fans that were there, I was at the event and Americans were in the crowd, it was like that Thanksgiving feast and then that lull that you hit after you have the big meal. When they saw her cross the line, it was silent there amongst the Americans in the crowd.

They knew how much this meant to Vonn, her journey back, eight years waiting to compete in the Olympics again. Downhill was her best event and best chance at gold here in Pyeongchang. The tears were flowing from her face. She said that this race was about more than just herself.

Here she was after that disappointing run.


LINDSEY VONN, FOUR-TIME OLYMPIAN: You know, it's been really hard for me ton get emotional for so many reasons -- for me not to get emotional for so many reasons, especially because of my grandfather. I wanted to win so much because of him. But I still think I made him proud.

And our family never gives up. And I never gave up.

[04:25:00] I kept working hard. And I am really proud of this medal. I know he is, too.


WIRE: All right. Thirty-three years old Vonn became the oldest woman ever to medal in Olympic alpine skiing. So, surely, she can keep her head up.

Now, figure skating. Remember the three American hopefuls we told you about looking to be the first American women in 12 years to even medal in figure skating? Not looking good. Americans are sitting at ninth, 10th, and 11th after the short program. Mirai Nagasu and Brady Tennell both fell. Then Karen Chen had to put a hand down to prevent herself from falling.

And on Thursday, it's Alina Zagitova a 15-year-old representing the Olympic athletes from Russia leading the way. She set a world record for her performance, dazzling the crowd in the short program, outstanding.

All right. Medal count this morning -- Norway has 30 medals overall. Germany's in second with 23. Canada in third with 20. Netherlands have 14. And the U.S. tied with France for fifth place, 13 medals overall.

Christine, Alex, one more note on Vonn -- she does still have one more shot at a medal in the alpine combined later tonight. For the first time in Olympic competition, she'll go head to head with fellow American Mikaela Shiffrin who's already taken gold here in Pyeongchang.

ROMANS: All right. Certainly, I know she was babying those knees, 33 years old, really wanted that gold. Congratulations to her for the bronze.

MARQUARDT: What a fighter. She said she doesn't think she has another four years in her.

All right. Thanks, Coy. Appreciate it. See you soon.

Now, President Trump is offering few specifics but says he's looking for new ideas on guns.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We cannot merely take action that's make us feel like we are making a difference. We must actually make a difference.


MARQUARDT: Anxious students want answers. They're meeting with Florida with lawmakers today, a day after they voted down a bill to ban assault weapons. That's next.