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Battle Lines on Gun Control; Kushner Battles Kelly on Security Clearance; Crisis Escalates in Syria. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired February 21, 2018 - 05:00   ET



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.


ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN ANCHOR: Florida students take their gun message to the state capitol this morning, a day after the Republican-led state house voted against new restrictions. Now, the president is weighing in but without a concrete plan.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: New report this morning says Jared Kushner is resisting changes to his security clearance. He thinks John Kelly is targeting him with new changes.

MARQUARDT: And a new breaking point for the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Hundreds killed in the latest regime shelling, leaving the U.N. literally at a loss for words.

Good morning and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Alex Marquardt.

ROMANS: Nice to have you here today.

MARQUARDT: Great to be back with you.

ROMANS: Dave Briggs is on vacation.

I'm Christine Romans. It is Wednesday, February 21st. It is 5:00 a.m. in the east, exactly here, noon in Damascus, 7:00 p.m. in Pyeongchang.

In just a few hours, students from Stoneman Douglas High School will lobby lawmakers in Tallahassee to tighten Florida's gun laws. Activists and Parkland students and teachers will rally on the state capitol.

[05:00:02] The students are already getting a quick lesson that demanding change is easier that persuading someone to vote for it.

MARQUARDT: It really is. Now, last night Florida's Republican-led state House rejected a ban on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines. The bill was defeated by a vote of 36-71. Of those 71 that voted against it, 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.


ROMANS: Students so disappointed, still heartbroken. Instead of guns, lawmakers will begin debate on a bill to declare pornography a public health risk.

Despite the setback, students vowing to march on with their message. Planned meetings include the attorney general and Governor Rick Scott.

MARQUARDT: Now, ahead of the governor's sit down with the students, he is laying out a new timeline but not many details for getting something done quickly on gun violence.


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.

ROMANS: All right. Joining us here, CNN political analyst Julian Zelizer, historian and professor at Princeton University.

Good morning.


ROMANS: So, yesterday, a couple of signals from the White House. You know, the president saying that he's going to sign a memorandum of understanding telling Jeff Sessions, attorney general, to find proposals about bump stocks. And he's indicated on the AR-15, you know, maybe he would be open it an age limit to buying an AR-15.

Let's listen to how Sarah Sanders says the president's positions are evolving. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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: Are we expecting true White House leadership on the gun violence issue?

ZELIZER: I'm still skeptical. Obviously, there's some opening now where we're hearing at least some positive remarks in terms of doing something. But this is going to get tough. The NRA is going to fight very hard against any kind of regulation. And that will be the real test of whether this president will go through. So far, he hasn't really followed through on a lot of tough issues. So, we have to be skeptical as this unfolds.

ROMANS: Why -- how does the NRA get away with it? How do they have so much power in this debate? When you look at these incredible numbers, a recent Quinnipiac poll saying that 97 percent of all Americans support background checks for gun buyers, a majority support an assault weapons ban, are they that much more powerful than the voters?

ZELIZER: Well, they're not, but they are organized, mobilized, and they have both money and political savvy. So, when these issues come before Congress, they are ready to put the pressure on members so they stay away from restrictions in a way that the general public is not. They can be countered. It's going to take a lot of organization.

ROMANS: And we're showing these Florida lawmakers, Republican along party lines who voted against the assault weapons ban there. You see the NRA rating. Many of them A-plus. Some of the students were so disappointed.

Do you think that this generation, these students somehow are going to have a voice that's going to rally voters to do something?

ZELIZER: They could. Look, we've had moments in American history where young people can change the course of American history. We saw that with the civil rights movement, with the antiwar movement, even the conservative movement in the 1970s. They are the key, more than President Trump right now. This will be about them.

Can they create something bigger out of this outrage? Can they go to Washington, can they go to districts and become the counterweight to the NRA? That's the big question right now.

MARQUARDT: Just switching gears. We now know or we've heard reporting from "The New York Times" that there's this feud allegedly between John Kelly and Jared Kushner in the wake of his new restrictions on clearances.

[05:05:07] How will that impact the day-to-day business of people in the White House? How will that impact someone like Jared Kushner who has this massive portfolio, both domestically and in foreign policy?

ZELIZER: Well, we'll see how effective Kelly can be. This is the ongoing story of John Kelly. He calls for order. He demands some tight rules. But then members of the administration including the president circumvent him.

And so, Jared Kushner is a key player, and I think he's going to resist any effort to curtail his access. And he has a big portfolio, including the Middle East that the president is depending on. So, I'm not sure Kelly is going to win out on this.

MARQUARDT: Where you would arguably need security clearance.

ZELIZER: Exactly.

ROMANS: All right. Julian, come back in a few minutes. Lots to talk about.

MARQUARDT: Thanks very much.

ZELIZER: Thank you.

ROMANS: And tonight, Jake Tapper hosts a CNN town hall on guns. "Stands Up: The Students of Stoneman Douglas Demand Action." Officials including Senator Marco Rubio will be taking questions. That's tonight at 9:00 Eastern, only on CNN.

MARQUARDT: Now, this morning, Moscow is not ruling out what they're calling tit-for-tat measures in response to Friday's indictment of 13 Russians in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. A Russian official says the U.S. is just trying to interfere in Russia's upcoming election. This comes after the White House stood behind President Trump's claim that he has been tougher on Russia than his predecessor, Barack Obama.


SANDERS: He has been tougher on Russia in the first year than Obama was in eight years combined. He's imposed sanctions. He's taken away properties. He's rebuilt our military.

He's done a number of things to put pressure on Russia and to be tough on Russia. Just last week, there was an incident that will be reported in the coming days.

(END VIDEO CLIP) ROMANS: She didn't elaborate on what that might be. The president has frequently refused to condemn Russia for its interference in the election. A European lawyer Alex van der Zwaan meanwhile pleaded guilty to lying to investigators in the Mueller investigation. Van der Zwaan admitted to covering up his communications with former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates. His passport has been seized. Stay tuned on that.

MARQUARDT: Much more to come.

Now, the crisis in Syria is escalating new strikes on rebels left the U.N. literally speechless. We'll speak with our chief international correspondent Christian Amanpour, next.


[05:11:24] ROMANS: All right. Eleven minutes past the hour.

Syrian regime forces are targeting one of the last remaining rebel strongholds. At least 250 civilians killed by shelling in air strikes over the past few days. This is in Syria's eastern Ghouta region outside Damascus. The pictures are -- I've got to warn you -- they're hard to watch here. This is according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

CNN chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour is live for us from London.

And, Christiane, UNICEF, the children's charity, the U.N. children's charity, actually releasing a statement with no words on this piece of paper. It has literally no words for the destruction happening to civilians there.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Which speaks in itself a thousand words, because I've never seen that before.


AMANPOUR: I mean, just to say that we simply have nothing more to say and nothing more to appeal to the world. If they can't understand and see the pictures of this suffering, then what else are we to do? I mean, the U.N. has come under criticism, and they keep saying, look, we're unarmed diplomats. We are begging the Syrian regime. We're talking to every single one of the outside powers that is involved in a proxy war in Syria, whether it's Iran, the government of Russia, the government of certainly the United States, and all the others who have activities in Syria to stop the bombardments there in the Damascus suburb.

And there are people on the ground who've been telling us, we've been reporting this over the last 24 to 48 hours, that it is and they use a very strong term. It's like a holocaust is unfolding in Ghouta right now. And it is the last remaining rebel-held stronghold close to Damascus. So, you see what Assad's trying to do. He believes that with Iran,

Hezbollah, and with Russia behind him he's won the war. And he just wants to clean it up, mop it up as quick as he can and figure out what kind if any contiguous land he can hold on to to call himself head of state.

And it looks like it's headed for an Aleppo-style ending which the Russians themselves have said which involves massive bombardment, massive slaughter of civilians, although they are denying they're targeting civilian, and then potentially a surrender and evacuation. I mean, that's looks like what's on the cards. And the cost in blood, of men, women, and children there, is just extreme now.

MARQUARDT: And Ghouta, of course, is the same area where in 2013 there were chemical weapons attack that the U.S. accused the Assad regime carrying out, some 1,400 people killed.

But looking up north, Christiane, there's a conflict unfolding, a potential flashpoint unfolding between Turkish forces that have invaded Syria and the pro-Assad side, the Syrians, the Iranians, Hezbollah, as you mentioned. How dangerous -- how much of a risk is there was that escalating to something much bigger?

AMANPOUR: Well, look, it's pretty bad up there, because on one hand, you've got Assad and his enablers doing what they're doing around Damascus to try to remain and retain control of the last holdouts there. On the other hand, all the way up to the Turkish border, the Syrian regime has decided to ally itself with the Kurds up there and basically try to do what it can to bolster that sort of area.

And the Turks which are obviously a NATO ally, an ally of the United States, are challenging the United States for their support of these Kurds in that region. So, it is literally more complicated than you can imagine. Just by listening to me, you see there is no real understanding or threat or coherence about how to end this.

You've got two NATO allies, the United States and Turkey, at loggerheads and fortunately in military confrontation if this gets out of hand over the Kurds.

[05:15:10] You've got the Syrian regime which has decided to go up there and try their luck and solidify land up there, and you've got Turkey that has come into the Syrian border area to try to bolster its border there because they're terrified of the Kurds and accuse the Kurds of being aligned with terrorist organizations that want to overthrow the Turkish regime. So, it is an unholy mess right there and the problem is that the United States hasn't articulated what the vision of the future is.

And the others, they know what they want to achieve. The Iranians, the Russians and the Assad and Hezbollah and that lot, they're just trying to hang on to power for as long as they can there.

ROMANS: Let's talk about North Korea and reporting that the Vice President Mike Pence was set to meet with North Koreans, and then just a few hours before that meeting, the North Koreans canceled it. What do you make of this I guess thwarted effort to actually talk?

AMANPOUR: Well, look, again, this is very confusing, because if you remember, the narrative around the opening ceremonies which were around February 10th was that Vice President Mike Pence had refused to turn around and shake the hand of Kim Jong-un's personal envoy, which was his sister. Now, we're hearing it is potentially the other way around. It's difficult to confirm since we're not in the room. We understand what the vice president's office says.

All I can tell you is that I spoke face to face four days like four days before that alleged meeting was meant to happen with the top national security and foreign policy adviser to the South Korean president. His name is Chong In-moon (ph). He told me it would be wonderful if North Korea gave a positive sign and there was some kind of meeting with the vice president during what they call the Peace Olympics there in Pyeongchang.

He said to me, the South Korean national security adviser, that the North Koreans would have to demonstrate at least some willingness to understand the United States and the West's concerns, the global concerns, that it needs to denuclearize, it needs to have respect for human rights and this and that. That there was an opportunity to have some kind of at least handshake or deciding whether to carry this further because a top senior adviser to Kim Jong-un was there, and that's Kim Yong-nam who's the number two in the North Korean regime.

ROMANS: All right. Christiane Amanpour, so much going on, thank you very much for that.

MARQUARDT: Now, there's a new health insurance alternative officials hope will make it easier to obtain coverage. We'll explain these short-term plans in about ten minutes.


[05:122:13] ROMANS: One of the women accusing the president, President Trump, of sexual misconduct says she won't be bullied into silence. Rachel Crooks claims Trump forcibly kissed her when she worked as a receptionist in Trump Tower back in 2006.

Crooks story landed on the front page of the "Washington Post" on Tuesday. And that prompted 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. And I think he should be afraid of that.

(END VIDEO CLIP) ROMANS: The aggressive behavior she alleges is almost exactly what the president was overheard saying on that infamous 2005 "Access Hollywood" tape.

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

MARQUARDT: Federal courts will now begin tracking and releasing data on sexual harassment complaints against judges. As it stands, the U.S. court system is closely controlled and 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 are rarely punished.

That Pennsylvania Groundhog has no idea what he's talking about. It's so warm here in New York.

ROMANS: Unbelievable.

MARQUARDT: You'll never -- you would never know that it's February with these record highs in the east.

Meteorologist Pedram Javaheri joins us with the forecast.


PEDRAM JAVAHERI, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Alex and Christine, yes, the big heat is the big story. Record warmth widespread across the eastern seaboard today. Behind it, as interesting as it gets when it comes to a weather pattern for this time of year, more on that momentarily.

But over 60 records possible on this Wednesday and really stretches over a 1,000-mile stretch of land there out of parts of Central Florida, all the way up there toward portions of New England. But you'll notice this -- talking about temperatures shattering all-time records for the date there. Sixty-eight in New York City, well, we're going to get up to 71, I think, by this afternoon. Boston, 68 is what we're expecting, 63 is the record high temperature for this date as well.

Now, we talked about Texas and the significance of the weather here, because a big-time ice storm in progress across the northern and central tier of the state, generally a quarter to half inch. Notice that stretches into parts of St. Louis, into the Midwest, as well. That's enough ice to not be a crippling event but really could be disruptive event when it comes to being on the roadways or heading to the airport, as well. But just east of that line, tremendous rainfall, a lot of moisture source available there courtesy of the Gulf of Mexico. So, we'll see a flooding risk in place.

[05:25:01] In fact, upwards of 45 million people under a threat here for some flooding to take place over the next 24 to 12 hours -- guys.


ROMANS: Wow, 45 million people under flood threat. Be careful.

MARQUARDT: We deserve it. We've had a rough winter. It's been cold. We need to thaw out.

ROMANS: Today's going to be a good day for a run in Central Park.

All right. President Trump offering few specifics but looking for new ideas on guns.


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


ROMANS: Anxious students want to know exactly how. They're meeting with Florida lawmakers today, a day after those lawmakers voted down a bill to ban assault weapons.