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Trump's Inner Circle Rocked; Florida Students Return; U.N.: North Korea Helping Syria Make Chemical Weapons. Aired 4:30-5a ET

Aired February 28, 2018 - 04:30   ET



[04:30:24] CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Big developments for the president and his inner circle. Jared Kushner's security clearance downgraded. Hope Hicks admits she told white lies to protect the president. And now Mr. Trump's own actions are a focus of the Russia special counsel.

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: And students return to Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida today, two weeks after 17 lives were taken. Chances of major gun reform, meanwhile, appear thin if not altogether nil.

ROMANS: Replay the tape.

BRIGGS: Yes. It has followed similar patterns. This time was different because the institutions failed these students on so many different levels.

Welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Dave Briggs.

ROMANS: I'm Christine Romans. It's 31 minutes past the hour.

All right. Let's begin here with Donald Trump and his decision to run for president. Was it tied to his company's business dealings in Russia?

The Mueller investigation is now looking directly at the actions of President Trump before the 2016 campaign. Sources say investigators are asking witnesses when Mr. Trump became serious about running for president and how that timing coincided with his business moves, including the abandoned effort to brand a Trump Tower in Moscow.

BRIGGS: Investigators also asking about potentially compromising information the Russians may have on Mr. Trump. The sources say they don't know whether Mueller has concrete evidence of wrongdoing, but questions indicate Mueller's team is reaching beyond the campaign at how the Russians might have sought to influence Mr. Trump. The president has claimed any inquiry into his family finances would exceed the special counsel's mandate. An attorney for the president and the Trump organization both declined to comment.

ROMANS: This morning, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner no longer has access to the nation's most closely held secrets, at least for now. The first son-in-law's interim security clearance downgraded from top secret to secret. The new clearance level will allow him access to far less information, excluding, for example, the presidential daily briefing of top-secret material.

Now, a Republican source who has worked closely with the White House tells CNN the change, quote, directly undercuts Jared's main job.

More now from senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny. 2


JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Christine and Dave, something of a bomb bombshell with Jared Kushner, the president's senior adviser and, of course, son-in-law, no longer able to look at the nation's top-secret intelligence information here. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has made good on his plan to sort of clean house in the security clearance front. Jared Kushner, of course, for the last 13 months or so, has been operating under a temporary security clearance.

In the wake, of course, of the resignation of staff secretary, Rob Porter, the chief of staff said he was going to institute a tighter policy for security clearances. Jared Kushner, the most prominent person to fall under that. Now, this, of course, will affect how he does his job. He's the -- essentially the leader on Middle East peace.

Now, he and his supporters say he's going to continue doing his job. He's going to stay on here. But without that top-secret security clearance, it certainly will be done in a different way. Questions about Jared Kushner's security clearance and his standing here at the White House certainly will hang over the administration again today -- Christine and Dave.


BRIGGS: Jeff Zeleny, thanks.

Meanwhile, Jared Kushner's attorney claims his client has done more than what's expected of him in the security clearance process, insisting he will accept the decision about his downgrade and will not ask for any type of special permission from President Trump. A final solution could come soon. A source telling CNN the FBI's expected to wrap up Mr. Kushner's background check within a month. At that point, it would be the White House's call.

ROMANS: Meantime, a report in the "Washington Post" says officials in at least four countries discussed ways they could manipulate Jared Kushner. According to the report, Mexico, Israel, China, and the United Arab Emirates considered taking advantage of Kushner's intricate business arrangements, his lack of foreign policy experience, and his financial troubles. It is not clear based on U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports, if they acted on those conversations.

BRIGGS: "The Post" report says the subject was first raised in intel briefings after national security adviser H.R. McMaster learned Kushner had contacts with foreign officials, that he didn't actually coordinate with the National Security Council. Kushner did not respond to CNN questions Tuesday. A spokesperson says they won't respond to, quote, unnamed sources peddling secondhand hearsay.

[04:35:00] ROMANS: Longtime Trump aide Hope Hicks did not have much to say during a closed door appearance on Tuesday before the House Intelligence Committee. But according to a source with direct knowledge of her testimony, White House communications director did admit she has to tell, quote, white lies for the president on occasion but she insisted she has not had to lie about anything substantive. We should note Hicks did say after the election there was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign.

BRIGGS: Hicks refused to answer questions about her time in the White House. She did not invoke executive privilege but simply told lawmakers she had been instructed by the administration not to answer those questions.


REP. MIKE QUIGLEY (D-IL), HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Let's hope we'll get to all the answers.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Has there been a subpoena issued for her?


RAJU: Should there be?


RAJU: Why is that?

QUIGLEY: With anyone who doesn't answer questions, they ought to be subpoenaed.


BRIGGS: Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski also declined to answer questions about events that occurred after the 2016 election.

ROMANS: Now, the White House pushing back after the head of U.S. Cyber Command confirmed he has not been granted authority by President Trump to stop Russian election-hacking operations, to disrupt him. Here is Admiral Mike Rogers testifying on Capitol Hill.


ADMIRAL MIKE ROGERS, NSA DIRECTOR: It's probably fair to say that we have not opted to engage in some of the same behaviors that we are seeing. President Putin has clearly coming come to the conclusion there's little price to pay here.


ROGERS: And that therefore I can continue this activity. (END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: The White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders disputing the notion that Rogers needs more authority. She insists he's not the only official tasked with confronting Russia.

BRIGGS: Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School make an emotional return to the classroom this morning. They'll be on a modified half-day schedule the rest of the week. Three victims from the massacre remain hospitalized in fair condition. And we are learning the carnage could have been much worse.

ROMANS: The shooter still had more than half his ammunition remaining when he fled. Investigators tell CNN he may have tried to break a window to fire on students as they ran from the building, some kind of sniper position. The hurricane-proof windows did not break, thankfully. Florida's legislative session ends next Friday, meaning time is short to pass changes to the state's gun laws.

BRIGGS: The state senate rules committee has already approved a bill to keep firearms away from those with mental health issues. It also prohibits most people under 21 from purchasing a fireman and amendment to ban the sale of bumps tock failed. But a bump stock ban is part of the bill in the Florida House. Chances of banning assault style weapons appears very remote.

ROMANS: Even as some states move to take action on gun violence, progress at the federal level is lagging. President Trump this afternoon meets with lawmakers from both parties on gun laws and school safety. A bipartisan group of senators working to reach a deal to pave the way on gun-related amendments as early as next week.

BRIGGS: But there is clearly no appetite in the GOP-controlled House or Senate to pass any significant gun-control legislation.


REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: We shouldn't be banning guns for law-abiding citizens. We should be focusing on making sure that citizens who should not get guns in the first place don't get those guns. That is why we see a big breakdown in the system here.


ROMANS: You know the whole conversation is right now, I mean --

BRIGGS: Keeping guns out of the hands --

ROMANS: Of people who shouldn't have them. That's what the conversation is.

BRIGGS: Right. That depends on how you view that. The AR-15, should that be sold to people that are 18-years-old? There will not be any movement on that from what it sounds.

Many Democrats support a plan to incentivize state and federal authorities to enter more data into the country's background check system. But they say that on its own is not enough.

ROMANS: All right. Georgia Republicans sparring with Delta, vowing to block a tax break after Delta stopped discounted flights for NRA members. Now, Georgia State Senator Michael Williams is making this claim about delta to CNN's Brianna Keilar.


MICHAEL WILLIAMS (R), GEORGIA STATE SENATOR: If they're going to pull the discount for NRA members, why not pull it for Planned Parenthood or some of the left organizations out there?


ROMSN: So, Keilar pressed Williams for proof that Delta offers discounts to Planned Parenthood. He told her he didn't know the exact source but they saw it on Google.

A few problems here. There is no evidence that Mr. Williams' position is true. Planned Parenthood doesn't actually have members. And Planned Parenthood told CNN donations to the organization doesn't come with corporate perks or discounts.

Delta did not respond immediately but does offer corporate discounts to groups of 15 or more. On facing consumer pressure, Delta is one of a dozen companies ending discounts for NRA members. The NRA calls this political cowardice. Delta claims it is neutral in the gun debate. But suddenly, discounted airfares has become part of the culture wars in America.

BRIGGS: It is a battle and one that's not over. The lieutenant governor of New York weighing in yesterday saying, Delta, come here, bring your headquarters here.

[04:40:02] ROMANS: I wonder -- they're looking at --


ROMANS: HQ2 potentially in Atlanta. Do you want to fight with local lawmakers about taxes over culture issues?

BRIGGS: Probably not. Yes.

All right. Wearing his heart on his sleeve and the name of a Parkland shooting victim on his shoes, Dwyane Wade goes vintage, hitting the game-winning shot as the Miami Heat beat the Sixers 102-101 in Miami. Before the game, Wade wrote Joaquin Oliver's name on his shoes.

Oliver was buried in Wade's number 3 jersey. Wade has dedicated his return to Miami and the rest of the Heat's season to Oliver. Nice gesture by D. Wade.

ROMANS: All right. The FBI lab now looking at a letter sent to a Virginia military base. Eleven people sickened after this letter was opened. What investigators know, what they don't, next.


[04:45:01] ROMANS: The FBI is investigating a suspicious letter sent to a military base in Virginia. Officials say 11 people got sick after the letter was opened at Joint Base Fort Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington. Three people were taken to the hospital and are in stable condition.

Law enforcement officials say field tests for the letter came back negative for any harmful substance. Officials say the letter contained derogatory language. At times, it was unintelligible. It was addressed to a commander officer at that base.

Investigators are looking into what relationship if any the sender had with the base.

BRIGGS: Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and his family under scrutiny after $31,000 was spent last year to replace an office dining room set. That revelation follows a CNN report about a top HUD employee who says she was pressured to find funds beyond the $5,000 legal limit to renovate Carson's office.

Helen Foster alleges she was demoted after pushing back on that request. She claimed she was told Carson's wife Candy was behind it.

A department official at HUD is disputing whether the table is subject to the $5,000 limit since it was unreparable and says the decision to replace it was made by career staffers in charge of the building.

ROMANS: They can get a nice table at Costco, really nice, like --

BRIGGS: That is some tone-deaf stuff right there. They know what HUD presides over.

ROMANS: He promised to be honest and to cut spending there.

All right. A federal judge who was once attacked by the president for his Mexican heritage has handed down a ruling that could pave the way for Mr. Trump's border wall. U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel deciding the administration does have the authority to waive certain environmental laws to begin construction. Judge Curiel pointing out he ignored politics in reaching that decision. He writes, in its review of the case, the court cannot and does not consider whether underlying decisions to construct the barriers are politically wise or prudent.

BRIGGS: The president came under criticism in June of 2016 when he said Judge Curiel, who was born in Indiana, was biased against him because of his Mexican heritage. Mr. Trump softened his tone quite a bit last night writing: U.S. judge sided with the Trump administration. Now the support and project can go forward.

In reality, Judge Curiel's 100-page order does not mean construction of the wall will begin yet. Congress first has to authorize or provide funding.

ROMANS: A battle escalating between Oakland's mayor and immigration officials. Federal agents have arrested more than 150 people in northern California since Sunday for a variety of alleged violations. On Saturday, the day before these operations began, the Oakland mayor, Libby Schaaf, warned the public. She said she was doing it to protect residents. Oakland is a sanctuary city with a policy of not coordinating with federal immigration officials.

The ICE deputy director criticized the mayor and described this as reckless. He says her warning increased the risk for his officers. Mayor Schaaf says she does not regret going public.

BRIGGS: Another sign of potential midterm trouble for Republicans. Democrats have flipped their 38th and 39th GOP-held House seats since President Trump took office. The wins coming in a New Hampshire district where the president won by 13 points. In Connecticut, the Democratic candidate taking a seat Republicans held for 44 years.

The two races the latest in a string of legislative victories that Democrats see as a sign of strong voter enthusiasm heading into November's midterms. Depends on how you see it. Some people say the economic messages in favor of Republicans, it depends on what people are walking in and voting on.

ROMANS: That's right, that's right.

All right. Forty-eight minutes past the hour. Papa John's breaking up with the NFL, ending its eight-year sponsorship with the league. Details on CNNMoney, next.


[04:53:16] BRIGGS: The United Nations now connecting Syria's chemical weapons program to North Korea. A Security Council diplomat telling CNN Pyongyang is helping Syria make deadly weapons by providing supplies and manpower.

CNN's Jomana Karadsheh has the latest live from Amman, Jordan.

Good morning, Jomana.


That information is coming from a report by a U.N. panel of experts. That report hasn't been published yet. But a U.N. Security Council diplomat who's seen the report gave CNN some detail saying that North Korea had sent experts and materials to Syria over the past couple of years.

When it comes to the materials, they're saying it is acid-resistant tiles, valves, and thermometers, presumably to use in a production facility. The experts say it is missile experts, and they traveled to Syria in 2016 and 2017, and several visits. At least one of those trips, they stayed on a military base.

And according to one Security Council diplomat, they remain in at least three Syrian cities now. The Syrian regime has repeatedly denied allegations that it has used chemical weapons against its own people. And when it comes to these accusations in this new report, according to the diplomats, they say that the Syrians are also denying these allegations and saying that the North Koreans are sports trainers, Dave.

BRIGGS: Sports trainers, OK. Jomana Karadsheh live for us in Jordan, thank you.

ROMANS: A sixth grader is getting credit for bringing an end to the West Virginia teachers strike. After a cooling off period today, teachers resume to their classrooms tomorrow following a five-day walkout.

[04:55:02] Governor Jim Justice announcing a 5 percent raise for school employees in the first year as long as lawmakers approve. The governor says he decided on the largest pay hike after a conversation with a sixth grader.

BRIGGS: Gideon Titus-Glover, whose mom is a teacher. He asked why funds were being spent on tourism. The government talked about return on investments. And Gideon asked the governor, wouldn't it be smart to invest in smart teachers?


GIDEON TITUS-GLOVER, SIXTH GRADER IN WEST VIRGINIA: I heard they added an extra $5 million to tourism. And so, I just thought that is it really right? That money could have gone to a raise for teachers. So I just kind of thought like that was wrong.


BRIGGS: The issue of insurance for teachers is still unresolved. A lot of teachers at the state capitol booed when they heard that.

ROMANS: Barack Obama taking a subtle shot at the man who succeed him in the White House. This audio leaked from an event last week in Boston. The former president points to the lack of embarrassing scandals in his administration and what we've seen since President Trump took office.


BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT: There were mistakes, we'd screw up, but there wasn't anything (INAUDIBLE) during eight years. And that's -- I know that seems like a low bar, but during the presidency, that's no small thing.


ROMANS: According to the audio obtained by the magazine "Reason," the former president expanded on the role social media platforms play in spreading false or toxic information.

BRIGGS: The sports analytic conference in Boston there.

Meanwhile, heavier rain in the south liable to worsen the flood threat for millions today.

Meteorologist Allison Chinchar has the forecast.


ALLISON CHINCHAR, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Dave and Christine, the flood threat still exists, especially for areas along the Mississippi. We still have flood watches and flood warnings in effect. And likely will continue for at least the next several days.

That's because thanks to the front system that you see here, that's giving us enough lift to pull up a lot of that gulf moisture over the spots that have been seeing rain for the last week. Here's a look at where the areas will see it today. You see some of the heaviest regions are places like Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, as well as Alabama. Now, one thing to note is that it's also very warm down there, as well.

So, a lot of these areas still looking at temperatures well above average. Atlanta looking at a high of 66. Little Rock about 70. Nashville, high temperature of about 63. Even some milder temperatures into portions of the Northeast, say, New York about 59, Boston, looking at a high of 58, even Cincinnati looking at a high about 56 degrees.


ROMANS: All right, Allison Chinchar, thank you.

Let's get a check on CNN Money this morning. Interest rate fears are back. I told you -- every day, it's just a rate drama. Global stocks lower after a sell-off on Wall Street. The Dow lost 300 points, the first drop in four days. The Nasdaq and S&P 500 fell more than 1 percent.

New Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell was on Capitol Hill. He said he's optimistic about the U.S. economy, and that had water worried that could mean faster interest rate hikes on the way. The Fed plans three this year.

Amazon already owns your doorstep, now it wants to secure inside your home. The company is buying home security company Ring. It makes security cameras and Internet-connected doorbells. You have seen the commercials. That will pair nicely with Amazon key, a smart door lock that allows Amazon to drop packages inside people's homes. The company did not discuss how much Amazon is paying or other details of the deal.

Papa John's breaking up with the NFL, ending an eight-year sponsorship with the league. Last year, then-CEO John Schnatter blamed slumping sales of pizza on the NFL protests, specifically how the league handled it and players. His comments prompted a lot of criticism, forcing the company, Papa John's, to apologize. Schnatter left at the end of the year.

Now, despite cutting league ties, Papa John's will keep partnerships with 22 individual teams.

Do you think that there's a correlation? I've asked you before --

BRIGGS: Absolutely I do. Somewhat.

ROMANS: Between pizza and protests? I need the evidence.

BRIGGS: There is none. No --

ROMANS: You jest.

BRIGGS: They will have a new sponsor, they say, by the season. Do you have one of those online doorbell apps?

ROMANS: No -- yes, I do. Don't come to my house.

BRIGGS: They're brilliant, I just got to say. No matter which you pick, it's creepy but brilliant.

EARLY START continues right now with the latest from the White House, shoot investigation.

ROMANS: Creepy but brilliant.


ROMANS: Big developments to the president and his inner circle. Jared Kushner's security clearance downgraded. Hope Hicks admits she tells white lies to protect the president. Now, Mr. Trump's own actions are a focus of the Russia special counsel.

BRIGGS: And students return to Stoneman Douglas High School today in Florida, two weeks after 17 lives were taken. While the chances for major gun reform appear slim to none.

ROMANS: Replay the tape.

BRIGGS: Good morning, and thanks for getting an EARLY START with us. I'm Dave Briggs.

ROMANS: I'm Christine Romans. It is Wednesday, February 28th. It is 5:00 a.m. exactly in the East. Good morning, everyone.