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Trump's Inner Circle Rocked; Florida Students Return; Wade Honors Shooting Victim, Hits Game Winner. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired February 28, 2018 - 05:00   ET


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: 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.

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: 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.

[05:00:02] 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.

Was Donald Trump's decision to run for president tied to his company's business dealings in Russia? The Mueller investigation 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 the 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's 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. For example, the presidential daily brief of top-secret material no longer included.

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. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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, thank you.

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 special permission from President Trump. A final resolution 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 up to the White House.

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 "Washington Post" report, Mexico, Israel, China, and the United Arab Emirates all considered taking advantage of Kushner and discussed how to do that. They would have used Kushner's intricate business arrangements, his lack of foreign policy experience, his financial troubles.

It's not clear based on U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports if they acted on any of those conversations. But they certainly discussed it according to "The Post."

BRIGGS: "The Post" report also said the subject was first raised in initial briefings after national security adviser H.R. McMaster learned Kushner had contacts with foreign officials that he did not coordinate with the National Security Council. Kushner did not respond to CNN questions Tuesday. A spokesperson for his attorney says they won't respond to, quote, unnamed sources peddling secondhand hearsay. ROMANS: Let's bring in CNN politics digital director Zach Wolf live from Washington.

Good morning.

BRIGGS: Good morning.


ROMANS: And we're told that Jared Kushner did not seek any kind of special permission or special treatment in this process. You know, so he does not have this top-secret clearance any more. Can he do his job without it?

WOLF: I think that's a big question and one that we need to be asking. It's not entirely clear. He's not directly involved from what I understand with state secrets from an intelligence perspective. But he does have this sort of minister of everything portfolio. He's in charge of, you know, talking to China on the economy, dealing with Mexico, you know, this kind of host of other things that you can see would run up against state secrets.

And if every time, we would talk about intelligence or anything or things that -- that the government considers to be top secret, he has to essentially leave the room. It seems like that could really put a damper on his ability to be the man in charge of these things.

[05:05:02] BRIGGS: And you have to wonder, if he's able to do his job like he was before, why then was he reading the presidential daily briefing every day? Those two things don't seem to correlate. But also question this morning about what we are doing to prevent further interference in our elections.

Admiral Mike Rogers, head of the NSA, with a dangerous warning for lawmakers yesterday. Listen.


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.


BRIGGS: Putin has concluded there's little price to pay, and he can continue doing it. Zach, what are the implications of that, and why? Why might the president not be doing something to stop this?

WOLF: Not only that, Putin must be saying there's some reward in this, as well.


WOLF: I mean, you know, my jaw hit the floor when I heard this yesterday. It's kind of a stunning thing. You'd have to be living under a rock to not know that Russia had been meddling in U.S. elections and that the top, you know -- the NSA, the National Security Agency wasn't sort of actively working against that at the moment. It was a stunning thing to hear.

ROMANS: The president last year said, you know, I asked Putin if he was doing it, he said he wasn't. There's only so many times you can ask a guy. You know --

BRIGGS: There you go.

ROMANS: What are you going to do about it?

Let's talk about Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Yesterday, he said that -- he said he's not going to sign any legislation to arm teachers. And really there's no appetite for legislation at this point. Listen.


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: Replay the tape. You know, this is so tragic. Students are going back to school today. They want some action. But it always goes down to that bottom line that we don't want to take guns away from law-abiding citizens. And that becomes the starting point.

WOLF: Right. And you do hear movement in the Senate on this background checks bill they've been working on. But until Paul Ryan starts talking about that bill which the House has passed but they added other stuff to, you don't really see the pathway to any sort of meaningful gun reform happening yet.

You know, I think there's certainly an increased appetite for it in the country, you see that in the polling. But you don't see a pathway for how it gets through Washington yet. We're still waiting for that.

ROMANS: The disconnect between Congress and the public is profound here, I think. I mean, the people are saying they want leadership in the polling. But for whatever reason there's so little appetite in Congress.

BRIGGS: Yes and no. National polls don't matter to members of the House.

ROMANS: Right.

BRIGGS: What matters to them is local polls. And look at the national map. It's awfully red.

ROMANS: Are gun people going to be single-issue voters? I mean, you know --

BRIGGS: We shall see, if it becomes an issue in the midterms.

But, Zach, if there's a common thread between what Paul Ryan and the president are saying, is we want to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill? Here's the president hitting that note several times.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And we have to do, for the mentally ill, we have to do very -- we don't want people that are mentally ill to be having any form of weaponry. We have to be very strong on that.

We want to be very powerful, very strong on background checks, especially as it pertains to the mentally ill.

And also the mentally ill, people that have mental problems. We condition allow them to have guns. We're going to be very strong on that.


BRIGGS: Now, he has done something when it comes to mentally ill and guns. In fact, this is the one-year anniversary of that. Tell people what was done one year ago today.

WOLF: The one piece of gun-related legislation he signed into law was rolling back some Obama-era regulation that's cut down on access for the mentally ill. Now, some important caveats. This was not a universally supported thing. People as varied as the ACLU and NRA opposed it. It's not like this was something he rolled back that everybody was in favor.

But, you know, if the one piece of gun legislation you had rolled back had to do with guns and the mentally ill, it's not a good look when you're saying those kinds of things.

ROMANS: All right, Zach. We'll talk to you in a half hour. Come back soon. Thank you.

WOLF: Thanks.

BRIGGS: Meanwhile, 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.

ROMANS: And we're learning the carnage could have been worse. The shooter still had more than half his ammunition remaining when he fled.

[05:10:00] Investigators tell CNN he may have tried to break a window to fire on students as they ran from the building like some sort of sick sniper. The hurricane-proof windows did not break.

Georgia Republicans threat to Delta over its NRA decision could hurt Georgia's Amazon dreams. Delta is based in Atlanta. Atlanta is on the short list for Amazon's second headquarters.

HQ2 as it's called is a big prize for any city, $5 billion facility, 50,000 new jobs. High-paying new jobs.

Now, many cities will lure Amazon with tax breaks. But with Georgia's current political spat, Amazon may think twice. The Georgia Senate is blocking a $40 million tax break for Delta after it stopped -- Delta stopped discounting flights for NRA members. Delta is the state's largest private employer, signaling to Amazon that local politicians put political point scoring over business interests.

Delta is one of a dozen companies facing consumer pressure to cut NRA ties. While consumers focus on companies, Blackrock and others are re-examining their investments in gun makers.

Famed investor Warren Buffett says it's ridiculous to boycott gun stocks.


WARREN BUFFETT, BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY CEO: I have not issued any edict, for example, to the two managers that run money besides me at Berkshire that they can't own stock in them. They can own stock in the gun manufacturers.


ROMANS: Yes. There are some who say, you know, you can try to divest out of gun manufacturers in your portfolio. There are some, you know, pension funds and the like that are trying to do that. Buffett says he admires the work of those Parkland students.

BRIGGS: Back to HQ2, where do you think it's headed?

ROMANS: I don't know. But, you know, Jamie Dimon, CEO of Citigroup -- sorry, Jamie Dimon, of J.P. Morgan Chase, he said that whatever deal Amazon gets, he'd like that deal for his headquarters. This is going to set a precedent. And there's lawmakers who are like, wait a minute, we don't want to give this corporate welfare to the big, powerful companies --

BRIGGS: Already going too far giving away far too much. Right.

Ahead, the FBI lab looking at a letter sent to a Virginia military base. Eleven people got sick after it was opened. What investigators know and what they don't, next.


[05:16:16] ROMANS: The FBI is investigating suspicious letters sent to a military base in Virginia. Officials say 11 people were sicken after a letter was opened at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington. Three 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 unintelligible, addressed to a commanding officer at the base. Investigators looking into what relationship if any the sender had with the base.

BRIGGS: 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. The judge pointing out he ignored politics in making his decision and writes, in review of this case, the court cannot and does not consider whether underlying decisions to construct the border barriers are politically wise or prudent.

ROMANS: 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 Curiel's Mexican heritage. Mr. Trump softening that tone in a tweet last night, writing: U.S. judge sided with the Trump administration. Now this important project can go forward.

Actually, Judge Curiel's 100-page order doesn't mean it can forward, doesn't mean construction of the wall will begin just yet because Congress has to first authorize or provide funding.

BRIGGS: In Charlottesville, Virginia, a judge ruling tarps covering statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas Stonewall Jackson must be removed. City officials said it is not clear if it will appeal the ruling. The city covered the statutes last August after two state troopers and Heather Heyer were killed during violence surrounding a white nationalist rally. The city wants the statues permanently removed. Others have threatened legal action to keep them there.

Ahead, Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade turning back the clock to honor one of the victims of the Florida shooting.

Andy Scholes has more in this morning's "Bleacher Report", next.


[05:22:48] BRIGGS: Welcome back.

A day after dedicating his season to Stoneman Douglas shooting victim Joaquin Oliver, Dwyane Wade having his best game of the year.

ROMANS: Andy Scholes has more in this morning's "Bleacher Report".

Hey, Andy.


You know, since being traded back to Miami, Dwyane Wade hadn't had much of an impact, averaging just nine points a game. But he had an inspirational performance game last night. Joaquin Oliver was one of the 17 students who lost their lives at the

Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. He was laid to rest wearing Wade's jersey. Well, Wade writing Oliver on his shoes last night. He then went out and had his best game of the season, scoring 15 of the Hheat's final 17 points, including the game winner with five seconds left on the clock.

After the game, Wade posted on Instagram: Joaquin Oliver and Henry Thomas, thanks for being me angels tonight. Thomas who was Wade's agent passed away last month.

All right. Golden State Warriors are in D.C. to play the Wizards tonight. The team escaping the annual trip to the White House to celebrate their NBA title. Instead, the team visiting the National Museum of African-American History and Culture with students from Kevin Durant's hometown.

Now, Durant, Steph Curry, and head coach Steve Kerr have been outspoken about president Trump in the past, saying they would not go to the White House. President Trump, meanwhile, rescinded their invitation to celebrate the title with him back in September.

All right. Last night, LeBron becoming the first player in NBA history to score 30,000 points to go along with 8,000 rebounds and 8,000 assists. His Cavs beat the Nets 129-123. Now, before the game, LeBron was asked about the ongoing FBI investigation into the recruiting scandal in college basketball. LeBron, who skipped college and went to the NBA, said he doesn't think the current NCAA model can be fixed.


LEBRON JAMES, CLEVELAND CAVALIERS: NCAA is this (INAUDIBLE) it's going to make headlines. I'm not a fan of the NCAA. I love watching March Madness. That's incredible. I'm not a fan of how the kids don't benefit from none of this.

[05:25:05] You know, it's kind of a fine line because I actually got a couple boys that could be headed in that direction. So there's going to be decisions that we have as a family to make.


SCHOLES: All right. Finally, it's one day until March, but the madness has already begun. North Carolina down three to Miami. Buried clutch three to tie the game up with four seconds left. Dequan Newton, the last-second heave from just beyond half court, and it's good. They snapped the Heels' six-game winning streak.

Guys, believe it or not, conference tournaments get started today. Selection Sunday a week from this Sunday. Christine, you better start working on your bracket.

ROMANS: I know.

BRIGGS: Forget it this year. It's impossible. Who are you betting on?

SCHOLES: You know, if I was to pick a team now, I would probably go Michigan State, I guess.

BRIGGS: It's a crap shoot more than I've seen in recent years. But it will be fun. You could win. You must fill out brackets.

ROMANS: I could. Iowa State all the way.

President Obama has said family finances should be off-limits for the special counsel. But now, Robert Mueller looking directly into whether Mr. Trump's decision to run for president coincided with business decisions in Russia.