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Hicks Quitting; GOP Frustrated on Gun Debate; Trump Attacks Sessions; Russia's Ceasefire Rejected. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired March 1, 2018 - 04:00   ET



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UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If she stepped down, it should be only a short time before he does as well.


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: A chaotic 48 hours at the White House. Hope Hicks is stepping down, leaving the president without one of his most trusted aides and advisers.

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: And pressure ramping up on Jared Kushner. A new report says big loans went to his family business after he met with those lenders at the White House.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Take the guns first, go through due process second.


ROMANS: Take the guns first, go through due process second. President Trump leaving Republicans and the NRA in shock. He appeared to back Democratic favored gun measures. Some would say to the left of Democrats.


ROMANS: Now several big companies are trying to take the lead on gun violence.

Good morning and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

A whole week of news in just one day.

BRIGGS: You got that right.

I'm Dave Briggs.

After the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day at the White House, it is Thursday, March 1st. 4:00 a.m. in the East. We start with the president, who, of course, values loyalty above all, is now without one of his most loyal aides. White House Communications Director Hope Hicks is resigning. The long time Trump staffer set to depart in the coming weeks. The decision comes just a day after Hicks admitted she told what she called white lies to protect the president.

ROMANS: A White House official says there's, quote, nothing nefarious about Hicks leaving. The president calling her outstanding, a great person whom he will miss. But an ally close to the president tells CNN, the president berated Hicks after her testimony to Congress on Tuesday, right, when she said that there were white lies that she had told to protect him.

A tearful Hicks announced her departure to the White House communications team, saying she felt like now finally is the right time to go.

BRIGGS: One of Hicks' close confidants tells us, quote, the last few weeks were really, really hard for her. The friend says Hicks started thinking seriously about resigning when the Rob Porter spousal abuse scandal erupted. Hicks and Porter were romantically involved.

ROMANS: For those keeping score here, this is four White House communications directors, plus one who took the job but never served. So four, five now in just over a year.

For the very latest we go to CNN's Jeff Zeleny at the White House.


JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Christine and Dave, the headlines of today's newspapers, White House Communications Director Hope Hicks leaving the White House. Certainly going to be stirring more concern here today in the West Wing. Of all the resignations here from staff members to even members of the cabinet and others, few have hit home like this to the president like Hope Hicks. She's one of his closest advisers. She has, in fact, been with him longer than nearly anyone here at the White House, since before he even decided to run for presidents.

Now, she decided on Wednesday to leave the White House. She said she'll be leaving in the coming weeks. She said she wants to pursue other opportunities outside the administration. But it certainly raises questions of why. Why the timing of now? Of course, she made her decision one day after testifying for some eight hours before the House Intelligence Committee and only about two months after she testified and took questions from the Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe. There's no sign at all that she is a target of the investigation. There's no sign that she is more than just a witness in this case. But, of course, she has such proximity to President Trump.

So the resignation of Hope Hicks certainly one of the bigger bombshells here in a year in some months of staffing shake-ups here at the White House. The bigger question going forward, what will President Trump do without his close right-hand adviser? She, of course, sat right outside the Oval Office. Really was a -- not a political expert, she would say, but a Trump expert. So certainly, going forward, that is the question, what will President Trump do without his right hand, Hope Hicks?

Christine and Dave.

BRIGGS: One of many questions.

Jeff Zeleny, thank you.

Another damaging report this morning concerning Jared Kushner. "The New York Times" reporting his family's real estate business secured substantial loans after Kushner held meetings at the White House with the lenders. Those loans include one for $184 million from Apollo Global Management after the company founder went to the White House to discuss infrastructure.

ROMANS: Another loan for $325 million from Citigroup came shortly after a White House meeting between Kushner and Citigroup's CEO. Kushner stepped down as CEO of the Kushner Companies when he started at the White House, but "The Times" reports he has retained a vast majority of his interest in the firm. Kushner's lawyer, Abbe Lowell, told "The Times" he has taken no part of any Kushner Company business since he joined the White House.

BRIGGS: The battle lines between Jared Kushner and Chief of Staff John Kelly appear to be even more entrenched after Kushner's security clearance was downgraded. A source says Kushner remains exasperated by Kelly's decision, openly asking others in the West Wing, why is Kelly doing this and feeling that everyone is out to get him. Well, now "The Wall Street Journal" questioning whether Kushner and First Daughter Ivanka Trump should have positions in the White House at all.

[04:05:14] ROMANS: "The Journal," on its typically conservative editorial page, is suggesting they could serve the president better from the outside. Mr. Trump's second year could determine his president fate as Mr. Mueller probe rolls on and midterm elections give Democrats a chance to take the House and impeach him. Mr. Trump needs the discipline that Mr. Kelly has imposed. Mr. Kushner and Ivanka have to decide if they serve themselves and the president better by walking away from their formal White House roles. That from the opinion page of "The Wall Street Journal."

BRIGGS: Staggering.

All right, the White House expected to release its school safety proposals today or tomorrow following a fascinating meeting between President Trump and a group of lawmakers. That meeting left Democrats cautiously optimistic about progress on gun violence and left Republicans absolutely shell-shocked.

ROMANS: The president pushing to raise the legal age to purchase a rifle from 18 to 21. NRA leaders, who had lunch with Mr. Trump last weekend, do not want that to happen. They oppose that idea. The president rejecting Republican Congressman Steve Scalise's call for a pro-concealed carry measure in a broader gun control plan.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If you're going to put concealed carry between states into this bill, we're talking about a whole new ball game. And, you know, I'm with you, but let it be a separate bill. You'll never get this passed.


TRUMP: If you add concealed carry to this, you'll never get it passed.


BRIGGS: The president did not hesitate to call out lawmakers who have shown no appetite for tighter gun control laws. Listen to this exchange.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Some of you people are petrified of the NRA. You can't be petrified.

In your bill, what are you doing about the 18 to 21?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We didn't -- we don't change that.

TRUMP: OK. Are you going to leave that?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We didn't address it, Mr. President. Look, I think we --

TRUMP: You know why? Because you're afraid of the NRA, right?


ROMANS: Afterward, the NRA released a statement saying in part, while today's meeting made for great TV, the gun control proposals discussed would make for bad policy that would not keep our children safe.

What a remarkable, remarkable event, folks.

We get more from Phil Mattingly on Capitol Hill.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No, Christine and Dave, surreal. That was the word used by Senator John Cornyn, the second ranking Republican, who sat in the meeting in the White House more than an hour long. And, frankly, it's the best word probably to describe what everyone was thinking after they walked out of that meeting. A meeting in which the Republican president, a president backed by the NRA throughout the campaign and who's repeatedly said how much he loves the National Rifle Association and Republicans' viewpoints and ideological (INAUDIBLE) when it comes to guns sided more with Democrats on the policy issues than the Republicans sitting around the table. It raised very real questions as to where he actually stands on the gun debate.

If you talk to Democrats, obviously they were very pleased where the president ended up during that meeting. But they don't also have a lot of confidence that he's going to stay there. What you hear a lot is, is it Tuesday Trump or was it Thursday Trump? Now, what is that referring to? Immigration. If you remember, the president had a wide ranging meeting where he seemed agreeable to just about everything on a Tuesday when it came to immigration. Just 48 hours later, he had retracted just about everything he said. That immigration issue, DACA, that still hasn't moved anywhere on Capitol Hill. Democrats a little bit skeptical that this might actually be the same thing.

Now, where are Republicans on this? Furious. I can say that after talking to multiple aides who were involved in this process and several of the lawmakers as well. Why are they furious? Well, a number of different reasons. But most notably, this. Take a listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Take the firearms first and then go to court, because that's another system, because a lot of times by the time you go to court, it takes so long to go to court to get the due process procedures. Take the guns first. Go through due process second.


MATTINGLY: Now, guys, just to put what you just heard in perspective, imagine President Obama saying due process didn't matter. Take the guns first. That's what Republicans are saying at this point right now and that's why they're frustrated about the direction everything has gone.

Christine and Dave.

ROMANS: All right, Phil, thank you so much.

Two of the nation's leading gun sellers are limiting sales, injecting themselves into the gun debate.

Walmart will no longer sell guns to anyone under 21. Recent events, they say, inspired the change, adding that its heritage has been serving sportsmen and hunters and it will continue to do so in a responsible way.

This announcement comes just hours after Dick's Sporting Goods raised its age of sale to 21. Dick's will also stop selling those modern sporting riles, those assault style rifles, like the one used in the Parkland school shooting. Since then, students and consumers have pressured gun companies to cut ties with the gun industry, forcing many brands off the sidelines to take a stance. Here's Dick's CEO yesterday.


EDWARD W. STACK, CEO, DICK'S SPORTING GOODS: We concluded that if these kids are brave enough to organize and do what they're doing, then we should be brave enough to take this stand.


[04:10:00] ROMANS: He said they don't want Dick's to be part of this story anymore. They don't want to read any more about a shooting, a mass shooting, a school shooting where one of the guns was bought at Dick's.

Meanwhile, more than a dozen businesses have cut NRA ties, but corporate activism can be good for business. A lot of people yesterday were saying, well, won't this hurt their sales? Well, it can be good for business, right, because you're really tapping into this millennial, lifelong brand affiliation too. Millennials and younger Americans have been very animated on this gun issue.

And all that has some questioning corporate motives. Consumers love companies that take a stand. Young consumers in particular. But as this "New York Times" op-ed says, people may prefer that their brands prove this love by identifying which favor social causes rather than through the old fashioned expedient of paying their workers a little bit more money. So the cynics out there are saying that, hmm, maybe companies are blunting criticism of their tax cuts or their pay structures or their monopolies by getting onto popular social (INAUDIBLE).

BRIGGS: You believe this could help their sales? I think it could force them into bankruptcy.

ROMANS: I -- you do?

BRIGGS: Millennials don't shop at brick and mortar stores. People in gun country do. And people in gun country all day were with the #boycottdick'ssportinggoods. It's a courageous stand, no doubt about it, a social conscience one, I'm just not sure how this works out for them.

ROMANS: You would have to assume --

BRIGGS: Based on who their customers are.

ROMANS: They've run the analysis right?


ROMANS: And so we'll see. But Walmart and Dick's now. So we'll see how -- where that goes.

BRIGGS: Ed Stack is a gun owner --


BRIGGS: And is a proud supporter of the Second Amendment.


BRIGGS: Some mischaracterized that online.

ROMANS: And a Republican donor. Was he a Republican donor, I think, too?

BRIGGS: A long time, big Republican donor.

ROMANS: All right, 11 minutes past the hour.

The teacher strike in West Virginia is not ending today as planned. Why all public schools across the state remain closed, next.


[04:15:52] BRIGGS: All right, 4:15 Eastern Time.

According to "The Washington Post," Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating a period of time last summer when President Trump appeared to be trying to drive Attorney General Jeff Sessions to quit. Mr. Trump publically attacking Sessions in July of 2017, describing him as, quote, beleaguered, very weak and disappointing. Mueller's team reportedly questioning witnesses about the president's state of mind to determine whether he was trying to force Sessions out to undermine the Russia investigation.

ROMANS: "The Post" also reporting Mr. Trump has been referring to the attorney general behind the scenes as Mr. Magoo. A new attack yesterday with the president now calling Mr. Sessions disgraceful. This time the attorney general is firing back. Here's CNN's Laura Jarrett.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, at long last, after months of public attacks by the president and too many tweets to count, the attorney general finally hit back. The rare statement from Jeff Sessions just hours after the president essentially called him a disgrace and took a shot at the inspector general, the internal watchdog at the Department of Justice.

Sessions said, in part, as long as I am the attorney general, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor and this department will continue to do its work in a fair and impartial manner according to the law and Constitution.

Now, the backdrop to all of this drama is that on Tuesday, Sessions had told reporters that the inspector general would deal with the allegations outlined in the House Intelligence Committee, the Republican memo. The so-called Nunes controversial memo outlining purported surveillance abuses by the FBI surveilling Carter Page, the former Trump associate, and he said he would make sure that the inspector general made sure that the process was carried out appropriately. But clearly that wasn't good enough for the president, who took direct aim at the inspector general, Michael Horwitz, as a so-called Obama guy.

But the real question now is what does this statement from the attorney general mean for his future at the department and whether it will have any effect on how the president treats him.

Dave. Christine.

ROMANS: All right, Laura, thank you so much.

In an abrupt shift, all public schools remain closed in West Virginia today. Governor Jim Justice and union leaders had announced a deal to end the teacher's strike. The deal had been subject to approval by legislatures, but thousands of school employees and their supporters returned to the capitol demanding immediate action on health insurance and a proposed pay increase. Today, then, marks the sixth day of the walkout.

BRIGGS: Dalton High School in northern Georgia closed today after a teacher barricaded himself in a classroom and fired a gun out a window. Randall Davidson charged with aggravating assault and terrorist threats. Police say the 53-year-old social studies teacher refused to let students into his classroom Wednesday morning. When the principal tried to enter the room with a key, Davidson fired a handgun, sending the school into lockdown. The teacher eventually surrendered. No one was injured except a female student who was injured while running away.

ROMANS: That is a bizarre story.

BRIGGS: Of course, with the context, that arming teachers continues to be a proposal that we've heard about.

Ahead, attempts to stop the bloodshed in Syria not working. Now world diplomats at odds over how to proceed. We're live in the Middle East, next.


[04:23:33] ROMANS: A grim update on the carnage in the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta. Asked if a 30-day cease-fire in Syria had been implemented, the U.N. humanitarian chief responding no over and over again. Western diplomats at the United Nations now rejecting Russian's call for a daily five-hour humanitarian pause calling it wholly inadequate.

CNN's Sam Kiley is back with us this morning. He's been tracking the latest developments live from Istanbul.

Bring us up to speed.

SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that humanitarian pause once again in place this morning in east Ghouta and reportedly, according to our sources on the ground, five dead also since the midnight last night. That is the result of air strikes and artillery coming from the Syrian regime. So clearly no impact whatsoever in terms of -- as Martin Locof (ph) was saying at the United Nations, he's the head of the humanitarian coordinating efforts, no impact at all of the so-called cease-fire demanded of the United -- or by the United Nations, particularly of the Russians and the Syrians when it comes to east Ghouta, but right across the whole country. The Russian effort to come up with the so-called humanitarian pause of five hours has been dismissed by, among others, the international -- the committee of the Red Cross as effectively a waste of time. They're saying that actually you need a whole day to get any kind of humanitarian relief underway.

And, remember, that this is an area of 400,000 people that has been besieged now for several years with nobody really getting in or out at the best of times. And east Ghouta, of course, is now being visited with the worst of times.

[04:25:14] ROMANS: All right, Sam Kiley for us in Istanbul.

It's just been a tragedy for five years. And each -- each episode more heartbreaking than the last.

Thank you.

BRIGGS: Meanwhile, in Australia, 57,000 firearms turned in during a three month gun amnesty. Among the weapons surrendered, automatic rifles and a rocket launcher. It took place last July through September. It was held after police said illegal firearms had been used in several attempted terrorist attacks. Australia's gun legislation is often pointed to as an example the U.S. could follow. In Australia, anyone caught with an illegal firearm outside the amnesty period could face a fine over $200,000, up to 14 years in prison.


All right, for the sixth time since the election, President Trump and his team are looking for a new communications director. More on a historically chaotic 48 hours at the White House.


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