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EARLY START

Deadly Pedestrian Bridge Collapses at Florida International University; White House Sanctions on Russia; Press Secretary Sarah Sanders Won't Say Whether the Kremlin is an Ally or an Adversary; Justice Department Expected to Decide the Fate of Andrew McCabe Today; Government Records Show Steve Mnuchin Cost Taxpayers Close to $1 Million With His Use of Military Aircraft. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired March 16, 2018 - 04:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[04:00:00]

ALISON KOSIK, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump is shopping for a new National Security Advisor and could replace H.R. McMaster when he finds one.

(VIDEO CLIP BEGINS)

REPORTER: Is Putin a friend or a foe of the United States?

SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think that's something that Russia is going to have to make that determination.

(VIDEO CLIP ENDS)

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: The White House stays soft on Russia, despite finally leveling new sanctions. And, overnight, Russia punches back against those new measures.

KOSIK: And, what caused a deadly pedestrian bridge collapse at Florida International University? Four people are dead and search efforts are now focused on recovery. We're going to get a live update from officials in one hour.

Good morning and welcome to "Early Start." I'm Alison Kosik.

BRIGGS: I'm Dave Briggs. It is Friday, March 16th. It's four a.m. in the East. Many people out there woke up Alison, with the shocking report that Arizona had lost in the NCAA tournament.

KOSIK: Stunning.

BRIGGS: Tearing up a lot of people's brackets. We will show you what happened in a bit.

But, we start of course with the White House. After weeks of speculation, President Trump ready to replace his National Security Advisor, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster. Two sources telling CNN the President has not made a final decision on who will replace McMaster and the timing is unclear. One source says any delay stems from McMaster trying to finalize his

next steps. The Wall Street Journal reported that President Trump wants a softer landing from McMaster than he afforded former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whom he fired via Twitter.

KOSIK: Trump has privately expressed irritation with McMaster's personality and style. Late last night the White House pushed back on the reported change. Press Secretary Sarah Sanders Tweeting this: Contrary to reports, the President and McMaster have a good working relationship and there are no changes at the National Security Council.

For his part, Trump yesterday called reports of impending staff changes exaggerated and very false.

Listen.

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DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I've gotten to know a lot of people over the last year. You know, I've been in Washington for a little bit more than a year, where some people have been here for 30, 40 years. I've gotten to know great people. So, there will always be change. But, very little - it was a very false story.

(VIDEO CLIP ENDS)

BRIGGS: The President has signaled he is prepared to get rid of aides he has clashed with. Sources say after a year in office, Mr. Trump has become more self-assured and is starting to trust his gut more.

KOSIK: And, the latest sign the Russian investigation is picking up steam, a source tells us Special Counsel Robert Mueller has subpoenaed the Trump Organization for business documents. The New York Times reporting the subpoena includes records related to Russia. This marks the first known instance of Mueller demanding documents connected to President Trump's businesses.

BRIGGS: We should note that the Trump Organization has already turned over a wide range of documents voluntarily. The source says the subpoena is meant to quote, clean up and ensure all related records are handed over. The President said any investigation of his or his family's personal finances would cross a red line.

Our Jeff Zeleny asked Sarah Sanders about that.

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JEFF ZELENY, CNN ANCHOR: Does the President still believe - does he draw a distinction, do you know, between a red line on family finances separately from family finances or business finances relating to (a) Russia as it pertains to the case?

SARAH SANDERS: The President believes very strongly there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. We're going to continue to cooperate with the special counsel and for questions specific to the Trump Organization, I would refer you to them.

(VIDEO CLIP ENDS)

BRIGGS: An attorney for the Trump Organization said in a statement that the latest reports are quote, old news.

KOSIK: News of Mueller's subpoena came after the Trump administration announced it is finally imposing new sanctions on Russia, including against people the special counsel indicted last month. The administration, six weeks late on these sanctions - media congressional mandate to impose punishment on Moscow for its 2016 election meddling.

The White House also lodging a new accusation against the Kremlin that Russian intelligence tried to hack the U.S. energy grid.

In total the new sanctions applied to 19 individuals along with five companies and government agencies.

BRIGGS: Among them, the Internet Research Agency - that's the Russian troll farm that cranked out divisive political posts on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites - two Russian intelligence agencies and some of their employees also on the list.

After the administration announced the sanctions, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders still would not say whether the Kremlin is an ally or an adversary.

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REPORTER: In general terms, is Putin a friend or a foe of the United States?

SARAH SANDERS: I think that's something that Russia is going to have to make that determination. They're going to have to decide whether or not they want to be a good actor or a bad actor. I think you can see from the actions that we've taken up until this point we're going to be tough on Russia until they decide to change their behavior.

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[04:05:00] BRIGGS: Senior International Correspondent Fred Pleitgen, joining us live from Moscow.

Good morning, Fred. If the Kremlin's Press Secretary were asked that question, friend or foe, as regard to the United States, any sense of how they'd answer?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN ANCHOR: Well, they would probably answer pretty much the same way, Dave. I think they would also say that they believe that it's the U.S. that's deteriorating the situation. I think on the whole at this point, they would probably say that the U.S is probably an adversary. However, I think they also don't believe that President Trump is an adversary for the Russians.

It's been interesting, especially since the election and the accusations of election meddling. The Russians have been saying it's all America's fault - the U.S. is responsible for these relations going in the wrong direction and becoming, as the Kremlin has said, worse than ever before. However, if you look at the statements coming out of the Kremlin, they always take President Trump out of any criticism of the United States. So, they are very harsh on the U.S., not very harsh on President Trump. And, they always say that they want the relations to improve once again and it certainly seems as though they believe President Trump wants the same thing.

Now, if we have this latest thing with these new treasury sanctions that were announced last night - the Russians have said they were calm, but they also said they certainly are going to hit back. In fact, this morning they said that the Russians will increase their black list as they call it, of Americans that are sanctioned by the Russians. As far as the U.S. sanctions are concerned Dave, they don't seem to be very phased by those. First of all, that Internet Research Agency we were just talking about - well, that hasn't actually existed in Russia as a legal entity since 2016, so it's unclear how that's going to be hit.

The main guy on the Treasury's new sanctions list, Yevgeniy Prigozhin - he came out yesterday and essentially mocked the new sanctions. He said he couldn't care less and that he would quote, stop eating at McDonald's.

Dave.

BRIGGS: Stop eating at McDonald's. Talk about poking the bear. All right. That's good stuff.

Fred Pleitgen, thank you.

Wow.

KOSIK: OK. Search efforts at the scene of a deadly pedestrian bridge collapse in Miami transitioning overnight from rescue to recovery. A 15-member go-team from the National Transportation Safety Board is trying to figure out what went wrong here. At least four people died when the bridge, which is brand new, fell into a busy intersection near the campus of Florida International University in Miami.

BRIGGS: Senator Marco Rubio Tweeting overnight the cables on the bridge had loosened and were being tightened when the collapse occurred.

Here's Florida Governor Rick Scott.

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GOV. RICK SCOTT (R) FL.: We will hold anybody accountable. If anything - if anybody has done anything wrong. But, the most important thing we can do right now is pray for the individuals that ended up in the hospital, for their full recovery. Pray for the family members that have lost loved ones. But, I know we're going to all want to do our best to try to find out exactly what happened here.

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BRIGGS: Two other people are in extremely critical condition this morning - victims of a structure that was designed to last a century and withstand the force of a category five hurricane.

CNN's Dianne Gallagher in Miami, with the latest.

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN ANCHOR: You know, Dave, Alison, these crews worked through the night. They said they're going to go around the clock. We're talking about 100 emergency workers here. The fire chief did say late last night that they had found the bodies of at least four people in the rubble. But, at this point they don't really know how many people could still be in that. They're searching, and it's not going to be a quick process here. These are very large, heavy pieces of concrete that they have to remove very carefully.

Because it is spring break here at Florida International University, this could have been much worse. This bridge was put into place just on Saturday.

This is a $15 million project that had been being built sort of to the side of the road. They swung it into place with a big rig in a matter of about six hours installing it. And, while it was still under construction - this is something the University was very proud of - the community and the engineers who built it, very proud of and had been looking forward to for a long time because it was a way to make it safer for the students and staff so they didn't have to cross a very busy six-lane highway to get to where they lived in the Sweetwater community.

They are trying to figure out now what caused this 950-ton bridge of course, to fall onto the highway.

Alison, Dave.

[04:10:00] KOSIK: All right.

Dianne Gallagher, thanks very much.

A defense official says there are likely fatalities at the crash of a U.S. military helicopter in Iraq. Officials saying it happened right near the Syrian border. The Pave Hawk helicopter is a variation of a Black Hawk. It was carrying seven crew members. It was not on a combat mission. And, defense officials say early reports do not indicate hostile fire.

The cause is under investigation. We're going to go ahead and bring you more information as soon as we get it.

BRIGGS: The Justice Department expected to decide the fate of Andrew McCabe today. The former Deputy Director of the FBI met Thursday with the Deputy Attorney General's office, making the case why he should not be fired just days before his planned retirement. If McCabe is fired, he loses most of his pension - potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars. The FBI's Office of Professional Responsibility has already recommended termination. The Justice Department watchdog report found McCabe misled

investigators. They were looking into McCabe authorizing public comments about a Clinton Foundation probe. Attorney General Jeff Sessions will decide whether McCabe is fired.

KOSIK: Donald Trump Jr. and his wife Vanessa are separating. The couple, releasing a statement promising always to respect each other and their families and adding their five children will remain their top priority.

The White House declined to comment, referring questions to the Trump Organization, which has yet to respond. The couple has been married since 2005.

Vanessa recently opened a letter containing a suspicious substance - the New York Police Department ultimately deeming it harmless.

BRIGGS: All right.

A German Shepherd accidentally shipped to Japan instead of Kansas is back with his owner this morning.

More from the happy reunion next.

(BREAK)

[04:15:00] BRIGGS: It's 4:15 Eastern time.

Some students who walked out of class this week to demand tougher gun control laws are finding out free speech comes with a price.

South Carolina's largest school district issuing reprimands to over 500 students for cutting class. More than 200 others in Allentown, Pennsylvania slapped with Saturday detentions. And, in Cobb County, Georgia, students who walked out face potential five-day suspensions.

KOSIK: At Park Hill High School in Kansas City, the kids can either attend a half-hour detention after school next week or face a disciplinary meeting after spring break. And, at Lindenhurst High in New York, students were given three days of after-school detention - that punishment rescinded after a last-minute request from the Governor.

The ACLU says as long as the consequences don't exceed what would be a typical - what would be typical for an infraction like cutting class, schools can discipline the students.

BRIGGS: A video from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School from the afternoon of the massacre shows former school resource officer Scot Peterson, responding to gunfire but doesn't otherwise shed much light.

Peterson was fired after he took a position outside, then did nothing to stop the gunman. In the video Peterson can be seen in his deputy's uniform standing between two buildings on campus talking to another adult. KOSIK: At various times over the course of 26 minutes, people -

apparently police officers there - they can be seen at the far corner of the building. Police lights can be seen in that location 22 minutes into the video.

The Broward County Sheriff's Office has an active shooter policy that calls for deputies to interrupt a shooting.

BRIGGS: 11,000 miles, two days later, a dog mistakenly flown to Japan, reunited with his family in Kansas. The Swindle family now back with their beloved dog, Irgo, in Wichita after United Airlines mistakenly sent the 10-year old German Shepherd to Japan. Irgo arriving, folks, on a private charter on Thursday.

KOSIK: Nice.

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KARA SWINDLE: It was absolutely amazing to finally have him back. It's been a long four days. He instantly jumped up and was just crying. He's - when he's super excited, he cries.

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KOSIK: Oh, that is one well-traveled dog.

So, the Swindle's had placed Irgo on a cargo flight as they moved from Oregon to Kansas. And, when they went to pick him up, the Swindle's were given a Great Dane instead. Wrong dog.

Irgo had been accidentally put on a flight to Japan where the other dog was supposed to go.

United has apologized.

BRIGGS: Nice to have a happy ending.

KOSIK: South Korea frantically trying to figure out what the President meant when he suggested he'd pull thousands of troops over a trade dispute.

We are live in Seoul.

(BREAK)

[04:22:00] BRIGGS: Government records show Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin cost taxpayers close to $1 million with his use of military aircraft. The watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington obtained the documents through a Freedom of Information request.

They show a one-week trip to the Middle East last October cost nearly $184,000 on top of $811,000 for previously reported flights.

Treasury spokesman says Mnuchin has not used military aircraft since the Middle East trip, but is scheduled to use one to fly to Buenos Aires for the G2 Summit. The agency said it did urge Mnuchin to prove he could not use a regular commercial flight.

There are several Trump cabinet officials facing scrutiny for their use of government-funded flights.

KOSIK: President Trump accusing Japan of testing cars with bowling balls to cheat U.S. companies. The President spoke of the bowling ball test during a fund-raiser in Missouri. According to audio, he said this: They take a bowling ball from 20 feet up in the air and drop it on the hood of the car. If the hood dents, the car doesn't qualify - meaning Japan sets impossible standards to keep U.S. import out. OK. So, Japan does have high safety standard for cars, but by all accounts, this test does not exist.

However, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Trump wasn't serious.

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SARAH SANDERS: Obviously he is joking about this particular test. But, it illustrates the creative ways some countries are able to keep American goods out of their markets.

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KOSIK: OK. So, U.S. car companies, they do struggle to sell their cars in Japan, making up less than 1 percent of cars there. But, that has less to do with protectionism and more with consumer taste. It's the imported cars - they don't face tariffs. And, drivers in Japan, they prefer smaller, fuel-efficient cars.

The President may have been joking, yes. Or, perhaps he saw this - David Letterman - it was a sketch once upon a time, and maybe he saw this and attributed it to the Japanese Government. I don't know.

BRIGGS: Maybe, Alison. I don't know. Some suggested he had seen the movie "Gung Ho" many years ago, based on a similar situation.

KOSIK: He is known to watch a lot of TV.

BRIGGS: It's not clear.

You know, you brought up a good point, though. I have spoken to U.S. auto manufacturers about this and they often say, we'd love to get in those markets, but they don't want our cars.

KOSIK: Our cars are big and ...

BRIGGS: It has less to do with tariffs.

KOSIK: Yes. Exactly.

BRIGGS: Good point.

OK. South Korea reacting with concern to leaked audio of President Trump suggesting he might pull U.S. Troops out of the region if he can't get a better trade deal. According to the Washington Post, South Korean officials lit up the

phones at the State Department and the Pentagon - both agencies struggling to come up with a response. Now more South Korean leaders are weighing in.

CNN's David McKenzie has that for us live from Seoul this morning.

Good morning, David.

[04:25:00]DAVID MCKENZIE, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, Dave.

Yes. You know, initially they were pretty quiet about this, but those comments are coming out now. The Finance Minister here in Seoul speaking to local media, saying it's not ideal that President Trump appears to be linking the issue of trade with the issue of U.S. Troops. Of course, there are thousands of U.S. Troops protecting the border of South Korea and North Korea - a really crucial national security issue for the South Koreans and for the U.S.

And, then you had the South Korean Foreign Minister in D.C. speaking to congressional leaders, Dave - she said again that she didn't want to see these issues being combined of national security and trade. She also had tried to persuade congressional leaders to pull back President Trump on the issue of tariffs.

For South Koreans and for many in the U.S. government, the big goal now is of course that meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, North Korea's leader. They don't want anything else to get in the way of that - not least the trade issue. But, that's something of course President Trump has been talking about and arguing about since even before he was elected.

Dave, Alison.

BRIGGS: David McKenzie, live for us in Seoul.

Thank you, sir.

KOSIK: OK. It looks like the President is going with his gut. After months of growing tension, he is ready to oust H.R. McMaster as National Security Advisor. When it could happen, next.