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EARLY START

Tripwire May Have Set Off Austin Explosion; GOP Leaders Defend Special Counsel Probe; McCabe Firing Ignites Political Battle; President To Roll Out Plan To Combat Opioid Addiction; A New Crisis For Facebook; Sweden Negotiating With North Korea. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired March 19, 2018 - 05:00   ET

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


[05:00:00]

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Authorities now working under the belief new blasts is connected to earlier explosions that killed two people. The Sunday incident was reported on Dawn Song Drive near Republic of Texas Boulevard. Two people injured.

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: Austin police are now asking Travis County residents to stay home until 10:00 a.m. local. The chief says the way the device may have been detonated is serious cause for concern.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is very possible that this device was a device that was activated by someone either handling or kicking or coming in contact with a tripwire that activated the device. So, that changes things. We need the community to have an extra level of vigilance and pay attention to a package or bag or backpack or anything that looks out of place and do not approach it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: The two men injured in the blast Sunday are both in good condition, we are told, at a local hospital. Local schools are excusing absences today since school buses cannot get near the scene. This attack comes hours after the reward for information leading to an arrest was raised to $115,000.

The tension in Austin also affecting the SXSW Festival, the tech and music festival. A bomb threat Saturday caused cancellation of a concert featuring The Roots. In that case, the suspect was arrested. No word on any link to the explosions.

BRIGGS: There are bipartisan calls this morning for President Trump to keep his hands off the special counsel after his most direct attack yet on Robert Mueller, quote, "Why does the Mueller team have 13 hardened Democrats, some big crooked Hillary supporters and zero Republicans? Another Democrat recently added. Does anyone think this is fair? Yet there is no collusion."

ROMANS: Quick fact check, a "Washington Post" analysis does find 13 of the 17 members of the Mueller team have previously registered as Democrats. Mueller himself is a registered Republican. Many of the attorneys on Mueller's team have prosecuted members of both parties. The president's tweet got the attention of many on Capitol Hill, including prominent Republicans.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REPRESENTATIVE TREY GOWDY (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: When you are innocent, if the allegations collusion with the Russians and there is no evidence of that, and you are innocent of that, act like it.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: The only reason Mr. Mueller could ever be dismissed is for cause. I see no cause when it comes to Mr. Mueller.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Are you worried that the president is preparing to order the firing of Mueller? It sure looks that way from his tweets.

GRAHAM: Well, as I said before, if he tries to do that, that would be the beginning of the end of his presidency.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BRIGGS: Senator John McCain weighed in from Arizona where he is getting cancer treatment, quote, "Special Counsel Mueller has served our country with honesty and integrity. It's critical he be allowed to complete a thorough investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election unimpeded."

Thus far efforts in Congress to protest the special counsel have stalled, it is unclear if the lawmakers will make any moves this week before they leave town Friday night for a two-week recess.

ROMANS: The president's Sunday morning tweet came after his personal lawyer, John Dowd, said he praised for the Justice Department to end Mueller's investigation. Last night, White House Counsel Ty Cobb clarified the west wing position saying the president is not considering or discussing the firing of the special counsel.

BRIGGS: Andrew McCabe is gone, but certainly not forgotten. The former deputy director of the FBI fired by Attorney General Jeff Sessions late Friday night, just a day short of his retirement and full pension -- the move not so well-received even by most Republicans.

2(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: I don't like the way it happened. He should have been allowed to finish through the weekend. That said, there is an inspector general report that's due and work that is being done.

After he had retired, if that report would have indicated wrongdoing or something that was actionable, there are things that could have been done after the fact. But you know, 48 hours to go before retirement, I would have certainly done it differently. GRAHAM: We owe it to the average American public to have a hearing in the Judiciary Committee. Give Mr. McCabe a chance to defend himself. I 2believe when it comes to this issue, we need as much transparency as possible to make sure it wasn't politically motivated.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: McCabe says his firing was part of a wider effort to discredit the FBI and Mueller investigation. He said he was singled out because of events he witnessed in the after of the firing of FBI Director James Comey.

CNN has learned Mueller's team interviewed McCabe and asked about the Comey firing. Mueller also has memos McCabe wrote documenting his conversations with the president.

BRIGGS: Mr. Trump responding to that news on Twitter, "Spent very little time with Andrew McCabe, but he never took notes when he was with me. I don't believe he made memos except to help his own agenda, probably at a later date. Same with lying James Comey. Can we call them fake memos?"

McCabe's lawyer fired back with this, "We will not be responding to each childish defamatory disgusting and false tweet by the president. The tweets confirm that he has corrupted the entire process that led to McCabe's termination and has rendered it illegitimate."

[05:05:10] ROMANS: And former CIA Chief John Brennan fired off this blistering tweet aimed directly at President Trump, "When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history. You may scapegoat Andy McCabe, but you will not destroy America. America will triumph over you." That from John Brennan.

BRIGGS: All right. A lot to talk about this morning so let's welcome a lot to talk about this morning. Let's welcome "Weekly Standard" congressional reporter, Haley Byrd, to EARLY START joining us for the first time in Washington.

Good to see you.

HALEY BYRD, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": Good morning. Good to see you too.

BRIGGS: OK. So, let's pick up where we left off with Andrew McCabe, the former deputy director of the FBI, fired late Friday night just before his birthday and his full retirement and full pension. The guidance came from the inspector general looked absent of politics. How do you separate that from the president's personal attacks on Andy McCabe?

BYRD: Yes. That is a challenge especially for lawmakers looking at this situation. The query in the investigation from the inspector general is actually coming from an Obama appointee. This looks like a non-partisan process where it originated. The president's tweets and personally weighing in on this makes that more of a challenge. Especially considering the timing with his retirement.

ROMANS: So many people say it looks as though the president is sort of going through the motions and getting ready to dismiss Robert Mueller. I mean, that's the concern that you are seeing on the sidelines. Marc Short, the White House legislative affairs director, seemed like he was walking those concerns back this weekend. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARC SHORT, WHITE HOUSE LEGISLATIVE AFFAIRS DIRECTOR: Everyone in the White House has cooperated on this and what I've said is that we have cooperated every single way and every single paper they've asked for and every single interview. I think the reality is that, yes, there is a growing frustration that after more than a year and millions and millions of dollars spent on this, there remains no evidence of collusion with Russia. I think the president is expressing his frustration which I think is well warranted and merited.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: Do you think, Haley, that, you know, the president could get angry and fire more?

BYRD: Well, that is the concern that a lot of people have had for months. You know, there are those reports that the president almost did that back during the summer. So, this has been playing out over and over again. It is really just a question of whether he is going to pull the trigger.

And the problem for Republicans in Congress is that oversight is pretty much dead. You saw with the tariffs last week or the week before when the president did something that they really did not want him to do.

They did not take any legislative action to try to prevent that. When it comes to Mueller, it is a similar situation, where you have some Republicans saying we want him to be able to do his job. We don't want you to fire him, but it is also a question of whether they have the willpower to actually pass it.

ROMANS: The leadership has been pretty much silent on this.

BRIGGS: Bingo. I mean, Paul Ryan issued a bit of a statement through his spokesperson. Absolute silence from Mitch McConnell as there has been from the start of this. Do you get the sense that leadership would stand up and draw a line? No, Mr. President, you cannot fire the special counsel, or will they go along with him as they have on other issues?

BYRD: It really will depend on the situation, but from what I have seen with this Congress, they don't really have the willpower to actually do something.

ROMANS: No. I want to talk about the death penalty for drug dealers and the opioid epidemic. The president is going to New Hampshire. It is so interesting to me kind of this silence there's been about the idea of death penalty for drug dealers. This is a hallmark of his strategy here.

We have all done stories and reporting on this opioid crisis. This crisis has started with legal prescriptions and doctor and legal pad. We're talking about the death penalty for drug dealers. What do you make of that?

BYRD: Yes. It is an interesting proposal. I was able to talk to a few members of Congress last Friday about it. Republicans are actually pretty open to the idea. They say that it might be able to deter some future drug dealers from actually doing that and engaging in that behavior.

Whereas others are little less eager to jump on board with the plan. The problem is it might be unconstitutional and face legal challenges. If some Republicans are opposed even though they were afraid to tell me that on Friday. We will see how they respond on today when the president announces it in New Hampshire.

BRIGGS: Massive legal hurdles. This is headed straight to the Supreme Court if he tries it. All right. Haley Byrd from the "Weekly Standard," we will check back in with you about 20 minutes. Thanks.

ROMANS: All right. It's 9 minutes past the hour. There is a new crisis this morning for Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg amid mounting pressure it is not doing enough to protect user data.

[05:10:09] It centers on reports that a firm with ties to President Trump's campaign called Cambridge Analytica gained access to information on 50 million Facebook users. The data would be extremely useful to a presidential campaign because it can provide detailed interests and behavior characteristics of large swaths of the population.

And they let the campaign target specific voters. The data was collected by a professor for academic purposes in line with Facebook rules, but then the information was transferred to third party is including Cambridge Analytica.

That transfer violated Facebook policies. It ordered the firm to delete the data back in 2015, but recently discovered that did not happen. So, Facebook booted Cambridge Analytica from using its platform.

That news came from Facebook's deputy general counsel who is the only executive commenting. No word from CEO Mark Zuckerberg. A Minnesota senator, Amy Klobuchar, one of many lawmakers demanding answers.

She tweeted, "It is clear these platforms cannot police themselves, have called for more transparency and accountability for online political ads, they say trust us. Mark Zuckerberg needs to testify before the Senate Judiciary."

Facebook says it is conducting an internal and external review to see if the data still exists, but it doesn't say how it will prevent this from happening in the future and it doesn't take responsibility for how it happened -- Dave. BRIGGS: Well, let's hope Amy Klobuchar is on to something in Congress, investigates this. This involves all of us.

ROMANS: You will see attorney generals of different states. Also, in the U.K., they are angry about this as well. So, we'll see what happens next.

BRIGGS: All right. Talks between the U.S. and North Korea start today in Finland. It is not the only high-level discussion between the two. We are live in Seoul with what you need to know.

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[15:15:46]

BRIGGS: Sweden is trying to help negotiate the release of three Americans being held captive in North Korea as President Trump prepares to meet Kim Jong-un face-to-face by the end of May. One source with knowledge of the talks telling CNN any movement on the prisoners would be a huge deal for the White House.

For the latest, let's go live to Seoul and bring in CNN's David McKenzie.

David, good morning.

DAVID MCKENZIE, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Dave. Yes, it would have caused to be a huge deal if the Swedes or anyone else managed to negotiate the release of those three America citizens who are in North Korea. Two of them have been there for around a year. Another one for significantly longer.

Now that's been seen as a sticking point to this possible meeting between Kim Jong-un and President Trump and it's believed that the Swedes and other would try to solve that equation before those meetings actually take place.

There's also now a word of more meetings in the shuttle diplomacy in neighboring Finland. There's an unofficial American presence there with North Koreans and South Koreans. Now this could be yet another step, perhaps a small in making that historic meeting happen.

All along the South Koreans have said that they are pushing for these talks. The South Korean foreign minister saying on American television that it was surprising to many that President Trump actually said he would meet with Kim Jong-un. So, now everyone is scrambling to make that meeting happen -- Dave.

BRIGGS: A lot of surprise about the quick reaction there. We will take the meeting. David McKenzie live for us in Seoul. Thank you.

ROMANS: Classes are back in session this morning at Florida International University days after a deadly pedestrian bridge collapse. A moment of silence will be observed at 1:47 this afternoon for the six people killed in the disaster. The road way is cleared now, but authorities are keeping close indefinitely because of an ongoing investigation and all the heavy equipment moving in and out of the area. After digging through 950 tons of concrete and steel, police say the remains of all of the victims have been recovered.

BRIGGS: All right. Another one is done. March Madness living up to its name. Andy Scholes with busted brackets in the "Bleacher Report" next.

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[05:22:31]

BRIGGS: Nobody, nobody on the planet got the sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament. I promise you. It is now set after more huge upsets over the weekend. Chances are all your brackets were busted.

ROMANS: Andy Scholes has more in the "Bleacher Report." Hey, Andy.

ANDY SCHOLES, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, guys. I filled out the worst bracket of my life. Many people are in the same boat as me. Juggernauts going down yesterday. The defending champ, North Carolina, and one of the tournament favorites is Michigan State, they are now gone.

Xavier becoming the second one seed to go down. Florida State was down nine just with five and a half minutes to go. They went on an 18-4 run to close the game. Seminole win 75-70. The party was on in the locker room afterwards.

I tell you what, Florida State is having fun as they are on to the sweet 16 for the first time since 2011. UMBC is the first 16 seed to beat a number 1 seat, Virginia. They came to an end last night. Players getting a standing ovation as they left the floor sharing hugs. The team's Twitter account, which is awesome during their run, tweeting, "Well, it was fun, you all but we have hoped to have won your hearts."

All right. Nevada had the comeback of the tournament. Wolf pack down 22 to Cincinnati with under 12 minutes to play when they came storming back. The floater with 10 seconds left. The win ties them for the second largest comeback in NCAA history.

The coach takes off his shirt and tie on the way to the locker room. He knew what was coming. Nevada on the way to the sweet 16 for the first time since 2004. You look at the standings.

Dave, your bracket is bad. Christine, your bracket is really bad. Mine is worse. I'm happy I'm not in absolute last place. I don't think I picked another team to win a game in the tournament other than Texas Tech who I have in the final four. It's just bad.

BRIGGS: Victor Blackwell looks like he is going to win with 104 points remaining. It is baffling but great entertainment, right. SCHOLES: Absolutely. It's been a great tournament even though my heart was ripped out by Michigan Saturday night with that absolute crushing buzzer beater. I went to Houston. It was rough.

BRIGGS: That was a devastating one for Houston, Duke and Syracuse on Friday. I can't wait for that. Thanks, buddy.

[05:25:07] ROMANS: All right. Thanks, Andy. Breaking overnight, Austin police are looking for a serial bomber after another explosion.

And bipartisan message to Donald Trump after the Twitter attack on Robert Mueller. Let him do his job.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Once he goes after Mueller, I think people see that as a massive red line.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

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