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Report: Austin Serial Bomber is Dead; Trump Ignores Warning on Putin; 3 Women Involved in Legal Action Over Trump; Historic Spring Nor'easter. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired March 21, 2018 - 05:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: Good Wednesday morning, everyone. Just about 5:00 Eastern Time. And we start with the breaking news out of Austin, Texas.

Local reports say the serial bomber is dead. Details just now coming in.

Good morning, and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Dave Briggs on a breaking morning.


[05:00:01] It is Wednesday, March 21st, 5:00 a.m. in the East.

And the Austin bombing suspect dies as police close in. That is from an official to the "Austin American Statesman", word that the serial bomber is dead, committing suicide as law enforcement close in there.

Tony Plohetski of "Austin American-Statesman" is on the phone now.

What are authorities telling you?

TONY PLOHETSKI, REPORTER, AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN (via telephone): Well, the authorities are telling me that this all began really within the past 24 hours in terms of the identification of a suspect in this case. What investigators are telling me is that they stitched together who this person is, who the suspect is, using range of information that includes store receipts that they have been able to compile in recent days, showing suspicious transactions, as well as security video from a FedEx store in south Austin where authorities believe the suspect shipped a package and n recent days. I'm told they relied on information they were able to obtain about the computer history and search history showing suspicious transactions on his search history.

From what I'm told, around midnight this morning, 1:00 a.m. this morning, authorities were able to confirm his whereabouts using cell phone information were and able to close in. And there was a confrontation between the suspect and law enforcement, and the suspect is deceased from what I'm told, from his own detonation device.

BRIGGS: Some terrific police work from the Austin PD, the ATF, and the FBI. But again, let's talk about the last situation. As the police closed in, we're told there was an officer-involved shooting.

What details do you have about the confrontation and the final moments?

PLOHETSKI: Still getting information about the final moments in the confrontation. It is my understanding that police officers may have used lethal force as they closed in. But authorities, from what they are telling me, from preliminary information they are getting, is that they do believe that the suspect died at his own hand from an explosive device?

ROMANS: What do we know about the suspect? Local person, a man? Do we know anything about the motive for why setting all these bombs?

PLOHETSKI: I know none of that unfortunately at this point. As you can imagine, that is the type of profile information that officials are trying to stitch together at this time.

BRIGGS: There was speculation, though, when the story began, all the way back on March 2nd, that Austin area has been terrorized, as you know, for several weeks now, that this was targeting minorities. We know the two victims were minorities. We know that the neighborhood this initially started in was highly minority in terms of breakdown of the demographics. Is that still a theory?

PLOHETSKI: That remains unclear to me. I think that authorities are continuing to try to sort through what the person's motivations were, why they may have been doing this. In terms of confirming any kind of link between the victims and whether or not this may have been somehow inspired, racially inspired, that remains unclear.

ROMANS: I'm sure we'll hear from authorities about how they put the case together and who this suspect is.

Tony, I know you have a lot of work to do still this morning. But if you could talk about the feeling of being on edge in Austin, you know, there were some folks who weren't sending their kids to school, people didn't want to open up packages or even go through their mail. There were all reports flooding into the police department of suspicious packages.

Tell us about how relieved people will be this morning when they wake up.

PLOHETSKI: I think people are going to be extremely relieved. This is a city that's remained on edge. Authorities have been urging the public in recent days, in recent weeks, not to open any packages that appear suspicious. So people have been wary of that.

I think the sense of fear and dread and anxiety really intensified over the weekend, when we saw an additional explosive. And then certainly in the past couple of days with that detonation at the FedEx store, that again raising the anxiety because it really shows an intensification by this person to continue sending out these explosive devices. BRIGGS: Six devices, four explosions, two people killed in a couple

of weeks of terrorizing a nearly million people in the greater Austin area. Terrific reporting from Tony Plohetski of the "Austin American Statesman."

Thanks so much for joining us. We'll check back with you. Let us know as the story continues to evolve. Thanks again, Tony.

ROMANS: All right. Let's bring in now, CNN law enforcement analyst James Gagliano, a retired FBI supervisory special agent, 25 years with the bureau.

[05:05:02] It sounds to me like some pretty terrific police work. The turning point we may find out from authorities was the fact that one of those packages was sent through FedEx which allows a history to really zero in on.

JAMES GAGLIANO, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Absolutely. And a stunning set of developments, Christine. I mean, let's just pause for a second thing about the last two days and the success that law enforcement had. Yesterday, a deputy confronts a school shooter and keeps the casualty count to a minimum.

ROMANS: In Maryland, right.

GAGLIANO: Amazing. And then today. This was about a 19-day period of terror, even though we're not titling it terrorism, a 19-day period of fear in the area.

I've been saying all along, much less reminiscent of the Unabomber or Unabomber 2.0, and much clothes -- much closer kind of in terms of the fear that grip the city in the period and the rapidity of attacks as the D.C. sniper. You made that point this morning. That was three weeks in October of 2002. This is a stunning development that this gentleman has been hopefully eradicated.

BRIGGS: And that fear because of the random nature of it as it moved from one neighborhood to another to FedEx, to a trip wire, that has to really bring a town to its knees in terms of where do I go, what do I do that's safe.

Let's talk about the trail though from the FedEx video. Where did it go? How did it involve coordination of Austin police, ATF, FBI?

GAGLIANO: First of all, there are no perfect crimes, and the frequency and rapidity of these attacks, he was bound to make a mistake. And as you pointed out, interagency cooperation in the 21st century is so important. Local police, they're the first responders, they're the ones on the ground. They have the best knowledge of the area and obviously the people that live there.

Then you add in the ATF, the bomb specialists and the FBI, and the dogged investigative efforts that had to go. To do this, this was old-fashioned gumshoe work. It was taking disparate pieces of information, piecing them together. In the 21st century, you have the benefit of digital exhaust, Christine. ROMANS: Sure.

GAGLIANO: You open up a laptop, you turn on a phone, drive through an E-ZPass lane, you're going to be tracked. And that looks like it was part of it.

ROMANS: From security video to store receipts to cell phone records and the like, the search histories, you think, is important here. We know that some authorities were saying some of this looked like right out of anarchist cookbooks, the stuff you could get on line. Still, with a tripwire, it starts to get more complex. What do you think of the sophistication?

GAGLIANO: I talked to a number of special agents, bomb techs last night. And the types of devices that he appeared to have used were all victim-activated. So, either Somebody opened it or set the circuit off or tripped a trip wire, which was the switch used to detonate it. That appears to have been the signature.

Remember, we talked yesterday about how important a bomb-maker's signature is.


What about the profile of the person? We don't know if it's a man or not. We keep saying gentleman or man, but we don't know who did this.

GAGLIANO: I talked to some folks down at Quantico. Purely speculative at this time, was this an anarchist, was this a jihadi, was this somebody that had a particular beef or something, disgruntled employee? We just don't know right now.

BRIGGS: So, one final question -- as those final moments, how tenuous is that when you're the FBI, police, ATF, moving in on a suspect who has been known to blow things up?


BRIGGS: A serial bomber. How difficult is it to approach that situation?

GAGLIANO: Extremely difficult, Dave, because you don't know about booby traps. And somebody that had the skill set that this bomber had could have set up numerous booby traps. So, luckily, the reports we have right now that no other law enforcement were injured, no other civilians were injured, that's a blessing.

ROMANS: All right. Jim Gagliano, nice to see you. Thanks for being here. You had a busy few days. Thank you, sir.

BRIGGS: Don't go far.

ROMANS: All right. Eight minutes past the hour.

Another nor'easter barreling up the East Coast, the fourth in three weeks, set to dump more in Washington, Philly, New York more than the previous three nor'easters combined.

BRIGGS: Wow. More than 70 million people under some type of winter weather advisory.

Meteorologist Pedram Javaheri joins live from the CNN weather center.

Good morning to you, sir. How much is on the way?


Yes, you know, quite a bit of snow here for a lot of areas, too. It's pretty widespread coverage in the last couple of nor'easters. We've had some focused across Boston, some focused a little farther towards the south. This particular one really going to be giving everything Mother Nature has to offer across this region when it comes to heavy snowfall over the next 12 to 16 hours or so.

And beginning to finally see some of the bands in Philly and New York City and farther toward the south around Baltimore, as well. Pretty expansive area. Parts of 16 states, upwards of 72 million people that are going to be impacted by this for much of today into the early morning hours of tomorrow. And in fact, when you come down lower and look at the coastal flood impact, we know the three previous nor'easter certainly have done quite a bit of damage across the Jersey Shore, across the Delmarva, parts of, say, Long Island, as well, had been significantly impacted on the coast there, and 50 mile-per-hour gusts later this afternoon, certainly causing additional flooding across the coastal regions.

Btu with all that said, a lot of snow, lower visibility, gusty winds, you bet. Thousands of flights have been disrupted.

[05:10:01] Upwards of 65 percent of flights out of LaGuardia, half of flights out of JFK, 30 to 40 percent of flights also across Philly and New York, impacted by this. Looking at snow totals to be around eight to 12 inches in a few spots. Some models say New York will get even greater than that, over a foot and a half potentially.

We here at CNN are kind of conservative, keeping it around a foot. But nonetheless, an impressive snowmaker for any time of year, especially the beginning of spring.

ROMANS: It's already saturated where I live. There's still trees that haven't been cut up and hauled out yet --

BRIGGS: All over the region.

ROMANS: So, I'm a little concerned about that.

BRIGGS: The heavy type of snow once again. Pedram, thank you, my friend.

ROMANS: Thanks.

We'll have more from Austin coming up. That serial bomber in Austin believed to be dead. More all morning. And against the warnings of top national security aides, President

Trump congratulates Vladimir Putin on his reelection. What other advices is he ignoring?


[05:15:16] ROMANS: President Trump was already taking heat for congratulating Vladimir Putin on his re-election. Now, it gets worst. The "Washington Post" reporting the president ignored warnings from national security aides who told him do not congratulate Putin. Briefing materials even said "do not congratulate" in all caps.

A White House official not disputing the language but saying the president did not read or did not see the note card.

BRIGGS: The congratulatory message drawing harsh criticism, including this from Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, quote: An American president does not lead the free world by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections.

Joining us this morning from Washington, CNN politics digital director Zach Wolf.

ROMANS: Hi, Zach.

BRIGGS: Good morning to you, sir.

Let's talk about that phone call. President Obama called Putin in 2012, granted those were different times. Nonetheless, what appeared to be a fraudulent election.

President Trump has called Recep Erdogan, which probably was more controversial than this one. Why does it matter? What are the consequences of ignoring your advice from your national security experts, and what are the consequences globally?

ZACHARY WOLF, CNN POLITICS DIGITAL DIRECTOR: I don't know if there's specific consequences to him congratulating Putin in this example, in this case. But it does show, number one, he's just not paying attention to the things that his national security team is telling him which is a concerning thing, I think.

If he is paying attention to it, he's willing to simply ignore it which, if that's true, that's pretty concerning, I think.

And number three, is this really strange relationship he's got with Putin, you know, with all of the stuff going on with possible collusion with the campaign that's being investigated, with the U.S. standoff with Russia, why he is willing to let Putin essentially play the alpha, and that's what he's doing in this relationship is mind- boggling and not something I can explain.

ROMANS: Something you can't explain. Something you tried to explain yesterday. You wrote a piece about the three women in the news yesterday involving Donald Trump. And I found myself in this unbelievable moment where I kept turning

the television off at home yesterday because of -- how do you explain? It's like -- it's rated R. I don't know.

BRIGGS: You just do earmuffs.

ROMANS: Kids in the house -- I mean, oh my gosh. Talk a little about where we are at a tipping point, I would say, with the president and his relationships with women.

WOLF: Well, yes. And they're all kind of coming to a head at the same time. You have a woman who accused him of harassment, who's brought a lawsuit. You have two women who say they've had affairs with him. Obviously, Stormy Daniels, but also this Playboy model, Karen McDougal. They all sort of have ties to the Beverly Hills Hotel. So there are similarities in some of the things that are going on with the stories.

Two of them want to tell their story, although we know details of them from other stuff. So, it just seems like all of this is coming to a head at exactly the same time.

ROMANS: Do you think he'll have to testify?


BRIGGS: Real quick -- we'll hear from Stormy Daniels on "60 Minutes," her interview with Anderson Cooper. "The National Enquirer" thing with Karen McDougal, look, it's catch and kill. When they buy your story, they have the right to do with it what they want.

How much does the Summer Zervos situation matter more than the others because of what Christine said? Might the president have to testify?

WOLF: You know, that will be an interesting thing. There was interesting language that that state Supreme Court judge used saying the president -- I'm not quoting here -- saying essentially the same laws apply to him. You know, having him testify in this, it would be an incredible thing if that happened. I think we're a long way from that, by the way.


ROMANS: I just wonder what it means for voters. I mean, I wonder what it means for midterms. If it's just salacious --

BRIGGS: For his base, nothing. We know that.

ROMANS: Or is it something that could be -- that could linger for him?

BRIGGS: It will not move the needle with his base.

Zach, let's talk about quickly we are nearing another deadline for a potential government shutdown as a snowstorm looms in D.C. and oh, by the way, half a million young kids who are adamant on gun control change are coming to Washington, D.C.

Are we going to get a deal, and how much does that loom large?

WOLF: It seems like we'll get a deal. I don't think anybody's talking about a long-term government shutdown here. It's just another example of sort of the government being held together by duct tape.

Every couple of weeks, we pass one of the spending bills because we can't get the big thing done. And it just keeps happening over and over and over again. It seems like this is the way it's going to be for a while.

[05:20:01] BRIGGS: Duct tape? More like scotch tape at this moment, right? Duct tape's at least pretty strong.

All right. Zach Wolf, we'll just check back with you next half hour. Thank you.

ROMANS: Again, our breaking news from Austin, Texas, the "Austin American-Statesman" reporting the serial bomber is dead. Police closed in with a dramatic conclusion. We have more on that.

And the chief of Cambridge Analytica suspended after damaging undercover videos revealed controversial comments. Still not commenting, Mark Zuckerberg.


ROMANS: Cambridge Analytica has suspended its CEO after undercover reports showed Alexander Nix discussing bribery and entrapment.

[05:25:05] The embattled data analytics firm best known for its work on the Trump campaign. New hidden camera report from Britain's Channel 4 featured Nix and an associate claiming credit for the president's winning strategy.

Nix also reported describing questions he faced from the House Intelligence Committee. He said Republicans finished with him in five minutes. Democrats' questioning went on for two hours.

BRIGGS: Meantime, "The Washington Post" reporting former White House strategist Steve Bannon presided over a Cambridge Analytica program that vacuumed up Facebook user data to create voter profiles. Bannon was V.P. and secretary of the company until he stepped down to run the Trump campaign in August of 2016. That story far from down as Congress and the FTC and everyone takes a look.

Breaking news, though, out of Austin, Texas. The serial bomber believed to be dead, having blown himself up with an incendiary device according to local reports. That happened as police closed in. We'll have the dramatic conclusion for you straight ahead on EARLY START.