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The U.S. Moves Against Russia, Expelling 60 Diplomats; Rumors Swirling Amid Heavy Security in Beijing and What Appears to be a Train Belonging to North Korea's Ruling Family. Aired 4:30-5a ET

Aired March 27, 2018 - 04:30   ET


[04:30:22] CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: How will Vladimir Putin respond after a coordinated global effort to oust Russian diplomats, including 60 from the U.S.?

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: Democrats suddenly have a new concern about 2020. The U.S. Census will ask about citizenship status. The change could have a big effect on federal funding and congressional lines.

ROMANS: And international intrigue building in Beijing. A train shrouded in secrecy under heavy security. Overnight a possible answer. Is Kim Jong-un in China? Look at the heavy security. All --


ROMANS: All of those motorcycles. OK. Welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

BRIGGS: That is an intriguing story, my friend. I'm Dave Briggs. 31 minutes past the hour.

In a move, new National Security adviser John Bolton once called utterly useless, 60 Russian diplomats have one week to pack up and leave the United States. President Trump ordering the expulsion as part of a coordinated effort with European and other allies.

The move a response to the poisoning in the UK of a Russian double agent and his daughter. More than 100 Russian diplomats expelled worldwide. Senior officials say all those the U.S. is expelling has been identified as intelligence agents.

ROMANS: The president also ordering the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle, notable it happens to be near a U.S. submarine base. This is the president's most forceful action against Russia thus far, although not related to election meddling. And the announcement came from the press secretary, not the president himself. But whether sanctions against Russian President Vladimir Putin could be next, the White House would only say this.


RAJ SHAH, WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN: The United States has issued sanctions on key Russian oligarchs in response to the -- to the meddling in the 2016 election. So I wouldn't close any doors or I wouldn't preclude any potential action, but the president doesn't telegraph his moves.


BRIGGS: We should note only one person even arguably an oligarch has actually been sanctioned by the U.S. Still this is the biggest group expulsion of alleged Russian intelligence officers ever. And also note that the incoming National Security Adviser John Bolton and secretary of State nominee, Mike Pompeo, have both called for tougher sanctions against Russia.

ROMANS: Russia is responding to the expulsions, sort of, by trolling the White House. The Russian embassy in Washington sending out a tweet asking followers which U.S. consulate they would like to see shuttered. It was a multiple choice with three options included there.

For more on what the Russians might have in store, we go live to Moscow and bring in CNN's Phil Black.

And Phil, you know, what we're hearing this morning is there's virtually no chance they won't respond.

PHIL BLACK, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Christine. So we're told that Russian officials are drawing and ultimately it will be President Putin who decides precisely what the retaliation will be. His spokesperson has said it will be reciprocal, which means tit-for-tat. In theory one for one. That was Russia's response when Britain first expelled 23 diplomats in response to the Salisbury nerve agent incident.

But Russia doesn't always play it that way. Back in 2016, the United States expelled 35 diplomats. That was over alleged election meddling. Russia's eventual response to that was to -- not to expel specific diplomats, but to tell the United States you must cut your local diplomatic staff by 755 people. Significantly more than one for one.

What we'll be looking for is whether or not the Russian retaliation simply matches that of all the countries that are criticizing Russia's behavior, essentially d a line under this most recent phase in the deterioration of relations between Russia and the West, or whether it escalates things further, at least open the door for the United States, the European Union to take even further action in response.

As I've said they are prepared to do. We believe that Russia's response will be robust because they're not deviating from their line which is they are the victim of an injustice. They have been accused unfairly by Britain of doing these foul deeds. And no evidence has been presented. And no one seems to be paying attention to their denials -- Christine.

ROMANS: Certainly the global response in defense of ally Britain is notable here around the world. We'll watch to see how Moscow response.

Phil Black, thank you so much. BRIGGS: Well, in a move with potentially wide-ranging consequences,

the Commerce Department says the U.S. Census will begin asking about citizenship status in 2020. The question being asked for the very first time in decades at the request of the Justice Department. Census data determines how congressional districts are drawn and where federal funds are spent among other things.

[04:35:00] Critics warn the citizenship question will result in a huge drop in response rates from immigrants fearing deportation.

ROMANS: That could be a blow to heavily Democratic areas. Lawsuits are already being drafted by California's attorney general and the National Democratic Redistricting Committee led by former attorney general, Eric Holder. Holder tweeting overnight, "This is purely political. Trump administration is trying to rig the 2020 Census to protect gerrymandering by intimidating people. Don't be fooled. Some states will unfairly lose funds and representation."

BRIGGS: Some polling news this morning the president is likely to tout, his approval rating in a new CNN poll has rebounded to its highest level since the 100-day mark of his presidency last April. On this, his 431 day in office, 42 percent of adults approved of the way he's handling the presidency and that includes a six-point increase among Republicans and independents.

ROMANS: Wow. President Trump's approval rating, it does remain below all his modern-era predecessors at this stage of their first term. You can see. But the president trails Reagan and Barack Obama by only a narrow four-point margin.

President Trump is under 40 percent approval on several key issues including foreign policy, trade and guns. On the economy, though, look at that, he is at 48 percent. One wonders how much a robust jobs market might be behind some of those improvement in numbers.

BRIGGS: Driving force indeed. Republicans hope to run on that in the midterms.

Stormy Daniels has filed a defamation claim against President Trump's personal attorney Michael Cohen. The adult film actress says Cohen libeled her by insinuating she is lying about an alleged tryst with Mr. Trump in 2006. The legal maneuver likely an effort to force Cohen or maybe the president into a deposition under oath. The suit filed a day after Daniels' revealing "60 Minutes" interview. The White House says the president does not believe Daniels' claims including that she was physically threatened to keep quiet.


SHAH: The president doesn't believe that -- any of the claims that Miss Daniels made last night in the interview are accurate.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: He doesn't believe she was threatened?

SHAH: No, he does not.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What is the basis for that, Raj?

SHAH: Sorry?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What's his basis for that?

SHAH: Well, he just doesn't believe that -- you know, there's nothing to corroborate her claim.


ROMANS: Cohen says he paid Daniels $130,000 for signing a nondisclosure agreement. The White House denies any affair took place. The president meantime staying silent post-Stormy interview. The only thing we have heard is a tweet decrying, quote, "so much fake news." Sources close to the White House say the president knows the stakes for handling the Stormy Daniels issue.

All right. Rumors swirling around the world amid heavy security in Beijing and what appears to be a train belonging to North Korea's ruling family. Both are fueling speculation a high level representative from Pyongyang is there for talks in Beijing. And overnight some clarity perhaps on who that may be.

CNN's Andrew Stevens is in Beijing. And it unfolds like a spy novel. Tell us what's happening.

ANDREW STEVENS, CNN ASIA-PACIFIC EDITOR: It does a bit, doesn't it? It's all mystery at the moment. It's all cloak and dagger stuff. But what CNN has learned from a contact who has deep knowledge of North Korea, they're telling us that there's very strong possibility that it is in fact Kim Jong-un.

If you look at what we know so far, Christine, as you were saying, this train is an armored train which was used by Kim Jong-un's father. A similar mode of transport to his grandfather, the founder of North Korea. So that train is now in Beijing. Actually it just left Beijing, we understand. And just the level of security, this cloak of security which has gone on around this visit to the point where just a few minutes ago the spokesperson at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was asked directly is Kim Jong-un in Beijing, and she replied I have no idea.

Now past particle and past history suggests that we won't have an absolutely clear idea until it's announced officially. And that won't happen until the train carrying that mystery person has actually left China, which could be several hours from now. But certainly it would at this stage appear to be Kim Jong-un, who needs to talk to China and China needs to talk to Kim about these upcoming meetings, particularly between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump.

I mean, let's face it, China has been a very, very key player in the whole Korean nuclear issue. And it wants to stay a key player in this. And the North Korea's line in this, well, China is its main ally. There may not have a great relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang at the moment, but they are still very, very close when it comes to allies, when it comes to an economic lifeline from China to North Korea -- Christine.

ROMANS: Certainly if Kim Jong-un has left the country, it's the first time since 2011, when his father died and he assumed power.

We know you'll keep watching it for us from Beijing, Andrew Stevens. Thanks.

Thirty-nine minutes past the hour, intense pressure on Facebook from federal and state officials after it failed to protect user data. First, the Federal Trade Commission is officially investigating Facebook's data practices after it allowed Trump campaign consultants to access data of 50 million users.

[04:40:10] At the same time 37 attorneys general are demanding answers. In a joint letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg, they voiced profound concerns over how Facebook handles user data. And yet another lawmaker wants Zuckerberg to testify. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley wants him to appear on April 10th hearing about data privacy. Grassley chairs the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee.

Last week, Zuckerberg told CNN he is happy to testify in front of Congress if it is the right thing to do. And government scrutiny to amounting -- add government scrutiny to a mounting crisis at Facebook. It faces backlash also from users, advertisers and investors. A broader rally helped Facebook shares stabilize yesterday. But look at that chart. During those crisis, Facebook has lost $75 billion in market value.

All right. The father of the Pulse Nightclub shooter was an informant for the FBI. Now he is being investigated for payments overseas just before the attack.


[04:45:33] BRIGGS: The FBI now has possession of several suspicious packages sent to the CIA and military locations in the D.C. area. A law enforcement official tells CNN more than 10 devices are involved, all of them crudely made with black powder. None powerful enough to cause fatalities had they detonated. At least one package sent to the National Defense University at Ft. McNair contained explosive material. Scanning machines at the facilities detected the suspicious materials. All of the packages now being examined at the FBI lab in Quantico, Virginia.

ROMANS: The White House Counsel's Office has launched an ethics inquiry targeting Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law. The probe stems from meetings Kushner had at the White House with executives whose companies later loaned the Kushner Companies more than $500 million. The head of the Office of Government Ethics disclosed the inquiry in letters to Democratic lawmakers.

The two companies have confirmed they did make the loans to Kushner's family business, but deny there was any connection to Kushner's meetings with their executives. CNN has reached out to the White House counsel and Kushner for comment. BRIGGS: Several Interior Department employees tell CNN Secretary Ryan

Zinke has upset many by repeatedly saying he doesn't care about diversity. High ranking Interior officials say each time Zinke has commented diversity isn't important, he is followed up by saying something like what is important is having the right person for the right job.

ROMANS: The Interior Department last year unexpectedly reassigned 33 senior executive staffers. 15 were minorities according to a lawyer for one of the staffers moved. A spokeswoman denied Zinke criticized the need for diversity, pointed to two women and an African-American he appointed to senior leadership positions.

All right. Fire exits were blocked and alarm system had been broken for a week at the shopping center in Russia where 64 people died in a devastating fire. 41 of the victims were children. Russian investigators say there detained four people after serious violations were uncovered at that facility in the Siberian city of Kemerovo. About 10 people are still missing with 10 others hospitalized. President Putin blamed criminal negligence and carelessness for this tragedy. He laid a bouquet of roses at a makeshift memorial near that scene overnight.

BRIGGS: An abandoned and out of control Chinese space lab expected to crash to earth within days. The European Space Agency estimates the reentry window between March 30th and April 2nd but warns the calculation is highly variable. The anticipated reentry is a black mark on China's ambitious space program. The space lab stopped functioning in March of 2016 but China did not specify why. Space experts stressed the estimated odds of any debris hitting someone are less than 1 in a trillion.

ROMANS: That doesn't make me feel better.

BRIGGS: Me neither, Romans. But China's secrecy around the mission makes the risks difficult to assess. One in a trillion? You don't feel good about those odds of being obliterated from the face of the earth?

ROMANS: People spend hundreds of dollars on lottery tickets for better chance than that.

BRIGGS: Myself included.

ROMANS: All right. Don't count out Microsoft in the race to $1 trillion. Analysts say it could top that value this year. It faces some steep competition.

More on "CNN Money" next.


[04:53:24] BRIGGS: 4:53 Eastern Time. Iowa Congressman Steve King facing criticism yet again after his campaign team posted a meme to King's official Facebook page mocking the look at background of Parkland shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez. It suggests Gonzalez is hypocritical for calling for tighter gun reform even though her family fled Cuba when the Castro regime took weapons from citizens.

ROMANS: King's congressional office told "The Washington Post" the campaign team was responsible for the meme. The campaign team has not responded to request for comment. The meme was just one of several recent attempts to undermine Gonzalez and other school shooting survivors as they call for gun legislation, including people spreading these fake, mocked up pictures of her.

BRIGGS: Of her.

ROMANS: Ripping up the Constitution, the Second Amendment, which she -- is not true. It's not true. I mean, talk about fake news.

BRIGGS: The far right fell for that one.

ROMANS: Yes. All right. Don't be gullible, folks.

Police in Michigan arresting William Strampel, a former Michigan State University dean, who was Larry Nassar's boss. He is scheduled to be arraigned this morning. Charges have not been disclosed. Michigan State moved to revoke Strampel's tenure back in February citing his failure to monitor guidelines put in place for Nassar following a 2014 sexual harassment investigation.

BRIGGS: An emotional plea from the grandmother of a Sacramento man shot and killed by police in her backyard. Police say they thought Stephon Clark had a gun when they opened fire. It turns out he only had a cell phone. A sobbing Sequita Thompson calling for criminal charges against the officers.


SEQUITA THOMPSON, GRANDMOTHER OF STEPHON CLARK: My great grand babies 3don't have their daddy.

[04:55:02] Why didn't they shoot them in the arm? Shoot him in the leg? Send a dog. Send a taser. Why? Why did they never do that? You all didn't have to do that. It was a cell phone.


ROMANS: I feel for her.

BRIGGS: Questions this morning about why officers muted their body cams moments after the shooting. The mayor of Sacramento now suggesting police body cam policies need to be changed.

ROMANS: The attorney general of Louisiana is expected to announce this morning whether he is charging two police officers in the 2016 shooting death of Alton Sterling. Sterling was shot and killed by Baton Rouge police while they held him on the ground. Police say Sterling was reaching for a gun before he was killed. That's the police version. Sterling's death followed a day later by the shooting death of Philando Castille by Minnesota Police. Touched off a wave of nationwide protests that summer. BRIGGS: The defense expected to rest today in the trial of Noor

Salman, widow of Pulse Nightclub shooter Omar Mateen. The judge Monday denied a motion by her lawyers to dismiss the case. They claimed the government failed to disclose Mateen's father was an FBI informant who's currently under investigation for money transfers to Turkey and Afghanistan in the weeks before the June 2016 shooting.

The judge ruled the information about Mateen's father was not relevant to the case. Noor Salman has pleaded not guilty to charges including providing material support to terrorists. Closing arguments could begin tomorrow.

ROMANS: The woman who lent her name to the civil rights history as the lead plaintiff in "Brown vs. Board of Education" has died. Linda Brown was a little girl, she was 9 years old in 1951 when her father tried to enroll her in an all-white elementary school near their home in Topeka, Kansas. When the school blocked her enrollment her father sued. Four similar cases were combined. They all went to the Supreme Court together. In 1954 the high court ruled separate educational facilities are inherently unequal, desegregating American schools. Linda Brown was 75 years old.

BRIGGS: Nevest Coleman back at work as a groundskeeper for the Chicago White Sox after 23 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Coleman convicted of rape in 1994 and murder. He was freed last year after DNA was linked to a serial rapist. Friends and family contacted the White Sox to help him get his old job back.


NEVEST COLEMAN, REHIRED WHITE SOX GROUNDSKEEPER: The past in the past now. There's no more anger, upset, frustration, nothing. Because when I was in there, I was miserable. But now I got my loved ones behind me and standing on my side. The misery is gone now.


BRIGGS: The team says it's grateful that justice was carried out. Coleman will be working at the ballpark for Chicago's home opener on April 5th against Detroit.

ROMANS: All right. Let's get a check on "CNN Money" this morning. Trade war? Maybe not. Wall Street is living and dying by every trade headline. And yesterday that headline was U.S. and China are negotiating to avoid a trade war.

The Dow jumped 669 points, the third biggest point gain ever. The S&P 500 up 2.7 percent. For some perspective, that's not even the top 20 of percentage rallies. So that bounce spread into Asian stock markets and European stocks opened higher. A trade war could be devastating for consumers, investors and companies.

Meanwhile, could Microsoft win the race to $1 trillion? Analysts said it could top that value this year and that launched the stock 7 percent higher. No company has hit that $1 trillion milestone yet. But Microsoft faces some pretty steep competition. Look at that. It's currently number four in the most valuable category. Company category following Apple, Amazon and the Google parent Alphabet.

Merger drama unfolding in Washington. A slip-up nearly kept a key government witness off the stand at the AT&T trial. The Justice Department is suing AT&T to block its purchase of Time Warner, parent of CNN, and the DOJ's second witness Sling TV president Warren Schlichting was nearly blocked from testifying. His attorney had showed him transcripts from the trial. Witnesses are not allowed to see any part of a trial prior to testimony. The judge ultimately allowed him on the stand but said he would not ignore future violations. AT&T's anti-trust trial began Friday. It is expected to last six to eight weeks.

Diversity is dominating the 2018 box office films with women and minorities in lead roles. They won the box office 11 out of 12 weekends this year. Only one weekend had a film with a white male lead take the top prize. That's according to Box Office Mojo. The biggest, of course, "Black Panther," just dominating here. It has earned more than $1 billion worldwide. It topped the box office for five weeks. Its run came to an end last weekend after the release of "Pacific Rim Uprising," another film led by a person of color.

BRIGGS: Did you get to see "Black Panther"?

ROMANS: I have not. You saw it.

BRIGGS: Fantastic film.

ROMANS: I know. I'm going to take the kids.

BRIGGS: You must see it in the theater to get the fun.

All right. EARLY START continues right now. The U.S. moves against Russia, expelling diplomats.