Return to Transcripts main page


Trump's Inner Circle Rocked; Florida Students Return. Aired 4- 4:30a ET

Aired February 28, 2018 - 04:00   ET


[04:00:14] DAVID BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: Major developments for the president and his inner circle. Jared Kushner's security clearance downgraded. Hope Hicks admits she lies to protect the president. Now, Mr. Trump's own actions the focus of the Russia special counsel.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: And students return to Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida today two weeks after 17 lives were taken. The chances of major gun reform appear slim.

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

BRIGGS: Yes, slim to none, right?

I'm Dave Briggs. It's Wednesday, February 28th, 4:00 in the East.

Imagine for those kids. Going back to school --

ROMANS: It's going to be a tough day.

BRIGGS: Yes, I was there 19 years ago, Columbine, when they went back. And those kids never wanted to go back to that school. Get there.

But we start with the president. Was Donald Trump's decision to run for president tied to his company's business dealings in Russia? The Mueller investigation is now looking directly at the actions of President Trump before the 2016 campaign. Sources say investigators are asking witnesses when Mr. Trump became serious about running for president, how that timing coincided with his business moves, including an effort to brand a Trump Tower in Moscow.

ROMANS: Investigators also asking about potentially compromising information the Russians may have on Mr. Trump. Sources say they do not know whether Mueller has concrete evidence of wrongdoing. But the questions indicate Mueller's team is reaching beyond the campaign at how the Russians might have sought to influence Mr. Trump. The president has claimed any inquiry into his family's finances would exceed the special counsel's mandate. An attorney for the president and the Trump Organization both declined to comment.

BRIGGS: This morning, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner no longer has access to the nation's most closely held secrets, at least for now. The first son-in-law's interim security clearance downgraded from top secret to secret. The new clearance level will allow access to far less information, excluding, for example, the president's daily brief of top-secret material that Kushner read each and every day. A top Republican source who has worked closely with the White House telling CNN that, quote, directly undercuts Jared's main job.

For more now, we turn to White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny.


JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Christine and Dave, something of a bomb bombshell with Jared Kushner, the president's senior adviser and, of course, son-in-law, no longer able to look at the nation's top-secret intelligence information here. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has made good on his plan to sort of clean house in the security clearance front. Jared Kushner, of course, for the last 13 months or so, has been operating under a temporary security clearance.

In the wake, of course, of the resignation of staff secretary, Rob Porter, the chief of staff said he was going to institute a tighter policy for security clearances. Jared Kushner, the most prominent person to fall under that. Now, this, of course, will affect how he does his job. He's the -- essentially the leader on Middle East peace.

Now, he and his supporters say he's going to continue doing his job. He's going to stay on here. But without that top-secret security clearance, it certainly will be done in a different way. Questions about Jared Kushner's security clearance and his standing here at the White House certainly will hang over the administration again today -- Christine and Dave.


ROMANS: All right, Jeff Zeleny. Jeff, thank you so much for that.

Jared Kushner's attorney claims his client has done more than what it expected of him in the security clearance process, insisting he will accept the decision about his downgrade and will not ask for any type of special treatment or permission from President Trump. A final resolution could come soon. A source telling CNN the FBI is expected to wrap up Kushner's background check within a month.

BRIGGS: Meantime, a report in the "Washington Post" says officials in at least four countries discussed ways they could manipulate Jared Kushner. According to the report, Mexico, Israel, China, and the United Arab Emirates considered taking advantage of Kushner's intricate business arrangements, his lack of foreign policy experience, and financial troubles. It's not clear based on U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence reports if they acted on those conversations, though.

ROMANS: "The Post" report says the subject was first raised in intel briefings after national security adviser H.R. McMaster learned Kushner had contacts with foreign officials, contacts that he did not coordinate with the National Security Council. Kushner did not respond to CNN questions. A spokesman said they won't respond to, quote, unnamed sources peddling secondhand hearsay. BRIGGS: Longtime Trump aide Hope Hicks didn't have much to say during a nine-hour closed door appearance on Tuesday before the House Intelligence Committee. But according to a source with direct knowledge of her testimony, the White House communications director did admit she has to tell, quote, white lies for the president on occasion.

[04:05:03] But she insisted she has not had to lie about anything substantive.

ROMANS: Hicks refused to answer questions about her time in the White House. She did not invoke executive privilege but simply told lawmakers that she had been instructed by the administration not to answer the questions.


REP. MIKE QUIGLEY (D-IL), HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Hope we'll get to all the answers.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Has there been a subpoena issued for her?


RAJU: Should there be?


RAJU: Why is that?

QUIGLEY: With anyone who doesn't answer questions, they ought to be subpoenaed.


ROMANS: Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski also declined to answer questions about events that occurred after the 2016 election.

BRIGGS: The White House is pushing back hard after the head of U.S. Cyber Command confirmed he's not been granted authority by President Trump to disrupt Russian election hacking operations.

Here is Admiral Mike Rogers testifying Tuesday on Capitol Hill.


ADMIRAL MIKE ROGERS, NSA DIRECTOR: It's probably fair to say that we have not opted to engage in some of the same behaviors that we are seeing. President Putin has clearly coming come to the conclusion there's little price to play here.


ROGERS: Therefore I can continue this activity. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BRIGGS: That is some frightening stuff there. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders disputing the notion that Rogers needs more authority. She insists he is not the only official tasked with confronting Russia.

ROMANS: Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School make an emotional return to their classrooms this morning. They'll be on a modified half-day schedule for the rest of the week. Three victims from the massacre are still in the hospital. They are in fair condition. We're learning the carnage could have been worse.

BRIGGS: The shooter still had more than half his ammunition remaining when he fled. Investigators telling CNN he may have tried to break a window to fire on students as they ran from the building. But the hurricane-proof windows did not break. Florida's legislative session ends next Friday, meaning time is short to pass changes to the state's gun laws.

ROMANS: The state senate rules committee has already approved a bill aimed at keeping firearms away from those with mental health issues. It also prohibits most people under 21 from purchasing a fireman. An amendment to ban the sale of bump stocks failed, but a bump stock ban is part of a bill in the Florida house. Chances of banning assault- style weapons seems remote.

BRIGGS: Even as some states move to take action on gun control, progress at the federal level is, well, lagging. President Trump this afternoon meets with lawmakers from both parties on gun laws and school safety. A bipartisan group of senators working to reach a deal that could pave the way for votes on gun-related amendments as early as next week. But there is clearly no appetite in the GOP-controlled House or Senate to pass anything significant on gun control.


REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: We shouldn't be banning guns for law-abiding citizens. We should be focusing on making sure that citizens who should not get guns in the first place don't get those guns. That is why we see a big breakdown in the system here.


BRIGGS: Many Democrats support a plan to incentivize state and federal authorities to enter more data into the country's background check system but say that's not enough on its own.

ROMANS: Replay the tape. Crisis, handwringing, and nothing gets done.

All right. Georgia Republican threats to Delta over its NRA decisions could hurt Georgia's Amazon's dreams. Delta is based in Atlanta, which is on the short list for the Amazon second headquarters. HQ2 is a big prize for any city, bringing a $5 billion facility of 50,000 cities. Many cities will lure Amazon with terrific tax breaks. But with Georgia's current political spat, Amazon may think twice.

The Georgia Senate is blocking a $40 million tax break for Delta after Delta stopped discounting flights for NRA members. Delta is the state's largest private employer, signaling to Amazon that political politicians, local politicians put scoring political points over business interests.

Facing consumer pressure, Delta is one of a dozen companies cutting NRA ties. The NRA calls this political cowardice. Delta claims it wants to be neutral in the gun debate. It doesn't want to give special discounts for NRA members.

Billionaire Warren Buffett says companies should be careful taking a big political opinion, he said, telling CNBC it's ridiculous to boycott gun owners or stocks.


WARREN BUFFETT, BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY CEO: I have not issued any edict, for example, to the two managers that run money besides me at Berkshire that they can't own stock in them. They can own stock in the gun manufacturers.


ROMANS: He's talking about some money managers who are talking about ways to maybe divest of gun manufacturers, put pressure on them. Clearly in the case of Delta, they're not boycotting anybody. You can still get a ticket. You're just not getting a special discount.

Despite all this, Buffett says he admires the work of the Parkland students. Those Parkland students actually inspired him, he says.

BRIGGS: All right. Wearing his heart on his sleeve and the name of a Parkland shooting victim on his shoes, Dwayne Wade was vintage, hitting the game-winning shot as the Heat beat the Sixers 102-101 in Miami.

[04:10:10] Before the game, Wade wrote Joaquin Oliver's name right there on his shoes. Oliver was buried in Wade's number 3 jersey. Wade has dedicated his return to Miami and the rest of the Heat's season to Oliver. Good stuff.

ROMANS: All right. Ten minutes past the hour.

The FBI lab looking at a letter sent to a Virginia military base. Eleven people sickened after it was opened. What investigators know and what they don't, next.


ROMANS: The FBI is investigating a suspicious letter sent to a military base in Virginia. Officials say 11 people sickened after the letter was opened at Joint Base Ft. Myer Henderson Hall in Arlington. Three people were taken to the hospital and are in stable condition. Law enforcement officials say field tests for the letter came back negative for any harmful substance.

[04:15:01] Officials say the letter contained derogatory language. At times, it was unintelligible. It was address today to a commanding officer at the base. Investigators looking into what relationship if any the sender had with the base.

BRIGGS: A federal judge who was once attacked by the president for his Mexican heritage has handed down a ruling that could pave the way for Mr. Trump's border wall. A U.S. district judge, Gonzalo Curiel, deciding the administration does have the authority to waive certain environmental laws to begin construction. Judge Curiel feeling the need to point out he ignored politics to reach his decision. He writes, quote, n its review of the case, the court cannot and does not consider whether underlying decisions to construct the border barriers are politically wise or prudent.

ROMANS: The president came under criticism in June 2016 remember when he said Judge Curiel, who was born in Indiana, was biased against him because of Curiel's Mexican heritage. The president softening his tone in a tweet last night writing: U.S. judge sided with the Trump administration. Now this important project can go forward.

In reality, the judge's 100-page order does not mean construction of the wall will begin yet. Congress first has to authorize or provide funding.

BRIGGS: The battle is escalating between Oakland's mayor and immigration officials. Federal agents have arrested more than 150 people in northern California since Sunday for a variety of alleged violations. On Saturday, the day before the operations began, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf warned the public she said she was doing it to protect residents. Oakland is a sanctuary city with a policy of not coordinating with federal immigration officials.

The ICE deputy director criticized the mayor for what he described as a reckless decision. He says the warning increased the risk for his officers. Mayor Schaaf says she does not regret going public. That battle is not over there in California.

ROMANS: No, it is not.

All right. Seventeen minutes past the hour. Two of the world's most terrifying regimes now linked by a common thread. How is North Korea helping Syria gas its own people? We're live in the Middle East.


[04:21:30] ROMANS: The United Nations is now connecting Syria's chemical weapons program to North Korea. A Security Council diplomat telling CNN Pyongyang is helping Syria make the deadly weapons by providing supplies and manpower.

CNN's Jomana Karadsheh has the very latest live from Amman, Jordan.

What do we know? JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Christine, this is coming

from a report, it hasn't been published yet, by a group, a panel of experts at the United Nations.

Now, according to a diplomat at the Security Council who has seen those report and shared information with CNN, the information is, according to the report, materials and experts sent to Syria from North Korea. When it comes to the materials, they're talking about acid-resistant tiles, vials, thermometers, presumably to use in production facilities. And also according to the report, North Korean missile experts were sent to Syria in 2016, 2017, and at least one of those trips they stayed on a military base.

And according to a diplomat at the Security Council, they're also saying that they believe that there are still North Korean experts in at least three Syrian cities right now. According to the report, Syria, which has long denied these accusations of using chemical weapons against its own people, is denying these accusations and also saying that these North Koreans are sports trainers. This all comes as we're seeing that disastrous humanitarian situation in Eastern Ghouta with that regime campaign going on, that humanitarian pause in fighting that was ordered by President Vladimir Putin falling apart on the first day, on Tuesday. We're waiting to see if today is any different, Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Certainly, that new development getting a lot of attention this morning. Jomana Karadsheh in Amman, thank you.

BRIGGS: A sixth grader getting credit for bringing an end to the West Virginia teachers strike after a cooling off period today. Teachers return tomorrow following a five-day walkout. Governor Jim Justice announcing a 5 percent raise for employees in the first year as long as lawmakers approve it. The governor says he decided on a larger pay hike after a conversation with a sixth grader.

ROMANS: Gideon Titus-Glover, whose mom is a teacher, asked why funds were being spent on tourism. The governor talked about return on investment and Gideon asked the governor, wouldn't it be an investment to invest in smart teachers?


GIDEON TITUS-GLOVER, SIXTH GRADER IN WEST VIRGINIA: I heard they added an extra $5 million to tourism. And so, I just thought that is it really right? That money could have gone to a raise for teachers. So I just kind of thought like that was wrong.


ROMANS: All right. Not everything is fixed. The issue of insurance is still unresolved and will require a task force. A lot of teachers at the state capitol booing when they heard it.

Dave, what I found fascinate being this story, teachers have hard jobs, as you know. Before they walked out, they all spent a day or two packing backpacks of food for the children because so many students in West Virginia actually receive a good amount of their calories every day through the school district.

BRIGGS: Absolutely. That's not uncommon.

ROMANS: The teachers who are feeding their students and, you know, educating their students. So just to give you context about -- it was not an easy choice for teachers to walk out.

BRIGGS: No, indeed. It was good to see a child there have some impact.

Meanwhile in Charlottesville, Virginia, a judge ruling tarps covering statues of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson must be removed.

[04:25:08] The city official said it's not clear if it will appeal the ruling. The city covered the statues last August after two troopers and Heather Heyer were killed in violence surrounding a white nationalist rally.

Still, the fate of the statues is unclear. The city wants them permanently removed, while opponents of removal have threatened legal action.

ROMANS: All right. The Reverend Billy Graham will lie in honor today and tomorrow at the U.S. capitol rotunda. Graham is only the fourth private citizen to lie in honor, similar to lying in state in recognition of his contributions to the nation. He is America's pastor.

President Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be among the speakers at a service for the world- renowned evangelist. He died last week at 99. Graham's funeral will be held Friday.

BRIGGS: What an impact he had. Counseling a dozen presidents.


BRIGGS: Never be another like him.

All right. Ahead, the president has said family finances should be off limits to the special counsel. But now, Robert Mueller's looking directly into whether Mr. Trump's decision to run for president coincided with business decisions in Russia.