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Freeze on Ukraine Aid Came 90 Minutes After Trump-Zelensky Phone Call; Saudi Arabia Sentences Five To Death Over Jamal Khashoggi Murder; North Korea Planning Missile Engine Tests. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired December 23, 2019 - 05:30   ET







ALISON KOSIK, CNN ANCHOR: OK, so, with comedy -- especially with Eddie Murphy -- my take is you've got to just kind of check your P.C. at the door --

JOHNS: Absolutely.

KOSIK: -- before you walk in.

JOHNS: An absolutely classic comedy --


JOHNS: -- even -- still new, you know -- what, 30 years later?

KOSIK: Can you believe it?

JOHNS: Unbelievable.

All right, EARLY START continues right now.


SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): ...stop the aid 91 minutes after Trump called Zelensky, and said keep it hush-hush.


JOHNS: Newly-released e-mails give some of the strongest proof yet the White House knew the perils and feared the backlash over pausing Ukraine's security aide.

KOSIK: Millions hitting the roads for the holiday running into weather trouble. We're going to tell you who gets the worst of it.

JOHNS: And breaking overnight, another victim in America's longest war. A soldier killed just before Christmas.

Good morning, this is EARLY START. I'm Joe Johns.

KOSIK: And I'm Alison Kosik. Good morning, it's 30 minutes past the hour.

And even after President Trump's impeachment by the House, new details are emerging that could damage him in his eventual Senate trial. Newly-released government documents show that effort to freeze aid to Ukraine -- that it began only about 90 minutes after the now-infamous call between Trump and the leader of Ukraine.

JOHNS: Now, a spokeswoman for the White House budget office says it would be reckless of the media to tie the hold of funds to the phone call. She notes the hold had been announced a week before the call at an interagency meeting.

But the new documents also show a White House budget office knew, at the time, the hold on aid could raise eyebrows.

"CNN POLITICS" reporter Jeremy Herb has more.



Newly-released e-mails reveal that the White House's order to freeze Ukraine aid came roughly 90 minutes after President Trump's calls with President Zelensky on July 25th. The e-mails provide new detail to our understanding of how exactly the White House held up the aid.

In the July 25th e-mail, White House budget official Michael Duffey ordered the Pentagon to hold the aid and signaled the decision could be politically explosive. Duffey wrote, "Given the sensitive nature of the request, I appreciate your keeping that information closely held to those who need to know to execute direction."

We already knew the broad time line of the withholding of this aid. The security assistance was first ordered held in early July and agencies were notified on July 18th. Then the order was formally sent July 25th, the day of the president's call.

What we learned from these new e-mails is that the two actions occurred roughly 90 minutes apart. The president got off the phone with Zelensky at 9:33 and Duffey sent the e-mail ordering the aid to be held at 11:04.

Now, the greater context of Duffey's e-mail is unknown because he defied a subpoena during the House's impeachment inquiry. The question will be now forced into the Senate as to whether to pursue Duffey's testimony as Democrats have demanded. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has not signaled he will accept any witnesses Democrats are pushing for. But the key number is 51. That's how many senators are needed to approve any witnesses for the trial.

Joe and Alison, back to you.


KOSIK: Our thanks to Jeremy Herb.

Mike Duffey was the Trump appointee at the budget office responsible for overseeing national security money. He's already defied a subpoena from the House impeachment panel, but Senate Democrats still want him to testify.


SCHUMER: This e-mail is explosive. A top administration official -- one that we requested -- is saying stop the aid 91 minutes after Trump called Zelensky, and said keep it hush-hush. What more do you need to request a witness?


KOSIK: The Senate will only begin a trial once House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sends the articles of impeachment to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. And she is withholding them until McConnell and Democratic leader Chuck Schumer reach a deal that Pelosi believes will result in what she believes is a fair trial.

JOHNS: Assuming the Senate does eventually get the case, one moderate Democrat is raising concerns. Sen. Doug Jones, of Alabama, says he's keeping an open mind to, quote, "see if the dots get connected."


SEN. DOUG JONES (D-AL): What I really want to see, though, is to fill in the gaps. There are gaps. Now, people can make up their mind with gaps in testimony, but I would like to see a full and complete picture.


JOHNS: Jones is a key moderate as Democrats try to keep the party unified through the impeachment process. Even if that happens, 20 Republicans would still have to flip sides and vote against President Trump to remove him from office.


More ahead on all of this. Plus, time is on the side of the proliferator. A tough assessment from the president's former national security adviser amid renewed threats from North Korea. CNN is live in Seoul.


KOSIK: Newly-released government e-mails offering the strongest proof so far the White House feared fallout from withholding security aid to Ukraine.

Take a look at this quote in an e-mail from a White House budget official. "Given the sensitive nature of the request, I appreciate your keeping that information closely held to those who need to know to execute direction."

JOHNS: Joining us here, Princeton University historian and professor, Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst.

And, you know, when you look at all --

KOSIK: Good morning.

JOHNS: -- the information that's come out over the last couple of days, one of the big questions I think that arises is whether given this latest information, Mr. McConnell, the majority leader, is going to go ahead and relent and let witnesses be brought in now that there are even more questions about the state of mind of the administration, and what was the intent, and what was the attempt to cover up.


JULIAN ZELIZER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST, HISTORIAN AND PROFESSOR, PRINCETON UNIVERSITY, CO-AUTHOR, "FAULT LINES: A HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES SINCE 1974": I don't think he'll relent because of the information. Republicans are operating on a partisan basis and they want to control the trial.

The reason he might relent to some limited number of witnesses would be because Pelosi's holding this back. He wants to get this over with. He wants to move forward.

So I can imagine a Clinton-like agreement, meaning the Clinton impeachment where they had limited video testimony from a few key players. That would be the most that Sen. McConnell will allow, if anything.

KOSIK: OK, more on the Senate trial here. Nancy Pelosi clearly withholding articles of impeachment until she deems that there is going to be a fair trial. But now we're seeing Republicans, like Marc Short, question her strategy here. Listen to this.


MARC SHORT, CHIEF OF STAFF TO VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: We're quite confident that this position is untenable and she's going to move it along, and that Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell reach a deal on how it's going to proceed in the Senate.

CHRIS WALLACE, FOX NEWS ANCHOR, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY": So you think that she'll eventually give in?

SHORT: She will yield. There's no way she can hold this position.


KOSIK: What are the risks here in waiting too long? Do you think she's overplaying her hand here?

ZELIZER: Not yet. I mean, we're in a break so Congress isn't around -- neither is the president -- so she has a little time. She will relent not because she has to, not because the White House will somehow make her relent, but because she also wants to move forward.

She entered into this without wanting to do it. She did this out of obligation, not out of politics, and so she doesn't want this to hang over the country or the Democratic Party indefinitely.

JOHNS: There's more on the wine cave controversy. It seems like something that's never going to end. The question, really, that's been raised by Pete Buttigieg is whether Elizabeth Warren has been just a bit hypocritical in her handling of fundraisers.

Listen to what AOC recently said about this whole issue of fundraisers.


REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D-NY): I go into work all the time and I hear people say what will my donors think? I hear that phrase. And I hear and I see that billionaires get members of Congress on speed dial and waitresses don't.


JOHNS: Does this issue really break through for Democrats or are they only worried about getting rid of Donald Trump?

ZELIZER: Look, I think the issue of campaign finance reform is an important one and both parties need to address it. None of the candidates are wrong about money in politics. That's a true statement.

I think when you talk about how people have raised funds you're going to enter into this back and forth where both people end up looking pretty bad and both people have spotty records. So I think the benefit for both candidates would be turning away from each other's record toward the issue of how do you fix money in politics. That's an issue that does resonate with a lot of Independent voters.

KOSIK: But does Buttigieg have a better chance of -- or a better argument of taking more money because no one knew who he was? Keep in mind, we're watching the Democrats up there cannibalizing each other -- you know, let them be at this point, especially when you look at Buttigieg's position.

ZELIZER: I think if they continue with this wine cave debate it's not going to benefit anyone. I think the candidate who is smart is the one who turns it back to the bigger issue about money in politics. KOSIK: OK, Julian Zelizer. Thanks so much for your analysis. We always appreciate it.

ZELIZER: Thank you.

KOSIK: And happy holidays to you.

ZELIZER: Same to you, and Happy New Year.

KOSIK: Happy New Year, as well.

Breaking news this morning. Five people have been sentenced to death in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. "The Washington Post" columnist was killed and dismembered by a Saudi death squad at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

A public prosecutor in Saudi Arabia says 10 defendants were released because of insufficient evidence. That includes Saud Qahtani, an aide to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, and the most senior official implicated.

JOHNS: Breaking overnight, another American soldier killed in Afghanistan. The Taliban claiming responsibility, saying U.S. and Afghan forces were targeted with IEDs while conducting a raid. U.S. officials are withholding the name until next of kin are notified.

The U.S. and Taliban had just restarted peace talks. More than 2,400 American troops have died in America's longest war. Between 12,000 and 13,000 troops are currently serving in Afghanistan. A drawdown of about 4,000 is expected soon.

KOSIK: Ugly weather across the country making for messy holiday travel. Heavy fog and icy roads led to a 69-vehicle pileup on Interstate 64 in eastern Virginia. That closed both sides of the highway.


Fifty-one people needed medical treatment. Two of them are in critical condition.

Now, a low-pressure system in the southeast is putting more than seven million people under a flash flood watch.

Meteorologist Pedram Javaheri has the latest.



And an absolute soaker in place too across portions of the Gulf Coast. This storm system here has been very slow to move in the past 24 or so hours, so plenty of rainfall already observed across parts of Florida, into Georgia as well. But notice it is going to gradually shift on in towards the coastal region of the Carolinas. Finally, by Christmas Eve, we'll see this storm system offshore. But before it gets there, look how much rainfall we expect from Charlestown down towards Savannah. That's three, four -- in some cases, more than five inches of rainfall possible across that region and it's very localized to that region as well. So we'll watch that carefully here for some flooding across that particular area.

But back towards the west, speaking of flooding here, look what's happening into the southwest, also a potent storm system. In fact, Southern California -- namely, Los Angeles -- as much as two to three inches possible within the next three to four days. So an absolute soaker here even for their standards of getting in some heavy rainfall.

Also, temperatures only climb to around 60 degrees for Los Angeles, the middle 40s out of Seattle, and about 76 in South Florida. Now, as we go in towards Christmas Day, we'll enjoy sunny skies for much of the east coast. Temperatures not too bad -- middle 40s around New York City -- guys.


KOSIK: OK, Pedram Javaheri. Thanks so much.

And we're going to be right back.



JOHNS: Former national security adviser John Bolton sharply condemning the White House approach to North Korea in a new interview with Axios.

Bolton saying he does not believe the White House, quote, "really means it" when President Trump pledges to stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. He says, "The idea that we are somehow exerting maximum pressure on North Korea is just unfortunately not true. Time is on the side of the proliferator."

CNN has learned North Korea may now be preparing to test engines and other missile components.

CNN's Paula Hancocks is live in Seoul -- Paula.

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Joe, there's new satellite imagery that officials are pouring over at this point and they do show new activity at two spots -- the Sohae satellite launching site, which is where, over recent weekends, we have seen two suspected engine tests. And also, at a production site of ICBMs -- the Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles.

Now, Trump administration officials have told CNN that they suspect there may be engine tests or some kind of component tests for the missile program in the near future. We have also heard from one source familiar with North Korean thinking, telling CNN that they believe the changes of a nuclear test or an ICBM test around Christmas are very low. The reason for that, which we have heard from many officials and experts, is that North Korea believes that that would irritate China, it's main ally, and Russia too much, and that is something that they can't afford to do at this point.

Now we also know that there was meeting over the weekend in North Korea with the leader, Kim Jong Un. He met with his top military officials. According to state-run media, he briefed them on, quote, "complicated internal and external situations," saying that they were discussing the military steps they needed to bolster the overall armed forces.

This comes ahead of a key North Korean meeting at the end of this month when Kim Jong Un could well tell his people exactly what the policy will be towards the U.S and then potentially, announcing to the world on his New Year's address -- Joe.

JOHNS: And a chess game -- the whole world is watching. Thanks so much for that, Paula Hancocks in Seoul.

KOSIK: A desperate search in Idaho for two siblings missing since September. Police say 7-year-old Joshua Vallow and his 17-year-old sister Tylee Ryan were living with their mother and new stepfather, Chad Daybell. Police say Daybell has since been linked to the suspicious death of his previous wife.

They believe the children may be in serious danger. Police are asking for help locating the mother and stepfather.

JOHNS: A dramatic increase in homelessness in California fueling a rise nationwide for a third-straight year, according to a new government report. The homeless population actually declined in 29 states in 2019 but that was offset by a spike in California of some 21,000 people or 16.4 percent.

HUD Sec. Ben Carson says the report shows homelessness in California is at crisis level and needs to be addressed by state and local leaders with crisis-like urgency.

A strange sight for drivers outside Detroit. This bright green liquid oozing onto a Michigan highway. The goo is believed to be hexavalent chromium, the cancer-causing substance featured in the 2000 movie "Erin Brockovich."


A state official says there's no imminent risk to the public and hazmat crews say air and drinking water were not contaminated.

KOSIK: All right, let's take a look at "CNN Business" -- at markets around the world and taking a look at Asian stocks ending higher. Overnight, European stocks looking like a mixed picture to start the day. Here in the U.S., looking like green arrows across the board. Stocks looking a little calm and flat to start this holiday-shortened trading week. Futures looking to a positive open after the Chinese said it will cut tariffs on hundreds of U.S. goods, including pork, beginning January first.

Stocks finished at record highs last week. The Dow closing up 78 points on Friday. The Nasdaq logging its seventh-straight high -- record high.

It's likely to be a quiet Christmas week on Wall Street but the trade war remains a risk. Analysts say if the phase one deal with China is not signed next month, optimism will begin to fade.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Liftoff, release. Engine at full thrust, we've cleared the tower.


KOSIK: Boeing's Starliner spacecraft launching an unmanned test flight on Friday, but it had to abort its mission to dock with the International Space Station when it failed to put itself on the right path. Officials say the problem was an unsynchronized clock. It's not clear, though, if NASA is going to require Boeing to repeat the test before clearing the spacecraft for manned missions.




KOSIK: "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker" capping off a big year for Disney. The final chapter of the saga bringing in an estimated $176 million at the box office.

It is the third-highest opening of the year, but by "Star Wars" standards it's a little lackluster. The previous two installments, "The Force Awakens" and "The Last Jedi" both brought in over $220 million.

JOHNS: Just $176 million.

It was a reunion 35 years in the making.


ANNOUNCER, NBC "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE": Ladies and gentlemen, Eddie Murphy.


JOHNS: Eddie Murphy made his much-anticipated return to "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE" for the first time since 1984. Now a father of 10 kids, Murphy did not pull any punchlines.


MURPHY: My kids are actually pretty much my whole life now. And you know what? But if you had told me 30 years ago that I would be this boring stay-at-home house dad and Bill Cosby would be in jail, even I would have took that bet.

I'd say (imitating Cosby as Cliff Huxtable) who is America's dad now?


JOHNS: Scorching.

One person not laughing at that impersonation as Cliff Huxtable, Bill Cosby's indignant publicist, who wrote, "One would think that Mr. Murphy was given his freedom to leave the plantation so that he could make his own decisions, but he decided to sell himself back to being a Hollywood slave."

As for the rest of the show, Murphy revived some of his most memorable characters.


MURPHY (MR. ROBINSON'S NEIGHBORHOOD) (Singing): The white people came and changed everything, but I am still your neighbor.

MIKEY DAY, CAST MEMBER, NBC "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE": We ordered a new 72-inch Samsung T.V. and they said it was delivered but it's not in the lobby. We were wondering if you knew anything about that.

MURPHY: Don't worry, boys and girls, Mr. Robinson knows just what to say in situations like this.

Oh, you think I stole your T.V. because I'm black.

Can you believe the nerve of them, boys and girls? There's a special word for that (turns on T.V. -- screen says racist).


JOHNS: I could have never guessed that word.

KOSIK: No. You know, I know people take offense to what he said about Bill Cosby. I get it -- it was a mean joke. But, you know, with comedy you've got to kind of check that political correctness --


KOSIK: -- at the door, right?

JOHNS: And also, what's funny. That's the bottom line. All right.

KOSIK: I'm glad you thought it was funny.

JOHNS: It was funny -- all right.

KOSIK: Thanks for joining us. I'm Alison Kosik.

JOHNS: And I'm Joe Johns. "NEW DAY" starts right now.


HERB: Newly-released e-mails reveal that the White House's order to freeze Ukraine aid came roughly 90 minutes after President Trump's call with President Zelensky.

SCHUMER: This e-mail is explosive.

SHORT: There's nothing new in these e-mails about the timing, truly.

SEN. ROY BLUNT (R-MO): President's make mistakes. I don't know if this call was a mistake.

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D-IL): They're looking for a fair trial, not a fake trial.

MURPHY: This is the last episode of 2019, but if you're black, this is the first episode since I left back in 1984.

If you had told me 30 years ago that I would be this boring stay-at- home house dad and Bill Cosby would be in jail -- who is America's dad now?