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Wildfires Spreading And Turning Deadly In Australia; Weather Tonight Is Expected To Be Pretty Mild For All New Years Eve Celebrations; Several Hundred Pro-Iranian Protestors Are Gathering Outside The U.S. Embassy; There's Been A String Of Incidents Involving McDonald's Servers Writing Derogatory Words On To-Go Cups. Aired 5- 5:30a ET

Aired December 31, 2019 - 05:00   ET



CHRISTINE ROMANS, EARLY START HOST: Suspect in the Hanukah party attack.

LEYLA SANTIAGO, EARLY START HOST: And breaking over night, fires - wildfires spreading and turning deadly in Australia, thousands fleeing their homes under a very eerie, threatening sky.

ROMANS: A Kansas cop is off the job. Why a coffee from McDonald's led to his ouster.

SANTIAGO: And who's the most admired man by Americans? A divided nation very split on this one. Good morning and welcome to Early Start. I'm Leyla Santiago.

ROMANS: And I'm Christine Romans. It is Tuesday, December 31. It is New Year's Eve, everybody! Exactly 5 a.m. in the east.

SANTIAGO: Happy New Year!

ROMANS: Happy New Year right now to Samoa and Kirbati in the South Pacific, the first place to ring in 2020, and it's 34 days to the Iowa caucuses.

SANTIAGO: All sorts of countdowns going on, right?


ROMANS: I know. Lots of countdowns, and we begin - well, we begin with breaking news over night. Dangerous wildfires raging in Southeast Australia. Two people in Cobargo, south of Sydney, found dead after they were reported missing when a fire ripped through that town. Smoke darkening the sky to an eerie, orange color at an evacuation center in Batemans Bay up the coast. Thousands of people are trapped on a beach in Mallacoota. After fleeing their homes, strong winds brought wildfires and smoke so thick the morning sky turned dark. A resident tells us there's no way in or out.

SANTIAGO: The Rural Fire Service warning people along the coast taking refuge are facing a long, difficult, dangerous night, and across New South Wales more than 100 fires burning with reports of people unaccounted. Of course, the fear there is that people are losing their lives. As the day wore on, the sky lightened to a bright orange as the fires spread, and then all across New South Wales, smoke as fire - as far rather as the eye can see. Our Simon Cullen is there.

SIMON CULLEN, CNN JOURNALIST: Christine, Leyla, this is a fire crisis that continues to get worse every day. As you can see behind me, the air is thick with smoke. There is bushfire ash falling from the sky. In fact, the nearest fire front is just a few miles behind me over the hill. Now, this is a state, these of (ph) Wales, where dozens of fires are continuing to burn out of control, tragically claiming more lives, including that of a young fireman who died when the truck he was in flipped over in hot, gusty winds. He sadly leaves behind a young, pregnant wife.

Now, further south in the state of Victoria, thousands of people there have been forced to flee their homes and seek shelter on the beach front. Now, there is no where for them to go because major roads are being cut, and authorities are saying it is too late to leave.

Now, these people are gathered on the beach front just watching and waiting to see what the weather conditions bring, but it's a very scary time on New Year's Eve. Nationally, of course, many states have imposed total fire bans, which has forced the cancellation of New Year's Eve celebrations. Fireworks in many towns and cities has been canceled tonight, but Sydney has applied for and being granted an exemption despite public pressure for them to be canceled as well. They will go ahead tonight, but the thick smoke that's in the air, it's just an eerie reminder that this bush fire crisis is far from over. Christine, Leyla -

ROMANS: Simon Cullen, thank you for that, Simon. Handwritten journals and the Internet search history of the New York Hanukah stabbing suspect seemed to express anti-Semitic sentiments. His journal refers to Adolf Hitler and Nazi culture, and the searches including one for prominent companies founded by Jews in America. He's not facing federal hate crime charges on top of several state counts. CNN's Sara Sidner has the latest from the scene in Monsey, New York.

SARA SIDNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Christine and Leyla, the suspect in this vicious stabbing attack at a rabbi's home during a Hanukah celebration is now facing at least 11 charges. He has plead not guilty to five attempted murder charges and burglary charge, but he is now facing even more charges - federal charges, federal hate crime charges. There are now five of those.

After investigators combed through his handwritten journals, they also say they are looking through his electronics as well. And in those handwritten journals, they found references to Nazis and Hitler as well as the Star of David and a Swastika. They also founded searches, when they looked through some of his electronics, for synagogues in New York and New Jersey. Now, according to the complaint against Grafton Thomas, he also appeared to make a reference to the Black Hebrew Israelite movement, which is linked to one of the attacks and the attackers in the New Jersey attacks that left four people dead in a kosher market. Now, while investigators say there is evidence of anti-Semitism here, his attorney and pastor say this is simply a man who suffers from mental illness. The attack has left the large Hasidic community here in Monsey, New York reeling.

We spoke with Josef Gluck. He was inside of the home when a man wielding a huge knife or sword came walking in.

JOSEF GLUCK, SURVIVED STABBING ATTACK IN RABBI'S HOME: There were kids in there, so I decided to run back in. So I came back in through the front door when he was still in the kitchen.


And I heard people screaming, "Hide! Hide!" There were people (ph) - one was being pushed into a coat closet. There was a boy - 5, 6, 7- year-old boy hiding beneath a pile of coats.

SIDNER: Was he saying anything?

GLUCK: Nothing. He didn't say a word to anyone inside. He just spoke to me outside once.

SIDNER: What did he say?

GLUCK: Hey you, I'll get you after I threw the table at him.

SIDNER: Eventually the suspect left the home and started walking next door towards the synagogue that is right next door. Gluck decided to follow him at a distance, concerned he would get in there, but, indeed, he went to his car and that is when Gluck had the presence of mind to take down his license plate. He shared that with police, and about an hour later the suspect's plate was picked up by a plate scanner on the George Washington Bridge going into New York. Soon after, the suspect was arrested. He now faces, again, 11 charges in this case. Christine, Leyla -

SANTIAGO: Sara Sidner in Monsey, thanks so much. Security will be tight today as crowds descend on Times Square and pack New York City for New Year's Eve. You're taking a live look here from EarthCam. So here's what you need to know. The weather expected to be relatively mild tonight in the low to mid 30s. For the northeast and New England, snow and ice early today ending later.

What to expect once the new year begins? Let's go ahead and turn to meteorologist Ivan Cabrera.


SANTIAGO: Happy New Year (ph). And a programming note, ring in the new year with Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen. New Year's Eve Live begins at - begins tonight at 8 Eastern on CNN. ROMANS: My alarm went off at 2 a.m., so I'm going to have to have a nap before I'm going to be able to restart for tonight -


SANTIAGO: Make it happen. Make it happen.

ROMANS: -- but I will.


All right, the former Head of Nissan flees criminal charges in Japan. Where he went and what he's saying this morning.



SANTIAGO: Happening now, several hundred pro-Iranian protestors gathering outside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday to demonstrate against airstrikes by the U.S. against militia groups in Iraq backed by Iran. The protestors marching through a restricted area and smashing embassy windows. At least 25 people killed, 51 hurt, and the airstrikes targeting five facilities controlled by an Iran-backed militia in Iraq. Now, Iraq's government warning that the airstrikes put its relationships or its relation, rather, with the U.S. at grave risk.

ROMANS: All right, drama in the business world this morning. A major figure has fled Japan while awaiting trial. Carlos Ghosn, the embattled former Nissan Chief, has left Japan and is now in Lebanon. In a stunning statement, Ghosn said, "I'm now in Lebanon and will no longer be held hostage by a rigged, Japanese justice system where guilt is presumed, discrimination in ramped, and basic human rights are denied. I've not fled justice. I have escaped injustice and political persecution."

Ghosn was a titan of the auto industry who successfully merged Renault and Nissan. Cracks began appearing in that alliance after Ghosn's arrest in November 2018. He faces a number of charges in Japan including allegations he understated his income and funneled $5 million of Nissan's money to a car dealership he controlled.

Ghosn has both French and Lebanese citizenship. It's not clear how he was able to leave Japan. His lawyer told reporters that the flight from Japan was a complete surprise, and they hold his passports.

SANTIAGO: One month, three days till the Iowa caucuses. Joe Biden signaling how far outside the box he might go to beat President Trump. One woman in New Hampshire told the former VP that he'd have to pull out all the stops, and then she relayed a question from her 21-year- old son.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I wonder if Joe Biden would consider choosing a Republican as a running mate?

JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The answer is I would, but I can't think of one now.


No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. No, look here (inaudible). No, I'm serious. No, here's what I mean. Let me explain that. Now, there's some really decent Republicans that are out there still, but here's the problem right now, well, the well-known ones. They've got to step up.


ROMANS: Andrew Yang criticizing the DNC over the January 14 debate. Yang was the only non-white candidate on stage in December.

Right now under heightened donor and polling requirements, only five candidates qualify for the debate, not including Yang. After the DNC rejected new polling, Yang said the committee should push harder to expand the stage.


ANDREW YANG (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If they heard back that it was not going to be in time for the January 10 deadline, they should say why don't you start it as soon as possible? The DNC saying we can do nothing about it seems disingenuous because they can clearly just reach out to any of the approved polling organizations and ask for a poll to be conducted. Then they give a timeline.


SANTIAGO: To Elizabeth Warren now. She is commemorating one year since she launched her exploratory committee with a speech back home in Massachusetts. And for Bernie Sanders, a clean bill of health after a heart attack earlier this year. The attending physician at the U.S. capital says that he has the, quote, "mental and physical stamina to undertake the rigors of the presidency."

ROMANS: On Friday, Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, will fly to Ukraine - the country at the center of the president's impeachment. Pompeo set to meet with Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, and other top officials. Several witnesses testified the White House withheld military aid and a meeting with Zelensky until investigations into Joe and Hunter Biden were announced. Ambassador to the E.U., Gordon Sondland, even testified Pompeo specifically was in the loop on the deal.


SANTIAGO: Just yesterday, The New York Times reported Pompeo attending a previously undisclosed Oval Office meeting where top officials tried, but failed, to convince the president to release the aid. The current top diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor - there he is - won't be there for Pompeo's arrival on Friday. He'll have to hand off his duties the day before. Taylor was an early voice raising concerns about withholding aid for political reasons.

ROMANS: All right, the Gators run wild in the Orange Bowl. Florida making a statement in the first minute of the game. Coy Wire has this morning's Bleacher Report. Leyla's happy.

SANTIAGO: I'm a Gator!

ROMANS: That's next.



SANTIAGO: A Kansas police officer has resigned after making up a story about a McDonald's employee writing an insult on his coffee cup. There's been a string of incidents involving servers writing derogatory words on to-go cups, and this week and officer claimed that someone wrote an expletive on his cup, but the Herington Police Department admits this report was false and the officer is no longer employed.


CHIEF BRIAN HORNADAY, HERINGTON POLICE: The duty of every police officer is to protect and serve with the highest level of integrity and trust. This incident has been an obvious violation of that public trust.


SANTIAGO: And according to the chief, the officer claimed that he fabricated this story as a joke. McDonald's says that it's glad that none of its employees were involved.


ROMAN: All right, 20 minutes past the hour. The Florida Gators chomp on the Virginia Cavaliers in the Orange Bowl!

SANTIAGO: Yes! Blue and Orange. Coy Wire has more in the morning's Bleacher Report. Coy, you know this. I'm a little biased here.



SANTIAGO: A little biased. Go Gators!


ROMANS: Awesome. All right, Coy. Happy New Year to you!

SANTIAGO: Thanks, Coy.

WIRE: Yes, you, too. ROMANS: All right, 23 minutes past the hour. Breaking over night, raging wildfires turn deadly in Australia. Thousands now trapped on a beach after fleeing their homes.

SANTIAGO: And the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the target of big protests after airstrikes by the U.S. against Iran-baked militia groups.




ROMANS: Welcome back to Early Start. 26 minutes past the hour. Uber and Postmates both suing to block a California law that offers employment protections to gig economy workers. This law known as A.B.5 takes effect tomorrow. The two companies compete in the food delivery market. They and others like Lyft and DoorDash argue that California should establish regulations to protect gig workers. They say forcing them into existing employment categories violates the Constitution.

SANTIAGO: A stunning study suggests a strong link between opioid overdose deaths and closings of auto plants. That's a key of the U.S. economy. The study published in JAMA Internal Medicine looked at the ripple effect of plant closures on the community. It found and 85 percent higher opioid overdose death rate after five years. Researchers also found that the link was largest among white men. It is estimated more than 130 people die every day as the result of an opioid overdose in the U.S.

ROMANS: President Trump and former President Obama couldn't be more different, but there's one place where they look like they're the same. They're tied as Gallup's Most Admired Man in 2019. Both men scored votes from 18 percent of U.S. adults. It's Barak Obama's twelfth time topping the list, President Trump's first. Mr. Trump has previously come in second place the last four years.

Former First Lady, Michelle Obama, won the top slot as America's Most Admired Woman. She is the only woman to pull in double digits. Early Start continues right now.

Swastikas in handwritten journals and more evidence of anti-Semitism. Hate crime charges now filed against the suspect in the Hanukah party attack.

SANTIAGO: And breaking over night, wildfires spreading and turning deadly in Australia. Thousands flee their homes under a very eerie, threatening sky.

ROMANS: A Kansas police officer is off the job. Why a coffee from McDonald's led to his ouster. Good morning, everyone. This is Early Start. I'm Christine Romans.

SANTIAGO: And I'm Leyla Santiago. It is 5:28 right now in New York. Happy New Year to you, or no. Not Happy New Year yet. ROMANS: Happy New Year's Eve.


That's right.

SANTIAGO: That's correct.

ROMANS: We're going to begin with some breaking news here. Hundreds of pro-Iranian protestors demonstrating outside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. They're angry about airstrikes by the U.S. against militia groups in Iraq backed by Iran. CNN's Arwa Damon is live with more. What can you tell us is happening there, Arwa?

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, these are not your run of the mill pro-Iranian-Iraqi protestors. This is something of a show of force by the popular mobilization forces. Remember, that militia that the U.S. said it was targeting is part of this popular mobilization force that is part of the Iraqi security forces. And so, you had hundreds if not more members of the paramilitary force carrying forward this funeral procession turned demonstration all the way into the still heavily-secured (ph).