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Iranian-Backed Protesters Withdraw from U.S. Embassy in Baghdad; North Korea Warns It May Resume Nuclear Weapons Testing; Deadly Wildfires Spread in Australia; Benjamin Netanyahu Asks Knesset for Immunity. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired January 2, 2020 - 04:00   ET



CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Twin foreign crises for the U.S. A new stare-down with Iran and a new weapons threat from North Korea. Are they sensing vulnerability at the White House?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN ANCHOR: And the race for 2020 finally being waged in 2020. Pete Buttigieg with an early reminder he is a fundraising force, and he's not the only one.

ROMANS: A state of emergency in southeast Australia. The death toll climbing from raging wildfires and the forecast getting worse.

JARRETT: And a very happy start to 2020 for one Michigan woman, thanks to the generosity of a couple she waited on.

CNN is live this morning in Baghdad, Hong Kong, Jerusalem, Australia. Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is EARLY START. And I'm Laura Jarett.

ROMANS: Welcome aboard, Laura Jarrett, for our New Year, for 2020. Nice to see you here.

JARRETT: Thank you so much, Christine. Thrilled to be here.

ROMANS: Thank you. I'm Christine Romans. It's Thursday, January 2nd, 4:00 a.m. in New York.

And it's 32 days until the Iowa caucuses. But we begin here with the U.S. and Iran appear to be stepping back from the brink of confrontation after days of violent protests by Iran-backed demonstrators at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. But this could be the start of a longer protest campaign.

Thousands of angry supporters of an Iran-backed militia tried to storm the embassy. They were protesting deadly U.S. airstrikes launched in response to a death of a U.S. contractor in a rocket attack.

JARRETT: The protesters managed to do serious damage inside the embassy. Some rooms left totally charred there. Iraqi Security Forces have regained control of the area. But a spokesman for the militia group that organized the demonstration says America should have received the message.

And the embassy protests were only a first step. The embassy says all public consular services are now suspended until further notice.

Our senior international correspondent Arwa Damon is live for us in Baghdad -- Arwa.

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning. And what that group is saying, Kata'ib Hezbollah, is that these protests are open-ended. They have relocated. And right now, they are giving a yet unspecified amount of time to the Iraqi parliament to fulfill within Iraq's legal framework their key demand would still stand. That is that the Americans get out.

Now let's take a closer look at who this group is. They're called Kata'ib Hezbollah and they are part of this Shia paramilitary force that ostensibly falls under the command of the Iraqi Security Forces. How much control Baghdad has over them as is apparent in what transpired over the last few days does remain a big question.

Now this particular group is one of many groups that is under this umbrella paramilitary force, that is in Iraq, but also has sent its fighters across the border to Syria to assist the regime of Bashar al- Assad. Its forces are stationed along the Syrian-Iraqi border. And it is an overarching group that does continue to maintain very close ties to Iran. And there are growing concerns over Iraq becoming this proxy battlefield between Washington and Tehran.

Up until this point, the Trump administration has, to a certain degree, showed restraint in terms of its response to Iran, at least up until these strikes that were carried out on Sunday. But the situation right now is incredibly tense. There is a lot at stake and there are a lot of potential flashpoints that could further escalate the situation.

JARRETT: Arwa, thank you so much for staying on top of this situation for us.

And we should note that the Secretary of State Make Pompeo has postponed a planned trip to Ukraine that was supposed to start tomorrow to deal with the developments in Baghdad.

ROMANS: Another potential international crisis developing in North Korea. Kim Jong-un declaring his country should no longer feel bound by a self-imposed halt on nuclear weapons development, and that the world will, quote, "witness a new strategic weapon in the near future."

Now President Trump is trying to remain optimistic, but listen to Joseph Yun, Trump's former special representative for North Korea.


JOSEPH YUN, FORMER U.S. SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE FOR NORTH KOREA POLICY: Kim is definitely, definitely playing Trump. President Trump saying that Kim signed the deal for denuclearization. Well, not so far. (END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: Let's get the latest from CNN's David Culver in Hong Kong. And it wasn't long that these two men were standing side-by-side, and this was the first U.S. president ever to set foot on North Korean soil. And now we have these developments.


DAVID CULVER, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No question, Christine. And it's a bit frustrating. A new year starting with the return to old and alarming rhetoric. Kim Jong-un's remarks to his top officials, reflecting this angry, even desperate tone at times. He essentially is saying because the U.S. will not bend on his incensions, that North Korea is going to reverse course.

They no longer feel bound by their self-imposed halting of nuclear and long-range missile testing. And they go even further. They said they'll even bolster their nuclear defense. So all of this comes after two years of what we saw as summitry and diplomacy. President Trump trying to convey that he and Kim still have a, quote, "good relationship." Even this week, he says that -- he thinks Kim is a man of his word.

Maybe there's something we're not seeing because the words and recent actions out of North Korea, in particular, satellite images showing movement in and around past ICBM test sites suggest that Kim does not feel the same. In recent days one Trump administration official downplayed the name-calling at least recently between Trump and Kim. That has resurfaced. And they're suggesting they're just words, not actions.

But as one former top U.S. military official tells me, the issue with words, especially across different cultures, is that it can forge a narrative. And that narrative can lead to dangerous remarks being taken.

Now in his remarks to his top officials, Kim reiterated over and over how sanctions are crushing them. They are struggling in North Korea and that's where the desperation comes in. He said if the U.S. abuses the dialogue between the two countries, that they will pay for the pains of the North Korean people.

Now it is true that North Korea had put out that dramatic language, Christine. But it's still concerning especially for those who aren't quite sure where it will go from here.

ROMANS: Yes. We never got that birthday or that Christmas present that we heard about from the North Koreans. But I know that Kim Jong- un's birthday is coming up so we'll see what the calendar holds for us.

David Culver, thank you.

JARRETT: Well, with the 2020 Democrats racing towards the Iowa caucuses now, just over a month away, Pete Buttigieg is a fundraising force. His campaign revealing it raised $24.7 million during the fourth quarter of 2019. The year-end haul tops the $19.2 million the former South Bend mayor raised in the third quarter and just about matches the $24.8 million he raked in during 2019's second quarter.

The numbers further cementing Buttigieg's position as one of the top fundraisers in the Democratic field. Meantime, Bernie Sanders' campaign says it's reached $5 million individual donors. We expect more details from the Sanders camp later today.

ROMANS: Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell kicking off the 2020 session of the Senate tomorrow. It remains unclear when the impeachment trial of President Trump might begin.

CNN's Phil Mattingly reports McConnell's plan is to continue business as usual until the House sends over the articles of impeachment. Expect movement on judicial and executive branch nominations, but Phil says McConnell has no intention of doing anything impeachment-related until Speaker Nancy Pelosi sends the articles over.

JARRETT: And there's now a second Republican senator raising questions about McConnell's strategy. This was Senator Susan Collins speaking to Maine Public Radio.


SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R-ME): I am open to witnesses. I think it's premature to decide who should be called until we see the evidence that is presented and get the answers to the questions that we senators can submit through the chief justice to both sides.


JARRETT: Now remember, McConnell has been very reluctant to allow the trial to include any witnesses. But on Monday, he told FOX News, he wasn't ruling it out either. Last month, Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski said she is, quote, "disturbed" by coordination between McConnell and the White House over the impeachment trial.

ROMANS: The new year begins with a passing of two iconic figures from the sports world. David Stern was the NBA commissioner for 30 years. Presiding over the league's skyrocketing global growth. He died after a brain hemorrhage he suffered three weeks ago. He was 77. Shaquille O'Neal, among the NBA greats, mourning his death. Shaq tweeting, "Rest in peace, Mr. David Stern. The best commissioner ever to do it."

And this from Hall of Famer Michael Jordan, " Without David Stern, the NBA would not be what it is today. His vision and leadership provided me with the global stage that allowed me to succeed."

JARRETT: And baseball has lost one of its World Series legends, pitcher Don Larsen. He was 90. Larsen played for seven teams in 14 seasons. But he famously pitched a perfect game for the Yankees in game five of the 1956 World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers. It's still the only perfect game in World Series history. ROMANS: All right. Nine minutes past the hour. Some notable new

laws to ring in the new year. Marijuana is now legal in Illinois. Anyone 21 or older can buy and possess it. Long lines stretched for blocks yesterday. Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton was among hundreds of early-morning customers.

New York is the latest state to end its money bail system for nearly all misdemeanors and non-violent felony cases. That could free thousands of incarcerated people from pretrial detention.


Oregon is the newest state to ban single-use plastic bags at grocery stores. Shoppers are now required to bring their own or pay a fee for paper bags.

And law enforcement officers in Florida will start writing tickets for anyone caught texting and driving. A similar law goes into effect in Massachusetts later this year.

JARRETT: Those lines in Illinois are just incredible.

ROMANS: Yes. Isn't it?

JARRETT: You remember in Colorado, the same thing happened.

ROMANS: Yes. Exactly.

JARRETT: Well, Israeli prime minister reversing course now. He wants Israel's parliament to protect him for corruption cases.


JARRETT: A state of emergency in New South Wales as raging wildfires in southeastern Australia are spreading. Officials ordering visitors out of a so-called tourist leave zone on the southern coast of New South Wales. Conditions are expected to worsen this weekend, with temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

The zone covers the area from Bateman's Bay down to the border with the state of Victoria. The fires have almost burned nine million acres. That's bigger, for context here, than the state of Maryland.

These extraordinary satellite images show the scale of flames, the smoke, the ash for miles just in every direction there. Firefighters who drove through the raging brush fire describe the terror of barely escaping with their lives.


DEP. CPL. JASON CROFT, FIRE AND RESCUE NEW SOUTH WALES: We were in there, in the thick of it. We thought that this could be it.


JARRETT: CNN's Anna Coren has the latest for us live from Nowra in New South Wales.

ANNA COREN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Laura, this is the worst fire season ever recorded here in Australia. These bush fires have been raging now for months. Obviously what we're seeing since New Year's Eve has just been catastrophic. Eight people have died in the last few days taking the death toll to 17. There are 17 people missing in Victoria. Thousands of homes have been destroyed and, as you say, nine million hectares has been wiped out.


We are here in Nowra which is about three hours south of Sydney. And this is as far as we can come. There are fires not far from where we are that have cut off this highway. These people here. They are waiting to head south to the fire zone. That is where their loved ones, their homes -- we spoke to a father whose 4- and 5-year-old are with his in-laws. They have not spoken since the 30th of December because communication lines are down.

He is terrified and his anxiety, not knowing is what is really affecting so many people. But authorities saying it is too dangerous to head there. And of course we're expecting catastrophic conditions to return here on the weekend. Those high temperatures, those soaring winds. And that is what creates these deadly conditions.

You know, Australia knows bush fires. But as I say, these are, without doubt, the worst fires to have hit this country. And we are really only in the middle of the fire season. You have to remember, this is the summer, the middle of summer. We have months ahead of us, as far as beating and fighting these fires. So it's not good at all here at the moment -- Laura.

JARRETT: Thank you so much for being there for us, Anna. Thank you.

ROMANS: All right to Israel now. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirms he will ask Israel's parliament to grant him immunity from corruption charges. In March, Israelis tried for a third time to elect a majority government. The immunity request by Netanyahu is expected to delay any trial until after the election.

Oren Liebermann live from Jerusalem with the latest developments here. And just watching from where we are here, this was a successful attempt to delay a trial. Is that what this maneuver is?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Christine, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not only hoping to delay a trial but he's of course hoping to seek immunity and get immunity from prosecution in three cases in which he faces indictment on charges of bribery and fraud and breach of trust. But he didn't start his speech by talking about immunity. In fact his speech sounded a heck of lot like a campaign speech where he talked about his accomplishments and said he wants to take the will of the people into the future, leading the country for many years to come, and seeking many more what he called historic achievements.

Then, he said, the immunity laws designed to protect from what he calls fabricated indictments and the pressure put upon witnesses to testify against him. He quickly talked about immunity then he shifted into a new political attack against his opponents. And that's once again where it sounded like a campaign speech.

Well, his opponent rival, Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White Party, immediately blasted Netanyahu for announcing he will seek immunity, saying now it's clear to voters they have a clear choice or two choices in the upcoming election in March. It's either the interest of Netanyahu or the national interests. It's either the kingdom of Netanyahu or the state of Israel. The choice is clear, Gantz said in a response immediately after Netanyahu's statement.

Where do the legal proceedings go from here? Well, at this point they're stuck. As big as Netanyahu's request, it has to be heard by what's called by the Knesset House Committee. Except because there's no function and coalition here, no fully functioning government, there is no House committee. And Netanyahu's request can't be heard at this point, meaning the legal proceedings against him are in a stalemate, just like the political situation in this country -- Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Oren Liebermann, thank you so much for that. A stalemate on both country.

JARRETT: That's an interesting situation.


JARRETT: So why were firefighters in Detroit posing in front of a burning home? We'll find out up next.



ROMANS: The president at his swanky New Year's Eve party, ending the old year, plugging a message of a strong economy.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The country has never done better than it's doing right now. We have the best unemployment numbers. We have the best employment numbers. Almost 160 million people working. African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic-American. We have the best numbers in the history of our country.


ROMANS: Interesting thing that the question was asked of Melania Trump, the president's wife, was, what is your New Year's resolution, she said peace on the world. And then he brought in the economy message. Because it's an important message for him into the election year. The economy is strong. The latest CNN polling shows Americans 10 years into the recovery finally believe it. 76 percent said economic conditions are good but the highest rating in nearly two decades. It is an advantage for the president heading into the election. He

won the White House on a message the Obama economy wasn't working for everyone. It's why Democrats running for president have zeroed in on wages, health care, student debt and fairness. My economic sources talking to the president say they want him to take every moment to pivot to the economy. He's under pressure to stay on message this election. The question is, will he and can he?

JARRETT: The burning question, right?


JARRETT: Well, Japanese prosecutors have raided the home of the former Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn. Ghosn was living there while he was free on bail in Tokyo. He was facing trial for alleged financial misconduct before he fled to Lebanon. The "Wall Street Journal" reports Ghosn's escape was months in the making with the help of associates. It's not clear however he was able to leave the country since his passports had supposed been confiscated.

ROMANS: Want to warn you, the video you're about to see is violent and disturbing. Police in Las Vegas are hoping to identify and find a woman caught on a home security video trying to flee from an attacker. They say she may have been kidnapped. A Nest camera captured the woman frantically banging on a door shortly after midnight on New Year's night. Moments later, a man pursuing her grabs her and beats her and forces her into a car.

Police say the vehicle is believed to be a white Hyundai Sonata with a sunroof. Crime Stoppers of Nevada is offering cash reward -- a cash reward for help in the case.

JARRETT: Well, a controversial photo of Detroit firefighters posing in front of a burning home is now under investigation. The picture was posted on Facebook Tuesday night. It was taken outside a vacant home. And firefighters were commemorating a battalion chief's retirement. Detroit's deputy fire commissioner calls the photo despicable and the commissioner says disciplinary action will be taken.


ROMANS: All right. So folks in Colorado and Nebraska are freaking out over a series of mysterious drone sightings in the last few weeks. Deputies have spotted at least 16 unmanned drones in northeast Colorado alone and no one can figure out who's operating them. According to authorities the drones are operating within federal guidelines but they're making people really nervous.

The FAA is currently proposing new rules that will require most drones to use remote ID technology that will help authorities identify them. But, you know, also they're coming in the evening and at night. You know, there's some speculation, are they mapping land? Are they being -- is it an energy company that's like mapping topography? But why would you do that at night?

JARRETT: And it's weird. There's no one that seems to have an answer.

ROMANS: I know. Very creepy.

JARRETT: Well, a doctor's incredible save happens not in the hospital but in his apartment building. And it's captured on surveillance video. A dog belonging to Mohammad Awad's neighbor gets her leash stuck in an elevator. As the doors close, you can see there, the doctor arrives just as the dog gets launched into the air when the elevator goes up. And Awad springs into action. He tries desperately to break the leash before the dog chokes. Then, the leash snaps, dropping the dog and the doctor to the ground.

ROMANS: Oh, my gosh. What quick thinking there.

JARRETT: Look at that.

ROMANS: I'm glad the dog is OK.

All right. 2020 is up to a very good start for Michigan waitress Danielle Franzoni. A couple left her a tip of $2,020 on a $23 check.


DANIELLE FRANZONI, LUCKY WAITRESS: Because of this, my kids have a future and I have a home. It's a big deal. It's a really big deal.


ROMANS: Danielle needed a break. She's a 31-year-old single mother of three, a recovering opioid addict who moved to Alpena from Detroit last year to start over. Now the couple behind the gesture remains anonymous. It was inspired by the 2020 tip challenge circulating online.

That's awesome.

JARRETT: Well, a new year dawns with familiar threats for nuke. Why Iran and North Korea are staring down the United States.