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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Biden Faces High-Stakes Test in Call with Putin Over Ukraine; Marc Short, One of former VP Pence's Closet Advisors, Cooperating with January 6th Committee; Ukraine Braces for Possible Russian Invasion. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired December 07, 2021 - 05:00   ET



CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: All right, good morning, everyone. It is Tuesday, December 7th. It is 5:00 a.m. in New York. Thanks for getting an early start with us. I'm Christine Romans.


Welcome to our viewers in the United States and all around the world. We have reports this morning from Berlin, Johannesburg, Washington and Chicago.

We begin, though, with one of the most critical calls of Joe Biden's presidency, probably the most critical call. It's happening later this morning. He's speaking via video from the Situation Room at 10:00 a.m.

Mr. Biden is expected to warn Vladimir Putin of severe sanctions if Russia invades Ukraine. U.S. intelligence agencies say Russia has been building up military forces along its border with Ukraine, to as many as 175,000 troops, enough to begin an offensive within a matter of months.

Here's CIA Director Bill Burns.


BILL BURNS, CIA DIRECTOR: We don't know that Putin has made up his mind to use force, but what we do know is that he's putting the Russian military, the Russian security services in a place where they could act in a pretty sweeping way.


ROMANS: In case that happens, the White House says it's readying a range of sanctions aimed at President Putin's inner circle and the Russian economy more broadly.


JEN PSAKI, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We have consulted significantly with our allies and believe we have a path forward that would impose significant and severe harm on the Russian economy. You can call that a threat. You can call that a fact. You can call that preparation, whatever you want to call it.


ROMANS: For more on this high-stakes phone call, let's bring in White House reporter Jasmine Wright live in Washington.

Jasmine, good morning.

What do we know about Biden's message to Putin and the sanctions that could be on the table here?

JASMINE WRIGHT, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, Christine, sanctions on the table are aggressive. That is how they have been described to CNN. And they could target as you said, economic sanctions, could target Russian oligarchs, Russian banks, Russian debt.

And one nuclear option could actually remove the country from the international payment plan, SWIFT, which is what most banks use -- which is what a lot of banks use across the country. But, of course, officials caution that no final decisions have been made.

But let's take a step back because as Laura and you pointed out, this could be one of, if not the most critical call of President Biden's nearly one-year presidency. And so White House officials say he will be really clear in kind of setting up what could be the impact to Russia if they proceed down this route.

Here is White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki.


JEN PSAKI, WHITE HOUSSE PRESS SECRETARY: It is an opportunity for the president to underscore, of course, U.S. concerns with Russian military activities on the border with Ukraine and reaffirm the United States support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. It's also an opportunity to discuss a range of topics in the U.S. and Russia relationship, including strategic stability, cyber and regional issues.


WRIGHT: So there we heard Psaki giving a run down on the call. Both sides expect it to go a long time.

But, last night, President Biden spoke to European officials as they are looking to be on the same page going into the call today. And officials say that President Biden will talk to Ukrainian President Zelensky in the days after today's call happening, and just about five hours really trying to read him out and consult him very closely as things go ahead.

But one more time, I have to point out this is a critical call for the president heading into Tuesday -- Christine.

ROMANS: Yeah, being watched by everyone in Washington, Republican Senator Joni Ernst urging the president to be very clear and very strong to Putin on that call.

Thank you so much, Jasmine. Nice to see you.

Now to a CNN exclusive, former chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, Marc Short, is cooperating with the January 6 committee. It's a significant development that will give investigators insight from a high-ranking Trump official. CNN has learned that the committee subpoenaed short a few weeks ago.

CNN's Ryan Nobles has more.


RYAN NOBLES, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Laura, Christine, this is no doubt a significant development for the January 6 Select Committee, that they are getting cooperation from Marc Short, who is the former chief of staff to the Vice President Mike Pence. And Short was with Pence in the days and weeks leading up to January 6, and he was with him here on that day. Pence part of a group of aides and advisers to Pence who were evacuated from the Capitol as the rioters stormed the building on that day.

So there's a lot the committee probably wants to know about the time line of events on January 6 itself. But Short also has unique insight into what Pence was dealing with in the days leading up to January 6.


Of course, Pence was being put under enormous pressure from the former President Donald Trump and allies outside of the White House to try and intervene in his role as president of the Senate, to try and prevent the certification of the election results on January 6, including one key meeting in the Oval Office with conservative lawyer John Eastman who was floating this pretty much debunked legal theory that somehow Pence had the authority to prevent the certification of the election.

Of course, Pence said that he did not have that authority. He refused to take that step, which was part of why some of the rioters that were here on that day were looking for Pence, some even saying that they wanted to execute him.

So, the fact that we have a key player in Pence's orbit willing to communicate with the January 6 committee, at least answer some questions and hand over documents about his experience on that day, gives us a level of insight into just how willing the Pence world may be willing to cooperate on a broader scale.

Now, we should point out that Marc Short was subpoenaed by the January 6 select committee. This was information that we were not made aware of until CNN broke this story. So, Marc Short, key player in all of the activity leading up to January 6, cooperating with the committee as they try and get to the bottom of what happened here on that day -- Laura and Christine.

(END VIDEOTAPE) JARRETT: Ryan, thank you for that.

GOP Congressman Devin Nunes is leaving the House at the end of the month to become the CEO of former President Trump's new media company. Now, Nunes would have faced a tough reelection next year in a district that leans more Democratic. He was previously chairman of the House Intel Committee, and led GOP efforts to discredit special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. More on this story later this hour.

ROMANS: And the investigation into that media company already.

All right. Former President Donald Trump was a lot sicker than the White House admitted to when he had COVID. That is according to chief of staff Mark Meadows, "The Chief's Chief". Meadow says the White House downplayed just how ill Trump was last year. He says Trump's blood oxygen levels, quote, dropped down to the 80s. Normal levels were 95 to 100.

Meadows says he begged Trump to go to the hospital, which Trump viewed as a sign of weakness. Meadows says Trump only relented after he said, better to go under your own power now than be carried out in a gurney in two days.

JARRETT: So he apparently has quite a bit to say and is yet at the same time trying to claim executive privilege shields, all these conversations.

ROMANS: Same contradiction.

JARRETT: We will see how that works.

Up next, actor Jussie Smollett taking the stand, insisting he never staged any sort of attack against himself.

ROMANS: Plus disturbing testimony from the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell, ahead.



JARRETT: Welcome back.

In just a few hours, Jussie Smollett will be back on the witness stand to face more cross-examination today. The former "Empire" actor testified Monday in his own defense, trying to convince jurors that he did not stage that hate crime attack, but instead was a victim of sloppy police work.

CNN's Omar Jimenez has more from Chicago.


OMAR JIMENEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Christine and Laura, Jussie Smollett testified five hours on Monday, and things ended with cross- examination where Jussie Smollett denied tampering with the noose seen around his neck just after the alleged hate crime attack back in January of 2019. He denied tampering with it to make it look like a more serious lynching.

He did tell jurors he took it off at one point, only to put it back on because his manager said the police needed to see the evidence. Now, before cross-examination began, the defense went through piece by piece some of the major points of the prosecution's case in this, specifically they went back to the car ride the Osundairo brothers where he initially proposed the fake attack and that is what happened.

Smollett testified that didn't happen at all. They drove around and smoked blunt. He asked if at any time he talked to Bola Osundairo about a hate crime and he said no. About a week prior, after an alleged hate letter was sent to the "Empire" studios, Jussie Smollett said he was offered security and was denied it, and that's important because the prosecution has argued part of why Smollett created this alleged scheme in the first place because he felt "Empire" wasn't taking the hate letter seriously enough.

He also testified that Bola repeatedly asked to be his security guard, and those requests only intensified after that letter came, and that's important because the defense has argued that the brothers wanted to intimidate him into hiring Bola, at least Bola for security. And separately he testified that he and Bola had had multiple sexual encounters, which Bola also denied during his testimony.

But that's important because Ola Osundairo, the brother, argued homophobia may have been a potential motivator of what was a real hate crime attack.

Now, cross-examination is where things left off over the course of yesterday. That's where things will pick up today. The judge previously had hoped that things would be over, that it would be in the jury's hands at least, by today. He was 100 percent certain is what he said.

Well, now, he's saying things may spill into tomorrow -- Christine, Laura.


ROMANS: All right, Omar, thank you for that. We know you'll be there for us.

Chilling new testimony in the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell. A woman who claims Jeffrey Epstein sexually abused her says Maxwell set up their meetings. The woman also vividly described for jurors what she says she witnessed at Epstein's homes.

More now from CNN's Kara Scannell.


KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: A second accuser testified Monday in the sex trafficking trial of Ghislaine Maxwell using the pseudonym, Kate. She testified that she met Maxwell in Paris when she was 17 years old. Kate told the jury that at Maxwell's London home a few weeks later, she met Jeffrey Epstein when Maxwell brought her to a room where Epstein was naked and she was instructed to give him a massage.

That incident and a similar one soon after included sex acts, Kate said. After both incidents, Kate asked Maxwell if she had fun. Kate also testified that in Palm Beach, she was given a school girl uniform that Maxwell suggested she wear to serve Epstein tea. The encounter she alleged also turned sexual. Kate said Maxwell told her Epstein had a voracious sexual appetite and asked if she knew other girls who were cute, young and pretty like you.

On cross examination, Maxwell's lawyer suggested Kate's ambition was to be famous and that her past substance abuse called into question her memory. Kate acknowledged on cross examination that she stayed in contact with Epstein until 2011 and emailed him while he was in jail for state prostitution charges. During the hour-long cross examination, Maxwell's lawyer didn't question Kate about her dealings with Maxwell, the judge told the jury that they couldn't convict Maxwell based on Kate's testimony since she was the age of legal consent at the time of her alleged assault. But they could consider her testimony.

Also Monday, prosecutors show the jury photographs of evidence they seized evidence in 2019 from Epstein's Manhattan mansion, including binders of CDs and bins of hard drives. The jury also saw photos of Epstein's massage room, but the judge blocked prosecutors from showing them school girl uniforms and a stuffed tiger, items they wanted to show the jury to corroborate the accuser's testimony.

Today, the jury is expected to see photos found on the CDs seized in Epstein's mansion -- Christine, Laura.


JARRETT: Kara, thank you for that. It will be interesting to see if she testifies in her own defense.


JARRETT: So many cases and so many trials going on where defendants are testifying. It's not that usual you see that every day.

All right. Still ahead for you, tensions continue to escalate between Russia and Ukraine. A top Ukrainian official has for the world next.





OLEKSIY REZNIKOV, UKRAINIAN DEFENSE MINISTER: I not believe -- I will not believe that Russia will have a victory in Ukraine. It's different, because it will be a really blood massacre. And Russian guys also will come back in the -- coffins, yes.


ROMANS: Ukraine's defense minister talking to CNN about the imminent possibility of an invasion by Russia. Satellite images indicate an unprecedented troop buildup near the Ukrainian frontier, enough for Moscow to mount an overwhelming invasion. That has the U.S. and NATO on high alert even as Russia denies it plans to invade.

Let's get the latest now from CNN's Fred Pleitgen with the latest.

Fred, good morning. How are Ukrainians viewing this Biden/Putin call and how important is that for an off ramp in these tensions?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think they view it as something that is of the utmost importance. You can see that from some of the statements we've been hearing from Ukrainian officials the past couple of days. You heard the Ukrainian defense minister warning that Russians would be killed if there was an invasion.

One of the interesting things that he told our own Matthew Chance in that interview, I think was also that the Ukrainians say they don't want American troops necessarily as support you support but what they do want is material support and weapons systems as well. That would be something that would be very important.

But, of course, in total, the main thing right now for the U.S. and its allies is to try and solve all of this in a diplomatic way, and there definitely everyone is looking to the phone call between President Biden and the Russian President Vladimir Putin. And in that regard, certainly the big question is how will President Biden try to solve all this. One of the main things he has talked about has been massive sanctions should there be an invasion by the Russians. He's saying he would make clear to the Russian leader Vladimir Putin that the cost will be very high for an invasion of Ukraine.

And literally just a couple m before we went to air got this from our Moscow office from the Kremlin this morning. I just want to paraphrase it for you a little bit. This is the spokesman for Vladimir Putin saying no need to expect any breakthroughs from this conversation. This is a working conversation, in which tensions are escalating in Europe off the charts.

Of course, this requires a conversation on a personal level. Again, that's the spokesman for Vladimir Putin. So obviously the Russians view this as very important as well. The Russians are saying what they want is guarantees that NATO would not -- Ukraine would not become a member of NATO. The U.S. has rejected that demand. NATO has rejected that demand. Certainly the Ukrainians have rejected that demand as well.

The other thing we're hearing, fresh information that we also got, is that the Ukrainians are saying they are seeing this pro-Russian separatist in the east of Ukraine, also fortifying their positions both with snipers and with heavy weapons as well.


So, as you can see, a really volatile situation as that call is due to take place in a couple hours, guys.

ROMANS: Sure is.

All right. Fred Pleitgen for us. Thank you, Fred.

JARRETT: Three missionaries taken hostage, you remember that story? They've been released after months of captivity in Haiti. We will bring you the very latest, next.


JARRETT: Good Tuesday morning, everyone. This is EARLY START. I'm Laura Jarrett.