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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Sinema Is Lone Democratic Holdout On Inflation Reduction Act; CPAC Kicks Off In Texas, Trump And Bannon Among Speakers; NFL Appealing Deshaun Watson's 6-Game Suspension. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired August 04, 2022 - 05:30   ET




ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Flags at the U.S. Capitol at half-staff this morning after Indiana Congresswoman Jackie Walorski and two staffers were killed in a car crash Wednesday. Authorities say a car crossed over a road in northern Indiana and hit Walorski's SUV head-on. Two members of her staff, 28-year-old Emma Thomson and 27-year-old Zach Potts, as I mentioned, also killed in that accident, along with the driver of the other vehicle.

Walorski was first elected in 2012 to represent Indiana. She's represented the second congressional district there and was a ranking Republican on the House Ethics Committee. She was 58.

Well, Joe Manchin is on board, but what about Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema? Right now, the lone Democratic holdout blocking the Inflation Reduction Act -- the bill that would tackle health care, climate, and taxes. Her vote, as you know, is critical if this is going to pass in a 50-50 Senate. Democrats are treading lightly with the senator because they don't want to derail the party's top legislative priority.

Let's bring in now Alayna Treene, congressional reporter at Axios. Good to see you this morning.

So, you're reporting Sinema could be eyeing perhaps some changes to this act. Give us a sense what specifically could those changes be, and could they hold things up?

ALAYNA TREENE, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, AXIOS (via Webex by Cisco): Well, yes. She's definitely taking her time and working through a lot of the details in this proposed legislation, and she has a lot of leverage. She's, like you said, the lone Democrat standing in the way of them completing this and Democrats have been really desperate to get this ambitious legislation done. And so, there's a chance that her buy-in is really going to be taken to heart by the core senators working on this bill.

She's eyeing, specifically, changes to the tax portions of the bill. The 15 percent corporate minimum tax -- something that she's supported in the past because she says that she's for going after those who avoid their taxes. But she, from my reporting, wants to restructure that and she's worried that potentially, some of that -- the taxes there on corporations could get passed down to employees. So she's been talking with a lot of people in Arizona, including the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and business manufacturers in the state, to see what they think about that.

She also has long shown opposition to the carried interest loophole, which is another big portion of this bill. And I wouldn't be surprised and the people I spoke with who have been talking to Sinema wouldn't be surprised either if she ends up asking for that to be cut altogether itself.

She's also looking at potential changes to the climate portion of the bill. She doesn't think that there's enough funding for climate -- specifically, threat resilience. Arizona has been hit really hard by droughts, but they also had a massive flood recently and recent wildfires. And the heat and climate change in that state and, really, the southwest overall, is even worse than in other parts of the country. And so, she's really focused on getting that funding, particularly for Arizona.


HILL: So if we look at those two issues, right -- wanting climate to be a little bit more robust and some changes, perhaps, or protections, I guess, you could maybe say in terms of the tax issues there is there a sense that those are issues that can be worked through and agreed upon or is there real concern this morning that this could essentially tank the bill?

TREENE: You know, by and large -- and I'm -- I think everyone who covers Congress -- I know myself, but a lot of my colleagues covering Capitol Hill would agree that most people are normally cynical when it comes to this type of really big and sweeping legislation. However, I do think that Democrats have wanted this for so long.

And prior to this, really, Joe Manchin, the senator from West Virginia, was seen as the person holding this up and stopping this massive bill from getting through. Now that he's on board and he has a deal with Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, it's expected that Sinema will fall in line. Of course, she's (INAUDIBLE) only problem. They're not the same.

But I do think, by and large, people think they will be able to work through the issues because they have no other option. They want to get this done so badly and deliver a win for Democrats across the country, particularly at a time when the president's poll numbers are sagging. The midterms -- a lot of people projecting that Republicans are going to have -- you know, see huge numbers in the House and the Senate. Potentially, the Senate, I should say.

So they're really desperate for this win and I think that eagerness to get anything done shows that, again, she has a lot of leverage but a lot of Democrats are also really willing to work through the issues that she has in order to get her on board.

HILL: And to your point, they all want to be able to point to more wins.

You mentioned the president's approval numbers -- the lowest approval rating yet in a new CNN poll -- 36 percent. All of this, right, as we're also looking at -- you have some new reporting about 2024 -- potential 2024 Republican hopefuls who are interested in backing this controversial initiative that former President Trump has talked about that basically makes it easier for the president to get rid of whatever he wants, purging federal workers.

Do they really believe in this or is this more part of a bid for a potential 2024 run?

TREENE: I think it's a mix, Erica. I think that some people -- a lot of Republicans, particularly the more conservative ones and those who have really fully embraced former President Trump's agenda, take issue with the federal bureaucracy. They think that a lot of civil servants and the idea of having career officials, apolitical as they're supposed to be -- career officials -- they argue that they're not apolitical. That they're more liberal and that they're working against any Republican president's agenda.

But I also think that some people recognize that this is a winning issue with Trump's base, and that's the base that Republican candidates are going to need to set themselves apart, but also in line with Trump ahead of 2024.

But this -- the idea that a lot of these potential Republican 2024 candidates are embracing this idea -- it's the executive order known as Schedule F and would allow whoever the next president is, particularly in this case, the next Republican president to fire and replace civil servants. And specifically, replace them with loyalists -- could radically reshape the federal government.

And it's really raising alarm bells, I think, across Washington and beyond. I know Democrats are working on trying to find legislation to prevent whoever the next president is from implementing a policy or an executive order like Schedule F.

But it's fascinating and I think the reporting shows that this goes beyond Donald Trump. Whoever the next Republican is might use this blueprint to really reshape federal government and put in as many loyalists and allies as possible.

HILL: Yes. It's definitely something to keep an eye on.

Alayna Treene, great to have you this morning. Thank you.

TREENE: Thank you.

HILL: Well, today, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) kicks off in Texas. Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and the prime minister of Hungary, just a few of the headliners conservatives will hear from over the next four days.

CNN's Michael Warren is at the site of the conference in Dallas and joins us now live. So, when the former president shows up here is he still the star of the show at CPAC?

MICHAEL WARREN, CNN REPORTER: Well, there's really no question, Erica, that after years of attending these kind of conservative confabs that Donald Trump remains the star. He's going to be the final speaker on Saturday night, really ending a conference here that has, in many ways, become a pro-Trump conference.


But his appearance here at CPAC Texas does suggest he does need to consolidate some influence and power with conservative activists as we look ahead to the midterms. Trump has had an uneven primary season. His endorsements in some of these competitive primaries have not always gone his way.

And, of course, there are other Republicans who are wanting to run in 2024 -- people who are popular with conservative activists like those at CPAC, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. That's a person who he's competing with -- Trump is. He's aware of that and that's why he keeps showing up to these events.

HILL: Yes, he has to -- has to protect his place there.

Also getting a lot of attention is the fact that Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, is going to be there. Obviously, closely aligned with Vladimir Putin but also some questionable moves, I think we could say, if you're interested in democracy. He's getting a lot of attention there. A lot of folks there who are actually pretty excited about his appearance.

WARREN: Well, Orban is not just an ally of Vladimir Putin's. He's got a fan in Donald Trump. When Donald Trump was president in 2019 he hosted Orban at the White House and praised him. Since leaving the White House, Trump has endorsed Orban's fourth bid for a fourth term as Hungary's prime minister. And just recently, Trump hosted Orban at his Bedminster, New Jersey golf club.

And Orban has become popular among a lot of conservatives -- that hardline immigration policy that he -- that he has pushed forward and some of this culture war rhetoric.

But if you can believe it, Erica, Orban might be even more controversial speaking here than Donald Trump. In fact, just late last month, Orban gave a speech in Romania in which he engaged in some -- what a lot of people considered racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric. He even seemed to make a joke about the Holocaust. That caused one of his top aides to resign and she said that he was reading from the Nazi playbook.

So, we will be watching here in Dallas to see if Orban continues to court controversy when he speaks later today.

HILL: Michael Warren, appreciate it. Thank you.

The CDC, we're learning, is expected to ease COVID-19 recommendations, including for schools, as early as this week. That new guidance could include shortening the quarantine timelines. Also, relaxing that 6- foot social distancing rule for people who are exposed to the virus. Plus, regular screening tests for schools may no longer be recommended this fall. The changes, in many ways, reflect shifting public sentiment toward the pandemic.

We'll keep an eye on that and bring you those changes as we learn more about them officially.

Plus, a critical day in a Russian courtroom for WNBA star Brittney Griner. Her lawyers preparing now for closing arguments.

And the NFL holding out for a tougher punishment against Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson.



HILL: Closing arguments set to begin today for Brittney Griner. The WNBA star is on trial in Russia accused of smuggling cannabis oil in her luggage, which she claims had been prescribed for chronic pain. Griner pleaded guilty, hoping for a lenient sentence. Her attorney says a verdict could come today.

CNN State Department producer Jennifer Hansler joining us now. So, Jennifer, I guess now we -- now we wait, and then if she is convicted, what would the next step be for the United States?

JENNIFER HANSLER, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT PRODUCER: Well, Erica, U.S. officials will be watching to see how Russia responds to a deal on the table to free both Brittney Griner and another American, Paul Whelan, if and when she is convicted. Sources have told CNN that this is expected to be part of the process. They were not expecting a lot of movement from Moscow on this deal until there was a verdict reached in her case.

Now, we know that the deal was presented back in June and as CNN reported last week, it includes a proposed prisoner swap for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. He is currently serving a 25-year sentence here in the United States.

Now, Erica, it remains to be seen how Moscow will respond or how quickly they will respond once a verdict is reached. U.S. officials have said they raised it with them repeatedly at various levels.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised the deal on a call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last Friday. This was the first time the two of them had spoken since the war in Ukraine began. And Blinken said he pressed Lavrov on what he describes as a significant proposal to free both Griner and Whelan.

For their part, the Russian Foreign Ministry said that Lavrov pushed Blinken to return to quote-unquote "quiet diplomacy" on this matter.

But behind the scenes, CNN has learned that Russia also proposed adding another person to the proposed prisoner swap. This is someone who was convicted of murder and is currently serving out a prison sentence in Germany. U.S. officials did not consider this to be a legitimate counteroffer to this deal that they had put on the table.

Now, as you mentioned, we are expecting closing arguments in Griner's case today. We don't know whether she'll be sentenced -- whether the trial will wrap up today -- but we will be watching to see if and when Moscow responds to that deal that has been put on the table. And we'll see Brittney Griner in that courtroom in just over an hour from now -- Erica.

HILL: We'll be looking for that. Jennifer Hansler, thank you.

Chinese military drills around Taiwan now underway.


Video from social media showing China firing rockets toward the Taiwan Strait.


HILL: A video from social media shows China firing rockets toward the Taiwan Strait. The Beijing government launching the drills to retaliate against the U.S. and, of course, Speaker Pelosi's visit to Taiwan.

Live fire drills are being conducted in six areas, as you see on your map there. They encircle Taiwan. They're expected to continue through Sunday.

Well, the NFL moving to appeal Deshaun Watson's 6-game suspension. Apparently, they think it's too light. Details in the Bleacher Report.

And one of the people charged in the dognapping involving Lady Gaga hears his sentence.



HILL: New pictures of devastation in Kentucky. Take a look at what's left of the only grocery store in the small town of Isom. It's the rural community's only local source for food and other necessary supplies. The owner now promising to reopen.

More than a week later, many residents remain without power after that severe flooding last week, which swept away, in many cases, everything people owned.

Meantime, flooding in St. Louis to tell you about. Overnight, torrential rains there forcing evacuations.

Let's get straight to meteorologist Pedram Javaheri who has more on this weather. Good morning.

PEDRAM JAVAHERI, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Good morning, Erica. Yes, it's been a wild night across portions of Missouri. Here, of

course, about nine days ago, we had the historic flooding that took place. A couple of days later, Kentucky was hit very hard.


Another line of active weather pushing right through St. Louis, producing rainfall amounts that were as impressive as it gets. In a matter of 20 minutes, about two inches came down, which becomes a one- in-a-50 to 100-year event across that particular region. And notice flooding still taking place. Flood warnings indicated in red, meaning flooding imminent or occurring in this region.

And upwards of 75,000 lightning strikes in the past 24 hours -- in the past 12 hours, I should say, scattered about the region as well, kind of speaking to the severity of these storms.

But rainfall amounts since midnight exceeding 3-plus inches in a few spots. And, of course, when your soil is as saturated as it is across this region, it's not going to take much to cause the flooding that we saw.

Notice the energy shifts a little farther towards the east. Still watching an excessive risk for rainfall across some of these areas, including Kentucky. A slight risk in place there for rainfall that could lead to additional flooding.

Of course, temperatures have been incredibly hot across this region as well. And don't be fooled by these temperatures being into the middle and upper 80s. You've got to factor in the humidity. It will feel closer to 93 to 95 degrees over the next several days. So really, going to be hard across this region for a lot of folks that have been impacted by the inclement weather.

And across the northeast, notice this. Heat indices up to 106 degrees. It includes cities such as Philly, New York, and Boston where it will be into the middle-90s and it will feel well above 100 for a few of those spots, Erica.

HILL: Not looking forward to that today here in New York City.


HILL: I keep getting alerts from the city warning me.

Pedram, appreciate it. Thank you.

JAVAHERI: Take care.

HILL: There is some happy news to share this morning and we can all use a little bit more of that. Chrissy Teigen is expecting, making the announcement in a heartfelt Instagram post where she acknowledged the last years have been a blur of emotions, saying she breathes a sigh of relief every day she hears a heartbeat.

This comes nearly two years after she and husband John Legend suffered a tragic pregnancy loss, which they were very open about. They've spoken a lot about their experience since then.

The couple also has two young children. So, congratulations to them.

The NFL says it is now appealing the 6-game suspension handed down to Browns' quarterback Deshaun Watson. Andy Scholes has more in this morning's Bleacher Report. So, too lenient, huh?

ANDY SCHOLES, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Erica. The NFL is saying that six games -- it's just not enough. The league, according to ESPN, is appealing for an indefinite suspension last at least one year, and they want Watson fined. Now, the way Watson's $230 million guaranteed contract with the Browns is structured makes it to where he would lose very little money if he were just suspended for games this season.

The decision is now up to Roger Goodell. He will now decide whether he hears the appeal or appoints someone to do so. Now, that ruling, when he makes it, will be final and binding to all parties. But the Players Union could challenge the ruling in federal court, setting the stage for a prolonged fight.

Watson has been accused of sexual misconduct by dozens of women but was not charged with any crimes. He has settled 23 of the lawsuits against him. Watson has denied any wrongdoing.

All right, Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau, and nine other LIV series golfers, meanwhile, have filed an antitrust lawsuit against the PGA Tour to challenge their suspensions. Three of those players are also seeking a temporary restraining order to allow them to play in the PGA Tour FedEx Playoffs starting next week. The lawsuit claims the suspensions, quote, "threatened irreparable harm to the players and their ability to pursue their profession."

In a memo sent to PGA Tour players yesterday, Commissioner Jay Monahan wrote that he intends to fight the lawsuit.

All right, a huge blow for women's basketball and the UConn Huskies. Their star, Paige Bueckers, will miss the entire upcoming season after tearing her left ACL in a pick-up game on Monday. It's the same knee she injured last season, which forced her to miss 19 games.

UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said in a statement the program is just devastated for Paige.

Bueckers was the national Player of the Year as a freshman two years ago and has led UConn to the Final Four each of her two seasons.


Standing ovation for San Diego Padres' Juan Soto.


SCHOLES: Yes. Juan Soto getting a huge ovation by San Diego fans in his Padres debut. The 23-year-old superstar was traded from the Nationals on Tuesday in one of the biggest deadline deals ever. Soto singled and walked twice in the 9-1 victory against the Rockies. And before the game, he sent a message to opposing pitchers who are going to have to face that new look in the Padres lineup.


JUAN SOTO, SAN DIEGO PADRES OUTFIELDER: It's going to be -- it's going to be really exciting. It's going to be really tough to go through. I wish good luck to the other pitchers.


SCHOLES: That's going to be one scary line-up when Fernando Tatis Jr. gets back, which should be pretty soon.

All right, that will do it for EARLY START. "NEW DAY" begins right now.