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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Wash Post: Document on Foreign Nation's Nuclear Capabilities Seized at Trump's Mar-a-Lago Home; UN Nuclear Watchdog Warns of "Grave Danger" at Ukraine Nuclear Plant; Soon: Liz Truss Faces Parliament on First Full Day in Office. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired September 07, 2022 - 05:00   ET



CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Here we go. It is Wednesday, September 7, exactly 5:00 A.M. in New York. Thanks for getting an EARLY START with me. I'm Christine Romans.

All right. Let's begin here, FBI agents who searched Mar-a-Lago last month found a document describing a foreign government's military defenses, including its nuclear capabilities. That reporting from "The Washington Post."

According to their report, the seized documents detail top secret U.S. operations that are so closely protected, they are kept from many senior national security officials. Only the president and some members of his cabinet have access to them.

Let's bring in Shawn Turner, CNN national security analyst and former director of communication for U.S. national intelligence.

Thank you so much for getting up early with us.

This reporting is quite interesting. What do you make of the idea that document like this was in a country club for 18 months?

SHAWN TURNER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yeah, you know, when I saw this, Christine -- first of all, thanks for having me this morning. You know, this really struck a chord with me, the fact that we now know that there were highly classified secret documents that are restricted access documents that are being stored at Mar-a-Lago, you know, this really is a game changer for our national security and risks to our national security.

I've been clear from the start that we need to avoid speculating about the intent with regard to these documents until we had more information about the substance of these documents. But now that we know that we're talking about nuclear defense capabilities for another country, this really raises the bar with regard to that intelligence community assessment and what this might mean for our intelligence collection opportunities. This was really startling revelation from my perspective.

ROMANS: So we're getting new detail, still so much we don't know, but the consistent through line here is the highly classified nature of all of these documents. This latest "Washington Post" reporting is a detail about one of these documents.

Also, DNI conducting the risk assessment of a potential harm posed by the removal of these documents. What do you think could be at risk here?

TURNER: So, when we think about the substance of these documents, what we're really talking about are -- is our ability to collect intelligence information on nuclear defense capability as of other countries. So the value here in these documents is related to what we can collect and how we collect that information. And so, we'll have other countries looking at this and if they have access to this information, they will be able to see gaps in our intelligence collection capabilities. So, that's what sort of one side of it. What is it that we can collect, and what is it that we have the ability to understand with regard to nuclear weapons.

On the other side of that, the simple fact that there is now knowledge that these documents were out there, that means that other countries who may be interested in knowing what the nuclear capabilities of their neighbors and other adversaries around the world, that means that Mar-a-Lago, what these documents -- these documents at Mar-a- Lago, that was a target, that was a collection opportunity for those countries.

So the implications here are really fast with regard to the potential risk. And to be really clear, Christine, we're not talking about just any classified document. These documents can be impactful in the lives of millions of people and that is one of the reasons why this is so important to get to the bottom of.

ROMANS: So the former president has previously said that the nuclear weapons issue is a hoax. This is the kind of language that you hear from him. And he talks about being almost persecuted by an overzealous and political law enforcement in this country. Yesterday, a Trump tweeted, "The Washington Post" continues to serve as the propaganda arm of the Biden administration instead of operating openly and honestly, they collude in never-ending leaks and lies at the expense of the integrity of the FBI and DOJ.

What does rhetoric like this, how does that factor into the investigation if at all?

TURNER: So, Christine, all that does is reflect from the reality of the situation and seriousness of the situation. What the president's supporters, what his spokespeople have not addressed is the key question that we all need to have answered, and that is why were these documents at Mar-a-Lago, why do they continue to defend the president's -- falsely defend the president's rights to have these documents and what was the intent in having these documents there. So we can -- they can foment rhetoric with regard to what the "Washington Post" and what the media is doing.


All of that is just a distraction from what is really important now, and that's understanding risks to our national security, understanding why these documents were there and what the former president intended to do with these documents.

ROMANS: All right. Shawn Turner, thank you so much for your expertise and analysis. Nice to see you this morning.

TURNER: Thanks. You too. Thanks.

ROMANS: And now this, former Attorney General Bill Barr says the decision by a Florida judge to grant the former president's request for a special master is deeply flawed. He is urging the Justice Department to appeal the ruling. He insists a third party is not needed to review what was seized from Mar-a-Lago.


WILLIAM BARR, FORMER ATTORNEY GENERAL: I don't think the appointment of a special master is going to hold up. But even if it does, I don't see it fundamentally changing the trajectory. In other words, I don't think that it changes the ball game so much as maybe we'll have a rain delay for a couple of innings.


ROMANS: Barr went on to say that he is, quote, pretty tired of the right constantly pandering to outrage while discussing the FBI warrant on Mar-a-Lago.

All right. Steve Bannon is expected to surrender tomorrow to face fraud charges in New York for his fundraising effort to build a wall along the southern U.S. border. The state charges are based on the same conduct Bannon was charged with by federal prosecutors in 2020. Then-President Trump pardoned Bannon on federal fraud charges related to the alleged we build the wall scheme. But presidential pardons do not apply to state investigations.

Six thousand teachers and office workers in the Seattle public school system are on strike this morning. Today was supposed to be day one of class. The strike impacts more than 50,000 students. Teachers want controls on workload and class size, prevent educators from burnout, and also asking for a more competitive salary structure so educators can afford to live in the community where they work.

All right. Later today, former President Barack Obama returns to the White House.

Plus, Britain's new prime minister about to face off with parliament for the first time.

And right now, fears of a nuclear disaster in Ukraine.


RAFAEL GROSSI, IAEA DIRECTOR GENERAL: Nuclear safety is indispensable. Nuclear security is indispensable. We're playing with fire.



ROMANS: The U.N.'s watchdog group warning about a potential catastrophe at the Russian occupied nuclear power plant in Ukraine. Inspectors who just visited the site are now calling for a safety zone around the Zaporizhzhia plant because of continued shelling in the area.


GROSSI: Now the IAEA has been there, we have corroborated what is happening. And this is a measure that one way or the other must be put in place. We can do it, we have the means to do it, nuclear safety is indispensable, nuclear security is indispensable. We are playing with fire.


ROMANS: Playing with fire, CNN's Melissa Bell joins us live from Kyiv.

Melissa, what else is the watchdog saying about the threat and what is situation on the ground right now?

MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that 52-page report published yesterday, Christine, explaining that they are extremely concerned, that the IAEA, they want urgent measures taken, including the creation of a nuclear safety and protection zone around the plant. Very similar to what President Zelenskyy has been calling for essentially, a demilitarized zone. Not quite using that word, but that is what Rafael Grossi who you just heard from there is calling for, accusing both sides of playing with fire.

The trouble is, of course, that it is a nuclear facility that is occupied by Russian forces and in the wake of the publication of that report yesterday and Rafael Grossi's address to the U.N. Security Council, we heard straight away from the Russian ambassador to the United Nations saying that was not something that Russia would consider because if they left he said Ukrainians would come back and I quote ruin everything.

So not much room for maneuver there it seems from the part of Russia and yet, Christine, things continue to worsen. The shelling around the plant only yesterday causing the town within which it is located, Enerhodar, to lose all electricity and water supplies according to its mayor. The Russian side confirming there that there had been more shelling, reactor number six the last functioning one was essentially going to be providing and taking in less power to try to cope with the fact that all the external power lines and the reserve electricity line have now been cut as a result of shelling.

So since that report was compiled and published yesterday, the situation around the plant that has continued to worsen, extremely alarming situation there at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and it seems very little willingness to the occupying Russian forces to make the necessary moves.

We've been hearing from the Russian foreign minister this morning saying that they were looking for extra explanations and more details from the IAEA -- Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Melissa Bell, stay on it for us. Thank you so much. Real troubling situation there.

All right. President Vladimir Putin claims that Russia has lost nothing in its war on Ukraine. Speaking at an economic forum today, Putin also insisted that his special military operation was designed to strengthen Russia's sovereignty. But the U.S. and U.K. believe Moscow is facing severe shortages in military personnel.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Russia continues to lose equipment and personnel. It is estimated to date that over 25,000 soldiers have lost their lives and in all, if you include killed casualties, captured or now reported tens of thousands of deserters.


ROMANS: CNN's Clare Sebastian joins me from London this morning.

Clare, wow, those are big numbers. To say Russia has lost nothing, that is what Vladimir Putin is trying to sell here, tell that I guess to the families of the thousands of dead troops and tens of thousands of people who have been injured here for starters.


I mean, what can you tell us about how well Putin's claim is going over in Russia?

CLARE SEBASTIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is the rhetoric we've seen, Christine, from Putin throughout this war, denying that this is a problem that Russia started and saying that they are going to come out of this stronger.

So, clearly, he is continuing along those lines. He actually said in this very defensive, very defiant speech that Russia didn't start anything in terms of military action, it's only trying to end it. Somewhat jarring considering to what we know about the truth about how the conflict started. His argument is that they are trying to liberate the people of Donbas for eight years.

But all of this, of course, as, you know, Western intelligence, comments from Ukrainian officials, really do start to paint a picture of cracks appearing in Russia's efforts to resupply its military with weapons and personnel. We know from the comments from the UK defense secretary that they are having trouble in terms of losses. Ukrainian officials have suggested that they are having trouble fronting a new army corps which we know that they have been trying to do and, of course, U.S. intelligence has suggested that they are actually buying artillery rounds from North Korea, having already bought drones from Iran, unable because of sanctions to produce enough of their own weapons to supply their military.

But having said that, there is no evidence, Christine, that Vladimir Putin is anywhere close to backing down. As I said, this is a defiant speech and he has been flexing the country's military muscle, ordering the army to build up its troop numbers at the end of August.

Just this week, he was appearing at military drills in the Far East. And I think that history has shown that Putin on the back foot, Putin sort of trying to defend his position is just as dangerous as the alternative.

ROMANS: Yeah, indeed.

All right. Clare Sebastian, thank you so much for that.

The Russian president, of course, will meet with Xi Jinping on the sidelines of a summit in Uzbekistan next week. The two leaders have forged a close no limit partnership as they both face increasing tensions with the West.

Let's bring in Steven Jiang. He's got the latest from Beijing.

Nice to see you. Do you know what they plan to discuss next week?

STEVEN JIANG, CNN BEIJING BUREAU CHIEF: Christine, no details on their agendas yet. But by simply to Central Asia next week, Xi Jinping is making it clear where his priority lies. Remember, this would mark the first time Xi Jinping leaves China since the pandemic started in January 2020.

And also remember this is taking place after that controversial visit to Taiwan by Nancy Pelosi, the U.S. speaker of the House which, of course, has infuriated Beijing, seen by them as another sign of escalating pressure on China.

So by having this first face-to-face meeting with Putin since the war in Ukraine started next week, Xi Jinping is really trying to cultivate even closer ties with Russia, despite all the international blowback on China's position on the Russian invasion. Remember, in the past few weeks, we've already seen the two countries getting tighter on all fronts. Economically, China is buying more energy Russian energy, effectively softening the impact of Western sanctions. And politically, they've been parroting a lot of Russian talking points at the U.N. and domestically through their propaganda.

Evan militarily, even as we speak, there are some 2,000 Chinese soldiers in Russia's far east, participating in a series of military drills with their Russian counterparts. So all of this will undoubtedly be even further strengthened after the two leaders meet. But also remember, Christine, there are a lot of expectations Xi Jinping is going to meet President Biden in November at the G-20, their first meeting since Biden took office.

So, by going to meet Putin first, it's undoubtedly his reassurance to the Russian leader that China remains strongly committed to their so- called no limits partnership -- Christine. ROMANS: No limits partnership.

All right. Steven Jiang, we know that you will be covering it for us. Thank you.

All right. Just hours from now, Barack and Michelle Obama make a rare return to the White House.

And firefighters right now are struggling to contain a deadly wildfire in southern California.



ROMANS: Britain's new prime minister about to enter the lion's den, facing questions for the first time from lawmakers in parliament.

Liz Truss took office Tuesday, meeting the queen in Scotland for the official transfer of power. She is the third female prime minister in Britain's history. Truss pledged to get right to work tackling the U.K.'s economic problems.


PRIME MINISTER LIZ TRUSS, BRITAIN: I know that we have what it takes to tackle those challenges. Of course it won't be easy. But we can do it. We will transform Britain into an aspiration nation with high paying jobs, safe streets and where everyone everywhere has the opportunities they deserve. I will take action this day and action every day to make it happen.


ROMANS: It's always interesting to see the changing of the guard so to speak there. A new face in front of 10 Downing Street -- number 10 Downing Street.

CNN's Nada Bashir is live in London for us.

What do we expect at Truss's first prime minister questions?

NADA BASHIR, CNN INTERNATIONAL REPORTER: Look, Christine, Liz Truss is set to face some pretty tough questions in parliament later today and that is because she's got some pretty tough challenges ahead for her. We heard from her yesterday giving her first address as prime minister speaking outside 10 Downing Street and she acknowledged that it won't be easy but did say she is confident that Britain can weather the storm, outlining three key areas that she plans to focus on over the coming weeks and months as prime minister.

Of course, there are improvements to the NHS that she'll be looking at, the National Health Service. But chief among the priorities is, of course, the economy.

She has planned to deliver a bold new plan in her words to grow the British economy, cutting taxes and pursuing economic reforms.


The country is, of course, facing rising inflation rates and the cost of living crisis, which is at the forefront of many people's minds up and down the country. But also, a key priority for many people across the country is the energy crisis. We have seen the rising energy bills rocketing over the last few months and Liz Truss has pledged to afford that people won't be facings unaffordable energy bills that we have been seeing, and securing Britain's future supply of energy.

And we've already heard from her newly appointed chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, saying that there will be a package supporting people in their energy bills. And we're expecting an announcement around that package over the coming days but not clear when just yet. But she will be facing those tough questions from the opposition later today in parliament. She's made a lot of promises over the course of the campaign trail. And there are real questions around the details of how she plans to deliver on these promises.

At this stage, it remains quite vague, but we're hoping to learn more this week. And there is also the question of how she will unite her own party behind her leadership. We have of course seen weeks and weeks of blue on blue in-fighting condition the conservative party over the course of her leadership campaign and there have been some bitter fractions and divisions within the party over these last few weeks.

The question is whether she can win support from her whole party. And we've heard Boris Johnson urging the conservatives to get behind Liz Truss 100 percent. But something that the opposition may pick up on is the fact that she doesn't have the mandate from the whole country. She was voted in by Conservative Party members. That's less than 1 percent of the entire British electorate -- Christine.

ROMANS: Yeah. All right. Nada Bashir, thank you so much for that. Keep us posted.

Here at home, President Biden convening a cabinet meeting at the White House touting a string of legislative victories for Democrats and his administration.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Steps we've taken like the American Rescue Plan, student debt relief, and is proof that democracy can deliver for the people and there is a foundation of the kind of strong forward looking economy that we want to continue to build.


ROMANS: The White House says that President Biden will be highlighting his successes and the threat from MAGA Republicans as he campaigns for Democrats in the run-up to the midterm elections.

Later today, President Biden and the first lady will welcome the Obamas back to the White House for the official unveiling of their White House portraits. It will be the first time Michelle Obama has returned to the White House since leaving in 2017. The former president has been back only once for an event in April to celebrate the Affordable Care Act.

As the Senate returns to work this week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is outlining the priorities for Democrats including legislation to protect same-sex marriage and short term funding bill to head off a government shutdown ahead of midterms.


SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): The administration sent us a request for a number of funding items that they would like us to work on -- from aid to Ukraine, pandemic relief and other items. This process, of course, needs to be bipartisan. Democrats are going to work in good faith to avoid even a hint of a shutdown. And it is my expectation that our Republican colleagues will do the same.


ROMANS: CNN's Daniella Diaz is joining me live from Capitol Hill. Is there a time line for this funding package and how much are we talking about here?

DANIELLA DIAZ, CNN REPORTER: Christine, the clock is ticking, the government could shut down if Congress does not pass a funding bill by September 30th at midnight. So they are trying right now to figure out if they can pass a continuing resolution otherwise known as a short term funding bill because they can't get the long term funding bill done in time.

That is what Chuck Schumer was just talking about on the Senate floor as well as a request from the Biden administration last week to include some supplemental funding that would help in Ukraine's war against Russia as well as the United States efforts to combat monkeypox, COVID-19 and natural disaster relief. That would be $47 billion additionally added to this.

However, the total price tag of the stopgap measure, we don't know what that price tag is yet. They have not worked on the legislative text just yet, they have not released any numbers, any figures, but we know this is the outline of what they want, something short term possibly to fund the government by the end of the year to avoid a government shutdown.

Something else, Christine, that's playing into all of this is that Democratic leaders have told me -- sources have told me, that they are planning to add marriage equality language to the continuing resolution to force Republicans to go on the record on where they stand on same-sex marriage, to legalize same-sex marriage, codify that law in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling against Roe v. Wade. That could put vulnerable Republicans on the spot such as Republican Senator Ron Johnson, Christine, who faces a tough re-election in Wisconsin. So that is another factor in all of this that we're watching play out,

but they do have a couple weeks until September 30th, end of the month, and they started working on it now.