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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Biden: Putin "Not Joking" About Nukes, "Prospects of Armageddon"; Ukraine: 120 Settlements Liberated From Russians in Two Weeks; Ukraine: At Least Seven Killed in Zaporizhzhia Missile Strike; Biden Pardons All Federal Marijuana Possessions Convictions; Nobel Peace Prize Awarded Jointly To Three Winners. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired October 07, 2022 - 05:00   ET




CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: All right, welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. It is Friday, October 7. Happy Friday. I'm Christine Romans. This is "Early Start."

For the first time since Cold War, the Cold War U.S. President is talking publicly about the real possibility of nuclear war with Moscow. President Biden says, "The danger now posed by Vladimir Putin in Ukraine is the first direct nuclear weapons threat since the 1960s."

The President, off camera last night, telling Democrats, "We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. We're trying to figure out what is Putin's off ramp? Where does he find a way out? Where does he find himself where he does not only lose face, but significant power? He's not joking when he talks about potential use of tactical nuclear weapons or biological or chemical weapons, because his military is you might say, significantly underperforming."

CNN's Fred Pleitgen is in Kyiv right now. And Fred, significantly underperforming, there are voices inside Russia saying the same thing right now.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They certainly are. And I think those voices are growing. And what you also see is, you see a lot of infighting, if you will, between a lot of the power sectors of Russia, especially at the top of that country.

But you know, one of the interesting things that we've been seeing over the past couple of weeks, Christine is that the Ukrainians themselves are also saying they believe that there is a threat that Russia might at some point use tactical nuclear weapons here in this conflict. It's something that they say the threat of which keeps rising all the time.

Now, of course, however, the Ukrainians are saying that's not something that they are going to allow them to hold themselves up. They're going to continue to press those counter offenses that they have. Those counter offensives, in the past couple of days, have been extremely successful even though the going is tough for many of those Ukrainian units on the ground.

Here's what we're finding.


PLEITGEN (voice over): Dangerous battles for Ukrainian forces, as they continue to press counter offensives against the Russian army. This video, the authenticity of which CNN cannot independently verify, purporting to show an infantry fighting vehicle hit by an anti-tank mine. The soldiers scramble and then returned fire.

But Ukrainian military officials say they're making major headway especially in the south of the country in the Kherson region.


PLEITGEN (voice over): We do not name the directions, the spokeswoman says, but more than 400 square kilometers of the Kherson region have already been liberated from the occupiers though.

While, the Russian military has retreated from large areas in both southern and eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin still says it plans to achieve all of Russian President Vladimir Putin's military aim.

Russia's Defense Ministry is saying, they've already mobilized around 200,000 men, many now undergoing basic training. But videos released on social media seem to show major problems with the mobilization. This clip purports to show new recruits having to bed down on yoga mats for lack of beds. The narrator claiming some of the new recruits have been heavily drinking.

In rare open criticism, a Kremlin installed official in southern Ukraine are ripping into Putin's defense minister.


PLEITGEN (voice over): Yes, indeed, he says many say that being the Minister of Defense will allow the situation to happen, he simply could, as an officer shoot himself. But you know, the word officer is an unfamiliar word for many.

But while Russia's forces may be on the defensive, they can still wreak havoc, hitting the city of Zaporizhzhia with several missiles overnight, leveling residential buildings, leaving one woman dead and several people injured.


PLEITGEN (voice over): At first, I didn't understand what was going on. This resident says, I covered myself with a blanket just in time. Glass splinters from the window. It was as if I was in the middle of a fog.

But the Ukrainian say attacks like the ones Zaporizhzhia won't stop their forces on the battlefield. Kyiv's troops are racing to take back as much territory as fast as they can.


PLEITGEN: And Christine, I have to give you an update on that Zaporizhzhia strike that we were talking about in that report. The death toll now has risen to eight in those strikes. So obviously, more people, more casualties as a result of those missile strikes.

And of course, that's one of the reasons why the Ukrainians say they are pressing those counter offenses and try and take back as much territory as possible to make it more difficult for the Russians to strike a lot of the cities, a lot of population centers here in this country. They say it's obviously a pressing concern for them, and they want to move as fast as possible.

As far as the Russian side is concerned, quite interesting to hear from their side as well. They obviously have that mobilization going on. They don't believe that most of those forces are actually going to hit the frontline until at least a couple of weeks from now, Christine.


ROMANS: Oh, couple of more weeks. All right. Thanks so much for Fred Pleitgen. That mobilization has caused an exodus, right, of citizens in Russia and that exodus has now reached American soil.

Two Russians who crossed the Bering Strait to far western Alaska were fleeing Moscow's military draft. The pair landed earlier this week on St. Lawrence Island. U.S. officials say they left one of the communities on Russia's East Coast and are seeking asylum in the US. They're now in Anchorage, being processed.

All right, President Biden fulfilling a campaign pledge, taking his first significant steps toward decriminalizing marijuana. The President pardoning all past Federal offenses for simple marijuana possession, which will affect 1,000s of Americans charged with that crime.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana. It's already legal in many states, and criminal records for marijuana possession have led to needless barriers to employment, to housing, educational opportunities, and that's before you address the racial disparities around who suffers the consequences.


ROMANS: More now from CNN, Phil Mattingly in New York.


PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It was a seismic moment for what it stood for, just as much as for what it meant for the policy or those 1,000s of individuals.

The White House has long to some degree pushed away efforts by advocates to get them to move in this direction. This signals not only are they moving in the direction, but there's potentially much more to come. The President also urging governors to do the same for state charges and ordering an expedited review by his administration of the scheduling of marijuana, now a Schedule I drug that is the equivalent of heroin or LSD, something the President made clear, he's not believe is remotely equivalent to marijuana.

Should the government come back with recommendations that change to scheduling, that would change the legal status of marijuana altogether and be yet another step towards the decriminalization of the substance on the federal level. We've seen it with states over the course of the last several years. More than 20 in all that have legalized it.

You've seen it in the advocacy efforts from Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill, some saying this is a great political issue for the President. As I said, but 30 days till the midterms, timing, usually not random at this point in time. But the politics, the policy more than anything else an extraordinarily important statement on an issue that many people have said was simply not treated the right way for decades.

Phil Mattingly, CNN, New York.


ROMANS: All right, Phil, thank you for that. To Las Vegas now. Horror on the Las Vegas Strip Thursday. Two people killed six others wounded in an apparent random series of stabbings in front of the Wynn Hotel and Casino.


DEP. CHIEF JAMES LAROCHELLE, LAS VEGAS POLICE: Initial stabbing occurs on the sidewalk area, appears unprovoked. There is no altercation beforehand.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Same time I'm seeing screaming and a guy took off his shirt to give chest compressions to the guy who dropped in front of me. I hear more screaming down here and then immediately after that more over here. And I'm like OK, this is even worse than I thought it was.

ROMANS (voice over): The suspect, a man in his 30s, ran off. You can see him there. Concerned citizens followed him he is now in custody. Police say his motive is unknown. They say the victims were a mix of residents and tourists. Three are in critical condition, the rest are stable.

(END VIDEO CLIP) ROMANS: In Southern Texas, 84 undocumented migrants have been rescued from this semi-truck. The Hidalgo County Sheriff says the migrants from Central America were found after a concerned citizen called to report the truck parked at a residence about eight miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. The sheriff says, ICE special agents are investigating the incident as a case of human smuggling.

Just in to CNN, we've learned who won this year's Nobel Peace Prize. That announcement coming just a short time ago from the Nobel Committee in Norway. Let's get right to it in Europe Editor Nina dos Santos. Hi, Nina.

NINA DOS SANTOS, CNN EUROPE EDITOR: Hi, good morning to you. Thanks so much, Christine. Well, yes, we've heard that the Nobel Peace Prize for this year, among the second highest number of candidates that were mooted this year, last time was 2,016, when we had the highest number of candidates.

This time it has gone to Ales Bialiatski who's a Belarusian human rights activist, also Memorial, you'll remember the human rights organization in Russia that was recently shuttered by Vladimir Putin - President Vladimir Putin, and also a Ukrainian organization called the Centre for Civil Liberties, which yet again campaigns for human rights and has been vocal, as you'd imagine, on the war in Ukraine.

Well, this sends a strong message that human rights in Eastern Europe should be supported by the international community. And obviously it comes at a time when the war in Ukraine continues to be bloody and can continues to wage on.

It's also important if you take a look at the fact that Memorial, this human rights organization, active since 1989, so just before the fall of communism, at about that time just has been documenting historical human rights abuses, say instance under Joseph Stalin in Russia. But that organization was also given this accolade as well, Christine, because Today's an important day for Russia watchers.


It's the 70th Birthday of Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia. And it's also the anniversary of the death of the crusading human rights journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, you will remember, was gunned down in an apartment block in Moscow a number of years ago after reporting upon the atrocities in the Chechen war by Russian soldiers.

So as you can see, there is strong message on Russia, strong message on Bella (ph) Russia - Belarus, excuse me - strong message also on the war in Ukraine and the importance of human rights, which is what this prize always champions. Christine?

ROMANS: Yes, the Nobel Peace Prize, the world's most famous Peace Prize really. OK, thank you so much, Nina dos Santos.

Just ahead. Bad timing for the Biden Administration, OPEC's oil cut couldn't come at a worse time for more reasons than one.

Plus, Senate hopeful, Herschel Walker stiff arming new allegations. Can he outrun the scandal threatening his campaign.

And next, the West's other possible nuclear threat, what's really behind Kim Jong-un's new missile tests?




ROMANS: So the barrage of missile tests by North Korea's Kim Jong-un over the past two weeks, has U.S. officials worried, he is building up to a nuclear - a new nuclear test. But senior officials say they simply lack heart intelligence from inside North Korea.


JOHN KIRBY, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS COORDINATOR: It's, again, difficult to know what's inside his mind and how he makes his decisions. I mean, as you well know, Christine, our ability to divine intelligence out of Pyongyang is fairly limited. So it's hard to know what's prompting this. But what we do know is, he's continuing to try to improve his program and his capabilities.


ROMANS: CNN's Paula Hancocks is live for us in Seoul, South Korea this morning. What does the U.S. know about these test launches?

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Christine at this point they are able to sometimes predict when something is going to happen because they can detect either a launch being prepared or if it comes to something militarily, they can see some kind of movement within North Korea. But when it comes to the intentions of why Kim Jong-un is deciding to do this at any one time, some of it is, as experts always say, an educated guess.

Now we have certainly seen this flurry of missiles, six launches in just 12 days. And we have also seen a very swift response from the United States and from the allies in the region - from South Korea and also from Japan.

Now just today, another two day naval drill has started involving the USS Ronald Reagan back in the waters off the East Coast of South Korea. And we have heard from North Korea themselves, saying just yesterday, that the reason that carrying out these missile launchers is to protest against such drills.

So the prevailing thought here in the region is, if these missile launchers continue, which they are protected to do, and the quick responses from U.S. and the allies continue, then this tit for tat is going to continue in the near future.

Now we know on the diplomatic side, we have heard that just this afternoon, there has been a phone call between the nuclear envoys of the U.S., South Korea and Japan, that's Sung Kim, in the United States talking about what they can do to try and move things forward. But at the moment, Pyongyang has made no sign whatsoever of wanting to engage.

ROMANS: All right, Paula, thank you so much for that. Keep us posted.

Right back here. The Oath Keepers' trial is set to resume later this morning. Thursday, a former leader of the Right Wing group said he believed founder Stewart Rhodes was in touch with a Secret Service agent ahead of the 2020 election.

A spokesman told CNN the Secret Service doesn't have enough information to say whether that is true or false. Rhodes and four other alleged members of the group have pleaded not guilty to seditious conspiracy for the capitol attack.

A top member of the Proud Boys is pleading guilty to seditious conspiracy and cooperating with the Justice Department investigation. Jeremy Bertino wasn't present for the Capitol riot but could provide crucial testimony in the Proud Boys sedition trial set for December. According to prosecutors Bertino was in a number of encrypted chat - group chats planning for January 6th.

Just ahead, people in Florida holding on to hope as they wait in line for hurricane help.

And next the White House caught off guard by OPEC. What's the administration's next moves with the midterms a month away?


ROMANS: The Biden Administration is scrambling for answers after OPEC move to slash oil production, which will likely increase prices.


ANTONY BLINKEN, UNITED STATES SECRETARY OF STATE: We see the decision as both disappointing and short sighted. As for relationship going forward, we're reviewing a number of response options. We're consulting closely with Congress. We will not do anything that would infringe on our interests, that's first and foremost.


ROMANS: President Biden himself expressing disappointment, while defending his controversial visit to Saudi Arabia this summer. We get more from CNN's Kaitlan Collins.


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Not mad, just disappointed.

BIDEN: It is a disappointment and it says that there are problems.

COLLINS (voice over): President Biden weighing how to respond after the coalition of oil producing nations known as OPEC announced its slash in production in an effort to boost prices, catching the White House by surprise.

BIDEN: Well, there's a lot of alternative. We haven't made up our mind yet.

COLLINS (voice over): The oil cartels' move could raise gas prices, hurt Democrats in the midterm elections, increase the chances of a global recession and bolster Russia in its war against Ukraine.

KIRBY: It's clear that they are definitely taking the side of Russia here, because this decision benefits Mr. Putin. There's no question about.

COLLINS (voice over): That OPEC's move undermining the crude diplomacy Biden conducted over the summer when he personally visited Saudi Arabia and fist bumped the Crown Prince over the objections of human rights groups in an attempt to increase the supply of oil.

BIDEN: And I'm doing all I can to increase the supply for the United States of America which I expect to happen. The Saudi share that urgency.

COLLINS (voice over): Despite how those production increases were only fleeting, Biden says he has no regrets about the trip.

BIDEN: No. The trip was not essentially for oil. The trip was about the Middle East and about Israel and rationalization of positions.



COLLINS (voice over): The administration now contemplating next steps, including tapping into the strategic reserves again, despite saying 48 hours ago, that wasn't on the table.

JEAN-PIERRE: We're not considering new releases - releases from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve beyond the 180 million.

COLLINS (voice over): Even before OPEC's decision gas prices were already on their way up after a recent 99 day streak of decline. With 32 days to go before the midterm elections, Republicans are putting gas prices and Biden's energy policies at the forefront.

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): He's made us dependent upon Russia, Saudi Arabia, and now Venezuela. He hates American oilfield workers so much that he'll never turn to us.

COLLINS (voice over): Members of Biden's own party are calling for a reevaluation of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, with Democratic Senator Chris Murphy tweeting, "I thought the whole point of selling arms to Gulf States was that when an international crisis came, the Gulf could choose America over Russia and China."

COLLINS: And while other members of Congress are also calling on the United States to reduce its military sales to Saudi Arabia, maybe even withdraw those defense systems that are there or the U.S. troops who are in Saudi Arabia, the White House said today they have no announcements to make this time.

But Brian Deese, who was President Biden's Director of the National Economic Council, said they were assessing the situation and consulting closely with Congress.

Caitlin Collins, CNN, the White House.


ROMANS: All right, Caitlin, thank you for that. Let's bring in Greg Valliere, Chief U.S. Strategist for AGF Investments. Greg really want to pick your brain here, because you wrote in a note to your clients that this was really - a really bad blow to the President's energy policy here.

There's a pretty good chance OPEC's move nudges gas prices higher from here, heading into the midterms. Here's the former Secretary Larry Summers.


LAWRENCE SUMMERS, FORMER UNITED STATES SECRETARY OF THE TREASURY: I do think there's got to be nervousness about what's going to happen to the price of oil, and that's just something we've got to be braced for. But I certainly would say that from here, a few cents would be something I'd have to regard as a good outcome.


ROMANS: What options, Greg, does the White House have to counter OPEC here?

GREG VALLIERE, CHIEF U.S. STRATEGIST, AGF INVESTMENTS: Not a lot, Christine. Good to see you. They can talk about maybe antitrust action. They can talk about withdrawing U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia, maybe banning exports of U.S. oil. But these are not imminent options. I don't see any panacea that can affect the price of oil that much between now and Election Day, November 8th.

ROMANS: You know, they drop sanctions, perhaps Trump era sanctions against Venezuela, perhaps, to try to get Chevron and its partners to pump more oil in Venezuela. But all of these - petrol politics is sticky around the globe here. It's really hard to fix.

VALLIERE: Well, it's really embarrassing right now for this administration to show that they have virtually no clout with the Saudis. The Saudis had a choice and they went with Russia and Iran. A shocking development in my opinion.

ROMANS: So does Senator Chris Murphy have a point there about why are we doing arms deals with these countries who wind up aligning with Russia and China anyway?

VALLIERE: I think that's right. I think he does. There will be a reassessment. But all of these things come later in the year or next year. Again, I see nothing to come in time to reverse this upward move we're seeing now in gasoline price.

ROMANS: So after being down for some 99 days, now you've got to move in the other direction. How much pressure does it put on voters, Democrats in particular in the midterms?

VALLIERE: It'll be a big issue. I think that the trend in the last week or two is slightly toward the Republicans. I think after this, and there's a lot of Hunter Biden stuff this morning, I think that the momentum is with the Republicans who are quite likely to take the House and still have a chance to take the Senate as well.

ROMANS: How does the administration take this loss, I guess, if that's what you're calling it, in terms of the OPEC production cut, right? How do they turn it around?

VALLIERE: Again, nothing soon, but if I were advising them, I'm not. I would maybe get a little more conciliatory with the energy industry. Talk about more drilling and exploration and refining and transporting this stuff. I think if the White House sounded a bit more conciliatory with the energy industry, it could help.

ROMANS: All right, Greg Valliere, nice to see you this morning. Thanks for getting up early for us, Greg.


ROMANS: All right. In the homestretch of a tight Georgia Senate race, Herschel Walker is in full damage control mode.

The Republican taking a page from the Trump playbook, denying the reports he paid for a woman's abortion, and now denying that that woman, who he claims.