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House Republicans Demand Answers As More Classified Documents are Found at Biden's Home; Georgia Football Player Devin Willock and Team Staffer Die in a Car Crash; California Battles Deadly Storms with Millions Under Flood Watch. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired January 16, 2023 - 05:00   ET



CHRISTINE ROMANS, ANCHOR, EARLY START: Right now on EARLY START, House Republicans formally demanding answers after more classified documents are found at President Biden's home. Triumph turns to tragedy after a Georgia football player and a team staffer die in a car crash just hours after celebrating victory.

Plus in California, the rain just won't quit. Renewed fears of flooding with watches in effect now for 8 million people. Good morning, welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world, I'm Christine Romans. The Chairman of the House Oversight Committee attacking President Biden and his team for mishandling the discovery of classified documents in his think-tank office in Delaware home.

Republican James Comer announcing on CNN "STATE OF THE UNION" that he sent a letter to the White House demanding more information on what happened.


REP. JAMES COMER (R-KY): Well, we don't know exactly yet whether they broke the law or not. I will accuse the Biden administration of not being transparent. Why didn't we hear about this on November 2nd when the first batch of classified documents were discovered.


ROMANS: Comer says it's unfair that President Biden is being treated separately, differently from former President Trump on the discovery of classified documents. A claim the ranking Democrat on the committee scoffed at.


REP. JAMIE RASKIN (D-MD): It's a bit disturbing to me that people who were saying there was no problem with what Donald Trump did, which was to defiantly reject any cooperation in turning over hundreds of classified documents are upset about President Biden's voluntary and rapid turnover of a handful of documents that they found.


ROMANS: President Biden's personal attorney says his team has not been fully forthcoming about the document discoveries partly because there is an ongoing investigation. All right, now this. Russian forces taking aim at civilian targets again with airstrikes according to the Ukrainian military.

Short time ago, shells struck in Nikopol and Zaporizhzhia, and rockets hit the city of Donetsk. The death toll from the Russian missile strike on an apartment block in Dnipro on Saturday, the death toll has now risen to 36. CNN's Clare Sebastian is live in London. What more do we know about these attacks overnight and Russia's strategy here?

CLARE SEBASTIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Christine, good morning. Underscoring the constant threat that Ukrainians are continuing to be under, these kinds of reports sadly not out of the ordinary. But we're hearing as you say this morning on the southern front from Ukrainian officials, the city of Nikopol which is just across the River, it should be said from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, over a dozen private homes were hit there, a gas main as well.

To the northeast in the town of Zaporizhzhia, the regional capital there, more shelling, private homes were hit as well there. And injuries reported, a 9 and a 15-year-old among those taken to hospital. Separately, we had a Russian-backed official in the city of Donetsk which is occupied by Russia, saying that three rockets there hit civilian targets including a meat processing facility, a pharmacy, a residential building, those kinds of things.

No casualties reported there as of yet. But as we talk about this, the death toll continues to mount in that very deadly attack on that apartment block in Dnipro, which is Ukraine's third largest city. We're now up to 36 who been killed there, including two children. Dozens remain unaccounted for.

The mayor of the city there says that he thinks the target was probably a thermal power plant instead of that apartment block. And we're hearing this morning, Christine, we have the first reaction from the Kremlin on this, the spokesman, Dmitry Peskov saying that the Russian armed forces, he says do not strike at residential buildings only at military targets.

And he says that this was the result of what he calls Ukrainian counter-missiles, essentially blaming missile defense systems for the attack on this apartment block.

ROMANS: All right, Clare, thank you so much for that, keep us posted. White House Speaker Kevin McCarthy says he believes Democrats will agree to cap government spending to avoid defaulting on the nation's debt. McCarthy wants to discuss the issue one-on-one with President Biden. Republicans refusing to back down from their threat to use the debt ceiling as leverage to force Democrats to accept spending cuts.


REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): We don't want to put any fiscal problems to our economy, and we won't. But with fiscal problems, we'd be continuing to do business as usual.



ROMANS: The U.S. is expected to hit that $31.4 trillion statutory debt limit by Thursday. That forces the Treasury Department to start something known as extraordinary cash management measures that can hold off default until early June before bills don't get paid and the U.S. risks default.

All right, more rain over the weekend in storm-ravaged California. A string of atmospheric rivers, long narrow regions in the atmosphere that carry moisture thousands of miles, they are battering the state. Communities left flooded, highway systems crippled, thousands forced to evacuate their homes, 19 people have been killed by these storms. CNN's Natasha Chen has more from Sonoma Valley, California.


NATASHA CHEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (on camera): We're here at Johnson's Beach at the Russian River here in Guerneville, where there is as the name suggests supposed to be a beach. But with all of the storms, the water has now flooded up to what is supposed to be a driveway.

If you look past that sign there that says no life guard on duty, local residents tell us that there are supposed to be a walkway for another 20 feet and a whole parking lot before the actual beach. So there have been locals coming up to the water's edge, taking photos, because as one woman told me, she's lived here for 30 years and is intrigued to see the water come up this far.

And there was someone we saw trying to kayak in this earlier, not sure that's recommended. But definitely a sight to behold for the people who have lived here for decades. And that's what we're seeing around the whole bay area. People noticing that because there is so much moisture already saturated in the ground, it's not taking much this weekend for a lot of flooding and threats of mud slides like we saw on Saturday in Belmont, California.

That's on the peninsula south of San Francisco. Belmont police shared these photos of part of a hill side coming down into a residential neighborhood. And that's the type of threat that county, city officials everywhere are warning residents to still please be careful as more rain is expected from Sunday night into Monday morning along with high wind gusts.

In fact, San Luis Obispo County, Santa Barbara County warning people that they're having a wind advisory there. And there's still thousands of California customers without power at this point and millions under a flood watch. Natasha Chen, CNN, Guerneville, California.


ROMANS: All right, thank you for that, Natasha. A University of Georgia football player Devin Willock and a team staff member were killed in a single car crash early Sunday morning. It happened just hours after the team celebrated its national championship with a victory parade. CNN's Isabel Rosales has the latest for us this morning from Athens, Georgia.


ISABEL ROSALES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: This loss has been a gut punch. Students and fans coming out here outside of the stadium, leaving flowers, some writing 77 on the sign, that was Devin Willock's number. And take a look at this. The grandfather of 7-year-old Bulldog's fan Camden Gonzalez(ph) sharing pictures on twitter.

They show Willock fist-pumping the young boy and letting him wear his massive 2021 national championship ring. The grandfather says the child was star-struck and the interaction made his day. So here is what we know happened. According to a statement from the Athens Clark County Police Department, at around 2:45 Sunday morning, in the morning, their car left the road striking power poles and several trees.

The car then striking and coming to rest at this apartment building. Willock and LeCroy died from their injuries. Two others connected with the football program were hurt. According to the football roster, Willock was from New Jersey, an offensive lineman, he was a red shirt sophomore and played every game this year.

Willock's head coach speaking out saying, quote, "we're all heartbroken and devastated with the loss of Devin Willock and Chandler LeCroy. Devin was an outstanding young man in every way and was always smiling. He was a great teammate and a joy to coach. Chandler was a valuable member of our football staff and brought an incredible attitude and energy every single day."

And take a look at this video showing the team celebrating their national championship victory just hours before on Saturday. So many fans coming to this victory parade right here in Athens. I spoke with a Bulldog's fan who was at that parade route and says he saw Willock in person, plus a witness who saw the aftermath of the crash.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's just heartbreaking coming off of a celebratory week and a parade yesterday. Getting to see this player and then come to find out, you know, he lost his life early this morning. The entire Bulldog nation is at a loss, and I can't imagine what his family is going through.

ROSALES: And that closeness that he's talking about is the immediate UGA fan base, but clearly that expands far beyond to the larger college football community. And you can see from these tweets, players, other teams, the SEC Commissioner speaking out, sending condolences, prayers and encouragement on this difficult day. Isabel Rosales, CNN, in Athens, Georgia.


[05:10:00] ROMANS: All right, police officials say the black box from the

airliner that crashed in central Nepal, Sunday, killing 68 people has been recovered. Six children, including three infants were among the victims. CNN's Vedika Sud is live from New Delhi with the latest. And Vedika, do authorities have any idea what caused this plane to crash?

VEDIKA SUD, CNN REPORTER: Not yet, Christine. It's going to take a while, but it's a good sign, in fact, good indicator that they've retrieved the black box. That's going to be very vital in the interrogations. We do know from the government in Nepal that there is a five-member committee that has been formed to probe this accident.

And they have to submit a report within the next 45 days. Meanwhile, on the ground, it's day two of search operations. And we do know that cranes are being used, Christine, to recover those bodies from the gorge. About 67 bodies have been pulled out of the gorge as of now according to officials.

They've been taken to the hospital where about 38 bodies have been identified by family members. Postmortems need to be conducted. Also 15 foreign nationals died in this air crash. Their bodies will be air- lifted to the capital city of Kathmandu, and then their bodies will be handed over to family members after the postmortem.

But it's very important to understand here that, there could be any reason behind this air crash until it's not determined by the people who are probing this accident. The weather seems to have been cleared. So that possibly could be ruled out, but it's the black box that really holds what really happened inside that cockpit that led to the crash.

There's this video that has been doing the rounds on social media, it appears to be of the moments before the air crash, where you do see the plane flying pretty low in a very populated area in Pokhara in western Nepal, and then it just rolls to its side and moves out of the frame. And moments later, there's a massive explosion that can be heard.

For these families, we talk about 72 families of which four bodies have not been retrieved, 68 have as of now, but for these families they need closure, they need answers and hopefully, they will come once that probe committee goes ahead and submits their report to the civil aviation authorities and the government of Nepal, Christine.

ROMANS: All right, what a tragedy there, Vedika, thank you so much for that. All right, the mayor of New York visiting the southern border, hoping to turn up the heat on President Biden. Plus, lawmakers in Missouri adopting a strict new dress code for female members.

And with special counsels now investigating the current and former presidents, we'll talk to a former independent counsel about what to expect.


[05:15:00] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MERRICK GARLAND, ATTORNEY GENERAL, UNITED STATES: Extraordinary circumstances here require the appointment of a special counsel for this matter. This appointment underscores for the public the department's commitment to both independence and accountability and particularly sensitive matters.


ROMANS: That's Attorney General Merrick Garland announcing the appointment of a special counsel to investigate President Biden's handling of classified documents. Former President Trump also facing scrutiny from a special prosecutor for his handling of top secret documents.

Let's bring in former independent counsel Michael Zeldin, now an Adjunct Professor at American University College of Law. So nice to see you, Michael.


ROMANS: And then this, another update over the weekend, five more documents were found in the president's Wilmington residence. What are some key questions, do you think that special counsel Robert Hur should ask in this investigation?

ZELDIN: The questions really are, how did they get really removed from the White House? What was done with them? Was there any additional dissemination or sharing of them with anybody? What was done once he was notified or they notified themselves of the presence of these documents, that is, was there cooperation?

And was this really inadvertent or intentional? That's really an inflection point. Inadvertence or intentionality and then cooperation, lack of cooperation after the discoveries were disclosed.

ROMANS: So that's sort of comparing and contrasting, I think. Two different cases here with the former president and the current president, right? Because President Biden says he is surprised by the discovery of these documents. Former President Trump had reportedly ordered an employee to move boxes at Mar-a-Lago after he received a subpoena. Can this have legal effect or impact in determining the criminal intent in each case?

ZELDIN: Yes, absolutely. In a case where you have unintentionally taken and then upon disclosure of that realization, you return the documents and fully cooperate, and you've not altered the documents, you got disseminated documents, those types of cases tend not to end up criminally.

That happened to former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez who took some documents and then returned them. There was no manipulation of them, no markings on them, and he was not charged with anything. As opposed to say Army General Petraeus or National Security adviser Sandy Berger, both of those guys took these documents intentionally, then failed to cooperate fully with the government when they were asking for them.

Both of them had to plead guilty to misdemeanor mishandling of documents. And so, in the case of Biden versus Trump, the point of cooperation by Biden and an apparent lack of cooperation by Trump will weigh on the prosecutors, each of them separately, determination about criminal intent.

ROMANS: I think it's sort of interesting that President Biden's personal lawyers, personal staff, who found these different series of documents, right? So, now that there's a special counsel appointed, are his personal attorneys prohibited for -- from searching for more documents? What happens now that there's a special -- a special counsel?


ZELDIN: Well, I would think that the personal lawyers will continue their searches. They want to be in full cooperation mode with the special counsel. And they want to make sure that the special counsel understands that, as far as they're concerned, the taking of these documents was inadvertent and then immediately upon disclosure, they were returned, they were notified, and there was cooperation.

Those are the things that mitigate against any findings of criminal intent. So sure, I think they'll continue whatever searching they have done and will continue to cooperate with Robert Hur; the special counsel.

ROMANS: All right, Michael Zeldin, nice to see you this Monday morning, thank you so much for getting up for us.

ZELDIN: Yes, of course.

ROMANS: All right, quick hits across America now. New York City Mayor Eric Adams traveling to El Paso, Texas, this weekend, calling for more federal funding as his city grapples with this influx of more than 40,000 migrants in recent months.

University of Alabama basketball player Darius Miles is charged with capital murder after a fatal shooting in Tuscaloosa, Sunday. Miles has been removed from the team. Another man, Michael Davis was also charged. Missouri lawmakers have adopted a stricter dress code for women inside the state house, requiring them to cover their shoulders by wearing a blazer or cardigan. Hello, 1960.

Right, just ahead, China finally admitting to tens of thousands of COVID deaths since easing its restrictions. Plus, Miss USA breaking barriers as she is crowned Miss Universe.



ROMANS: So China has revised its COVID death toll dramatically to nearly 60,000 people since Beijing eased its lockdown restrictions in early December. The country was accused of under-reporting deaths after funeral homes and hospitals were obviously overwhelmed in recent weeks. Let's go to CNN's Anna Coren live in Hong Kong following this for us.

And Anna, until recently, China was reporting only 37 deaths, and that met with huge skepticism. Now, 60,000. Is the number -- is this new number credible?

ANNA COREN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's a big jump, isn't it, Christine? International experts are saying that number of 60,000, which was reported on the weekend from China's National Health Commission is still an underestimate of what the real toll is. But before that, it was 37 deaths in the last month.

No one was buying that. And there was a great deal of international pressure placed on China to be more forthcoming and transparent about what the real COVID situation was in the country. Remember, China has lived with a zero COVID policy for the past three years.

And then in December, the government did a complete back-flip following weeks of protests and obviously the enormous strain on the economy, and decided to end that strategy altogether. Now, officials have said that the cases have peaked, the wave has peaked, but you know, we saw that meeting on the weekend between the Chinese health minister as well as the W.H.O., and that is when they revised that number of 60,000.

The concern, Christine, is that Chinese new year is coming up. People are already traveling. Experts say something like 2 billion people, the largest human migration on earth, will take place over the next few weeks. And while maybe there has been a peak in the cities, you know, in major capital areas, these people are going to migrate to the provinces, to the rural areas, to see family that they haven't seen now for almost three years.

And they will bring COVID. And this is where, you know, we know there's a large elderly population that live in these rural areas. There is poor health infrastructure also in these areas. So experts fear, Christine, that there is going to be a severe spike in cases, but also in deaths.

ROMANS: OK, Anna Coren, thank you so much for that. Nice to see you. But questions are mounting over whether a series of police and security failures are to blame for the insurrection in Brazil's capital on January 8th. Supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro attacked government buildings, calling for the ouster of current President Lula da Silva. CNN's Katie Polglase has more on the investigation.


KATIE POLGLASE, CNN INVESTIGATIVE PRODUCER (on camera): So for this investigation, we looked into the visual evidence from that day. We looked at Telegram, Twitter, TikTok, and even YouTube live-streams to build a detailed chronology of what happened on January 8th. And it was clear to us that the protesters started marching around

midday. They started walking the 7 kilometer walk towards the congress area, and there were police there, standing, watching them go by. Some checked bags, but they don't stop them. Some even smile, some even give them a thumbs up.

And by the time they then arrived at congress, there's some push-back. We're seeing in some videos police officers spraying pepper spray at them from behind metal barricades, but they're quickly overrun. The volume of protesters is so large, they quickly overrun the police brigades that are there.

And then, by just after 3:00 p.m., the entire area is in chaos. They have already gained access to the presidential palace, the Supreme Court and the congress. And so the question is why? Why was the police so -- there was no coordination in their response to what happened.

And this is also what the investigation is looking into. There is one most telling video we found from just outside the presidential palace. You can see a commanding officer saying to the other officers beside him, command your troops, damn it. And the officers look at him, they seem hesitant, unclear how to respond. And that really encapsulates the chaos.