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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Hunter Biden Calls For Criminal Probes Over Laptop Data; Police: Oregon Man Who Tortured Woman Also Killed Two Men; U.S. Gaining Expanded Access To Philippines Military Bases; McCarthy Hopeful After First Meeting With Biden On Debt Limit; Missile Strike Kills 3 In Kramatorsk, Rescue Operation Underway; Pompeo, Haley Poised To Challenge Trump For GOP Nomination; More Than 300,000 Texans Without Power In Frigid Cold; Iranian Couple Gets 10 Plus Years In Prison For Posting Dance Video. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired February 02, 2023 - 05:00   ET



CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Right now in Early Start, Hunter Biden strikes back. He's asking for a new criminal investigation into weaponizing that infamous laptop. Plus, a chilling new revelations about the torture suspect taken down by Oregon police. His bloody trail may now include two murders. And America's big move to try to counter China, the new U.S. military foothold just announced right near Taiwan.

Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Christine Romans. We begin this morning with an aggressive new legal strategy from Hunter Biden. The President's son calling for criminal investigations of Rudy Giuliani, a computer repair shop owner and several right-wing political figures. Hunter Biden alleges laws were broken when they attempted to weaponize his personal information against his father.

More now from CNN's Evan Perez.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Hunter Biden is going on the offensive against conservative critics, accusing them of breaking state and federal laws by distributing his personal data that is purported to come from a laptop left at a Delaware repair shop.

Attorneys for the son of President Joe Biden sent letters to the Delaware Attorney General, the Justice Department and to the IRS seeking investigations of a number of right-wing figures who they say have, quote, weaponized the laptop contents against his father. It's a distinct change of strategy by Hunter Biden after bringing on new lawyers to help him defend himself against an onslaught of attacks from Republicans.

In a letter to Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings, Hunter Biden's attorneys accused their computer repair shop owner John Paul Mac Isaac of unauthorized access of the laptop and distributing its contents to the New York Post for a story that was published in the weeks before the 2020 election. Mac Isaac has said in a memoir and in media interviews that he received a laptop at his store from Hunter Biden in 2019. The letter from Hunter Biden's attorney Abbe Lowell says, this failed dirty political trick directly resulted in the exposure, exploitation and manipulation of Mr. Biden's personal, private information.

Hunter Biden remains the subject of a federal criminal investigation, and CNN has reported that prosecutors have been weighing possible charges for tax violations and for an alleged false statement in connection with his purchase of a gun.

Evan Perez, CNN, Washington.

ROMANS: All right, the man accused of kidnapping and torturing an Oregon woman is now the suspect in another brutal crime. Police now say they believe this man, Benjamin Foster, committed murder, beating two men to death.


SHERIFF DAVE DANIEL, JOSEPHINE COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE: Very near the location where Mr. Foster was initially holed up on Thursday night. We discovered a double homicide scene. At this point, we do believe Benjamin Foster is the suspect of that double homicide.


ROMANS: Foster died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound Tuesday in a standoff with police at the same home where he abused that woman.

The Philippines agreeing to give the United States expanded access to its military bases. This gives American forces a strategic footing on the south eastern edge of the South China Sea close to self-ruled Taiwan. Paula Hancocks live from Seoul for us this morning where it's evening there. Why, Paula, is this agreement so important to the Biden administration right now in particular?

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Christine, what we've heard from the U.S. Secretary of Defense today at this press conference is that he said this is part of a very important strengthening of the Alliance. And the reason that's important is because China continues to advance its illegitimate claims. Austin said, in the South China Sea, we have seen that they have been expanding, they have militarized at some islands and they are concerning many in that region, in particular, the Philippines.

What we don't know at this point, these four extra bases that the U.S. military will be able to rotate troops in and out of and also build infrastructure within. We don't know exactly where they are. They haven't publicized that. But if they are at the northern tip of the Luzon Island of the Philippines, that's 200 miles south of Taiwan, so that is extremely strategically important.

Now, we knew that Beijing would not welcome this, they have already responded. We've heard from the spokesperson of the foreign ministry saying that it, quote, escalated tension in the region and in dangerous regional piece and stability. Saying it is a self-interested agenda of the United States.


Now they have said that it will help them to -- in the U.S. side to be able to respond to humanitarian and climate related disasters in the Philippines, but also respond to other shared challenges. Now, that is all clearly and a veiled blink, a nod to China and is expansionist efforts.

And we have heard from Austin himself as well saying that it is important to expand this alliance. They already have five bases in the Philippines within this same agreement that they are able to road pectate (ph) troops in and out from, but this extra four will give them that extra strategic footing in the southeast area of the South China Sea. So we have heard from the Secretary of Defense that it is very strategically important.

ROMANS: All right, Paula, thank you so much for that. Nice to see you.

All right to Tennessee now where prosecutors are asking the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations to determine whether officers filed false police reports after the beating death of Tyre Nichols. The city of Memphis still has several more hours of audio and video footage to release. Some of the video already released may contradict what officers say happened.


STEVEN MULROY, SHELBY COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY: I think it's fair to say that the incident report that has gone public does not match up on all fours with what one sees when when it looks at the video that's already been released.


ROMANS: Mulroy says his office is still looking into anyone who filed paperwork which is contradicted by that video evidence.

All right, we can find common ground. Those words from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy after meeting with President Biden to discuss the debt ceiling and federal spending. Now no agreement was reached, of course, but McCarthy emerged hopeful.


REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: I thought the meeting today was a good first start. That doesn't mean that it all comes to fruition but walking out, I can see that it could come together. I was very hopeful from the meeting, was better than I thought, just like anything else.


ROMANS: McCarthy told reporters financial markets should be encouraged by the meeting as the U.S. tries to avoid defaulting on its debt for the first time ever. Here's CNN Chief White House Correspondent Phil Mattingly.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy met for more than an hour in the Oval Office. There was nothing on camera. There were no statements by the two leaders, at least before the meeting. After the meeting, the speaker came out describe the meeting that lasted more than an hour as productive, said it was a good meeting, said markets that are concerned about the potential for a U.S. default the first in the history of the country should feel better about things.

Why? Well, that still remains an open question. I think the fact that they had a conversation at all seems to be viewed as progress from McCarthy's side of things. However, the two perspectives which are wildly divergent in terms of what the outcome should be when it comes to the debt limit, they're still wildly divergent.

And while McCarthy said that there was a positive meeting, Biden, in his statement after the meeting said that it was a productive discussion. There is no clear way to lay out a path towards avoiding default at this point in time. And still, White House officials make abundantly clear, the President is dead set on the idea that there will be no negotiations despite what Republicans insist. Take a listen.


KARINE JEAN-PIERRE, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We've been very clear about when we've been asked if there's going to be -- if there's room for negotiations. We have said this should be done without any conditions, which there shouldn't be a way to go around us to get this done. This is something that Congress should act on.


MATTINGLY: Now White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre there alluding to the fact that there is no other off ramp than congressional action. That's something the financial markets have assumed may be a possibility whether prioritizing payments to certain creditors, maybe even minting a trillion-dollar coin.

There's a number of different theories out there. Why this official saying, no, there is no other option Congress has to act. They have about five months to do so. McCarthy says they think they can reach a deal long before that, however, hasn't exactly laid out what the Republican plan is. And White House officials make clear they're not moving off of their plan at this point in time.

In clean debt ceiling increase, McCarthy said that's something he told the President explicitly was not on the table, where things go from here, obviously, still very much an open question. At this point, though, Biden and McCarthy committing to continue speaking on what could be potential economic catastrophe they're trying to avoid.

Phil Mattingly, CNN, the White House. ROMANS: Up until early June to figure that out and then it is real trouble. All right, the FBI completing a search of President Biden's Rehoboth Beach, Delaware home on Wednesday, finding no documents with classified markings. That's according to the President's personal lawyer.

The FBI did take handwritten notes and some other materials for further review after this three and a half hour search that was conducted with the cooperation of the President's attorneys.

All right, at least three people are dead in Kramatorsk, Ukraine after a Russian missile strike damage at least eight apartment buildings. 20 people injured. Police say more than 100 officers are working to rescue victims from the rubble.


CNN's Scott McLean is here with the latest on this apartment buildings. Just awful here. How is the search for survivors going right now, Scott?

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Christine, when you look at the pictures and the video that we're seeing, it does not inspire a lot of optimism about the chances of finding survivors. One of the buildings is almost completely leveled.

You do see rescue crews frantically trying to clear debris to try to get to anyone who may be underneath of the rubble. And the last word that we have from the local governor is that there may be at least two people still trapped underneath and time here is extremely important.

The strike took place more than 14 hours ago now. And if you imagine that if there are, in fact, survivors, or at least one person still alive under the rubble, they are very likely to be injured, probably quite badly injured. They're also dealing with the smoke and the dust from the actual missile strike itself.

And on top of all that, remember, this is winter in Ukraine. So overnight, temperatures were below freezing, and it is very unlikely that someone could survive in those kinds of conditions for an extended period of time.

Last night, President Zelenskyy said that this type of strike is a daily reality in Ukraine. And it is sadly all too common. Last month, you'll remember that an apartment building in Dnipro took a direct hit from a Russian anti-ship missile.

And in this case, the type of missile that they think was used is an Iskander, the same one that was also used to strike a train station, a busy train station in Kramatorsk last April at a time when thousands of people were at their stations trying to get out of the country. Christine?

ROMANS: All right, Scott, thank you so much for that. Just terrible story. Keep us posted. All right, the veteran who alleges George Santos took thousands of dollars from his dying dogs GoFundMe, he has been interviewed by federal investigators. U.S. Navy Veteran Rich Osthoff tell CNN he spoke to a pair of FBI agents on Wednesday.

Santos allegedly raised $3,000 for life saving surgery for Osthoff's dying dog. Santos then took off with the cash, that's the allegation. And the New York Congressman did not respond to questions about the matter when asked by reporters on Capitol Hill.

All right, coming up, brutal trench warfare. CNN on the frontlines of a bloody battle for eastern Ukraine. Plus, an engaged Iranian couple jailed for dancing in Tehran's main square. And Nikki Haley challenging Donald Trump. Will Mike Pompeo be the next former ally to take on the ex-boss?



ROMANS: All right, calling it an unbelievably momentous decision. Former Trump Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sounding like he might challenge his former boss for the Republican nomination in 2024.


MIKE POMPEO, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: It's deeply personal at this point. I haven't made any secret about the fact that we've been, you know, I've spent time in Iowa, New Hampshire. This is not random. We've been trying --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: At least he admits it, right? That's great.


ROMANS: It's not random. Meantime, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley is expected to launch her 2024 campaign later this month. CNN's Kylie Atwood has more.


NIKKI HALEY (R), FORMER SOUTH CAROLINA GOVERNOR: We need to go in a new direction. And can I be that leader? Yes, I think I can be that leader.

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: (voice-over): Nikki Haley clearly hinting that she was ready to launch her presidential campaign in a recent interview.

HALEY: I've never lost a race. I said that then, I still say that now.

ATWOOD (voice-over): The former governor of South Carolina is poised to be the first Republican to challenge Donald Trump, who launched his campaign last year.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER (in unison): USA! USA! ATWOOD (voice-over): So far freezing out others from declaring their candidacy.

DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're going to win, and we're going to win very big.

ATWOOD (voice-over): Making it for now a one-on-one match between two competitive politicians whose relationship has had many twists and turns.

HALEY: It's been an honor of a lifetime.

ATWOOD (voice-over): That was in the Oval Office in 2019. Haley was stepping down after serving for nearly two years as Trump's ambassador to the United Nations. But during the run up to his 2016 campaign, she was an outspoken critic.

HALEY: It can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation.

ATWOOD (voice-over): Haley was especially critical of Trump's proposal to put a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S.

HALEY: It defies everything this country was based on, and it's just wrong.

ATWOOD (voice-over): And she ultimately chose to endorse Marco Rubio in the primary.

HALEY: I wanted somebody that had conviction to do the right thing.

ATWOOD (voice-over): But when Trump became the nominee, Haley's tune shifted.

HALEY: The best person based on the policies and dealing with things like Obama Care, still is Donald Trump. That doesn't mean it's an easy vote.

I did vote for him. And I was absolutely thrilled to see him win.

Get excited because I am just gutsy (ph).

ATWOOD (voice-over): Her death political skills were on display when she exited before Trump's term was over, without provoking him to chastise her.

TRUMP: You've been fantastic and my friend.

ATWOOD (voice-over): Haley shied away from rebuking Trump when he refused to concede the 2020 election. But eventually, she criticized him after January 6, telling Politico, quote, "We need to acknowledge he let us down. He went down a path he shouldn't have. And we shouldn't have followed him. And we shouldn't have listened to him. And we can't let that ever happen again."

Then she appeared to try to repair any rift after the Republican Party signaled that January 6 wasn't going to be the political end of Trump.

HALEY: I would not run if President Trump ran. And I would talk to him about it. Yes, I mean, that's something that we'll have a conversation about at some point if that decision is something that has to be made.

ATWOOD (voice-over): And Trump says she has now made that call.

TRUMP: And I said, look, you know, go by your heart if you want to run.


ATWOOD: Now, some Republican operatives say that this is Nikki Haley's moment to be in the spotlight. Of course, she will be sharing that spotlight with former President Trump but it's her moment to get some sustained media attention. Attention from Republican voters who are paying attention this far out.


And those who are close with Nikki Haley said that the fact that she's willing to challenge President Trump right out of the gates here, demonstrates that she's gutsy, that she's determined. But there will also be drawbacks, folks say, in Republican circles for being the first one to hop into the race because it means that she is the punching bag, the official punching bag for Trump.

And that means he will have time to build up some sustained critiques of her and that could be to her detriment. Kylie Atwood, CNN, Washington.

ROMANS: All right, Kylie, thank you.

Let's bring in Daniel Strauss, Senior Political Correspondent for The New Republic. Daniel, Nikki Haley is about to be the first official challenger to Trump assuming that this happens on February 15. Does being the first give her an advantage, or if from Trump's point of view, maybe she takes some energy away from people who like Ron DeSantis, who has not officially announced, of course?

DANIEL STRAUSS, SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW REPUBLIC: For Haley, there's a clear incentive to do this now, right? Like the most of the discussion about the 2024 primary has been either about Trump or Ron DeSantis. And if you're a tertiary candidate at this moment, you need to make a splash.

So I think that is what Haley is doing right now. She is establishing herself as a candidate. And frankly, at this point in time, she gets some benefit from anything that Trump says about her, even critical statements because she needs to gain that name recognition and she needs to remind early primary voters that she's a candidate in this race.

ROMANS: So far, Daniel, most potential candidates were allies of Trump or they worked in the Trump administration. Is that a threat to Trump that his, you know, former protegees now were running against him or maybe having multiple rivals actually helps him? How does that play?

STRAUSS: It's hard to tell right now. Most of the prospective 2024 presidential candidates are former Trump officials, Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, and Haley. So it's -- on the one hand, this could split the anti-Trump vote such as it is, or it could offer Republican voters a sense that there is a strong alternative to Trump that offers the same things that they like without much of the baggage that we've all come to know over the years.

ROMANS: You know, the former president is known for his big raucous rallies. So I think his appearances at a South Carolina ice cream shop and a hamburger shop, right, to meet with voters is sort of notable. It's a different kind of venue for him. Is this a new strategy? And to the tie in maybe, two sources saying, the former president has been struggling to fundraise?

STRAUSS: I mean, it's not. I don't think it's a deliberate strategy or something that Trump who loves these big rallies, who loves to brag about how big his crowds are, is eager to have. But I think that's the situation that he's dealing with right now and he's forced to have.

The crowd sizes I think are some kind of indicator of his support. I'm always a little cautious to say there's a direct one to one ratio between the size of a crowd and voter support at the ballot box simply because Joe Biden didn't have gigantic crowds in 2020, and now he's president.


STRAUSS: At the same time, though, I think it is an indicator that as of this moment, Trump has a long way to go to the presidency.

ROMANS: All right, Daniel Strauss, we'll talk about it again, I'm sure. Thank you so much. Nice to see you.

STRAUSS: Nice to see you.

ROMANS: All right, quick hits across America now, treacherous road conditions now linked to three deaths in Texas. A wave of ice and sleet still hammering parts of southern and central U.S. leading more than 300,000 Texans without power in the bitter cold.

Kentucky's state treasury canceling thousands of dollars in relief checks. They were mistakenly sent to people not affected by the 2021 tornadoes that devastated Western Kentucky.

A large glacier near Seattle scene here about 10 years ago, it has now disappeared. A researcher tracking it says it was full of ice and snow for hundreds of years.

Next, tensions rising on the Korean peninsula. The north with a blunt warning to the United States. Plus, CNN on the frontlines as the fight rages in eastern Ukraine.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The Ukrainian say the situation here is reminiscent of some of the worst times in World War II where they're not only fighting a strong adversary but the elements as well.



ROMANS: An engaged Iranian couple has been sentenced to more than 10 years in prison each over this viral video they posted showing them dancing in the main square in Tehran. CNN's Salma Abdelaziz joins us live from London.

And this is a ritual or a celebration that would be just commonplace, almost anyplace else in the world but there it's worthy of a prison sentence. According to Human Rights activist group, the couple is being denied lawyers as well. What can you tell us?

SALMA ABDELAZIZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Sentenced to over a decade in prison for dancing, dancing, Christine. I want to bring up that video again because it's really quite emotional when you think about really beautiful. You see this couple Astiyazh Haghighi and her fiance Amir Ahmadi, they're 21 and 22 years old, dancing, twirling in the middle of Azadi Square, the main square in Tehran, that translates to Freedom Square.

They're each social media influencers, with about 1 million followers each and of course, you'll notice that Astiyazh is not wearing a headscarf in this video. The couple themselves shared this clip on social media. It was shared widely, it went viral and the response from authorities was to raid their home and to take this couple in detention.