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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Pentagon Tracking Suspected Chinese Spy Balloon Over U.S.; Secy. Of State Blinken To Meet Xi Jinping Next Week; Arctic Cold To Grip Northeast, Wind Chills Of 50-Below Zero; GOP Ousts Rep. Ilhan Omar From House Foreign Affairs Cmte; New Ukraine Aid Package To Include Longer-Range Missiles; Jury Learns More About Key Evidence In Alex Murdaugh Case; Judge To Decide If Jury Will Hear Of Murdaugh's Financial Crimes. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired February 03, 2023 - 05:00   ET




CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Right now on Early Start, eyes in the sky. What China is now saying about the spy balloon over Montana. Plus, more firepower for Ukraine. The U.S. about to approve longer range missiles to counter Russians on the battlefield. And too cold for school, classes in big cities like Boston and Buffalo canceled with the coldest windshields since the 1980s about to take hold.

It's Friday. Here we go. Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Christine Romans. Right now, Chinese spies could be watching you from above, from a high-altitude spy balloon. The Pentagon says they've been tracking this balloon about the size of three buses for days.

People on the ground in Montana didn't know what to make of it at first.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I miss the moon. OK. And then there's that. What planet is that?


ROMANS: That sighting raises two big questions. What is it doing here? And what does the Biden administration plan to do about it? We get more from CNN's Oren Lieberman at the Pentagon.

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: For several days now, the U.S. has been tracking this surveillance balloon over northern U.S., specifically over Montana. The U.S. says they believe -- they're very confident in fact -- that it's from China. A balloon that drifted in or came in over Canada and has been oversensitive sites, the Pentagon admits, over Montana.

Now they haven't specified what those sites are, but Montana is home to several ballistic missile fields, ballistic missile silos, and perhaps that's what this surveillance balloon was going after. The Pentagon says when this first came over and they started watching it, they did launch F-22 fighter jets.

In the end, the decision was made not to shoot this down. President Joe Biden asked for military options for the possibility of what it would take to shoot this down. In the end, senior military leaders, including the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Mark Milley, the top U.S. officer, recommended against shooting it down for a number of reasons.

First, there is a risk to what's on the ground. Facilities and people there on the ground, even if it is Montana and isn't densely populated. More importantly, though, the Pentagon says they don't believe this has intelligence gathering capabilities, what, satellite communications above what Chinese spy satellites already have.

In the end, the decision was made not to shoot it down. But the Pentagon emphasized that should they determine this is a high risk, they do retain that option of carrying out a military option against this, of essentially shooting this surveillance balloon down.

The Pentagon will keep watching this. It's important to note that the Pentagon did bring this up through diplomatic channels both in Washington and in Beijing. And it comes at a time of incredibly high tensions with China.

Oren Liebermann, CNN at the Pentagon.

ROMANS: All right, Oren, thanks for that.

We're now hearing from Beijing about this suspected spy balloon looming flying above the U.S. CNN's Marc Stewart live in Hong Kong. Good morning, Marc. Good evening there. What is China saying?

MARC STEWART, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Christine, we've been tracking this reaction for the last few hours here in Hong Kong and the response from Beijing, very diplomatic in wordy. The spokesperson saying there was a need to learn more about what happened and to avoid deliberate speculation.

But this is really setting the backdrop for a momentous moment in global history as U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken prepares for his first trip to China as U.S. Secretary of State.


STEWART (voice-over): U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken's next stop on his world tour, China.

MATTIE BEKINK, CHINA DIRECTOR, ECONOMIST INTELLIGENCE UNIT: It is a big deal and I think it's really important not just for the U.S. and China and their own kind of economic, political interests, but for the entire world to see these two superpowers find a way to get along.

STEWART (voice-over): But that may be a lofty goal. In March 2021, talks between Blinken and China's then top diplomat got off to a heated start, a meeting described as tough and direct. Yet the tone was more cordial when President Joe Biden met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the G20 in November, setting the stage for Secretary Blinken's upcoming visit.

JOSH LIPSKY, SENIOR DIRECTOR, ATLANTIC COUNCIL GEOECONOMICS CENTER: The fact that the meeting is happening in and of itself is a success. This is the continuing of a thawing of the relationship that started in Bali between President Xi and President Biden.

STEWART (voice-over): Among the stress points to tackle, semiconductors, the war in Ukraine, human rights, Taiwan and trade. But experts argue don't anticipate any tangible results just yet.


ALFREDO MONTUFAR-HELU, THE CONFERENCE BOARD: I don't think there is a big expectation that there would be huge positive outcomes of these meetings, but mainly about defining what both countries can do to not deteriorate the relationship.

STEWART (voice-over): If anything, the meeting sets to establish guardrails in a competitive relationship.

LIPSKY: What you need to do is be able to create trust. so these two gentlemen can pick up the phone anytime, day or night, if there's a flashpoint or a conflict, and reach each other and understand what's happening in the other countries.

STEWART (voice-over): A visible effort toward diplomacy amid political, social, and economic challenges.


STEWART: As one analyst told me, everything is on the table. As far as the Chinese government and its view of this meeting, speaking most recently at a press briefing, a spokesperson called this a welcome event, Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Nice to see you. Marc Stewart for us in Hong Kong. Thanks, Marc.

Millions of Americans are about to see some of the coldest temperatures in decades. Dangerous wind chills as cold as 50 below zero are expected in the Northeast. This is video, Justin from Oswego, New York right on the shore of Lake Ontario, a fierce snow squall brought by the Arctic cold front.

Let's get straight to Meteorologist Chad Myers. Chad, who's going to feel the worst of this, you know, generational blast here, mind- numbing cold?

CHAD MYERS, METEOROLOGIST: From New York all the way up into New England right now, it's already into Montreal, Quebec City, Atlantic Canada is going to feel that this is a widespread, very cold event that's about to approach the Northeast. Already seeing some snow around this morning, but the big story is how much cold air will be, wind chill warnings out there?

There may be wind chills 50 to 60 below zero because the winds may blow 50 miles per hour and the temperature will be 20 below itself. Now, your house still doesn't feel 60 below, but the winds will be coming through those cracks in your doors for sure.

Current windchill in Buffalo is 5 degrees below zero. Here are the winds that are expected to go from 20 to 30 and then on up to 50. But by Sunday, this is all over. This leaves. So this isn't a long term event. Here's what we're expecting for low's tonight. Even Boston, six below zero. That's the thermometer.

Now we get to the windchill. Look it up here. Quebec and Montreal already about 40 degrees below zero, going to 50 below. The irony is that 40 below Fahrenheit is 40 below Celsius. They match right at that point. But look at these numbers here for New York and also into Boston. It's going to feel like 28 below.

This is a properties, pets and people kind of event. The good news is it only lasts about 36 hours for the U.S. It lasts a lot longer than that for Atlantic Canada. Look at this. Boston, you go from six below --


MYERS: -- to 54. 60 degrees difference in five or six days. Christine?

ROMANS: Yes. Everybody's plants are going to be so confused no matter what --

MYERS: The peaches and all those things, yes.

ROMANS: -- Punxsutawney Phil says, it doesn't matter. It's very confusing weather. All right, nice to see you. Thanks, Chad. Have a great weekend.

MYERS: You too.

ROMANS: House Republicans have voted to oust Minnesota Democrat Ilhan Omar from the Foreign Affairs Committee, citing remarks they say that she has made in the past that are antisemitic. It's another sign of the increasingly bitter divide in the Republican-led House.

CNN's Manu Raju has more from Capitol Hill.



MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): House Republicans, in one of their first moves in power, ousting Democrats, Ilhan Omar from a seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee over past remarks condemned as antisemitic.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She has brought dishonor to the House of Representatives. RAJU (voice-over): A 218 to 211 vote, a response to 2021 when Democrats booted Republicans Paul Gosar and Marjorie Taylor Greene from all of their committees over their rhetoric.

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: Thank you all for coming.

RAJU (voice-over): But Speaker Kevin McCarthy claims this is different since Omar can serve on other committees, just not Foreign Affairs.

(on-camera): Is this the message you want to send to voters as you come into power here?

MCCARTHY: No, and that's the clear part, how it's not tit for tat. We're not removing her from other committees. We just do not believe when it comes to Foreign Affairs, especially the responsibility of that position around the world with the comments that you make.

RAJU (voice-over): Then Speaker Nancy Pelosi set the precedent in 2021, but told CNN at the time she was not concerned the GOP might retaliate.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), CALIFORNIA: We would not walk away from our responsibilities for fear of something they may do in the future.

RAJU (voice-over): Now Democrats say the vote was an act of pure political vengeance.

REP. HAKEEM JEFFRIES (D), NEW YORK: But what's going to take place on the floor today is not a public policy debate, it's not about accountability, it's about political revenge.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's not justified.

RAJU (voice-over): But Omar has apologized, even signing on to are solution recognizing Israel as a legitimate U.S. ally. And today defiant.


OMAR: I am an immigrant and interestingly, from Africa. Is anyone surprised that I am being targeted?

RAJU (voice-over): Even some Republicans uneasy about the vote.

REP. TONY GONZALES (R), TEXAS: I'm not excited about the direction that we saw -- the direction that we've kind of taken this place, this tit for tat.

(on-camera): How, you know, you feel about this being one of the first major actions of the new Republican majority to kick Ilhan Omar off the committee?

REP. NANCY MACE (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Well, certainly I'm concerned, representing a swing district that we're distracted from the real issues facing Americans who are struggling, talking about inflation.


RAJU: Now, those last two Republican members did end upvoting to kick Omar off of the committee. Nancy Mace had said she had gotten some assurances that going forward there will be a different process for removing committees, members off of committees for bad behavior, for conduct that looks dishonorably among the House.

Kevin McCarthy did indicate that that would be his plan. Also going forward, he plans to have talks with the Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries about this issue, as the Republicans appear eager to put this behind them amid concerns within the ranks.

Manu Raju, CNN, Capitol Hill.

ROMANS: All right, Manu, thank you.

A conservative leaning appeals court striking down a federal law that prohibits people with domestic violence restraining orders from having guns. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling the law targeted those believed to pose a domestic violence threat it's unconstitutional. Saying in part, "Through that lens, we conclude the ban of possession of firearms is an outlier that our ancestors would never have accepted."

Russia is stepping up its attacks in eastern Ukraine. Missile strikes targeting the city of Kramatorsk have claimed the lives of residents and on Thursday came dangerously close to a CNN crew that was just yards away. Meantime, the U.S. is set to announce more military aid for Ukraine that includes longer range missiles.

Let's bring in CNN's Scott McLean. Scott, how significant is this new aid package?

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Christine, it's worth $2.2 billion. There's a heck of a lot in there, but not precisely what the Ukrainians have been asking for as of late, which is fighter jets and long-range missiles. Part of the concern on behalf of the U.S. and the west is that these kinds of weapons could be used to strike targets inside of Russia itself, escalating this conflict.

Yesterday, the Ukrainian Defense Minister, Oleksii Reznikov, tried to tamp down these concerns in his argument to the European Commission, saying, "If we had the opportunity to strike at a range of 200 miles, the Russian army would not be able to maintain defenses and would be forced to lose. Ukraine is ready to provide any guarantees that your weapons will not be involved in attacks on Russian territory."

So what the U.S. is offering instead seems like somewhat of a compromise. Inside this package is something called ground launched small diameter bombs. These are guided missiles. They have little engines inside of them, little wings that come out after they are fired, and conveniently, they can be used with the HIMARS system that the U.S. has already provided to Ukraine.

This doubles the range of the HIMARS system, but it's still only about half of what the Ukrainians are actually looking for because this package does not include long-range missiles. It does not include fighter jets either. Though the Ukrainians did get a boost on the fighter jet argument yesterday from the Polish Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, who said that if he were deciding on behalf of NATO, that the Ukrainians would get those jets.

And this is significant because, remember, it was just last month that the polls became the first country to say that they would provide tanks for Ukraine, and very quickly, 11 other countries followed suit. Christine?

ROMANS: All right, Scott McClean for us in London following that. Thanks, Scott.

Hiding in plain sight. Ahead, a wanted Mafia boss captured posing as a pizza maker for years. Plus, a ghoulish surprise at an Iowa funeral home. A body thought to be dead turns out to be alive.

And could a Snapchat video be a smoking gun in the double murder case against Alex Murdaugh?



ROMANS: A dramatic turn in Alex Murdaugh's double murder trial after several witnesses were questioned without the jury present Wednesday about Murdaugh's alleged financial crimes and the motive behind the fatal shootings of his wife and son.

CNN's Randi Kaye has more from South Carolina.


HEIDI GALORE, SNAP, INC.: I work for Snap Incorporated.

RANDI KAYE, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This employee from Snapchat was called on to testify for the state so she could authenticate this video. The video was extracted from Paul Murdaugh's phone months after he and his mother, Maggie, were killed.

GALORE: The username is listed here as Paul 9499.

KAYE (voice-over): You don't see Paul on the video, but you hear him laughing at his father, Alex Murdaugh.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did you determine reviewing the records whether, excuse me, that account sent out that particular video?

GALORE: Yes, it was sent on the same day, June 7th 2021 at 23 -- or I'm sorry, 7:56 hours Eastern time.

KAYE (voice-over): 07:56 p.m., the night of the murders. That's less than an hour before prosecutors say Paul Murdaugh's phone ceased all activity, which they say was about 08:49 p.m. Remember, Alex Murdaugh told investigators he hadn't seen his family since supper time, that he'd discovered their bodies and called 911 at 10:07 p.m.

What's especially significant about this video, besides the timestamp, is what Alex Murdaugh is wearing in it. Notice the long pants and the short sleeve blue shirt. Testimony shows when police responded to the 911 call a couple of hours later, Alex was wearing something different, shorts and a white t-shirt.

JOE MCCULLOCH, ATTORNEY: They're foreshadowing their effort to prove that somehow he showered off, washed his clothes, made those clothes disappear and changed clothes.

KAYE (voice-over): On cross examination, the defense seemed to try and show that perhaps someone else might have known where Paul Murdaugh was based on his Snapchat, and that person killed Paul and his mother.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is it possible for -- I mean, I don't know how it works -- for some or all of Paul's friends to have access to his location through the app?

GALORE: Yes, if he made his settings visible, his geolocation visible to his friends, yes.

KAYE (voice-over): That plays right into what Alex Murdaugh told investigators after the killings. That Paul had been receiving threats following a boat crash he was involved in. A young woman died in that crash, and Paul had been charged with driving a boat drunk and causing her death.

On the issue of motive, out of the jury's presence, the judge allowed testimony from this state witness. The chief financial officer of Alex Murdaugh's former law firm told the court she confronted Alex about hundreds of thousands of dollars in missing funds just hours before his wife and son were killed.

The judge hasn't decided if he'll allow testimony about Murdaugh's alleged financial schemes. He's accused of defrauding clients of nearly $9 million before he was disbarred.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Had the firm received this $792,000?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did this matter ever come to your attention again at a later time?

SECKINGER: Yes. That would have been in September after we found some other misappropriations and we had confronted Alex and he had resigned.

KAYE (voice-over): Prosecutors say Alex killed his wife and son to distract from his alleged financial fraud and prevented from being exposed.

Randi Kaye, CNN, Walterboro, South Carolina. (END VIDEOTAPE)

ROMANS: Let's bring in trial attorney and legal analyst on the law and crime network, Imran Ansari. It's so nice to see you this morning. So those new videos from the day of the murder, how badly do they damage Murdaugh alibi?

IMRAN ANSAR, TRIAL ATTORNEY: Yes, no, that's going to be key evidence for the prosecution. Of course, it's a largely circumstantial case for the prosecution, but these two videos are going to be key, and I'll tell you why.

Alex Murdaugh, when he was being interviewed by law enforcement, made statements which tried to distance himself from the location of the murders or the kennel where his son was murdered and, of course, on the scene of that crime.

These two snapchat videos sent from Paul Murdaugh, the son's phone, have his voice arguably in the background. So the prosecution is relying on that evidence to place Alex Murdaugh in the location at those kennels.

That's going to bode very badly for Murdaugh if the jury actually hones in on that evidence because of course, that shows a consciousness of guilt if Alex Murdaugh was, in fact, manufacturing an alibi. And this evidence, in fact, places him at the scene.

ROMANS: Also yesterday, this remarkable moment where the defense and the prosecution are talking to the judge without the jury present, about this testimony, this testimony about Alex Murdaugh's alleged financial crimes. You have the former CFO of the law firm where he worked, saying on the morning of the murders, she confronted him about a whole bunch of missing money.

This all happened without the jury present. Do you think the jury will end up seeing that testimony and knowing about the financial allegations against Alex Murdaugh as part of a motive?

ANSARI: Well, Christine, of course the prosecution doesn't have to prove a motive, but juries always want to hear a motive in a murder case. You have the who, what, where, how, and why. And the why doesn't have to be proven to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt, but it gives the jury something to explain why a horrendous crime like this would have occurred.

Do I think the judge will allow this evidence in? I think it's a good chance it's going to come in because the defense have themselves opened the door with some of their questions for the prosecution to get some of this motive evidence in.

Of course, the financial crimes, the sort of legal woes that Alex Murdaugh had surrounding him, is a reason that the prosecution is giving to the jury why he may have committed such a heinous alleged crime. Because to distract away from those financial issues, from those financial crimes and gain some sympathy. These arguments that went forth before the judge yesterday could show and be compelling for the prosecution's argument that this evidence should come in, especially since the defense may have opened the door, Christine, to some of that evidence to begin with.

ROMANS: Imran, would you put him on the stand?

ANSARI: That's going to be a dangerous proposition for the defense. Of course, you know, there is a constitutional right for him to remain silent. And I would say in this case, Christine, I would not put him on the stand. I would concentrate on poking holes in the circumstantial case that the prosecution has.

ROMANS: All right, Imran Ansari, so nice to see you this morning. Have a great weekend. Thank you.

ANSARI: Thank you. You too.

ROMANS: All right, quick hits across America now. A Vermont school district banning fans from basketball games for the rest of the season. A man died during a brawl at a middle school game this week.

Three bodies found in a Detroit area apartment are believed to be rappers, missing for almost two weeks. Police have not confirmed the identities or the cause of death.


A woman pronounced dead suddenly gasps for air at an Iowa funeral home. An Alzheimer's center that cared for her faces a $10,000 fine. The woman did die two days later.

Still ahead, a ghost warship in the Atlantic why Naval forces now want to sink it. And a fugitive mob boss caught making pizzas in plain sight.


ROMANS: All right, imagine losing $29 billion in a matter of days. That's what's happening to an Indian conglomerate. Adani Group's shares plummeting right now. And the slide began when a U.S. short seller --