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Hope For Survivors Fading As Death Toll Nears 22,000; U.S. Believes Xi Jinping Was Not Aware To Send Spy Balloon; Biden Steps Up Challenge To GOP On Social Security, Medicare; Air Raid Alerts In Ukraine AS Russian Missiles Strike. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired February 10, 2023 - 5:00   ET



CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN HOST: Right now, search teams desperately digging through the earthquake rubble and praying for miracles.

Plus, the former vice president subpoenaed. What could Mike Pence tell the special counsel about Trump and January 6?

And the fight over America's social safety net. Both sides ignoring the cold hard truth, not touching it is not an option.

Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Christine Romans. This is EARLY START.

We begin with the earthquake disaster in Turkey and Syria, where they are clinging to hope that survivors can still be found alive after four days buried in the rubble. That hope fading with each passing hour.

Still, there are miraculous stories of survival. Overnight, two teenage sisters were pulled from the rubble in the 99th and 101st hour since the quake. The staggering death toll now approaching 22,000. The number of injured in these two countries near 80,000.

CNN's Salma Abdelaziz is live in Istanbul and that story of the sisters is a heartwarming amid all this tragedy. And a secondary disaster now looms for survivors, many are homeless, they're forced into the freezing cold. What's being done about that?

SALMA ABDELAZIZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely a massive humanitarian crisis right now. Turkish authorities, of course, scrambling to try to help the many, many, many people made homeless, hundreds of thousands of people, you have to remember now, do not have homes to go to. And some are too scared to even go back to their homes, if they are standing.

I have some satellite images I want to show you. They come from two of these cities in this affected area. You can just see those satellite images completely leveled. It looks apocalyptic, just pancaked buildings.

When you look at those images, remember, those are people's homes, those are apartment blocks, all of those families need a place to sleep. We have updated numbers for you right now that we have from the Turkish authorities. They say, so far, they've been able to evacuate some 75,000 people from that affected area, get them to other places, get them to safety. But again, 75,000, that's just a fraction of the number.

Turkish authorities also telling us that 140,000 tents have been shipped in. Again, that's not enough. The sheer scale and scope of this disaster is too big. The number of people who need roofs over their heads are just way, way greater than that.

And then, of course, further south to Syria, there again, the situation even more dire compounded, of course, by the civil conflict that's ravaged that country now for nearly 12 years. There, we understand also tens of thousands of people have been made homeless.

There, of course, you have two different authorities on the ground. The Syrian authorities on one side of that area, of that affected area. They are able to get some aid, some help, but still saying that some 300,000 people are displaced in those regime areas.

And then you have the rebel-controlled regions where we've only seen the tiniest drop of aid, some tents being shipped in by the United Nations just yesterday in this six-truck convoy. But again tens of thousands of people potentially just sleeping on the street in freezing cold conditions. Christine.

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

All right. A major move by the special counsel overseeing criminal investigations of Donald Trump. Former Vice President Mike Pence has been subpoenaed to testify about his interactions with Trump leading up to the 2020 election and on January 6.

Pence, of course, was central to Trump's efforts to stay in power. The decision by Special Counsel Jack Smith comes after months of negotiations between prosecutors and Pence's legal team.

President Biden says he intends to run for a second term, but has not said so yet. Here's what he has said when he asked in a Telemundo interview. What's stopping him from making the official decision?


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm just not ready to make it.


ROMANS: The president is expected to formally announce the 2024 run sometime in the weeks and months ahead. The State of the Union was seen by many as a preview of Biden's campaign message.

All right. As the FBI collects and analyzes the first pieces of debris from the shutdown Chinese spy balloon, sources tell CNN that U.S. intelligence officials believe the order to send the surveillance balloon into American airspace was given without the knowledge President Xi Jinping.


Let's bring in CNN's Kristie Lu Stout live in Hong Kong. So this is the working theory here. What are we learning?

KRISTIE LU STOUT, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Christine, it's really interesting. Yes, the sources saying that U.S. intelligence is looking to whether Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, was not aware of the order to send the balloon, but they're not only looking into him, but China's military leadership, including high-level leaders in the PLA Air Force. We know that investigations, of course, are underway.

Now, we have also been closely monitoring Beijing's ever changing messaging and its strategy about communicating about this balloon, you know, it initially expressed regret, but China's rhetoric hardened after the balloon was shot down by the U.S. military and accused the U.S. of overreacting.

And we've been noticing today and yesterday that Beijing is now trying to deflect, deflect attention away its surveillance program and towards America's security practices. I want to show you this. This is according to this statement tabloid called the Global Times. They said this, quote, "The U.S. is the most unstable factor in international security. It is ridiculous for such a country to use a civilian balloon to play up the China threat to the world. And its attempt to confuse the public is unlikely to succeed."

Beijing continues, of course, to insist that this balloon was a civilian vessel that blew off course. The US says this was spy craft. It was part of this broader Chinese military surveillance operation that spanned more than 40 countries in five continents.

Now, we also heard earlier today from China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and it firmly opposes the U.S. resolution that was passed condemning the Chinese balloon, calling it pure political maneuver.

Back to you, Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Kristie Lu Stout, thank you for that.

In a rare moment of unity, House lawmakers passing a resolution that condemned China's use of that spy balloon over the U.S.

On Thursday, administration officials got a collective grilling in the House and the Senate over when they learned the balloon was headed here and why they waited to shoot it down.

CNN's Alex Marquardt has more from the Capitol.


ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: The Biden administration and Pentagon facing a bipartisan barrage of questions today on Capitol Hill over the Chinese surveillance balloon.

SEN. JON TESTER (D-MT): You guys have to help me understand why this baby wasn't taken out long before.

MARQUARDT: Accused of a lack of alarm and criticism over their decision to not shoot down the balloon sooner when it was near Alaska.

SEN. LISA MURKOWSKI (R-AK): The fact of the matter is, Alaska is the first line of defense for America.

MARQUARDT: In four different, often tense hearings, administration officials stood by their argument that it was safer to let the balloon cross the country while also gathering intelligence on Chinese capabilities. Many Democrats satisfied, many Republicans still rejecting the White House and Pentagon's positions.

SEN. DAN SULLIVAN (R-AK): Next time, you know, we're not going to wait for it to trend go all across my state, all across the Lower 48 and then shoot it down.

MARQUARDT: Officials now tell CNN, there was a warning from the Defense Intelligence Agency the day before the balloon entered U.S. airspace near Alaska.

When it did on January 28, fighter jets were sent up to ID the balloon, but it was decided to let it fly on, on a northern trajectory and collect intelligence on it. Suddenly, an official said it took a strange turn south towards the Lower 48 states crossing into Idaho on January 31st and eastwards across the country.

After it was decided to not shoot the balloon down over land, U2 spy planes were sent up to monitor it. The administration determining that the balloon was no longer sending information back to China, sources say, as the US tried to block it from gathering more intelligence on sensitive U.S. military sites.

This balloon, just a small part of a broader years' long Chinese balloon program whose fleet, the State Department says, flew over more than 40 countries.

ANTHONY BLINKEN, UNITED STATES SECRETARY OF STATE: The United States was not the only target of this broader program, which has violated the sovereignty of countries across five continents.

MARQUARDT: The balloon program run by China's military, officials say, in part out of Hainan Province, the southernmost tip of China.

China outraged at the shoot-down, demanding the return of the remnants of the balloon. The U.S. refusing, instead sending the recovered pieces from the ocean to an FBI lab, where analysis has begun, so far, that includes the canopy, wiring, and some electronics.

MARQUARDT: We have learned that the balloon was carrying sophisticated electronics that are capable of surveillance of signals like communications and radar. So far, what the FBI has collected has just been what was on the surface of the water off of South Carolina. And FBI officials said they haven't yet seen the payload where most of the surveillance equipment would be. This is the first time that the FBI has investigated a spy balloon like this one and officials say that they're analyzing the components for possible criminal charges.


Alex Marquardt, CNN, Washington.


ROMANS: Alex, thank you for that.

Still ahead, saving the safety net. Can Republicans and Democrats come together to save Medicare and Social Security before insolvency?

Plus, a boat packed with Haitian migrants arrives in the Florida Keys.

And a sneak peek at some of Sunday's Super Bowl ads.


PETE DAVIDSON, AMERICAN ACTOR: That's why Taco Bell has hired me to make an apology for them. Go ahead say sorry.



ROMANS: All right. President Biden in Florida casting himself as the protector of the safety net and focusing his attack on GOP Senator, Rick Scott, in his own backyard. We get more from CNN's Arlette Saenz.


ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: President Joe Biden on the road in Florida armed for battle with Republicans.

BIDEN: Look, I know that a lot of Republicans, their dream is to cut Social Security and Medicare. Well, let me say this. If that's your dream, I'm your nightmare.


SAENZ: The President's main target, since his State of the Union Address, Florida's own Senator Rick Scott. Biden waved a pamphlet highlighting the Republican senator's plan to sunset all federal legislation every five years, including Social Security and Medicare.

BIDEN: The very idea of the senator from Florida wants to put some Social Security and Medicare in the chopping block every five years, I find to be somewhat outrageous. So outrageous that you might not even believe it.

SAENZ: The Florida Republican, in an interview with CNN's Caitlin Collins, arguing that's not the case. SEN. RICK SCOTT (R-FL): I wrote the plan and I've been clear about it. Anybody asked me what I meant? I've been very clear. Nobody believes that I have a goal of reducing. I don't know any Republicans that want to cut Medicare and Social Security benefits. He's been a complete failure. And now he lies about what I want to get done.

SAENZ: Still, it's a fight the White House is eager to wage, a clash on full display Tuesday night. As the president gears up for a faceoff with the GOP over the debt ceiling.

BIDEN: And I said, that means you all are for keeping Social Security, and I'll stood up and said, yes, I said, well, we got a deal. Sound like a great and take these cuts off the table. I sure hope so. I really mean it.

SAENZ: Biden also with a warning to Republicans, hoping to repeal the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes caps on insulin and Medicare negotiating prescription drug prices.

BIDEN: Make no mistake about it. If I -- they tried to raise the cost of prescription drugs or abolish the Affordable Care Act, I will veto it.

SAENZ: All arguments that could be central to a 2024 reelection bid. The president taking that pitch to a state that's rich with senior voters, a group he lost in Florida by 10 points in 2020. And looming large over this trip are the two Florida men who could serve as the president's chief Republican rivals, Governor Ron DeSantis and former president Donald Trump.

Biden referencing both men briefly in his remarks, but still quiet about when a 2024 announcement will come.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It sounds like you're running.

BIDEN: I've made that decision. That's my intention, I think, but I've made that decision firmly.

SAENZ: Even as Florida has shown some signs of moving away from Democrats in recent years, President Biden wanted to travel to that state to make this argument, a state with a large population of retirees who benefit from programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Biden's advisers look at their polling and believe that this is a winning issue for them. And it's a message Biden is unlikely to back down from anytime soon with one official here at the White House saying, we want this fight, we relish this fight.

Arlette Saenz, CNN, the White House.


ROMANS: Arlette, thank you. Let's bring in CNN senior politics writer, Zachary Wolf. And, Zach, you wrote a piece last night called "Medicare and Social Security insolvency is right around the corner." This is the third rail of American politics for a reason, right? I mean, this is -- you touched talking about cuts to Social Security and you are electrocuted. Biden's -- you write this, Biden's promised to protect Social Security and Medicare is political. Republicans' promised to cut spending without touching Social Security and Medicare is mathematically impossible. That is just a fact here. We're talking so much about the politics, but we've got, let's see, just a few years here, 12 years before Social Security can't pay out everything to beneficiaries, five years from Medicare.

ZACHARY WOLF, CNN SENIOR POLITICS WRITER: That's right. You know, and I was looking at this yesterday, and I was going to -- like a cover this stuff every day, but it sort of hit me. This is coming. And this debate that we're having, you hear both the political sides saying no cuts, no cuts, no cuts. The cuts are coming, because if Congress can't work with the White House to figure out how to make these programs live into the future, they will cut themselves. That's a fact of life under current law.

Now, I don't think people should get totally freaked out about it, because they've dealt with this before. They raised the retirement age. In the 1980s, they changed the way they paid doctors. In the 1990s, they raised the payroll tax for people making over $200,000 with the Affordable Care Act.

So Congress can fix this problem. They're just not talking about it right now in a way that suggests they're actively trying to do it responsibly.

ROMANS: And let's be real, this is how you fix the problem. You raise the payroll tax more, right? That fund social security, you can do that. And the trustees have said, you do that even two or three percentage points and you start to get there.

You cut benefits by 20 percent, maybe to all current and future recipients or maybe you can even index it to earnings, for example, so the wealthiest Americans would not receive the same benefits. You can combine some version of the tax increase with benefit cuts. But all of this is so politically dangerous. No one wants to go out and be in a campaign ad saying they want any senior to get less social security benefits.

WOLF: Right. Incremental arrays of payroll tax does not fit on a bumper sticker. No cuts to Social Security and Medicare does fit on a bumper sticker, so that's -- there you have the problem.


ROMANS: And it's really close, I mean, it's here, right, and the Medicare trustees report says, the Hospital Insurance Trust Fund will be depleted by 2028, you know. So Congress really has to do something soon, right?

WOLF: It seems like it. I mean, the Trust Fund has gotten low before it's never gotten within six years of insolvency without some kind of action. So this is the alarm going off. It's happening right now. Usually, this is the time when Congress is trying to act to fix things. And it seems like there's no real movement at the moment there. You don't see the appointment of a commission, which is what they've done in the past. It's just sort of depoliticize things. It's just the mudslinging right now.

ROMANS: So we -- we've been hearing so much about the debt ceiling, right, that's coming -- well, we've already hit the debt ceiling. And so there's this handwringing about all of this money that Congress has already spent and there's no sort of fiscal restraint.

But the true -- I mean, the truth is, Zach, the biggest driver of the national debt are these programs we're talking about right now, which the White House has just put Republicans on the spot to say no one's going to cut. So the biggest driver of the national debt is the thing that Washington has now vowing no one's going to touch this -- it's just not possible.

WOLF: Right? If you take these things off the table, and also take defense spending, which is the other massive thing that the government spends money on, there is not -- there aren't enough cuts in there to really make a difference. So you have to figure out how to -- and you don't even necessarily need to have to cut these programs, you need to control the programs, or fix the financing of the programs with incremental tax rises.

So, you know, the known ways to fix this are there. Social Security has options. People have studied options, but they're just not talking about that.

ROMANS: No, it's -- I mean, you're right. It's just -- it's just fascinating, the backdrop of it, and it's not as if it's way out in the future. It's right here in front of us.

Zachary Wolf, nice to see you. Thank you. Great piece. I'm going to tweet that out. Everyone should read that.

All right. Quick hits --

WOLF: Thank you.

ROMANS: -- quick hits across America now. Prosecutors say they'll review all previous cases handled by five former Memphis police officers who are now facing murder charges in the beating death of Tyre Nichols.

Police arresting a suspect in connection with an attack on Congresswoman Angie Craig in the elevator of her D.C. apartment building. Craig is said to be OK. There's no evidence it was politically motivated.

U.S. Customs officials say a sailboat packed with 114 Haitian migrants has landed in the Florida Keys. They're being medically screened and processed at a border patrol station.

Ahead, air raid sirens sounding short time ago across Ukraine. A live report next.

And a wild mystery at the zoo. How did an ape living alone in her cage become pregnant?



ROMANS: Air raid sirens sounding in Ukraine right now as its forces respond to a massive Russian missile attack. This is video just in of a missile crater in Zaporizhzhia.

CNN's Scott McLean joins us live from London. What can you tell us about this latest attack and what's happening right now on the ground?

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Christine. Yes, so there had been air raid alerts in effect for the entire country. They have just ended in most areas just in the last couple of minutes. But authorities in at least six Ukrainian regions say that air defense systems were in action in those areas.

And in fact, we know that one missile, at least one missile, crossed into Moldovan airspace, according to the Moldovan authorities who are now summoning the Russian ambassador to complain. And this has happened before.

It was just last month, actually, the debris from a downed missile ended up landing in the northern part of the country. Ukraine's energy provider says that there have been an electrical infrastructure hit in the West south and eastern parts of the country. And Ukrainian Air Force says that there have also been confirmed hits in the regions of Kharkiv and in Zaporizhzhia.

And they say that the types of missiles used in these cases were surface to air missiles. So normally used to shoot down incoming missiles, but the Russians, throughout this war, have been using them to strike targets on land.

That's significant because the Ukrainian say that they cannot easily shoot down this kind of missile. Those missiles are also not terribly accurate when they're used for this kind of a purpose. And so even if they are only aiming at electrical infrastructure or even more legitimate military targets, it is almost certain that there's going to be collateral damage, and we have seen it many times before on civilian infrastructure.

It is not clear right now the extent of the damage, but electricity providers have already preemptively gone and made power cuts overnight and into today in anticipation of these kind of attacks. And, of course, Christine, all of this is taking place just as the Ukrainians say that the fighting in the eastern part of the country is really ramping up in anticipation of this spring offensive that they've warned -- they've been warning about and, of course, just after President Zelenskyy wrapped up two days of meetings in Europe trying to get even more weapons from Europe.

ROMANS: All right. Scott McLean for us, thank you so much.

Moscow's mercenary, Wagner Group, says it's no longer recruiting convicts for its military operations. Tens of thousands of Russian prisoners signed up for the Wagner program last year. Numbers now could be dwindling, signaling a potential shift in the Kremlin's strategy.

CNN's Frederik Pleitgen has more for us this morning from Ukraine.


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wagner mercenaries in brutal battles around Bakhmut in Eastern Ukraine, among the assault force, convict, charging in waves suffering devastating losses.

Wagner boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, often praises his group's battlefield efficiency, but now, a sudden about-face.