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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Wagner Mercenary Group Halts Prisoner Recruitment; Prosecutors Allege Murdaugh Tried To Build Alibi By Calling Friend; Patrick Mahomes Wins Second NFL MVP Award. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired February 10, 2023 - 05:30   ET




FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin praises his group's battlefield efficiency -- but now, a sudden about-face.

"We have completely discontinued the recruitment of prisoners into Wagner PMC," he writes. "Those who work for us now are fulfilling all their obligations."

Ukrainian intelligence recently gave CNN access to two convicts recruited by Wagner who the Ukrainians captured on the front line. They said they were speaking with us willingly but we're disguising their identity for their own safety.

"There were 90 of us in our first assault," he says. "Sixty died in that first assault, killed by mortar fire. A handful remain wounded."

The men say they were essentially cannon fodder but retreating was not allowed.

"We were given the task of taking a place and we had to take it at any cost," he says. "We couldn't retreat without orders because if we didn't comply we'd be killed."

For months, Prigozhin personally went to Russian jails with his offer, even for murderers and rapists. Fight six months in Ukraine and if you survive you'll be free.

"Only a handful in my unit came for money," he says. "Most came because they long jail sentences. But there were also some who had only 12 days of their sentence remaining and they went anyway."

The Ukrainians believe Wagner has so far sent around 50,000 convicts to Ukraine with a massive attrition rate -- as high as 80 percent killed, wounded, captured, or deserted.

Prigozhin, though, seems unphased by the losses.

YEVGENY PRIGOZHIN, WAGNER PMC: (Speaking foreign language).

PLEITGEN (voice-over): "Their contracts have ended. They're going home," he just said.

But why would Prigozhin say he's changed what he feels is a winning formula? He didn't give any reason but one possibility might be that the Russian Defense Ministry has sidelined Wagner and is now fully taking control of recruiting convicts. At least that's the view of prisoner advocacy group Russia Behind Bars.

OLGA ROMANOVA, RUSSIA BEHIND BARS (through translator): Prisoners are difficult to deal with. Some Russian soldiers might not like fighting alongside prisoners in trenches. But there's big potential and it's easy to recruit masses.

PLEITGEN (voice-over): Russia's Defense Ministry didn't reply to our request for comment, but Ukrainian military intelligence believes there is a power struggle unfolding.


PLEITGEN (voice-over): "The leadership of the Russian Armed Forces is going to belittle Prigozhin's role," he says, "so that he cannot strengthen his position in the Kremlin hierarchy."

PLEITGEN (on camera): Now, of course, there could be various other reasons why Yevgeny Prigozhin seems to be changing his strategy here in Ukraine and now says that he's no longer going to be using convicts on the front lines.

He could simply be running out of people willing to go, even in Russian jails. Certainly, it seems as though word is spreading that the attrition rate for convicts recruited by Wagner is extremely high. It could also be a shift in Russia's strategy that makes that kind of warfare less effective on the front lines. It's really unclear and certainly, we're not hearing from Moscow as to what the reasons could be.

Fred Pleitgen, CNN, Kyiv, Ukraine.


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: All right, great reporting from Fred -- thank you -- there.

Quick hits around the globe right now.

Nicaragua has freed 222 political prisoners and sent them to the U.S. The Biden administration calls it a positive step in addressing Nicaragua's human rights abuses.

South Africa's president declaring a national state of disaster over its crippling power shortages. Rolling blackouts pose a significant threat to the country's economy.

A Japanese zoo solves the mystery of how -- of how a gibbon who lived alone became pregnant. They say Momo made it with Ito, the male gibbon, through a hole between their cages. It took a DNA test on the baby to solve the mystery.

Just ahead, Brazil's new president due at the White House just hours from now. And Alex Murdaugh's best friend on the stand at the double- murder trial.


JIM GRIFFIN, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Would you agree that Alex's number one priority was his family?





ROMANS: All right, here is today's fast-forward lookahead.

President Biden hosting Brazil's President Lula da Silva at the White House today. The two will talk about climate change and protecting the Amazon.

Southwest Airlines says a crew scheduling system that failed spectacularly during a service meltdown in December will be fixed today. A company executive was grilled about the travel nightmare at a Senate hearing Thursday.

President Biden and Vice President Harris met with governors -- or meet with governors from across the country at the White House today. He'll hear about the impact of Biden's economic agenda on the states.

All right, testimony set to resume this morning in Alex Murdaugh's double-murder trial. An attorney who filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Murdaugh will be back on the stand.

On Thursday, jurors also heard from the defendant's best friend.

CNN's Randi Kaye has more.


CREIGHTON WATERS, LEAD PROSECUTOR: What time was that first call?

WILSON: It looks like it was at 9:11 p.m. incoming from his cell phone.

RANDI KAYE, CNN ANCHOR AND CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Alex Murdaugh's best friend, Chris Wilson, testifying that Alex called him at 9:11 p.m. the night of the murders. That would have been about 20 minutes after prosecutors say Alex's wife and son were killed.

WATERS: Did he sound normal to you?

WILSON: He sounded normal -- yes, sir.

KAYE (voice-over): Normal is how he said Alex sounded. Wilson told Alex he had to call him back later.

WATERS: And what did he say?

WILSON: He said that's fine, no problem.

KAYE (voice-over): That phone call could be key. Prosecutors seem to be trying to show Alex was allegedly trying to create an alibi after the murders.

Chris Wilson said he called Alex back at 9:20 p.m. and Alex told him he was almost at his mom's house. All of this tracks with prosecutors saying Alex fired up his car and left the property where the murders took place about 9:06 p.m. that night. Alex said he was napping before that and was not with his family around the time they were killed.


Wilson said Alex then sent him a text at 9:52 p.m. saying "Call me if you're up." Wilson testified he called Alex back at 9:53 p.m. on the night in question to discuss a case.

WILSON: I told him I needed to talk to him and he said hey, that's cool, but I'm about to get back home. Can we -- can we talk tomorrow? And I said sure, fine.

KAYE (voice-over): That last phone call would have been just before Alex returned home -- just before he says he found his wife and son bleeding. Alex called 911 at 10:07 p.m.

On cross-examination, the defense leaned on Wilson to tell the jury what a loving family the Murdaughs were.

GRIFFIN: Would you agree that Alex's number one priority was his family?

WILSON: Yes, sir. It appeared that way to me.

GRIFFIN: When I say family I'm talking about Maggie, and Paul, and Buster.

KAYE (voice-over): Randi Kaye, CNN, Walterboro, South Carolina.


ROMANS: All right, to sports now.

Chiefs' quarterback Patrick Mahomes adds another trophy to his collection after being named the NFL's MVP for the second time in his career.

Coy Wire has more from Glendale, Arizona, site of Sunday's Super Bowl LVII. The countdown begins, Coy.

COY WIRE, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Christine. This is -- this is your boy's boy, right?

ROMANS: Oh, right.

WIRE: Your son's a big Patrick Mahomes fan.


WIRE: Since becoming a starter five years ago. Five Pro Bowls, three Super Bowl appearances, two league MVPs.

Patrick Mahomes dominated on the field this season leading the league in pass yards and touchdowns, and he dominated the voting for the league's Most Valuable Player. The 27-year-old receiving 48 out of 50 first-place votes, running away with his second MVP award. His first came in 2018.

I talked to him several times this week, Christine. His leadership and positivity just ooze from him.

Mahomes says this award, though isn't about me, it's about we -- giving all the credit to his team. Here he is.


PATRICK MAHOMES, QUARTERBACK, KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: I would never be standing here today without you all every day, giving everything that we have together to go for the ultimate goal -- the Super Bowl. Let's continue to go for that dream this weekend.


WIRE: Just one sleep away now from the Chiefs taking on the Philadelphia Eagles. And Mahomes -- he's going to try to break the so- called MVP curse. The last nine MVPs to play in the Super Bowl that season are 0-9. His teammates say if anybody can do it, it's number 15.


JERICK MCKINNON, RUNNING BACK, KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: No matter where you end up or how you get open, or what space you fill, he can get the ball to you. Whether it's underhand, whether there's no look, whether there's crossbody back across the field he can get the ball to you.

TRAVIS KELCE, TIGHT END, KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: He's playing a step ahead. He's almost playing chess out there in terms that he's got three or four moves already in his pocket depending on what the defense does. And that's what's going to make him the greatest ever to go down.


WIRE: Now, on the other side, Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts finished second in the MVP voting in only this third year in the league. He guided his team to a 14-1 record at the start of the season, missing two games due to a shoulder injury. And while the 24-year-old has stayed fairly quiet heading into the big

game, his teammates are not. I asked star receiver A.J. Brown what makes Hurts so special.


A.J. BROWN, WIDE RECEIVER, PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: His mindset is on another level. He's always listening to Tom Brady -- something on the internet or watching Michael Jordan highlights or something.

FLETCHER COX, DEFENSIVE TACKLE, PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: Everybody on the team respects him. And it's been fun just watching him grow over the last few years to become -- just become a leader. Obviously, when you're the starting quarterback some people feel like they're forced to feel it, but I think Jalen was born for that. He was -- he was born to be a leader.


WIRE: And finally, a great moment from last night's NFL honors. The entire medical staff that helped save Bills safety Damar Hamlin's life after he suffered cardiac arrest on the field just five weeks ago receiving a standing ovation. And then Hamlin, who has made nothing short of a miraculous recovery, coming out to give an emotional thank you.


DAMAR HAMLIN, SAFETY, BUFFALO BILLS: Sudden cardiac arrest was nothing I would have ever chosen to be a part of my story but that's because sometimes our own visions are too small even when we think we are seeing the bigger picture. My vision was about playing in the NFL and being the best player that I could be, but God's plan was to have a purpose greater than any game in this world.

I have a long journey ahead -- a journey full of unknowns and a journey full of milestones. But it's a lot easier to face your fears when you know your purpose.


WIRE: It was surreal on Wednesday, Christine, being in the room when Damar walked out on stage to receive a community award. People stood up in awe. And it's incredible news that we received that day when the NFL P.A. medical director said that I guarantee Damar Hamlin will play professional football again.

ROMANS: Yes, what a crazy story. What a great story.

Coy Wire, nice to see you.

WIRE: You, too.

ROMANS: All right. Coming up on "CNN THIS MORNING" the former Vice President of the United States subpoenaed by the special counsel. What could he say about Donald Trump? [05:45:00

And next right here, Super Bowl commercials. What you'll see this year and what you definitely won't see.





ROMANS: All right, welcome back.

Your Romans' Numeral this morning is 20. Yahoo plans to lay off 20 percent of its workforce -- reportedly, 1,600 employees. Yahoo says the job cuts will be completed by the end of the year, part of its plan to shrink its advertising unit and invest more in other profitable parts of that business.

Looking at markets around the world, European markets are lower. GDP data out of the U.K. showed almost no growth for the final quarter of 2022 after two quarters in a row of contraction. Asian markets closed mixed.

And on Wall Street, stock index futures this Friday are leaning down a little bit. Same mood you saw yesterday. Stocks extended recent losses working through corporate earnings reports -- solid earnings, by the way, from Pepsi and Kellogg. But investors still trying to figure out the Fed's plans for higher interest rates.


Weekly jobless claims rose from the week before but still remain near multi-decade lows.

Mortgage rates rose slightly after four down weeks of declines. A 30- year fixed-rate mortgage now averaging 6.12 percent.

And gas prices fell a penny overnight to $3.43 a gallon. Prices at the pump have fallen every day since January 28.

All right, Sunday is Super Bowl LVII, the Chiefs and the Eagles. Many will watch for the commercials.




ROMANS: Guess what? Larry was right last year. This year, crypto ads are out after the collapse of FTX and a wave of industry bankruptcies.

So what ads will we see? CNN business reporter Nathaniel Meyersohn is here. Nathaniel, what commercials then will people be talking about on Monday? Crypto is so last year.

NATHANIEL MEYERSOHN, CNN BUSINESS REPORTER: Crypto is so last year. Is Larry ever -- is Larry David ever wrong?

So this year, Christine, we're going to see an interesting mix. Sports betting apps have been booming and they're going to be advertising heavily. Take a look at this DraftKings ad with Kevin Hart and David Ortiz.




MEYERSOHN: Right. So -- and DraftKings is not the only sports betting app --


MEYERSOHN: -- that's going to be running ads -- FanDuel. Sports betting is super popular right now.

We're also going to see, for the first time ever, a non-alcoholic beer ad. Heineken is --

ROMANS: Really?

MEYERSOHN: -- advertising its 0.0 beer. Take a look at this.




ROMANS: Beer is always a staple of the Super Bowl. Non-alcoholic, not so much, but beer is always a staple of the Super Bowl.

MEYERSOHN: Right, right.

ROMANS: All right, let's talk about Amazon closing its -- some of its Fresh and Go stores. What does that say about, I guess, its strategy?

MEYERSOHN: So Amazon's brick-and-mortar retail strategy has really struggled over the past few years. It said recently that it's going to close Amazon Fresh grocery stores and Amazon Go convenience stores, and it's going to take a $720 million write-down -- a big hit here.

Amazon is the king of e-commerce but it's really struggled with brick- and-mortar stores. It's still figuring out its strategy. A few years ago it bought Whole Foods.

ROMANS: Right.

MEYERSOHN: And that's kind of -- it's been a little bit lackluster. There hasn't been a ton of -- a ton of growth there. So Amazon much better online than brick-and-mortar stores.

ROMANS: But Pete Davison, it looks like, got people to eat at -- eat breakfast at Taco Bell. Take a look.




ROMANS: So is there a Pete Davidson effect in breakfast sales at Taco Bell?

MEYERSOHN: Pete Davidson has saved Taco Bell, Christine. So, yes, people are very frustrated with Taco Bell's breakfast. They've brought on Pete Davidson to apologize for their old breakfast and say that they're revamping their breakfast, and that's helped. The sales of Taco Bell's breakfasts up nine percent last quarter driven by breakfast burritos and egg-stuffed quesadillas, and they have Pete Davidson to thank for that.

ROMANS: Interesting. I think McDonald's had some decent numbers, too. I mean, the consumer -- the consumer has money to spend on the important delicacies of life, like Taco Bell and McDonald's.

Nathaniel Meyersohn, nice to see you. Our reporter on all things retail. Thank you so much.

All right, President Biden grilled about the 2024 race. Will he run? Would he rather face Trump or DeSantis? A new interview ahead.



ROMANS: Our top of the morning, the top country songs on Spotify right now.


MORGAN WALLEN, SINGER: Singing "You Proof."


ROMANS: Number one, Morgan Wallen's "You Proof."

Here is number two.


HARDY AND LAINEY WILSON, SINGERS: Singing "Wait in the Truck."


ROMANS: "Wait in the Truck." Hardy with Lainey Wilson who stars, by the way, on "YELLOWSTONE" this season. And number three --


LUKE COMBS, SINGER-SONGWRITER: Singing "The Kind of Love We Make."


ROMANS: That's Luke Combs with "The Kind of Love We Make."

All right, Rihanna set to perform live for the first time in nearly seven years and doing it on perhaps the world's biggest stage, the Super Bowl halftime show.


RIHANNA, GRAMMY WINNING ARTIST: Singing "Don't Stop the Music."


ROMANS: At her press conference ahead of the big show Sunday the superstar singer said it's all she's been able to think about.


RIHANNA: And I've been so focused on the Super Bowl I totally forgot that my birthday is coming up. I totally forgot about Valentine's Day.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I didn't forget it.

RIHANNA: I am just like Super Bowl, Super Bowl, Super Bowl. So it's a lot of preparation, a lot of moving parts. And this week -- this is the week that it really is being tested. I mean, it's literally like 300 to 400 people breaking the stage down and building it back up and getting it out in eight minutes. It's incredible. It's almost impossible.


ROMANS: Rihanna says the.