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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Zelenskyy Projects "Year of Victory" on Invasion Anniversary; Federal Investigators Zero in on Case of Ohio Derailment; Blizzards, Ice, Heavy Snow, Power Outages Across U.S.; Alex Murdaugh Testifies, Clashes with Lead Prosecutor. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired February 24, 2023 - 05:00   ET



CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers in the United States, and around the world. It's Friday. I'm Christine Romans.

Just moments ago, you watched live Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaking in a video link in an event in Berlin marking one year since Russia's invasion. One year ago today, Russian troops invaded eastern Ukraine, believing they were overwhelmed a smaller country in short order.

Instead, as the war has dragged, a straightforward Russian victory has become less likely by the day.

This morning, instead of dwelling on Ukraine's losses, President Zelenskyy released an inspirational video, urging his people to face the enemy, racist, and fight. His tweet ends, we know that 2023 will be the year of our victory.

CNN's Melissa Bell is live this morning in Kyiv.

What is the mood there on what we think is an unhappy milestone here?

MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, a mix really. On one hand, Ukrainians are bracing this morning, Christine, for more Russian strikes, that is what the head of Ukraine's military intelligence has been warning about on this grim one year anniversary. But there is also this sense of resilience and hope really after the show of support and solidarity from Ukrainians on the part of the international community, over the course of the last, year and again specifically this week, with a visit of Joe Biden.

In fact, the last couple of hours, what we've seen here just outside St. Sophia's Church is an extraordinary show of force on the part of the Ukrainian president. President Zelenskyy speaking to soldiers and families of 400 soldiers about the extent to which weapons over the next few months is up to them.


VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): It is you who we decide whether we are all going through this. Whether Ukraine is going to exist, every day, every hour is as you Ukrainian soldiers which will decide it.


BELL: Now, there was a very tight security as you would expect for that event that took place just down there outside St. Sophia's, but it was of course an important reminder that President Zelenskyy intends to stand strong with the Ukrainian people have achieved what they have achieved over the course of the last year, but not without a cost.

This is a country bracing for the worst today on this anniversary, Christine, but also marking what has been an incredibly costly year for Ukraine. And whilst we don't have the specific figures on the losses on either side, recently, Mark Milley put them at about 100,000 soldiers on the Russian side, 100,000 soldiers on the Ukrainian side, and there are of course the some 40,000 civilians who have died as well.

The cost to them, no one has been spared in this country by this last year of war, and I think that is at the heart of summer commemorations were going to see this afternoon -- Christine.

ROMANS: Yeah, Melissa Bell, thank you so much, Melissa.

And this, China, China calling this morning for a cease-fire in the peace talks at the one year anniversary of the invasion. Beijing releasing this statement presenting itself as a neutral peace broker, it is trying to balance its no limits friendship with Moscow against what are framed relations with the West.

CNN's Kristie Lu Stout is live in Hong Kong.

This is remarkable 12-point -- I guess it is a position paper on the war in Ukraine, it does not call it a war, it is sort of long on diplomatic principles, clearly short on specifics, but what do you make of this?

KRISTIE LU STOUT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, Christine, China's trying to present itself as a responsible superpower, an international peacemaker, while maintaining this no limits relationship with Russia, and refusing to condemn the invasion of Ukraine. On this first anniversary of the war in Ukraine, China's ministry of foreign affairs earlier today released this, a 12-point position paper on a political settlement for the crisis in Ukraine, and in this paper, it calls for the ending of hostilities, the ending of unilateral sanctions, as well as the resumption of peace talks.


But no concrete roadmap going forward in this document. We got an interesting response earlier today from the head of the E.U. delegation, who said this paper is just a piece of paper. It is not a peace plan.

But we also heard from Ukraine's charges d'affaires who said this document was, quote, a good sign, and the charges d'affaires of Ukraine also urging China to do, quote, everything to end the war in Ukraine.

I also want to show you one more time, the comment from the ministry of foreign affairs in relation to this document that was just released, talking about what it was put forward. We heard from the spokesman today saying, this on the basis of China's position power and political settlement of the Ukraine crisis, China is ready to work to continue with the international community to play a constructive role in the political settlement of the crisis in Ukraine.

This is language we have heard before from China, but we are still waiting for concrete details of a Chinese peace plan, and, of course, awaiting any response from Russia.

Back to you, Christine.

ROMANS: Number one on that, list respecting sovereignty of all countries, which brings the Crimea, Donbas, out to resolve that?

Let's bring in Nic Robertson in London -- thanks, Kristie Lu Stout.

What can we expect Moscow's reaction to this proposal, the Chinese proposal be, Nic?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: We can expect to be warm. This is an important relationship for Russia right now, as a question for many diplomats, particularly in the West, those who support Ukraine, is China going to use this unlimited agreement with Russia that it signed just before the war, if you're going to use this unlimited agreement to put his fingers on the balance here in this war, and tipped him in the favor of Russia?

This was a question that innocence was asked of Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general at the EU commission president, Ursula von der Leyen. They were at the ceremony of the independence day of Estonia today, but talking -- both of them talking about the war in Ukraine, this is very much part of the remembrance of year anniversary of the war in Ukraine.

And they were asked about China's 12-point plan, and they said, to be clear, it is not an independent actor in, this and it is clearly taken a position and support of Russia. There's a real concern that China may be -- there isn't the evidence to support it yet, but there's a concern China may be considering sending weapons to Russia which would be significant. It could significantly tip the effects on the battlefield.

We know Russia is running out of some of its military hardware, even had to buy drones from Iran. I think the bigger broader message, and what we've heard today, from President Zelenskyy, from the Russian deputy chairman of the national security council, Dmitry Medvedev, who used to be prime minister, used to be president, is a real hawk in Russia, saying Russia will have a victory, President Zelenskyy saying Ukraine is going to have victory.

I think when we step back and look at this one year position of where we're at today, it is very clear that it is everything to fight for the battlefield. There's every intent to fight for it on the battlefield. There's no indication, either side is really going to peace, because neither side views the other as meeting the terms and conditions for peace.

The West has said very clearly, that Russia can't have peace, and there can be peace if Russia withdraws from Ukraine. That is not happening. So really, this year is going to be about Ukraine getting the united and sped up support of his allies, the United States, and heavy sophisticated weapon equipment, and that should enable it. Ukraine hopes to take territory, take its own territory back, and break the -- that would be their road and path. President Zelenskyy's road and path to peace.

I think we should be clear at this along anniversary, we are looking at another year or many months during the summer into fall of war. That is where we are at.

ROMANS: And I wonder, Nic, does Vladimir Putin even want piece. I mean, listening to every word he has said in these big round rallies, these two big rallies lately, he talks in grandiose terms of what his vision is for Russia, and it doesn't sound like it is backing off from Ukraine at all, actually the opposite.

ROBERTSON: Exactly is saying everything is going according to, plan we can do, this we just need more sacrifice and support we all need to pay our taxes essentially, support the war. The sanctions are hurting Putin's economy, Putin has a problem here. This is his war, he started it through his -- attorney backs down, and really that is the end of the political road for President Putin, and those terms in Russia the end of the political road is often not a pretty one.


It would be a very poor outcome for President Putin. He is not backing down because he feels that he clearly says that he can win, his telling the nation they can win, but the reality is he doesn't have another option at the moment, because he is not considering any kind of peace because that would mean he lost, that is really where his side of the equation stands at the moment.

ROMANS: And the Russian people as the protector against the Western aggression, that is started by the West, and he's just protecting his people.

Nic Robertson, thank you so much, fantastic analysis as always.

A programming note, CNN chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward has returned to Ukraine when you after the war began. See what she found in a CNN special report, "The Will to Win, Ukraine at War", Sunday night at 8:00.

All right. Federal investigators releasing a flurry of new details about that train derailment in East Palestine which spewed toxic chemicals into the air soil and water. The head of the NTSB telling CNN it is still too early to tell what would have prevented that disaster. But, the agency has zeroed in on the cause. More now from CNN's Miguel Marquez in East Palestine.


JENNIFER HOMENDY, NTSB CHAIR: This was 100 percent preventable.

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): One hundred percent preventable says the National Transportation Safety Board. Today, releasing its initial read on what caused the toxic derailment crippling the small town of East Palestine, Ohio.

HOMENDY: During this deceleration, the wheel bearing failed. Car number 23 derailed.

MARQUEZ: The NTSB saying it was an overheated wheel bearing on a single rail car that eventually set off a sensor alongside the train tracks, alerting the conductor to stop the train.

HOMENDY: We have no evidence that the crew did anything wrong.

MARQUEZ: In all, 38 cars derailed including several transporting chemicals.

Surveillance video shows sparks and a bright light coming from underneath the train car in Salem, Ohio about 20 miles from East Palestine. Three tracks side detectors picked up increased heating on the car where the fire eventually started. But it wasn't until a detector indicated heating of 253 degrees Fahrenheit over ambient temperature that the conductor hit the brakes to stop the train.

HOMENDY: We'll look at the temperature thresholds which indicate immediate action once an overheated bearing is detected. Again, spacing and temperature are set by the railroads and vary considerably by railroads.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's essentially where the cars were piled up from here to there, right?

MARQUEZ: Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg visited East Palestine today saying he could have come sooner but didn't want to disrupt the cleanup or investigative work.

PETE BUTTIGIEG, TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY: We're going to be here day in day out, year in year out, making our railroad safer and making sure Norfolk Southern meets its responsibilities. That is a promise. And when I take very, very seriously.

MARQUEZ: Buttigieg called for stronger federal regulations for trains carrying chemicals through populated areas and in what appears to be a nod to criticism from former President Trump over the current administration's handling of the derailment. Both Buttigieg and the NTSB chair called for an end to using East Palestine for scoring political points.

HOMENDY: Enough with the politics. I don't understand why this has gotten so political. This is a community that is suffering. This is not about politics. This is about addressing their needs,

their concerns. That's what this should be about.


MARQUEZ (on camera): The National Transportation Safety Board also says they will hold a very rare field hearing here in the months ahead. They made a point that they just really do this, and this particular incident is so significant that they want to do that. Also the mayor of East Palestine met with Pete Buttigieg, today transportation secretary, and he says he is cautiously optimistic that the town will come back better than ever.

Back to you.

ROMANS: All right. Miguel, thank you so much.

A huge snowstorm bringing rare whiteout conditions to California. L.A.'s first blizzard warning 1989, causing problems on the roadways there.

In Wisconsin, where it's more normal to have blizzard conditions, but blizzard and ice canceling flights and shutting down highways.

In Michigan, snow, sleet and thousands of downed power lines. Last count, when 800,000 customers in the dark this morning, mostly in Michigan and California.

Let's go to meteorologist Chad Myers in the weather center.

A lot for you to track here. Any respite ahead of the weekend?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Not for L.A., not for Phoenix and the Four Corners, that's where the storm is really going to get its bite. And by Sunday, they could be severe weather in Oklahoma and parts of Texas.

So, the storm is pulling out of the Northeast. That was on the move to the day before. We still have all those power outages.


And right now over a quarter of 1 million customers in Wayne County, which is Detroit really. But that is the area to have 250,000 without power right now. The temperature is 27. Those were some very cold homes right there.

Talking about the cold, this is a very cold storm for the Pacific, for California, not as cold as we were in the 40s, 50s, 60s when there was snow in the beach, but close, 1,500 feet above sea level, there will be snow. There were flurries on the Hollywood sign yesterday.

Now that snow is into this year. Heavy rainfall into parts of L.A. today. Could even be some flooding there, likely more like flash flooding, not river flooding. We get 2 to 3 inches, even a thunderstorm possible, some of that could certainly come down those hills. And of course those burn scars are always the first to flood.

Here is what it looks like for the rest of the. De moving you ahead of again, one of the coldest storms we have seen in 30 years here, with snow levels down to 50, 100,000 feet above sea levels. That isn't very cold.

Typically with a storms cold it won't contain that much moisture. But this thing came off of British Columbia and back over the Pacific and picked up moisture. And now it's coming back on shore here in this is a very dry area, don't get me wrong, we'll take the rainfall, but there will be 6 to 10 feet of snow in the southern sierra. We are going to see 5 to 6 feet in the L.A., mountains north of L.A. and we'll take it because there reservoir still unfold, we still need more rainfall helped his place out -- Christine.

ROMANS: All right. So interesting. Chad Myers, thank you so much.

Just ahead, Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis to take sides in Florida over tuition for the undocumented.

Plus, why a seven year old boy threatened his classmates with a 12 inch knife.

And a tense in cross examination of Alex Murdaugh.


ALEX MURDAUGH, MURDER DEFENDANT: And, Mr. Waters, just to try to get through this quicker, I admit --

CREIGHTON WATERS, PROSECUTIOR: I know you want to get through quicker, but we're not. So answer the question.




ROMANS: Disgraced former attorney Alex Murdaugh back in the witness this morning, facing more questions from prosecutors at his double murder trial. After cross-examination Thursday, said he didn't shoot his son and wife to death, but admitted to lying and stealing from numerous clients.

CNN's Randi Kaye has more from South Carolina.



RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Alex Murdaugh sharing his story from the witness stand telling the jury he didn't kill his wife and son.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just to be clear, were you anywhere in the vicinity when Paul and Maggie were shot?

MURDAUGH: I was nowhere near Paul and Maggie when they got shot.

KAYE: And after more than a year and a half, Murdaugh finally came clean about this key piece of State's evidence against him.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Murdaugh, is that you on the kennel video at 8:44 PM on June 7th, the night Maggie and Paul were murdered?


KAYE: Over and over, Murdaugh had told investigators he hadn't seen his family since dinner and was not at the dog kennels around the time of the murders. But that video extracted from his son's phone was recorded just a few minutes before prosecutors believe the killings happened.

Murdaugh told the jury he had left the kennels right after the video was recorded and driven his golf cart to the main house on the property to take a nap.

MURDAUGH: There is no way that I had high-velocity blood spatter on me.

KAYE: During cross-examination, Murdaugh clashed at times with the lead prosecutor.

MURDAUGH: And Mr. Waters, just to try to get through this quicker, I admit --

CREIGHTON WATERS, PROSECUTOR: I know you want to get to it quicker, but we are not. So answer the question.

KAYE: Evidence presented in Court also shows Murdaugh drove to his mother's house at 9:06 PM that night, and paused briefly in her driveway. He explained he was simply trying to locate his phone in his car.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Were you during that minute or however long it was, were you disposing of murder weapons, Alex?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Were you disposing of bloody clothes?


KAYE: And what about that blue rain jacket recovered from his mother's house? One State's witness said it had a substantial amount of gunshot residue on the inside. The State suggested Murdaugh used it to wrap up and dispose of the murder weapons.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This blue rain jacket, have you ever seen that before? MURDAUGH: I've never seen it before? Never touched it. Don't know anything about it.

KAYE: Several times during cross examination, the prosecutor accused Murdaugh of being a bit too rehearsed with his responses.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How many times if you practiced that answer before your testimony today? Because you're been giving the same one over and over again.

MURDAUGH: I've never practiced that answer.

KAYE: Still in between the evidence, Murdaugh found some openings to share how much he says he loved his wife and son, and in gruesome detail, he described for the jury how he says he found Maggie and Paul at the kennels after returning from his mother's home.

MURDAUGH: I was on the phone with 911 and I was trying to tend to Paul-Paul, I was trying to tend to Maggie. And I just went back and forth between them.

No. I mean, I know I tried to check them for a pulse. I know I tried to turn him over.

I mean, my boy is laying facedown and doing the way he is doing, his head was the way his head was, I could see his -- I could see his brain laying on the sidewalk.

KAYE: Randi Kaye, CNN, Walterboro, South Carolina.


ROMANS: All right. Let's bring in Dave Aronberg. He is the state attorney for Palm Beach County, Florida.


And, Dave, that last clip you saw, the one or two jurors appeared to become emotional when he was talking about the moment. That's so risky to put him on the stand. That prosecutor over and over again, a career liar Alex Murdaugh is, lied and stole from people.

How -- I mean, how is the jury going to see that? How could they believe anything he says at this point?

DAVE ARONBERG, STATE ATTORNEY, PALM BEACH CO., FLORIDA: Yeah, good morning Christine. The con man is going to con. And this guy is a narcissist who is a professional liar who has made a career out of separating people from their money. Here he is trying to put one over on the jury, and he might have succeeded.

Apparently there were two jurors crying along with him in sympathy. That's never good luck when you are a prosecutor. When you see jurors crying along with the defendant. I've got what he wants, all he needs one juror to have reasonable doubt he's got a hung jury. He took the stand because he knew he had a problem, that he was lying

from day one about where he was that night. Said he was never out the kennels where the murders occurred, but it turns out he was there and lied. And now, he took the stand, he has a new story a year and a half later, and he's trying to convince a jury that this time he's telling the truth. That was drugs, the opioids that made him do it.

Of course, I guess you saying that it made him so paranoid that he lied from the beginning. But not paranoid enough that he actually killed the two victims here. I don't buy. But again, it only takes one juror and he has a hung jury.

ROMANS: Yeah, let's listen to that part. Let's remind our viewers, he lied about his alibi, he was not at the kennels that night and the time his wife and son were. And we now know he was. He lied, he's blaming an opioid addiction for that. Listen.


MURDAUGH: My addiction evolved over time. I don't get any situations or circumstances where I get paranoid thinking, it could be anything attributed. It might be look somebody gave me, a few reaction somebody had to something I did.


ROMANS: I mean, you are right I guess. I mean, he's paranoid enough to lie to the authorities, right away before he even knows he's a suspect. He lied as soon as he called 911, but he didn't lie about other things.

ARONBERG: You raised a really important point, Christine, he lied when he called 911, he wasn't even a suspect. When he's talking about paranoia, he called police. He so paranoid, or did you call police at the beginning? Try to step away from this, but he called police, they don't call him and said he was so paranoid, he lied about the timeline from the very beginning.

This is a guy mind you who have so much privilege that he put a police badge on his dashboard of his car. He would drive around. He had a police badge handing out of his pocket. He went to the hospital after his son's boating accident, tried to intimidate the witnesses.

So much for paranoia but the police. He had privilege with the police. So none of this makes sense but he is a really good liar. He brought up that he felt so bad about Paul-Paul. Never mentioned the term Paul- Paul when he spoke to investigators. This is the first time we've heard you call your son Paul-Paul. So he is really good at what he does.

ROMANS: Yeah, you think it was very to put on the stand?

ARONBERG: Well, I think it was a Hail Mary, the fact that those two jurors were probably crying with him, boy, that would send shudders down my spine as a prosecutor. That is why it is so important what happens today. The remainder of the cross-examination could decide the case.

ROMANS: All right. Dave Aronberg, Palm Beach County prosecutor, fascinating trial.

All right. Quick hits across America now.

A seven-year-old threatening teachers and classmates with a 12-inch knife in South Carolina after watching the horror film "Chucky". He has been charged with weapons violation.

Republican U.S. Senator Rick Scott defending a Florida law he championed as governor in 2014, giving in-state tuition to undocumented students. Governor DeSantis is called on lawmakers to repeal it.

The Republican Party choosing Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for its first GOP presidential debate. The city will also host the Republican National Convention in July 2024.

Coming, up the rocket just launched for a space rescue mission and American medics near the front line in Ukraine.


UNIDENTIFED MALE: I'm going to roll and I'm going to check his back, one, two, three and when you get a chance.