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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Classified Report from U.S. Energy Department Cites COVID-19 Likely Resulted from China Lab Leak; U.S. Warns China Against Providing Lethal Aid to Russia; Alex Murdaugh Admits to Lying for a Decade on the Stand. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired February 27, 2023 - 05:00   ET



CHRISTINE ROMANS, ANCHOR, EARLY START: All right, welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. It is Monday, and I am Christine Romans. We begin with a laboratory leak in China likely caused the COVID-19 pandemic. That's according to a newly updated classified intelligence report from the U.S. Energy Department.

According to two sources, energy officials have low confidence in their latest assessment. That means the information is either not reliable enough or it's too fragmented to know for sure. It only adds to this big divide within the U.S. government over whether the pandemic began in China in 2019 as a result of a lab leak or whether it emerged naturally.


JAKE SULLIVAN, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER, UNITED STATES: President Biden specifically requested that the national labs which are part of the Department of Energy be brought into this assessment. Because he wants to put every tool at use to be able to figure out what happened here.

SEN. DAN SULLIVAN (R-AR): We need to do extensive hearings. I hope our democratic colleagues in the Congress can support that. I know the Republicans in the house are certainly supportive of that. But this is a country that has no problem coming out and lying to the world.


ROMANS: Steven Jiang live from Beijing with the latest for us. Steven, any reaction from the Chinese government?

STEVEN JIANG, CNN BEIJING BUREAU CHIEF: Christine, all the dividing confusion you mentioned within the U.S. Intelligence Community and all the U.S. domestic politics we just heard really have made it a bit easier for the Chinese to push back. And that's exactly what they just did with the foreign ministry official, saying it was, quote, unquote, "highly unlikely" the virus was leaked from the Wuhan lab.

Based on the findings of a joint study by the W.H.O. and their own experts backing early 2021, calling those findings scientific and authoritative while urging the U.S. to stop smearing China and stop politicizing this issue. But the irony here, of course, is that China has never stopped politicizing this issue themselves with their officials and state media, time and again, insinuating the virus was leaked from a U.S. military environmental(ph) lab without any evidence.

Not to mention that joint study they just cited was conducted in a very restrictive and highly choreographed environment and with its results also being doubted and questioned by many independent experts around the world. But one thing this latest assessment from the Department of Energy does reflect is the lab-leak theory has been gaining traction, especially with the emergence of some new information such as some researchers at the Wuhan lab fell mysteriously ill back in November of 2019.

But the problem here, Christine, is with China unlikely to opening their labs to outside investigators any time soon, if ever, we just may never find a definitive answer on the origin of the pandemic. But the war of words between Washington and Beijing unlikely to stop any time soon.

ROMANS: Yes --

JIANG: Christine?

ROMANS: That's the only thing we know for sure, thank you so much, nice to see you, Steven Jiang. The Biden administration warning there will be real costs for China if it provides lethal aid to Russia for its war on Ukraine. President Biden's national security adviser telling CNN the U.S. has laid out the stakes and the consequences in direct conversations with Beijing.


SULLIVAN: Beijing will have to make its own decisions about how it proceeds. Whether it provides military assistance -- but if it goes down that road, it will come at real costs to China. And I think China's leaders are weighing that as they make their decisions. We will watch carefully, we will be vigilant, and we will continue to send a strong message that we believe that sending military aid to Russia at this time when they are using their weapons to bombard cities, kill civilians and commit atrocities would be a bad mistake and should want no part of it.


ROMANS: U.S. Intelligence suggests China is strongly considering sending drones and ammunition to Russia. All right, the director of the CIA believes Russian President Vladimir Putin is too confident in his military's ability to grind Ukraine into submission. William Burns says Russian Intelligence officials displayed a sense of cockiness and hubris during a meeting in November. He tells CNN that attitude reflects Putin's own belief that time is on Russia's side in this conflict.


I think Putin is right now entirely too confident of his ability to wear down Ukraine, to grind away. And that's what he's giving every evidence that he's determined to do right now. At some point, he's going to have to face-up to increasing costs as well in coffins coming home to some of the poorest parts of Russia.


There's a cumulative economic damage to Russia as well.


ROMANS: Clare Sebastian is live in London for us this Monday morning. And Clare, we understand at least, one Russian unit is complaining about being sent into battle, quote, "to be slaughtered". What do we know?

CLARE SEBASTIAN, CNN REPORTER: Yes, Christine, this would seem to back up exactly what Bill Burns is saying, the second video emerging on social media in the space of a month from one specific regiment of mobilized soldiers from the Yakutsk region in Siberia, they are essentially complaining about their treatment, their commanders. Take a listen to a little bit more of what they had to say.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): We ask for the help in dealing with the unlawful and criminal orders of our command. They're consistent of the fact that we were given into submission to the first Slavic(ph) brigade of the DPR. The soldiers at the territorial defense were made into assault assaults in a single day, and was sent to assault in the Avdika(ph) stronghold to be slaughtered without any support from artillery, communications, sappers and reconnaissance.


SEBASTIAN: So, Avdika(ph), one of the most hotly-contested areas in the Donetsk region, all part of the Donbas, which is the sort of bare minimum goal that Putin has set for himself in terms of this war. They say that they are being sent into battle with no support. They say that they've been sort of given to the DPR commanders, these are the Russian-backed proxies that have been fighting in that region since 2014.

And perhaps most disturbingly, Christine, they go on to say that these DPR commanders are firing with machine guns and infantry fighting vehicles at mobilized soldiers, at their own soldiers if they refuse to go into battle. Now, this obviously is shocking and we can't independently verify it, but it does tie it with previous reports that we've heard from the battlefield about sort of chaotic command control structures.

The sources in the video also say that their commanders are far away from the battlefield and don't realize the level of casualties there. And also there's sort of brutal tactics that we've heard from the front emerging, and the unpreparedness of the Russian forces. Again, we haven't been able to verify this independently, but it does back up the sense that we're getting from both reports on the ground and Intelligence assessments.

ROMANS: Fascinating. All right, Clare Sebastian in London, thank you. All right, to wild dangerous weather here in the U.S., at least, nine tornadoes reported overnight across the U.S. southern plains, seven in Oklahoma alone where nearly 50,000 customers were without power this morning. Police in Norman, Oklahoma, report 12 weather-related injuries, none critical. They say the extent of the damage there probably won't be known until daylight.

A major Winter storm dumped more than 6.5 feet of snow and more than 5 inches of rain across southern California. That storm prompted a rare blizzard warning. Dangerous travel conditions caused officials to close beaches and Interstate 5 in both directions. All right, children are among 61 migrants killed when their boat broke apart on rocks off the coast of Calabria, Italy.

The vessel left the Turkish city of Izmir three or four days ago with up to 150 people on board. About 80 people were saved from the water while clinging to pieces of the broken boat. Barbie Latza Nadeau live from Rome for us with the latest details. Any hope of finding more survivors, Barbie?

BARBIE LATZA NADEAU, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: No, absolutely, they're not expecting to find any more survivors in this latest tragedy. You know, 14,000 people have made it across the sea to Italy, migrants, refugees, making this very dangerous route, very dangerous journey in this year alone, 2023 alone. So this is just one more disaster, you know, one of the big questions now though is how many dead are there.

They just don't know how many people were on that boat. Hundred and eighty we've heard reports, maybe even as many as 250 people. Of course, migrant boats run by human smugglers don't have passenger lists, nobody knows for sure how many people might be dead here, Christine.

ROMANS: Oh, just a tragedy there. All right, Barbie, thank you, keep us posted. Right, the EPA says it is OK to resume shipments of contaminated liquid and soil out of East Palestine, Ohio. A train carrying toxic chemicals derailed there earlier this month. On Friday, the EPA halted the shipments to Michigan and Texas so it could review Norfolk southern's plans for disposal.


DEBRA SHORE, ADMINISTRATOR, EPA REGION 5: Facilities that will receive waste from East Palestine, from the clean-up here, have been evaluated by EPA and found to be acceptable to take the waste. EPA is continuing to evaluate options for safe and proper disposal facilities.


ROMANS: Officials in Texas and Michigan complained they didn't receive any warning that hazardous waste from the crash site would be shipped into their jurisdictions. All right. Next, Alex Murdaugh on trial for murder. What's next after his own dramatic testimony in court? Plus, a student pummels a teachers' aide in Florida over a video game.


And why hundreds of newspapers just dropped Dilbert from their comic strips.


ROMANS: Welcome back. The defense set to call at least, four more witnesses this morning including a crime scene expert and a pathologist in the double murder trial of Alex Murdaugh. Murdaugh testified last week, admitting he lied about his whereabouts on the night of the murders. He admitted stealing millions of dollars from his clients. CNN's Randi Kaye has more.


ALEX MURDAUGH, ACCUSED OF MURDERING WIFE & SON: I have lied well over a decade.

RANDI KAYE, CNN REPORTER (voice-over): Lies, that's what lead prosecutor Creighton Waters was trying to expose with Alex Murdaugh on the stand.


MURDAUGH: I told a lie about being down there and I got myself wired(ph) to that.

KAYE: For hours, Waters tried to box Murdaugh into a corner, using cell phone data and timeline evidence from the night of the murders.

MURDAUGH: I'm still not absolutely certain exactly how they ended up at the kennel.

KAYE: Murdaugh told the jury he drove his golf cart to meet his wife Maggie and son, Paul, at the kennels. He says that was just before Paul Murdaugh recorded this kennel video, Murdaugh can be heard talking in the background.

MURDAUGH: It certainly could have been 8:47 before I left out of there.

KAYE: Murdaugh estimated it's about a two-minute drive on the golf cart from the kennel to the main house, which would put him there at 8:49 p.m. The very same time prosecutors say Maggie and Paul's phones ceased all activity, suggesting they were dead. Once, back at the house --


MURDAUGH: That's correct.

KAYE: Keep in mind, Murdaugh's phone showed no activity from 8:09 to 9:02, he says he left it at the main house when he went down to the kennels.

WATERS: You would agree with me that from 9:02 to 9:06, your phone finally comes to live and starts showing a lot of steps, and less far more steps in a short of time period than any time prior as you've seen from the testimony in this case. So what were you so busy doing?

MURDAUGH: That's --

WATERS: Going to the bathroom?

MURDAUGH: No, I don't think that I --

WATERS: Get on a treadmill --

MURDAUGH: Went to the bathroom -- no, I didn't get on a treadmill.

WATERS: Jog in place.

MURDAUGH: No, I didn't jog in place --

WATERS: Did you tell the cops?

MURDAUGH: And what I wasn't doing is doing anything as I believe you've implied that I was cleaning off or washing off, or washing off guns or putting guns in a raincoat. And I can promise you that I wasn't doing any of that.

KAYE: Along with all the steps Murdaugh took, data presented in court shows he made a flurry of phone calls.

WATERS: Finally having your phone in your hand, moving around and making all these phone calls to manufacture an alibi, is that not true?

MURDAUGH: It's absolutely incorrect.

KAYE: Meanwhile, Murdaugh's attempt to show he'd been trying to cooperate with investigators backfired.

MURDAUGH: Other than lying to them about going to the kennel, I was cooperative in every aspect of this investigation.

WATERS: Very cooperative, except for maybe the most important fact of all, that you were at the murder scene with the victims just minutes before they died.

KAYE: The prosecutor did his best to prove to the jury no one other than Alex Murdaugh could have killed his wife and son.

WATERS: What you're telling this jury is that it's a random vigilante that just happened to know that Paul and Maggie were both at Moselle on June 7th, that knew that they would be at the kennels alone on June the 7th, and knew that you would not be there, but only between the times of 8:49 to 9:02.

MURDAUGH: You've got a lot of factors in there, Mr. Waters, all of which I do not agree with, the sum of which I do.

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


ROMANS: All right, quick hits across America now. Police have charged a suspect with manslaughter and assault for allegedly driving into a group of bicyclists near Phoenix, Arizona, two were killed, eleven others injured. Stunning video of a 6 foot 6 inch high school student violently attacking a teacher's aide in Florida after she took away his Nintendo Switch. That 17-year-old is facing felony, aggravated battery charges.

In California, a motor-home sunk into a river, the Winter storm there bringing heavy rain, severe flooding caused that embankment to collapse. Coming up, a model murdered and dismembered, more on the arrest in Hong Kong. And Britain and the EU on the verge of historic post-Brexit breakthrough for Northern Ireland.



ROMANS: Israel and the Palestinian Authority holding rare meetings and agreeing to work on de-escalating the deadly violence in the region. Tensions are high following the deaths of two Israeli brothers killed in the West Bank on Sunday in what Israeli officials call a terrorist attack. Another Palestinian was fatally shot in what Palestinian officials call a revenge attack.

CNN's Hadas Gold joins me live from Jerusalem. Hadas, the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asked Israelis not to engage in revenge attacks. How do you break the cycle?

HADAS GOLD, CNN JERUSALEM CORRESPONDENT: I mean, that's what the officials were trying to reach in that summit in Al Khobar. It's a rare summit officials haven't met in this capacity in more than a decade. Israelis, Palestine Authority, Jordanians, Egyptians, Americans, and during that summit, they released a joint communique when they said they wanted to work towards reducing the tensions, restore calm and peace, especially ahead of the overlapping Muslim and Jewish holidays of Ramadan and Passover.

And they committed to things like the Israelis said they wouldn't talk about settlement construction for a few months, and Palestinians wouldn't go after the Israelis at the U.N. That's all well and good. But on the ground yesterday in the occupied West Bank, the occupied West Bank was essentially burning last night.

Because after these two Israeli brothers were shot at point blank range while sitting in traffic passing through a Palestinian town, a few hours later, Israeli settlers were essentially going on a rampage. And what Palestinian officials say were revenge attacks, burning houses, burning cars. And we know that at least one Palestinian man was shot and killed.

And we do know from Israeli police that several people have been detained as a result of these -- what are being called revenge attacks. But scenes like these, Israeli settlers going into towns, burning houses, burning cars, engaging this sort of violence, and of course, the sort of violence we've already been seeing here for several weeks.


Essentially, the proliferation of also guns everywhere that so many of these attacks are now carried out with guns. This is setting the violence here at essentially a 20-year high. And I'm hearing from more and more people that they haven't seen scenes like this since the second Intifada. And we've been talking about for so long about how this might be a third Intifada, maybe we're in the Intifada.

But there's just no question about it. This region is in essentially a crisis mode. And yes, the summit in Al Khobar came out with some very good statements in trying to restore calm. But the real question will be what will happen on the ground? The Israeli military saying that they are sending in more battalions into the West Bank.

They say not only should you go after the attacker, but also to keep the calm somewhat and keep these two sides, Israeli settlers and Palestinians somewhat separated to try to prevent further carnage. Christine.

ROMANS: All right, Hadas Gold, thank you so much for that troubling situation. All right, the death toll in Turkey, more than 44,000 people, weeks after a devastating earthquake there, hundreds of thousands of survivors are now struggling in temporary shelters, they're in tent cities as police arrest nearly 200 people for poor building construction.

Let's go to CNN's Nada Bashir, she is live for us in Istanbul covering all of this. Nada, any discussion about long-term solutions for these tens of thousands -- hundreds of thousands of survivors?

NADA BASHIR, CNN REPORTER: Look, Christine, the government has already pledged to rebuild parts of southeast Turkey impacted by the earthquake within a year. We're already learning about that process. The government has said that excavation work has already begun in parts of Gaziantep for the construction of more than 800 new homes for people displaced by the earthquake.

There are further plans for some 30,000 departments to be built, rather, the construction to begin in March. So, certainly, those processes are under way. But this has drawn criticism from some, arguing that this is simply too hasty. We've already heard from the Turkish Union of Engineers and Architects they say, that there needs to be further geological investigation as well as further investigation into preparations needed for such a scale of construction, given the risks in this area for further earthquakes.

We've seen thousands and thousands of aftershocks already since that earthquake on February 6th, the most powerful one last Monday, 6.3 magnitude. So there are concerns about the foundations of these buildings and whether or not they will be safe. And then, of course, there's mounting pressure on where those who have been displaced are currently being held.

And we visited some of those camps that have popped up across Antakya and Iskenderun in the Hatay Province, which was among the hardest-hit areas by the earthquake. And there are thousands and thousands of people living in these tents. But there are also some who are still living on the street waiting to be given a tent.

Now, the government has conceded that more work needs to be done. They're still almost trying to catch up really with the sheer scale of the demand. And many of the families that we spoke to in one of these camps told us that they've been on the street since the day the earthquake struck, many of them sleeping out in the cold.

So there are certainly a significant amount of pressure on the government and on the international community to step up when it comes to that humanitarian response effort.

ROMANS: Yes, and the scale of that response is just hard to even fathom, I mean, just such a huge disaster. Nada Bashir, thank you so much. Quick hits around the globe right now, the ex-husband of a murdered and dismembered Hong Kong model, Abby Choi has been arrested after some of her body parts were found. Police say Tung Chung was taken into custody while trying to flee.

Tens of thousands of people are protesting Mexico's electoral reforms last week, claiming it threatens democracy. Changes include salary and funding cuts for local election officers in polling stations. Nigerians facing a tense wait on presidential election results after widespread delays and security concerns. Some voters are still casting ballots more than 24 hours after polls closed.

All right, Britain and the EU expected to make an announcement after a critical meeting this morning that could resolve a post-Brexit dispute involving Northern Ireland. But there are fears the deal could damage trade and lead to potential violence in the region. CNN's Nic Robertson joins me live from London this morning.

Nic, how close are they to resolving this Brexit deal, and do we know the details?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: We don't know the details. They are expected to be complex and very detailed in legal language, and that's perhaps the catch in all of this. It does seem that the broad scope of a deal has been very close and that it will essentially get signed off on later today between the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the British Prime Minister, there will be a joint press conference, that's the sort of headline event.

But then it does get down to the details when the details are released, and the key part, and you alluded to this, is how does that go down in Northern Ireland? It could be that the European Union and Great Britain, United Kingdom actually agree on this deal. But then the Northern Ireland politicians, the pro-British unionist who this means so much to because they think that the way that the deal stands right now cuts them off from mainland U.K.