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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

54 Million Under Winter Alerts in Northeast, Blizzard on West Coast; Soon: Putin Chairs Security Service Meeting; Alex Murdaugh Trial: Prosecution to Call At Least 4 Rebuttal Witnesses; Today: DeSantis Releases Book, Inches Closer to Running. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired February 28, 2023 - 05:00   ET



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

Right now, nearly 50 million people are under winter weather alerts across the Northeast. The same storm that brought tornadoes to the Plains is now dumping snow on cities like Boston and New York. It is the first significant snowfall of the season there.

On the West Coast, blizzard conditions in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, a White House shutting down more than 70 miles of interstate 80. Portland, Oregon, looking at several inches of snow through tonight.

CNN meteorologist Chad Myers has the forecast.

Chad, who's getting the worst of it today?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Well, I mean, right now, Upstate, also into interior New England. But I tell you what, we're going to see some slick spots around New York, into Boston, the big cities as well, I-95 still going to see that potential for some slick roadways for today.

Otherwise, it's just going to be pretty landscape out there with the snow coming down. Three inches in most of the areas, a little bit less than Central Park, obviously, it is a slushy mess. It was raining, snowing, 33 degrees so it did not really pile up all that much.

But when you get into the outer suburbs it absolutely did, some spots now looking at six inches as we look out your window this morning. Not much more left, probably an inch or, to that is just about done.

The next storm system, though as you said, coming on shore in the Pacific. An awful lot of snow again for the sierra, they will take it. But at some point in time you almost have to say on coal, I mean, right? Another blizzard warning for parts of the Southern Sierra. We are gong to have winds of 50 to 60 miles per hour and very heavy snow, some spots 3 to 5 feet of additional snow in the higher elevations.

This is not as cold of a storm as the last one where we really saw snow levels down to about 1,000 feet in some spots. Almost in some spots, all the way down to the beaches, especially into northern California where yes, there were some snow flurries on some of the shrubbery around the beaches, but nothing that you really have to shovel or say that you could make a snowman on the beach.

There is the snow for you for, today and for tomorrow, and then we look at what happens on Wednesday and Thursday, another severe weather event is possible across the Deep South. That is the cold in the warm clashing like they do not like to mix, and like they do not like to do. So we will watch for another round of severe weather across the south, especially on Thursday. A chance for tomorrow, but Thursday it's a big day -- Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Chad Myers, we will watch it all. Thank you, Chad.

We could hear from Vladimir Putin in the next 90 minutes or so. The Russian President about chair a meeting of his federal security service. At the same time, have a world away, a key Putin ally begins a state visit to China, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko will hold talks in Beijing.

CNN's Clare Sebastian joins us.

Clare, what can we expect to hear from Putin?

CLARE SEBASTIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yeah Christine, so this will be President Putin's comfort zone. Don't forget the himself a former intelligence officer for many years in the KGB, the predecessor to the now FSB. Officially, this is about summing up the achievements of 2022 looking ahead to 2023.

But obviously, the security services is playing a key role in what Russia still calls a special military operation, we can expect to hear more about that. I think we should look out for more messaging around how this war is in Russia's eyes an existential threat to Russia and how it is re-banding it as a kind of defensive operation, rather than a their own population see them as the aggressor.

I think that things look out for is that clearly controlled the population has been a big part of this conflict so far. The Russians now live into that where you cannot even use the word war for fear of imprisonment. There is a whole list of information about military activities that you cannot share with foreign sources, they have expanded the law on foreign agents in all things like that in December.

Putin asked the security services to step up the surveillance of what he called spies and phrases and saboteurs, as well. So we can look out for more of the same in that regard. Critical obviously coming at a moment where the Russians are struggling to mount anything that looks like a decisive spring offensive, quite often you see a step up in recession at home, coming alongside defeat on the battlefield -- Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Clare Sebastian, we know they will be monitoring all for us. thanks, Clare.

Well, the prosecution will be calling at least for rebuttal witnesses to the stand this morning the double murder trial of Alex Murdaugh. The defense rested Monday after a forensic stunt is testified about a two shooter theory here.

CNN's Randi Kaye has more for us.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have an opinion whether there was one or two shooters who murdered Maggie and Paul on the night of June 7th?


TIMOTHY PALMBACH, FORENSIC SCIENTIST: My opinion is the totality of the evidence is more suggestive of a two-shooter scenario.

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): A forensic scientist testifying for the defense, breathing new life into the defense's theory that two shooters were involved in killing Maggie and Paul Murdaugh. Here's why.

Whoever shot Paul, the witness says likely would have needed time to recover given the violent nature of Paul's death.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's happening to the shooter at that point?

PALMBACH: He is getting hit with large amounts of brain material, blood, skin, hair, bone fragments, and I believe very likely some of the pellets.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And what would be the force of that hitting the shooter?

PALMBACH: Substantial.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Would you expect to see any type of injuries to the shooter?

PALMBACH: That's quite possible. I mean, for sure.

KAYE: So what about the shooter's clothing?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How much biological material and blood is going to be on the shooter's clothing and on the shooter's person?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A lot, a lot. On the upper body and head.

KAYE: Keep in mind, investigators first on the scene who testified for the state said they didn't see any blood on Alex Murdaugh that night. The state has suggested he washed up and changed clothes after allegedly killing his wife and son.

On cross examination, the state took issue with this witness's conclusion that a footprint found in the feed room where Paul was killed belonged to Paul's killer.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You haven't seen the report that identified those as Paul's footprints?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Definitively identifying them as false? No, I did not.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You only saw the reports the defense wanted you to see?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I got the reports that were supplied to me, yes.

KAYE: The defense called one of Murdaugh's brothers, John Marvin Murdaugh, as its last witness. He painted a picture of his brother as a loving family man and left the jury with this disturbing description of having to pick up the pieces of his nephew Paul in the feed room.

JOHN MARVIN MURDAUGH, ALEX MURDAUGH'S BROTHER: It had not been cleaned up. I saw blood, I saw brains, I saw pieces of skull. And when I say brains, it could just be tissue. I don't know what else. It was just -- it was terrible. And for some reason, I thought it was mud, something that I needed to do for Paul to clean it up.

I felt like I owed him and I started cleaning. And I promise you, no mother or father or aunt or uncle should ever have to see and do what I did that day.

KAYE: Randi Kaye, Walterboro, South Carolina.


ROMANS: All right. The State Department is condemning the uptick in violence in Israel's West Bank which is now claimed the life of a U.S. Israeli citizen. Israeli officials say the man was shot in a terror attack in the highway between Jericho in the dead sea.

CNN's Hadas Gold live in Jerusalem with the latest.

Hadas, what do we know about this man and how does it fit into the efforts to rein in the violence?

HADAS GOLD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, we are learning that this was a young man in his twenties, Elan Ganeles, originally from Connecticut. He had actually grown up in the states, he moved to Israel few years, ago served in the Israeli army, but then moved back to the United States in 2018. He went, actually just recently graduated from Columbia University. We are learning from his friends that he studied sustainability and was back in the region to visit friends, simply.

Where he was driving is one of the main roads that both Israelis, Palestinians, tourists might use to get through parts of the West Bank to get to tourist places like the Dead Sea or like Masada. From what we know from Israeli authorities, as he was driving along this road, some attackers began shooting at several cars actually. Elan Ganeles was shot and killed, the attackers then fled. They actually set fire to the vehicles and the Israeli villa terry says there is still a manhunt underway to find these attackers.

This attack that killed this American citizen sort of resembles an attack that took place on Sunday morning or two Israeli brothers were killed, near the Palestinian town of Huwara. But that area is much more of a flash point and where this shooting that killed the American took place. Then, after that shooting of the Israeli brothers, there was essentially a rampage by Israeli settlers in what is being called revenge attacks in the same area where that shooting took place. We know that Palestinian homes and vehicles were set on fire, at least one Palestinian man was shot and killed in that violence and several others were injured.

The Israeli military calling these revenge attacks acts of terror, which is a unique thing for them to call attacks by Israelis toddlers. Acts of terror, all of this happening while Israeli and Palestinian leaders were meeting in Jordan in a rare summit alongside the Americans Egyptians and Jordanians in an effort to try to tamp down these tensions on the ground, to try to reach some type of calm.


But despite what might have been discussed in Jordan, the clearly situation on the ground is incredibly dangerous, incredibly volatile. We know that the Israeli military is sending in extra battalions in the West Bank, they say not only to go after attackers, about to keep the situation on the ground as calm as possible, did try to keep separate with the Israeli settlers and the Palestinians.

Very tense times right now, there are concerns of further attacks, further revenge attacks. All of this happening at a very worrying time, especially when you look ahead of the coming weeks, overlapping holidays, Muslim and Jewish days of Ramadan and Passover in the past have been flashpoints, possibly here in Jerusalem. And way things are going right now on the ground in the West Bank and elsewhere, we could be seeing an even further uptick of violence -- Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Hadas Gold, nice to see this morning, thank you.

All right. Next, fate of Biden's administration student loan forgiveness heading to the Supreme Court today.

Plus, Fox boss Rupert Murdoch's stunning admission about coverage of the 2020 election.

And a new chapter for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.



ROMANS: All right. Today, the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in the case against President Biden's student loan forgiveness program. Millions of student borrowers could see up to $20,000 in relief, depending on what this court rules.

Overnight a group of war was gathered outside the Supreme Court calling for debt cancellation.

Let's bring in CNN politics writer Katie Lobosco. You've been covering this so well, Katie, for so many months. Let's

talk about legal issue. Here six Republican-led states brought this case, according to decide whether or not they have the right to sue in the first place and whether or not the president has the power to do this.

KATIE LOBOSCO, CNN POLITICS WRITER: Yeah, that is the big question here. The Biden administration argues that they have the power under a 2003 law known as the Heroes Act. They say they have -- this law grants the president the power to modify student loan debt during a national emergency, which they say the pandemic constitutes that.

But the plaintiffs say that that is too broad and the president is abusing his executive power in trying to implement this program.

ROMANS: Talk to us about how the forgiveness program, if allowed to stand, would be unprecedented.

LOBOSCO: I mean, no president has ever proposed wiping away so much student loan debt, so broadly. So an estimated 40 million believe people could see up to $20,000 of their federal student loan debt just wiped away. As long as you made under $125,000 in the year 2020 or 2020, once the years during the pandemic, you could be eligible for this debt relief and that could mean a really big financial relief for a lot of people.

ROMANS: Yeah, we know that the Trump administration first, and then the Biden administration, later eight times have paused student loan payments throughout over three years since somebody has had to pay a student loan payment. The timing of this court ruling could determine when borrowers have to resume paying off their loans, yeah?

LOBOSCO: Yeah, that is another huge question looming for student loan borrowers this year it is when those payments need to restart.

So the Biden administration has kind of tied that restart date to the litigation over the forgiveness program, they do not want people to have to start back their loans while this is still moving through the courts.

So, what the administration has said is that payments will restart either 60 days after litigation has resolved over the forgiveness program, or late August, whichever comes first. So, not only are both looking to see if they will get some debt just by delay, but they also need to know when those monthly payments will restart for the first time, like you said, in years.

ROMANS: You know, it's so interesting, one of the criticisms, there was a little bit of criticism about how relieving this debt does not fix the problem of the student loan bubble, people have to spend so much for college. You've done some great reporting for how behind the scenes the education department is trying to streamline some of these repayment programs and find ways to help people, now and in the future, not to be burdened by so much debt. Talk me little bit about what the education department it's been doing. LOBOSCO: Yeah, so the education department is working on a new income

driven repayment program, and what that would do, it would lower monthly payments for qualifying student loan borrowers and even lower the amount they would have to pay back over the relative time of the loan.

And what is key, here what is really different, is that this could help current and future borrowers going forward. Whereas, the one forgiveness program, it only helps people with a student at right now. It does not really change the pasta college going forward, so this new income generating payment plan, we would expect parts of that go into effect later this year could really lower the cost of college for borrowers going forward and also with the president, he has already canceled more student debt than any other president. He has done that by canceling debt for people who may have been misled by for profit colleges or borrowers who work in the public sector. He still finds a lot of those existing debt relief programs and that has made a big difference for people already.

ROMANS: Yeah, it has been 48 billion dollars in debt relief for -- fascinating we know you'll be watching it we can expect to know what's happening to her July, right, Katie?

LOBOSCO: That's what we expect we don't know for sure but that is when we expect the justices to issue the ruling and to get a little bit more clarity on what's going to happen.

ROMANS: All right. Katie Lobosco, I know you've been covering it so well. Thank you so much yard work.

LOBOSCO: Thanks, Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis kicks off a book tour today and what many consider a soft presidential campaign launch.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny has more.



JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Florida Governor Ron DeSantis inching ever closer to a highly anticipated presidential launch with a new campaign-style video.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R), FLORIDA: Freedom is worth fighting for.

ZELENY: And a new book that serves as a road map for a potential 2024 Republican primary. In the "Courage to be Free" obtained today by CNN, DeSantis plants his flag as a leading alternative to Donald Trump and pushes back against the former president's often-made assertion that he alone is responsible for the governor's success.

I do not think Republican primary voters are sheep who simply follow an endorsement from a politician they like without any individual analysis. But I do believe that a major endorsement can put a candidate on the radar of GOP voters in a way that boosts a good candidate's prospects.

DESANTIS: And I stood for what I believed was right.

ZELENY: He said it was his debate performance in his 2018 race that led to his come-from-behind victory.

As the Republican presidential field takes shape, DeSantis is making an early splash --

DESANTIS: Florida is where woke goes to die.

ZELENY: -- holding up his Florida record as a blueprint for a national platform. Like the Parental Rights and Education Act which critics have dubbed the "don't say gay" bill that led to his feud with the Disney Corporation.

DESANTIS: Today, the corporate kingdom finally comes to an end. There's a new sheriff in town. And accountability will be the order of the day.

ZELENY: The governor went to Walt Disneyworld's backyard to sign a law today, effectively punishing the entertainment giant for speaking out against the DeSantis agenda. He uses that fight to bolster his view that big business, a longtime ally of the GOP, has become too woke in his characterization, and should be called out by a new glass of Republican leaders.

Corporate America has become a major protagonist in battle over American politics and culture. The battle lines almost invariably find large, publicly traded corporations lining up behind leftist causes he writes, adding old guard corporate Republicanism is not up to the task at hand.

While DeSantis is not planning a formal campaign announcement until at least may, it tells CNN that he is trying to capitalize on a hunger among many Republicans eager to find and electable fighter. As Florida governor, he's become a combative figure in the culture wars for which he offer no apologies.

DESANTIS: It's always be on offense because if you're not on offense, then you're basically a sitting duck and you let these people come and just take potshots at you all the time.


ZELENY (on camera): The governor is not planning a formal campaign announcement until at least May, aides tell me. That will be after the legislative session when he could have more bills signed into law, that he can tout out on the campaign trail. But, the book tour is coming now. He is hitting the road to go to Texas, California, and point beyond, trying to make the case to Republicans that he is, in their view, and electable fighter. Of course, that's drawing a distinction between him and the former president.

Jeff Zeleny, CNN, Washington.

ROMANS: All right. Quick hits across America now.

Fox boss Rupert Murdoch admitting in a deposition that some of his network hosts endorsed 2020 election lies. His statement made with Dominion Voting Systems $1.6 million lawsuit against the network.

The U.S. Marshall Service is investigating a major ransomware attack. A spokesperson says that some of the agency's most sensitive data was compromised.

Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin entering the race to replace retiring Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the race is expected to be one of the most competitive an expensive Senate contests in 2024.

Coming up, please investigate the mysterious death of an American athlete in the Virgin Islands. And Mexico's president posts a curious photo of an elf.



ROMANS: Welcome back.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is hardening his stance on Ukrainian touting his successes in this one year-old war, even though some Russian soldiers are refusing to fight insisting that they need help, they are in dire need of help.

CNN's Frederik Pleitgen has more this morning from Moscow.


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORERSPONDENT (voice- over): Russian defense ministry video from the war in Ukraine, showing Moscow's troops on the move, gaining ground, beating back Kyiv's forces.

But the reality, at least in some cases, seems different. These soldiers say they were mobilized from Irkutsk in Siberia and they're refusing to fight.

Due to the current state of affairs, we find ourselves in a desperate position as the commanders do not care about our lives, he says. And later adds, we ask for help, we have nowhere else to turn.

The video was published as the Ukrainians say they've decimated Russian forces trying to take Vuhledar in eastern Ukraine, and after a public spat between Yevgeny Prigozhin of the Wagner private military company and the Russian defense ministry over ammo supplies to Wagner around Bakhmut.

Well, Prigozhin says the issue has been resolved. He took another swipe at the defense ministry.

A big number of former soldiers who are now part of Wagner came here because they're looking for more creative freedom, since everyone understands the army doesn't always enable that.

When we asked Prigozhin whether ties with the defense ministry have been restored, a sneaky answer. Guys, you're CNN, enemy spies. Have a conscience.