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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Ukrainian Forces Struggle to Hold Bakhmut As Russians Close In; Southwest Flight Turns Back to Cuba After Reported Bird Strike; Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis Stake Out Positions at GOP Events. Aired 5- 5:30a ET

Aired March 06, 2023 - 05:00   ET



CHRISTINE ROMANS, ANCHOR, EARLY START: All right, welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world, I'm Christine Romans, this is EARLY START. We begin with Ukrainian forces struggling to hold on in the eastern city of Bakhmut, as Russian troops close in from three sides. Ukrainian officials say the situation in Bakhmut has grown much tougher.

They say their forces may need to retreat to avoid being trapped by encircling Russians. CNN's Scott McLean is tracking this story for us from London. And Scott, what are the chances the Ukrainians will be able to turn this around? And if they can't, does that mean Russia is back on the offensive.

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So, Christine, good morning. It really depends on who you ask, because last week, there were plenty of indications that the Ukrainians may in fact be forced to withdraw from that area. A drone reconnaissance unit had been ordered to retreat from the area. You also had a key bridge that was taken out by the Russians, cutting off one of the Ukrainians' final supply routes in and out.

And now, you also have a Russian war correspondent claiming that of the 10,000 or 12,000 Ukrainian troops he believes are inside of Bakhmut right now. He says that some of them are already starting to withdraw. But the Ukrainians right now are painting a much different picture. One, first off, that bridge that was taken out last week, it's being replaced by a temporary replacement.

You also have Ukrainian commander describing hellish conditions on the ground, yes, but he also says that things have stabilized, and not only are the Ukrainians not withdrawing, they're actually sending in more troops to stabilize the frontline as it stands right now. Meanwhile, in Zaporizhzhia, local officials there have declared today as a day of mourning, four days after a Russian rocket hit an apartment building, killing at least, 13 people, amongst them men, women and even a small child.

There are still five people unaccounted for there, they have been working day and night in the time since to try to see if there were any survivors. Nine people were pulled out, including a pregnant woman. It is not clear what if any military target was actually in the area that the Russians may have been aiming at.

And one of the things to mention, and that is that the Russian Minister of Defense, Sergei Shoigu made a very rare appearance on Ukrainian soil. It's not clear precisely when this trip was made, but the Ministry of Defense released video showing him handing out medals to Russian troops, apparently in the Donbas area and also visiting Mariupol, arriving at the airport by helicopter.

And then visiting a medical clinic, a newly built apparently, medical clinic there. Mariupol, of course, was heavily fought over in the early months of the war before the Russians eventually took it in this trip, appears to be a way to showcase what the -- well, what the Russians have done there since, Christine.

ROMANS: Interesting, all right. Scott McLean, thank you so much, nice to see you this morning, Scott. A scare in the air for passengers on a Southwest Airlines flight from Havana to Fort Lauderdale after a reported bird strike caused engine failure. Right, the passenger who took this video here says three or four minutes after taking off, Sunday, there was an explosion and dark smoke began filling that plane.

Southwest says the pilot immediately turned back to Havana and passengers exited through the emergency slides. No word of any injuries. Right, the NTSB sending investigators to another train derailment in Ohio over the weekend. This one also a Norfolk Southern freight train. CNN's Polo Sandoval has the latest.


POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on camera): Well, the General Manager of Norfolk Southern, the owner and operator of the train involved in Saturday's derailment, saying that there were hazardous materials that were being transported on this train including ethanol and propane, but they were not on the train cars that actually left the tracks on Saturday.

A total of 20 out of the 212 train cars actually left the tracks as this train was headed from northern Ohio, down to Birmingham, Alabama. Authorities really shifted a lot of their focus on four tankard train cars, two of them were hauling what's being described as diesel exhaust fluid, while the other two were hauling water soluble solutions that's often used to treat waste water, common industrial solutions as they describe them.

However, authorities saying that those train cars did not experience any sort of spillage. So, the head of the EPA and the state of Ohio saying that there was no chemical released into the air, into the water, into the soil.


So, now, a lot of the focus will certainly be on a massive cleanup process that is under way there in Springfield, Ohio, and also, on the investigation as they try to find out exactly what led to this derailment, to just a little over a month after the toxic tragedy that took place in East Palestine, Ohio, with the same rail company in the same state.

However, at this point, the investigation is certainly nothing to lead investigators to believe that they could potentially be linked, but certainly, a reminder that these kinds of derailments are happening according to the Federal Railroad Administration, roughly 1,000 derailments happening in the U.S. per year. Polo Sandoval, CNN, New York.


ROMANS: Yes, thousand train derailments a year. Polo, thank you for that. New movement shaping the GOP presidential field, Governor Ron DeSantis speaking Sunday to a big crowd at the Reagan Presidential Library in California. He laid out a blueprint first, spreading his brand of aggressive conservativism.


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): I think we've gotten it right on all the key issues. And I think these liberal states have gotten it wrong. And why are they getting it wrong? I think it all goes back to ideology. I think it goes back to this woke mind virus that's infected the left and all these other institutions.


ROMANS: Former President Donald Trump won the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Saturday, 62 percent of CPAC attendees said Trump was their first choice in this unscientific survey, 20 percent named DeSantis. Former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan says he will not seek the GOP nomination.

The moderate Republican said he was concerned his presence in a crowded field could help Trump win the nomination. Right, China's national legislature meeting today. The country's leaders using the annual gathering to lay out their plans to boost the Chinese economy and to restore public confidence after a year of missteps and protests triggered by the now abandoned zero COVID policy. CNN's Steven Jiang live in Beijing for us this morning. Steven, that's a tall order. What are officials promising?

STEVEN JIANG, CNN BEIJING BUREAU CHIEF: Christine, of course, they're promising a very bright future, and their strongman leader Xi Jinping. There's little doubt that the nearly 3,000 lawmakers will endorse every proposal, every plan put in front of them already approved by the communist leadership that includes the proposed military budget increase for 2023, 7.2 percent.

Now, it's noteworthy because, of course, there are rising tensions between China and the United States as well as between China and many of its neighbors which has already triggered a regional arms race. But the one figure has attracted -- that has attracted most attention, of course, is the economic growth target for 2023, announced by the outgoing premier to be quote-unquote, "around 5 percent".

That is a modest number by Chinese standards. Remember, last year, the number was set to be around 5.5 percent, but of course, the actual growth was only 3 percent. The worse in decades, because of that disastrous zero COVID policy you mentioned, wreaking havoc on the economy. But after that initial chaotic and deadly exit from that policy in December, we have seen a strong rebound with much of the disruption to industries and supply chains faded away by late January.

So many analysts were expecting the government to set a slightly higher goal, something closer to 6 percent. So, this relatively modest figure seems to be a reflection of their hesitancy in terms of how sustainable this rebound is, as well as their realization of the strong winds they continue to face both domestically and internationally, Christine.

ROMANS: All right, Steven Jiang in Beijing, thank you. Just ahead, the GOP establishment lukewarm on Donald Trump, but are they powerless to stop him in 2024? Plus, chaos at Cop City, protesters set fire at Atlanta's future police training center. And Joe Biden's D.C. dilemma save streets versus self-rule.



ROMANS: All right, in the clearest preview yet of the Republican primary field for 2024, former President Trump took the stage at CPAC and Florida's Governor Ron DeSantis spoke at the Reagan Presidential Library. DeSantis, of course, has not formally announced a run, but still came in second in CPAC's straw poll, second to Donald Trump. Many Republicans are still skeptical of Trump's nomination.


GOV. CHRIS SUNUNU (R-NH)): As far as former President Trump, I think he's going to run obviously, he's in the race. He's not going to be the nominee. That's just not going to happen. I'm really confident that whoever comes out of the Republican nomination process is going to lead this country and will be able to deliver a win in '24, and I'll back them.


ROMANS: All right, let's bring in senior political correspondent at the "New Republic", Daniel Strauss, good morning, Daniel, nice to see you.


ROMANS: All right, so two -- yes, two potential nominees for the Republican Party making appearances. How do you think they each distinguished themselves in their speeches?

STRAUSS: I mean, for one, Nikki Haley made clear that she's very interested in talking about social issues going forward and throughout this primary and being that candidate. And then Trump just reminded everyone that CPAC is his country, it's his people. These are the supporters and activists who are going to support him early on in this primary, and probably not leave him despite whoever else is in the race and whatever else happens.

And that's the hard core fraction of the Republican Party that could decide this primary in general. Because they're unlikely to move away from Trump at any point. And in a very large field which this could be, that means that a hardcore fraction could be the one that propels a candidate to the nomination.

ROMANS: You know, can I tell you the tone of the former president's speech at CPAC was noticeable to me.


The way he talked darkly about retribution, and the way he went after his own party too. He went after liberals, the media, communist, Republicans who want to spend money on endless wars, he said, and cut back social spending at home. It was interesting to me he went after everyone, including his own party.

STRAUSS: Yes, and I think that's a major contrast from 2016 where he mostly attacked the media and Democrats. This time, though, he has a fair amount of angst at his own party. I think it's also telling that he's highlighting two things in particular. Non-aggression and protecting entitlement. That's because both of those topics are popular among not just the Republican base, but the broader electorate. And that's how he wants to distinguish himself --

ROMANS: Yes --

STRAUSS: From Ron DeSantis, who he wants to peg as someone who is eager to cut entitlement programs and also possibly get into another war.

ROMANS: So there's this feeling that maybe you could have a big field in 2024 on the Republican side. But you won't have Larry Hogan; the former Maryland governor in that field. He said he will not run for the nomination, and this is his reason, listen.


LARRY HOGAN, FORMER GOVERNOR OF MARYLAND: I didn't want to have a pile-up of a bunch of people fighting. Right now, you have, you know, Trump and DeSantis at the top of the field, soaking up all the oxygen, getting all the attention. And then a whole lot of the rest of us in single digits. And the more of them you have, the less chance you have for somebody rising up.


ROMANS: Same. There are a lot of moderate Republicans who are disappointed that he's not going to run.

STRAUSS: Yes, but there are other moderate Republican potential candidates, there's Chris Sununu in New Hampshire. But I think it's one of the strange dynamics of American politics right now, the most popular Republican governors -- excuse me, Sununu, Hogan, are less likely to win a Republican primary right now. They poll in the single digits. And it's really amazing.

Because these are Republican governors who have stratospheric popularity numbers. Just -- like approval ratings that I haven't seen anywhere else in politics. But at the same time, it just shows, it's very difficult even with those governing records to get through a Republican primary.

ROMANS: Yes, and we are just in the very early innings of all of this. So I know we'll talk about it again soon. Daniel Strauss, nice to see you, have a great rest of your day.

STRAUSS: Good to see you, you too, thanks.

ROMANS: All right, the Senate vote to scrap Washington D.C.'s controversial new rewrite of its criminal sentencing laws is expected this week. Democratic lawmakers are furious about President Biden's decision to sign the GOP-backed resolution, assuming it passes, Brian Todd has more on why Biden flipped on this bill.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. President, what do you plan to do on the D.C. Crime Bill? We understand you will not veto.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Biden caught between wanting to be seen as tough on crime and wanting to support Washington D.C.'s right to govern itself. The president now supporting a move by Republicans in Congress to rescind a controversial new D.C. crime law. A law that would take measures like lowering the penalties for carjacking.

Just last month, the president was in favor of that D.C. law, his administration saying, quote, "Congress should respect the District of Columbia's autonomy to govern its own local affairs." So why did the president just change his mind?

TAMARA KEITH, NPR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That is a real soft point for Democrats, because they are constantly criticized for being soft on crime.

TODD: A theme Donald Trump jumped on in recent months.

DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: One of the worst and most sinister aspects of the Biden administration is the complete and total corruption of our justice system and the rule of law.

TODD: If President Biden had supported that D.C. law, Republicans could have attacked him for backing a city council that wanted to lessen punishments in a city where violent crime is a serious problem. D.C. police say as of Friday in 2023 alone, there were 38 homicides, 95 carjacking and 215 assaults with a dangerous weapon in the city.

Biden also may not have wanted to be perceived as being to the left of D.C.'s Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser who herself opposed the crime law passed by the city council.

MAYOR MURIEL BOWSER, WASHINGTON D.C., WASHINGTON STATE: There were weakening of penalties that should not happen.

TODD: Analysts say some big mayoral races where crime was a huge issue could also have shaped President Biden's strategy.

KEITH: It comes in the context of a New York mayor's race that was very much about crime with the election of Eric Adams and then Joe Biden hugging him close after that, and then the loss of Lori Lightfoot in Chicago where crime again was a huge issue.

TODD: But now that he sides with Republicans on that D.C. crime law, progressive Democrats are feeling betrayed by the president. New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeting, quote, "plenty of places pass laws the president may disagree with. He should respect the people's government of D.C. just as he does elsewhere."

The White House now trying to patch things up with that wing of the president's party, saying he's committed to the idea of D.C. becoming a state.


KARINE JEAN-PIERRE, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: If Congress sends him a bill making D.C. a state, he will always be sure to sign it because he's been talking -- he's been talking about that for the last two decades.

TODD (on camera): One big complaint from the Democratic side about the president's decision to support rescinding that D.C. crime law is coming from House Democrats who had already voted in favor of the D.C. law. Now, some of them are complaining that there wasn't adequate communication from the White House over all of this, and that they're now going to be subjected to fresh Republican attacks that they're soft on crime and to the left of President Biden on the issue.

One house Democrat who voted in favor of the D.C. law fumed that they cannot trust the White House. Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.


ROMANS: All right, quick hits across America now, five people were hit by gunfire in a shooting at a Los Angeles beach Saturday night. The attack took place just a few miles from where the city hosted a gun buy-back event that morning. One person was killed, two were injured when a small plane crashed on Long Island, New York, Sunday. The pilot reported smoke in the cockpit just before the final approach to the airport.

Hundreds of protesters clashing with police at Atlanta's controversial Cop City facility. Officials say they attacked with Molotov cocktails, set off fireworks and burned vehicles at the site Sunday. Dozens of people have been detained. All right, coming up, Ukrainian troops holding out at Bakhmut, but for how long? Plus, Harry and Meghan's royal invitation. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


ROMANS: All right, Russian forces squeezing Ukrainian defenses in and around the city of Bakhmut this morning. The fighting intense with artillery and mortar fire as well as trench warfare. For now, Kyiv keeping control of the strategic eastern city. CNN's Melissa Bell has more.


MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on camera): What had felt for several days like the inevitable Russian advance on to the center of Bakhmut appears to have slowed, that's according to Ukrainian military commanders who claim that they are still holding one of the main highways in and out of Bakhmut.

And therefore able to protect those crucial supply lines to the Ukrainian defenders still doing all they can to hold the town that has been at the center of the siege now for seven months. We've been speaking to the deputy mayor of the town who says that the heavy artillery fire and mortar fire has only gotten worse with Russian forces really throwing everything they have at Bakhmut, explaining also, that it is only about fighting ten civilians that they're managing to evacuate right now compared to 6 to 500, at the height of the evacuation at the end of February.

It is 4,500 civilians, of course, still trapped inside that town. And yet, according to Ukrainian commanders, a possibility that they have managed to hold the center and will continue to do so. One commander describing the scenes as hell and saying one day feels like an eternity, but it is necessary to hold on for every day that we can. Melissa Bell, CNN, Kyiv.


ROMANS: Let's bring in CNN global affairs analyst, Kim Dozier; a senior managing editor at "Military Times". So nice to see you this morning. So, I mean, what's at stake here? What happens if Ukraine can't hold Bakhmut?

KIM DOZIER, SENIOR MANAGING EDITOR, MILITARY TIMES: Well, actually, it has been a strategy that Ukraine has admitted to, to hold Bakhmut as long as it can, to try to use up Russian resources. Russia has been going through hundreds, if not thousands of troops and lost a number of tanks and ambushes, et cetera, in trying to take this town.

And the head of the Wagner Group over the weekend complained that he's not getting the ammunition re-supplies that he was promised, and complaining that Moscow is leaving him high and dry, and if he's not able to take Bakhmut, it's their fault, not his. So that shows you the kind of tension and stress that this campaign to take this one, not necessarily, though strategically-placed significant city is having on the Russian military, and that is by design, by Ukraine. But the fact of the matter is, even though Russia might not have the

troops and the equipment in country right now to re-double its efforts and have a larger Spring offensive, because it's wasting so much on Bakhmut, Russia does in the long run have many more troops available, just because the country is four times the size of the population of --

ROMANS: Yes --

DOZIER: Ukraine.

ROMANS: Interesting. I want to talk a little bit about the -- you know, the notion that F-16s may eventually at some point be on their way to Ukraine. We know that the U.S. so far has not -- has not done that. But we know that they're doing something called a familiarization event which is, you know, which is I guess, a way of saying they're showing Ukrainian pilots and simulators, you know, how to use these F-16s.

What does that mean to you about where we are and whether we will eventually send F-16 jets to Ukraine?

DOZIER: Well, the U.S. Defense Secretary and comments to reporters was even more circumspect. He said that this familiarization event where Ukrainian pilots visit the U.S. Air Force is more about their professionalization, learning how the U.S. Air Force works, but I do believe we're seeing the thin end of the wedge.

Britain has already started a training program for Ukrainian pilots to get them up to speed, to be ready to pilot NATO aircrafts, should the day come when NATO countries decide to supply those. And we've also seen that the California National Guard which has worked with Ukrainian pilots for years.