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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Departures Halted at Israel's Main Airport As Striking Workers Join Street Protesters Against the Government's Judicial Overhaul; Tornadoes Kill At Least Two Dozen People in U.S. Southeast; Vladimir Putin Says He'll Put Tactical Nuclear Weapons Right on Ukraine's Doorstep in Belarus. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired March 27, 2023 - 05:00   ET



CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Right now on EARLY START, going nowhere. Departures now halted at Israel's main airport as striking workers join street protesters against the government's judicial overhaul. Plus, path of destruction. Tornadoes kill at least two dozen people in the southeast, and the severe storm threat isn't over yet.

And nukes next door. Vladimir Putin now says he'll put tactical nuclear weapons right on Ukraine's doorstep in Belarus. All right, welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world, I'm Christine Romans. We begin with the crisis in Israel, where the country's main airport just halted all takeoffs.

It's part of a general strike called for just a short time ago by Israel's largest labor union. The aim is to stop Benjamin Netanyahu's government from pushing through a highly controversial judicial overhaul, what one labor leader called, quote "this craziness".

Right, street protests against that plan have intensified, huge crowds filling the streets of Tel Aviv after Netanyahu fired his defense minister for opposing the overhaul. CNN's Hadas Gold is live in Jerusalem this morning. What are we hearing from Prime Minister Netanyahu this morning, Hadas?

HADAS GOLD, CNN JERUSALEM CORRESPONDENT: Nothing. We have heard nothing from the Prime Minister so far. The last time we heard from him was last night when he announced he was firing the defense minister. Meanwhile, this country has essentially come to a grinding halt as a result of this general strike.

As you noted, the airport has completely stopped takeoffs. There are still landings happening. I spoke to -- we spoke to an Israeli airport spokesperson who said 70,000 passengers were expected to take off and land today. About half of those were for takeoffs, half of those for landings. Now, people who are trying to get out of the country will not be able to do so.

The ports, the largest port in Israel, in Haifa, has also announced that its workers are on strike. We're also hearing from shopping malls. We are hearing now that potentially that school assistance will be on strike as well. I have never heard of a strike this large in Israeli history. The last time, Christine, that the airport called to take off at the airport was closed was during war, was during the 2021 conflict between the Israeli military and Hamas and militants in Gaza when rockets were flying in the air.

And now, once again, the airport is essentially shut down as a result of this massive judicial overhaul, is all of course, started Saturday evening when the Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant dared to make a speech, calling for the legislative process around these reforms to at least be frozen for a few weeks, because he was worried the divisiveness over these reforms, he said, was causing a credible and real threat to Israel's security.

Keep in mind, hundreds of Israeli military reservists have said they will not heed the call to serve because of these reforms because they will feel as though they were no longer serving a democracy. Twenty four hours later, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired his defense minister who is a member of his own Likud Party, saying he had lost confidence in him.

Then we saw these massive spontaneous street protests. Now, protests here have been going on for more than 12 weeks, hundreds of thousands of Israelis regularly taking to the streets with a protest last night, Christine, they felt different. They felt angrier. They even felt a little bit violent.

They lasted well into the night, and then, this morning we're hearing voice after voice, the Israeli president, the head of the Jewish agency, it is now harder to count the number of people who are still in favor of pushing these reforms through compared to just the massive wave of high profile figures and everyday people calling for these reforms to at least to be halted.

There are reports that Benjamin Netanyahu will come out and call for a freeze. But so far, we have heard nothing from the prime minister, Christine.

ROMANS: All right, keep us posted, Hadas Gold. A very powerful storm hit the south over the weekend, killing at least, 26 people.

Overnight, large hail and heavy rain rolling through Atlanta, prompting the weather service to warn of life-threatening flooding. Sunday, dozens of homes were destroyed. At least, three people injured when a large tornado hit LaGrange, Georgia, that was just an encore to at least 10 tornadoes that ripped across Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee Friday night. A rare EF 4 tornado tore through Rolling Fork, Mississippi, flattening most of that town.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A family Dollar store was practically new. It's gone. And I think there was loss of life there.


Flower shop, beauty shop, barber, law offices just down the street are all gone.


ROMANS: CNN's Nick Valencia is on the ground for us in Rolling Fork with more.


NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: With all of those who were unaccounted for on Saturday, now located safely. The effort is entirely on the clean up here, and there is a lot of it to be done. There's very little of this community that was untouched by the storm that ripped through here on Friday night. But one of the things that really stood out to our crew here is just how everyone is chipping in to help. It's something that the governor talked about earlier when he spoke to the media.

GOV. TATE REEVES (R-MS): What we've seen over the last 36 hours in Mississippi, on the one hand, has been heartbreaking to see the loss and devastation of these communities, but on the other hand, has been inspiring and gives me great reason for optimism and, quite frankly, makes me damn proud to be a Mississippian, because Mississippians have done what Mississippians do in times of tragedy, in times of crisis, they stand up and they show up.

VALENCIA: Part of what's giving us a better understanding of the scope of this devastation is the aerial footage that we've seen. It shows just how widespread this damage is, and gives an indication of how much time it will take to clean up. Nick Valencia, CNN, Rolling Fork, Mississippi.


ROMANS: Just remarkable. Meteorologist Allison Chinchar joins us from the CNN Weather Center. Good morning. Just how rare is this kind of a EF 4 tornado that hit Rolling Fork, Allison?

ALLISON CHINCHAR, METEOROLOGIST: Right, I think that's an important point to make is that, you know, these EF 4s and EF 5s together, what we deem violent. That is the term that is used for those two types of categories for tornadoes is extremely rare. They make up roughly 1 percent of the total tornadoes that we see.

So again, just kind of goes to show how rare they are. And the damage is significant. You see this car right here, that is basically been lifted up and tossed over onto the side of the building there. That is one of the indicators that the National Weather Service will look for, when they go out to survey these storms and determine, is it an EF zero all the way up to an EF 5.

Because 4 and EF 4 specifically, they are looking for cars and other objects that are thrown, well constructed and whole frame houses leveled. And those are two very specific things that we saw with that particular tornado, but it was one of many that has occurred over just the last 72 hours across the southeast. Now, we do still have those ongoing storms as of right now. They're located in the Carolinas, stretching back through Georgia and Alabama as well. Now, the most imminent, widespread concern over the next few hours is really going to be the flooding potential. This is the amount of rain that has already fallen in just the last several hours. Again, in the last 24 hours, you see this long stretch here of orange and even red color, indicating widespread rainfall of 4 to 6 inches that's already fallen.

And that's why you've got the flood watches and the flash flood warnings, Christine, and more rain is on the way. So that's really going to be the concern going forward for the rest of the day today.

ROMANS: All right, Allison Chinchar, thank you so much for that. Right, Vladimir Putin says Russia plans to station tactical nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus. The move announced in an interview with state TV ratchets up concerns in the -- in the West about the Ukraine war escalating into a nuclear conflict. CNN's Salma Abdelaziz is live in London for us this morning. Salma, what details did Putin disclose about this plan?

SALMA ABDELAZIZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it seems clear from President Putin's statement on Saturday that this plan is very much underway already. He said that short-range missiles -- these Iskander short-range missiles, which can be fitted with these tactical nuclear warheads have already been transferred to Belarus.

That's a country that's essentially been used as a satellite-launching point during Russia's invasion of Ukraine. He also went on to say that a special facility has been built to house these tactical nuclear weapons, and that's going to be completed in July. The 10 aircraft in Belarus have been revamped, outfitted change so that they can carry these tactical nuclear weapons potentially, and that pilot-training for those aircrafts will start next month.

And he went on to say, and this is kind of an important point here, that Russia Moscow will retain control over these tactical nuclear weapons, although they'll be stationed in Belarus, and he likened that to the United States doing something similar in Europe. But of course, it's extremely worrying any time you hear President Putin utter the words, nuclear weapons.

And that is what experts say is exactly the point. He wants the world to stand up and pay attention. He wants maybe to scare the world a bit at a time when he needs a distraction. Remember there's been very few gains on the battlefield for Moscow's troops. That very important meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, that did not result in any major deals, major support for the conflict on the ground in Ukraine.


This is a time when he needs to distract the West, and the United States is already brushing it off. The U.S. saying in a statement, a U.S. official saying, "we've not seen any reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posturing, and there's no indication that Russia would use these weapons any time soon." It's important to note here that we're talking about tactical nuclear weapons, not strategic nuclear weapons.

So, these are much smaller, but of course, still powerful and capable of causing great damage and concern. And the key issue here, of course, is how much closer these weapons are, deeper they are into Europe. NATO has called it dangerous and irresponsible. They say it raises the threat level in the region.

ROMANS: Alright, Salma, thank you so much for that. Ukrainian officials are saying Russia has been stepping up shelling and missile attacks. Military officials say strikes have intensified near the eastern cities of Kupyansk and Lyman. Meantime, officials say Russian forces have kept up their attacks on Bakhmut, but the Ukraine has enough forces to hold the frontline.

CNN's Ivan Watson is live in Kyiv for us this morning. Good morning, Ivan. What are officials there saying about meeting these intensified attacks, and how will they be able to hold onto these eastern cities?

IVAN WATSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Right, well, as that fighting rages along the eastern front, I do want to bring attention to news this morning coming from two Russian-occupied cities in southern Ukraine, Mariupol and Melitopol. In Melitopol, the Russian occupation authorities are reporting that there was some kind of an attack this morning.

We're seeing images on social media of a building that was damaged there, I've got a source on the ground who says, in fact, there were some big explosion there this morning, the Russian occupation authorities saying they're still trying to figure out the extent of potential casualties.

Meanwhile, in Mariupol, Russian state news agency "TASS" is reporting that there was an apparent assassination attempt on the Russian occupation administration's police chief there, naming an individual named Mikhail Moskvin(ph), we've also seen images of a car that appears to be badly damaged and a neighboring building as well.

And I've been speaking with Ukrainian officials who are in the city government of these two cities. The mayor of Melitopol for example, they are completely unashamed about the fact that they say they have resistance operatives in these cities that are carrying out assassinations, bomb attacks, attacks on the Russian occupation administration, on what they accuse to be collaborators in those towns working with the Russian occupation.

All of these officials say they swear that these cities will be liberated sometime in the future. In the meantime, in the active frontline, as you mentioned, that city of Bakhmut in the east, which has been the scene of more than seven months of fighting of Russian troops, hurling themselves against Ukrainian defenders there.

The Ukrainian officials are saying that their tactic is to try to bleed out the Russian military. They see that the tempo of Russian attacks have decreased, but they say the artillery strikes are continuing just as intensely as they always have. And the big question is, how much have the Ukrainians lost, sacrificed in this war of attrition on the ground there, defending what many would argue is a symbolic city, but not a strategically important one. Christine?

ROMANS: Interesting. All right, thank you so much for that, Ivan. Alright, to banking news. First Citizens Bank now buying a Silicon Valley Bank after SVB collapsed in the largest U.S. bank failures since the 2008 financial crisis. Meantime, European markets opening higher this morning, Deutsche Bank shares are higher after sinking last week on concerns about the health of the financial system.

CNN's Clare Sebastian live this Monday morning in London with more. So, First Citizens, this is a Raleigh, North Carolina bank, this is buying up of the deposits and loans of SVB. What else do we know?

CLARE SEBASTIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Christine, a little bit similar to what we saw with New York Community Bancorp getting Signature Bank in a way similar to UBS' takeover of Credit Suisse. Because this is not a normal acquisition, right? This is a regulator- choreographed deal, which includes incentives, even though First Citizen says this came after competitive bidding process.

They are getting a number of sweeteners in the deal. For example, they are getting a discount, 16.5 billion on a 72 billion portfolio, according to the FDIC. First Citizens also says they're getting a line of credit. This is a lost share deal whereby they share and some of the gains and losses on those loans that reduces the risk to First Citizens, allows them in their words to preserve their strong financial position, so there's that.

This was also according to the FDIC, structured to minimize disruption to depositors, right? So, what we're going to see this morning in just a few hours is that the 17 legacy branches of Silicon Valley Bank will reopen essentially as a division of First Citizens, people will be able to go to their old bank branch and get their money in that way.


And then, of course, it will be fully incorporated into First Citizens, and they can go to any branch they want. So that's how this was done. It sort of closes a chapter to some degree, Christine, this wraps up the bankruptcy and all of that. The FDIC will still need to dispose itself of 90 billion of assets from the Silicon Valley Bridge Bank.

But it does not -- answering the lingering questions around how this happened, what went wrong? We're going to see those questions in congressional hearings this week.

ROMANS: Congressional hearings this week, and then the Fed itself has its own internal report that it says will be -- it will be releasing, right, an investigation it will be releasing into what went wrong. I think it may. All right, Clare, nice to see you, thank you so much. Still ahead, an explosion levels a Pennsylvania candy factory.

The search for the missing now over. Plus, a jet passenger's early exit lands him in hot water at LAX. And next, Donald Trump trying to define the DeSantis campaign before the Florida governor defines it himself. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


ROMANS: All right, the Manhattan grand jury investigating Donald Trump reconvenes today. It's looking into the former president's alleged role in a scheme to pay hush money to an adult film star. Meantime, Trump railed against the probe at a big campaign rally in Texas this weekend. CNN's Kristen Holmes has more.


KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on camera): Thousands and thousands of people showed up in Waco, Texas, for former President Donald Trump's first campaign rally of this season since he announced his third presidential bid. Former President talked at length about the numerous investigations he is facing, including that one in New York where there is a potential indictment. Take a listen.

DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The district attorney of New York under the auspices and direction of the Department of Injustice in Washington D.C. was investigating me for something that is not a crime, not a misdemeanor, not an affair.

HOLMES: Now, in recent days, those investigations have seemed to escalate in addition to the investigation in New York, that potential indictment in that hush money probe. We've also seen former President Trump's personal defense attorney Evan Corcoran have been made to appear before a federal grand jury in that Mar-a-Lago documents case.

We also know that a federal judge has now ordered several of Trump's former aides, including Mark Meadows, his former chief of staff to testify in this special counsel's investigation into January 6th. But I will tell you, we spoke to dozens of people who were there to see Donald Trump, and almost all of them told us that not only would an indictment not impact them at all, but that they believed it would make Trump stronger.

And this is something that we have heard from a number of Republicans. They believe that at least, in a contested primary, this kind of potential indictment will make him stronger. However, there are still a lot of questions about what this will mean in the long-term. Kristen Holmes, Waco, Texas, CNN.


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


ROMANS: Trump using some strong and violent rhetoric to describe these legal probes against him. How concerning is this, especially in case he does get indicted in this hush money case in particular? STRAUSS: I mean, it's concerning enough that law enforcement

throughout the country has taken this seriously. But I think it also underscores how much Trump is prioritizing, rallying his supporters to his side, and trying to spark some kind of strong, visible response to indictment if it comes. He clearly wants some kind of spectacle on, as on as largest scale as possible, and I think that's what he was really getting at with that language.

ROMANS: Yes, vilifying prosecutors of vilifying the whole judicial process, and then mocking his potential opponents, right? Here he is about Governor Ron DeSantis. Listen.


TRUMP: So, he came and he really wanted -- I said you can't win. Can you -- how can you win? Sir, if you endorse me, I'll win. Please sir, endorse me. I said, let's give it a shot, Ron, and I endorsed him and he became like a rocket ship. Within one day, the race was over.


ROMANS: You heard a little bit of laughter, but the crowd was noticeably silent compared to when he goes after other targets. What does that say I guess about the evolving of these Trump supporters in the past few years?

STRAUSS: A few things. One is that there is clearly a strong overlap between Donald Trump supporters and Ron DeSantis supporters. And second, I think it says also that Trump still sees DeSantis as a serious threat, even as his poll numbers rise in the past few days and the Florida governor sink a little bit. Because DeSantis isn't even a presidential candidate yet, although that seems incredibly likely that he's going to run for president.

It's clear that Trump sees him as a threat coming soon. And then third, it's that the Republican primary voters don't really respond as well as Trump would like to Republican-on-Republican criticism --

ROMANS: Yes --

STRAUSS: Among their favorite candidates and the brightest stars in their party, which are Trump-DeSantis among a few others. So clearly, I think Trump will see this as a warning sign and probably change his stump speech language in the coming appearances he has.

ROMANS: You know, speaking of Ron DeSantis, he has given some contradicting and honestly confusing positions on Putin and the Ukraine invasion. Listen.


PIERS MORGAN, JOURNALIST: What's your view of Putin?

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): Look, I think he's got grand ambitions. I think he's hostile to the United States.


I mean, I think he is a war criminal.

You have Ukraine and Russia fighting over kind of the borderlands there in the far eastern part of Ukraine, over places like Crimea. And my position on that is, you know, I care more about securing our own border in the United States than I do about the Russia-Ukraine border.


ROMANS: OK, so he does think Putin is a war criminal fighting a borderland territorial dispute, but he cares more about the United States. How do you think he's going to, I guess, thread this needle here. Remember back in 2015, when he was in Congress, he criticized -- sharply criticized former President Barack Obama for being weak on Russia when it took Crimea.

STRAUSS: He's going to take one of those two answers and stick with them and let the other one fade. And the other thing about this, though, is that foreign policy answers very early in a primary, or even during the shadow primary of any presidential really large campaign cycle, rarely last and rarely have an impact.

Voters respond weigh more on domestic issues. I can think of a few times where a foreign policy comment has really resonated with voters. But it's very rare, and I think this is what DeSantis wants as an early bump if he has to have one. Again, it just -- it will not really resonate with voters in the long run.

ROMANS: Interesting all right, Daniel Strauss of "The New Republic, thank you so much, nice to see you.

STRAUSS: See you.

ROMANS: All right, quick hits across America now, the death toll rising to seven this morning after an explosion and fire at a candy factory northwest of Philadelphia on Friday. Authorities still investigating the cause of the incident. Police arrest a Delta passenger after he opened one of the plane's doors, deploying an emergency exit slide just before takeoff from Los Angeles airport.

The FAA is investigating. Philadelphia officials say the water is safe to drink through tonight after a chemical spill on the Delaware river. Authorities rescinded the bottled water alert after rigorous testing. All right, just ahead, the man suing Gwyneth Paltrow over a ski slope collision said to take the stand today, and thousands of protesters hit the streets in Israel as the political crisis there deepens.