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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Tennessee's GOP-Led House Expels 2 Dems Over Gun Reform Protest; Biden Administration Blames Chaotic Withdrawal on Trump; Rep. Jordan Subpoenas Former Top Manhattan Prosecutor in Trump Probe; Israel Launches Airstrikes in Gaza, Lebanon After Rocket Attacks; ProPublica: Justice Thomas Given Luxury Trips By GOP Megadonor. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired April 07, 2023 - 05:00   ET




A momentous showdown in Tennessee. A White Democratic lawmaker survives the vote to expel her from the state house, while Republicans ousted two Black lawmakers over gun protest. What the White House is now saying at this hour.

Plus, free luxury trips and lavish trips for more than two decades, yet, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas failed to disclose any of them. New reporting on who's been funding those vacations.

And overnight, violence is erupting in Israel and now, Lebanon, two days after Israeli forces stormed one of Islam's holiest sites. We're live on the ground in Jerusalem and Beirut.


JIMENEZ: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Omar Jimenez, in for Christine Romans. As always, we've got a lot to get to. So let's get to it.

We begin with the extraordinary actions of the Republican controlled Tennessee House today, expelling two Democrats for staging a gun violence protests on the House floor last week.


JIMENEZ: The gallery erupting after the GOP supermajority voted to expel Representatives Justin Pearson and Justin Jones. Afterwards, they suggested the move would backfire on Republicans.


JUSTIN JONES (D), TENNESSEE STATE HOUSE: They thought they won today, but they don't realize -- they don't realize what they're started. They started a movement. They can't stop.

JUSTIN PEARSON (D), TENNESSEE STATE HOUSE: They are the ones that just get a voice. It's the folks in our districts get a voice, too. And as you see, we will demand it in the House. We'll get expelled for it, too, and will demand it outside the House.


JIMENEZ: That story continuing to develop. A third Democrat involved in the gun protests survived an expulsion vote. She told CNN. She believes race helps explain the different outcomes.


GLORIA JOHNSON (D), TENNESSEE STATE HOUSE: I'm a 60-year-old white woman, and they are two young Black men.


JIMENEZ: CNN's Gary Tuchman is on the ground in Nashville with more.


GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Omar, something most unusual happened here in the Tennessee state capitol building in Nashville on Thursday. The Republican supermajority of the House of Representatives decided to kick out to Democratic representatives because of what they call disorderly conduct. They were actually expelled. There are no longer representatives.

And this alleged disorderly conduct happened just one week ago, there wasn't any long investigation. Or anything like that. These three state representatives walked into the well of the House of Representatives, up in front of the chamber without permission and started talking without permission, and actually had a megaphone with them after recess was called start talking on the phone about gun reform.

They wanted to see gun reform after the horrifying school shootings last month here in Nashville. Well, we couldn't find the decision was made for two of them to be expelled. They needed a two thirds vote.

One of the people, the only woman of the three, by the name of Gloria Johnson, she survived by one vote, it was perceived Republicans tell me that she wasn't the leader of this effort.

But Justin Jones, Justin Pearson were expelled. There are no longer representatives. There were hundreds of people here, outside the capitol and inside the capitol, in the hallways and in the chambers, all of them yelling, screaming and mourning, very sad, thinking that democracy has died, one of the people told me, because of this decision.

In the state of Tennessee, since 1866, only three people have been expelled, and they've been either for crimes or something very immoral. This was a violation of the rules of the protesters, who were here were very upset. When it all came to an end, there were state troopers from Tennessee separating the protesters from the legislators who are leaving the chambers.

These two men who have been expelled can run again if they want to. They haven't decided if they want to do that -- Omar.


JIMENEZ: Gary Tuchman, thank you so much.

President Biden is also weighing in on the expulsions in Tennessee.

So joining us, CNN's Jasmine Wright is live in Washington.

So, Jasmine, first of all, what did the president have to say about this?

JASMINE WRIGHT, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yeah, Omar. Well, President Biden slammed those Tennessee state Republican lawmakers who expelled those two black lawmakers.


In a statement late last night, the president, he called it undemocratic, shocking and unprecedented in every way.

Let me read you a part of the statement because it was pretty strong here, he said: Rather than debating the merits of the issue, these Republican lawmakers have chosen to punish silence and expect and expelled duly elected representatives of the people of Tennessee. A strong majority of Americans want lawmakers to act on common sense, gun safety reforms that we know will save lives.

But instead, we continued to see Republican officials across America doubled down on dangerous bills that make our schools, places of worship and communities less safe now.

In the statement, President Biden here, Omar, he avoided the race aspects of it as we just heard. The two Black lawmakers were expelled with the third lawmaker.

The white woman involved in that protest, she was not expelled, but the president did take the moment really, to talk about the larger wish list of gun reforms that he wants to see something that the president talked about frequently over the last few months, and that includes an assault style weapon ban nationwide and also national background checks. He wants to see those both nationwide and state level.

Now, the president took the time to slam Republicans nationwide for not moving on these efforts -- Omar.

JIMENEZ: Yeah, Jasmine. I mean, look, there's a lot of moving parts there. We'll see how that develops potentially into next week.

But shifting gears a bit, the administration is also releasing a review of what I think, it's fair to say, the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan almost two years ago. What are you seeing in that report?

WRIGHT: Yeah, well, the larger report is actually classified, so it's going to be a while before the American public sees what's in it. But the Biden administration did release a 12-page summary, really describing broad perspectives of what it learned overall.

Now, the top headline here is that the administration felt that they were very constrained in what they could do because of the decisions made by the former administration, the Trump administration, really laying a lot of the blame there, specifically they point to the Doha agreement in which Trump and the Taliban agreed that U.S. troops would be out of Afghanistan by 2021. Now -- and by May 2021.

Now in the Thursday briefing at the White House, they declined to really get into what mistakes President Biden believes were made in that withdrawal. Instead of -- instead, they really framed it largely as a successful mission, but they said that they were two takeaways, that they acknowledge that in the future, they would do differently because of this review.

Now, that includes evacuating Americans much sooner than what we saw in Afghanistan but also includes just really telling Americans on the ground about how the security situation is deteriorating in real time, much sooner than what we saw them do in Afghanistan -- Omar.

JIMENEZ: Yeah, I think it's important. Anything can be learned from that. I think that that's important.

Jasmine, thank you so much. I appreciate it.

Ahead, expelled Tennessee State Representative Justin Jones will join CNN THIS MORNING. His message to the nation we will tell you when that happens later this morning.

Now, over here on this show, House Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan is issuing a subpoena to a former top prosecutor for Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. Jordan's is demanding testimony from Mark Pomerantz over his role investigating Donald Trump and the Trump organization. Pomerantz resigned from the D.A.'s office in 2022, one day after Bragg told him that he wasn't prepared to move forward with criminal charges at that point.

Pomerantz said at the time that Trump was, quote, guilty of numerous felony violations. Now, Pomerantz has declined to comment, but Bragg, responded.

The House GOP continues to attempt to undermine an active investigation and ongoing New York criminal case with an unprecedented campaign of harassment and intimidation.

So joining me now is Bob Bianchi, he former head prosecutor in Morris County, New Jersey, and host on the Law and Crime Network.

Bob, good to see you.

So how is a congressional subpoena justified in this case?

BOB BIANCHI, FORMER HEAD PROSECUTOR, MORRIS COUNTY, NJ: I don't think it is justified. As a former prosecutor that ran a prosecutorial agency, we have sovereign immunity here. We have a state of New Jersey where I practiced where I'm allowed to be able to proceed in my duties as to whether or not the charged or not charged cases, prosecute them or not prosecute. I prosecuted many political cases.

And I can't even imagine the idea that the federal government decides to come in, you know, we always talk about states' rights, but all of sudden state rights are obliterated here and drag me in to try to explain what I'm doing on a local level with regard to political corruption cases.

So from a legal standpoint, it's not that -- it's not that it's never been done. There have been federal subpoenas and congressional subpoenas with regard to civil rights cases back in the day when they were sham prosecutions and things of that nature, but that's not what we're dealing with here.


So, Alvin Bragg and his team are basically saying you have no right as the federal government. This has nothing to do with Congress. This is a local matter, hands off with respect to our investigation.

I'll just add one other note. You know what I'm reading this, and again, it's not whether it's a right issue or left issue, a Democrat/Republican issue, but this is coming dangerously close to obstructing and interfering with an investigation and prosecution.

The other thing that you do here is that if you think that there's been something that's been done that's inappropriate, politically motivated, the process is you go to a trial court. The trial motions are made before the trial court. If the trial court denies them, there's a jury, there's a verdict, and if there's a conviction, the processes that you were appealing and you make those arguments.

Congress as the legislative branch and the federal government, in my estimation, in this particular situation has no right to be breaking out -- bringing in a local prosecutor in the middle of an investigation and in the middle of a criminal prosecution because it's hampering their ability to continue to investigate and prosecute the case. So this is really a very dangerous precedent and even if the political party switch, this is not the kind of thing that local prosecutor should be dragged in. They don't have the constitutional authority to bring this state sovereign in to demand answers, in my opinion.

JIMENEZ: Yeah, and, you know, like, clearly, you know, you disagree with this move, but at this point, I guess I think what choice does Pomerantz have especially when the House Judiciary Committee is arguing that he's been outspoken about the investigation, which they say suggests that Bragg's prosecution of President Trump is politically motivated? I mean, does he have options here?

BIANCHI: We -- yeah, well, I mean, he can move the quash a subpoena, or he can move -- that he can go and honor the subpoena and say that I am not going to be giving any information with regard to an investigation. But the problem is, as you note that he goes, and he writes a book,

which was really my opinion, not the thing to do to talk about internal deliberations that were going on amongst the prosecutors. That does muck up, if you will, this particular situation.

But nevertheless, Alvin Bragg is the person who was his boss. It was an investigation that was occurring in Bragg's office. And I believe Bragg has the ability to be able to say, you're -- even though he wrote that book. You don't have a right to bring him in.

The issue is, he did the book, fine. And that's not a good thing in my mind, but nevertheless, you don't have a right to be able to subpoena him, bring him in and talk about the internal deliberations that were going on with respect to the case.

The bottom line is it's just affecting the ability to have a fair and impartial jury decide the case.

JIMENEZ: Yeah. Well, Bob Bianchi, thank you so much. The insight is appreciated. We'll see what happens.

BIANCHI: Thank you.

JIMENEZ: Coming up, Israeli forces launching a series of retaliatory strikes after a barrage of rockets were fired from Lebanon. The latest on the escalating border tensions next.

Plus, a new report, says Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has been accepting luxury trips from a GOP megadonor for decades, without disclosing them. How outraged lawmakers are responding, ahead.



JIMENEZ: More violence erupting in the Middle East this morning with Israeli airstrikes targeting Gaza and now Lebanon. Israeli forces say they're targeting Hamas militants, but the Palestinians say a pediatric hospital was struck, terrifying the children inside and Lebanese state media reporting those strikes have displaced many, many families.

Now, on Thursday, Palestinians fired a flurry of rockets, most of them reportedly intercepted. All of this sparked by Israeli police, storming one of Islam's holiest mosques, beating Muslims who were praying there earlier this week.

CNN's Salma Abdelaziz is live in London.

Now, no reports of injuries in this latest escalation, but obviously, very serious back and forth. What can you tell us about where things stand?

SALMA ABDELAZIZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Omar. It all begins in ends on that flashpoint complex as you mentioned known as Temple Mount to Jews, known as the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims. It is -- was twice raided by Israeli police on Wednesday.

And there's very dramatic images you showed. Those were extremely inflammatory, as you can imagine, to the Muslim world, particularly as it is the holy month of Ramadan. Condemnation poured in quickly after that footage was released, and so did the rockets coming from two different locations, Southern Lebanon and Gaza.

When it comes to southern Lebanon, a barrage of over 30 rockets, the largest seen since the war in 2006. Prime Minister Netanyahu, of course, vowed to respond, vowed to retaliate, and that's exactly what we've seen happen in the overnight hours. Israeli Defense Forces saying they struck sites, weapons sites inside Gaza. As you mentioned, though, the Palestinian health ministry is saying that the hospital was damaged and the people inside, patients inside were worried.

But all eyes now go back to that flashpoint complex. Friday prayers are about to start at Al Aqsa mosque. Do they go ahead without incident? So far, we understand from my witness on the ground, all seems normal, all seems calm. That could deescalate tensions -- Omar.

JIMENEZ: Salma Abdelaziz, thank you so much.

Let's get over to Lebanon now and bring in Scott McLean, who's live in Beirut for us.

Scott, the violence has been escalating each day, but now, it's spread to Lebanon?

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, that's absolutely right. And as Salma mentioned, the Israeli prime minister promised to extract some heavy price a heavy price from its enemy. But so far based on what we've seen -- well, the price hasn't been that high. There hasn't been a whole heck of a lot of damage based on the video that we've seen in pretty rural area of southern Lebanon, about 10 miles or so from the Israeli border.


These strikes hit from what we can tell and as an electrical transformer, some cars buildings again in rural areas, and left a huge crater and at least one farmer's field. Causing some Syrian farm workers in the area to be displaced.

Israel says that there were 10 strikes in total. They were targeting they say tunnels and production sites used by Palestinian militant groups, which are active in the area, especially around refugee camps, Palestinian refugee camps in southern Lebanon and it appears that Israel is really going to lengths to make sure that they are only targeting Palestinian militant groups and not Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia group, which has huge influence in southern Lebanon, and, frankly, is a much greater threat to Israel.

In fact, the Israelis figure that Hezbollah has hundreds, maybe thousands of rockets that are stashed inside private homes and buildings that are all within the range of Israel. Now, Hezbollah hasn't confirmed or denied any involvement in this, but

previously, its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has said that look violations at the Al Aqsa complex could cause hell to break loose across this region. The Lebanese prime minister has vowed to go after the perpetrators on the Lebanese side. They've already found some rocket launchers, some rockets that they're working to dismantle right now.

And while things are calm at the moment, Omar, the U.N. has warned that, look, this back and forth that we've seen across the border could potentially run the risk of spiraling into a larger conflict.

JIMENEZ: Yeah. Scott McLean, thank you so much. Good to see you. Stay safe.

Coming up, President Biden expected to eventually launches campaign for reelection. The new CNN poll that reveals how many Americans think he deserves a second term, ahead.



JIMENEZ: A new "ProPublica" reports says Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas hasn't been disclosing the luxury trips he's received from GOP megadonor Harlan Crow for more than two decades. The report describes Thomas accepting lavish trips across the U.S. and around the world as well as on Crow's private jet and 162-foot yacht.

But those reported trips never appeared on Thomas's financial disclosures, and that's important because under federal law, Supreme Court justices are required to file annual financial disclosures, including gifts, unless they fall under certain exemptions, which Thomas's trips did not. Democrats are now calling for more scrutiny of the conservative justice and demanding tougher ethics rules for the high court.

So to talk about all this, let's bring in Stephen Griffin, professor at Tulane Law School.

Good to see you.

So there is no Supreme Court code of ethics, which means seeing that for the first time, it's almost hard to believe. But along those lines, it's difficult to accuse formally, Justice Thomas of wrongdoing.

STEPHEN GRIFFIN, PROFESSOR, TULANE LAW SCHOOL : Yeah, I think everybody knows by now, the Supreme Court makes its own rules and it never adopted an ethics code, even though Justice Thomas may have and violated these disclosure laws. But, you know, that hasn't stopped administrations in the past from investigating or wanting to investigate Supreme Court justices.

I thought of the case of Justice Abe Fortas, for example, who was forced to resign in 1969 in the early months of the Nixon administration. The cases are a little different, but Fortas this did accept money under questionable circumstances. And there -- you talked about real action from Congress. You know, the Nixon administration put heavy pressure on Fortas to resign, and it looks like Chief Justice Warren at the time agreed.

So there are other ways for this to go other than a congressional investigation.

JIMENEZ: Yeah. And Justice Fortas said he had to deal with a former client to receive $20,000 a year for life for legal consulting services, still insisted he never did anything wrong, but in the end, resigned.

So along those lines it sounds like I'm hearing that you don't think necessarily an ethics code, a formal ethics code is necessary to get accountability here.

GRIFFIN: Well, I -- look, I agree I think with most scholars that it would be a good idea for the Supreme Court to adopt an ethics code. I'm not really that expect -- expecting they would because its rules they impose on themselves. And any rules are likely to allow a lot of leeway.

I think, eventually, the Supreme Court will adopt an ethics code. I'm just not expecting that it could make much difference to these practical realities. And I'm really wondering what the Biden administration's position is going to be.

JIMENEZ: Well, you touched on practical reality, I think is one of the most important things to keep in mind here that that crucially, the question here is how is this going to impact the public trust in our court system? Because I don't have to tell you, it's taken some major blows over the last few years and particular with some pretty politically charged decisions, at least how it's been interpreted.

GRIFFIN: That's right. I'm not sure that this is one of the -- you know, people are a little -- maybe a little more concerned about the actual decisions, but there's no doubt that it looks terrible. It just looks terrible and I don't think we can take Mr. Crow's assurance at face value that he has no issues before the court.

The thing is that the difference that may make the difference between the Fortas case is back then, people are worried about --