Return to Transcripts main page

Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

A High School Football Star is One of Four People Gunned Down at a Small Town Sweet 16 Party in Dadeville Alabama; Fox Corporation Defamation Trial Delayed Just Hours Before Opening Statements; SpaceX Boss Elon Musk Downplays Expectations with His Company About to Launch the Most Powerful Rocket Ever Built. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired April 17, 2023 - 05:00   ET



CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Right now on EARLY START, a high school football star is one of four people gunned down at a small town sweet 16 party. The "Fox" defamation trial delayed just hours before opening statements. Is this a sign a settlement could be near? And SpaceX boss Elon Musk, downplaying expectations with his company about to launch the most powerful rocket ever built.

Good Monday morning to you, welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Christine Romans. We begin with carnage at a sweet 16 birthday party in a small southern town. Four people were killed, nine injured, some critically in this rampage Saturday night in Dadeville, Alabama.

So far, authorities have not released details about a suspect or a motive. But overnight, we did learn the name of one of those killed, KeKe Smith, who was a student athlete -- athletic manager on the high school's track team. For more on another of the victims, a star athlete -- let's go to CNN's Isabel Rosales in Dadeville.

ISABEL ROSALES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I spoke with Michael Taylor, who is the assistant football coach over at Dadeville High School. And he says that this is personal, because one of the known for victims so far of the shooting is Phil Dowdell, and he -- Taylor says that Dowdell has been like a son to him. He's known him since he was nine years old.

He is an utter disbelief at the news. He calls Dowdell a freak athlete. Somebody who was so blessed by God across the spectrum; basketball, track, football, and that he was about to turn the page on a new and exciting chapter in his life. He was about to graduate next month, and actually got a scholarship to play football in Jacksonville State University here in Jacksonville, Alabama.

Taylor spoke with Dowdell's grandmother this morning. Here's what she said.


MICHAEL TAYLOR, FOOTBALL COACH, DADEVILLE: Bottom. The biggest talent in USG, you see, I don't understand why? Why did it happen? You know, we don't know he'll have any enemies. What Phil just told me about a month ago, he said, coach, if anything ever happened to me even when I go to college, take care of my two sisters. I never dreamt that he was talking about this.


ROSALES: And as you can understand, this is an awfully traumatic situation for a community that is so tiny, just 3,000 people, very tight-knit community. We heard from the superintendent that they will be posting counselors at county schools Monday to help these students process through what is happening in their community. Christine?

ROMANS: All right, thank you for that. Just a tragedy there. In just a few hours, SpaceX will attempt a test flight of its massive moon rocket, an attempt I think is the right word here. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk on Twitter last night trying in his words to lower expectations. He said there's a good chance the launch of the quote, "giant complicated rocket" will be postponed, or that if it does take off from the SpaceX facility near Brownsville, Texas, disaster could ensue.


ELON MUSK, CEO, SPACEX & TESLA: If we get far enough with the launch pad before something goes wrong, then I think that would consider that to be a success. Just don't blow up the launch pad.


ROMANS: The starship is by far the most powerful rocket ever built, 33 engines and more than twice the thrust of the Saturn 5 rocket that carried Apollo astronauts to the moon. The launch window starts at 8:00 a.m. Eastern. All right, last night in the 11th hour, twist, a Dominion voting systems high stakes defamation trial against "Fox News".

The Delaware state judge in this case, Eric Davis, announcing a one- day delay without further explanation, raising the possibility a settlement is in the works. The "Wall Street Journal" also owned by "Fox Corp." reporting last night that "Fox News" has indeed made that late push to settle. Neither Dominion nor "Fox" commenting, but a settlement would avoid weeks of further embarrassment for "Fox", including testimony by its highest profile stars and executives.

All right, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Mexican Navy, searching the waters off Baja, California, for three Americans sailing north from Mazatlan, who have not been heard from since April 4th. CNN's Camila Bernal has more from Los Angeles.


CAMILA BERNAL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): These three Americans were last heard from on April 6th. They were near Mazatlan, Mexico, and they were headed to San Diego, California, they were supposed to stop on April 6th in Cabo San Lucas, but they never made it there.


Now, it is the Mexican Navy who is leading the search here with the help of the U.S. Coast Guard. The three Americans that are currently missing are Kerry and Frank O'Brien. They're married couple and William Gross. I spoke to Kerry's mother, and she says that Kerry and her husband have about 20 years of experience, and said that Bill has about 50 years of experience when it comes to sailing.

She says, you know, mother always worries, but she wasn't particularly concerned about this trip. She speaks to her daughter every single day, but on day two when she didn't hear from her, she began to feel scared, to feel concerned. She says she is now heartbroken, but is not losing hope. Here's part of the conversation I had with that mother.

ELLEN ARGALL, MOTHER OF MISSING AMERICAN KERRY O'BRIEN: We're so close. We either talk on the phone or we text each other. So when I didn't hear from her when she was -- to Cabo, I started getting very worried. I'm very worried, sad, concerned. But I'm still hopeful. I'm hanging on to the hope, we've all been praying. It seems so odd that in all these days, not one person has seen them or heard from them.

BERNAL: And the U.S. Coast Guard saying that the weather was not optimal when they began sailing, they say, it is a long trip even when the weather is good. They say it takes about two days to get from Mazatlan to Cabo San Lucas, and they've now been missing for more than 10 days. The search continues.

This mother says that she gets an update from the Coast Guard every single day. She is waiting to hear back from her daughter. She wants this search to expand, she says the Coast Guard has told her that they're using technology to try to figure out where this boat could be. They're looking at the patterns in the wind and in the currents to figure out if there is any spot where they can search and where they can eventually and hopefully find them again.

This mother says she has hope, and she is waiting for the next time that she speaks to her daughter. Camila Bernal, CNN, Los Angeles.


ROMANS: All right, fierce fighting in Sudan now entering its third day after months of tensions between the country's army and a paramilitary group erupted into violence. In the capital of Khartoum, heavy weapons have been blasting away near army headquarters, presidential palace and the airport. A doctor's group reports more than 50 people have been killed and some 600 injured.

CNN's Larry Madowo tracking the events, he joins us live from Nairobi, Kenya. OK, so, Larry, get us up to speed. What is this fighting about?

LARRY MADOWO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: After a bloody weekend where nearly 100 people died, the Sudanese have opened this new week on another terrifying note. They have been hearing blasts overnight and into the morning, another sounds of artillery fire and bombardment. People are hiding in their homes, far away from windows and some afraid that they might soon run out of food or medicines.

There's a flurry of diplomatic activity we just had a short while ago from the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and the U.K. and the U.K. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly asking for an immediate cessation of hostilities and the return to the negotiating table among these two warring generals. At the same time, African Union leaders are trooping to Sudan, trying to bring the two of them back to the negotiating table, here is where things stand.


MADOWO (voice-over): Two generals at war. Since Saturday, the forces of General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group, or RSF, have been locked in battle with the Sudanese army, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. The fighting comes as Sudan tries to finalize a deal to return to civilian rule after two military coups in recent years which temporarily united the army and the RSF.

In a phone interview, Dagalo, who is better known as Hemetti told me ruling Sudan isn't his end game.

(on camera): What do you personally want from this situation, General Hamdan? Do you want to lead the army? Do you want to be the chief?

MOHAMED HAMDAN DAGALO, LEADER, RAPID SUPPORT FORCES (through translator): I don't want to be the leader of the army. There's a framework agreement between all the Sudanese stakeholders that should be adhered to. I don't want to lead anything. These are all propaganda they are making.

MADOWO (voice-over): As part of the agreement, the RSF, some 100,000 strong would merge with the army. But differences over how long that would take and who would end up with more power aggravated tensions between the two factions, which have since erupted into open warfare. Residential areas across Sudan have become battle fields with anti- aircraft weapons in the streets and warplanes hovering overhead.

Scores of civilians have been killed. The army blames the RSF for the violence, with Hemetti pointing the finger back at al-Burhan.


(on camera): What is your message to the many people of Sudan who are scared about this fresh round of violence?

DAGALO: We offer a serious apology to them, because what we can say is al-Burhan is the one that forced us to do this. It was not us who did this. We were defending ourselves.

MADOWO (voice-over): Doctors union say it's been difficult for medics to move about amid reports of many people being trapped near fighting hotspots. Despite a U.N.-brokered temporary truce, there were reports of gunfire in Khartoum which Hemetti again blamed on the army.

DAGALO: We're under attack from all directions. They're attacking us with marked and unmarked vehicles. Unfortunately, they're not stopping.

MADOWO: It's unclear what side was firing during the ceasefire. But the army says it retains the right to respond if any violations occurred. Sudan's neighbors are looking for ways to de-escalate the violence. Egypt and South Sudan have offered immediate talks between the two sides. The African Union and the Arab League both held emergency sessions with more calls for an immediate end to the hostilities.

The army has said there will be no dialogue until the RSF is dissolved. Hemetti says the stakes are so high in Sudan that any possible negotiations would have to be serious.

DAGALO: We are not refusing to go to the negotiating table, as long as the negotiation is true and truthful, honest, not playing games.


MADOWO: In the last few minutes, we just saw a tweet from General Dagalo that essentially tracts of the interview I did with him a few hours ago, he says that the international community must take action now and intervene against the crimes of Sudanese General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. He called him a radical Islamist who is bombing civilians from the air.

So we see these people taking very hard-line positions, using fighting words, Christine, which means they're further away from dialogue, and it's going to be a really difficult thing to try and get them to sit across from each other and agree.

ROMANS: Yes, absolutely, all right, Larry Madowo, thank you so much for that excellent reporting there. All right, leaders of the G7 wealthy nations meeting in Japan, making new promises to fight the climate crisis this weekend. But without a deadline, they have vowed to speed up the transition towards cleaner, more renewable energy using solar and wind capacity, but they have not set a timetable for phasing out fossil fuels like coal, as some countries were really pushing for.

CNN's Marc Stewart live in Tokyo. Good morning Marc -- good evening to you. Without deadlines, how likely is it that these pledges to lower emissions will be kept?

MARC STEWART, CNN REPORTER: Hi there, Christine. So the G7 meetings that are taking place now in Japan are really to set the expectations and the agenda for the broader G7 in Hiroshima next month. So on this topic of coal, this transition, as you know, can be tricky even if nations want to get away from coal altogether. They may not have other energy sources like solar, like wind to fill that gap.

So, perhaps, that's why they aren't offering the specific timetable. But there is certainly a lot of discussion based off of the communique that we have received today about looking toward these alternative sources. For example, increasing wind energy by 2030, getting rid of plastics by 2040. Perhaps, next month will have a more specific timetable when it comes to coal, but right now, I think the feeling is that they're trying to manage expectations, Christine.

ROMANS: So, Marc, we have this new video of a security incident involving the Japanese Prime Minister on Saturday. We see this canister, we see security official swatting it away. What does it show us?

STEWART: So this is very telling. This happened over the weekend. And as you know, often, when news stories unfold, we get more video in the days after that show it happened. Prime Minister Kishida was at a campaign event when someone in the crowd through what's now being described as a pipe bomb by police.

We see a member of his security detail, not only kicking it away, but then deploying some kind of security shields, to perhaps prevent debris from flying. The prime minister is immediately escorted away. Right now, a 24-year-old man is in police custody. He had -- his home has been raided, several items were taken away. But as far as the motive, as far as the intentions of that man, we don't know.

It's important to point out, Christine, in Japan, political gatherings like this one-on-one between politicians and the public are very common, much different than the United States where you have to go through layers of security.

ROMANS: Yes, of course, all right, Marc Stewart, nice to see you. Thank you so much. All right, just ahead, Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump directly attacking each other. A new campaign ads, plus, a former lawmaker shot and killed on live TV in India. And a bizarre cash and giveaway on an Oregon highway.



ROMANS: All right, a Super PAC backing Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has released a new campaign ad attacking Donald Trump.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Donald Trump has been attacked by a Democrat prosecutor in New York. So why is he spending millions attacking the Republican governor of Florida. Trump's stealing pages from the Biden- Pelosi playbook, repeating lies about Social Security. Trump should fight Democrats, not lie about Governor DeSantis. What happened to Donald Trump?


ROMANS: The ad follows attacks on DeSantis in a campaign video from a Trump-supporting group.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Desantis has his dirty fingers all over senior entitlements like cutting Medicare, slashing Social Security, even raising our retirement age. Tell Ron DeSantis to keep his pudding fingers off our money -- oh, can someone get this man a spoon?



ROMANS: Ron DeSantis says he had to officially announce his run for 2024 for the 2024 election. Of course, let's bring in senior political correspondent for "The New Republic" Daniel Strauss. What do you make of DeSantis' attack on Trump even before announcing his own bid for the GOP primary?

DANIEL STRAUSS, SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW REPUBLIC: It's pretty clear that both candidates see each other as their arch rivals. And I haven't really seen that I can remember a candidate attacking a frontrunner candidate before they even launch their campaign officially.

It's also a sign really that DeSantis is all, but officially running for president, otherwise why would he do that? But what's clear right now is for DeSantis, this shows that his -- right now, his analytics, his polling, his advisors see Donald Trump as his primary obstacle toward the Republican nomination, and Donald Trump sees Ron DeSantis as his primary obstacle toward the Republican nomination again.

ROMANS: Another potential GOP candidate, Tim Scott, I guess he was not clear on his stance on abortion. Take a listen.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If you were president, would you advocate for federal limits.

SEN. TIM SCOTT (R-SC): Yes, so once again, I -- once again, I am once again a 100 percent pro life, and I do believe --


SCOTT: No, that's not what I said --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So if that 20-week ban reached your desk, would you sign it?

SCOTT: Twenty-week ban? Definitely.

If I were president of the United States, I would literally sign the most conservative pro-life legislation that they can get through Congress.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Even if it was six weeks.

SCOTT: I'm not going to talk about six or five or seven or 10.


ROMANS: So he said he wants a 20-week ban on Thursday, then he changes his answer to maybe wanting an earlier ban without specifying how many weeks he would support one of your colleagues, says, calls this Tim Scott's disastrous answer to a simple abortion question, putting the Republicans dilemma in a nutshell. I mean, what could be his best approach if you were to run for the primary?

STRAUSS: I mean, right now, what we're seeing is that he's already -- he has an exploratory committee. So, that's also a sign that he is likely to run for president. It's surprising here to me that he hasn't figured out a stance on this question right now. And this is one of those rookie mistakes that usually most presidential candidates, the most serious ones, sort of fix early on in their candidacy.

This is a hot topic. This is a major topic in domestic politics right now. And it's clear from his answers that he wants to offer some kind of stance that appeases the activist Republican base of the party. At the same time, he doesn't want to be pinned down supporting some kind of ban that's too early that will alienate himself to the broader electorate.

ROMANS: Yes --

STRAUSS: So, I mean, this is a pretty telling situation for Senator Scott if he decides to run for president.

ROMANS: Yes, it wasn't a great, I guess a great moment on that front in terms of, you know, what his leadership would be on the subject. Meantime, the president, President Biden told reporters, he plans on running for re-election, he'll make an announcement, quote, "relatively soon". You know, he's not mentioned a re-election bid a few times now. What do you think the hold-up is in making it official?

Is it just that you enter a new phase once you make it official and he's fine where he is right now?

STRAUSS: Yes, I mean, you enter a new phase, and frankly, Democrats want all of the attention to be on more Republican primary right now. Sometimes in-fighting on the opposite side is good. And when you see candidates struggling to answer questions on abortion, feuding with each other even before the primary starts.

There's not a lot of incentive to change the narrative right now, especially when you're trying to pass as much domestic policy positions as you can, before announcing a presidential campaign when the entire storyline and attention shifts over to the campaign trail. So there's an incentive for Biden to wait a little bit.

ROMANS: All right, Daniel Strauss, "The New Republic", thank you so much bright and early this Monday morning. Thanks for --

STRAUSS: Sure --

ROMANS: Getting up for us.

STRAUSS: Thank you.

ROMANS: All right, quick hits across America now. A sheriff's deputy in Pope County, Minnesota, has died, his partner and another officer injured after being hit by gunfire during an arrest at a domestic incident this weekend. The suspect was also killed. More than 610 passengers and crew are safe after a ferry ran aground near Seattle, Washington.

Officials say a generator failure may have caused the problem. No injuries were reported. A man in Oregon is stopped by police after he tossed $100 bills from his car window, littering a busy highway and potentially causing accidents. He said he wanted to bless people. He was not arrested.

All right, coming up, why mall -- Wal-Mart has now closed four stores in Chicago, and a former lawmaker in India murdered on live TV.



ROMANS: To Russia now, where a critic of the Kremlin has just been sentenced to prison for publicly condemning the war in Ukraine. CNN's Clare Sebastian joins me live from London this morning. And Clare, the news just came down in the last half hour or so, what do we know about this trial?

CLARE SEBASTIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, this is Vladimir Kara-Murza, Christine, a very prominent critic of the Kremlin. He was on trial in Moscow for treason, spreading fakes about the Russian army, which is, of course, that new law that came in about a year ago as part of the Kremlin's crackdown on opposition to this war and facilitating the activities of an undesirable organization.

He has been sentenced to the maximum allowable under those charges, 25 years, 25 years to be served, according to the court in a strict regime correctional colony. That sentence hasn't yet -- incident to force, according to the court, and his lawyer says he will appeal. But this is a man who has been incredibly outspoken about Putin's regime.

He was arrested last April.