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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Lukashenko: Nuclear Weapons To Nations Who Join Russia And Belarus; Department of Veterans Affairs Spreads The Word About Burial Benefits; Trial To Start For Accused Killer Of 11 At Tree Of Life Synagogue. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired May 29, 2023 - 05:30   ET




OMAR JIMENEZ, CNN ANCHOR: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko says any nations that are willing to join the alliance between Russia and Belarus will be given nuclear weapons. He made the statement during an on-camera interview with Moscow state media, but it's not clear how wide his invitation actually is and he didn't offer specifics.

CNN's Salma Abdelaziz joins us live from London. So, President Lukashenko said just last week that Russia had transferred some tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus. How legitimate is this offer that he's making?

SALMA ABDELAZIZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think it's less about whether this is rhetoric or not rhetoric and just the wider context here, Omar, of what's going on.

Yes, as you mentioned, over the course of the last few days, the Kremlin has started to transfer tactical nuclear weapons to be stored in Belarus, a country that's essentially been used as a satellite state by President Putin throughout this conflict. Now, Russia says that this transfer is legitimate because it would retain control over those tactical nuclear weapons, but the U.S. and its allies simply see this as a violation of international law.

And now, just the other day, these comments from President Lukashenko to Russia state television -- and I just want to read it to you directly so you can understand why it is so chilling. "It is very simple," he said. "Join the union state of Belarus and Russia. That's all. There will be nuclear weapons for everyone." In these comments, of course, he is referencing former Soviet states like Kazakhstan.

Again, this could simply be rhetoric. But when you look at the wider context of Russia threatening the use of tactical nuclear weapons throughout this conflict in Ukraine -- of the proliferation of those tactical nuclear weapons being transferred to Belarus -- then you begin to understand the concern here for global security, especially at a time when the U.S. is saying the Kremlin is behaving irresponsibly.

JIMENEZ: Salma Abdelaziz, thank you so much.

Happening right now in Africa's most populous nation, Bola Tinubu is set to be sworn in as Nigeria's newly-election president. The 71-year- old has called for national unity in the face of deep divisions and other endemic problems that continue to plague the country.

CNN's Stephanie Busari joins us live from Lagos, Nigeria. Stephanie, the soon-to-be-sworn-in Tinubu is a two-time governor and has revitalized Lagos, the country's commercial hub, obviously. But now comes new tests he faces as he tries -- as he takes office now, of course.


Very new ground that he has to face and some are saying that even though he revitalized Lagos and turned it into this commercial hub that he may have lost some of that vitality in his 70s now. He's being treated for undisclosed illnesses during the campaign and in recent weeks.

So, many are questioning does he have the strength -- the vitality to carry on. His supporters say yes. That he will be a president who hits the ground running. He's a technocrat. He will get to grips with the issues.

Now, key among those is reuniting a fractured nation. Nigeria is typically polarized but the elections that brought Bola Tinubu in led the country to be even more polarized. And he's coming with a mandate -- the lowest mandate of any elected president since democracy started in 1999 in this country with just 37 percent of the vote.

So he has a hard job really there to bring the country together. He's vowed to do that.

And then, moving on to the issue of the economy, Nigeria has $103 billion in public debt and the economy is, some say, on life support. He has to work very quickly to get to grips with that urgently.

And then, we're moving to insecurity and kidnapping for ransom, which became a criminal enterprise under President Buhari.

These are formidable challenges. Just one of these would be a formidable challenge for any president, but all three at the same time for a president some say is past his prime -- it's a challenge of a lifetime -- Omar.

JIMENEZ: Stephania Busari, thank you so much.

Quick hits around the globe right now.

Venice police investigating after part of the Grand Canal turned bright green on Sunday. No, it is not St. Patrick's Day. Officials say water samples have been taken as theories from activists to algae have surfaced online.

[05:35:10] An Indian government official has been suspended from his job after ordering an entire reservoir be drained so he could get his phone. It apparently fell in while he was taking a selfie. Must have been a great selfie.

China's first large domestically produced passenger plane makes its inaugural flight Sunday. The launch is seen as a pivotal moment for the Made in China 2025 strategy to boost local manufacturing.

Just ahead, a key hurdle today for the new ballpark planned for the Vegas Strip. And a major expansion at Arlington National Cemetery. That's next.


JIMENEZ: Here is today's fast-forward lookahead.

Today, the conservative House Freedom Caucus is expected to meet ahead of the potential debt ceiling vote. The White House is also planning calls to Senate and House Democrats today.


Also, a bill to secure funding for a Major League stadium for the Oakland A's in Las Vegas gets a joint hearing of two Nevada state committees. It will be the only chance for the public to comment.

And it's Memorial Day. President Biden and the first lady will participate in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.

On this Memorial Day, the Department of Veterans Affairs wants to raise awareness about a final honor for U.S. veterans.

Karin Caifa reports from Arlington, Virginia.


KARIN CAIFA, CNN NEWSOURCE REPORTER (voice-over): Amid the quiet and the solemnity, Arlington National Cemetery is expanding, adding 70 acres to the south of these hallowed grounds -- an estimated 80,000 burial sites by late 2027.

KAREN DURHAM-AGUILERA, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY: The current physical expansion that we're doing right now was the last available land contiguous, in other words, connecting to Arlington National Cemetery. And even to do that expansion we've had to reconstruct existing roads.

CAIFA (voice-over): The cemetery, maintained by the U.S. Army but open to veterans of all branches, will be able to accommodate a fraction of the current 23 million active-duty servicemembers and veterans.

DURHAM-AGUILERA: Without southern expansion, we would close as an active cemetery, which means new burials around 2041. Southern expansion, when complete, will take us to about the mid-2060s.

CAIFA (voice-over): About 30 miles to the south of Arlington is Quantico National Cemetery. It's one of 155 national cemeteries across the nation maintained by the Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration.

Matthew Quinn, the under secretary for Memorial Affairs, says the department is working with veterans groups to encourage those who have served to utilize their final benefit.

MATTHEW QUINN, VA UNDER SECRETARY FOR MEMORIAL AFFAIRS: We are working hard with Arlington National Cemetery and DOD to make sure that there's awareness. So those who maybe are thinking about Arlington -- we want to make sure that they know that there's other options as well.

CAIFA (voice-over): The network also includes 121 state-run cemeteries funded by the VA, and they say about 94 percent of U.S. veterans have one of these burial sites within 75 miles of home. Still, utilization of VA burial benefits, which include no-cost interment as well as similar benefits for spouses and dependents, is low compared to other VA benefits like healthcare and education. Last year, just 22 percent.

QUINN: That's a number we want to see increase. We want to make sure veterans know that this is an option across America.

CAIFO (voice-over): So they're working to improve rural access to burial sites and in dense urban areas build above-ground columbariums with a smaller footprint, like this one at Los Angeles National Cemetery. Another will soon open in Queens, New York. All of it a way to say thank you one final time.

QUINN: The way we look at it is this is the nation's last chance to thank that veteran for their service.

CAIFO (voice-over): In Arlington, Virginia, I'm Karin Caifa.


JIMENEZ: A wild and terrifying scene near the end of the Indianapolis 500. A tire went flying towards spectators.

Carolyn Manno has this morning's Bleacher Report. So you're going to get to a lot, but get us started there at the Indy 500.


You know, this is something that we all know can happen. I mean, auto racing is dangerous inherently. But when cars are flying at over 200 miles an hour it's a risk. It's still shocking all the same.

And with 16 laps to go, Felix Rosenqvist getting loose here heading into the second turn. He would hit the wall and as he spins out, he just nicks Kyle Kirkwood. Kirkwood flipping and his rear left tire going soaring over the fence -- thankfully, over the stands -- before landing in a parking lot. But that was the really scary part right there.

No injuries reported. Kirkwood was also OK. Still, an absolutely terrifying moment.

The race was stop-and-go the rest of the way. Red flags three times in the last eight laps because of crashes. In the end, it was Nashville native Josef Newgarden getting the jump and passing defending champion Marcus Ericsson on the restart on the final lap, taking the checkered flag and becoming the first American to win the Indy 500 since way back in 2016.

Check out the celebration. You love to see it in the stands -- mobbed by the fans. And then, of course, the refreshing milk bath for the winner.


JOSEF NEWGARDEN, 2023 INDIANAPOLIS 500 WINNER: I'm just so thankful to be here. You have no idea. I started out as a fan in the crowd. And this place -- it's amazing regardless of where you're sitting. It doesn't matter if you're driving a car, or you're working on it, or you're out here in the crowd, you're a part of this event.

It's so long to get to this point. We're here for weeks working and grinding on this thing just for this one moment, and that's what makes it so demoralizing when it doesn't work out. But I can tell you it is -- we're going to enjoy tonight.


MANNO: Elsewhere, some incredible catches around the Majors yesterday starting in Seattle. Pirates centerfielder Ji Hwan Bae bending over backwards and snaring the ball before crashing into the wall to keep the game tied in the ninth. Pittsburgh would lose in 10. But an incredible play there.

How about Trent Grisham of the Padres patrolling center in the Bronx, chasing down and subsequently apprehending a would-be home run off the bat of DJ LeMahieu in the third inning. Pads also coming up short against the pinstripes.


But no one was better than Michael Harris at second. The Braves centerfielder in a full sprint back to the ball here the entire time. And then look at this -- just casually stealing this Schwarbomb from Kyle Schwarber in a win over the Phillies -- remarkable.

Nobody was catching this next play though, Omar. Kansas City's Edward Olivares showing off his prestigious power -- a 452-foot home run to left. But the ball not the only thing that got smoked here. You look at this scoreboard. This is going to be expensive. He hit it so hard that one of the panels broke -- smoking -- yikes.

And in case you missed it over the holiday weekend, one other thing for you to note. One of the great NBA Playoff finishes ever, keeping alive the chances for the league's greatest playoff comeback ever. Derrick White tipping in the game-winning basket with just one-tenth of a second left in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday night, giving the Boston Celtics a one-point win over the Miami Heat, forcing this winner-take-all game seven as they look to become the first NBA ever to come back from an 0-3 hole to win a series.


DERRICK WHITE, CELTICS GUARD HIT WINNING SHOT IN GAME EIGHT: It felt good. Everybody was asking me, like, did you get it off? And I was like yes, I think so. I was just happy. And like you said, the season is on the line. We don't want to go home. And so, I'm just happy we got the win. Obviously, there's a lot we can improve on and we're going to be better for game seven.

JIMMY BUTLER, MIAMI LOST LAST THREE AFTER STARTING SERIES 3-0: I believe, as we all do, like you're going to get the same test until you pass it -- I swear. We can do it. I know that we will do it. We've got to go on the road and win in a very, very, very tough environment, but we're capable of it. So let's get busy.


MANNO: Let's get busy, indeed. It all comes down to tonight, game seven in Boston. Tipoff 8:30 Eastern on TNT.

Not too much time for these Celtics to just kind of bask in the glory of that incredible game six. They've got to go work at home and get this done.

JIMENEZ: I know, and let's get busy. I still can't believe they won.

But, Carolyn Manno, thank you for being here as always.

MANNO: Thank you.

JIMENEZ: Coming up on "CNN THIS MORNING" lawmakers race to get the debt limit deal. And next, right here, the man accused of the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history about to go on trial.



JIMENEZ: This week, the trial will begin in the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history that took place nearly five years ago at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Fifty-year-old Robert Bowers is accused of killing 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018. He faces 63 counts in a federal indictment, 22 of which carry the potential death penalty. This is just the second death penalty cast to take place under the Biden administration.

So let's bring in criminal defense attorney Lexie Rigden, who is joining us this morning. Now, the Justice Department, under Biden, did issue a moratorium on federal executions but this case began under Trump's administration. Prosecutors rejected several motions by the defense to take the death penalty off the table.

So why do you think no deal was actually made there?

LEXIE RIGDEN, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY (via Skype): Well, the prosecutors -- the defense was actually going to enter into a plea deal. In exchange for pleading guilty he would agree to life -- you know, life in prison, and the prosecutor said no. And Merrick Garland's office had come out and said that was based on, in part, the fact that this was an especially heinous crime. It was a hate crime. And also, it was carried out in a place of worship. So they just were not going to negotiate with Bowers and his attorneys.

JIMENEZ: Yes, and the defense stated its intention to introduce evidence as well, aside from that, that Bowers had been diagnosed with schizophrenia among other things. I mean, how do you see that particular argument play out?

RIGDEN: That's kind of like out of the Ted Cruz playbook in Florida where he was spared the death penalty because his team presented so much evidence about his bad upbringing and his mental health issues.

So that's going to be paramount to this guy's defense because his guilt really isn't in question. There's really -- I never say -- I always say there's no such thing as a slam-dunk case but this is as close as it gets. And so the focus of this trial is going to be on the penalty phase.

And the jurors are going to have to weigh the aggregating factors of how many people were killed, the heinous way in which they were killed, the fact that it was premeditated. His blatant antisemitism with the fact that he had a bad childhood. He had -- his father was accused of raping a woman and killed himself. He has said that he has schizophrenia.

So they're going to have to weigh all those things in determining whether he should be put to death. And in Ted Cruz's case, the mental health issues and his bad upbringing were what saved him.

JIMENEZ: No, of course.

Thank you for your time, criminal defense attorney Lexie Rigden. We're going to see how that plays out. Thank you.

RIGDEN: Thank you.

JIMENEZ: Now, there is a search underway right now at the scene of an apartment building collapse in eastern Iowa. "CNN THIS MORNING" just ahead.



JIMENEZ: Our top of the morning, the top movies at the box office on Memorial Day weekend.


Clip from Walt Disney Studio's "The Little Mermaid."


JIMENEZ: Disney's live-action remake of "The Little Mermaid" debuts at number one. It sold $95 million in tickets in its first three days.

Here's number two.


Clip from "Fast X."


JIMENEZ: Yes, a little bit of a different vibe than "The Little Mermaid." That's "Fast X," the 10th movie of the "Fast and Furious" franchise.

And number three.


Clip from "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3."


JIMENEZ: "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3." You've got to love it.

Now, their music is known all over the world and could soon sell for, let's just say, a lot.


QUEEN, ROCK BAND: Singing "Bohemian Rhapsody."


JIMENEZ: Yes, Queen, led by the late Freddie Mercury, about to sell its music catalog with songs like "Bohemian Rhapsody," "We Will Rock You," and "Another One Bites the Dust." A source familiar with the deal says talks are well underway between Universal and Disney, which owns it now. The total price tag could surpass -- wait for it -- a billion dollars. And the source says the deal could close within a month.


Look, I feel that value is probably warranted there. I mean, their music is absolutely classic, all-time.

Before we go, shoutout to all of you who watched the "SUCCESSION" finale last night. I can't provide any spoilers because I didn't watch it.

Thanks for joining us. I'm Omar Jimenez. "CNN THIS MORNING" starts now.