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Hunter Biden Plea Deal Runs Into Roadblocks in Court; Military Coup Attempt Underway in Niger; Sen. McConnell Says He's Fine After Mid-Sentence Freeze; 40+ Dead in wildfires Burning Around Mediterranean. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired July 27, 2023 - 05:00   ET



CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Right now on EARLY START -- the dramatic collapse of Hunter Biden's plea deal. What happens to the president's son now?

Plus -- fears of a military coup in Niger. Soldiers now claim they have ousted the country's president.

And concern on Capitol Hill after Mitch McConnell freezes in mid sentence right in the middle of a news conference.


ROMANS: Good morning. Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Christine Romans.

We begin with Hunter Biden's federal tax charges, still unresolved this morning, contrary to almost everyone's expectations. The president's son who planned to plead guilty to tax crimes and resolve a federal firearms charge as well, but the judge's questioning reveal the crucial disagreement between prosecutors and Hunter Biden's legal team.

CNN's Sara Murray has more.


SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR (voice-over): After a tumultuous day in federal court, Hunter Biden left with no plea deal after a federal judge said she was not ready to accept it.

President Joe Biden's son arrived in federal court today prepared to plead guilty to two misdemeanor tax charges and to strike a deal to avoid a felony gun charge. After a five-year Justice Department probe that Hunter Biden once predicted he would emerge from unscathed.

HUNTER BIDEN, PRESIDENT BIDEN'S SON: I am absolutely certain, 100 percent certain that at the end of the investigation that I will be cleared of any wrongdoing.

MURRAY: Instead, Judge Maryellen Noreika, a Trump appointee, wanted to know if the investigation was over. Prosecutors told her it was ongoing. Then the two sides could not agree if Hunter Biden was at risk of additional charges if he took this deal. With that, the deal was derailed.

Eventually, Hunter Biden's team agreed he was not shielded from further charges, and the deal seemed, for a moment, back on track.

But then the judge raised questions about the gun deal. Is this even constitutional, she asked. And she said she was not ready to sign off on the deal. The hearing ended with Hunter Biden in a pro-forma move pleading not guilty. The courtroom drama providing another opening for Republican lawmakers who slammed the plea agreement.

REP. CHIP ROY (R-TX): At least there's some scrutiny going on. The plea deal we saw as it started was garbage.

SEN. JOSH HAWLEY (R-MO): Hunter Biden is getting a sweetheart deal that no other American who wasn't rich and had a father who's the president would ever get. Ever.

MURRAY: Republicans already seeking more information about the Hunter Biden probe after two IRS whistleblowers who worked on the case claimed there was political interference, dating back to the Trump administration and continuing under the Biden administration.

GARY SHAPLEY, IRS WHISTLEBLOWER: There should not be a two-track justice system depending on who you are and who you're connected to.

MURRAY: The White House today reiterating that the president stands by his son, but played no role in the investigation.

KARINE JEAN-PIERRE, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: This case was handled independently, as all of you know, by the Justice Department under the leadership of a prosecutor appointed by the former president, President Trump.

MURRAY: The plea deal was set to cover Hunter Biden's tax transgressions over a five-year span, his drug issues, and his firearm possession charge. Prosecutors say Hunter Biden failed to pay between $1.1 million and $1.5 million in federal taxes, and they highlighted his substantial income from Ukrainian and Chinese energy companies, saying he did in fact have the funds available to pay his taxes in certain years but he failed to do so. Instead, prosecutors say he spent wildly on personal luxuries and expenses.


MURRAY (on camera): Now, our team that was in the courtroom for this wild hearing said as it was wrapping up, the judge did it was Hunter Biden, and said, I know you wanted to resolve this. I'm sorry. What she said she has to be careful in how she's handling it. It is clear, at least for now, Hunter Biden's legal woes are not over, neither of course are his political ones.

Sara Murray, CNN, Washington.

ROMANS: All right. It is unclear this morning who was in charge in the Central African nation of Niger. On Wednesday afternoon, a group of military officers claimed to have seized control of the government, ousted and detained Niger's president and close the borders.

Overnight, the president's office posted on Twitter, now rebranded X, that the hard want achievements will be safeguarded for all Nigerians who love democracy and freedom will see to it.

CNN's Larry Madowo is following the story from Nairobi, Kenya, for us.

And, Larry, the tweet mentioned, whether the president is still being detained. What's the latest word on who is really in charge there?

LARRY MADOWO, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The short answer, Christine, is that we don't know. It's hard to tell because I want to show you a tweet from the Nigerien foreign minister, Hassoumi Massoudou, who said these conflicting statements. He said in this tweet, or X, now, acting has head of government, I call on all democrats or patriots to defeat this dangerous adventure for our country, long live democracy, long live Niger.


And he says that he is calling on this nation of soldiers to go back to their ranks, and he seemed to suggest that not all soldiers support this apparent coup. And he was an interview he did with France 24.

The U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Niger in March this year to highlight the progress that the country made because President Mohamed Bazoum was the first time that the country had seen a democratic peaceful transfer of power back in 2021. And Secretary Blinken traveling in New Zealand has been talking about this situation in Niger.


ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We are very closely monitoring the situation and developments in Niger. I spoke with President Bazoum earlier this morning, and made clear that the United States resolutely supports him as a democratically elected president of Niger. We call for his immediate release. We condemn any effort to seize power by force.


MADOWO: U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres is also strongly condemning this change of power in Niger and says that President Bazoum should be released unconditionally.

And President Bazoum was up and about on Tuesday. He had a couple of official engagements, including what we believe, probably, his last public one meeting with the outgoing Belgian ambassador, where they talk about the security situation, terrorism, which is a major problem here. Niger deals with jihadist threats from groups affiliated with both ISIS and al-Qaeda.

But still, in the Sahel, it's relatively peaceful compared to the much wider problems in its neighbors in Mali and Burkina Faso. So what happens to him, what happens next in the country, still a lot of uncertainty, Christine.

ROMANS: Indeed. All right. Larry, thank you so much. Keep us posted.

New concerns about the health of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell after an alarming moment during a capital news conference, where McConnell frozen in sentence for more than 20 seconds. CNN confirming that McConnell has fallen at least twice this year, in addition to the previously known fall earlier this year that led to that concussion.

After Wednesday's concerning freeze up, McConnell seemed to bounce back quickly. Later, describing a check-in call from the president, where McConnell joked about Biden's own awkward stumble.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): The president called to check on me, I told him I got sandbagged.

REPORTER: How are you feeling now, sir? How are you feeling now?

MCCONNELL: I'm fine.


ROMANS: CNN's Melanie Zanona has more from Capitol Hill.


MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: Well, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says he's fine after a scary health episode on Wednesday afternoon. The incident occurred during Mitch McConnell's weekly press conferences. This is a press conference he gives routinely in the Capitol to reporters, and as he was giving his opening remarks, he stopped mid-sentence and froze for over a good 20 seconds without blinking before Senator John Barrasso, who's actually a former physician, came over to check on him.

At that point, Mitch McConnell was then ushered away by age and senators to the sidelines. Let's watch that moment.

MCCONNELL: After finishing the NDA but this week, there's been good bipartisan Cooperation. And a string of --



Are you good? Mitch?

SEN. JOHN BARRASSO (R-WY): Mitch, is there anything else you want to say, or should we just go back to your office?

MCCONNELL: Huh? BARRASSO: Do you want to say anything else to the press?


BARRASSO: Let's go back to the office.


ZANONA: Now, McConnell did come back to the podium after about 12 minutes and he took multiple questions from reporters, including our Manu Raju. And when asked whether he was okay, Mitch McConnell said he was fine. His office also later put out a statement saying that the senator just felt light headed and need to step away for a moment, but was able to come back and was sharp.

And we should also note that Mitch McConnell since that moment has been conducting some of his routine business. He's been making calls, and we're also told he met with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy for one of their weekly meetings.

But, we should point out, this is not the first health scare that Mitch McConnell has experienced this year. In March, he tripped and fell and hit his head. He was diagnosed with a concussion and a few broken ribs, and he was out for a few weeks in the Senate.

And you can also tell just from observing him over the last few weeks, he's been acting differently. He's been talking a little bit softer, walking a little bit more slowly. And last month, he also struggled to hear some questions that were clearly audible from our reporter.

So, the issue of health has been top of mind for Mitch McConnell.


But his colleagues wishing the 81-year-old senator well.

Melanie Zanona, CNN, Capitol Hill.


ROMANS: All right. Melanie, thank you for that.

The death toll is mounting for wildfires raging all around the Mediterranean, two elderly people found burned to death in their home in Italy. Now, at least 40 people are killed by these wildfires.

CNN's Nada Bashir live in Rome for us this morning.

Nada, how widespread are these fires, and what's being done to get them under control?

NADA BASHIR, CNN INTERNATIONAL REPORTER: Look, we are seeing fires being declared across the Mediterranean region in Greece, yesterday, 61 new fires brought the total to 90. But we are hearing some positive indications from authorities there in Rhodes, where fires have been raging for ten days now. They say this is no longer raging in any inhabited areas. And in Corfu, those fires are largely contained.

But as we continue to see parts of the Mediterranean succumbing to these forest fires, there is significant concern for the devastation that is going to be left behind. Take a look.


BASHIR (voice-over): Through Italy's blackened hills, the scorched remnants of charge, land emergency teams continue to battle wildfires across the country's southern regions. In Sicily on Tuesday, terrifying scenes as one resident raced through fire lined roads to Palermo airport, which itself was brought to a standstill by the crisis.

Authorities say the vast majority of evacuated residents on the island have now been able to return home. But in other parts of the country, anxious locals look on as flames spread dangerously close to their homes. In Palermo, a local church sustained significant damage. Residents say they can only be thankful but no one was hurt.

VINCENZO BRUCCOLERI, BROTHER OF SANT MARIA DI GESU CONVENT (through translator): The damage is enormous, and we literally lost the church. But on the other hand, we are happy that there was no one injured.

BASHIR: But Italy is not alone. Across the Mediterranean, countries, including Greece, Spain, and Portugal are battling extreme weather from devastating fires to deadly storms. In the Portuguese town of Cascais, more than 500 firefighters are tackling a now contained wildfire.

Meanwhile, on the Greek island of Rhodes, emergency teams are still working tirelessly to tackle the blaze. Some residents here have been forced to evacuate their homes, but others have stayed to volunteer, desperate to save their communities.

STAVROS NIKITARAS, VOLUNTEER: We don't have help on the island. We want to shield the people living here. I have friends here, so I came to help.

MARIA PARDALOU, VOLUNTEER: Every year, they say we will do the things will be better. Nothing. Every summer the same. The same, every summer.

BASHIR: Beyond Europe wildfires are also ravaging parts of Turkey and North Africa. In Algeria, authorities say they have managed to contain the deadly blaze which has so far killed dozens. But some residents who sought shelter from the devastation say they came back to nothing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): When we returned home, we found everything was burned and there was nothing left. No furniture, no money, everything was burned.

BASHIR: The loss and devastation wrought by wildfires is becoming an all-too familiar reality across this region. As experts warn that extreme heat events will only become more frequent and more severe over the coming years unless urgent changes are made. It is a troubling prospect for a region already in the depths of a climate crisis.


BASHIR (on camera): And, Christine, here in Italy, we are still seeing fires raging in the southern regions. However, those appear to be now more or less contained. However regions are still calling for state of emergency to be declared in order to support those regions affected to get the resources they need to tackle the aftermath left behind with the devastation of these fires.

So far, the Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has not declared a state of emergency but apparently it is still under consideration, of course, for the rest of the Mediterranean. The alert warning is still high, temperatures are still high and, of course, there is real fear around potential for more fires.

ROMANS: All right. Nada Bashir, thank you so much. You know, this global heatwave also taking a toll on the U.S. dangerously high temperatures have proven deadly in several states. More than 100 million people from California to Massachusetts were under heat alerts yesterday and record-breaking high temperatures are forecast to roast millions of Americans through the weekend and beyond.

Meteorologist Chad Myers has more from the CNN weather center.

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, we've been talking about the heat in the desert southwest now for months it seems. I know it is just weeks but seems like months. Temperatures are now going to be warming up in the middle part of the country again. Back over 100 degrees likely through the central part of the country and the like. We are going to see the heat index well above 110 in some spots, 105 in New York City and those numbers are always in the shade.


So keep that in mind if you are working outside or pets outside, they will feel hotter than that if there is any sunshine coming in.

A hundred and seventy more record highs likely over the next few days. The good news is with this next front, it's going to come by quickly. So, yes, we're going to warm up to 96, but then look down to 78, just in one day with the cold front. It's going to take another day to go to D.C., you go from 98 to 85. So, that's some good news.

Even New York City, you're going to go three days in a row above 90 or at 90, but then all of a sudden, another cooldown with cooler nights and lower humidity.

ROMANS: All right. Chad Myers, thank you so much.

Just ahead, a construction worker's main attempt to keep crane from collapsing on a busy New York street.

Plus, Kevin Spacey speaking out moments after being found not guilty in court.

But, first, the collapse of the Hunter Biden's plea deal in court. Did politics play a part?



ROMANS: It's a stunning day in court Wednesday for Hunter Biden after his plea deal for failing to pay income tax and illegal possession of a firearm fell apart al least for now.

Let's bring in former federal prosecutor Katie Cherkasky.

Katie, what a remarkable turn of events. What is your biggest takeaway from yesterday's hearing? And does the judge's argument make sense to you?

KATIE CHERKASKY, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Well, it was very shocking, of course, because plea deals don't typically fall apart that both sides work very hard to try to come into an agreement and try to convince the judge to also go along with that.

The judge has the sole authority here to approve the agreement regardless of what the parties both request. So I was not surprised to see that the judge was not totally comfortable with the terms of the agreement. There were some specific issues that she brought up in terms of even the constitutionality of some of the provisions there.

And even bigger picture than that, the idea of what exactly this plea will shield Hunter Biden from future prosecutions, because there are, obviously, there are other investigations out there. The DOJ confirmed that.

And so, Hunter Biden's team and ultimately Hunter Biden himself need to be very careful about what the parameters of this agreement are if he is to move forward.

ROMANS: So both sides now have to submit briefs arguing why they believe the framers of the deal is constitutional. What do you think will happen after that?

CHERKASKY: Well, again, it really is up to the judge and whether she is convinced that she can approve that sort of deal. And to be clear, the issue that the judge had with the deal deals with diverted gun charge and essentially her concern was because of that charge, the gun charge would be held this abeyance pending Hunter completing probation successfully, if there were any deviations or violations of his probation, the deal seems to be asking the judge to decide whether he should be charged at that point, which the judge felt would be outside of her authority, and even outside of the constitutionality of what she could do.

So, that was kind of one of the sticking points, but I think again bigger picture, the other piece of this is exactly what are the potential charges out there and what can he be prosecuted for in the future even if he does take the deal and it is accepted by the judge.

ROMANS: You know, Katie, this is the president's son. You know, politics behind this case cannot be ignored. I mean, he has been a poster child for Republicans who want to say this is sort of a -- cast the family as corrupt. Talk to me about the politics laid over the legal proceedings here.

CHERKASKY: Well, politics are undeniable here. A lot of what the judge is being asked to consider also deals with what happened during this investigation into Hunter Biden's conduct. There has been whistleblower testimony that suggests that there were decisions made that were contrary to the evidence and contrary to even what some prosecutors, namely David Weiss, had originally wanted to do with the case.

So to the extent that the judge in the plea bargain can consider in the interests of justice whether this deal encompasses all considerations of what the original charges might have been and what other misconduct might be out there, there is certainly no way to avoid the politics here in terms of some of the other allegations involving Hunter Biden's foreign business dealings that span outside of the kind of crimes that were included in the deal. But which were out there and maybe still are out there in terms of the investigation.

So, it seems like this is not a resolved issue for Hunter Biden even if this deal goes through for these tax charges and the gun charge. There may be other things out there. And this deal may or may not impact those.

ROMANS: Katie Cherkasky, former federal prosecutor, so nice to see you this morning. Thank you so much, Katie.

CHERKASKY: Thank you.

ROMANS: All right. Quick hits across America now.

Police officials in Ohio say a K-9 officer has been fired after an investigation into why his dog attacked a suspect who was already surrendering. Officials say Ryan Speakman (ph)did not meet standards for officers.

Autopsies though three marines died from carbon monoxide poisoning, according to the North Carolina medical examiner. Police found their bodies inside a parked vehicle near Camp Lejeune.

Fire officials in New York say the operator of a high rise crane tried to put out a fire that erupted in the machine moments before it collapse down to a city street. Twelve people were injured. Officials say both the crane and the buildings are now structurally stable.


Next, trouble on the high seas, with a ship up in flames.

And whistleblowers warning lawmakers about UFOs. What's the big secret? (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: President Vladimir Putin speaking right now to African leaders at a summit in St. Petersburg, promising his country will be a reliable supplier of food to Africa.

CNN's Clare Sebastian live in London with more.

Clare, Russia is doing all it can to disrupt grain exports from Ukraine, a large portion of which goes to Africa. What is he saying today?

CLARE SEBASTIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it is part anti-Western tirade, Christine, and part effort to reassure these countries that Russia calls its allies that their food supply is not in jeopardy.

So we've heard a lot of what we've heard before saying that the grain deal saying that it didn't stack up to its promises, much of the food did not go to the developing countries. He said that none of the sort of sanctions relief that was promised to Russia has materialized as part of that deal, so essentially saying that the grain deal was not what it promised to be.