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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Fulton County Prosecutor Asks to Start Trial March 4, 2024; Death Toll in Maui Wildfire Climbs To At Least 111; Appeals Court Keeps Abortion Pill on Market But Rules in Favor of Ultimately Limiting Access; Ukraine: Not Expecting U.S. F-16 Jet Deliveries This Year. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired August 17, 2023 - 05:00   ET




CHIEF JOHN PELLETIER, MAUI COUNTY POLICE: We haven't made notifications, and I am not going to say how we found people, when I haven't even told their families.


DANNY FREEMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Right now on EARLY START, recovering the dead on Maui, as the living tried to recover from their own trauma.

Plus, Donald Trump's crowded calendar. A possible trial, right before Super Tuesday among other important dates.

And, the no show strategy. The Republican front runner could skip next week's debate, but that does not mean he won't be on TV.


FREEMAN: Good morning, and welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Danny Freeman.

We begin this morning in Atlanta, where the area prosecutor there, Fani Willis, having set the date she wants to start the Georgia election interference trial of Donald Trump and his 18 codefendants. And already, there's a significant conflict with the political calendar.

Willis has asked a judge to start the trial on March 4th, 2024, just one day before Trump would compete in the Super Tuesday primary contest.

Now, that's when more than one dozen states, including California and Texas go to the polls. As you see right there, the former president will also have to prepare for the trial, in the midst of four early state nominating contest in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

CNN's Paula Reid has more from Washington. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PAULA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: District attorney Fani Willis, here, just making a request, a proposal to have her child begin the first week of march, 2024. It's highly unlikely that this request is going to be granted, six months is a very tight timeline for a RICO case. They are notoriously complicated. They tend to get drawn out. And here she has 19 different defendants, three of them expected or have already challenged the jurisdiction, trying to move this case from the state to the federal level.

But we know she is also competing for increasingly scarce space on an increasingly crowded calendar, where the president has not only likely a few trials that have been scheduled, but also he has election events, things he would likely have to participate in as a candidate for the presidency. So that's likely part of why she wants to get this discussion going, why she is proposing such an aggressive timeline.

Paula Reid, CNN, Washington.


FREEMAN: Well, meanwhile, sources close to former President Trump tells CNN that he is considering counter programming next week's Republican presidential debate on FOX News, instead of participating in it. The sources say he has not done any prep for that Milwaukee debate, although some of them suggest he does not need prep.

They say Trump could decide to participate at the 11th hour. But instead they say Trump has been throwing out ideas for his own counterprogramming, including possibly doing an interview with former FOX News host, Tucker Carlson.

All right. We want to now turn to the wildfire disaster in Hawaii. Maui County officials announced overnight that the death toll has risen again to 111. A total of nine bodies have been identified, and of those, the names of five have now been made public.

Governor Josh Green says, though, more than 1,000 people still remain unaccounted for. Maui County's police chief became emotional when he was asked about the relatively low official death toll.


PELLETIER: With all due respect, we have not made it notifications, and I will not say how we found people, when I have not even told their families. How would I do that, you know?

Have we found remains that are maybe smaller than other remains? I'm not going to sit here and sensationalize that. But the answer to that is yes. What I'm talking about is children, okay? So, we are going to do this right.


FREEMAN: Just heartbreaking. CNN's Bill Weir is on the ground in Maui, with more.


BILL WEIR, CNN CHIEF CLIMATE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): With an upcountry fire only 60 percent contained, Maui's fire department stretched painfully thin and winds were kicking up once again. Some residents in Kula are using sprinklers and hope to protect their homes.

Well, careful, careful.

And I met volunteer first responders trying to knock down hotspots with bottled water.

MERRILL KALOPODES, VOLUNTEER: Oh, man, you can feel the heat. There's a smoldering pit over there. All it needs is a good wind to get it going. By the way, we got there, it was already flaming.

WEIR: Really?

KALOPODES: Yeah, it started off with just a little smoke and then we said, okay, let's get some water and haul it over there, and then by the time it got over there is started flaming. So, you know, we're going to go back and put some more water on it.

WEIR: In this city smoky brush, one long step into smoldering ash means a burned foot.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I went to go check it out and then it's so deep, I couldn't get through it.

WEIR: But they stay at it until they are spotted by a helicopter dropping water scooped from swimming pools, and they finally get the help they need. And they wonder why more skilled firefighters aren't being brought over from Oahu.

JACOB VANDERVELDE, VOLUNTEER: My mind is blown right now.

WEIR: Really?

VANDERVELDE: I don't even know what's going on. How is this even happening? This whole road should be blocked off. We should be blocked off right now. And the fire department is all-hands-on-deck. I mean, obviously, keep people on Oahu, but they have enough personnel.

BRENDA KEAU, MOTHER-IN-LAW MISSING: I stayed up until 2:00 in the morning watching because I knew that the gas station was going off and the propane tanks and -- you know, my favorite store that used to go get for gardening supplies, it's gone. The people that lost their homes, I was watching that.

WEIR: Brenda Keau's 83-year-old mother in law was in her Lahaina home in the day of the storm and her husband was among the first to provide a DNA sample. So now, they are in grieving limbo.

Has he accepted the idea that she's gone? Does he have to get confirmation before he can --

KEAU: I mean, the truth about it, we accepted it on the day that we saw that there is no house. But there -- you never give up hope. So, it's both.

When he needs to talk, I just check in on him. We check in on each other. We say, how are you doing? Mentally? Spiritually? Physically? Emotionally?

And we take time to check, and answer. And, I -- you know, my husband was saying I am okay, okay, I told him, no, you're not. And if people ask you, are you okay, no you're not. The word is I'm concerned.


WEIR (on camera): There are so many concerns on so many levels -- the mental health, the physical health, the water supply, shelter. We are hearing that a number of displaced residents are finding hotel rooms. That is good news.

But they also, of course, identifying more bodies, that number is expected to go up, the governor is saying more than 1,000 are still missing.

Bill Weir, CNN, Maui.

FREEMAN: And President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden will travel to Hawaii on Monday. The White House says they will see the impact of the disaster firsthand and meet with first responders and survivors as well as federal, state and local officials.

Now the visit comes with mounting pressure on the president, who signed a federal disaster declaration last week, but otherwise has said little about the devastation there.

Switching gears now, a federal appeals court has overturned a lower court ruling that would've taken the abortion pill mifepristone off the market. But the court upheld parts of the ruling that might eventually make it harder to gain access to the drug.

CNN's Jessica Schneider has more.


JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, right now, there is no immediate impact of this Fifth Circuit Court decision. That is because the decision is already been preemptively blocked by the Supreme Court, until the justices on that court decide if they will even hear an appeal of this decision.

So, practically, mifepristone, this abortion pill remains widely available, meaning it can still be prescribed by a non-physician. You don't need to go to your doctor's office to get the prescription. It can all be done via tele-health. You can get it by mail, and you can still get it up to ten weeks pregnant. But this decision on whenever the conservative federal appeals court

relief says that all of those rules that were put into effect by the FDA, between 2016 and 2022, the court is saying they should be blocked, that ease of access should be rolled back. And this is significant because this is the second conservative court to rule this way.

So it is possible that when this does get to the Supreme Court, the DOJ has said that they will appeal. We could see a similar ruling given that conservative makeup of this nation's highest court has already made some major decisions, including overturning Roe v. Wade, which eliminated that constitutional rights to an abortion.

But again, even though the fifth circuit said that these recent rules are making it easier to get the abortion drug mifepristone should be blocked, nothing the lower court has decided at this point will actually take effect until the Supreme Court decides whether to step in.

So the takeaway is that for now, mifepristone will remain on the market. It will remain widely and easily available, even though these lower courts are consistently ruling against certain aspects of accessing this drug.

Jessica Schneider, CNN, Washington.



FREEMAN: And turning now to the war in Ukraine. The country's military says it is not expecting to receive American made F-16 fighter jets this year, and will make do without them. But, Ukraine's air force said it is making progress on training pilots to fly the U.S. made planes once they do indeed arrive.

CNN's Nada Bashir is following the story from London.

Nada, tell me how much does Ukraine actually need F-16s? What will they do if they cannot get them this year?

NADA BASHIR, CNN REPORTER: Well, Danny, in terms of the need, the hope from the Ukrainian side is these F-16s would provide the much needed boost for Ukraine's ongoing counteroffensive. This is something that President Zelenskyy has been pushing for since the early stages of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. And after more than a year of relenting, we saw that turnaround from President Biden in May, endorsing the training of Ukrainian pilots in conjunction with EU partners, and the U.S.-made fighter jets.

And, of course, this is now a significant blow to Ukraine's ongoing counteroffensive, the fact that they will not have these jets, will be able to operate these jets over the coming months, particularly over the harsh winter months, when there is expected to be a counteroffensive may indeed face some difficulties. Now, of course, earlier this month, we did hear from officials,

familiar with this matter in the U.S. There has been some holdup when it came to the training program. They are waiting for exact details to be put forward by E.U. partners, all to be authorized and pull ahead.

But, of course, we hear some positive indications. We heard from the Ukrainian air force spokesperson who has said they are making progress. They are pushing forward with these plans for a training program and they are expecting a group of Ukrainian pilots to be trained on these F-16s in the coming months. But, of course, no fighter jets until the early stages of next year at the earliest. This will be a blow to their counteroffensive -- Danny.

FREEMAN: Nada, thank you very much for that update.

All right, coming up in just a moment, a fund-raiser for George Santos, now indicted in New York.

Plus, a whole police department in Minnesota quits. We'll tell you why.

And former Trump Attorney Rudy Giuliani is struggling to pay his legal bills. The question is, will the former president help?

Stay with us.



FREEMAN: New CNN reporting reveals that Rudy Giuliani and his lawyer visited Trump in Mar-a-Lago in April, to make a personal appeal to help pay his growing legal bills.

CNN's Brian Todd has more on Giuliani's growing financial woes.


RUDY GIULIANI, FORMER TRUMP ATTORNEY: I know crimes. I can smell them.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The man once known as America's mayor, lauded for his integrity and leadership during and after 9/11, is now out of cash and under a mountain of legal bills and sanctions.

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: I don't think we're grasping how significant the bills are for Rudy Giuliani.

TODD: CNN's Katelyn Polantz and Jeremy Herb citing court records report Rudy Giuliani faces fees of $15,000 or more for a search of his records, $20,000 a month to a company to host his electronic records, a $57,000 judgment against his company for unpaid phone bills and a fine of $89,000 from a judge in a defamation case. And all of that is separate from the legal fees Giuliani owes. POLANTZ: The amount of money it costs to fight a lawsuit, let alone almost a dozen lawsuits over the last two years, couple of years is -- it is really mindboggling, those numbers.

TODD: In court, Giuliani's attorney said he's facing 11 lawsuits and investigations. He's also been criminally indicted in Georgia related to the efforts by him, Donald Trump and others to overturn the 2020 election results in that state. He could face criminal charges in the special counsel's federal election interference case. And he's facing disbarment in New York and Washington.

MICHAEL MOORE, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: He's attacked both in his professional arena, he's attacked in the civil court, and now, in the criminal court as well, and that is a -- that's a heavy load to carry.

TODD: And Giuliani admits he's not carrying it, at least not financially. His lawyer telling a judge today, quote, these are a lot of bills that he's not paying. I think this is very humbling for Mr. Giuliani.

To deal with the money crunch, Giuliani appears to be selling his three-bedroom Manhattan apartment for $6.5 million, and he's offering to record video greetings for strangers $325 a pop on the website, Cameo.

GIULIANI: I can do a happy birthday greeting.

JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST AND ANCHOR: He's always loved opera but this is a tragic opera, make no mistake. And it's self- inflicted at this stage. It's heartbreaking to see.

TODD: The man who, as a prosecutor, took down the New York mafia, who turned around New York City's fortunes as mayor and who did at one time hold considerable personal wealth seems to have squandered it all for one man.

AVLON: He's destroyed his reputation and his independent financial foundation, all to help Donald Trump lie about an election. He threw it all away.


TODD (on camera): Following the statements in courts from his attorney regarding his finances, Rudy Giuliani's lawyers have not provided additional comment to CNN. Giuliani has called his criminal indictment in the Georgia case an affront to American democracy. In the civil lawsuits against him, Giuliani has in at least one of them, conceded in court but he made false and defamatory statements, but he is still involved in litigating those cases.

Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.

FREEMAN: All right, for more on this, let's bring in Katie Cherkasky, a criminal defense attorney and a formal federal prosecutor.

Katie, I want to get right into this. Listen, no one has been more loyal to Trump than Rudy Giuliani, I think a lot could argue that. But could these reported financial issues and legal bills make him more likely to cooperate?

KATIE CHERKASKY, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Well, it's possible that could be a motivation. But certainly, if someone could demonstrate that they are financially insolvent, they could potentially be entitled to a court appointed counsel of sorts.


So I'm not sure Mr. Giuliani's case is at that point yet, but there are certainly avenues the court can look into to appoint counsel if need be.

FREEMAN: The thought of Rudy Giuliani having court appointed counsel is one that I don't think a lot of us would have thought we would be looking at this point.

Katie, I want to ask you, Fulton County D.A. Fani Willis is aiming for a March 4th trial date for this Georgia election subversion case. Does Trump's legal team have a valid argument, though, that this is just too early?

CHERKASKY: There is no practical way that this case is going to go in the next six months. It's a very significant, complicated case. I think we have to remember that a speedy trial right is primarily a defendants right. Prosecutors, albeit, a state want to quickly go to trial, but we also have to remember the government has been investigating these cases for many years, there are significant amounts of discovery and documentation that each of these defense teams have to go through.

So I do not feel like this is a very realistic timeline whatsoever, particularly in the case with this many defendants and under such a novel legal theory.

FREEMAN: I am curious, though, does or even should be presidential campaign schedule, though, factor into the judge's decision on a trial date?

CHERKASKY: I think that certainly the judge should take that into account. Even more than that, just the sheer amount of time that will take the defense counsel to review that documentation and discovery of this case, it is going to push this trial out for a long period of time in my opinion.

FREEMAN: Well, Katie, to that point, you know, in addition to the logistical time in place issues, you still have a case with 18 codefendants and then the president, is it any clearer how the defendants or prosecutors will navigate such a massive, legal case?

CHERKASKY: Well, at this point, it's not clear. There certainly still a possibility that these individuals do decide to flip and cooperate. So, number could reduce or a change but logistically speaking, it's really a nightmare in terms of managing the court schedule and all of the attorneys for each of these individual defendants who are going to be involved.

So, certainly, I think this is a long term case, on the way trial, and should be pushed out probably well after the election, just realistically speaking.

FREEMAN: One last thing, Katie, I want to ask you, again, we heard the D.A. said that, in an ideal world, she would want to try all of these defendants together. Do you think we will actually see that picture of a chaotic, full court room of 19 people, all trying to make their case?

CHERKASKY: Again, we are in such unprecedented territory here. The logistics of that alone are hard to imagine, the judge will have to think significantly hard about how that would play out, how the attorneys would have interact with one another, and certainly, I guess it's a theoretical possibility, but I don't know exactly how that would look, at what point we would see such trials proceed.

FREEMAN: And, again, all of this will be on camera this time.

Katie, former federal prosecutor, thank you so much for your time. Really appreciate it.

CHERKASKY: Thank you.

FREEMAN: All right, now to some quick hits across America.

North Carolina's Republican super majority voted to override the governor's veto effectively, enacting three bills chart targeting trans youth. It's the latest red state to block minors from access to transgender care.

And in a campaign fund-raiser for indicted Congressman George Santos has now also been charged in an alleged scheme to defraud prospective donors, and for impersonating a top aide to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

And take a look at this, the entire police department in Goodhue, Minnesota, has resigned over a pay dispute, and the city has accepted their resignations. KARE TV reports the county sheriff's office will takeover duties pending city approval.

All right, a long phone call between America wrongfully detained in America and a top U.S. diplomat. Details about that just ahead.

Plus, two Americans were trapped on the Eiffel Tower? We will tell you how that happens, coming up next.



FREEMAN: We have a CNN exclusive this morning. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking to American Paul Whelan, behind bars in Russia. A source tells CNN Blinken gave the retired U.S. Marine words of encouragement on the phone Wednesday, telling him to keep the faith. Whelan has been wrongfully detained for four years.

CNN's Jennifer Hansler joins us now from Washington, D.C.

This is a fascinating story because, Jennifer, presumably, it's not easy to connect America's top diplomat with a prisoner in Russia. So, put it to context, how significant is this?

JENNIFER HANSLER, CNN PRODUCER: Well, Danny, this is very significant. As you mentioned, it is exceedingly rare that the top U.S. diplomat would be able to speak with a detained American while they are still detained. This is the second time we are told that Blinken and Paul have spoken. The first time was back in December according to a source.

In their call yesterday, Blinken was able to relay that message that Paul should keep the faith, and know the United States is doing everything they can to try to bring him home as soon as possible. We do not have a lot of details around the logistics of how this call was set up. We do know Paul is able to make calls from that remote prison camp out in Mordovia, Russia.

This is a significant call also in the timing. It comes when Russia has not responded in its substantive way to a serious proposal the U.S. has put forward, to try to secure Paul's release. This is something that was razor-thin more than eight months ago. This is something that Secretary of State Blinken has said that he raised with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, in their brief meeting on the sideline of a major gathering back in March.

It is something the U.S. continues to consider a live offer. But, you know, given the fact that Russia has not responded in a significant way and given the fact they have also now detained.