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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Blinken To Whelan: U.S. Working To Get You Released; Iowa Republicans Giving Tim Scott A Closer Look; Tropical Storm Hillary May Hit Western U.S. This Weekend. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired August 17, 2023 - 05:30   ET



DANNY FREEMAN, CNN ANCHOR: It's not easy to connect America's top diplomat with a prisoner in Russia. So put it into 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're told, that Blinken and Paul have spoken. The first time was back in December, according to a source.

On the call yesterday, Blinken was able to relay that message that Paul should keep the faith and know that the United States is doing everything they can to try to bring him home as soon as possible.

We don't have a lot of the details around the logistics of how this call was set up. We do know that Paul is able to make calls from that remote prison camp out in Mordovia, Russia.

And this was a significant call also in the timing. It comes when Russia has not responded in a substantive way to a serious proposal that the U.S. has put forward to try to secure Paul's release.

This is something that was raised with them more than eight months ago. It is something that Secretary of State Blinken has said that he raised with the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in their brief meeting on the sideline of a major gathering back in March. And it's something that the U.S. tends to consider a live offer.

But given the fact that Russia has not responded in a significant way and given the fact that they have also now detained another American, Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter, the U.S. is looking at other options to try to bring both of these men home -- Danny.

DANNY FREEMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Well -- and Jennifer, if I may, David Whelan, who is Paul's brother, also spoke to CNN about this call. What can you tell us about that?

HANSLER: Well, David told our CNN's Jake Tapper yesterday that he took a lot of faith from this call. He said it was an important message to both his family that the U.S. is working to secure his brother's release, and also a significant message to the Kremlin that they are not giving up.

And David said that Paul described that call as long and frank when he was talking about it to his parents. And they said unfortunately, though, they are starting to come to terms with the fact that they may not actually see their brother until he serves out this 16-year sentence there in Russia. And they might not see him again until 2034 -- Danny.

FREEMAN: Wow, incredible story. Thank you for the latest on that. Appreciate it, Jennifer.

All right, now to some quick hits around the globe.

A state of emergency declared in Canada's Northwest Territories as more than 230 wildfires burn. Twenty thousand residents of the capital, Yellowknife, are being ordered to evacuate by Friday.

And take a look at this. A computer error allowed Bank of Ireland customers to withdraw money they didn't actually have. The glitch has been fixed -- sorry, guys -- but now those same customers are being warned their accounts will be debited.

And two American tourists discovered asleep at the Eiffel Tower in Paris will not be fined. Prosecutors say the men became trapped because of their, quote, "excessive alcohol consumption."

And we're going to go now to a new stormfront making its way to the West Coast. We are tracking Tropical Storm Hillary. That's coming up in a moment.

Plus, a Republican presidential candidate gaining momentum, attacking the law and not the former president.


TIM SCOTT, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And we see the legal system being weaponized against political opponents. That is un-American and unacceptable.




FREEMAN: South Carolina senator and Republican presidential candidate Tim Scott has been making the rounds at the Iowa State Fair, greeting voters and looking to elevate himself about other candidates in this crowded GOP field.

CNN's Eva McKend has more on those efforts.


SCOTT: One hundred percent.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How many of you love Sen. Scott?


EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER (voice-over): Everybody is the answer Sen. Tim Scott and his campaign are looking for this week in Iowa --

SCOTT: How are you all?

MCKEND (voice-over): -- campaigning hand to hand, flip to French fry. But the main political attraction during Scott's visit to the famed state fair Tuesday was news of frontrunner Donald Trump's fourth criminal indictment.

SCOTT: I continue to say, as I've said, which is that we see the legal system being weaponized against political opponents. That is un- American and unacceptable.

MCKEND (voice-over): Scott attacking the legal process instead of the former president, trying to keep his campaign positive and showing little appetite to take on any candidate, even Trump, despite mounting legal woes.

REPORTER: Is Trump's lead here in Iowa unsurmountable?

SCOTT: No, of course, not.

REPORTER: Why not?

SCOTT: That's why I'm campaigning. Because I believe that my optimistic, positive message is being rooted in Iowa and that frankly, our poll numbers continue to go up.

MCKEND (voice-over): That optimism comes as some Iowans tell CNN they're sick of Trump, who still holds a dominant lead in the race.

MIKE POWER, IOWA VOTER: I'm considering other people that I think would also do a good job maybe without some of the conflict that senator -- or President Trump has with all the lawsuits.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I kind of wish Trump would just fade, to be honest with you.

MCKEND (voice-over): Scott and his supporters have blanketed Iowa and New Hampshire with more than $10 million worth of ads. At an event in Cambridge, Iowa, he saw the payoff firsthand.

SCOTT: I say in my commercials if you take out a loan you pay it back. Halleluiah, you all. This is great, man. We love it. You all are starting to see the commercials. This is good news. I was wondering if they were buying anything with all that money I was spending.

MCKEND (voice-over): In the Hawkeye State, a whopping 69 percent of likely caucusgoers say they have a favorable view of Scott, according to a recent poll. His pursuit of momentum will have to carry into next week's debate -- a crucial test and opportunity. With Florida Gov. Run DeSantis seeking to reboot his campaign and Trump's appearance on the state very much in doubt, Scott is convinced he can compete.

SCOTT: I'm going to continue to run this race for one objective. It's to be the President of the United States.

MCKEND (voice-over): His campaign just releasing this video.


SCOTT: You get in the race for president to win.

MCKEND (on camera): What is your campaign strategy to gain momentum between now and the debate?

SCOTT: Well, the good news is that we're going to continue to do what we have been doing, which is focusing on the optimistic, positive message anchored in conservatism with a backbone.

MCKEND (on camera): Scott could face some pointed attacks from his Republican rivals on the debate stage next week given his relative momentum. His team tells us he's prepared though, engaging in the traditional debate prep. But they tell him more importantly, no matter what happens, to remain optimistic because it is that sunny optimism that seems to be gaining him the attention of some voters.

Eva McKend, CNN, Des Moines, Iowa.


FREEMAN: It makes me miss the state fair so, so much.

For more on this let's bring in Tia Mitchell, Washington correspondent for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

And Tia, we just heard from Eva's report there that Sen. Scott has made some progress in Iowa. But we know this -- there's new polling out that shows that Trump's lead is still dominant. So I want your perspective. What's the strategy for the rest of the GOP field?

TIA MITCHELL, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, THE ATLANTA JOURNAL- CONSTITUTION (via Webex by Cisco): Well, for people like Tim Scott, the strategy is remain likeable, drum up support, and hope that, at some point, voters -- Republican primary voters start to look for an alternative to Trump.

For DeSantis and some of the others, they're trying to create the message that they are just as Trumpy as Trump -- just as conservative and maybe even more conservative -- but they're not Trump. Also looking to be an alternative should voters start looking elsewhere.

So those are kind of the two approaches we're seeing among the other Republican presidential candidates. But so far, what we're seeing in the polls from the voters are that they're not yet -- most of them -- at least half of them are not yet looking for an alternative to Donald Trump.

FREEMAN: Well -- and Tia, I want to look ahead to next week along those lines because the time to pitch oneself as an alternative is the debate stage. But sources are telling CNN it's likely Trump will not attend the Republican presidential debate next week. And Trump's throwing out all these ideas to maybe counterprogram. But, of course, the RNC won't be happy if that happens.

So what do you think the game plan is here from Trump's perspective and also from the GOP candidates' perspective if he's not on that stage?

MITCHELL: Well, from Trump's perspective he's not seeing much upside to sharing a stage with his opponents, and that's been an approach of his throughout this campaign. You don't see him, for example, attending these cattle call Republican events where all the other candidates will be there. He does that very rarely. He just doesn't share the stage as a policy.

So for him, it doesn't make sense to do this debate where he could say something that offends people or he could be on the stage and all the other candidates just spend the whole time attacking him, which is what usually happens to the frontrunner. So for him, there's no upside.

For the other candidates, though, they wish they did have that opportunity to take Trump on face-to-face. Again, they know they can get a lot of earned media by getting a good sound bite or a good jab at Trump on a debate stage.

So now they're going to have to focus on the others. For example, everyone's been talking about Tim Scott. How likeable he is. How he could be an alternative if Trump falters. I could see some of the candidates looking to bring Scott -- Tim Scott down a bit by attacking him and sullying that good reputation he's been building.

Also, DeSantis. With Trump not on the stage DeSantis becomes the one that's polling highest on the stage. And therefore, you would expect he'd get that frontrunner treatment in the absence of the true frontrunner. That could mean a lot of attacks coming DeSantis' way as well.

FREEMAN: But Tia, actually, I just want to ask you one more question on that because my thought -- I mean, we saw Trump do this in 2016 -- you know, try to avoid one primary debate and have this counterprogramming, and it didn't really work out for him as much then.

And I'm curious if you think that the former president would rather actually show up than be called out over and over again as maybe a coward for not actually taking the stage. What do you think?

MITCHELL: Well, it's different. In 2016, it was an open seat and Trump was an unknown. In a lot of ways, he couldn't avoid the stage. I think Trump and his advisers believe he's in a much different -- quite frankly, much stronger position. He's polling right now, again, around 50 percent in most polls. In second place is DeSantis and he's way behind.

I think Trump and his advisers believe there isn't the upside to debating because he's a known entity now and, quite frankly, he has a lot of support right now, debate or no debate.


FREEMAN: All right. Tia Mitchell of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Thank you so much for sharing your perspective. I really appreciate it. We'll talk soon.

MITCHELL: Thank you.

FREEMAN: And to this now. Tropical Storm Hillary, that's now formed southwest of Mexico, could strengthen to a category three hurricane near Mexico's Baja Peninsula -- you see right there -- this week. Heavy rain is on track for the western U.S. this weekend as well.

So let's go over to meteorologist Derek Van Dam who has been tracking this. Derek, good morning. Tell us how strong is this system as it's traveling north.


Well look, this system is really off to the race. It is currently a strong tropical storm but it is likely -- and this is explicit language from the National Hurricane Center's latest update, which was issued about 15 minutes ago -- or, rather, 45 minutes ago. This storm expected to become a hurricane within the coming hours, and then a major hurricane, potentially, by later tonight.

And why do we care about this storm in the Eastern Pacific? Well, it not only threatens portions of Mexico but also the Southwestern U.S. We've got our first tropical storm watches. This is across the Baja California peninsula. The popular tourist destination of Cabo San Lucas under that tropical storm watch.

Now, this particular tropical storm is being directed northward -- north-northwest - by two different systems. We have high pressure that's causing the heat over the central U.S. and an upper-level low. These are going to work together. This is not a typical type pattern.

So this will actually drive this storm system to more of a northerly direction, basically running parallel with that Baja California peninsula. Does it make a landfall there? That would certainly help kind of deflect this system a little bit. But the point is that this will certainly bring impacts to the Baja California peninsula but also into southwestern portions of the U.S. So, Southern California into Nevada -- even into portions of Arizona, a rain and wind threat.

And here's the timeframe. Late Sunday into the day on Monday. That's when we anticipate U.S. impacts from this particular tropical system. So earliest arrival of tropical-storm-force winds into San Diego. That would be late Sunday evening and perhaps into Los Angeles as well.

Pretty wild, Danny, to be talking about a tropical system in Southern California, but here we are.

FREEMAN: Yes. And Derek, I used to live in San Diego, and I know the -- I hope that my friends up there and folks that live up there are OK as well. Appreciate the report.

VAN DAM: Right, OK.

FREEMAN: All right. Coming up on "CNN THIS MORNING," the devastating loss on Maui and the daunting task of recovery. We're going to have a live report from the ground.

And coming up next, right here, how four surfers and two boat crews survived for nearly two days in Indonesian waters. Stay with us.



FREEMAN: Four Australian surfers and two Indonesian boat crew members say they are grateful to be alive after spending almost two days stranded in open waters. Their boat sank off the coast of Indonesia after being hit by a storm. But as CNN's Ivan Watson reports, they are still missing one person.


IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The moment of relief after two nights lost at sea. Searchers spot the group of surfers and the crew of their boat, missing for over 38 hours in the waters off of Indonesia's west coast. But the joy is short- lived.


WATSON (voice-over): Two members of the group are not there. Australians Steph Weisse, Will Teagle, and Jordan Short are safe, but they say fellow surfer Elliott Foote paddled away from the group to try to find help. And just two of the three members of the Indonesian boat crew have been found.

"We drifted away very far," explains Mohammed Iqbal (PH), "from the safety of the rescue boat. It felt like we were just circling around the area, and it was totally dark."

At home in Sydney, Australia, Elliott's father anxiously waits. Then, a text message comes through. Elliott's alive.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We got everyone.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everyone! Everyone!


WATSON (voice-over): The final member of the group of four Australians pulled from the water by two local fishermen, according to a spokesperson for the families.

Reunited on dry land, the group of friends say they need time to recover from their ordeal.

ELLIOTT FOOTE, RESCUED SURFER: Yeah, there were some moments out there where we were all quite nervous and didn't quite know what the outcome was going to be. But we just banded together. Couldn't have been happier having these three with me.

WATSON (voice-over): Indonesian rescue teams had led the search for the group of seven since Sunday night. The surfers' boat went down in rough weather while they were out chasing waves at a remote destination off of Indonesia's Aceh.

A private plane was pulled in to help, as were fishing vessels. And local tourist charters used their knowledge of the current to plot a search area.

But success is not complete.

FOOTE: Now our thoughts are just with the Indonesian families and friends of the missing one who is still out there. And, you know, it's just -- it's hard to think about and we just hope the best for him.

WATSON (voice-over): Searchers say the capsized boat was found Wednesday morning with no sign of the missing man.

Ivan Watson, CNN.


FREEMAN: Thank you, Ivan.

All right, the coach of the U.S. Women's Soccer Team has reportedly stepped down less than two weeks after being knocked out of the World Cup -- that's tough.

Andy Scholes, though, has the morning's Bleacher Report. Andy, what can you tell us?


Yes. So this wasn't much of a surprise after the U.S. Women had their worst showing ever at the World Cup. And according to multiple reports, Vlatko Andonovski has resigned. Andonovski only lost five games in regulation over almost four years at the helm but couldn't deliver on the high expectations. The two-time defending World Cup champion scored only four goals in their four World Cup matches. And this was after finishing a disappointing bronze at the Tokyo Olympics.


Now, a new coach will need to be named rather quickly with the Paris Olympics just a year away.

All right, tennis. Novak Djokovic first singles match on U.S. soil since 2021 didn't last long. The Serbian star won the first set before his opponent, Alejandro Davidovich Fokina retired early in the second set with a lower back injury. The match lasted only 46 minutes.

The Western & Southern Open, in Cincinnati -- a tune-up before the U.S. Open that starts later this month.

Djokovic missed last year's tournament because international travelers were still required to be vaccinated for COVID at the time. That policy was dropped back in May.

All right, in baseball, the White Sox leading the Cubs by two in the ninth. The Cubbies get two on for Christopher Morel and he gets ahold of this one for a walk-off three-run home run. Morel starts taking off his jersey before he eventually gets mobbed by his teammates at home plate. Then the teammates end up ripping that undershirt off as well.

All the fans there at Wrigley, as you can see, just going wild. The Cubs beat the crosstown rivals White Sox 4-3. And they're now in that third NL wildcard spot.

All right. And finally, we had history at the Little League World Series yesterday. Cuba making their first-ever appearance in Williamsport. But they were a no-hit by Japan in that one, losing 1-0.

Panama, meanwhile, getting an epic performance from Omar Vargas against the Czech Republic. He struck out every single batter he faced. Twelve strikeouts in four innings and he hit a grand slam, knocking in all of the runs as Panama won the game 4-0.

So, you know, Danny, they say in sports usually there's no "I" in team, but Omar Vargas -- he did it all. He did it all in that one --


SCHOLES: -- for Panama.

FREEMAN: Yes, and as long as there are -- is grand-slamming team, I think everyone is OK with that. That's incredible.


FREEMAN: Andy, thank you so much.

SCHOLES: All right.

FREEMAN: And thank you for joining us. I'm Danny Freeman.

Just ahead on "CNN THIS MORNING," so many trials but so little time for Donald Trump. The Fulton County case could land right before some big presidential primaries. And what the DOJ now says about a major abortion case heading to the Supreme Court, coming up next.