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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

73 Killed In Johannesburg Building Fire, Dozens Injured; Giuliani Loses Lawsuit Filed By Two Election Workers; U.S. Intel: Russia And North Korea "Actively Advancing" Arms Talks. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired August 31, 2023 - 05:30   ET



LARRY MADOWO, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: From a French colony in Africa in just the last three years because there's still that developing situation in Niger.

What we have here -- I want to show you some celebration of the man who has now declared himself the transitional president of Gabon. This is Gen. Brice Oligui Nguema. This is other military men celebrating him, hoisting up -- hoisting him up in the air to celebrate him declaring himself the leader. He's said to be the cousin of the ousted President Ali Bongo Ondimba.

Now, the Bongo family has led Gabon since 1967 -- almost 56 years continuously. His dad led the country until his death in 2009, and then he won the presidential election there. And just before this military coup, he had been announced the winner for a third time of a seven-year term. Now, these military men who have taken over say that election has been voided. They've shut down the country's borders and dissolved all institutions because they said that election was a sham election.

And then, we saw this extraordinary video from Ali Bongo Ondimba appealing for international help from his friends around the world. I want to show you a bit of that.


ALI BONGO ONDIMBA, PRESIDENT OF GABON: Nothing is happening. I don't know what's going on. So I'm calling you to make the noise -- to make noise. To make noise, really.


MADOWO: A lot of people in Gabon will not be sympathetic to that. Gabon is a small country of just 2 1/2 million people -- very rich in natural resources. But a lot of the people live in poverty, partly because they see it as a mismanagement of Ali Bongo Ondimba and his family over the last few decades, so that's why the celebration on the streets. And they think they are going to take their chances with the military here than with the leadership of Ali Bongo Ondimba, Omar.

OMAR JIMENEZ, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, Larry Madowo, staying on top of it all. Thank you so much.

Coming up for us, Idalia makes its devastating mark along the Southeast, and we'll show you that it has wreaked havoc on not just Florida.



JIMENEZ: Tropical Storm Idalia is now tearing across the Carolinas. Officials in North Carolina are warning about heavy rain, life- threatening flooding, and a chance of isolated tornadoes. Governor Roy Cooper has already declared a state of emergency and swift water rescue crews are on high alert.

CNN's Dianne Gallagher has more.


DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on camera): As Tropical Storm Idalia moves up the Carolina coast before it breaks away from land, here in the Carolinas we are feeling the effects of that storm and we'll likely do so until late Thursday morning.

According to officials here in New Hanover County, wind bands like what you're seeing here are going to go into the mid-morning area and they expect the worst of it to actually come right around the time most people would be commuting for work.

The emergency management director telling me that they anticipate they could see moderate flooding and moderate winds and that their concern is that they could have areas that they already consider to be trouble areas experience extra flooding because of the king tide when those waters are already very high.

Now, in speaking to the town manager here in Carolina Beach, they say they are most concerned about flooding in areas and are asking visitors to stay not just out of floodwater but out of the ocean as well. Because of Hurricane Franklin out in the Atlantic, as well as the oncoming Tropical Storm Idalia, the swells and the currents are simply too strong, they say, for visitors and people who are not experienced surfers or swimmers.

They're asking those visitors not to go into the water and they're saying that they're going to extend that request likely into the holiday weekend, even as the weather gets better because they feel that it still may be dangerous as the remnants of the storm remain below the surface.

Dianne Gallagher, CNN, Carolina Beach, North Carolina.


JIMENEZ: A developing story right now. A deadly fire in Johannesburg, South Africa has now claimed at least 73 lives and injured 40 others in the city's business district. CNN's David McKenzie is live on the ground in Johannesburg for us.

David, what are you seeing there right now? Is this fire under control or are they working on it?

DAVID MCKENZIE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Omar, this is a terrible tragedy that's still unfolding. I want to show you this building. It's a five-story building in downtown Johannesburg. It was crammed with people, many of them living cheek-by-jowl.

In the early hours of the morning, a fire broke out and it swept through this building very quickly. Firefighters did what they can to come in and try and get people out.

I spoke to a man who survived. He said he had to smash his head through the window eventually to try and escape. Still, he has family members that are missing.

More than 70 dead. And I just want to show you over my shoulder here some of the emergency workers are there -- many of them exhausted. Behind there you might not see it but people who tried to escape by any means tied blankets and comforters, and then tried to climb down there and get out. There have been bodies, many of them burned beyond recognition, and some of them children that have been led out on the street.

Omar, this is also part of a bigger story. As bizarre as it sounds there are many buildings in downtown Johannesburg that have been hijacked by criminal gangs. They take over from the landlords. They then bring in people and squash them in there for very low rent, and then this kind of thing can happen.

People have been warning about this sort of tragedy because of the unequal nature of South Africa. Because of the illegal housing that crops up everywhere, particularly in this city. I've seen people crying. People desperately searching for their loved ones.

And that man who escaped -- he just blacked out. We found him on the side of the street sitting down with his friends comforting him around him. He doesn't know where his family members are.


And now, serious questions are going to be asked -- how this could happen. How this could happen that as just some forensic teams are coming in now as you can see -- walking in. They're going to have a very difficult time identifying some of those bodies tragically, Omar.

But questions will --


MCKENZIE: -- be asked how this happened. Some people say it might be a candle. Some people believe it would have been illegal electrical connection. But this story is still unfolding and we'll come back to you with any details -- Omar. JIMENEZ: Of course, David McKenzie, a very active scene. And it sounds like from the opposite direction of where the camera is facing, there is a lot of community members there likely watching on to see what is happening behind you. And the images of the blankets outside the window just gives you an idea of how harrowing it must have been to try and escape in those moments.

David McKenzie, thank you for staying on this. We'll come back to you.

Meanwhile, 39 past the hour right now.

A federal judge has ruled former Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani has lost a defamation lawsuit. Giuliani recently said in court he could no longer contest the claim that he made false, defamatory statements against two Georgia election workers. Damages in the case could cost Giuliani tens of thousands if not millions of dollars.

CNN's Sara Murray has more.


SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (on camera): More legal problems for former Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani. A judge saying Rudy Giuliani forfeits a case that had been ongoing where some election workers from Georgia accused Giuliani of defaming them. He had accused Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss of ballot tampering even though he didn't have the goods to back up these allegations.

A judge said because Giuliani did not comply with the discovery in this case and did not hand over the documents he needed to as part of this case, he forfeits -- meaning he loses. That means there's going to be a trial to determine what kind of damages he could end up having to pay out to these election workers. That could happen later this year or early next year.

The election workers in this case said they felt gratitude about this decision. They said Rudy Giuliani made their lives a living nightmare.

Meanwhile, a political adviser to Giuliani slammed this decision and said Giuliani wants to try to reverse it. It's hard to see how the New York mayor is going to do that, though. One of the issues he has cited over and over again are his cash flow problems.

Sara Murray, CNN, Washington.


JIMENEZ: So, to talk about a lot of this, let's bring in criminal defense attorney Lexie Rigden. Lexie, good to see you.

I want to start with Georgia. Last night, CNN's Kaitlan Collins asked an attorney for the Georgia poll workers about how much they're expecting in potential damages here. Here's part of that conversation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MICHAEL J. GOTTLIEB, ATTORNEY FOR SHAYE MOSS AND RUBY FREEMAN: But our expectation is that we'll be able to prove tens of millions of dollars in compensatory damages before you get punitive damages. So we expect it to be a significant damages case that we'll present to the jury and we're confident in our ability to document and demonstrate it.


Yep, you heard me correctly.

COLLINS: That's what you believe Rudy Giuliani could be ordered to pay?

Well, if we're -- if we're successful, I would -- I would hope so -- yes.


JIMENEZ: Of the bat, Lexie, does that figure seem realistic to you?

LEXIE RIGDEN, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY (via Skype): That seems like a lot. Obviously, the punitive damages are going to be a lot bigger probably than the compensatory damages. And these are -- these damages are made up of two categories. Compensatory are actual and presumed losses that they suffered. So actual losses could be if they had to hire security for their home. Presumed damages are the damages to their reputation.

But the punitive damages are where the amount could really get high, but that's also where Giuliani's financial records and the state of his financial affairs come into play. Because while punitive damages are meant to deter the conduct of people doing that in the future, it's also not meant to necessarily financially wipe out the person who is responsible to pay them.

So it seems high but it really remains to be seen because there's a lot of public -- a lot of strong public feelings either way about this case, and that could seep into the jury.

JIMENEZ: Yes, yes.

And I want to shift from Georgia to New York now -- a lot of cases going on here. But as part of the state's civil fraud lawsuit against Donald Trump, the New York attorney general's office says Trump inflated his net worth over a 10-year span, including by as much as $2.2 billion in one year. It's hard to keep up with all the legal troubles Trump is facing.


JIMENEZ: But contextualize this within some of the other cases he's facing. Obviously, this is a big deal but how big of a deal is it compared to everything else he has going on, of course, at various jurisdictions? RIGDEN: Well, compared to a potential loss of your -- or your liberty, a civil lawsuit is not nearly as big of a deal. And he has been deposed so many times. He's been sued because he's been a business owner for a million years now. So this is smaller potatoes for him but it's not insignificant.


And to put it into the context for everybody -- because it's hard to think of how big these numbers are -- where you say you're worth $2 billion but you're actually worth $1 billion, it would be as if you say on a loan application that you make $200,000 a year so you can afford a luxury car when you really make $100,000 a year and you wouldn't have qualified for the loan otherwise.

That's essentially what they're saying that he did. But he is defending this by saying he was -- he never missed a loan payment, so he's -- it's not like anybody has suffered any damages as a result of it. He didn't prepare his personal financial net worth statements or the net worth statements for the business. He wasn't really involved. And they were not meant to be relied on as exactly what the company's net worth was or his net worth.

JIMENEZ: Yes, yes -- all right.

So I think I'm going to try and hit almost every city along the Eastern Seaboard, so let's go to D.C.

A federal judge ruled on Wednesday that former White House adviser Peter Navarro will not be able to argue in his contempt of Congress trial next week that Trump asserted privilege to shield him from a House January 6 subpoena.

How big of a blow is that to his strategy, and do you read into that decision by that judge more than just that particular order that was given?

RIGDEN: Well, it's -- I mean, it's interesting because this is a high-profile case and the judge basically said that it was -- there was no there there. And so, he did the unusual step of actually testifying. Most defendants do not want to testify. And obviously, this wasn't in front of a jury but it doesn't mean that his testimony can't be used to impeach him if he does testify.

But this basically knocked him out of being able to use the executive privilege as a defense, and that would have been potentially -- depending on the jury -- the jury hearing it -- a viable defense. But now he can't use it because the judge said that he gave no specificity. He didn't even give what the judge said was a smoke signal that Trump had actually invoked the executive privilege defense on a phone call. He couldn't testify to any specifics.

So at the end of the day, the judge denied his request. And so, he cannot use this in front of the jury.

JIMENEZ: And the judge said in regards to some of those arguments the Navarro team was making, and I quote, "That those arguments are weak sauce." So let's see how things go from here.

RIGDEN: Weak sauce, yes.

JIMENEZ: Lexie Rigden, thank you so much.

RIGDEN: Thank you.

JIMENEZ: Now, new U.S. intelligence reveals Russia and North Korea are actively advancing negotiations for a potential arms deal. Russian officials have visited Pyongyang twice in the last month and the intel underscores Russia's desperation to get more ammunition for a failing invasion of Ukraine, according to that newly-released U.S. intel.

CNN's Paula Hancocks is live in Seoul, South Korea with more. So, Paula, what do we know about this potential arms deal here?

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Omar, what we were hearing in this intelligence report is that Russia is looking for ammunition. It's looking for support for the war in Ukraine. And we have heard from intelligence agencies not just in the U.S. but also here in South Korea in the past, that they believe North Korea is providing some of that much-needed ammunition. Now, it's something that Pyongyang has denied.

But back in July, we know that the Russian defense minister went to Pyongyang. He was meeting very closely with Kim Jung Un and this is where he is believed to have discussed, potentially, an arms deal. And also, we saw images of Kim Jung Un taking him around an arms exhibition. Images of the two walking past an array of weapons and of military equipment.

Now, of course, this would violate U.N. Security Council resolutions -- anybody doing a military deal with North Korea. But the fact that Russia may well be looking into it is ironic considering Russia, as well, signed on to those sanctions.

Let's listen to the U.S. ambassador to the U.N.


LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD, U.S. PERMANENT REPRESENTATIVE TO THE UNITED NATIONS: The United States is now able to share that Shoigu's visit was more than just a photo opp. Russia used this visit to the DPRK to try to convince Pyongyang to sell artillery ammunition to Russia.


HANCOCKS: Now, South Korean intelligence agencies also saying they believe earlier this month there was a Russian plane which left Pyongyang, they believe, with military supplies heading towards Russia -- Omar.

JIMENEZ: Paula Hancocks, thank you so much for that.

Coming up on "CNN THIS MORNING," the Senate minority leader freezing up again during a news conference. The questions it's raising about his ability to serve.



JIMENEZ: Volleyball day in Nebraska serves up a world's record for attendance at a women's sporting event.

Andy Scholes has this morning's Bleacher Report. A lot of football teams would want that type of attendance.

ANDY SCHOLES, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: Right, Omar. They're jealous this time around.

This is pretty cool. The Huskers -- they've got one of the best volleyball crowds in the country but now they can say without a doubt they've had the biggest ever. It was just a sea of red at Memorial Stadium last night. Ninety-two thousand three fans on hand to watch the Cornhuskers match against instate rival Omaha. So that set a new world record for a women's sporting event.

So the school started planning for this event last spring but just had no idea how big it was going to get.


JOHN COOK, NEBRASKA VOLLEYBALL HEAD COACH: I was thinking this morning there's only three things that shut down the University of Nebraska. One, snowstorms. Two, COVID. Three, Nebraska volleyball -- the stadium.


SCHOLES: Yes. So the previous women's attendance record for a sporting event was 91,648, which was set during a Champions League soccer match in Spain last year. The previous U.S. record was the Women's World Cup Final in 1999 at the Rose Bowl.


All right, to baseball where not much has gone right for the Mets this season. But it did for DJ Stewart on Wednesday. The 29-year-old who started the season in the minors hit two home runs. And then he came up to the plate with the game tied in the 10th inning. Aroldis Chapman is going to hit him in the ribs with a 96-miler-per-hour fastball. That was a painful walk-off for Stewart right there as the Mets win 6- 5 on what was a special night that saw the fans chanting Stewart's name.


DJ STEWART, NEW YORK METS OUTFIELDER: It was awesome. It really was. I mean, it's been a tough year for us as a team but you enjoy those little moments. And for me to start the season in Syracuse and then come up here and hear that, it's really awesome.


SCHOLES: All right. Now, less than a mile away from Citi Field at the U.S. Open, Caroline Wozniacki pulls off the biggest win of her comeback after 3 1/2 years away from tennis. The mother of two upset 11-seed Petra Kvitova in straight sets to advance to the third round.

And once the match was over, Wozniacki -- a former world number one now ranked number 623 -- wiped away tears of joy, calling it a dream come true. She's going to face American Jennifer Brady in her next match, which is set for tomorrow.

Now, on the men's side, we had a big upset. Casper Ruud, last year's U.S. Open runner-up -- he's out of the tournament. The number-five seed was upset by unseeded Zhang Zhizhen in five sets. Zhizhen is the first Chinese man to beat a player in the top five of the ATP rankings.

All right, and finally, we do now have proof that Lionel Messi is human after all. For the first time in 10 games of Messi mania, the greatest soccer player of all time did not score for Inter Miami. He attempted seven shots against Nashville SC last night but six were blocked. The game ended in a scoreless draw.

Messi and Inter Miami -- they're next scheduled to play on Sunday.

But Omar, we'd just gotten used to it. You know, oh, Messi's going to score. He'll win this game at some point. And finally, it didn't happen.

JIMENEZ: Which means he's going to come back with a vengeance. We'll see.


JIMENEZ: Andy Scholes --

SCHOLES: He may get three goals next time out.

JIMENEZ: Exactly. Thank you.

SCHOLES: All right.

JIMENEZ: That's it for EARLY START. I'm Omar Jimenez.

Just ahead, Hurricane Idalia leaves a trail of destruction along Florida's Gulf Coast and it's not over yet.