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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Garland to Tell Lawmakers: "I Am Not the President's Lawyer" and "I Am Not Congress' Prosecutor"; Reports: Trump Told Aide to Play Dumb About Boxes; Zelenskyy at UNGA; Biden Calls on World Leaders to Stand with Ukraine. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired September 20, 2023 - 05:00   ET




The attorney general taking the hot seat. We've just learned some of what Merrick Garland plans to tell lawmakers accusing him of politicizing the Justice Department.

Plus, Israeli's Benjamin Netanyahu about to meet with President Biden in New York. Why no White House invitation.

And real life comedy or is it tragedy on Capitol Hill?

Closed door GOP spending talks apparently yield nothing, reminding some in the room of a show about nothing.


HUNT: Good day to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Kasie Hunt. It's Wednesday, September 20th. Thank you for getting an EARLY START with us this morning.

First up, Attorney General Merrick Garland ready to face critics on Capitol Hill. Republicans accuse his Justice Department of political bias. Garland has appointed special counselors to oversee cases against Hunter Biden and former President Trump.

And this, just in to CNN, excerpts of Garland's prepared remarks revealing how he plans to take on his critics today.

CNN's Zachary Cohen live here in Washington for us this morning.

Zach, very grateful to have you here for this breaking reporting. What are we expecting Garland to say?

ZACHARY COHEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Yeah, Kasie, this is about as direct as we've ever heard Merrick Garland. He's going to hit back at his critics and primarily congressional Republicans, house Republicans who have criticized him for just about everything so far in their tenure as majority.

And look, he's going to make clear to them that he is not the president's lawyer, he is not Congress' prosecutor. In fact, this one excerpt really hits on me. He says that directly, he says I'm not the president's lawyer, and I will also add that I'm not the Congress' prosecutor. The Justice Department works for the American people.

He goes on to say that the Justice Department doesn't do what is politically convenient but rather -- doesn't take orders from the president or Congress or anyone else. They decide who to criminally prosecute.

Now, obviously, this comes as the Justice Department has pursued charges against Hunter Biden, the president's son, also charged the former president, Donald Trump and really has been criticized by members of both parties for either moving too slowly or not aggressively enough.

HUNT: Yeah, Zach, that's actually exactly what I was going to ask you about. I mean, the temperature in the room is probably going to be pretty high metaphorically speaking, because I think Democrats are unhappy with him, too. What do we know about that?

COHEN: Yeah, not a lot of love in the room I'd expect today. But Merrick Garland is going to have to answer questions from both sides. Democrats like you said do have their criticisms of Merrick Garland. Some feel that, you know, the Justice Department moved too slowly to pursue charges against Donald Trump related to January 6.

You know, others feel maybe the Justice Department has overreached in some of its other investigations. But really the thing to watch is going to be how Garland interacts with House Republicans. You know, Jim Jordan, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, known, you know, outspoken, has criticized Garland directly. And you can expect a lot of questions about the Hunter Biden investigation from Jim Jordan and other Republicans who really have made that a central theme of this impeachment inquiry that is coming up down the road.

HUNT: Yeah. Zach, and what do we know about how the White House is feeling right now about Merrick Garland as well? Because, obviously, he's going to face lawmakers. But there's got to be some chilliness coming from 1600 Pennsylvania.

COHEN: Yeah, a center theme of these remarks, right, is Garland saying I am my own and the Justice Department is it's own entity. It doesn't answer to the president. It doesn't answer to Congress.

So, you know, it remains to be seen how Joe Biden and how the White House response to that. We probably won't hear anything from them at least not on the record, but, you know, Merrick Garland really putting a marker down here and saying, look, I'm reminding everyone that the Justice Department is independent and does act on its own accord.

HUNT: And this, of course, how it's supposed to be.

Zachary Cohen, thanks very much for getting up early for us. We really appreciate your time this morning. Hope you'll come back.

And this morning, damaging new information about Donald Trump's handling of classified documents. "The New York Times" and ABC News report that Trump asked a former assistant in the White House and at Mar-a-Lago, that's Molly Michael, to lie to or mislead investigators.

According to "The Times", when Trump learned that federal officials wanted to speak with Michael, he told her, quote, you don't know anything about the boxes, end quote.

Those would be the boxes that according to a federal indictment were openly stored, you can see them here in the picture, in Mar-a-Lago, in a ball room and in a bathroom, see the sink there, among other places.

Hmm, doesn't look like a SCIF to me, where those kinds of documents supposed to be.

All right. Coming up next --


VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, PRESIDENT OF UKRAINE: We must act united to defeat the aggressor and focus all our capabilities and energy on addressing these challenges.



HUNT: The dramatic plea from Ukraine's president directly to the United Nations.

Plus, President Biden about to meet Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu, where they will meet and maybe more notably where they will not meet.

And the joke is on House Republicans when it comes to their spending talks as a government shutdown looms.


HUNT: Welcome back.

It is day three of the U.N. General Assembly in New York where Russia's war on Ukraine is taking center stage. Both President Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the assembly Tuesday. Biden warned of appeasing Russian aggression and urged world leaders to remain steadfast in their support for Ukraine.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If you allow Ukraine to be carved up, is the independence of any nation secure? I respectfully suggest that the answer is no.


We have to stand up to this negative aggressive today and deter other would-be aggressors tomorrow. That's why the United States, together with our allies and partners

around the world will continue to stand with the brave people of Ukraine as they defend their sovereignty and territorial integrity and their freedom.



HUNT: Zelenskyy in his first in-person remarks to the assembly since Russia's invasion last year made an impassioned speech, accusing Moscow of terrorism and genocide and urging world unity.


ZELENSKYY: We must act united to defeat the aggressor and focus all our capabilities and energy on addressing these challenges.

While Russia is pushing the word to the final war, Ukraine is doing everything to ensure that after Russian aggression, no one in the world will dare to attack any nation.


HUNT: CNN's Katie Polglase is joining us live from London with more on this.

Katie, good morning.

Zelenskyy also spoke to our Wolf Blitzer in a CNN exclusive on Tuesday. What did we learn?

KATIE POLGLASE, CNN INVESTIGATIVE PRODUCER: Well, good morning, Kasie. It was very clear from the interview with Wolf Blitzer that Zelenskyy again trying to project some confidence that his counteroffensive has been making progress. He is very positive about it.

But when pressed about whether there would be a major breakthrough in the coming months, he says no one knows really. And that really speaks to the difficult dilemma that Zelenskyy has. Now, he's heading to D.C. because on the one hand, he wants to show that the U.S. aid is going somewhere. And it is worth investing in this counteroffensive.

But on the other hand, he wants to know that he needs more, he needs more help and that he needs to be continued to be supportive in the coming months if there is to be a breakthrough. And this is really the difficulty he's going to face as he heads to Capitol Hill, with lawmakers there, some debating whether this funding should still be going to Ukraine rather than going to domestic issues.

And one of the other thing Zelenskyy mentioned in his interview is how you cannot compare it with the existential threat that Ukraine is suffering from. Have a listen to one of things he told Wolf Blitzer.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ZELENSKYY: Of course, everybody who lost families, it doesn't matter whether you lost it, in New York, in the center of New York or in Kramatorsk. It doesn't matter, you lost. And that's it. And you never will hear your children. Of course when you lost your family, you hate Russians, or another terrorist.


POLGLASE: And that really speaks there to the civilian toll of this conflict. Zelenskyy is trying to hammer home to U.S. lawmakers. There are still lives being lost.

Just yesterday, I was reporting on lives being lost in Lviv after a grain warehouse was struck, a humanitarian that had humanitarian supplies. Not any military weaponry, according to the mayor there. This is what Zelenskyy wants to remind lawmakers of and clearly, we'll see what he has to say in the coming hours.

HUNT: Indeed we will. Katie Polglase for us in London, thanks very much for being with us this morning.

And President Biden spoke later at a reception for U.N. leaders, reminding everyone that Russia's attack goes against everything that they stand for.


HUNT: We face a moment of great upheaval. Basic principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, universal human rights are being tested.

A moment where a member of the United Nations Security Council has launched a brazen and brutal attack against the people of Ukraine, attacks that go against the very character of the United Nations.


HUNT: And CNN's Richard Roth joins me now from New York.

Richard, good morning.

Let's talk a little bit about how President Biden's speech was received yesterday, especially because Russia not in the room.

RICHARD ROTH, CNN SENIOR UNITED NATIONS CORRESPONDENT: Well, I thought I saw the Russian ambassador on his iPhone inside the general assembly hall during the address by President Biden. We will have to see who shows up for Russia at this morning's ministerial level session on Ukraine. It is possible Foreign Minister Lavrov has not arrived here yet.

I think that the countries were pleased that President Biden set a tone once again, a year and five months after the start of the war, I'm not sure they would have liked perhaps harsher rhetoric. Some would, some don't. It's a big place now. The U.N., 193 countries, a lot of them not taking a stand either way between these two powers. HUNT: Well, that says a lot, Richard, to me at least about America's

standing on the world stage and, you know, I know our Jim Sciutto was on the scene talking about private nerves among people about the possibility that Donald Trump could win re-election here in the U.S.


You've covered so many of these meetings. How do you feel perceptions of America's role in the world have changed over the course of the last few years as we've seen the Trump presidency unfold and then the continued interest in his candidacy here at home?

ROTH: Well, many of the diplomats are kind of trained not to speak out. They know things can change and change quickly. The Trump reign at the U.N. was like it was in the United States. It was hold on to your hats.

He did bring the U.N. Security Council down for a lunch and I think Nikki Haley then the ambassador did a pretty good job of containing Donald Trump. But I didn't think that Trump called off an attack with not much time to spare on the run. I mean, things were happening and he took the U.S. out of UNESCO, canceled the climate deal.

If Trump gets back, I don't foresee a change in these policies.

HUNT: Right, no, I think that's right. And I think that simply the unpredictability of the way that he operated on the world stage is something that is very unsettling for a lot of these folks, especially in the diplomatic community that is used to doing business in a more incremental way.

Let's talk about what's unfolding today. President Biden is going to speak with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York. Netanyahu's not coming down to the White House. It's pretty noteworthy.

What are -- what are the layers? Can you help us understand why this is unfolding the way it is?

ROTH: Well, these are all the diplomatic niceties or not niceties. They have not had Netanyahu there. The U.S. is deeply concerned about the changes in Israel. We'd see every Saturday mass demonstrations against what the Netanyahu administration wants to do regarding the justice system, certainly more settlement building.

I think the U.S. felt, all right, we'll give him a little issue here in New York. But the two haven't been I think best of friends even going back to the Obama administration.

HUNT: Yeah, I know. It's an important point.

And then, of course, later on this week, we are going to see Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president accepting an invitation to visit the president here in Washington. He's also going to hold meetings on Capitol Hill. We heard from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy earlier this week who wasn't, you know, terribly enthusiastic in how he talk about, he's going to get a chance to meet with Zelenskyy as well.

Aid for Ukraine has really come in for some fire, from the right wing of the Republican flank here in the Congress, in Washington. How do you think that that is going to impact what Zelenskyy does, how he conducts himself here in Washington?

ROTH: I don't think that it will change much. Perhaps he will throw in a few bromides and other words to the Republicans so they say they are happy with them and then things change weeks or months down the road. We got a long way to the election still, but Zelenskyy has been Ukraine shining star, keeping the country, fighting against a much larger country and foe.

The Republicans -- hard line Republicans are not big fans of the U.N. I don't think Zelenskyy might mention the U.N. during those talk.

HUNT: I would doubt it.

Richard Roth, thank you very much for being up early with us this morning. I really appreciate your long time insights. Thank you.

And coming up here, a key swing makes a change to its voter registration rules. A key swing state.

And Mitch McConnell with a new warning about what a government shutdown could do to the GOP.



HUNT: Quick hits across America now.

Three indicted fake electors in Georgia will be urging a state judge to move their case to federal court this morning. The trio claims they acted at former President Trump's direction and believe a federal jury might be more sympathetic to their case.

U.S. Military Academy at West Point is being sued over their affirmative actions mission policy. The group filing the suit wanted race-based claims against colleges and universities in that landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in June. But the high court made an exception for military academies.

And negotiators for striking writers sit down with members of Hollywood studios and streamers today in hopes of trying to iron out a new contract. Writers walked off the job in May. They are seeking hire pay and protections around the use of artificial intelligence.

All right. Let's get a check on today's travel forecast with our meteorologist, weatherman Derek Van Dam.

Derek, I'm thrilled to have you back today from hurricane coverage over at the weekend.

Bring us up to speed. What does weather look like across the country and especially for those of us commuting here on the Eastern Seaboard since those folks are actually awake and dealing with traffic right now?

DEREK VAN DAM, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yeah, you know, Kasie, we got a rule of thumb in the weather office here, that we never use the word quiet, but that really is the weather pattern this morning because we know how things can change so quickly, and at a turn of a dime, right?

So we are going to enjoy the sunshine while we can because things will change in to the weekend and I'll show you why. In the meantime, the more immediate threat this morning, showers and thunderstorms. Little Rock to Southern Missouri.

You can see most of the thunderstorm activity across the southeast. It's actually offshore. But this is kind of the blossoming of what will become a non-tropical system that will drench much of the Carolinas and into the Mid-Atlantic States.

So we're monitoring tropical activity. There is a wave that is another 10 to 14 day potential problem that's moving off the coast of Africa, but let's zoom into the southeastern U.S. Just off the coast, National Hurricane Center has a 30 percent chance of development with the cluster of thunderstorms.

And watch how it evolves over the next 36 to 48 hours. Yeah, that's a lot of rain and basically, we're anticipating showers and thunderstorms over places like Raleigh and into the outer banks, all the way to the nation's capital. And we have the potential for some flash flooding as well.

But we're taking ourselves in to Friday and Saturday.


So, this is a weekend problem, but nonetheless, we want to enjoy the sunshine while we can because it is about to get wet along the Eastern Seaboard. So, expect that this weekend.

So, yeah, while we got to take this glass half full today, instead of half empty, right, Kasie?

HUNT: So, basically, the bottom line, get outside today.

VAN DAM: Yeah, it's right.

HUNT: I will say, though, the weather in Washington, we don't have a lot of perfect weather around here. It's often hot and sticky. It has been beautiful the last couple of days.

So, Derek Van Dam --

VAN DAM: I am right there with you.

HUNT: I really appreciate it. Thank you so much for being here with us.

VAN DASM: All right. Take care.

HUNT: We really appreciate it.

And just ahead, just one Republican running for Congress in one of North Carolina's blue counties. We're going to talk to her live.

And imagine the GOP agreeing on a spending bill?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a Festivus miracle.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tradition of Festivus begins, with the airing of grievances. I've got a lot of problems with you people. Now, you're going to hear about it.


HUNT: Welcome back to EARLY START on this Wednesday, September 20th, which I guess is.