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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Speaker McCarthy Works Through Weekend But Makes No Progress On A Short-Term Fix; Sen. Menendez Accused Of Trading Favors For Cash, Gold, Car; Dolphins Score 70 In Historic Blowout Over Broncos. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired September 25, 2023 - 05:30   ET




KASIE HUNT, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. Thanks for getting an early start with us. I'm Kasie Hunt. It is 5:30 on the dot on the East Coast; 2:30 out west.

And there are just five days until the government shuts down unless House Speaker Kevin McCarthy suddenly finds a way to subdue hardliners in his own conference who have embarrassed him again and again over the past week.

Yesterday afternoon, he did not sound optimistic.


REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): It's almost that they want to walk you into a shutdown and then blame you for the shutdown. It doesn't make a lot of sense to me. I think we should show we can govern and that's what the majority of us all have been doing.


HUNT: Marjorie Taylor Greene, the hardliner from Georgia, put out a statement over the weekend saying she would not vote to bring the defense bill to the floor over Ukraine aid. And Matt Gaetz was still threatening to move to oust McCarthy as speaker to the point that a McCarthy ally is saying he might try to beat Gaetz to the punch.


REP. GARRET GRAVES (R-LA): As a matter of fact, look, I'll tell you, I drafted a motion to vacate for the speaker as well. I've got it sitting on my desk right now. And I said look, if you're going to keep hanging this over the head and playing these games, let's just do it now. Let's get it over with. Get your little games over with and then we'll get back to focusing on the things that actually matter.


HUNT: Things that actually matter, like paying troops, border patrol agents, air traffic controllers. A shutdown would have to last through mid-October to affect military pay but millions of others who work for the government -- they need to brace for their pay to stop next weekend.


REP. TONY GONZALES (R-TX): If there is a hard cliff, then they are forced to come together, and that's what I think we need. We need to have a hard line that forces everyone to get in a room and pass these bills. I don't want to see a shutdown but there is no doubt in my mind that the country is headed for a shutdown and everyone should prepare as such.


HUNT: "No doubt in my mind," he says.

Joining us now, The Washington Post's Leigh Ann Caldwell. Leigh Ann, good morning. It's always great to see you.

This deadline is fast approaching and like Congressman Gonzales says, everything I'm hearing off the Hill is that this is basically inevitable at this point.

What are you reporting?

LEIGH ANN CALDWELL, CO-AUTHOR, "THE EARLY 202", THE WASHINGTON POST (via Webex by Cisco): Yeah, absolutely, Kasie. There's very little chance that Congress can avert this shutdown.

The reason is because McCarthy isn't even talking at this point about a short-term stopgap spending bill to keep the lights on past September 30. He knows that can't pass with just Republican votes. He's refusing to work with Democrats to get that across the finish line. And so, he's basically abandoned it.

What he's trying to do right now is now pass long-term spending bills -- the spending bills that would fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year -- for the 2024 fiscal year. He's hoping that buys enough goodwill for him -- for his hard-right conservatives to come to the table on the short-term spending bill to fund the government for just a few weeks.

But as McCarthy said, they want to burn the place down but he's still trying to negotiate with them.

HUNT: Yeah. I mean, it does seem, at his point, like it's a little bit of a fool's errand and there's really no way for McCarthy to avoid a shutdown and then potentially, also, a renewed vote on his speakership.

I mean, I thought it was interesting that Garret Graves, who has been one of the negotiators here -- that was him talking to Manu -- you saw a little bit there -- where he's like look, I wrote one, too. Let's just kind of try to get this out of the way. And that's been a strategy leaders have used in situations like this

in the past but do you think there's any chance it works with Matt Gaetz and other hardliners? That it actually takes air out of their sails?

CALDWELL: I mean, yeah, that's what happened in 1910 when the speaker wanted to prove his detractors wrong, and that's the first time a motion to vacate and only time a motion to vacate was brought to the floor. It failed.

And so, this is a leadership strategy, but I don't think so. Matt Gaetz's entire mission right now in Congress is for Kevin McCarthy to fail.

And what the Senate is doing right now is they are also going to start to pass a short-term spending bill and send it to the House in hopes to save the government shutdown. But my sources are telling me that there is no way that McCarthy can bring to the floor a Senate C.R. It's likely going to have Ukraine aid. His conservatives won't accept it.

And so, McCarthy has a choice here. This whole shutdown is his choice. He can work with Democrats or he can refuse to, and he's continuing to refuse to because he's worried about his job. So essentially, Kasie, he's putting his fears over losing his job ahead of this government shutdown.


HUNT: No. It's a really -- it's a really sharp way to put it.

I'm glad you brought up the Senate because Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader -- obviously, he's had some very public challenges with his own health. But historically, he has been someone who has stepped in oftentimes to the breach and worked things out at the last minute because he obviously very much believes that a shutdown is really bad politics for Republicans.

What -- the relationship between McConnell and McCarthy, though, is a pretty complicated one and I don't get the sense that there's a ton of respect from the McConnell folks for what's going on with Kevin McCarthy in the House.

What do you understand about that and whether McConnell actually has any leverage or sway to try to convince McCarthy to act in a different way?

CALDWELL: McConnell is one of the least popular Republicans among -- especially among Republican voters --

HUNT: Yeah, also (INAUDIBLE).

CALDWELL: -- and McCarthy knows that. And that's who most of the House of Representatives -- the hard base -- that's who some of these hard-right members represent. And so, McConnell has -- McCarthy is under no pressure to negotiate and to work with McConnell. In fact, a dirty word up on Capitol Hill right now is what's called

the quote "uniparty." That's where these Republicans say that Republicans and Democrats in the Senate just work together and there's no difference between the parties. So it actually goes against McCarthy -- it works against McCarthy if he is outwardly showing to work with McConnell right now, Kasie.

HUNT: Also really interesting and all of it, as we started out talking about here, points to the inevitability of a shutdown at the end of the week.

Leigh Ann Caldwell, thank you so much for being with us this morning. I really appreciate it.

All right. New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez set to speak publicly for the first time since his indictment on federal corruption charges. The New Jersey Globe says Menendez will hold a news conference today. He is not expected to resign. In fact, he's expected to say he's running for reelection in 2024. He does, though, we should note, already have a primary challenger, Democratic Congressman Andy Kim.

Let's bring in CNN legal analyst Joey Jackson. Joey, thanks so much for being here this morning. I really appreciate it.

I think we should note when we're talking about primary challengers that there are quite a few Democrats in the New Jersey House delegation that would very happily take a promotion to the Senate, which is I think part of why you're seeing a lot of calls for him to resign from those corners. Not a lot of calls from fellow senators at this point.

But I want to talk to you. Your expertise is actually what's in this indictment. We know Menendez was indicted once before and it ended in a mistrial. This one, though, comes after a yearslong Justice Department investigation. I mean, they have been sitting on those incredibly damning pictures for almost a year at this point.

How damning is this case?

JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY (via Webex by Cisco): So, Kasie, good morning to you.

Depending upon who you ask, of course. If you are the prosecutors -- as we look there at what was in the indictment -- very inflammatory indictment having those gold bars that we see, showing the Mercedes, showing Menendez's jacket with money all over it in the envelope.

And if you're the prosecution you're going to say that his office was for sale. That the reality was is that he was engaged with these business persons, in addition to his wife, in order to do favors that were improper, untoward, and absolutely outright illegal. And he was doing it for and in exchange for money and everything we saw.

The defense will say something quite different, however. Notwithstanding the fact that it is damning and tells a compelling story, they will say that he's a senator and that's what senators do. Not engage in corruption but they advocate vehemently for their clients.

And yes, of course, as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, he had interests with respect to Egypt and what was going on, and the success that government would have, and he acted in kind. And with respect to engaging or at least intervening in federal and state investigations, that he was doing it because it was in the best interest because he didn't believe in those investigations.

So those will be the competing narratives. The challenge will be whether the government can connect his office to a quid pro quo of illegality; not that it was part and parcel to what he was doing as a senator.

HUNT: Yeah. So I'm glad that you raised that because, I mean, we should point out he wasn't just a member. He was first, the ranking member and then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is a much more powerful post than just simply being one voice of many on the committee.

I guess -- you know, from my perspective as somebody who covers politics and Capitol Hill, I'm curious -- does it matter that there is this kind of foreign element here to the legal part of this case? Because I think from a political perspective saying oh, he's helping out a foreign country and abusing his position to do that is something that does not typically play well with an American audience. But what I don't fully have my head around is whether that matters at all legally. Does it?


JACKSON: So it will matter Kasie because of the appearance of impropriety. Because of the fact that they will allege that as the prosecutors, that he was exchanging, really, his position on the Foreign Relations Committee not because it was in the interests of his constituents, not because it was in the interests of America, but because it was in the interests of himself. And because he was acting out of that self-interest he was helping the government and loosening up this money that was on hold, et cetera.

And all these actions were engaged in because he was getting paid to do it -- not by the taxpayers as it relates to his basic salary, but because he was engaged in this corrupt bribery scheme and he was acting as a result of that.

And then prosecutors will say but there's more. It's not only that but it's everything else that he was doing as it relates to helping his friends. This wasn't a senator who was in agreement that a federal prosecution shouldn't go forward and as a result, installing people who he could control. This was about the fact that he was installing people and recommending names to President Biden in terms of who he should appoint as a result of this corrupt scheme. So that will be the narrative.

Of course, his defense will be vehement in saying listen, senators have lunches. Senators have dinners. Senators exchange text messages. Senators get gifts from clients. And they do it for a job well done. And there would be nothing to suggest, the defense will say, as a result of his activities that there was any quid pro quo. He wasn't doing it because of these things and gifts. He was doing it and engaged in these activities because that's what senators do. And if you're going to be effective you have to do it as well as he did in this instance.

So those will be the colliding narratives in court. The one that succeeds, of course, will be the one that carries the day. Will he be guilty? Will he be not guilty? That's the open question.

HUNT: Yeah. Well, and I think we should also underscore the gifts rules around what they are and aren't allowed to take are extraordinarily strict to the point that, like, you can't attend a cocktail party in Washington. The invitations all have a disclosure. Hey, like, if this is worth more than $25.00 and you need to pay for it, let us know. Those gold bars are worth a lot more than 25 bucks.

Joey Jackson, thanks very much --

JACKSON: Without question.

HUNT: -- for your expertise. I really appreciate you being here this morning.

JACKSON: Always.

HUNT: All right, we've got big, new polls out this morning on a hypothetical Biden-Trump rematch. Who appears to be taking the lead coming up next. Plus, Trump is set to skip another debate. What he's planning instead also ahead. And we're waking up to a tentative deal that could end the writer's strike in Hollywood.



HUNT: Five forty-six a.m. here in the east, and we go to quick hits now across the 2024 campaign trail.

A new NBC News poll shows a dead heat between President Biden and former President Biden nationally. While a Washington Post/ABC poll out Sunday shows Trump 10 points ahead. That ABC number is so different from other polls that we've seen, but the network and the Post acknowledge it is likely an outlier.

But there are still some serious warning signs for President Biden in both of these polls. His approval rating just 37 percent in the ABC survey, 41 percent in the NBC poll. And 56 percent disapprove, according to NBC.

And on the Republican side, the NBC poll shows Trump expanding his lead over the field to more than 40 points nationally. And Ron DeSantis falling from 25 percent in the last ABC post survey to 16 percent in this one -- another sign he has a lot to lose in the next Republican presidential debate that is just two days away. And candidates will take the stage at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California minus Trump. He's going to spend the evening addressing autoworkers in Detroit as he focuses on the general election.


RONNA MCDANIEL, CHAIRWOMAN, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE: Well, you know I want him to attend a debate and he knows that. Everybody knows. I think the other candidates also want him to attend a debate. I hope that before January that he comes to a debate and participates in that process. But everybody is doing their own strategy.


HUNT: And tomorrow, President Biden is set the picket line with the United Auto Workers.

Let's bring in CNN national political reporter, Arit John. Arit, thanks so much for being here.

I want to start with this polling because we should acknowledge -- and it was a pretty extraordinary thing -- that ABC and the Post did in saying hey, this poll shows a gap that is very different from other polls. But if look kind of built into underneath those numbers there is some rough going ahead for the president, Joe Biden. His approval rating is very much in a touch spot and obviously, it does show a dead heat either way with former President Donald Trump.

Now, his team will argue -- hey, he's the only person that's actually beaten Donald Trump on the ballot. And they'll say this is the reason why Democrats shouldn't be looking around for somebody else.

What do you see when you look at these numbers, and what do you think it means for their plans going forward?

ARIT JOHN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: I think that the numbers show that President Biden does have a rough time going forward. The poll numbers show that there is a lot of disapproval of his job performance -- the way he's handled the economy. The way he is handling immigration.

And Democrats will say we're a year out. These polls can only tell us so much.

But it's clear that he has a lot of work to do to sort of reassure people, and that's not even getting to this broader issue of what he can't change. He can't change his age. He can't change this perception that he -- that we've even seen Republicans arguing that a vote for Joe Biden is actually a vote for his vice president, Kamala Harris.


So there is a lot of work to be done to sort of show that he is a vigorous president, that he has the energy to last another four years, and that he can turn around his approval -- or his disapproval on the economy, on foreign policy, on immigration.

HUNT: Right. Now, it's all fair, what you say. I would say my sources who support Biden also say he's continually underestimated and that he was all but written off in the primary -- in the Democratic primary when he won in 2020 and that he couldn't pull that off again. So we'll see. We're going to find out I think who's right.

But let's talk a little bit about the UAW here because there's going to be this split-screen. Biden's going to be with the UAW on Tuesday on the picket line. You're going to see Donald Trump there on Wednesday during the Republican debate, clearly executing a general election strategy as his rivals for the GOP nomination are on stage out at the Reagan Library.

But what does this tell you about kind of the state of politics generally? That these voters in Michigan -- it's fascinating to me that the Republicans and the Democrats both are basically playing to the same exact audience while the head of the UAW is withholding the endorsement from Joe Biden. Traditionally, obviously, that endorsement would have gone very quickly to the Democratic Party.

JOHN: Right. We've seen this new UAW president sort of say that this -- our endorsement has to be earned. And on the one hand, you have Biden sort of pushing for this transition to electric vehicles. And there is some anxiety among union members because electric vehicles take fewer workers and a lot of these factories that are doing the electric vehicle manufacturing are in the south where there are, like, looser labor laws.

And then you have Trump sort of -- he's not really trying to get the support of the union leaders; he is trying to go directly to the autoworkers and say hey, I am here for you. I support you. But then you look at his record when he was in office and he clashed a lot with labor unions over his federal appointees and over his general policies.

So both of these candidates have a lot of work to do to sort of appeal to union members and union leaders to sort of say, like, you should vote for me next year if I'm the nominee, especially in Michigan, and Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

HUNT: Right. And, of course, those states you've just outlined make up what Democrats refer to as the blue wall. It's going to be really at the heart of the general election next year, obviously. Trump has still got a primary to through but as those polls show, a pretty commanding lead there.

Arit John, thanks very much for being here with us this morning. I really appreciate it.

JOHN: Thanks for having me.

HUNT: And the months long Hollywood writer's strike may finally be coming to an end. We're going to have details on the tentative agreement ahead.



HUNT: Welcome back.

To sports now.

Has Taylor Swift entered her red era? And OMG, the NFL has a Super Bowl halftime show confession. And that reminds me. Coy Wire, the Dolphins -- did I miss them, like, switching sports and playing basketball --


HUNT: -- instead of football? Because, like, what happened yesterday?

WIRE: Yes, what is happening, Kasie? Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd see something like this. The Miami Dolphins putting up 70 points in a game?

HUNT: It's unreal.

WIRE: (INAUDIBLE) welcome to our house. And it took less than 90 seconds, Kasie, for them to show why "we da best" offense in the NFL. Tua Tagovailoa feeling this moment with four touchdown passes Tyreek Hill taking this one 54 yards. And check out his celebration. Cheeta, a man of the people.

But this only begins the beguine. Raheem Mostert moseying into the end zone for one of his four touchdowns. Check out this cele, Kasie. Come on shake your body baby, do the conga -- kind of.

Miami had 35 at halftime.

HUNT: It's almost unfair.

WIRE: Yeah.

And in the fourth quarter, looky. Devon Achane singing "I can be your hero, baby." Sixty-seven yards -- so swift. One his four touchdowns.

Seventy points -- that the most in a game since 1966 for any one time. The NFL regular season record is 72.

Speaking of swift, sparks flying in Kansas City as Taylor Swift sits next to momma Kelce after an invite from "Mr. Perfectly Fine" -- the Chiefs' Travis Kelce. So you knew that his quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, was going to find him for a touchdown. Nothing new as KC's original power couple connect for seven catches and that touchdown. T. Swift was trending with an awesome reaction up in the box. Kelce probably looking up, grinning like a devil.

Chiefs embarrassed the Bears 41-10.

Kasie, an NFL Sunday Funday announcement yesterday that got us falling in love. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)



WIRE: It's official. Usher, your halftime performer for Super Bowl LVIII. The eight-time Grammy award winner will be in Las Vegas February 11. Kasie, you remind me of a girl I once knew. What do you think about this? You like Usher?

HUNT: This is amazing. Yeah, I'm totally into it.

And I've got to tell you, I just want to give props to your writers. How many Taylor Swift references can we get in a single script? Props to those guys.

WIRE: I think over-under was -- yeah, we're going to keep them fun and spicey this morning.

And we do have one more thing. After 17 years, Megan Rapinoe suited up for Team USA one last time yesterday -- her 203rd and final match, friendly, against South Africa in Chicago.


The two-time World Cup champ thanking the fans for being there every step of the way -- listen.


MEGAN RAPINOE, 2-TIME WOMEN'S WORLD CUP CHAMPION: I just want to say thank you. When I think about what it means to me to represent not only this team but our country, it's just that. We're just a little snapshot of all of you.


WIRE: Absolute legend, Kasie.

I hope you have an awesome Monday morning.

HUNT: Oh, a legend, indeed.

Coy, thanks very much for that.

WIRE: You got it.

HUNT: And thanks to all of you for joining us this morning. I'm Kasie Hunt. Don't go anywhere. "CNN THIS MORNING" starts right now.