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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Tonight: 7 GOP Candidates (No Trump) Debate At Reagan Library; New York Judge Rules Trump, Son, And Company Liable For Fraud; Some In GOP Defend Menendez Amid Calls For Resignation. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired September 27, 2023 - 05:30   ET




KASIE HUNT, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to EARLY START. Just a few seconds shy of 5:30 on the East Coast. I'm Kasie Hunt. It's also 2:30 out west where GOP candidates will be waking up to debate day in America.

Seven candidates, not named Donald Trump, will take the stage in Simi Valley, California at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. It is a storied venue that celebrates a man venerated -- all by enshrined, really, by Republicans for decades. The man who told Gorbachev to "tear down this wall." A man who now finds his brand of muscular American politics and statecraft distinctly -- well, over, passe, old- fashioned.


DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Yesterday, reporters asked me if I thought President Putin was smart. I said, of course, he's smart, to which I was greeted with oh, that's such a terrible thing to say. I like to tell that, yes, he's smart.


HUNT: Those comments were made just days after Vladimir Putin's Russia invaded Ukraine.

Now, as noted, Trump -- who is not terribly welcome at the Reagan Library, quite frankly -- will not be on the stage. And some of his rivals have started to take him on more directly than they did earlier this year. But is that really too little too late for them?

Joining us now, CNN's Alayna Treene. Alayna, I'm so grateful to have you this morning.

Let's start by talking about this debate, big-picture. We have seen candidates like Ron DeSantis, for example, take on Donald Trump in ways that he wasn't willing to at the beginning of the campaign.

What do you think we're going to see from him and from others tonight, and does it matter since Trump's not going to be there?

ALAYNA TREENE, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER (via Webex by Cisco): Right. Well, great to be here with you, Kasie.

And I do think you're going to see a lot of these candidates directly attack Donald Trump. Of course, at the first debate, very few questions were about the former president and many of the candidates were still skeptical of going after the former president -- attacking him -- because they're afraid of alienating the GOP base. But you have seen in recent weeks a lot of these candidates -- Ron DeSantis, but also former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott -- starting to take on Donald Trump directly.

And listen, you're totally right. I think this debate is going to be missing the frontrunner star power just like we saw with the first debate in August. But it's going to be deeply consequential for a lot of these candidates, particularly as a lot of Republican voters, as well as these big donors, are really looking at who is going to be the Republican candidate that they're going to coalesce around to be the Trump alternative.

And for months now, that has been Ron DeSantis -- but in recent weeks, he has been faltering in the polls. And you have seen people like Nikki Haley beginning to gain ground, particularly in the early states. And that's another big thing that is weighing on these candidates' minds -- the timing of this debate.

One, they want to impress donors, impress voters, see a fresh --

HUNT: Yeah.

TREENE: -- cash infusion for the end of the year.

But they're also very worried about the upcoming primaries. They're right around the corner and how they perform in those early states is really going to be make or break for them. And so they know this is the best opportunity to gain a lot of the coverage, attract the media attention that some of them have been lacking, and see if they can become, really, that second-tier candidate versus Donald Trump.

HUNT: Right. Because as we know, the narrative of this race is pretty much locked with Trump as the frontrunner, but something unexpected in Iowa or New Hampshire could change that narrative real fast. Expectations so high for -- or the pressure really is on Ron DeSantis. Nikki Haley has got a pretty nice opportunity I think, as you -- as you laid out there.

But Alayna, let's talk a little bit about Trump since -- obviously, frontrunner -- he's missing. I know you've got some new reporting coming out on the strategy and the thinking behind what they're doing, which is to send him to Detroit to talk to these union workers.

TREENE: Right. Well, Kasie, I think the interesting thing is not that Donald Trump is giving this speech tonight but it's really the politics of it all. He's, of course, continuing to bypass these debates and really try to frame the narrative that he's leaving his primary challengers behind him and trying to set up a Trump versus Biden rematch. We know that he wants to make this look like it's a general election fight. That he's not even a factor in the primary -- he's already winning it.

And I do think what's interesting is where he's going. So he's going right outside Detroit. He's going to be talking to a lot of current and former union members, including those who are on strike in the UAW, as well as auto workers, plumbers, electricians. Those are going to be the people who are in the room tonight. And really, what Trump campaign advisers tell us is that they see an opening with these members.


Yes, President Biden is the one who is most known for and being labeled as the pro-union president. You don't normally associate Donald Trump with that. But many of the voters in the room are people that supported him in 2016. He won Michigan in 2016. He lost it to Biden in 2020. And so this is a voter coalition that he's really wanting to break through in, particularly around the working-class voters.

And you're going to hear him talk a lot about attacking Joe Biden on his policy on electric vehicles. Jobs that he thinks will be --

HUNT: Right.

TREENE: -- lost if we see the increase of production.

And one thing, Kasie, that I just find really interesting about this speech is I've talked with many of Trump's allies and GOP strategists and they told me they actually think this speech and what he's doing tonight with this counterprogram event is far more effective than the first event counterprogramming he did with the first debate, which was to sit down with Tucker Carlson.

Here, he's going to be on the road. He's going to be talking to voters that he knows he needs to win over in order to win in 2024. And they think that is a far better strategy than sitting down with a conservative former Fox News host.

HUNT: Well, I mean, the audience is completely different, right? I mean, Tucker Carlson -- it makes sense if you're running in the Republican primary. But if you're trying to show that you're running in a general election the voters that you need in a general election are by and large Independent voters.

And your point about the appeal that Trump has to some of these workers is very well taken. I mean, I remember 2020 was an odd campaign because of COVID. But back in 2016, I spent a ton of time in union halls in -- Macomb County is usually the classic example. It's outside Detroit.

Sometimes I was there covering Republican candidates, but sometimes I would cover Bernie Sanders. And a lot of voters there would tell me hey, yeah, I really like Bernie Sanders but if he's not going to get the nomination I want to vote for Donald Trump. And that sentiment I think is still something that very much exists and that clearly, the Trump campaign is seeing. Alayna Treene, thank you very much for being with us this morning. I really appreciate it.

TREENE: Thank you, Kasie.

HUNT: All right, now -- of course -- now this. A New York judge fines Donald Trump and his adult sons liable for fraud, canceling the Trump Organization's business certificates, saying that they lied repeatedly about their net worth and assets to banks and insurers for years. It is a key ruling that comes before the state attorney general's $250 million fraud lawsuit against Trump goes to trial.

Let's bring in criminal defense attorney and former federal prosecutor, Katie Cherkasky. Katie, thank you so much for being with us to help us understand this.

So this judge made a very unusual decision in this and I think people who are watching this closely didn't expect the judge to go as far as he did with this ruling.

Can you explain to us what happened because there is still going to be a trial but this ruling was a choice. Why?

KATIE CHERKASKY, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR (via Skype): Yes, it is very interesting. And this ruling that essentially found the judge determining that the Trump Organization and the defendants that are named in that lawsuit committed fraud in their business filings as a matter of law. So the filing was really a pretrial request by both the Trump Organization and by Letitia James and the attorney general's office to determine some issues before trial that wouldn't have to go before the finder of fact.

One of those issues, according to the judge, was whether the Trump Organization and the defendants had committed fraud in their filings as a matter of law, meaning that there was nothing for any sort of finder of fact at a trial to determine. So even though the case is still scheduled to go to trial, that issue has been established by the judge. So essentially, Trump and the other defendants cannot relitigate whether there were fraudulent filings.

And so, of course, that is being appealed but that is a very significant finding pretrial in this case.

HUNT: Yeah, and the reality here -- there's a -- there's a big impact on Trump's businesses. Those business certificates have been canceled now. And my understanding is a judge is going to name somebody that is going to manage the dissolution of the entities, which is kind of a fancy way of saying they've got to disband all these LLCs because they no longer can legally exist.

I mean, does this mean that Donald Trump and his kids simply can't do business in New York anymore? I mean, what's the implication?

CHERKASKY: Well, according to the judge's ruling, essentially, because he found that the fraud had been committed as a matter of law -- automatically, that entitled Letitia James to seek the cancellation of those business certificates.

So I would anticipate that there would be an appeal and that there would be a request for an injunction pending a decision of an appellate court before that goes into effect. But for all intents and purposes, unless and until a higher court decides otherwise, that decision is binding and those business certificates are canceled. And whatever that means in terms of who runs the business, it cannot be the folks that were named in that lawsuit.

So absolutely, a very significant and far-reaching decision at this point.


HUNT: Yeah -- no, for sure. Michael Cohen was on our air explaining that one way to really get to Trump is to hit him in the wallet, which this really does.

Katie Cherkasky, thank you very much for being with us this morning. I really appreciate your time and your expertise.

CHERKASKY: Thank you.

HUNT: All right. Just ahead here, Republicans defending a Democrat. What they're saying in support of Bob Menendez. And what Colin Kaepernick said in a letter that he's written to the New York Jets. Don't go anywhere.


HUNT: Welcome back -- 5:44 a.m. in Washington.

And at this hour, at least 24 fellow Senate Democrats have called on New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez to resign. There are a few that are raising questions about his conduct but still stopping short of calling for him to step down. Among them, Joe Manchin, of West Virginia.

But a funny thing is happening here. It's something we hardly ever see in our divided politics these days. Republicans are defending a Democrat.


Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton writing this in a statement. Quote, "He should be judged by jurors and New Jersey's voters, not by Democratic politicians who now view him as inconvenient to their hold on power."

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio tweets this. Quote, " America, guilt is decided by a jury, not politicians in fear of their party losing a Senate seat."

And House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who had initially said Menendez probably should resign, reversed course yesterday and said that he should have his day in court just like GOP Congressman George Santos.


REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): I think George could have his day in court and I think Menendez could have his day in court.

REPORTER: Mr. Speaker --

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Why is he -- he needs to resign then.

MCCARTHY: It could be his choice.


HUNT: His choice.

All right, we've got a lot of ground to cover with my next guest, Michael LaRosa, former press secretary to first lady Jill Biden, and a special assistant to President Biden. Michael, thank you so much for being with us this morning.

You, of course, have been around this town awhile, even in the White House awhile. Senator Menendez has obviously been in this kind of sticky legal situations before. He did survive. But those pictures have all these Democrats saying you know what -- get out of here. They know they're going to have to spend way more millions -- many more millions of dollars defending that seat as well.

Senator John Fetterman was the first person to call for him -- the first Democratic senator, I should say, to call for him to step down. He explains why here. Take a look.


SEN. JOHN FETTERMAN (D-PA): I mean, it's so black and white. I mean, it's so clear. The last time there's ever been a man with so much cash in their home in New Jersey was Tony Soprano, you know? I mean, it's not a -- it's not a -- it's not a close call. He's entitled to have his day in court but he is not entitled to remain in the Senate, and he needs to go.


HUNT: Michael, where is the White House on this? And are you surprised that it's Republicans that are coming to his defense here?

MICHAEL LAROSA, FORMER PRESS SECRETARY TO FIRST LADY JILL BIDEN, SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: No, not really, only because I think it's a tough circle to square for everybody. But they really have no incentive to go for Menendez. Look, it's really not a competitive seat and that's why you're seeing Republicans do it. Plus, their own presidential candidate or likely nominee, Donald Trump, has four indictments under him. So it's sort of expected from Republicans.

With Democrats -- all due respect to Sen. Fetterman. I mean, many people were calling to get out of his race, too. But we let -- we let -- HUNT: Yeah, that's a good point.

LAROSA: -- we let the voters decide.

And I've been sort of the same way about how I feel about sort of the aging senators as well. It's really -- the voters have the information available to them and the voters of New Jersey --

Look, Bob Menendez, if you know anything about the Menendezes in New Jersey, he is one scrappy fighting politician and has a very loyal base in New Jersey -- in northern New Jersey. He's going to stay on to the very end. But it's really going to be a primary that will probably be the thing that will force him out.

HUNT: Right.


HUNT: No, that makes -- that makes sense. And he already does have a primary challenger out of the New Jersey House delegation.

I should also -- Michael, I understand the political comparison you make between Fetterman and Menendez. There's a big difference between a health challenge and a --


HUNT: -- federal indictment. So I think you should just forget about that.

LAROSA: And the -- sure -- and the same thing with -- and the same thing with aging, too. And I'm not defending any of the charges against Menendez, but from a political perspective, I think these things --

HUNT: Right, point taken.

LAROSA: -- yeah -- are best left to the voters to decide.

HUNT: All right. So I want to note for our audience that in the past you've served as a paid adviser to a super PAC that was helping defend Hunter Biden publicly.


HUNT: And -- but I do want to ask you about the latest out of this Republican-led House Oversight Committee investigation. They subpoenaed a bank to get Hunter Biden's records and what they got -- we haven't actually seen the wire transfers but they say that they got two wire transfers from Chinese nationals to Hunter Biden, notably in 2019. Joe Biden, obviously, was not president then. But these wires listed President Biden's Delaware home as the beneficiary address. And the first example that the panel found of Hunter receiving money directly and not through a shell company.

We're still obviously learning a lot about this. And again, we should also note to our viewers that Hunter Biden did use this address as his residence during this time. But the reality is -- I mean, this looks bad.

LAROSA: Well, I don't know. I'm not a lawyer. But what you're saying is that Hunter Biden, who had a job and receiving money for doing that job while his father was not a paid public servant in the private sector. I'm sort of not understanding the crime or high crime and misdemeanor that Republicans are alleging even here when it comes to what Hunter Biden did or what he received while he was working in the private sector.


HUNT: Yeah. I mean, I -- look, I think we continually note when we cover this story that there has not been any fire shown around the president himself, even as they are investigating Hunter. But I do -- it does seem a little bit tricky.

And Republicans -- I mean, let's look at this politically for a second. I know you're not a --


HUNT: -- lawyer and neither am I.


HUNT: What they're trying to do from a political perspective is create enough smoke that President Trump, on the general election campaign trail, can basically point to it and say oh, you think I did bad things? Well, they did bad things, too. And essentially try to neutralize the very many indictments against him.

LAROSA: Except --

HUNT: Is that working?

LAROSA: Except he's not really saying they. He's saying that guy's son. The son of my opponent. He's not going after his opponent; he's going after his son. But --

HUNT: But are voters buying it is my question. I mean, are voters -- is -- are they convincing --


HUNT: -- voters that they should be stressed about this?

LAROSA: No. I mean -- I mean, the answer to your question is yes. They -- the voters are buying it because you're seeing it in not one poll but every poll. And that's a problem -- that's a political problem for the White House. It's a reputational problem for Joe Biden. They need to start confronting it.

As you were talking about earlier in the show with his age, finally they came around to sort of acknowledging -- shining a light on their -- on their problem. Shining a light on their weaknesses and turning it into a strength.

They need to start doing the exact same thing with this. And it's far too late because it's affecting public opinion already.

HUNT: Very interesting.

All right, Michael LaRosa. Thanks very much for joining us to talk politics today. I really appreciate it.

LAROSA: No problem -- of course.

HUNT: All right. The Writers Guild of America authorizing its members to get back to work. New details on their deal with Hollywood studios. That's ahead.



HUNT: Welcome back.

We've got just five days left in the regular season. Two more teams clinching spots in baseball's postseason.

Andy Scholes, I -- it has been a long time since I have been this excited about some postseason baseball. I think I told you earlier this week I'm going to need you to tell me which of these games I'm going to need to buy tickets for when we get there, knock on wood -- many wood.

But tell us a little bit more about what other teams, in this morning's Bleacher Report, are going to be playing in the postseason -- besides my Orioles.

ANDY SCHOLES, CNN SPORTS ANCHOR: Yeah. Luckily for you, your Orioles look like they're headed to a division crown and they're going to go straight to that division series.

Meanwhile, my Astros -- I don't know what to do anymore. I mean, I just think --

HUNT: Oh, you're an Astros fan? Oh, Andy.

SCHOLES: I am Astros -- oh, yeah. Well --

HUNT: I didn't know this about you.

SCHOLES: Yes. I may be the biggest Astros fan that lives outside of the city of Houston in the entire world.

HUNT: I'm sorry.

SCHOLES: There's that. But they've been completely collapsing over the last two weeks, Kasie. They lost their 10th time -- 10th game in the last 14. They might not even make the playoffs this year and they're the defending champs. So I'm a little devastated right now. Brewers fans, though -- I'll tell you what, they had a nice night despite not winning a game. They lost to the Cardinals 4-1.

But the Braves -- they came all the way back from down 6-0 to beat the Cubs, thanks to this error by Seiya Suzuki in the eighth inning where he just missed that fly ball.

All right, and with that, the Brewers clinched the NL Central for the third time in six years. So they had to -- they got the chance to have a nice party in the clubhouse.

It was also a party in Philly last night. Johan Rojas beating the Pirates with a walk-off single in the 10th inning. That was the Phil's sixth-straight win and that locked up a wildcard spot for the reigning National League champs.

Now, get this. This is going to be their first baseball postseason since 1993 that does not include either the Yankees, Red Sox, Cardinals. How about --

HUNT: Tiny violin. Tiny violin.

SCHOLES: I knew you would enjoy that, Kasie.

Now, we do have some sad news to share this morning. Baltimore legend and Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson -- he passed away yesterday. He was known as "Mr. Oriole" spending his entire 23-year Major League career in Baltimore and helping the team win two World Series rings.

Robinson considered one of the greatest third basemen ever. He was an 18-time All-Star and won the AL MVP back in 1964.

The Orioles did hold a moment of silence before their 1-0 win over the Nationals last night. Brooks Robinson was 86 years old.

HUNT: Just a true -- a true statesman for the team --


HUNT: -- in addition to being just a wonderful sportsman and gentleman. He will be very, very missed.

SCHOLES: Certainly one of the best ever, Kasie.

All right. Elsewhere, 49ers -- former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick -- well, he hadn't played a game in the NFL since 2016 but he says he's ready for another shot still. And he wrote a letter to the Jets asking for an opportunity to be on the practice squad. Now, this is according to rapper J. Cole who shared the note written last week on Instagram.

Now, it comes after Aaron Rodgers suffered that season-ending injury, and Zach Wilson hasn't looked great.

But the letter, I guess, wasn't enough to sway the Jets and their general manager Joe Douglas. The team announced yesterday they are signing another quarterback, Trevor Siemian, to the practice squad. The journeyman -- he played with the Jets back in 2019.

All right, the WNBA Playoffs in New York. The Liberty evened their series at the Connecticut Sun with an 84-77 victory last night.

And earlier in the day, Breanna Stewart was named league MVP. Only 13 points separated Stewart and Connecticut's Alyssa Thomas and Vegas' A'ja Wilson, making it the closest vote between three players ever. Now this is the second MVP award for Stewart but first since becoming a mom, making it extra special.


BREANNA STEWART, 2023 WNBA MVP: To be a role model to Ruby is really what keeps me going. And today, you get to see your mommy win MVP.



SCHOLES: Yeah. And you know that had to be cool there for Stewart getting to -- getting to hold her daughter while accepting the MVP award this time around.

HUNT: Yeah, you love to see it. It takes a lot to come back from having a baby. And these athletes who do this kind of stuff -- man, this is just -- I am so impressed with them.

Andy, thank you so much --

SCHOLES: All right.

HUNT: -- for being with us this morning.

And later on this morning, I will hope you'll join me for my new show, "STATE OF THE RACE." It's going to be on CNN's International channel. It's at 11:00 a.m. on the East Coast, 4:00 p.m. in London. And today I'm going to talk to U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin about the 2024 race for president and much, much more. So I hope you'll join us there.

And thank you for joining us here. I am Kasie Hunt. Don't go anywhere. "CNN THIS MORNING" starts right now.