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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Today: House to Vote on Rep. Mike Johnson for Speaker; Talks Ongoing for a Larger Release of Hamas Hostages; Fuel Shortage Means Gazans Are Drinking Salty, Dirty Water. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired October 25, 2023 - 05:00   ET



KASIE HUNT, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Kasie Hunt. It's Wednesday, October 25th, 5:00 a.m. here in Washington where we begin another day without a Speaker of the House.

About seven hours from now, the House is scheduled to vote again to try to fix that. So who might the next Speaker of the House be, you ask? Well, you would be forgiven to not recognizing this man. That is 51-year-old Mike Johnson of Louisiana whose relative complete lack of public profile might be exactly why he could become the last man standing.

He was picked late last night after a tumultuous day on Capitol Hill. Republicans spent most of the day voting to pick Minnesota Congressman Tom Emmer, you see him there, as their nominee. He is not exactly a household name either, but he had served in House leadership before.

And that seems to be exactly the problem. Emmer was selected as next pick for speaker yesterday around lunchtime, but he was out before dinner. And that was mostly because Donald Trump knew too much about him.

After Emmer was elected, Trump knocked Emmer on his Truth Social platform as a globalist RINO, and Trump's team followed up with calls to GOP members whipping them against voting for Emmer.

Emmer's sin, of course, voting to certify the 2020 election that Joe Biden won.

So what is Johnson's track record on that issue? Well, Johnson was a member of Trump's impeachment defense team first time around and then he helped lead critical legal challenges to the 2020 election results.

Aha, still after stating the obvious, Republicans are under intense pressure, to pick somebody, anybody, to get the House open. It has been three weeks since they deposed Kevin McCarthy. There have been three failed candidates for speaker for now, three on the floor. And zero could marshal the 217 votes necessary to actually win the gavel.

This time, it does seem like everyone is just so over it that it might work.


REP. BILL HUIZENGA (R-MI): This is the closest that we have come to being able to cross that finish line. So I think that mike's got the ability to do that.

REP. MATT GAETZ (R-FL): Mike is the right guy, he's an inspirational leader. I'm so excited to elect him Speaker of the House.

REP. MIKE LAWLER (R-NY): Obviously, I did not support the removal of Kevin McCarthy. I think that it was, you know, arguably stupidest move ever made in politics, but we have to move forward. So we're going to rally around Mike Johnson.

REP. MARIO DIAZ-BALART (R-FL): The Republicans are back. Our agenda is going to be back on track. We're unified and we are -- I think we're happy to be where we are.


HUNT: Still Johnson was elected speaker nominee with just 128 votes, and that is far short of the 217, he will need on the floor under that dome later today.

Let's bring in CNN political commentator Scott Jennings to talk more about this.

Scott, very grateful to have you here this morning.

Let's talk a little bit about who is Mike Johnson and, you know, I really do gets sense that listening to the members talk, that they really are just over it that they might actually be ready do this at noon today. What's your sense?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You got a lot of optimism from all corners of the party. I mean, in the clips there, you heard everybody from Matt Gaetz to Mike Lawler. When you got Gaetz and Lawler, I mean, those are the two extreme ends of this fight saying this is the right guy, that is reason for optimism.

Johnson is not a bomb thrower. He is not a household name certainly. He doesn't chase Fox News the way his mentor Jim Jordan did. You get a lot of comments about him that he's affable, that he's a good listener, that he is someone that people generally get along with.

I watched a lot of clips of Johnson over the last several hours and he does sort of have a moderate tone. You know, he is not stridently bombastic or confrontational. There's even a video of him talking about how he thinks that it is his relationship to have a relationship with Democrats and try to convince him that conservative ideas are better.

So I think when you look at disposition, he might be what the doctor ordered. I know Democrats are going to be against him on the January 6 stuff and on the Biden election stuff.

[05:05:02] But when you think about what the speaker has to do -- run the entire House and try to work together to do big things, the disposition of someone like Johnson could be -- could be what we need here.

HUNT: Right, because the reality here, I mean, he led this amicus brief in Texas that if successful would have overturned the presidential election in several critical battle ground states. His positions are not all that different from, say, where Jim Jordan was, although obviously Jordan had a unique role on January 6. But the word I think encapsulated -- often encapsulates Jordan as a legislator and as a personality is aggressive. And that is kind of the opposite of where Johnson is, even though they may share some of the same ideas.

JENNINGS: Yeah, Johnson comes across as more studious. You know, more thoughtful, less bombastic, less confrontational, more interested in maybe convincing you on the strength of his ideas than shouting you down.

And honestly, I think a lot of Americans are going to appreciate that kind of disposition. And as he goes into, Kasie, to what he has to do the next few weeks which is essentially make a deal with Democrats in the Senate and White House on keeping the government funded, that sort of disposition is going to be required. You know, Republicans only have one of the three legs of the stool here when it comes to keeping the government open.

So he's going to have to work with the other party. And as I mentioned, I think that he has shown some willingness in his career to that. He probably is going to be on a different planet when it comes to Democrats on most issues.

But that interest in talking to the other side and saying that they are not the enemy, we have to work with them, that will help him in the room as we approach the critical government funding deadline.

HUNT: Yeah, I mean, it is remarkable that that is a characteristic that is so rare but I think that you are right to point it out.

Very briefly, Scott, Kevin McCarthy got I think it was 43 or so votes in the late night ballots last night. It seemed like maybe there was a little balloon that maybe McCarthy would be back.

Do you think that he has given up on that dream or is there still something there?

JENNINGS: Well, you're right about the murmurs. There were people at the beginning of this whole thing thinking that it might come back to McCarthy. And I do think that there was a sense that late last night, that we had to do something. So had Johnson somehow not taken control of it, I could have seen how it would have gone back to McCarthy.

But yes, it seems to me now that the Republican Party wants to go ahead and just do Mike Johnson like I said when you have Gaetz and Lawler both on the same page, that to me speaks volumes. So, I do think what happened to McCarthy was a travesty, but I think that all the members are screaming at them saying you got to get back to work. All you do is sit around and say each other's names out loud all day. We don't want you for long. Just get somebody and move forward.

And that somebody I think is most likely to be Johnson. We haven't heard anybody creep up today overnight and say, you know, hell no. All the other people that came forward, there was a hell no group. And in this case, you've not heard that yet on Johnson.

And so, hopefully, McCarthy will go along with that today and the Republican Party can function as a majority, which it has ceased do for the last three weeks.

HUNT: Yeah, a combination of disposition and also frankly lack of a public profile that I think helps avoid that hell no conference that you were mentioning.

Scott Jennings, thank you very much. We'll be back in a few minutes. I really appreciate you starting us off today.

And coming up, we got new details into CNN on how Hamas militants managed to evade detection while planning their attack on Israel, including the use of secret phone lines.

Plus, the humanitarian situation in Gaza is growing more dire. The standoff over getting critical fuel to hospitals in the warzone.

And a key Trump ally and former election lawyer both flipped on the former president.



HUNT: Welcome back.

Now to war in Israel where officials are engaged in intense talks over the release of the hostages. Only four released so far, but two sources tell CNN talks are under way to release a large number of the hostages. In addition to Israel, the sources tell CNN these talks include Qatar, Egypt and, of course, Hamas.

The U.S. has been pressing Israel to hold off on the ground incursion into Gaza. And so far, Israel has obliged. Sources say timing of an invasion is a moving target. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a group of soldiers Tuesday that it is coming. And you are part of the vanguard.

Also Tuesday, the U.N. says eight of 20 scheduled humanitarian aid trucks were able to enter through the Rafah crossing.

Satellite images show Egypt is reinstalling a cement slab wall at the crossing between aid convoys. About 500 to 600 remain trapped in Gaza. And an adviser to Israel's prime minister we're told that is because Hamas not Egypt won't let them out.


MARK REGEV, SENIOR ADVISER TO ISRAEL'S PRIME MINISTER: Hamas won't let them out. In many ways, I think that Hamas is also keeping them hostage. I remember Secretary Blinken raised that issue over a week ago before the president was here, before your secretary of defense. It's one of the issues that came up with us, and we said from our point of view, we'll do everything we can to facilitate the immediate release.


HUNT: The humanitarian situation in Gaza is growing more dire. Spokesman for the Israeli military says no fuel would be allowed in because it would be stolen by Hamas. It apparently contradicts an earlier statement from IDF chief of staff that fuel would be allowed to go where it's needed, quote, to treat civilians. Fuel shortage means Gazans are increasingly being forced to drink dirty salty water, as the system for pumping and cleaning power gradually collapses.

Let's bring in CNN's Rafael Romo live in Tel Aviv.

Rafael, bring us up to speed, what's the latest on the race to rescue these hostages?


Efforts to secure the release of the hostages started the day after they were taken captive by Hamas and there are talks currently under way, the United States, Israel, Qatar, Egypt and Hamas, of course, are engaged in the ongoing efforts.


And as you may remember, the last two hostages were released thanks to negotiations between Egypt and Qatar and support of the international committee of the Red Cross. Two sources familiar with these talks and one Western diplomat with knowledge of the negotiations told CNN that the talks are being complicated by different factors, different reasons, without getting more specific.

But, Kasie, let me tell you, the question is, many people are asking how many hostages does Hamas still have? Israeli officials say there are 220 people in captivity. And this is after four of them, two Americans and two Israelis were released, two on Friday and two more on Monday.

On Tuesday, the Israel Defense Forces dropped flyers in Gaza, appealing to residents for any information whatsoever about the hostages being held by Hamas offering protection and compensation in return.

And CNN has learned that the Biden administration has pressed Israel to delay the invasion of Gaza in order to give negotiators more time to secure the release of a large group of hostages that would explain why the ground incursion into Gaza hasn't happened just yet.

Back to you.

HUNT: All right. Rafael Romo in Israel for us, thank you very much. I appreciate your time.

And we're getting new insights into Hamas' intelligence infrastructure ahead of the October 7 attack on Israel. According two sources, intelligence shared suggests a small cell of operatives planning the attack communicated via a network of hardwired phones in tunnels over a period of two years. The offline system let them communicate in secret.

CNN has not seen a specific intelligence, but spoke to sources familiar with it.

Israeli Brigadier General Amir Avivi is live for us in Jerusalem. He is the chairman and founders of the Israel Defense and Security Forum.

General, thanks very much for being here.

This is a low tech system that could help explain why there was such an intelligence failure.

BRIG. GEN. AMIR AVIVI (RET.), ISRAEL DEFENSE & SECURITY FORUM CHAIRMAN & FOUNDER: Yes. You know, I was chief officer of convert (INAUDIBLE) in the Gaza division and I was also deputy division commander of the Gaza Strip. And what I've seen for years the buildup of this infrastructure, underground infrastructure, a whole city underground and it is all connected with local communication, in a way that the technologically very difficult to really understand what's going on underneath the Gaza City and whole region of Gaza.

HUNT: Can you explain -- I mean, what would it have taken to build this? How much time? We understand this was planned over the course of two years. But to kind of give people a bit of a sense of what it would take to actually do this.

AVIVI: Well, it's actually has been built in the course of 20 years, not two years. And since Hamas took over Gaza, they started a huge project intended to deal with two main capabilities that the IDF has, our technological abilities talking about intelligence gathering and the airport.

And by building their own infrastructure underground, they managed really to cope well with the two capabilities leaving us really no choice but a ground incursion. The only way to achieve the goals of war and destroying Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and then also completely dismantling all the structures -- something that might take months and maybe years. It can only be done by a ground incursion that will take quite a lot of time.

HUNT: The U.S. has been warning about the plans for a ground invasion basically saying, hey, avoid the traps that we found ourselves in when we went into Iraq. What is your take on the leadership of Israel and the way that they are timing their decision for a potential ground incursion?

AVIVI: You know, in 2014, we launched a limited ground attack in order to destroy the offensive --

HUNT: Unfortunately, we seem to have lost our general there.

Brigadier General Amir Avivi, thank you very much for your time. We really appreciate it.

Up next here, the tensions flare at the U.N. Security Council meeting.

Plus, the audio tape played by Israel's foreign minister reportedly revealing a Hamas fighter bragging about killing Jewish people. That's ahead.



HUNT: Welcome back.

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres sparking fierce backlash from Israel after appealing for, quote, an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza and saying the attacks by Hamas, quote, did not a happen in a vacuum.


ANTONIO GUTERRES, UN SECRETARY GENERAL: It is important to also recognize the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum. The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation.


HUNT: Israel's foreign minister refusing to meet with Guterres and Israel's ambassador to the U.N. is calling on him to resign immediately after those remarks.

Let's bring in CNN's Max Foster for more on this.

Max, good morning to you.

We're also just learning that Israel is now blocking visas for U.N. officials in the wake of those comments. Their take essentially you are basically justifying a massacre, a mass murder. How is this comment rippling around the world?

MAX FOSTER, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: It's interesting. I mean, there is a history of tension between Israel and the United Nations. We should probably point that out for context. Israel particularly has an issue with the U.N. Human Rights Council, which is often calling out Israel. But Israel would argue that there are countries represented on that panel who carry out human rights abuses which the panel doesn't often address.

So, there is a lot of tension going back on that. It is a situation, a difficult situation, for the United Nations when the Israeli ambassador has refused to talk to the head of the United Nations. Just to quote the ambassador, saying that they are not talking, there is no justification or point in talking to those who show compassion for the most terrible atrocities committed against the citizens of Israel and the Jewish people. There are simply no words.

So while Guterres was probably talking about a wider context around Israeli/Palestinian tensions, Israel finds it extremely distasteful that that was attached to the attack that Hamas carried out in Israel, of course. And, you know, I don't want to interpret the -- how people are feeling, but this quote from "The Times" of Israel today saying that Guterres' comments suggest impetus for the Hamas terrorist groups devastating October 7 attack on Israel was Jewish state's continued control of Palestinian territories.

HUNT: Yeah, such an emotional difficult reality here.

Max Foster, thank you very much for being with us this morning. Hope to see you tomorrow.

And it has been 22 days without a speaker. Will the vote today finally bring the chaos to an end?

And special counsel Jack Smith possibly securing his most valuable witness yet. That's next.