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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Today: House To Vote On Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA) For Speaker; Standoff In Gaza As Israel Refuses To Allow Fuel Into Enclave; Meadows Granted Immunity To Testify In DOJ's Election Subversion Probe. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired October 25, 2023 - 05:30   ET




KASIE HUNT, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Thank you for being up early with us. I'm Kasie Hunt. It is 5:30 here in Washington.

The big story at the bottom of the hour is that at noon today, the House will vote again to try to pick its next speaker. Late last night Republicans chose this man, 51-year-old Mike Johnson, to be their nominee after a tumultuous day on Capitol Hill.

It began with them selecting Minnesota Congressman Tom Emmer to be speaker, only to see him drop out hours later. One big factor in his withdrawal was Donald Trump, who knocked Emmer on Truth Social as a quote, "Globalist RINO" and then tried to whip votes against him.

So the big question today, can Mike Johnson win the gavel and get the House back to work, finally?

Let's bring in CNN senior political commentator Scott Jennings. Scott, good morning. It's great to see you.

I'm just looking at some of these morning newsletters that are coming out because in just these few hours, of course, everyone is scrambling to try to figure out who is Mike Johnson exactly. And so they write well, look, if you haven't Googled him yet, here's who he is.

He's a 51-year-old from Louisiana. He's a staunch conservative. He's somebody who ran the Republican Study Committee, which is kind of the older school conservative conference caucus in the House of Representatives.

What do we know about this guy? And I will say there are some insiders who thought hey, he might have an inside track on becoming speaker, but he's really pretty unknown to Americans across the country.

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR, FORMER SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH, COLUMNIST, USA TODAY: Yeah. He's not somebody who has chased like a high profile outwardly. You see Jim Jordan on Fox News almost every night. Byron Donalds, who was in the race for speaker -- he has chased a lot of public fame. But Mike Johnson has been a very behind-the-scenes player. He's

described as someone who is affable, who is a good listener. He's built relationships across the conference. Even though he does, I think, come from the more conservative wing of the conference, you're really hard-pressed to find somebody who doesn't like Mike Johnson. There may be a handful of folks out there who haven't reared up yet. But he does seem to have a lot of relationships across the conference.

And one of the things about his getting this if you -- ascends to the speakership is that he is not a television personality. There was some belief that that's what Republicans were going to do. They were going to take this job that's normally kind of a mechanic of legislative activity and just turn it into a pundit. You know, turn it into a legislative personality. That's what we did with the presidency after all.

But Mike Johnson is not that kind of person. He's very much someone who likes to work with other legislators behind the scenes -- even Democrats, on occasion. And I'm told by some members who are worried about what's going to happen at the government funding deadline, what's going to happen on the farm bill, for instance, that he understands he's going to have to work with the other party and work with the other parts of government to actually get things done to keep the institution functioning and moving forward.

HUNT: I mean, it really is interesting, Scott, especially because it was Matt Gaetz who took out Kevin McCarthy. And Gaetz is really, in so many ways, the polar opposite of what you are just describing. He is someone who has come to Washington in search of cameras, it seems, in search of fame, who has not focused on this.

And Johnson seems, as you point out rightly, so, so different from that. And he's also a pretty normal guy it seems in an era where a lot of these lawmakers are using their positions to just rake in money or they've earned their positions because they made their money and they used it to help get themselves to Congress.

He doesn't have -- he's -- you know, he's got a little bit of debt -- like a normal amount of debt. He doesn't have huge assets. He worked as a columnist and particularly, for religious groups before he came to Congress. I mean, in many ways, it's kind of a refreshing profile.

JENNINGS: Yeah. He's a constitutional lawyer. His district is northwest Louisiana. He's married. He's got four kids.

And if you -- if you look online about this guy there's a little bit of video of him out there talking about how he actually had some refreshing relationship with Nancy Pelosi --

HUNT: Yeah.

JENNINGS: -- who he said he disagrees with but that he described her as a generous person and they were -- he was happy to get along.


So --

HUNT: Better not play that too many times before noon today --

JENNINGS: Yeah, but I -- but --

HUNT: -- if they want to get this through.

JENNINGS: But you know what? Look, we're three weeks away from the government shutting down. Democrats control the Senate. There's a Democrat in the White House.

And a real question of strategy for the Republican Party has been are we going to be a confrontational party and shut down the government if you don't get everything you want or are we going to be a governing party here and recognize that the American people voted for divided government and we're going to have to talk to the other side?

It looks to me like Johnson is not somebody who is going to take confrontation to its logical conclusion where nothing happens. That he's going to be a conservative and fight for conservative values, but that he also realizes that there are conversations to be had across the aisle here.

So we'll see which was he's pushed and pulled. Obviously, the dynamics of the House haven't changed. There are people --

HUNT: Right.

JENNINGS: -- who don't want to do Ukraine. There are people who want to split that out from Israel. Who want to split that out from the border, et cetera, et cetera. He's going to have to navigate all the same problems that McCarthy was navigating.

But I am really interested to see if this more understatement, behind- the-scenes type of disposition is exactly what the House needs right now rather than somebody who spends all their time in front of a camera. Maybe he's the guy we need behind the camera talking to folks. And God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason and Mike Johnson seems to be the guy who believes in that old maxim.

HUNT: I guess we're about to find out -- maybe.

I mean, look, I think the reality -- let's talk about the kind of the nuts and bolts reality here. We showed some members who were speaking to my colleague Manu Raju last night.

You have Mike Lawler, who has become a very outspoken voice for the moderates and represents a Biden district, on the one hand. You've got Gaetz who, obviously, took on that mission to take down Kevin McCarthy, on the other hand. They both seem to be saying we're ready to get on board with Mike Johnson.

It does seem like they have reached a point where enough people feel like look, we've just got to get this done -- we've got to get to 217 -- that it does actually seem possible to me. I'm not sure. I felt like it was possible the other times. I was having conversations like this one early in the morning before a scheduled vote.

What's your take?

JENNINGS: Well, you're not seeing groups of people emerge that are adamantly opposed to Johnson. In all the other cases -- with Jordan, with Emmer, obviously with McCarthy on the original iteration of vacating this thing -- there was a dedicated group that said we will absolutely not do this. You did not hear anybody like that or any group like that emerge last night when Johnson got ahold of this thing out of the conference. You're not really seeing that emerging overnight.

Obviously, there's a few hours before they're scheduled to go to the floor, so we'll see if anybody rears up here. But it strikes me that the absence of a dedicated opposition is a critical issue. Now, as you know, he can only lose but a handful of votes on the floor, and just a few people can derail this entire thing.

But I believe all these members of Congress have one thing in common. They are hearing a bunch from back home saying you've got to get back to work. You're the Republican majority. You're our voice at the negotiating table with the Democrats who run the Senate and the Democrat who runs the White House. So as long as we're on the sidelines, our priorities aren't being heard.

So getting back to work, I think, is a high priority for people who said hey, I donated to and I voted for a Republican majority. You guys need to act like it.

HUNT: It's a really good point. I never thought I would see a situation where voters gave some -- a group of Republicans or Democrats, for that matter, power, and then they abdicated that power because they couldn't get it together.

Scott Jennings, thank you very much for being up with us this morning, my friend. I really appreciate it.

JENNINGS: Thank you, Kasie.

HUNT: And coming up next, a standoff over fuel getting into Gaza as the humanitarian crisis there deepens.

Plus, U.S. military advisers are invoking the lessons of Iraq in their discussions with Israel. We've got new CNN reporting ahead.



HUNT: Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen playing a recording at the U.N. Security Council yesterday of what he claims to be a Hamas fighter bragging to his parents about killing Jewish people. CNN can't confirm its authenticity but it comes as Israeli officials highlight the heinous details of the October 7 attack -- listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ELI COHEN, ISRAELI FOREIGN MINISTER: I would like to listen to this recording.

MAHMOUD: Hi did. I'm talking to you from Mefalsim. Open my WhatsApp now and you'll see all those killed. Look how many I killed with my own hands! Your son killed Jews! It's inside Mefalsim, Dad.

DAD: May God protect you.

MAHMOUD: Dad, I'm talking to you from a Jewish woman's phone. I killed her, and I killed her husband.

COHEN: This is a terrorist of Hamas. What he said there in Arab -- he's telling to his mother and father that he's proud that there's blood of the Jewish that he murdered.


HUNT: Just awful.

Meanwhile, a standoff in Gaza as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency says it will halt operations in the enclave if no fuel is delivered. Right now, Israel is not allowing any fuel to enter the Gaza Strip because they claim Hamas is stealing it for its own operations.

The WHO says six hospitals in Gaza have been forced to shut down due to lack of fuel. One doctor warning his hospital will become a quote, "mass grave" if fuel runs out.

CNN's Scott McLean is live in London with more. Scott, good morning to you. How is Israel responding to these warnings of mass death if no fuel is allowed to enter Gaza?

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, a lot of mixed signals being sent. Obviously, you've had 42 aid trucks get into Gaza over the last few days carrying food, water, medicine, medical supplies, and things like that, but not a single one has had fuel on board.

You've got a huge push from the international community, world leaders, and the U.N. to let fuel into Gaza, but Israel can't seem to figure out what its official stance is.

Yesterday, you had the IDF chief of staff saying that it would try to get fuel into Gaza to relieve some of the humanitarian issues that we are seeing there, but they would not allow it to get into the hands of Hamas. So he didn't say how exactly that would be done.


Then, later in the day, you had an IDF spokesperson saying no, there would be no fuel getting into Gaza period because, as you pointed out earlier, their -- the Israeli stance is that Hamas is just going to steal it. And so, if hospitals need fuel they should get it from Hamas. And my colleague Jake Tapper tried to clear this up last night with

the chief of staff to the Israeli prime minister who acknowledged that look, there is a genuine need for fuel at hospitals but he says that Hamas has plenty of it -- listen.


MARK REGEV, SENIOR ADVISER TO PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: There is actually a huge amount of fuel inside Gaza today, which Hamas has. Now, if you could tell me -- give me assurances -- guarantees that fuel going into Gaza would only go for civilian purposes, that's fine. But I don't think anyone can give me that guarantee.


MCLEAN: In other words, don't hold your breath. But the clock is ticking. You said it earlier. The U.N. says that it will run out of fuel for its fuel deposits that it has in Gaza by the end of the day.

The WHO says that you have 1,000 dialysis patients in Gaza, 130 premature babies, countless others in intensive care, all of whom will be put at risk if the lights go out. No fuel also means no water. They cannot operate their desalination or pumping stations. Obviously, that raises all kinds of risks about waterborne disease.

But at this point, still no answer from the Israelis, and again, not a lot of hope for the people inside of Gaza, Kasie.

HUNT: A very difficult situation.

Scott McLean, thank you very much for being with us.

Let's dive into that and more with Jodi Rudoren, editor-in-chief of The Forward, and the former New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief. Jodi, good morning. Thank you very much for being here.

I kind of want -- I just want to get your take on what that senior adviser was arguing there, basically saying there is fuel in Gaza; Hamas just won't give it to their civilians. I mean, who's right?

JODI RUDOREN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, THE FORWARD, FORMER NEW YORK TIMES JERUSALEM BUREAU CHIEF: Well, this is really a microcosm of the much bigger problem here in terms of what is Israeli's aim in this war and what might possibly happen in Gaza afterwards.

You have in Hamas a terror organization that committed this horrible attack on October 7 and, essentially, the governing power in Gaza because there is no other governing power in Gaza.

And when you have a terrorist group ruling a territory -- Israel or any other responsible country -- I think it's in a bit of a quagmire in terms of how is it supposed to deal with this exact problem. With the idea if it sends fuel to Gaza or allows fuel into Gaza that it won't be used for military or terrorist purposes. There is no way to guarantee that because there is no responsible leadership governing body in Gaza other than Hamas. The second other body that operates in Gaza is UNRWA, the U.N. refugee agency that is saying it will stop operations on Wednesday if there's no fuel -- to (INAUDIBLE) if there's no fuel. And -- but it is -- it is often that always a reliable, responsible governing authority and that's the confusion -- that's the conundrum. It is a real dilemma and it is not just going to stop at fuel.

Any question of who will run things responsibly in Gaza during the war, during a humanitarian break, or after Israel achieves its goals, if it does, of routing Hamas from Gaza -- those are the big questions.

HUNT: Right -- no. It's -- Israel clearly stated to the world -- hey, we don't want to run this place anymore. But if they do go in and dismantle the only authority, as you point out, it's so unclear what happens next.

Jodi, I want to ask you about the United Nations and what the U.N. Secretary-General had to say. We showed it a little bit earlier. The piece of it that has Israel doing things like demanding he resign, refusing visas to U.N. officials, is where he said, quote, "It's 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."

This, of course, referring to the attacks that were, quite simply, massacres of civilians -- children, women, babies, elderly people.

How are his comments resonating with American Jews, with people in Israel, and what happens next?

RUDOREN: I mean, first of all, the context we also need to remember is Israelis', in particular, and pro-Israel-American Jews' view of the U.N. is not great. The U.N. has been a harsh critic of Israel over many years and people do not feel necessarily that it is a sort of reliable arbiter of this conflict.


That said, I mean, look, a horrible attack occurred on October 7. I think it is somewhat futile to kind of go back into the sort of tit- for-tat -- like, who did what to who when and which is worse. And yet, of course, things do not happen in a vacuum.

I saw some reports about the particular thing that set Israel off was also the call for a ceasefire versus the call for a humanitarian pause -- a pause to get supplies, possibly including fuel with some guarantees, into Gaza. And I think the world -- it makes perfect sense for the world to be deeply concerned about the deepening humanitarian crisis in Gaza and to be looking for a solution for that. And the U.N. needs to play a constructive and important leadership role in that possible solution.

But the idea of apportioning blame for every particular piece of this horrible situation is very dicey.

HUNT: Yeah, it's really hard. All right, Jodi Rudoren. Thank you very much for being with us this morning. I really appreciate your time today.

RUDOREN: Thanks for having me.

HUNT: And former President Trump meeting face-to-face with his former fixer Michael Cohen for the first time in years. We're going to tell you what happened in court.

And Trump's former chief of staff granted immunity by special counsel Jack Smith, according to ABC News. What it could mean for the former president's case.



HUNT: Welcome back.

For the first time in five years, Donald Trump and his former attorney and fixer Michael Cohen met face-to-face. Cohen testified yesterday against the former president at his New York civil fraud trial, directly implicating him. Cohen described how he manipulated Trump's financial statements in order to hit an arbitrary net worth. Cohen also worked with the Trump Organization's chief financial officer to inflate the value of Trump's properties.

And in the federal election interference case against Trump, the former president's chief of staff, Mark Meadows, was granted immunity by special counsel Jack Smith. ABC News reports that Meadows met with Smith's team at least three times, including once before a federal grand jury while he had immunity.

He allegedly told investigators he did not believe the election was stolen and that Trump was being, quote, "dishonest" in claiming victory in November 2020.

CNN has reached out to Meadows' attorney for comment.

Let's bring in Joey Jackson, CNN legal analyst and criminal defense attorney. Joey, great to see you, as always.

Let's just start with this -- with Meadows. How big a deal is this?

JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY (via Webex by Cisco): Yeah, Kasie. It's a big deal, obviously, because you have a person who's a chief of staff and that chief of staff is a person who surrounds himself with the president.

Is knowledgeable as to the president's comings and goings. Who the president is speaking to. What's on the president's mind. What is the president directly you to do. What direction is the president giving you to direct everyone else.

And so, to the extent that he's the person closest to the president and could get into the president's state of mind, I think it's a significant development.

I would hasten to add though, Kasie, that defense attorneys, like myself, will seize upon the fact that hey, didn't you write a book? And in that book did you contradict many of the claims that you are asserting now with respect to the election and election fraud? In the book you seem to suggest that there was election fraud and you were setting the record straight by writing the book. But now that you're on Team America and you're in trouble, you're telling a different story.

HUNT: Yeah.

JACKSON: So he will be subject to those attacks but the essence of his cooperation is hugely significant.

HUNT: Yeah. I mean, I guess it's -- you're not going to get threatened with jail time if you write this down in a book, but if you were to --

JACKSON: Exactly.

HUNT: -- lie to the grand jury something else -- consequences are a little higher.


HUNT: Can you sort of help me understand -- I mean, one of the fulcrums, it seems, of Jack Smith's case and the way he's laying out his argument is this idea that Trump was told repeatedly that he did not win the 2020 election. Can you just remind everyone why that piece of it is important and how this plays into that?

JACKSON: Absolutely. So what happens, Kasie, in criminal court you look and you assess the state of mind. And when you assess the state of mind and you're speaking to the issue of intentionally engaging in misrepresentation, intentionally engaging in fraud, intentionally engaging in election subversion and overturning a democracy, you want to show that this is just not a good faith belief that the president had in terms of any fraud. This is fraud itself -- the reality is -- and his fraud perpetrated upon the American people.

In the event that the president's lawyers can show that hey, he's the president. He had a concern with respect to how elections are conducted in this country. That they be -- that there be a propriety associated with those elections. And he knew that there could be some misgivings. And therefore, Mr. Trump, in speaking about this, harbored a good faith belief that there was something amiss in the elections.

Nonsense, will say Meadows. Good faith as to what? We met with Bill Barr in the Oval Office. Bill Barr said, Mr. President, this just ain't panning out, sir. And what then?

So the whole issue was predicated, Kasie, upon the notion that this was simply fraud. The president knew better, didn't care, and propagated a narrative that was false, period.

HUNT: Right.

All right. So quickly, I do want to touch briefly on Jenna Ellis. And I know -- you and I were chatting about this yesterday as well because she had this very tearful apology that's a real switch.

How significant was her -- and this is, again, the Georgia election case -- flipping, basically, and pleading guilty and now having to testify, potentially, against the former president?

JACKSON: Yeah, Kasie. So that's very significant, too, in isolation and in tandem. And what do I mean? We have yet another president's lawyer looking at it in isolation, meaning her specific guilty plea saying that she aided and abetted false statements, as we look at her there being tearful in her, really, allocution, right -- admitting that she was guilty. And so, alone, with her saying that and being a president's lawyer, it's damning.

You add that to --

HUNT: Right.


JACKSON: -- the Sidney Powell issue and you add that to the issue of Chesebro, both of which have pled guilty, both of which --

HUNT: Right.

JACKSON: -- are president's attorneys -- that creates a major problem for the President of the United States who is also, by the way --

HUNT: Piling up.

JACKSON: -- in that -- yes.

HUNT: Yes. The problems are piling up.

All right, Joey Jackson. Thank you very much for being with us this morning.

JACKSON: Always.

HUNT: I really appreciate your time.

And thanks, as well, to all of you for joining us this morning on a very busy news day. Don't go anywhere. "CNN THIS MORNING" starts right now.