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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Republican Member of Congress Warns About a Putin-Wing Inside the Republican Party; Democrats Hope VP Harris Changes the Narrative and Help Joe Biden Deliver a Big Win in November; Donald Trump Launches His Own Sneaker Brand a Day After a New York Judge Ordered Him to Pay $354.9 in Penalties for Fraudulently Overstating His Net Worth. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired February 19, 2024 - 05:00   ET



KASIE HUNT, ANCHOR, EARLY START: Right now on EARLY START, a warning from a former Republican member of Congress about a Putin wing inside the Republican Party. And counting on Kamila, Democrats hoping the Vice President can change the narrative and help Joe Biden deliver a big win in November.

And after a New York judge barred him from doing business in the state, Donald Trump has a new gig -- sneaker salesman. Good morning to our viewers in the United States and around the world, I'm Kasie Hunt, it's Monday, February 19th. Today is President's Day.

This morning, the fallout from the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is being felt around the world. An independent Russian human rights group says that 30,000 people have signed a petition for the immediate release of Navalny's body before the government can conduct an autopsy.

That same group, it's called OVD Info says more than 360 people have been detained for attending rallies and vigils in Navalny's memory. About a third of those detained have since been released. In the U.S., former President Trump has still not made a statement mentioning Navalny.

His campaign pointed to this vague truth social post. It doesn't name Navalny or Vladimir Putin. In contrast to President Biden, President Biden had this to say on Friday.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Make no mistake. Putin is responsible for Navalny's death. Putin is responsible.


HUNT: On the campaign trail in South Carolina, Nikki Haley said Trump needs to say something.


whether he thinks Putin is responsible for Navalny.


HUNT: Liz Cheney offered Trump's silence on the question as proof, a significant slice of the Republican Party is lining up behind Russia's leader.


LIZ CHENEY, ATTORNEY & FORMER U.S. REPRESENTATIVE: When you think about Donald Trump for example, pledging retribution what Vladimir Putin did to Navalny is what retribution looks like in a country where the leader is not subject to the rule of law.

And I think that we have to take Donald Trump very seriously. We have to take seriously the extent to which you know, you've now got a Putin wing of the Republican Party.


HUNT: All right, let's bring in CNN's Clare Sebastian now, she's live for us in London. Clare, good morning to you. Are there any signs that Navalny's death while in custody is turning out to be a bigger problem for the Kremlin than they may have anticipated either domestically in Russia or across the globe?

CLARE SEBASTIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Kasie, there's no evidence of that as of now without obviously knowing what the Kremlin was expecting from this. But my best assessment at this point is no, internationally of course, there have been a lot of condemnations, a lot of course for accountability, a lot of direct accusations against the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin himself, but no actual action.

We've seen no new sanctions. We've seen no major new aid pledges to Ukraine, of course, U.S. aid is still stalled in Congress, congress, which is of course, on a two-week recess right now. So, I think from that -- in that regard, the Kremlin won't be rattled by the international reaction that they have.

Of course, condemned it in terms of within Russia, what we're seeing really as a measure of the state of Russia right now, the level of repression which has been increasing really over the past decade, significantly increased since the start of the full-scale invasion has meant that this is really just been a sort of spark of defiance.

We've seen no rallies, no marches, the likes of which we saw nine years ago when another opposition figure, Boris Nemtsov was shot really on the approach to the Kremlin that did spark a significant reaction. This is nothing like that. People are simply too afraid. The crackdown, yes, the police presence, the people being carried off, people's faces being shoved into the snow that we've seen, that does smack of a Kremlin that is rattled by this sort of very presence of the theme of Navalny. But overall, I don't think the Kremlin sees this as a crisis, and just quickly, a comment from them in the last hour or saying that they have nothing to do with returning Navalny's body, which has still not been returned to his family. But they did say that an investigation into this is underway.


HUNT: OK, Clare, this of course, taking place against the backdrop of Putin's war in Ukraine, and over the weekend, Russia announced that they were fully in control of a Ukrainian city, Avdiivka. Ukrainian troops withdrew from there on Friday night. How serious is that for the Ukrainians?

SEBASTIAN: This was not unexpected for the Ukrainians. They had warned back in December that the sheer amount of troops that were in Russia was able to bring to bear in that region meant that it would probably end up falling, and this is what we see happening.

Look, it does potentially open up new routes for Russia to move farther west as possible that Ukraine will be able to stop them. But I think this is a major blow because of what it says about the state of this war. That this is now that we're seeing that the stalling of U.S. aid really playing out on the frontlines.

President Biden himself has attributed the fall of Avdiivka to that. The lack of manpower Russia is able to bring in a lot of men, whereas Ukraine has this aging force on the frontline, and it is struggling to mobilize more Russian air superiority, of course, F-16s there as yet not in play for Ukraine, and Russia is attacking now in other places along the frontline. And I think they are emboldened by this, Kasie.

HUNT: All right, Clare Sebastian for us in London. Clare, thanks very much for your reporting. All right, for more on how the U.S. is reacting to Navalny's death, I want to bring in Maegan Vazquez, she's national politics breaking news reporter for the "Washington Post". Maegan, good morning, thanks very much for --


HUNT: Being here. So, one of the most notable responses coming out of the U.S., of course, is the silence that we are hearing from Donald Trump who has declined to directly address it. He shared this post last night on Truth Social, it says "Biden is to Trump, as Putin is to Navalny".

I mean, are you reading this the way I'd read it, Trump's trying to say he is persecuted by Biden the same way Navalny was by Putin. What's going on here?

VAZQUEZ: Right, it's the continuation of a broader pattern that we've seen from the former president, trying to essentially compare himself to individuals who have been politically persecuted in other countries. We also saw something kind of similar last year when the -- when the former president compared himself to Nelson Mandela, and said he would be willing to go to jail over what he faces.

Of course, between Navalny and Mandela and Trump, they're very -- a lot of differences, and clearly now, what we're seeing is, this is the response so far when it comes to Trump's reaction to Navalny's death itself. This is all we've seen.

HUNT: So, Maegan, one other sort of ongoing narrative has been Tucker Carlson; the former "Fox News" host. He traveled to Russia, he did a sit-down interview with Vladimir Putin, and over the weekend, we saw some more traffic as he navigated Russian society, shall we say. He went to a Russian grocery store and he had this to say. Watch.


TUCKER CARLSON, AMERICAN COMMENTATOR & WRITER: So, we thought it'd be interesting to take a look at the contemporary modern-day 2024 Russian grocery store two years into sanctions. Here we go. All right, here we go. So, I guess you put in 10 rubles here, and you get it back when you put the card back.

So, it's free, but there's an incentive to return it, and not just bring it to your homeless encampment. And coming to a Russian grocery store, the heart of evil and seeing what things cost and how people live, it will radicalize you against our leaders.


HUNT: So, there is a lot going on there, including his kind of misinterpretation of just how much it costs to be a Russian shopping at a Russian grocery store. But I am thinking back to what Liz Cheney had to say, we played it in the open to Jake Tapper over the weekend, which is that there is a Putin wing of the Republican Party. I mean, that is what that guy sounds like. No?

VAZQUEZ: It's pretty clear, you know, we were -- when I was watching that, I was remembering somebody told me that it was -- if they fail to basically talk about how much a Russian necessarily makes on average, and how much it costs to pay for those groceries that he was buying there. I don't know if Tucker Carlson's ever been to an Aldi, but I do have that experience with the -- with the quarter myself.

You know, we're at a point right now where what we're seeing within the Congress, I think is indicative of a lot of the fissures that are happening within the Republican Party. One of the things that I think is quite notable is that Donald Trump Jr., the president's -- the former president's son is now pushing to essentially primary these Senate Republicans who wanted to aid Ukraine, right?


To basically -- voted for this bill. This funding bill that recently was passed in the Senate. So, I just think it's an interesting division that we're seeing a lot of -- we're seeing a lot of different examples of, and it sometimes -- it's a conservative news personality at a Russian grocery stores and sometimes what we're seeing is in the Congress itself. HUNT: All right, Maegan Vazquez of the "Washington Post" for us.

Maegan, thanks very much for being with us this morning.

VAZQUEZ: Thank you.

HUNT: Up next here, two weeks without an attack on American troops. What's going on with Iran and their proxies in the Middle East. Plus, a prominent Michigan Democrat telling people in her state not to vote for Joe Biden. And how Democrats are hoping Kamala Harris can help change the fortunes of the president.



HUNT: Welcome back. The almost daily attacks on U.S. forces in the Middle East seemed to have died down over the past couple of weeks. Earlier this month, the U.S. launched airstrikes on a Iranian-backed militants in Yemen, Syria and Iraq.

Tehran had earlier threatened a military response to any U.S. threats. CNN's Max Foster joins us now live from London. Max, good morning. This comes as the "Washington Post" is reporting -- CNN hasn't confirmed it, Iran has been warning its proxies to avoid provoking the U.S., just to kind of to dial -- to dial it back.

And we are reporting that these -- you know, these attacks have not been as aggressive lately. I mean, this kind of lines up with the thinking that we've been discussing mornings as we've talked about this particular issue that while Iran, yes, is doing a lot of saber- rattling, they don't actually want to provoke a wider war with the United States.

Is that how you read what's going on here? Or do you think it's that, you know, the actual -- and some of these strikes that the U.S. has made have been directly on say, the Houthi capability to go after ships in the Red Sea for example. What do you think is the balance and what's going on here behind the scenes?

MAX FOSTER, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR & CORRESPONDENT: Well, the post reporting does ring true because these groups have -- there have been less reported attacks by them. And Iran is the -- is the one body if you like, linking them all. We're always trying to figure out exactly the relationship these groups have with Iran.

If you take the -- you know, what a lot of American sources will tell you is that they are proxy groups representing Iran, Iran has a lot of control over them. If you go to the Iranians, they'll tell you, these are independent groups who, yes, Iran backs, supports, trains, but doesn't control them.

They're more like alliances. But we've seen this reduction in attacks on U.S. interests. So, that does suggest the Iranians have got involved here. What do you read it? And so, that tells us something about the amount of control they have. They certainly do have some influence, at least. HUNT: Leverage --

FOSTER: What this tell us --

HUNT: We call it leverage.

FOSTER: Yes, exactly, not necessarily, you know, Iranian groups, but certainly, they have aligned interests, you know, attacking American interests. But you know, what does it mean? You know, I don't think it changes their long-term strategy, which is to attack those western interests and to take on the West.

Perhaps, it's just -- perhaps they're not stepping back. Perhaps, they've demonstrated what they're capable of by taking out these U.S. forces in Jordan. And that's enough. It's a warning. They don't want a war at this point. So, they've done their job. It's interesting -- you know, it's just very difficult to know, considering the many mixed messages that we receive from the different bodies involved here.

HUNT: Yes, it's very many layers, and then, of course, you have questions about what the actual Iranian government wants to do around their nuclear program and how much of that comes under threat if these groups are doing things elsewhere in the region. Max Foster, thanks very much for bringing us an update. Always great to talk to you --

FOSTER: Thanks, Kasie.

HUNT: All right, still ahead here, is Nikki Haley, Joe Biden's best surrogate, and why NASA needs volunteers to be like Martians.



HUNT: All right, we've got quick hits across America now. Two police officers and a firefighter killed responding to a domestic incident in Minnesota. Officials say they were called to a home where an armed man was barricaded inside with family members, including seven children.


DREW EVANS, SUPERINTENDENT, BUREAU OF CRIMINAL APPREHENSION, MINNESOTA: This is really a terrible day for the city of Burnsville, all of the residents, the law enforcement and fire communities that are mourning the loss of these public servants that occurred earlier today.


HUNT: Officials say that the family members got out and are safe. Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib urging her constituents to vote against President Biden in the upcoming Democratic primary. Tlaib says she wants people to vote uncommitted as a protest vote against Biden's handling of the Israel-Hamas war.


REP. RASHIDA TLAIB (D-MI): It is awesome, important to create a voting bloc, something that is a full horn to say enough is enough. We don't want a country that supports wars and bombs and destruction. If you want us to be louder, then come here and vote uncommitted.


HUNT: Michigan is home to one of the nation's largest populations of Arab-Americans and Muslims. NASA needs people for its one year surface mission. So, you stay here to simulate the challenges on Mars. A four- person crew will live inside a 1,700 square foot habitat at NASA's center in Houston.

Well, that's a wild ride. Interested to see who signs up for that. All right, another storm bringing high winds and heavy rain to the West, as nearly the entire population of California is bracing for more flooding, that region, of course, already saturated. Governor Newsome activated the state's operations center to coordinate a response.

Weatherman Van Dam tracking all of it for us. Derek, Happy Monday to you. Looks like it's going to be a wet one in California. What do you know?

DEREK VAN DAM, METEOROLOGIST: Yes, Kasie, starting to sound like a broken record -- we keep talking about atmospheric rivers while we get another atmospheric river impacting the state of California. I mean, it's pretty clear to see what's happening with the satellite imagery just -- there's the low and there is the moisture just streaming into the state.

And this spells rain and mountain snow, of course, very busy radar, and I want you to take note of what's happening just west of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Ventura County.


We're getting very heavy rain, 37 million Americans under some sort of flood alerts at the moment with flood warnings across the southwestern portions of the state.

Kasie, you mentioned that we're a very saturated environment, that's true. I mean, look at Los Angeles for instance, 8.3 inches above your normal February rainfall. So, we're really seeing a lot of rain across the state because of these atmospheric rivers, and there's more to come. The forecast radar showing this band of precipitation that's going to run perpendicular to the mountain range in Ventura and into Santa Barbara County.

That is why we are able to pick up on some of the heaviest rainfall because that squeezes out the available rain and moisture in those columns of rain-bands that move through and produces that heavy rain for places like Oxnard, Santa Barbara, storm total here, 4 to 5 inches of rain just north and west of Los Angeles.

Although, L.A., and L.A. County certainly would not escape the effects of this with the potentials of some flash flooding in and around Los Angeles. So, you could see the heavy snowfall throughout the Sierra Nevada Crust could be up to 5 feet. That's what happens within these atmospheric rivers.

You remember, the state of California receives about 50 percent of its precipitation through these atmospheric river events. So, it's either feast or famine for the state, and unfortunately, it is feast coming down too much, too quickly, wind-gusts here over 65 miles per hour.

And by the way, this is something we don't normally see the potential for isolated tornadoes today across the Central Valley. We'll keep our heads up for that region. Kasie?

HUNT: All right, Derek, stay safe out there.

VAN DAM: Yes --

HUNT: Our weatherman Van Dam, Derek, thank you very much. I'll see you tomorrow --

VAN DAM: Take care --

HUNT: All right, still ahead here inside Vice President Kamala Harris' quiet efforts to try to revise Biden's campaign strategy here in this 2024 election year.