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EARLY START

White House Walks Back Spicer Remark; Tillerson Heads to Moscow; United Airlines Passenger Dragged off Plane. Aired 4:30-5a ET

Aired April 11, 2017 - 04:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN ANCHOR: Is President Trump redefining his red line on Syria? More mixed messages from the White House, leaving many wondering just how far the U.S. is willing to go.

[04:30:03] CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Tensions rising just hours ahead of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's high stakes trip to Moscow. With Syria at the forefront, what message is he taking to deliver to the Kremlin?

SANCHEZ: Plus, United Airlines facing a PR nightmare this morning. Disturbing video emerges of this passenger being forcibly dragged from his airplane.

Welcome back to EARLY START. Thanks so much for joining us. I'm Boris Sanchez.

ROMANS: And I'm Christine Romans. It is 30 minutes past the hour this Tuesday morning.

Nice to see you, sitting in for Dave this morning.

SANCHEZ: Good to see you.

ROMANS: All right. The White House sowing new confusion this morning over President Trump's red line in Syria. Press Secretary Sean Spicer defending the missile strikes President Trump ordered against a Syrian military airfield. Taken literally, Spicer seemed to lower the threshold for action by the Assad regime that would trigger a U.S. military response, with the administration saying Spicer's words should not be taken literally. CNN's Sara Murray has more from the White House this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Boris and Christine.

Ever since President Trump ordered a military strike in Syria, the question has been, what comes next?

Well, yesterday, the White House offered more confusion than clarity on that question after White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said this. SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: If you gas a baby, if you

put a barrel bomb in to innocent people, I think you can -- you will see a response from this president. That is unacceptable.

MURRAY: Now, Spicer made a reference to barrel bombs repeatedly yesterday in that briefing. Now, if that were the administration's new red line, if they were going to intervene any time there was a barrel bomb attack, that would be a significant shift in U.S. policy. But after that briefing, administration officials began to walk it back, saying this is not a signal of a change in policy, an indication that administration officials are not necessarily on the same page when it comes to what's next in Syria.

I think one thing is clear: the administration wants to be careful about not drawing a red line that they're not willing to back up and they want to stick to the president's previous comments, that he wants to be unpredictable on military action. He does not want to forecast his next steps. One thing is clear, though, this White House is not ruling out future intervention in Syria.

Back to you, guys.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SANCHEZ: Thanks for that, Sara.

A senior administration official tells Sara Murray that President Trump reached out to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, asking for a more complete damage assessment from the U.S. strike on that Syrian airbase. This after Trump heard reports that the runways have not been destroyed. It's unknown what Secretary Mattis told the president.

But yesterday, he released this statement. Quote, "The assessment of the Department of Defense is that the strike resulted in the damage or destruction of fuel and ammunition sites, air defense capabilities and 20 percent of Syria's operational aircraft."

ROMANS: Right. Under way right now in Italy, a critical meeting of the foreign ministers from the G7 countries, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. That meeting comes amid heightened tensions between the U.S. and Russia over the missile strikes in Syria.

Minutes after the meeting ends, Tillerson board a plane from Moscow where he will meet with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

I want to go to international diplomatic editor Nic Robertson. He is live for us at the site of the G7 in Italy.

And, Nic, a new meeting was added to include some key stakeholders in the Syria conflict. What can you tell us about that meeting?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes, sure. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, Qatar, United Arab Emirates all sent foreign ministers here to join the meeting this morning, the idea: to broaden the consensus and mandate of a message that Secretary Tillerson can take from all international partners concerned about Syria when he goes to Moscow.

And the idea, the consensus that appears to be emerging is that there is a window of opportunity for President Putin to step away from his support of President Assad in Syria, that he should then work to help bring a ceasefire in Syria and then support the U.N.-sponsored peace talks to bring a political transition in Syria to push Assad out of power and bring in a more representative political leadership for all of Syrians, including the opposition.

However, you know, is he going to be given any sticks when he goes to Moscow? Will there be support for broader sanctions? What is the support and appetite here for further strikes on Syria by the United States, as we saw last week? That's not clear. That's all part of the discussion.

And, obviously, for allies wanting to get a clearer understanding of the nuance of the U.S. position on Syria, because only a week or so ago, most of those partners thought that the United States wasn't going after Assad, wasn't interested in Assad, primarily interested in ISIS. So, that's all up for discussion. We expect to learn more when the meetings wrap up. But, of course, as they wrap up, that's when Secretary Tillerson will head for Moscow, Christine.

ROMANS: And, you know, worth noting that these used to be called G8 meetings when Russia was included, it would have been at the table, but isolated from the international community because of its actions in Ukraine. So, now, Rex Tillerson on his way there after these meetings wrap up.

[04:35:02] Thank you so much for that, Nic Robertson.

SANCHEZ: As you mentioned, Christine, he's set to arrive in Moscow in just a matter of hours. His visit obviously comes at a crucial time because relations between the U.S. and Russia are deteriorating by the day. Tillerson slammed the Putin regime for supporting Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad. And on the other side, the Kremlin labeled the U.S. missile attack on a Syrian airbase an act of aggression.

CNN's Paula Newton is live in Moscow tracking these latest developments.

Paula, we can say that Tillerson's message is obviously going to be vital. But probably even more important is who he is going to be delivering that message to, right?

PAULA NEWTON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's become a point of contention here, Boris. You know, he is supposed to be, of course, meeting with his counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. That has been n the schedule. Those are the two men will speak for sure.

The State Department had been preparing for a meeting with Vladimir Putin. Yesterday, we heard from the Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitri Pushkov, telling us, look, we never put that on the schedule. It could still happen but it's not on the schedule.

Boris, it's important. Rex Tillerson knows Vladimir Putin personally. He received an award from this country. They could really get down to the upshot, the bottom line in terms of this negotiation quite quickly.

But yet if Vladimir Putin refuses to meet with Rex Tillerson that, too, will be a sign that it will take much more for Russia to come on site. In terms of these discussions as well, sanctions looming large. But, you know, they haven't worked very well on Russia so far in terms of it changing its military behavior, whether you were talking about Ukraine or Syria.

Rex Tillerson will have to be -- some people have said very imaginative to come here and trying and get Vladimir Putin to move on something really a campaign that's been quite successful. It's Russia in Syria, largest military deployment in decades and they've managed to regain their foothold in the Middle East. Vladimir Putin will not want to let go of that.

SANCHEZ: All right. Paula Newton, reporting live from Moscow -- thank you so much.

ROMANS: We are getting a look at how Americans feel about President Trump's strategy in Syria. New CBS poll show 57 percent approve of last week's strikes on the Syrian air base with 36 percent disapproving.

But most Americans are cautious about any future action from here. Only 18 percent want the U.S. to send ground troops, 15 percent don't want any involvement at all. These numbers largely break along party lines of most Democrats wanting to focus on diplomatic efforts.

Most Americans, nearly seven in 10, feel President Trump needs to seek congressional approval next time. This includes more than half of Republicans, 25 percent believe he can take military action in Syria without it.

SANCHEZ: There is some disagreement there. But when it comes to public opinions about airlines, at least this week, it's not looking good.

We all have that nightmare airport story. Few like this one, though. Watch this.

An unidentified and bloodied United Airlines passenger in Chicago Sunday night, getting yanked out of his seat, dragged through the aisle of the plane by Chicago police. At one point, he slammed his head on an arm rest. He was bleeding all over his face.

He was telling passengers that he's a doctor and he was just trying to get home to see his passengers. But apparently, United overbooked this flight to Louisville, Kentucky, and then had to ask passengers to surrender their seats for compensation to make room for four crew members. When nobody volunteered, United said it was forced into what it calls an involuntary deboarding situation.

Yes, a backlash of social media frenzy, already leading to the suspension of one of those Chicago police officers. United CEO Oscar Munoz was forced to release this statement after

first defending the ejection. He writes, quote, "This is an upsetting event for all of us here at United. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened.

Part of the strong response against United has to be the fact that there was that e-mail from the CEO to the employees saying, hey, we did this by the book. That didn't look very by the book.

ROMANS: Even if it is by the book, what that shows you is -- I think this has juts tapped into this well of anger among the traveler public. I mean, you look at the Delta issue this week as well where all these people were delayed, you were delayed. Everyone, you know, just -- you feel as though you feel as though you're disrespected when you fly.

SANCHEZ: Yes, like they don't really consider you a top priority there sometimes.

ROMANS: What many passengers may not realize, you agree to an airline's overbooking policy when you reserve your tickets. This is standard practice for airlines to sell more tickets than there are seats.

In United's case, the back and forth usually happens at the gate not after passengers board the plane. Back in 2015, data from the Department of Transportation shows 46,000 travelers were involuntarily bumped from flights. I think JetBlue -- I'm going to check on this. I think JetBlue is one of the rare airlines that doesn't overbook flights. But I'm going to check on that.

SANCHEZ: You think the customer's always right. But we'll see how they handle this.

ROMANS: When you pay for it, the other thing -- I know there are limits, like FAA limits of $1,300, of how much you can compensate.

[04:40:03] But in situation like that, someone -- you just keep upping the price, someone is going to -- they overbook to save money for themselves, right? So, if you --

SANCHEZ: They're maximizing profits. They might as well maximize comfort and not put somebody through that.

ROMANS: Exactly.

SANCHEZ: We take you to the state of Alabama now. That state has a new governor this morning. The former one, Robert Bentley, resigned in disgrace Monday, shortly after being booked into the Montgomery county jail. Bentley pled guilty to two misdemeanors.

He was facing impeachment hearings for allegedly using state resources to cover up an extramarital affair with a former aide. Lieutenant Governor Kay Ivey was sworn in last night as the 54th governor of Alabama. She called the resignation of Bentley a dark day in Alabama. ROMANS: All right. It's one of the biggest scandals in banking

history, involving those fake accounts at Wells Fargo. It has shaken that bank to its core. And a new investigation reveals a report at Wells Fargo all the way back in 2004 foretold this scandal.

That report warned that Wells Fargo employees had an incentive to cheat that was based on the fear of losing their jobs. It said that workers felt they couldn't meet the bank's unrealistic sales goals without gaming the system.

The 2004 report was sent to Wells Fargo chief auditor, HR personnel and others but it fell on deaf ears. The 110-page investigation just released now by Wells Fargo's independent board of directors this week says there is no evidence that the report and its recommendations were further escalated.

Wells Fargo's board announced Monday it took back $75 million from former CEO John Stumpf and the former head of Wells community banks. The board says Stumpf was too slow to investigate or critically challenge the bank's sales practices.

And I think that CEOs, anybody on the route to the C suite, that is a really compelling story about, you know, not listening to your internal messaging when something is going wrong.

SANCHEZ: We are still watching the situation in North Korea. It's escalating there. That country issuing a blistering statement against the U.S. warning that it is ready to retaliate against any aggression. The latest from that part of the world, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[04:46:19] SANCHEZ: A strong message from North Korea, saying it will respond in kind to any acts of aggression by the U.S., as U.S. aircraft carrier steams toward the Korean peninsula. Following last week's missile test by North Korea, the U.S. turned the 90,000 ton USS Carl Vinson, along with two guided missiles cruisers and two destroyers toward the Sea of Japan, also known as the East Sea.

Officials in Pyongyang provided a statement to CNN and it says, quote, "The current grim situation justifies North Korea's self defensive and preemptive strike capabilities, with the nuclear force at the core." It goes on, "The dispatch of the Carl Vinson nuclear-powered aircraft strike group in the waters of the Korean Peninsula proves that the reckless acts of aggression of the U.S. against the DPRK, North Korea, have now entered a grave practical stage. The DPRK is willing and ready to respond to whatever methods the U.S. wants to take. We are not even daunted even as to turn an eyelash."

ROMANS: This is a real, troubling story up next here. Overnight, a vigil in Southern California to remember the life of an eight-year-old student shot and killed in a murder suicide at this school. Another student was also injured and is currently recovering in a hospital. Police say the two students were standing near their teacher when her estranged husband walked into the classroom and opened fire.

CNN's Stephanie Elam has more from San Bernardino.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Christine and Boris, this all started just before 10:30 in the morning on Monday when a man approached the school and checked in as one visitor normally would. He was the estranged spouse, police say, of one of the special needs teachers, Karen Smith. She taught a class of -- between first and fourth graders. They say that he went through the normal procedures, went to the classroom. And police say without word began shooting at Miss Smith, killing her.

Unfortunately, standing behind her were two of her students. One of them, a 9-year-old boy is still in stable condition, we understand, but the 8-year-old boy, Jonathan Martinez, died.

This, as we then learned that the man turned the gun on himself, killing himself. So, they do believe at this point it was likely a murder/suicide. Officials working very quickly to reunite those students in that particular classroom with their parents and methodically working through the other 500 or so kids that attend the elementary school to get them back with their parents after verifying that the parents were, in fact, their legal guardians.

But at this point, they are working to learn more about this man who did this, this 53-year-old man who lives in Riverside, California. But at this point, it looks like the couple hadn't even been married a long time, and so they do think this may have been some sort of personal issue between this man and this woman. But, still, a very tragic story as you learn that there's a loss of life of an 8-year-old -- Boris and Christine.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SANCHEZ: All right. Stephanie, thank you.

Texas officials say they are disappointed that a federal judge has struck down the state's controversial ID law. The court ruling the six-year-old measure intentionally discriminates against black and Hispanic voters by requiring them to present government-issued photo ID in order to vote.

State officials say that for now, they're just reviewing their options.

ROMANS: All right. Making history, in Washington, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch expected to his seat one the high court and begin hearing cases next week. Gorsuch took the official oath Monday with the president by his side. The president clearly savoring the moment.

Listen to the president talked about how quickly his pick was confirmed.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I've always heard that the most important thing that a president of the United States does is appoint people, hopefully great people like this appointment to the United States Supreme Court.

[04:50:05] I can say, this is a great honor. And I got it done in the first 100 days -- that's even nice. You think that's easy?

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: At 49 years old, Gorsuch will likely sit on the Supreme Court for decades, could even outlast all eight justices. He will be joining on the bench Monday and used to clerk for Justice Kennedy. That's who swore him in yesterday.

SANCHEZ: Historic first time that has happened.

ROMANS: Yes.

All right. Coming up, it's election in Kansas and a crucial Republican congressional seat is up for grabs. More on that, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: All right. Republicans will be keeping a close eye on today's special election in Kansas to fill the House seat vacated by Mike Pompeo, the new CIA director. President Trump and Vice President Pence have recorded robocalls supporting Republican candidate Ron Estes.

[04:55:02] The Wichita district is traditionally a GOP stronghold, but an energized Democrat base is really behind James Thompson and that race is tightening.

Republicans are also nervous about next week's special election in Georgia to fill the House seat vacated by Health and Human Secretary Tom Price. A 30-year-old Democratic candidate, John Ossoff, is looking formidable, raising more than $8 million for his campaign.

SANCHEZ: The head of FCC is hanging up on in-flight cell phone calls, calling the plan to allow people to make calls on planes ill- conceived. The new chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, wants to halt the proposal. In 2013, the agency suggested a relaxing of rules, but the FCC now says the public overwhelmingly rejected that change.

ROMANS: The Trump Organization has settled a second lawsuit with the celebrity chef who backed out of a deal to open a restaurant in the president's downtown Washington hotel. Food Network's star Jeffrey Zakarian refused to open a restaurant rather in Trump's hotel. He claimed that the president's derogatory comments labeling Mexican immigrants as rapists would make it impossible to hire Hispanic staff or attract Hispanic patrons.

It comes just three days after Trump settled a different lawsuit with famed chef Jose Andres who also broke a restaurant deal for similar reasons. The details of both settlements were kept private. SANCHEZ: Some of the world's top journalists were honored with Pulitzer prizes for their distinguished reporting. The national reporting prize awarded to "The Washington Post" and CNN contributor David Fahrenthold for their investigation of Donald Trump's track record of charitable giving.

Also receiving a Pulitzer Prize for public service, "The New York Daily News" and "ProPublica" for their joint investigation that exposed the New York Police Department's abuse of eviction notices.

ROMANS: Really prestigious award, congratulations to everybody there.

All right. To weather now, heavy rains hitting Texas, along with near record high temperatures in the Northeast. Meteorologist Pedram Javaheri joins us now from the CNN weather center.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PEDRAM JAVAHERI, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Boris and Christine, good morning.

Watching some storms across the South, but they are mainly around parts of Eastern Texas. There, strong thunderstorms have already been in place, and flood watches that are in place as well from San Antonio towards Austin, approaching the Houston Metroplex at this point. And notice, a series of active weather here that's going to scoot off a little towards the east, approaching Shreveport, as well as these thunderstorms that are in place. That should until 8:00 a.m. Eastern time across this region.

By this afternoon, we'll get some of these storms that will push through Houston as well. So, localized flash flooding certainly not out of the question in the eastern portions of Texas. But out toward the Northeast, temperatures really, for a pretty extensive area of the coastline there, some 15 to 25 degrees above normal.

We're talking 85 degrees in store in Washington, D.C., and when it cools off still the upper 70s, Wednesday, look at New York City, from 82 down to around 73 degrees, and 60s coming back later in the week and Boston touching almost 80 degrees and then bringing it back down to reality in the upper to mid 60s by tomorrow afternoon. A few storms then as well.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROMANS: All right. That's your weather. Here's your money. Let's get a check on CNN Money Stream this morning. Stock futures pointing lower. Earnings season gets under way with the nation's big banks reporting. This week's data on consumer spending and inflation later in the week. Stock markets in Europe and Asia right now are mixed.

New York is not the only state making a push for tuition-free college this morning. Lawmakers in Rhode Island are considering a proposal put forth by the state's governor that would make two years of public college free for residents. Unlike New York's scholarship for middle class families approved this week, Rhode Island proposal would make tuition free regardless of income. The governor's office expects the program to benefit at least 7,000 students, costs about $30 million each year once fully implemented. That's less than half a percent of the state's budget.

President Trump is set to meet with several dozen CEOs later this morning. The group of CEOs dubbed the Strategic and Policy Forums led by billionaire Blackstone founder Stephen Schwartzman. Also included in the meeting are leaders of GM, IBM, Tesla and Walmart. Infrastructure investment, tax reform are likely to top the list of items to discuss, as well as how the president plans to generate those 25 million jobs he has promised.

Check out the new CNN Money Stream app. It is business news personalized. The stories, videos, tweets, topics you want all in one feed. Download it now on the App Store or Google Play.

SANCHEZ: And make sure you stay with us because EARLY START continues right now.

(MUSIC)

SANCHEZ: Is President Trump redefining his red line on Syria? More mixed messages from the White House, leaving many wondering just how far the U.S. is willing to go.

ROMANS: Tensions rise just hours ahead of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's high stakes trip to Moscow. With Syria at the forefront, what message will he deliver to the Kremlin?

SANCHEZ: And United Airlines facing a PR nightmare this morning after this disturbing video emerges of a passenger being forcibly dragged from an airplane. We've been talking about it all morning. You're not going to want to miss that footage.

Good morning and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Boris Sanchez.

ROMANS: Yes. I would say universal condemnation for United Airlines this morning. You know, they're alone out there on an island right now.