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Steeling for Hurricane Florence; Trump Praises Response to Maria; GOP Rep. Meadows Alleges FBI "Media Leak Strategy"; Putin: "Nothing Criminal" About Accused Murderers. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired September 12, 2018 - 04:00   ET


[04:00:14] DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: Hurricane Florence, there it is, going strong as a category-four storm. The National Weather Service warning, quote, unbelievable damage.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think that Puerto Rico was in an incredible, unsung success.


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump slammed for saying the response to the Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico is a success. There were nearly 3,000 deaths in the aftermath there. Wondering if this is a "heck of a job, Brownie" moment for the president of the United States.

BRIGGS: Yes, you do wonder.

ROMANS: And how important it is for the response to the next hurricane.

Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

BRIGGS: Good morning. Good morning, everyone. I'm Dave Briggs. Wednesday, September 12th. It is 4:00 a.m. in the east.

Right now, the calm before the storm, but it is coming. According to the National Weather Service, the storm of a lifetime bearing down on the mid-Atlantic. Hurricane Florence still a category-four but it picked up strength overnight and could become a category five today.

It's expected to slam into North Carolina's coast tomorrow night or Friday morning. One meteorologist at the National Weather Service warning everyone in the region there is potential for, quote, unbelievable damage.

Florence currently packing 140 mile-an-hour winds, expected to stall, though, when it makes landfall raising concerns about catastrophic flooding.

ROMANS: And now, the EPA tells CNN there's a threat of Florence triggering the release of toxic chemicals from nine hazardous waste sites along the North Carolina coastline. The agency is performing vulnerability assessments on both sites right now.

There you can see the path. As we said, a strong category four expected to slam Thursday night, Friday morning, into the coast, and potentially stall, making it a rainmaker, Dave.

BRIGGS: Yes, we will talk about the storm surge and how long it may stall, what type of flooding are we expecting with Pedram Javaheri, our meteorologist, shortly.

We move on to the evacuation in the region. Shelters opening for those evacuating out of the hurricane's path. More than one million people under mandatory evacuation orders. That does not mean those people have to leave, but it does mean if they do stay, first responders will not come to their aid.

Martin Savidge is in Carolina Beach where the mayor thinks as many as 100 may choose to ride out the storm.


MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Dave. Good morning, Christine.

We really are now down to the final hours at least for many people in these beachside communities in North Carolina, this is Carolina Beach, where people are going to finally decide if they're going to stay or go. Eight p.m. tonight is the cutoff point. And after that, then the decision is made for anyone who decides to stay behind.

And here's the reason why. This is a barrier island. As a result of that, there is just one bridge that connects to the mainland. Once the wind speeds get above 45 miles per hour consistently, that's when the bridge closes, and that's your final route of escape.

So for law enforcement purposes, once the bridge is closed, then everyone here is on their own. So, it means in the hours in between, there's going to be soul searching, there's going to be a lot of people looking at the track of the storm.

And there's something else they take into account in this part of North Carolina -- that is they believe all previous storms have weakened just before they come ashore. If this is a cat three, many people say, hey, I can take that. If it's cat four, that makes them want to go.

So, it's part math, part mysticism. But whatever it is, people on these islands are going to have to make their decisions today. Otherwise, they are here, and they could be trapped here for a long time without electricity and without any chance of rescue -- Dave and Christine.


ROMANS: Heed those warnings. Thank you, Martin Savidge.

Let's get now to our meteorologist Pedram Javaheri tracking Hurricane Florence live in this CNN weather center.

Pedram, some say this is a tremendously big and tremendously wet. You would describe it otherwise. What's on the way?

PEDRAM JAVAHERI, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, you know, it's been one of the most remarkable storms not only as far as the unique track it's taking there, Dave, but also what it might potentially do as it approaches land here. Hurricane warnings and the watches certainly in place, widespread across the Carolinas, 140 mile-per-hour winds. We have slight weakening yesterday, right back up to 140. I don't foresee see much in the way of weakening now as it approaches land over the next couple of days.

But very little has changed as it's stayed here. A very menacing feature. But here we go, with the European and American model overlaid over one another here with the GFS, the red one, the American, right over the blue one, which is the European. I notice very little difference. Alignment is perfect as it approaches land come early Friday morning.

[04:05:00] So, we have high confidence this will end up off the coast of Wilmington, North Carolina, into the early morning hours on Friday. I mean, really what happens after that is just about anyone's guess, because the models have been all over the place, the guidance now showing shifting a little further to the south, and thinking potentially this storm doesn't make landfall on Friday, maybe doesn't make landfall come Saturday.

In fact, we'll show the most reliable model with the systems. That's the European model coming into the early morning hours of Friday again. Notice it parks just offshore. And half of the eye has to cross over land for an official landfall to take place. And a lot of times people fall in love with where is landfall, who is it going to hit.

This might be a storm where we don't have to answer that question. It might be a storm where we watch how long it takes before it makes landfall, potentially a period of 12 to 24, maybe even 36 hours. In fact, look at what this model does here as it kind of guides further and further south over not only Saturday, but through Sunday, maybe late Sunday, before it moves it ashore somewhere south of Savannah, Georgia. If that's the case, I can tell you, that's as bad a scenario as you get with the amount of rainfall that is forecast to come down 20 to 30 inches in spots. The storm surge, 12 or more feet in some of these spots.

That will be a life-threatening scenario over two or three days. A slow-motion disaster versus the landfall that would happen Friday morning. It would move in and quietly, you see conditions improve come Saturday and Sunday. Doesn't look like conditions will improve if the track stays put here with the next couple of days of it parking offshore.


ROMANS: A lot of bad choices and outcomes even though we don't know how that's going to play out.

All right. Thank you, Pedram. We'll continue to comeback with you. We know there's another big, important update on the forecast at 5:00 a.m.

President Trump also advising people to heed warnings and evacuate, in a statement from the Oval Office.


TRUMP: They haven't seen anything like what's coming at us in 25, 30 years, maybe ever. It's tremendously big and tremendously wet. Tremendous amounts of water. It could be very well be very similar to Texas in the sense that it's tremendous amounts of water. Texas was the one that had I would say to this point brought probably more water than we've ever seen in a storm or a hurricane. And it went out for seconds and thirds.


ROMANS: The president drew some criticism for another statement he made from the Oval Office. He praised, he praised his administration's response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico where the death toll was just revised upwards from 64 to nearly 3,000.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins has more from the White House.


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Christine and Dave, President Trump raising several eyebrows when he cited his administration's response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico when talking about how they're preparing for Hurricane Florence as it barrels toward the East Coast. The president was in the Oval Office. He had just finished a briefing with the FEMA administrator, Brock Long, and he cited Hurricane Maria as one of his administration's most successful times since he's been in office.

Now, of course, that was a storm that devastated Puerto Rico, killed roughly 3,000 people, and left millions without power for months. So, the president raised a lot of eyebrows when he made comments like this --

TRUMP: The job that FEMA and law enforcement and everybody did working along with the governor in Puerto Rico I think was tremendous. I think that Puerto Rico was an incredible, unsung success.

COLLINS: Now, in that same Oval Office meeting, President Trump brought up the denials of his two former top staffers. His chief economic adviser Gary Cohn and his staff secretary Rob Porter, both who played pivotal roles in Bob Woodward's new tell-all book about the Trump White House. President Trump said he appreciated their denials. He felt that they were extent and thought they showed that Bob Woodward's book is fiction, making it pretty clear why Rob Porter and Gary Cohn issued those denials in the first place -- Dave and Christine. (END VIDEOTAPE)

BRIGGS: Kaitlan Collins there at the White House -- thanks.

Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon claims the Trump administration is diverting hurricane relief money from FEMA to fund ICE just as hurricane season is starting. Merkley released a Homeland Security document on Tuesday showing a transfer of $9.8 million. That document says the money is coming from the agency's travel, training, public engagement, and I.T. budgets, not disaster relief.

But Senator Merkley insists the White House is diverting money from response and recovery budgets to fund additional immigrant detention camps. He says any shift in funding will make it even more challenging for FEMA to respond to natural disasters.

ROMANS: History will be made one way or another in New Hampshire this November. Voters in the first congressional district will elect either the state's first openly gay or first African-American congressman. In a district that regularly swings between the two parties and backed President Trump in 2016, Democratic voters chose Chris Pappas from a crowded field in last night's primary, a field that included Levi Sanders, the son of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Pappas will take on Republican primary winner Eddie Edwards, a black former police chief and navy veteran who got a big assist to the campaign trail from Rudy Giuliani.

[04:10:07] All right. About 10 minutes past the hour. Time for an early start on your money this morning. President Trump putting a positive spin on talks with Canada as the future of NAFTA is in limbo.


TRUMP: Trade talks are coming along very well. We're dealing with China, as you know, we've taken a tough stance on China. I would say to put it mildly. And with Canada, they want to make a deal very much. Me, if we make it, that's good. If we don't make it, that's OK, too. Canada wants to make a deal. We'll see if we can get them into the deal we already have with Mexico. I think the deal with Canada is coming along very well. We've all been dealing in good faith.


ROMANS: That was the president yesterday at the White House. The Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has also said he will not sign a deal that's bad for his country. There was the preliminary agreement with Mexico last month. But talks with Canada have failed. Those talks have resumed last week. One sticking point here is the U.S. demands more access to Canada's dairy market, which is a relatively small part overall of U.S.-Canadian trade.

But Canada wants cultural exemptions for industries like dairy. Canada wants to dispute a dispute resolution mechanism. The U.S. has set an October 1st deadline to renegotiate NAFTA. But any kind of sign that things could be going the right direction for the U.S. and relief in the stock market. But this is still an overhang here trying to figure out how this is going to work out.

BRIGGS: And still, a pretty considerable dairy trade surplus with Canada as far as --

ROMANS: That's right. Certain kind of dairy the United States wants more. Look, all countries protect certain parts of their electorate, frankly. I mean, you're talking about, you know, dairy farmers in Quebec, right? A powerful lobbying group, as well.

One irony is that much of this had been ironed out in the TPP the United States pulled out off. So, now, starting from scratch.

BRIGGS: Yes, as well as keeping China in check.

All right. Ahead, a House Republican is pointing to newly discovered texts from former FBI officials. He says they're proof of misconduct at the agency. We'll dig deeper.


[04:16:07] BRIGGS: Four-sixteen Eastern Time.

And one of the president's closest allies in Congress, Mark Meadows, claim newly discovered text messages show a coordinated effort at the FBI and Justice Department to harm the Trump campaign. The House Republican suggesting that texts between former FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page point to what he calls a media leak strategy.

More from CNN's Laura Jarrett in Washington.


LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Dave and Christine, good morning.

For the past several months, something of a pattern has started to develop here as Republican lawmakers uncover a text exchange between these two former officials. The president tweets out a suggestion that the fix is in at the FBI, and this latest controversy appears to be no exception. Congressman Mark Meadows has now seized upon a text exchange from Strzok to Page in April of 2017 where he says to her, I want to talk to you about media leak strategy with DOJ.

Now, the timing is something that the congressman finds troubling because it happens to fall during the exact period of time when the "Washington Post" and other outlets publishing stories about the FBI's surveillance of former Trump adviser Carter Page.

But Strzok's attorney tells me it has nothing to do with that, and instead it was about a department-wide initiative to stop leaks to the media. And a source close to Page told me it had nothing to do with anything about that. All it was is they were preparing department leadership at the Justice Department to face leaks and the legality around that.

But, of course, the larger political backdrop to all of this is that even though these two people no longer work at the FBI, their text messages will be continued to use as political ammunition against the special counsel's investigation because they both worked for Robert Mueller for a short period of time. And so as long as Mueller is around, these texts will continue to pour in.

Dave and Christine, back to you.


ROMANS: All right. Laura Jarrett, thank you so much for that.

The embattled leader of the archdiocese of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, says he will soon travel to the Vatican to discuss with the pope his possible resignation. Wuerl faces increasing calls to step down over his handling of clergy sex abuse cases.

BRIGGS: In a letter to priests from the diocese he writes: At issue is how to begin effectively to bring in new level of healing to survivors who have personally suffered so much and to the faithful entrusted to our care who have also been wounded by the shame of these terrible actions and have questions about their bishop's ability to provide the necessary leadership.

Cardinal Wuerl submitted a resignation letter three years ago at the customary retirement age of 75 but has continued to serve. Wuerl does not say when he will travel to Rome.

ROMANS: "The Washington Post" reporting Paul Manafort is talking to special counsel Robert Mueller's team about a possible plea deal. Sources say it is not clear if the negotiations involve the former Trump campaign chairman providing information about the president. The news comes just days before jury selection begins in Manafort's second trial for alleged financial crimes and could signal a shift in legal strategy.

Manafort chose to go to trial in Virginia and was convicted last month on eight federal counts of bank and tax frauds. He faces up to ten years in prison on those counts.

BRIGGS: Coming up, Russian President Vladimir Putin defending two men accused of poisoning an ex-spy and his daughter in the U.K. We're live in Moscow with an update.


[04:23:52] BRIGGS: Russian President Vladimir Putin defending two men accused of poisoning an ex-spy and his daughter, saying there is nothing criminal about the suspects. They're accused of trying to kill former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia using a Soviet era nerve agent.

Senior international correspondent Matthew Chance live for us in Moscow with the latest.


this is extraordinary because it's the first time that the Russians have admitted that these people exist. Previously when the British authorities circulated the photographs and the individuals they named as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, the Russians just dismissed those names and photographs as meaningless.

But now, Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, has come out saying, look, we know who they are, we found them. Actually, they're civilians. They're not members, him indicating, of the GRU, the Russian military intelligence outfit that the British authorities say they were members of. And basically there's nothing unusual about them.

He also took the step of calling on these two individuals to come out and to speak to the media, almost sort of giving the permission to do so.

[04:25:04] And so, the expectations have been rising in this country and observers watching that situation that soon, we're going to be actually hearing from those individuals themselves. It's extraordinary because, you know, it's going to be interesting, rather, to hear what explanation these people have for making that short visit from Moscow to Britain and traveling from London to Salisbury, weather poisonings took place in March of this year.

And, of course, they were documented very closely and recorded on their travels by British closed circuit television cameras. And so, if they do come out into public as is being suggested by the Russian public, it is going to be extraordinarily interesting to hear their account -- Dave.

BRIGGS: Might we hear from them? What's the likelihood of that?

CHANCE: Well, I mean, up until a few minutes ago, I would have said very unlikely that we would ever see them again. But Vladimir Putin was on state television speaking at a session at the Eastern Economic Forum which is the key economic summit taking place in Vladivostok, saying this: I want to address them, speaking to the two suspects, so that they can hear us now. Let them come out somewhere, to you in the media.

And so, he's sort of encouraging them to come out and give their testimony. Which is to say going to be fascinating to watch, there's going to be a lot of interest in this in Britain as there is here.

BRIGGS: Fascinating indeed. Matthew Chance live for us in Moscow, thank you.

ROMANS: Dire consequences, those are the words U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley used to describe what would happen if Russia and Iran continue air strikes against Idlib, the last rebel-held area in Syria. Haley also said the U.S. would not tolerate any use of chemical weapons.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: We will know that the Assad regime and its enablers are serious about a political process for peace in Syria, not when they repeat empty promises but when the violence stops, when the air strikes and the ground offensive stop.

We consider any assault on Idlib to be a reckless escalation of the conflict here. If Assad, Russia, and Iran continue down the path they are on, the consequences will be dire.


ROMANS: Russia's ambassador to the U.N. denied that Syria has any chemical weapons. At a Security Council meeting on the crisis in Idlib, the U.N. secretary general warned of a potential bloodbath, real concerns about civilians there. Syria and Russia began air strikes in Idlib last week as a prelude to retaking the region.

All right. The National Weather Service calling it the storm of a lifetime. Thirty million people in the path of Hurricane Florence. Evacuations underway. CNN's weather center has a live forecast next.