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NWS: Florence is a "A Storm of a Lifetime"; Trump Praises Response to Maria; GOP Rep. Meadows Alleges FBI "Media Leak Strategy"; D.C. Cardinal to Discuss Resigning with Pope; Putin: "Nothing Criminal" About Accused Murderers. Aired 4:30-5a ET

Aired September 12, 2018 - 04:30   ET



[04:32:20] CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Hurricane Florence barreling toward the East Coast. A category-four storm here, more than one million under mandatory evacuation orders, 30 million people in the path.


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


DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump under fire for those comments on Puerto Rico saying the response to the very deadly Hurricane Maria was a success. Nearly 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico.

Welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Dave Briggs.

ROMANS: And I'm Christine Romans. It is 32 minutes past the hour.

Let's begin with this monster storm here. According to the National Weather Service the storm of a lifetime bearing down on the mid- Atlantic here. Hurricane Florence is still a category-four storm but it picked up strength overnight and could become a category five today. It is 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 is currently packing 140 mile-per-hour winds and is expected to stall when it makes landfall. That raises concerns about catastrophic flooding.

BRIGGS: Now the EPA telling CNN there is a threat of Florence triggering the release of toxic chemicals from nine hazardous waste sites along the Carolina coastline. The agency is performing vulnerability assessments on those sites right now.

Meteorologist Pedram Javaheri tracking Florence live from the CNN weather center. Pedram, good morning The storm surge always a concern, but the threat

of this storm just stalling -- how worrisome is that?

PEDRAM JAVAHERI, AMS METEOROLOGIST: It's pretty much the worst-case scenario when it comes to a tropical system. You know, when you look at systems that move through quickly, range amounts even on the strongest ones could be five, six, seven inches. On even weak storms, slow down, you're talking 20 to 30 inches. And, of course, this is both strong and going to be slow on approach. So, it really makes for a dangerous scenario here.

But category four has been the case for quite a while. It remains to be the case. By definition, from the National Hurricane Center, once you bring the hurricane on land, catastrophic damage is possible. In fact, on their Website, they have this statement that says areas would be uninhabitable for a period of weeks or a period of months. That's historically speaking with category fours and fives on landfall. So, certainly, that's why this is such a serious story.

And you take a look, with the best case -- the best models we have to go with the American and the European. We've overlaid them. The American in red, the European in blue. And you notice, you don't see the blue because it's directly underneath the red.

So, confidence is extremely high on where the storm will be Friday morning. As we go in near sunrise over the next few hours into Friday morning eventually, this storm is expected to park right off the coast of Wilmington and then look what happens here as we transition into Friday afternoon, Friday night, very little movement.

[04:35:03] The heaviest rainfall at this point, potentially right around the coast of North Carolina, Wilmington to Hatteras. And then beyond that, when we break down the further details of very reliable historically speaking model here, being the European, notice again, parts offshore doesn't make landfall but potentially slides farther south over a period of 24 to maybe 36 hours. Sunday evening around sunset may be a landfall potential there as far south as Savannah, Georgia.

And if that's the case, we're talking 30-plus inches of rainfall for a pretty expansive area along the coastline. Of course, the National Hurricane Center's track at this point expands out here beyond the approach to land. So, landfall could be anywhere up here, it could be anywhere down here.

So, that's why it's important to note, don't look at the center of this as an area of landfall. And certainly, it looks like the southern trajectory is becoming more and more likely on a very, very slow process as it works its way farther south there.

ROMANS: Yes, so much work to do to prepare. And clearly there will be a lot of cleanup.

Thank you so much. Keep us posted. We know there's another advisory in 25 minutes. So, we'll get some more intelligence on the path here. Thanks, PJ. JAVAHERI: Thanks.

ROMANS: All right. Shelters are opening for those evacuating out of the hurricane's path. More than a million under mandatory evacuation orders. That does not mean people have to leave, but it means if they do stay, first responders will not come to their aid.

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


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.


BRIGGS: All right. Martin Savidge there -- thank you.

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.


BRIGGS: The president drew criticism for another statement he made from the Oval Office, 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 with 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.


[04:40:10] ROMANS: All right, Kaitlan at the White House. Thank you.

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

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

BRIGGS: History will be made one way or another in New Hampshire this November. Voters in the first congressional district will either elect 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 vet who got a big assist on the campaign trail from Rudy Giuliani.

ROMANS: All right. Time for an early on your money. Apple shares surged yesterday ahead of today's big iPhone event in California. The stock popped almost 3 percent, snapping a four-day losing streak. Apple CEO Tim Cook expected to announce a new set of the iPhone X at today's event, and fancy features could be expanded to other phones.

But as the company revamps its signature product, you know, it's struggling to compete in Asia. In Asian markets where smartphone sales are booming, but Apple's share is not. In addition to its South Korea rival Samsung, Apple faces tough competition from Chinese players such as Huawei, Oppo, Vivo, and Xiaomi.

But the future of Apple goes beyond smartphone devices. The company is investing heavily in its media business, growing services like iTunes and iCloud and building a production studio from scratch. The tech giant has plans to produce original content. At today's event, we could see hardware on the Apple Watch, possibly an update on wireless headphones.

People love to watch the event for --

BRIGGS: I think Brian Stelter is attending his first Apple event.

ROMANS: Is he? Oh, good for him.

BRIGGS: At 10:00 a.m. Eastern Time. Look forward to that.

ROMANS: That's right.

BRIGGS: Ahead, the archbishop of Washington telling his diocese he'll speak to the pope about resigning. It's over demands he step down over his handling of clergy sex abuse. That's next.


[04:46:52] ROMANS: One of the president's closest allies in Congress, Mark Meadows, claims newly discovered text messages reveal a coordinated effort at the FBI and Justice Department to harm the Trump campaign. The House Republicans suggest without evidence that texts between former FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page point to what he calls a media leak strategy.

Let's get more on this from CNN's Laura Jarrett in Washington. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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.


BRIGGS: Laura Jarrett, thanks.

The embattled leader of the archdiocese of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, says he'll 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.

ROMANS: In a letter to priests in the D.C. diocese, he writes: At issue is how begin to effectively bring a new level of healing to survivors who have personally suffered so much and to the faithful entrusted to our care who have 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.

BRIGGS: Elizabeth Smart says a decision by the Utah parole board to release the woman who helped kidnap her 16 years ago is incomprehensible. Wanda Barzee will be released from prison next week. She and her husband, Brian David Mitchell, were convicted of abducting smart who was then 14 at knifepoint from her bedroom in June, 2002, and holding her captive for nine months.

Mitchell got life in prison. Barzee got 15 years. The 72-year-old wasn't expected to be released for another five years. But Utah corrections officials say she hadn't received credit for time served earlier in federal prison.

[04:50:04] ROMANS: Wow.

All right. New numbers on middle-class income rates. We'll show you how the numbers compare to the early 2000s when we check CNNMoney, next.


ROMANS: Welcome back this morning.

Russian President Vladimir Putin defending two men suspected of poisoning an ex-spy and his daughter, saying at the Eastern Economic Forum that there is nothing criminal about the suspects.

[04:55:09] 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 standing by live for us in Moscow with the latest.

Matthew, this is quite a development.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It certainly is and it's a big development from the previous Russian position that these two individuals named by the law enforcement authorities as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov as being the suspects. The main suspects in this Novichok poisoning in Salisbury.

Previously, the Russian position had been that the names, the photographs issued were meaningless. Now, Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, has said, look, actually we know who they are, we've identified them, and, by the way, there's nothing criminal in what they did. And he also went on to encourage them to come out and speak to the media, and so, that's raised expectations. We're going to be hearing from those individuals themselves.

He also Vladimir Putin made the point and he was asked this question by the members of the military, are they civilians? He said, yes, they are civilians. So, rejecting that allegation which has been made by British investigators that these were two figures who were agents of the GRU, Russian military intelligence, who carried out a state- sanctioned operation allegedly in Salisbury to poison the former GRU officer, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia.

That's a version of events that even the Russians through Vladimir Putin have acknowledged the existence of these individuals, the version of events that they were spies sent on an assassination mission is still being denied by the Russians. Of course, this has been an extraordinarily damaging episode for the Russians, 153 of their diplomats were expelled as a result of this, and, of course, there's sanctions from the U.S. on Russia, because of it as well.

ROMANS: And, of course, the Russians having the biggest war games in decades with members of the Chinese PLA, right there alongside. So, clearly, a lot going on in the last few days.

Thank you so much for that. Matthew Chance for us in Moscow this morning.

Back here, the EPA is proposing a rollback of Obama era regulations on methane gas leak inspections and repairs. Now, instead of requiring energy companies to conduct leak inspections on their drilling equipment every six months, the new proposal would allow for inspections just once a year, or in some cases, once every two years.

Right now, oil and gas drillers are required to fix methane leaks within 30 days. The new rules would give them 60 days. The EPA says it plans to hold at least one public hearing on the proposal.

BRIGGS: The eagle has landed literally in this case. During a 9/11 memorial ceremony in Andover, Minnesota, video capturing a bald eagle perched on the extended ladder of a fire truck that was taking part in a flag display commemorating the 17 years since the 9/11 attacks. Firefighters and the first responders in attendance could not believe their eyes. They say symbols don't get any more real than that. The Andover fire chief says the video has been viewed more than one million times.

Late-night hosts poked fun at other news of the day. Here's your late-night laughs for those of you who were asleep.


JIMMY FALLON, THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JIMMY FALLON: "The Washington Post" just published a board game based on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. That's not the only board game based on Trump's White House. For example, there's also "chutes and leakers." Next there's "Uno," in other words that will get you deported.

SETH MEYERS, LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MEYER: Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said yesterday that the White House is not considering conducting lie detector tests to uncover the author of the anonymous op-ed published in the "New York Times" because putting a lie detector test in the White House would be like putting a smoke detector in Willie Nelson's dressing room.


ROMANS: I missed all those. I was sleeping.


ROMANS: Let's get a check on CNNMoney this morning. The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose more than 100 points yesterday as the surge in energy stocks and Apple helped ease the effects of trade tensions. The Dow and S&P futures now looking higher right now. Markets opened, European markets open higher today. Tokyo closed lower after strong gains on Tuesday.

The Labor Department data says U.S. jobs -- job openings rose in July to a new record in the biggest share of workers since 2001. Also, the Pew Research Center released data showing that income from middle- class families is just now returning to where it was in 2000. Got back to right back to 2000.

The typical family of three had an income of just under $78,500 in 2016. In 2000, it was just under $78,100. Only upper income families have seen some progress here.

Low-income Americans have yet to come back. Those households had a median income of just over $25,600 in 2016 and did not reach the nearly 27 grand they made in 2000.

How workers at two of the biggest U.S. steelmakers are threatening to take action as tariffs on foreign metal pushed prices and profits to their highest level --