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Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees

Sixth Grader Killed, Five Wounded In Iowa School Shooting; New Batch Of Epstein-Related Documents Unsealed; House Dems: Trump, His Business Raked In At Least $7.8m From Foreign Governments During His Time In White House; ISIS Claims Responsibility For Deadly Twin Blasts In Iran; DeSantis, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds React To Haley's Comments That NH Voters Will "Correct" Iowa Caucus Results; 6th Grader Killed, 5 Others Wounded In Iowa School Shooting; CNN Town Halls With DeSantis, Haley Start At 9PM ET. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired January 04, 2024 - 20:00   ET


ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: CNN's back-to-back presidential Republican town halls begin one hour from now, live in Des Moines. Ron DeSantis is up first, followed by Nikki Haley. Stay with us.

AC 360 begins now.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Tonight on 360, a live report from Perry, Iowa, scene of the latest school mass shooting, what authorities are saying about how it unfolded, which included their discovery of a makeshift bomb at the scene. That and what a student says tonight about what she went through.

Also, tonight, a new batch of unsealed documents in the Jeffrey Epstein sex trafficking scandal, what's in them, and who.

And later, House Democrats say they've got the former president's number, and it's in the millions. What's in their new report of how much foreign government money went into Trump properties and, by extension, his pockets during the Trump presidency.

Good evening. Thanks for joining us. We begin tonight in Iowa, but not for the reason you would expect, not for presidential politics. Take a look.

These are pictures tonight from Perry, Iowa, northwest of Des Moines. A vigil, one of two, after a day that began with what is already the country's second school shooting of 2024. The first, in Virginia, took no lives. This one did. It happened on the campus shared by Perry's middle and high schools.

Police say the shooter was a student at Perry High. Before killing himself, he shot six people, one of whom died, a sixth grader, a child killed by an older child. Not for the first time, and never it seems for the last.

CNN's Veronica Miracle is at the scene for us tonight. I know you just got on the scene. What are you learning? VERONICA MIRACLE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, just a devastating start to this new year for this community here in Iowa. You can feel the grief, even as you come in and see all of the individuals at the vigil.

Tonight, this community mourning the loss of a sixth grader. Five other people were injured in this shooting, four students and one faculty member, police say. One of those injured are critically injured. All of them, however, are expected to survive.

This school shooting happened before school began. And it was right around 7:30 when students from all ages, students from all grades were gathered for a breakfast club when shots first rang out. We spoke to some students at a vigil who were there at school, including one of them who was inside the cafeteria.


ANGIE ORELLANA, PERRY HS FRESHMAN: At first, like, the whole -- like the cafeteria went silent, and then, like, more shots, like, continued. And everything just went into chaos. And I just saw like the principal start running. And like all my friends and I just got out of there.

LILY NAVARRETE, PERRY HS FRESHMAN: When I was on my way to go to school, my friends have sent more texts that there were gunshots, and everybody was running and crying out the school.


MIRACLE: Anderson, this community is small. The entire school district has only about 1,800 students. So everyone knows everyone, including a woman that CNN spoke to at the vigil who says she knows the victim.

She heard about a child in her neighborhood who had been missing. She went knocking on that family's door and learned that their child was the one who was killed. She said this individual was just the sweetest child, one that you would want your kids to be friends with.

Police say the gunman died from a self-inflicted gunshot. The 17-year- old was found with a pump action shotgun and a handgun. Authorities also say the 17-year-old shooter was posting on social media at the time around the shooting.

They also found in another part of the school an improvised explosive device, though, authorities did render it safe. As far as the motive, the investigation continues. But the grieving here in this small community has just begun -- Anderson.

COOPER: Veronica, appreciate it. Veronica Miracle.

Earlier tonight, I spoke with one of the students who managed to get safely away from the gunfire. Her name is Rachael Kares. She's a senior at Perry High.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) COOPER: Rachel, I understand you were in the band room when you heard shots. Can you tell me what happened?

RACHAEL KARES, IOWA HS SHOOTING SURVIVOR: Basically, we were finishing up jazz band, and my band teacher was walking us through one of our last songs, and then he was talking to us about it. And then right when he was about to finish, we heard four gunshots down the hall from us. We didn't know which way, though.

COOPER: Were they very loud?

KARES: So we all just -- yes, like, we, at first, like, I thought it was like a chip bag, but that was, like, that's way too loud. And then the smell started to linger, and I don't even know how to describe that. It just smelled like burning. It just -- yes.


And then when there was another shot that was let out, like really soon after that, our band teacher looked at us, and he just goes "run." And, like, none of us hesitated. We just all got up and ran. And ...

COOPER: At that point, you realized it was shooting?

KARES: We didn't know what it was. We just wanted to get out because it was super loud.

COOPER: Which way did you run?

KARES: So our auditorium is actually hooked up to the high school, which you would have to have a hallway for that. And the hallway that we have for that leads to the outside. And that's the hallway that we took.

COOPER: When you ran, what did you do then? I mean, did you stay in the school grounds? Did you just -- where did you go?

KARES: Anywhere away from the school. We just kept going. And thankfully for that, we have our armory, and our rec center, and elementary fairly close, at least walking distance from the school. So a bunch of kids went to one of those places.

COOPER: And I understand you called your mom in all the chaos. What did you say to her?

KARES: I basically said that there were gunshots or I think there were gunshots, but I'm okay. I'm out of the school. And I was with, like, and I named off some of my other friends that I was with. And then she just was like what, like, she was freaking out probably more than I was.

And then she was like you need to get home now. I was like, well, my keys are in the school, I can't really good back there. And she's like, yes, don't do that. And I was like not really planning to. But then my sister ended up rushing over to me and finding me. COOPER: Do you know any of the people who were injured?

KARES: I know about one of the staff members, yes.

COOPER: Looking back now, I mean, what's -- how do you feel? To have gone through this is -- I mean, it's obviously terrifying.

KARES: Um, it doesn't feel real, like, this is like one of those things where you see on TV, and you're like that's never going to linger its way towards my community. But it does happen and it's really real.

COOPER: Had you ever thought that this could happen at your school?

KARES: No. I was -- like we used to have -- we had one series of bomb threats when I was in middle school, but that was taken care of, like, really early on and nothing happened.

COOPER: Rachel, I'm so glad you are okay and your friends. And I wish you the best. Thank you.

KARES: Thank you.


COOPER: Perspective now if that's even possible from CNN Senior Law Enforcement Analyst and former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe.

So, Andrew, does anything stand out to you about the shooting and the response by law enforcement at this stage?

ANDREW MCCABE, CNN SENIOR LAW ENFORCEMENT: So, Anderson, what we know from the press -- two press conferences today, the response seems to be entirely in line with what you would expect and hope for from your local first responders. It took them about seven minutes or so to respond after the initial receipt of the 911 call. And in a rural town of a, you know, lightly populated, spread out over a big area, I think that's a pretty reasonable response time.

The problem is whether it's seven minutes or one minute, you're always after the shooter. You are coming in after the carnage has already begun. So the odds for law enforcement, as we've discussed many times, to resolve these situations peacefully with a quick response is just not really -- that's not really possible.

COOPER: The shooter was apparently armed with a pump action shotgun, 17-year-old student, a small caliber handgun as well. And there also was an improvised explosive device found at the scene. That's unusual. I mean, obviously, that occurred in Columbine as well.

MCCABE: Yes, I think the guns are fairly typical, what you would expect that a student, a child would be able to get access to in the home. We don't know where the guns came from. It's -- presumably, he didn't purchase them himself. He's only 17 years old. He wouldn't be able to do that. These were probably firearms that he had access to in the home, but we'll find out as the investigation goes on. [20:10:10]

The use of the IED is interesting to me. It's not entirely unheard of. You know, we certainly have examples of other mass shooters. The San Bernardino shooters come to mind and numerous IEDs that they left at the community center where they began their rampage.

But here what it really connects to, for me, is the possibility of Columbine as an inspiration for this actor. We know that the shooting at Columbine in 1999 -- still to this day -- is a very, very powerful motivator to -- particularly the young people who are inclined to act out violently. They study it online. They read books about it. They make trips to Columbine to see the school where it happened.

So the use of the IED, to me, feels a little bit like an echo of Columbine. There's been some reporting that the song that he used in the background on his TikTok posting just before the shooting is also a song that was used by Eric Harris, one of the Columbine shooters on his personal website, again in 1999. So there may be some distinct connections here. The investigation might uncover more connections in that event.

COOPER: I mean, it seems, you know, on the face of it just crazy that people would take inspiration from what happened to Columbine.

MCCABE: It is. It's crazy. It's destructive. But, you know, I mean, this is what we have. We have young people who are clearly in trouble, who are struggling, probably in many different ways, and they seek and find community and inspiration in all of the strange ways that young people do that, right? That's going to happen.

The difference here -- what makes this different than every other place on earth is that those same troubled, disturbed young people can also get readily, easy access to lethal firearms. That's what makes this different. That's why it's the combination of those two things that puts us in this situation we're in, where it's four days into the new year, we had two school shootings so far. So buckle in. It's going to be a long year.

COOPER: How is the determining a motive in terms of trying to prevent future tragedies like this? I mean, does it matter so much for each investigation?

MCCABE: I think it does, because every time we can get a better insight into what was motivating one of these actors has the potential of rendering additional signals or things that not even so much law enforcement, but that communities, school administrators, coaches, parents, friends can look for. And if they see these red flags, they see these indicators, you know, quite possibly say something, bring this person to the attention of adults or authorities, like, that's a long shot.

But it's really the best we have right now. So it's definitely worth pursuing knowledge of what those motivations are so we can look for them in other people.

COOPER: Andrew McCabe, thanks very much.

Next, more breaking news. What we're learning from the latest batch of unsealed documents connected to the late sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, his accomplice Ghislaine Maxwell, their victims, and big name associates and friends.

And later, the former president and foreign money, a new report showing how many millions of dollars foreign governments showered on his properties, while he was in the White House.



COOPER: More breaking news. A second batch of documents was just unsealed related to late sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Epstein, as you know, died by suicide in 2019 before he could face trial in federal court.

Kara Scannell has been reading threw the new documents, joins us now. What stands out on anything?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So we got about over 300 pages of documents that our fantastic team has been going through them. Again, it's more depositions. And one deposition that has stood out is the lead detective in Palm Beach, who had conducted one of the earliest investigations of Epstein in the mid-2000s.

Through his testimony, he says that he interviewed 30 or 33 girls who said that they were recruited by Epstein and had given massages to him. And as we learned from Ghislaine Maxwell's criminal trial, massages was a code for something that began as a massage, but then turned sexual. So it just kind of gives us more of the sense of just the threat ...

COOPER: The numbers of people, I mean, that's insane.

SCANNELL: Truly astonishing. And he said the majority of the girls he interviewed were minors. So that just shows you how big this was.

And this comes on top of yesterday's batch of documents. And those, again, were more depositions, but they also -- while they had no blockbusters, they gave us a sense of the elite circle that Epstein traveled in.


SCANNELL (voice over): Politician, a prince, and other prominent men, their identities all contained in new Jeffrey Epstein documents unsealed Wednesday. It's the first batch of sealed court filings related to the late sex trafficker released following a judge's order last month, with dozens more documents soon to be made public.

Epstein's circle of associates is well-known, but the records provide the public more context about the exclusive world he traveled in while facing accusations of misconduct. GLORIA ALLRED, WOMEN'S RIGHTS LAWYER: I would say that there's not much new in this, but I do think that it's important that the public have access to the documents, because it isn't just about Epstein.

SCANNELL (voice over): The pages name prominent figures, including Prince Andrew, former Presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, and stem from a civil defamation lawsuit brought in 2015 against Epstein's former girlfriend Ghislaine Maxwell. Included are depositions, including one taken in 2016 from Johanna Sjoberg, who worked for Epstein.

She said in the document that she and Epstein had a conversation, and, quote, "He said one time that Clinton likes them young," referring to girls. When asked if Clinton was a friend of Epstein's, she said she understood Epstein had, quote, "dealings with Clinton."

Clinton has not been accused of any crimes or wrongdoing related to Epstein and has denied any kind of criminal activity. A spokesperson for Clinton on Wednesday reiterated that Clinton knew nothing of Epstein's crimes.

Sjoberg also recalled the time she was with Epstein on one of his planes, and pilot said he needed to land in Atlantic City. Jeffrey said, "Great, we'll call up Trump and we'll go to -- I don't recall the name of the casino, but we'll go to the casino." She says in the deposition she never gave a massage to Trump.

In 2002, Trump called Epstein a terrific guy, but he later said he threw Epstein out of his Mar-a-Lago Club. Trump is not accused of any wrongdoing.


When CNN asked for a statement, the Trump campaign responded by attacking the media. The documents also contained excerpts of a deposition taken from the woman behind the lawsuit, Virginia Roberts Giuffre, who previously reached an out-of-court settlement in a separate sexual abuse lawsuit against Prince Andrew. Giuffre allege in her deposition that she was Epstein's sex slave, and Maxwell directed her to have sexual contact with people, including Prince Andrew and former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson who died last year.

But Prince Andrew and Richardson have denied wrongdoing. A spokesperson for Richardson denied he had ever met Giuffre.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think for the survivors and, you know, the attorneys who have been working so hard to bring this to light, I do think it gives them a sense of at least some satisfaction and some justice that we're keeping the conversation going.

SCANNELL (voice over): Giuffre's attorney says the disclosure furthers the important goal of shutting down sex trafficking wherever it exists, and holding more to account. The unsealing of this document gets closer to the goal.

Attorneys for Ghislaine Maxwell, who is serving a 20-year sentence, said in a statement on Wednesday, "She has consistently and vehemently maintained her innocence.


COOPER: What's next in terms of these documents?

SCANNELL: I mean, we were really -- it seems like we're still at the beginning stages of these documents. In total, we've got just about 59 documents that we've seen. There are expected to be dozens and dozens more of them that will continue to roll out over the next several days. So we'll continue to look through them.

But, you know, this was a long litigation, before it ultimately settled. And so there were a lot of depositions taken, a lot of discovery, a lot of subpoenas. So we're just going to have to keep combing through this to see what there is.

COOPER: And are some people's names being held back or is everybody's name going to be ...

SCANNELL: There is just a small subset of people whose names are being held back, and some of those are victims who were minors at the time, and their stories have never been public. Their names have never been public.

Unlike some of the others who have spoken out publicly, who spoke at the trial, they have kept them -- their identities secret. And the judge said she was going to keep that. So right now, those are the -- that's really the main set of people whose identities we won't know. But otherwise, the judge said that everyone else is going to be unsealed because the public interest outweighs ...

COOPER: Right.

SCANNELL: ... their privacy.

COOPER: Kara Scannell, thanks so much. Appreciate it.

Coming up next, the former president, the Trump properties that kept making him money while he was in office and a new report tonight on which foreign governments spent millions of dollars at those properties.



COOPER: The former president, as late, made a habit of accusing the current one of taking money from foreign governments, most notably China. He has provided no evidence. On the other hand, Democrats in the House Oversight Committee today brought some receipts. They released a report documenting, they say, millions of dollars that foreign governments spent at the former president's properties while he was in office. The presidency, which you'll remember began with serious questions about just that subject.

Welcome CNN's Jessica Schneider.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER US PRESIDENT: These papers are just some of the many documents that I've signed turning over complete and total control to my sons.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT (voice over): At the start of Donald Trump's presidency, he promised to hand over control of his companies to his two sons, but he refused to divest his assets, and he retained ownership. Now, a report released by House Democrats reveals how Trump and his business raked in at least $7.8 million from foreign governments during his time in the White House.

REP. JAMIE RASKIN (R), RANKING MEMBER, OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE: He not only lined his own pockets, but he repeatedly sold out the American public interest in favor of the interests of these foreign governments.

SCHNEIDER (voice over): Congressman Jamie Raskin led the investigation, finding that the Chinese government and its state- controlled entities spent more than $5.5 million to stay at Trump properties, including Trump Tower in New York City, and the Trump International Hotels in Washington DC and Las Vegas. Other countries handing over hundreds of thousands to Trump's businesses -- Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and India.

RASKIN: By defying the constitution, he basically fulfilled the founders' worst fears, which is that the president, in order to line his own pockets, would sell out the American interest in favor of particular foreign governments looking for policy favors from the president. And that's exactly what happened.

SCHNEIDER (voice over): The emoluments clause of the Constitution forbids the president from accepting any present emolument of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state. For years, Democrats have alleged that foreign governments were buying favor with the Trump administration.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I believe this is not only wrong and immoral, but illegal.


SCHNEIDER (voice over): The new report points to Trump declining to impose sanctions on the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China for allegedly helping North Korea evade US sanctions after the state-owned bank leased property at Trump Tower. And the Trump administration's $100 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia in May 2017, around the same time, the country spent about $600,000 at Trump-owned properties.

Trump's team denies any wrongdoing. They point to the Trump organization donating about $450,000 in estimated profits from foreign governments to the US Treasury, and Trump himself refusing to accept a paycheck during his time as president.

TRUMP: It's a lot of money I would have given away, like, I give away my salary.

SCHNEIDER (voice over): Eric Trump responding, "There is no president in United States history who is tougher on China than Donald Trump, a president who introduced billions and billions of dollars' worth of tariffs on their goods and services."

Meanwhile, Republicans continued to make the so far unproven allegations that President Biden has benefitted from his son's business dealings in China and Ukraine. But in response to the report about Trump's businesses, Republican House Oversight Chair James Comer, who is leading the investigation into the Bidens saying, "It's beyond parody that Democrats continue their obsession with former President Trump. Former President Trump has legitimate businesses, but the Bidens do not."


COOPER: What if anything can congressional Democrats do about this?

SCHNEIDER: Well, Anderson, they're really releasing this report, I guess, for two reasons at this point. First, they want people to be aware of Trump's business entanglements with foreign governments going into 2024.


Secondly, Congressman Raskin told me that he's going to work on legislation that would mandate reporting to Congress for any president or official who does take foreign payments and then find a way for Congress to approve or deny those payments to really have a check in place to enforce the emoluments clause.

Because, Anderson, obviously, when President Trump was in office, there were no -- there was no action taken by Congress to actually enforce that clause. They're hoping that they could in the future.

COOPER: All right. Overseas now -- appreciate it -- the latest in the wake of the deadliest single attack in Iran since the 1979 revolution. Last night, U.S. official says -- said that it bore the marks of the hallmarks of ISIS.

Now, ISIS has claimed responsibility, saying it was done by two suicide bombers. The explosions at a memorial service marking the fourth anniversary of the U.S. strike killing Qasem Soleimani claimed at least 84 lives and wounded nearly 300 more.

CNN's Nic Robertson joins us now from Tel Aviv. So, Nic, before ISIS claimed responsibility for yesterday's bombings, Iran had blamed Israel, promised a harsh response. Is it clear if the claim by ISIS is going to impact those rising tensions?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: It should do in part because it is seems to be clear. ISIS's claim fairly matches the events, said discrepancies on the numbers with what the Iranians say. The numbers who were killed in the Iranians say one of the bombs at least was remote controlled. ISIS says that they were both suicide bombers, both the explosions, but it has ISIS's MO, the killing of large numbers of civilians, the targeting of Iran, and indeed going after Qasem Soleimani's memorial because they believe Soleimani was a figure who was trying to shut down the Islamic State for Iran.

So a number of reasons to believe that. But the Iranian leadership has still said, well, OK, maybe it was ISIS. We believe it was ISIS, but Israel was behind it, which, of course, is a nonsense. But it should lead to at least some easing of tensions. And I spoke today with the former head of military intelligence at the IDF who very familiar with the battlefield himself, very familiar with dealing with complex issues in the region.

And I asked him about these rising tensions. He said that they weren't crossing a threshold at the moment that he didn't think that there would be a massive response from Iran. But -- well, these were his words.


AMOS YADLIN, FORMER HEAD OF THE IDF's MILITARY INTELLIGENCE DIRECTORATE: Israel took the gloves off. You can see it in Gaza. You can see it with Hariri in Beirut. You can see it with the general in Damascus, even though nobody took responsibility, but the Iranians blamed Israel.

I think the Iranians will be very, very careful, even if after a provocation, they will suffer a loss. But starting a war with the U.S. or even with Israel, they are not there yet.


ROBERTSON: And I think that's an important part of Israel's assessment for those targeted strikes that Israel is responsible for, though, where he spoke about Israel taking their gloves off. This is a calculated move, and they believe they're within that threshold of a safety margin. Anderson?

COOPER: What are Israeli authorities saying tonight about the potential for any kind of spread of the conflict, especially along the northern border with Lebanon?

ROBERTSON: Yes, there is a -- there's a real concern that there is a potential for it to spread along there. And, of course, that ISIS strike in Tehran is still going to have an impact on Tehran's calculus in a way. And it has all these events have risen tensions, and there is always that risk that a combination of events leads to a misreading of actions by one side or another. And Israel is still concerned about that.

The defense minister today and the prime minister both spoke with President Biden's envoy who was here today and told him that the time is running out to get a solution along the northern border, in particular because it's affecting the economy of Israel. 80,000 people displaced from there. The Israelis say they want a diplomatic solution, but time is running out for it.

COOPER: Nic Robertson, thanks very much.

In about half an hour, Ron DeSantis, followed by Nikki Haley, are going to take questions from Iowa voters at back to back CNN Town Halls. We're going to have a preview coming up. What's on the line for both presidential candidates, 11 days from the Iowa caucuses, next.



COOPER: We're looking at a live shot from Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa. CNN is moderating back to back town halls there tonight. The first with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and moderator Kaitlan Collins. That begins in less than half an hour. The second with former U.N. Ambassador to South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and moderator Erin Burnett begins an hour after that.

Only 11 days until the Iowa caucuses, we expect the candidates are going to discuss a wide variety of topics, including their pitches to undecided voters wary of a third campaign by the former president.

Joining us now from the town hall, our Chief National Affairs Correspondent, Jeff Zeleny. So, Ambassador Haley is taking some flak for comments she made about Iowa and New Hampshire. What's the latest on that as she prepares?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, Governor Nikki Haley stepped into this long running controversy and competition between Iowa and New Hampshire, of course, this states that for generations have led the presidential voting.

And yes, there's competition between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Usually these candidates sort of keep, stay in their lanes when they're in the various states campaigning. But take a listen to what Governor Haley said last night, campaigning in New Hampshire.


NIKKI HALEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I trust every single one of you. You know how to do this. You know Iowa starts it. You know that you correct it. You know that you continue to go.


ZELENY: So the applause and laughter you heard in the audience in New Hampshire probably not will be the same here tonight where we expect Haley to likely clean up that answer. Of course Iowa and New Hampshire don't always echo their responses. Often they choose different results.

Sometimes Iowa winners are rejected in New Hampshire, vice versa, but clearly this has become a point where her rivals have seized upon it. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis used this as an example to call her a phony. Even the Iowa Governor, Kim Reynolds, who has endorsed DeSantis, she lashed out at Haley, said she doesn't understand Iowa.

And so, look, the reason this matters, Anderson, is she's trying to win over support and voters here in Iowa. And taking a bit of a dig at them last night, probably not the smartest idea. So we'll see if she cleans it up here tonight when she takes the stage in about a half an hour.

COOPER: When about Ron DeSantis? I mean, is he running out of time to make his case to voters?


ZELENY: Anderson, there's no doubt that there's no candidate who started at such a high level in this race with the exception of Donald Trump, and he's closing really with all of his hopes on Iowa. The Iowa caucuses often end some presidential hopes. He hopes he is not in that list.

He hopes that Iowa is the beginning of his effort, but he's closing this campaign with far less money than he started with. And he's closing it really with a considerable pressure to make a strong showing here in Iowa. Of course he would like to win, but a strong second place showing for DeSantis would show that he is still in this race.

So he is really campaigning aggressively, taking every question from voters, from media. He'll be doing the town hall here as well. So clearly, always on the line here for DeSantis in Iowa.

COOPER: You mentioned Donald Trump, how's the former president looming over these town halls tonight?

ZELENY: In so many ways, Anderson, I mean, you cannot go to an event without a voter asking one of these candidates why don't you say more about Donald Trump? Why don't you say this about Donald Trump? So he is looming very large in this Republican race.

He'll be back in the state tomorrow campaigning and talking to Trump advisers. One of the things that they say, they're more worried about complacency among his supporters than they are actually about individual rivals. So this race really is starting to intensify in the New Year, 11 days before the Iowa caucuses.

Yes, Donald Trump is the frontrunner, there's no doubt, but there's also not been a single vote cast yet. So this is a new beginning for many undecided voters, and those questions start tonight in just about 20 minutes. Anderson?

COOPER: Jeff Zeleny, thanks very much.

Joining me now are our senior political commentators, Alyssa Farah Griffin, David Axelrod, Scott Jennings, and Van Jones. Alyssa, I mean, so much at stake tonight, how big a problem could Nikki Haley's comments actually be?

ALYSSA FARAH GRIFFIN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, listen, she's actually not wrong. As the saying goes, Iowa picks corn and New Hampshire picks presidents. It hasn't been since 2000 that the Republican candidate who won Iowa went on to win the presidency with George W. Bush.

So, in that regard, she's correct. You definitely don't want to insult your voters right ahead of it. But she knows she's always been playing for number two in Iowa, she's playing for number one in New Hampshire.

And tonight, I would argue that the 11 days ahead is make or break for Ron DeSantis. There's not a path for him if he doesn't over perform expectations in Iowa. He's --

COOPER: What does that mean, over perform expectations?

FARAH GRIFFIN: I would argue it's hard for him to stay in the race, even if he comes in a distant number two to Donald Trump. I think he's got to beat Nikki Haley, have a close margin to Donald Trump, and even so, the money, the resources, and the momentum is not there in New Hampshire.

He's consistently third, if not fourth, placed behind Chris Christie. So, unless he beats Donald Trump in Iowa, I expect the DeSantis campaign could be winding down soon.

COOPER: Do you think that's true, Dave?

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No. I think that -- I don't think he's going to beat Donald Trump. I don't think anybody is going to beat Donald Trump. I mean, what's interesting is he's looming large over this, but nobody will address him. He's the person no one will address because he's so far ahead and they don't want to antagonize his voters. But I think DeSantis has to have a strong second to keep going.

And -- but let me just say one thing on the Haley comment. Back in 2004, Howard Dean was buzzing along in the Iowa caucuses and a tape surfaced of him saying that the Iowa caucuses were a waste of time. And that was the beginning of the end of Howard Dean.

Iowans do not, as Jeff mentioned, like to see their caucuses denigrated. They -- there's this -- there is this battle between Iowa and New Hampshire. So what she said was a great line for January 16th, but she just got ahead of herself there. And I think it actually is not helpful.

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: The strategic interplay among the campaigns and how they're setting expectations and how they're interfacing with each other is kind of fascinating. In Iowa, Trump is not addressing any of these candidates. In fact, I think they're ad traffic right now as him contrasting his economic record against Joe Biden.

But if you go over to New Hampshire --

AXELROD: Yes. JENNINGS: -- to Alyssa's point, they're now attacking Nikki Haley on the air, on the issue of immigration. They think that issue is going to put a lid on the surge that she has been seeing in New Hampshire. And I don't think the Trump people really agree that she has gotten as close as we've seen her in some of the public polls, but obviously, they're not taking any chances. And I -- on DeSantis.

You know, 12 is the number for Trump. Anything north of 12 is a historic victory, right? You get below that, you get down into the single digits for Trump. That meant you underperformed expectations. And if it's DeSantis in second place, you can maybe try to play the resurrection narrative and keep it going.

AXELROD: And I think the point, I'm sorry, Van, I think the point that they're worried about complacency has some reality to it. When you're being told over and over again that this guy has a commanding lead, there is less of a sense of urgency about coming out.

JENNINGS: Well, the DeSantis people believe their supporters are proven caucus goers.


JENNINGS: Far more likely to show up. And that the Trump people are depending on a higher turnout of less frequent or new voters. And so, the DeSantis people see some hope in that.

JONES: It takes more commitment to show up at a caucus and sit there and go through all that stuff as opposed to just showing up to vote.


Look, I think for Nikki Haley is you got to peak at the right time and she's doing that. DeSantis peaked way too early, and he's been sinking ever since. She's peaking at the right time, but she's making these gaffes at the wrong time.

She just keeps saying dumb stuff, just when people are trying to fall in love with her. So, you know, I think that if she could just manage to just, you know, stay where she is and keep rising, I've been very, very surprised at how strongly she's coming across for Democrats.

I'm hearing a lot of Democrats saying positive things about Nikki Haley in ways they don't say positive things about other Republicans. She could be a real threat to a Biden if she could get past Donald Trump, but she's got to get her foot out of her mouth so she can at least have a chance to be number two.

AXELROD: But you're saying she's making a gaffes just at the time that she's rising.


AXELROD: The reason -- gaffes always come when you start getting a lot of attention. That's part of the test of running for president. There's more pressure, the better you do. She's breaking late and so she's getting the attention late and she's stumbled a bit --


AXELROD: -- several times now. So, you know, we'll see how she fires up on that.

JONES: I hope the Iowans are forgiving of her, but if not, she's still got New Hampshire. Look, she made a joke. DeSantis has become a joke. He is out of money. He's desperate. He doesn't -- you can't find any way or any place where a poll that he's doing better today than he was yesterday.

FARAH GRIFFIN: Well, and it's I -- if I may --

JONES: No, go ahead.

FARAH GRIFFIN: -- I think that there's a lot of Republicans right now who fear a repeat of 2016 where the field doesn't consolidate when it needs to. There's been a lot of pressure around Chris Christie, who's had about 10 percent in New Hampshire to endorse someone or drop out of the race and just allow that sort of alternate to Trump's vote to split.

I think that momentum is only going to increase following Iowa and because at the end of the day, there are a lot of Americans who want something other than Trump. We know six in 10 Americans don't want a Trump versus Biden rematch. But when you have the field split between three candidates, it's really hard for anyone to overtake the giant in the road.

AXELROD: You say six in 10 Americans, but you don't say six in 10 Republicans. And there's a reason for that. I mean he has a 50-point lead in national polls.

JENNINGS: Rapid consolidation, though, doesn't all help Haley. I mean, if DeSantis were to disappoint and drop out, a large number of his people moving forward go to Trump. And I'll tell you what, you know, Trump can pull Ramaswamy's chain anytime he feels like it. And there's some percentages there. And I suspect he will do that at some point.

So, I agree that Christie is an anvil around Haley in New Hampshire. But some of this other consolidation will help Trump as well.

COOPER: We're going to take a quick break. More to discuss about tonight's town halls, including how the candidates tackled today's school shooting in Perry, Iowa, where a sixth grader was murdered, five others wounded not far from Des Moines in tonight's event.



COOPER: Tonight's CNN Town Halls takes place less than an hour's drive from that shooting in Perry, Iowa that we told you about at the top of the hour when a sixth grader was murdered, four students and one school administrator were wounded. This is how Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley have previously addressed attempts to curb gun violence.


HALEY: You know, everybody wants to say, oh, but why can't you get rid of -- let's get rid of AR-15s. The reality is, even if you did that, it might make you feel good today. There's going to be another shooting next week.

We need to focus on what really matters. Mental health is the cancer that no one is talking about.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: My approach to firearms is I'm going to stand rock solid behind our Second Amendment rights, our constitutional freedoms, and I will focus the attention of law enforcement on individuals, convicted felons, people who are mentally ill or dangerous to society.

The way to keep our community safe is obviously you got to work with law enforcement, not against law enforcement and you need to identify those individuals who should not have access.


COOPER: I can't imagine anything changing on their lawns tonight.

FARAH GRIFFIN: Not fundamentally. I imagine they'll offer condolences and sympathies because this did rock the Iowa community and I think that it's a moment to show humanity and just, you know, kind of have a solemn presence on this. I do think that, especially as a pivot toward the general, might eventually come for one of these candidates, kind of getting around one of the 80 percent issues, like supporting red flag laws, is a good place to be.

I think supporting some level of background checks is a place you could ultimately see them coming out. But I don't expect they're going to have a policy shift today.

JONES: That's the crazy thing. Even after the massacre in our own state at Mother Emanuel, Nikki Haley comes out, says she's against red flag laws, against expanding background checks. I mean, in one of the worst shootings, a shooting that really changed the trajectory of her career where she did a lot of things right, she wouldn't even go for expanded background checks then.

AXELROD: Well, I don't think you're going to get an evolution tonight. I think they should have held this in a dance hall, because I think you're going to see a lot of dancing around this issue. DeSantis was on with Kaitlan some weeks ago, and she pressed him on this red flaw -- red flag law, and he was insistent that there's no evidence that that would be helpful, though they have it in his own state.

She asked, well, why don't you repeal it? Well, it was passed by Republican legislature. They don't have much enthusiasm for that.

JENNINGS: And for her, you know, the audience, obviously they're in Iowa and she wants to beat expectations in Iowa. The people of Iowa love the Second Amendment, of course, but she's also talking to these independents in New Hampshire.

And you wonder if there's like a little gear in the back of her mind thinking, you know, do I need this -- do I need to say something to this group? Because so much of her strategy is banking on getting some of these, you know, independent voters to come into a Republican Party.

AXELROD: I agree with that, Scott. But the -- you know, the vulnerability that's emerging now is her, that little gear in the back of her head and it adjusting ever so slightly according to her political needs. And now she's getting called on it. So she's got to be very careful about this because everybody knows the record that Van cites here and everything she said during this campaign.

FARAH GRIFFIN: Well, and I think she's also certainly trying to make inroads with women. That's a core demographic that I think she has an advantage with. And I think that the issue of gun violence and the fear of your kids going to school and the fact that they might be a victim of school shooting resonates so heavily with the suburban moms that we talk about.


I wonder if that might be something that she realizes to reach what could be a core constituency. There may need to be some movement beyond just addressing the mental health concerns.

COOPER: Do you expect --

JONES: Sorry, I was going to say one of the things that I think Nikki Haley has done a good job on, we look at something like abortion. She has a depth touch. She's able to sort of convey some empathy even while she's taking, you know, frankly a fairly conservative position often.

Tonight would be a good chance for her to do that. When this comes up, can she show that she can be that empathizer in chief, even if she's firm on her policy position, that's a way for her to get a win out of it. Obviously, DeSantis is not good at that kind of thing, so that could be a way to show some separation.

AXELROD: I think she's doing pretty well among suburban voters around the Des Moines area and so on. This happened 40 miles outside of Des Moines. The question is, can she press beyond that into some of these other areas? And their movement on this issue may not be as well received.

JENNINGS: Yes, a plugged in Republican in Iowa told me tonight Haley -- the Haley movement in Iowa is real in the metros, but can you get out into the rural areas? And of course, that's where DeSantis is banking on this evangelical sort of pastor network that propelled Ted Cruz before. So how she handles some of the issues that they're sensitive to out in the rural parts to be definitive.

COOPER: They've been -- Haley and DeSantis I think they spent about $10 million in attack ads against -- JONES: On each other.

COOPER: I think it's like 1.5 million attacking the former president. You know, that said, does that make sense to you?

AXELROD: Well, it makes sense in that one of them is trying to pass the other to get to the next round to challenge Trump. But again, I think this is a reflection of Trump's power within the party right now, because there is a cost they feel to going frontally after him.

So they'll go after each other's jugulars and they go after his capillary, right? They're not going to go full frontal on Trump because they want to create a path for at least people who are open to them and him to come their way. And there's, you know, he has made himself a sympathetic figure to Republican voters.

So, you know, look at Chris Christie. I mean, he's attacking Trump frontally, and he's the least popular candidate in the Republican field.

JONES: I think, you know, you'd say that, you know, Trump has made himself sympathetic. I wonder if he had a world where he wasn't being indicted, you know, over and over and over again. And he might -- in that world, felt he had to walk out on some of these stages and actually debate somebody. And maybe you're in a different world.

I do think that if you look back his -- Trump was -- and DeSantis were very close in the poll and then every indictment --


JONES: -- you see him pulling away, pulling away, pulling away.

JENNINGS: Well, and it happened at the same time DeSantis chose to wait. I mean --


JENNINGS: -- we sat out here on election night and DeSantis was riding high. And in that immediate aftermath, it looked like people were ready to dump Trump and go in a different direction. And then they chose to wait and he waits several months.

And in that intervening period, everything that happened --

AXELROD: Trump also pounded him with tens of millions of dollars of negative action.

JENNINGS: He's been attacked more. Then Donald Trump and Joe Biden combined --

JONES: DeSantis.

JENNINGS: DeSantis has --

FARAH GRIFFIN: Well, and keep in mind too, many of us were here for the night that Trump relaunched his campaign. And it was, I mean, it was quiet. You couldn't find a prominent Republican inside. I think Matt Gaetz was probably the biggest name represented there.

Fast forward, you know, just over a year, he has the endorsement of all the House Republican leadership. He's picking up senatorial endorsements. He's picking up endorsements from governors.

COOPER: He's got Vanilla Ice.

FARAH GRIFFIN: He's got Vanilla Ice like Mar-a-Lago. He has really taken advantage of these indictments, turned it on its head, use the martyr complex and it's somehow breaking through, but I don't give Trump tremendous credit. It's not that he's some remarkable salesman in this regard. He's -- those running against him didn't decided to defend --


FARAH GRIFFIN: -- to decide with him on the indictments to actually say it was a witch hunt. They didn't litigate the case of why those were legitimate and the courts need to play out.

AXELROD: I think it's interesting that he's chosen to spend the day before the Iowa caucuses in the hearing in Washington over whether he has immunity or not. And I really do feel he's going to spend a lot of this campaign, campaigning from courthouse steps.


AXELROD: Because of what Van said.

JENNINGS: You can't discount the fact, though, that so much of this was a strategic argument. He can't win. Maybe it's because of the legal issues. Maybe it's because of something else. Well, what's happened? All these national polls have come out showing Trump winning, winning in swing states, beating Joe Biden nationally.

And so if you're arguing -- and they're still making it today, only, you know, Trump's going to lose, Trump's going to lose. Well, the Republican voters don't believe that. They --


JENNINGS: -- think vindications at hand.

COOPER: Yes. I want to thank everybody. The back to back CNN Town Halls with Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley start now.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening and welcome to Iowa where the first contest of the 2024 presidential race is now just 11 days away. We are live at Grand View University for a special night of back to back CNN Town Halls.

I'm Kaitlan Collins.