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The Lead with Jake Tapper

Biden, Zelensky Hold Joint News Conference On Ukraine Aid; Biden: Putin Is Banking On The U.S. Failing To Deliver For Ukraine; Zelenskyy In Washington To Plead For More Aid From Congress; NH Gov. Sununu Expected To Endorse Nikki Haley Tonight. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired December 12, 2023 - 17:00   ET



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is CNN breaking news.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome to The Lead. I'm Jake Tapper.

In Des Moines, Iowa, our breaking news this hour, at any moment we're going to hear from President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The Ukrainian leader today's in the nation's capital to try and secure additional aid for his war torn country, which is badly needed to fend off the attack by Russia. It's a tall order, billions of dollars in aid are tied up in Congress with lawmakers at something at an impasse over funding for border security, which Republicans have insisted be added to the package. Zelenskyy today met with top lawmakers from both sides of the aisle including the brand new House speaker, Mike Johnson from Louisiana. Many Republican holdouts who met with Zelenskyy say a deal remains unlikely in their minds were not changed. Let's go straight to CNN's MJ Lee who was at the White House for us.

And MJ, what are we expecting here from the two leaders beyond just a pitch to get this money from Congress to Ukraine?

MJ LEE, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Jake, this press conference obviously has been quite delayed. But we did just see the Ukrainian delegation and the U.S. delegation take their seats in the front row. Secretary Blinken, Secretary Austin, other senior officials are now in the room. So we should be seeing President Biden and President Zelenskyy enter the room any moment now. I think White House officials and U.S. officials have made the point that this visit is about so much more than the issue of U.S. funding for Ukraine, which clearly on Capitol Hill right now stands at an impasse.

They are saying that the world is watching right now, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, and that this is a kind of visit that can send a message to the world at such a critical moment in this conflict about the U.S. is continuing steadfast support for Ukraine, and that there is another -- I'm going to toss it back to you Jake.

TAPPER: OK. Here's the president of the United States and the president of Ukraine. Let's watch and listen.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Please have a seat. President Zelenskyy, it's an honor to welcome you back to the White House. When President Putin launched his brutal total invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022, and Russian tanks rolled over border toward Kyiv, or those who thought Ukraine wouldn't survive for a month, so no one, no one should forget that for you to be here today, again, today, nearly two years later and for Ukraine to be staying strong and free, is an enormous victory already. Putin has failed, failed in his effort to subjugate Ukraine. The brave people in Ukraine have defied Putin's will at every turn, backed by the strong and unwavering support of the United States and our allies, and partners in more than 50 nations, 50 nations in Europe and the Indo Pacific. And Ukraine will emerge from this war, proud, free and firmly rooted in the West. Unless we walk away.

The American people can be and should be incredibly proud, the part they played in supporting Ukraine success. We'll continue to supply Ukraine with critical weapons and equipment as long as we can, including $200 million I just approved today in a critical needed equipment, additional air defense interceptors, artillery and ammunition. But without supplemental funding, we're rapidly coming to an end of our ability to help Ukraine respond to the urgent operational demands that it has. Putin is banking on the United States failing to deliver for Ukraine. We must, we must, we must prove him wrong.

The United States and Congress must, as I asked last week, in this -- it's stunning that we've gotten to this point. You know, we need to fully appreciate, fully appreciate how it's wrong, how this is being viewed around the world and being used by Russia. Russian loyalists in Moscow celebrated when Republicans voted to block Ukraine aid last week. The host of a Kremlin run show literally said and I quote, "well-done Republicans, that's good for us." And of course, let me say that again, this host of a Kremlin run show said well-done Republicans, that's good for us, that's a Russian speaking.

If you're being celebrated by Russian propagandists, it might be time to rethink what you're doing. History will judge harshly those to turn their back on freedoms cause. Today, Ukraine's freedom is on the line, but if we don't stop Putin, it will endanger the freedom of everyone, almost everywhere. Putin will keep going, and would be aggressors everywhere will be emboldened to try to take what they can by force.


Mr. President, I will not walk away from Ukraine and neither will the American people. A clear bipartisan majority of people across the United States and in Congress to support your country. They understand as I do that Ukraine's success and its ability to deter aggression in the future are vital to security for the world at large. And I have repeatedly made clear from our first day in office, we also need Ukraine to make changes to fix the broken immigration system here. We also need Congress to make the changes to fix the broken immigration system here at home.

My team is working with Senate Democrats and Republicans to try to find a bipartisan compromise, both in terms of changes in policy, and provide the resources we need to secure the border. Compromise is how democracy works. And I'm ready and offered compromise already. Holding Ukraine funding hostage in an attempt to force through an extreme Republican partisan agenda on the border is not how it works. We need real solutions.

I also asked Congress for funding for Israel to take on Hamas and confront multiple other threats backed by Iran in the wake of October 7 assault. National Security Adviser Sullivan will travel to the region this week, and meet with the Israeli war cabinet, as I have met with, to emphasize our commitment to Israel, as well as the need to protect civilian life and ensure more humanitarian assistance flows and reaches into Gaza for Palestinian civilians. Secretary Austin will also travel to the region this week to step up the international efforts to protect the free flow of commerce through the Red Sea.

The entire world is watching what we do. So let's show them who we are. America stands for freedom today, tomorrow and always. America stands against tyranny and against oppression, and America stands with the people of Ukraine.

Thank you again for being here today, Mr. President. And thank you for everything Ukraine is doing to hold the line for liberty in the world. The floor is yours, Mr. President.

PRES. VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINE: Thank you very much, Mr. President. Dear journalists, I'm glad to be here and personally thank you, and tell you how Ukraine and Belarus (ph) what we've achieved together defending life and freedom. In Ukraine, we are fighting for our country and freedom and also in Europe, we say for our freedom, and yours. And this motor resonates not only in our country, not only in our hearts, not only in Ukraine, but also in Poland, and Baltic States, Moldova and others. When freedom is strong in one country, it is strong everywhere. When it burns in one soul, it presents its merits to others.

Ukraine have twice -- Ukrainians have twice led revolutions this century, defending freedom. For nearly two years, we've been in a full scale war. The biggest since World War II. Fighting for freedom, we stand firm. No matter what Putin tries, he hasn't won any victories.

Thanks to Ukraine success, success in defense, other European nations are safe from the Russian aggression. Unlike in the past, Ukraine can now tackle the Russian dictatorship so our children and other nations wouldn't have to shed their blood and sacrifice lives defending against Russian aggression. We've already made significant progress. We've shown that our courage and partnerships are stronger than any Russian hostility. And we've freed 50 percent of the territories Russia occupied after February 24.

And we won the Black Sea and reviving our economy. Thanks to maritime experts, Ukraine's 5 percent economic growth this year proves our effective partnership. And we've shown no, no rush missiles can overdo the powerful American patriot systems. Thank you very much.

[17:10:07] And even during war, we are reforming our country and strengthening our institutions. Today, President Biden and I discussed how to increase our strengths for next year, first, air defense and destroying Russian logistics on Ukraine's land. Mr. President, thank you very much for your supporting us. And in these areas, like our victory in the Black Sea, we aim to win that air battle, crashing Russian air dominance. This will intensify our ground advances in 2024 with our control of the skies. Who controls the skies, controls, the worse duration.

And today, I would like to thank, of course for yet another significant defense package with our defenders value very much. Second, yesterday, I met with American defense company leaders, they advise us on how to make our defense industries work faster and more effectively. Thank you, President Biden, for this important initiative. We started with you.

Together Ukraine and America can strengthen democracies arsenal. And this is vital for other free nations and the U.S. as it involves your companies, technologies, and technology advancement and job creation. And it is important to know that two thirds of American support for Ukraine remains and works in the United States. Sort, I informed Mr. President that Ukraine has fulfilled all the recommendations of the European Commission regarding the preparation for a decision to start negotiations on Ukraine's accession to the E.U. And we constantly communicate with European leaders about our joint steps, sanctions and political efforts to pressure Russia. American leadership is crucial is keeping this unity together, a unity that serves the entire free world. And I think America for new sanctions.

And today we discussed Putin's for the isolation and making him pay for his aggression. It's very important that by the end of this year we can send very strong signal of our unity to the aggressor and the unity of Ukraine, America, Europe, the entire free world. Everything we talked about today will help us in the year 2024. Today's discussions in the White House and in Congress, across both parties and both chambers with a speaker were very productive, and I thank you for the bipartisan support.

As we approach Christmas on behalf of all our Ukrainian families separated by war, and all sons and daughters on the front, Ukraine's greatest wish is to near these wars, victorious end. No one but Putin wants prolonged war. We dream of a Christmas in the peacetime, of course. And we are working to turn our battlefield success into peace. And we are heading there together with you.

And thanks, of course, to your support. Thank you very much, Mr. President. Thank you, America. (Inaudible).

BIDEN: Thank you. Look, we're going to alternate asking questions, we're going to ask a total of -- each ask two questions. And I will ask the first question. I'll ask, I'll recognize the first question asker. I'll ask you a question. But Danny Kim (ph).

DANNY KIM (PH), REPORTER: Thank you, Mr. President. President Biden, Ukraine's counter offensive has stalled in recent months, Congress's blocking aid, and Vladimir Putin appears ready to just wait things out. So, what is the strategy for the U.S. and Ukraine next year to try and turn this around? And if that fails, at what point do you say to Ukraine, as a friend, that is perhaps time to start looking at peace talks?

And for President Zelenskyy, welcome back to Washington. Can I ask you, did you hear what you wanted to hear from Congress and from President Biden? And all, are you indeed more worried than when you ahead? Thank you very much.


BIDEN: Well, let me answer the question first. Let's put this in perspective. Remember how far Ukraine has come? Russia has failed, failed thus far in trying to erase Ukraine from the map, and subsume it into Russia. Ukraine has taken back more than 50 percent of his territory seized since February of '22.

And it's pushed back Russian -- the Russian Navy, so Ukraine can export grain and steel to the world through the Black Sea. And thanks to the incredible courage of the Ukrainian people and the bipartisan support from our Congress, but it's not just American support, there are more than 50 countries, 50 countries helping Ukraine with military, economic and humanitarian assistance, 50. The burden sharing, the U.S. has put up $75 billion and our allies and partners have put up $100 billion. And more than 90 percent of our security assistance to Ukraine is being spent in the United States to provide weapons for Ukraine, and replenish our stockpiles and build our industrial base. We need to ensure Putin continues to fail in Ukraine and Ukraine to succeed. And the best way for that -- to do that is to pass a supplemental.

ZELENSKYY: Yes. Can I answer it in Ukrainian, please?

(Through translator) Thank you. First of all, I would like to add to the words of Mr. President Biden about successes, I think that these were not easy successes. Nonetheless, we were quite serious, we have a serious steps forward. In this, we gain victory on the sea. We've destroyed ships of the Russian Federation, we throw the remnants of their plate to Russian territorial waters.

Yes, they have some scene in the Black Sea, in the vicinity of our temporarily occupied Crimea, but we are going to proceed this activity. Our guys destroyed 20,000s of Wagner mercenaries. These are serious terrorists who were messing everywhere on African continent in Syria. In Ukraine, there were a lot of mass and nucleus of these touristic organization is not existing anymore. Yes, we had a lot of problems, but nonetheless, we were able to do this.

Moreover, Russia, were not able to seize any part of our territory, any village, any town, I'm not talking about large cities, and we are going to proceed with it. It is goes without saying that we have objectively have clear plan, but if you allow me, I am not able to tell you (inaudible) on the details of 2024 operations. If I heard what I want, I've heard a lot. Surely I told what I wanted to. I feel and experiences support President Biden administration, from senators and we will be talking with the speaker, I got the signal.

They were more than positive, but we know that we have to separate words and particular result. Therefore we will count on particular result. Thank you.

BIDEN: Your turn to ask a question.

ZELENSKYY: Yes, sorry.

BIDEN: Your turn.

ZELENSKYY: Yes. (Foreign Language)


DIMITRI (PH), REPORTER: Thank you for taking my question, Dimitri (ph), Ukrainian Television U.S. correspondent. Many Republican voices doubt the ability of Ukraine to win the war. Senator Vance recently even told that Ukraine need to cede some territories to stop fighting. (Foreign Language), to be very honest, have you even consider this such a step to cede the territories to stop fighting?

And, Mr. Biden, could you please clarify the policy and -- of your administration, the strategy of your administration on Ukraine? Is it about to helping the country to defend itself or to win the war? Because it's obviously such a difference?

ZELENSKYY: I will begin. OK.

(Through translator) So first question to me. So, your is if we are ready to give up our territories?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Foreign Language).

ZELENSKYY (through translator): The question is not only about our words or thoughts, the question is about what we are ready and for what we are not. How Ukraine is able to give up its territories. That's insane to be honest. We are mentioning God's very often. This is not about Christianity.


We have our people there. We have our families there. We have children there. That's part of Ukrainian society. And we are talking about human being, they are being under tortures, they have been raped, and they have been killed.

And those voices, which offers to give up our territories, the offers as well to give up our people. That's not a matter of territory, that's matter of lives, of families, of children, of their histories. I don't know whose idea it is. But I have a question to these people if they are ready to give up their children to terrorists, I think no.

BIDEN: We want to see Ukraine win the war. And as I've said before, winning means Ukraine is a sovereign independent nation. And they can afford to defend itself today and deter further aggression. That's our objective.

Trevor, Reuters.

TREVOR HUNNICUTT, REUTERS REPORTER: Thanks. Thank you, sir. First, a question for both of you. Given the Republican skepticism of the Ukraine effort, do you worry that a second term for President Trump would be the end of an independent Ukraine? That's for both of you.

And then for you, President Biden, just an update, if you could on the situation in Gaza on the reports that Israel has begun flooding Hamas tunnels. And just the offensive in southern Gaza, generally, how long do you think that operation should last? Thank you.

BIDEN: First of all, with regard to political support for Ukraine, there is strong bipartisan political support for Ukraine. Small number of Republicans who don't want to support Ukraine, but they don't speak for the majority, and even the Republicans, in my view. We're in negotiations to get funding. We need not to promise -- not making promises, but hopeful we can get there. I think we can. You're right, the world is watching what we do, which is send a horrible message to an aggressor and allies if we walked away at this time, and it would hurt our national security.

Do you want me to answer the other question as well with regard to -- say it again?

HUNNICUTT: Sorry, so the question was just, if you could talk a little bit about the Gaza operation, Israel flooding Hamas tunnels, and if you've had conversations with Bibi Netanyahu about how long that operation should last?

BIDEN: Well, I have had conversations with Bibi Netanyahu. And I want to make sure that we don't forget what we're doing here. We have to support Israel, because they're an independent nation. That's been -- I mean, their brutality, the inhumanity, the way in which Hamas treated the Israelis and I mean, raping and burning and beheading, I mean, it just beyond comparison, beyond comparison.

And to anything else that I've seen since I've been here, and I've been around for a long time, but I think that we have made it clear to the Israelis and are aware that the independent -- the safety of innocent Palestinians is still of great concern. And so, the action they're taking must be consistent with attempting to do everything possible to prevent innocent Palestinian civilians from being hurt, murdered, killed, lost, et cetera. And, look, it doesn't lessen the responsibility going after Hamas to innocent Palestinians and Hamas. Look, we've responsibility protect citizens and ensure they have access to humanitarian assistance. That's why I've worked so hard with our Arab friends, as well as Israelis to get humanitarian assistance into Israel, literally getting up to 140 trucks loaded with gear, loaded with food, everything that is needed by the Palestinians, including fuel.

So, you know, Israel has stated its intent to fulfill these responsibilities. It's very difficult. With regard to the flooding of the tunnels, I'm not -- well, there is assertions being made that there's quite sure there are no hostages in any of these tunnels. But I don't know that for a fact. I do know that though every civilian deaths is an absolute tragedy. And Israel stated its intent as I said to match its words with -- its intent with word -- with actions. That's what I was talking about today.


Question three, I guess I -- no, I just asked --


BIDEN: Your turn.

ZELENSKYY: Yes. (Through translator) So, addressing your question very quickly, I've been talking a lot with representatives of both parties. Both Democrats and Republicans proved full-fledged support. And we will see. But before this will always be interesting in support of our strategic partner, the United States, and we will consider that it will continue in this way and Ukraine will not remain a loan against such a critical terrorist as the Russian Federation. (Inaudible).

YAROSLAVA (PH), REPORTER: Thank you so much. My name is Yaroslava (ph) Ukrinform News Agency Ukraine. Next summer the United States will host an anniversary NATO Summit in Washington, D.C., which raises a lot of hope, especially for Ukraine. President Zelenskyy, what does the Ukrainian side expect from this summit? And do you hope to hear direct invitation for Ukraine to join the alliance?

And President Biden? Under what conditions is the United States ready to support the initiative of inviting Ukraine to be member of NATO? Thank you.

ZELENSKYY: Thank you for your question. I will answer very quickly on this very complicated question. We are not allies. Till now we're not -- we're allies but we're not members, members of NATO. So, that's why I think I will pass this question to our big friend, President Biden.

BIDEN: Well, look, I'm very proud that how strong and unify NATO has become. And now it's even larger. I -- Putin wanted to federalization of NATO when I met with him in Geneva right after I was elected, and he's gotten the NATO-ization of Finland instead. And NATO will be in Ukraine's future, no question about that. But we -- as we said in Vilnius, Ukraine will become a member of NATO when all allies agree, and conditions are met. Right now, we need me to make sure they win the war.

And, you know, we launched the Joint Declaration of Support alongside President Zelenskyy and the G7 leaders in Vilnius outlining our long term commitment to supporting Ukraine's defense needs. We also hosted defense industry conference last week here in D.C. to get that critical work done. So it's a step at a time. Thank you all very, very much.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This concludes -- thank you, everybody. Thank you, everyone. This concludes the press conference. Thanks, everybody. Thanks, everybody. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Distinguished guests, please remain in your seats while the principles depart.

TAPPER: President Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaking briefly and then taking some questions from reporters as President Zelenskyy seeks more aid for Ukraine's fight against Russia and the Russian invasion that began in February 2022. President Biden saying that he remains hopeful that more funding for Ukraine will come through despite an impasse in Congress right now amidst some Republican oppositions. Zelenskyy reaffirming that the notion of Ukraine giving up any territory to Russia is out of the question. It's not even really the topic at hand, he said, it's about whether or not the people of Ukraine will continue to be under the oppressive rule of Russians who are killing and raping and making Ukrainians suffer.

Let's bring back former CNN Moscow Bureau Chief Jill Dougherty and Evan Osnos of the New Yorker and author of "Joe Biden, The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now."

Jill, tell us what is so different about this moment and what we've seen from these two leaders in the past.

JILL DOUGHERTY, ADJUNCT PROFESSOR, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY: Oh, well, I mean, just look at, you know, the last time he was here and speeches to Congress, a really rousing welcome. And also I think a very emotional tone. You know, he's -- Zelenskyy is very good communicator.


And in this -- in the beginning of this, it was actually pretty dry. I think both the President Biden and Zelenskyy had their talking points ready to answer that question of failure. You know, is Ukraine failing? So they both pointed out, you know, taking back 50 percent of the territory that Russia took, pushing back on the Black Sea, et cetera.

But I think the, you know, the emotional part came, and you noted that when Zelenskyy was asked, are you ever going to give up a new territory, and he immediately bridle at that. And that's really one of the dilemmas here, that some people are saying, the war has gone on for so long, why don't you just give up some territory and end it. And what he's saying is, that's not going to happen.

I think also Biden was challenged to define what's this war about? What is the purpose? And he said, essentially, Ukraine, defending itself and deterring further aggression. And that's, you know, probably the most specific thing that we've heard so far, in terms of strategy.

Finally, Jake, one quick thing that -- the -- Zelenskyy was asked, do you have a plan in the war for 2024? And he essentially said, yes, I have a plan, but I'm not going to tell you what it is.

TAPPER: Right, Evan, do you think that this event and this general trip of President Zelenskyy to the United States, coming to Congress, the joint press event with President Biden just now, all of it in totality, do you think this has strengthened or weakened Biden's hand as he continues to negotiate with Congress over this bill for Ukraine and Israel aid?

EVAN OSNOS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I think Biden laid out in fairly unambiguous terms what he sees is the stakes. I mean, it was quite striking actually, to hear how forcefully was saying, in effect actually said explicitly, if Russian propagandists are cheering for you in Moscow, you may want to rethink your strategy.

I think there is a feeling that by summoning some of America's memory about why it was that Americans were so committed to Ukraine's defense, that that has a way of beating back some of the perhaps the Republican consensus on this question, but I think one of the key points here was also as Jill indicated, what happens next, you know, did Republicans get a sense from Vladimir Putin or sorry, from Volodymyr Zelenskyy? Did Joe Biden get a sense from Zelenskyy that there is a plan to end this war?

This is, you know, one of the messages out of today is this is not an open ended commitment. And this is a moment to also see the end of America's responsibility there.

TAPPER: All right, Evan Osnos and Jill Dougherty, thanks to both you. Appreciate it.

As President Biden stood alongside Ukraine's president, he was asked also about Israel and its military operation in Gaza and his criticism of Prime Minister Netanyahu. His change in tone as more calls for innocent Palestinian lives to be protected are made. We're going to talk about that after this quick break. Stay with us.



TAPPER: Just a moment ago you heard President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy holding a joint news conference after Zelenskyy spent the day on Capitol Hill, shaking hands, answering questions, asking Congress for millet -- for more military aid to support Ukraine's defense against Russia's ongoing invasion. Former Secretary of Defense under President Trump, Mark Esper, joins me now.

Thanks for joining us Secretary Esper. So Biden and Zelenskyy showing unity in many ways. But they also seem to have different views of what Ukraine can actually accomplish militarily, behind the scenes, the U.S. might be urging a more conservative approach on the battlefield. Ukraine wants to be more aggressive. That's what our sources are telling us. What do you make of that? What -- who do you think is right?

MARK ESPER, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY, TRUMP ADMINISTRATION: Well, I -- clearly, President Zelenskyy is going to continue to trumpet what he said all along that he wants full restoration of Ukrainian territory to include Crimea. And of course, he put other things on the table, such as funding for reconstruction from Russia, holding Putin and others responsibility -- responsible for the atrocities and whatnot. On the U.S. side, and maybe if that's true in the western side, there is a obviously a sinking reality that this is -- this conflict now has settled into somewhat of a stalemate. The question is, is what happens over the winter months? And in the springtime, when would be the chance for another offensive? Will at that point in time, the Ukrainians have enough of Western technology to include the long promised F-16s, more tanks and everything they need? And will they adapt their tactics to make another run at breaking the Russian lines? And I think we won't know.

TAPPER: If you were secretary of defense right now, what would you advise the President to do? Would you advise him to send more weaponry, to spend more aid, that this is a fight worth fighting for Ukraine all the way to the end until Russia is completely out? I mean, if 89 percent of their forces have been decimated, it's not completely unsuccessful, even if it is a stalemate.

ESPER: Right. Look, I think at the political level, President Biden needs to come out more frequently, more forcefully, talk about why the United States is supporting Ukraine, talk about the strategy and talk about the end state that he wants to see. We really have never heard that. Secondly, I would argue that we do need to pass a supplemental. We need to get more funding there to support Ukraine. It's not just about Moscow invading a smaller neighbor and conducting a brutal war. That's part of it, but it also speaks to Western resolve and to the fact that China is watching, how we react, how we respond, how long we hang in there.


We'll have a bearing on how Xi Jinping sitting in Beijing thinks about maybe going after Taiwan. So for those reasons, I think we should continue to stand the fight. And thirdly, I would say we need to push to move all the equipment that President Zelenskyy is asked for more quickly. And finally, I guess the Europeans need to do more. The Europeans I should say, our other NATO allies need to do more in terms of military arms and equipment, helping out Ukraine as well.

TAPPER: Let's turn to Israel because just this hour, the United Nations General Assembly that's all of the countries that are members of the United Nations, they voted overwhelmingly to demand a ceasefire in Gaza, I suppose that's not a surprise, given the generally anti- Israel bent of the U.N. General Assembly. But what is your reaction?

ESPER: Yes. Look, I share the same view. The U.N. has lost the moral high ground a long time ago, and maybe they never had it when it came to this issue. So look, it matters on one hand, because it's a count with regard to number of countries. But we need to continue to stand behind Israel. Yes, they need to continue to do more to make sure that they limit casualties, particularly as we entered this next phase, and they need to do more in terms of providing humanitarian relief for the innocent people in Gaza.

But at the end of the day, they have to defeat Hamas or else we're going to continue to go through the cycle over and over again. Hamas leadership has already said that they celebrate the attacks on October 7th and want to keep doing it. So we have to support Israel. They need to defeat Hamas. And we need to work with them to help them address the other issues.

TAPPER: Today, President Biden in off camera comments to Democratic supporters said that Israel is beginning to lose global support for its war against Hamas, and that quote, I think Netanyahu has to change. And with this government, this government in Israel is making it very difficult for him to move, specifically talking about the two- state solution. He added that the current Israeli government, quote, doesn't want a two-state solution.

He also expressed disagreement with Netanyahu on what comes next in Gaza, after Hamas is defeated. Netanyahu wants to keep Israeli troops there. What do you make of this disagreement?

ESPER: Well, I think we -- the big unanswered question is, what does happen after the military operations are done after Israel defeats Hamas? Clearly, there'll be a period of time in which Israel, the IDF occupies Gaza, while that is figured out, but there is unanimity, I think, mostly across the political spectrum in Israel, that they do not want to occupy Gaza permanently.

So clearly, there needs to be another option for that an Arab force is unlikely a U.N. force is certainly unlikely. The only other option out there right now is a Palestinian Authority taking charge, but I think this is more of Israel's view too. It can't be this Palestinian Authority, because most Palestinians regard the PA as incompetent and corrupt.

So we need to change your leadership in Ga -- in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority to begin with and certainly if they would be the ones to manage Gaza in a post Hamas era.

TAPPER: Last question, for you Secretary Esper, how much do you think this current campaign in Gaza against Hamas is not only intended to route out Hamas, but also a deterrence against Hezbollah, Iran, any other country, the Houthis, perhaps, any other forces that might also be planning terrorist attacks on Israel saying, if you do this to us, this is what will happen to your country? Therefore do not do this to us? How much do you think this is rooted in some sign of deterrence?

ESPER: Well, clearly, that message has been sent, whether intended or not. And I think if I recall properly, a senior Israeli official had said something to that effect. But look, these groups are all connected. I've said multiple times whether it's Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis, Shia militia groups in Iraq, you name it, it all goes back to Iran. Iran is funding, supporting, inspiring, providing arms and equipment, conducting training, you name it, it all goes back to Iran.

And I think that is the bigger deterrent -- message being sent. And look, I'd give the Biden administration credit on this part for sending a carrier strike groups, additional U.S. forces to the region to deter these other actors, Hezbollah and Iran in particular, from opening up another front. So I think it's important, I think, you know, a bigger showdown is coming at some point. We need to address Iran one way or the other. TAPPER: Yes, that carrier strike force is not there for Hamas. It is there for Iran. Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Coming up, Nikki Haley says she's about to have a great day in New Hampshire. We have a pretty good idea why she's so confident to that. That's next.



TAPPER: We're back with our 2024 Lead. And you might be wondering why I am in a theater in Des Moines, Iowa. Well, I'll tell you. In just a few hours, I'm going to moderate a Republican presidential town hall with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who will take questions from future Iowa caucus goers. CNN is also on the campaign trail in New Hampshire. I'm in the first in the nation caucus state. New Hampshire is the first of the nation primary state. And that's where former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley is expected to get a major endorsement this evening. So I'm going to talk right now, even though I'm in Iowa to somebody at New Hampshire. Jeff Zeleny, formerly of the Des Moines Register, tell us about this expected endorsement.


JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, Iowa New Hampshire really are echoes of one another and six weeks from today the New Hampshire primary is going to decide how far this Republican race goes. And so Nikki Haley is going to be collecting the endorsement tonight from New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu. He, of course, had been thinking about running for president himself. Since the last several months, he's been sizing up the Republican field.

He's been appearing with all of the candidates and he is making his case tonight for Nikki Haley. He believes she is the candidate who can turn the page from former President Donald Trump. Of course, this comes as a major blow to former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who also had been hoping for that endorsement.

So Jake, now the race for second place, you there in Iowa with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, has the support of Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds. Now here in New Hampshire, Nikki Haley will have the support from New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu. Again, emphasizing it's all about the race for second place, but Donald Trump is still in commanding lead of this entire Republican campaign. Jake?

TAPPER: That's right. And he has the endorsement of the third in the nation contest in South Carolina Governor McMaster. Jeff Zeleny, thanks so much.

Let's discuss this all with Doug Heye and with Erick Erickson. And Doug, you are the communications director for the 2012 GOP Iowa caucus. You told me in July that if Trump wins Iowa, you think it's over? What do you think DeSantis needs to do tonight in this town hall and then over the next five weeks to change that? DOUG HEYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, first and foremost, I think Nikki Haley timed her announcement with Governor Sununu to give you another question to ask tonight. But what I would tell Ron DeSantis to do is what I've tried to tell these candidates and campaigns to do for months now, if you want something to change, you have to change.

And what we've seen so often is some rhetoric here and there about new generations, I'm a winner. Maybe Trump and Republicans spend too much, but not really going after Donald Trump in a way that would do anything to take him down a peg or 12. And he's about 12 pegs up at this point to win the nomination. What we've seen from all of these candidates, whether they're, by and large, whether they're still in the race, or they're out of the race, is they've not been willing to do that hard work to actually win the nomination. It really leads to the question of what's then the purpose of your campaign and why are you running?

TAPPER: Erick, Nikki Haley support in Iowa has remained basically flat at 16 percent since October, even as some candidates have dropped out since then. What does that tell you?

ERICK ERICKSON, HOST, "THE ERICK ERICKSON SHOW": Look, I think I was probably more aligned with a Trump or DeSantis than Haley. But you know, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee recent where they all won Iowa and then never got the nomination. So you can't count Haley out. But I agree with Doug if neither DeSantis nor Haley really wants to aggressively go after Donald Trump from the right, there's no point in this. At this point, they look like they're running for second place. And to take out the front runner, you got to take out the front runner.

TAPPER: Doug, New Hampshire Governor Sununu is expected to endorse Nikki Haley tonight as you heard Jeff Zeleny report. CNN's polls conducted in New Hampshire last month, has Nikki Haley in second place, a 20 percent behind Trump's 42 percent. It is worth noting that in the latest Des Moines Register NBC News poll, Iowa voters say Governor Kim Reynolds endorsement of Ron DeSantis did not make a difference at all in their decision. Do you think Sununu's endorsement of Nikki Haley will be any different in New Hampshire? I mean, they're both fairly popular governors in their respective states.

HEYE: Ultimately, it's welcome news that she's going to try and push as much as she can. We've heard so much talk about Nikkimentum over the past few weeks, the numbers haven't borne those out. This is a tangible way for her to demonstrate that. But ultimately, the numbers are going to have to bear that out. We've not seen it in the past. For anybody who's gotten an endorsement. There's nothing to suggest that this time is different.

TAPPER: Erick, Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis has seem to be in this cage match for second place. They're attacking each other. As Donald Trump seems to just be like slow walking to the nomination, he's now selling mugshot digital trading cards, capitalizing on Georgia's election subversion case against him. But wait, there's more. If you buy the mugshot cards, apparently you also get to be the proud owner of a piece of Trump's mugshot suit. Trump is teeing up other candidates for attacks at this point. Why not make a big swing? And what would your big swing be? What would you tell DeSantis to do? What would you tell Nikki Haley to do in terms of going after Trump to and really a silver bullet because they have done little things here and there, as Doug noted, but nothing that's really taken Trump down at all?

ERICKSON: You've got to sustain it. And for Ron DeSantis, I think he can make the case that Donald Trump didn't do the things that Ron DeSantis good or there's a great example in Iowa, they had the satanic shrine now at the state capitol. It was the Trump administration that actually gave the tax exempt status to that group. So you can point that out with Nikki Haley. It's the budget and deficit, the business issues that she cares about, she can point out that Donald Trump didn't do those things.


They've got to do sustained attacks though that they mentioned it and then they go away. The other thing frankly they could do is actually do the CNN debate in Iowa and the two of them whether it's just them on stage actually differentiate themselves.

TAPPER: Yes, as of right now, I believe DeSantis has accepted, we're still waiting to hear from Nikki Haley. Nikki, we're here. We're waiting for you. Doug Heye, Erick Erickson, thanks so much.

We are just a few hours away from a special CNN Republican presidential town hall live here in from Des Moines, Iowa with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. You can watch that right here on CNN tonight at 9:00 Eastern.

Meantime, powerful testimony today at the Rudy Giuliani defamation trial, one witness on the stand in tears. That's next in The Situation Room. I'll see you tonight at 9:00.



WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news, President Biden just wrapping up a press conference with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.