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The Lead with Jake Tapper

Harvard President Claudine Gay Resigns; Passenger Jet Bursts Into Flames After Hitting Quake Relief Plane; Japan's PM Says It's "A Race Against Time" To Rescue Survivors; Trump Defense Strategy In Federal January 6 Case Goes Beyond Delay Tactics; 13 Days Until Iowa Caucuses; Trump Appeals Maine Ballot Ban; Hamas Says One Of Its Senior Leaders Killed In Beirut Attack; Two Killed, Nine Hurt In Attack Outside New Year's Concert. Aired 4-5p ET

Aired January 02, 2024 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: After weeks of bad headlines and pressure, Harvard's president is stepping down.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Dr. Claudine Gay is out as the president of Harvard University. Was it that poorly-received congressional testimony about antisemitism on campus? Or how about the mounting accusations of plagiarism? What we are learning today from Harvard insiders.

Plus, a deadly airport runway inferno. Two planes collide. Five on one jet killed, nearly 400 on another escaped alive. How did the planes end up on the same runway in the first place?

And a senior leader of Hamas assassinated apparently in an explosion in Beirut. Hezbollah has warned Israelis that any such action in Lebanon would merit a response. Is the situation in the Middle East about to get even worse?


TAPPER: Happy New Year. And welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

And we start this hour with breaking news. Harvard University's Dr. Claudine Gay is stepping down as president, resigning after just about six months on the job. The student journalists who broke the story of her stepping down for the Harvard crimson newspaper noted that this is the shortest presidential tenure in Harvard's august history.

It has been quite a tumultuous months for the now outs did president from her infamous response when asked if calling for the genocide of Jews would violate Harvard's campuses code of conduct.



CLAUDINE GAY, HARVARD PRESIDENT: It can be, depending on the context. (END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: From that to multiple allegations of plagiarism, many of which she and the university had to acknowledge and make corrections to.

Now, no reason was mentioned as to why Dr. Gay is stepping down in her resignation note, part of which says, quote, it is in the best interests of Harvard for me to resign, so that our community can navigate this moment of extraordinary challenge with a focus on the institution rather than any individual.

Dr. Gay went on to say, quote, amidst all of this, it is been distressing to have doubt cast on my commitments to confronting hate and to upholding scholarly rigor, to bedrock values that are fundamental to who I am and it has been frightening to be subjected to personal attacks and threats fueled by racial animus.

CNN's Matt Egan starts off our coverage on Dr. Gay's resignation.

And, Matt, what more do we know about this seemingly sudden move, considering Harvard and its board have been publicly standing behind Dr. Gay for the past month?

MATT EGAN, CNN REPORTER: Well, Jake, clearly, this is a very difficult moment for one of the most prestigious universities on the planet. They've now decided to accept the resignation of Claudine Gay, the first black president of Harvard's nearly 400-year history, just a second woman to ever lead this university. As you noted, it was just three weeks ago that the Harvard Corporation, the school's top board, they voiced their unanimous support for Gay. Now, they're accepting the resignation.

Let me read you what the corporation said in a statement. They said that Gay has shown, quote, remarkable resilience in the face of deeply personal and sustained attacks. While some of this is played at the public domain, much of it has taken the form of repugnant and, in some cases, racist vitriol directed at her through disgraceful emails and phone calls.

Now, the Harvard Corporation, they said they are accepting this resignation with sorrow. They did note that Gay should acknowledge some before missteps along the way. Still, this raises questions, what changed over the last three weeks?

Now, we know that the plagiarism scandal around Gay has only escalated. There has been this drip, drip, drip of revelations, lawmakers have been demanding a mountain of documents from Harvard and mega donors have pulled their funding.

So, after all of this, the board and Claudine Gay decided that her presidency, after just six months, is over.

TAPPER: What more do we know but the interim president?

EGAN: So, the interim president is Alan Garber. He's the provost. He has been the provost for Harvard for about a dozen years or so. He's an economist and a physician by training. He was previously at Stanford.

Now, we don't know how long Garber is going to be at the helm. Harvard has not announced just when they are going to launch their search for a new president. But what is clear is that Garber and whoever the new president is, they are stepping into a mess.


They're going to face a tall task here in trying to clean up this situation, trying to fix the Harvard brand, which has clearly taken a hit.

I mean, the school has seen early applications drop, as I mentioned, donors have revolted, lawmakers have really strongly criticized the university. You have a lot of parents and students and alumni who are worried about the future of this brand. This is not going to be an easy task -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Matt Egan, thanks so much.

With us now is Harvard history professor Alison Frank Johnson. She's one of the hundreds of professors and others who signed a December 12 letter urging Harvard University to keep Dr. Gay as president.

Professor, thanks so much for joining us.

First of all, what's your reaction to the news of her resignation?

ALISON FRANK JOHNSON, SIGNED FACULTY LETTER SUPPORTING PRESIDENT GAY: Well, my first reaction was frankly shock. I don't expect you to make this decision at this time.

TAPPER: The letter you signed urged officials to resist calls to remove President Gay, in order to defend the independence of the university and resist political pressures that are at odds with Harvard's commitment to academic freedom. Do you think -- this is not necessarily a contradiction, but do you think her answers in that congressional hearing were at all problematic?

JOHNSON: Yes, I do think there are quite problematic. I think they were that the testimony was a disaster.

I watched hours of the testimony and I can understand, I think, what she was trying to say in a larger context. But it was really a very unfortunate choice of words in the clip that you played. And it was not doing justice to her or the university, that's true.

TAPPER: How much do you think the problem was the suggestions of plagiarism, some of which have been dismissed as minor but others of which are obviously merited a statement from Harvard's board, and also from Dr. Gay, amending previous academic works.

And the question of, as I'm sure most concern you as a professor, any perceived double standard. You know, no university wants students to think that, if they get accused of plagiarism, that there's hypocrisy afoot. JOHNSON: Absolutely not. This is actually essential. So, I -- I think

asking a president to resign because congressional leaders don't like their testimony, that's not something that I support. A president found to have committed serious acts of research misconduct or scholarly misconduct, including forms of plagiarism, very might will be asked to resign.

But unfortunately, we didn't see here an actual investigation consistent with Harvard's procedures for dealing with faculty research misconduct. So, you know, we've had instances in the past where prominent, well-respected faculty have been accused of plagiarism. We have had incidents -- there isn't a faculty committee that is formed, a serious investigation into their actions according to the highest scholarly standards. And then appropriate actions are taken, which can include apologies, which can include corrections, which can include, you know, censure.

And that's actually a kind of response I would have liked to have seen. So, not a statement from a governing board, which isn't composed of academics and scholars, and I don't know by what standard they decided that -- you know, how to decide if something is a serious issue or not, but rather using the procedures that are already in place at Harvard and that wasn't done.

TAPPER: New York congresswoman, Republican Elise Stefanik released a statement today saying Gay, Dr. Gay's answers about antisemitism on college campuses, quote, were absolutely pathetic and devoid of moral leadership and academic integrity required of the president of Harvard. This is just the beginning of what will be the greatest scandal of any college or university in history, unquote.

You are a history professor. What's your take on that?

JOHNSON: Well, I'm not sure what she means. I don't know which scandal she knows it's about to unfold that I'm not aware of. Certainly, my own historic research leads me to believe that independent universities, independent from outside political influence, are one of the most critical elements of a thriving democracy. And so, for me, the danger here would be to lose our independent universities, to have a second kind of McCarthy-ite attack on universities under scholarship based on political motives of any kind.

So, that is a greater fear to me then I whatever mysterious scandal the representative believes is unfolding.

TAPPER: Lastly, Professor, I've seen a lot of prominent African American voices on social media in the last hour or so, including Mr. Kendi, Nikole Hannah-Jones, others, talking about the racist -- we shouldn't just call it racial, racist animus against her.


I don't think it's fair to say all of her critics were racist, but certainly a few of them were.

And I'm wondering how much you think that had to do with what happened today.

JOHNSON: Well, I don't like to impugn such terrible motives to people, but there are people who have come straight out and said that they believed that Claudine Gay, before the plagiarism allegations even came out, that they believed Claudine Gay was only appointed because she is Black, because she's a woman, but especially because she's Black. And, you know, those kinds of allegations really don't have any place in rational and reasoned conversations about the qualifications of the university president.

So, I think when people say that out loud, we can't deny -- we can't deny that that's playing a role. I wouldn't want to accuse any individual person who doesn't come and say that that is our motivation, but there are plenty of people who do. I'm getting hate mail myself. People -- I just actually, while, I was waiting to come on with you, open an email from some demanding my resignation, because I've spoken out on behalf of Claudine Gay, although really, on behalf of Harvard and its independence and processes more than on behalf of any individual person.

And I can't even imagine what she's had to face. I don't like to think about it, actually.

TAPPER: No, it's probably pretty ugly, and you yourself might want to stay off of email and social media for the next few hours.

Professor Alison Frank Johnson, thank you so much for talking to us today. Really appreciate it.

And obviously thinking about the Harvard campus today, it must be a difficult place to be right now.

Let's bring in Frederick Lawrence, the former president of Brandeis University, who we talked a lot about this -- I don't know if scandal is the right word, but this controversy. Do you think Dr. Gay's resignation was inevitable? And if so, was it because of the testimony or because of the plagiarism allegation?

FREDERICK LAWRENCE, FORMER PRESIDENT, BRANDEIS UNIVERSITY: I think it was a plagiarism allegation. I think the testimony, we talked about before and got a lot of attention. But my own view is that if it were only that, she would've been able to ride this out.

I think the answer that she gave on the question about antisemitism was not a good answer, and we talked about that before as well. That wouldn't have cost her job. I think a plagiarism allegation is what really stuck and, because it didn't go away, because there was a sense of continuing investigations of that, I think it made it inevitable.

TAPPER: Well, it certainly kept Harvard in the headlines for the wrong reasons, which is not anything that any university wants. Dr. Gay says in her resignation statement that she's going to return to the faculty. Is that a good idea, do you think?

LAWRENCE: I think in the short term it is. And I think right now, she can't think beyond the short term. I think university will help her get through this next period. I'm sure she will be able to spend sabbatical time with the faculty and to think about what's happened to her. And then we'll see what happens from there.

TAPPER: I guess the other question I have is like, even though this is -- she has resigned as the official policy as to what happened. The news was broken by the Harvard Crimson as a result of her letter. But generally speaking, she probably didn't resign, right? I mean, she probably was told by whatever Harvard board exists, the board of governors or whatever, you need to resign.

LAWRENCE: I think she and the corporation have been talking for the past couple of weeks. Just because we haven't heard anything, doesn't mean there was a discussion going on. And my sense is there probably was disgusted by what the terms of her stepping down look like. They must've agreed on what the statement was the corporation would make, the statement that she would make. And it gave the corporation a chance to also think about next steps.

I will tell you, I think the selection of Alan Garber as interim president is inspired choice. Alan is a highly regarded academic in a number of fields. I also have the privilege of having known him when I was president of Brandeis. He was already the provost of Harvard and we got to know each other during that time. Not only an extraordinarily well qualified academic but he's a decent person, a fine person. I think he is as well-qualified as anyone could be to get Harvard through this next, very difficult period.

TAPPER: He's going to have -- he's going to have a tough job.

LAWRENCE: He will, indeed.

TAPPER: All right. Frederick Lawrence, always good to see you.

LAWRENCE: Pleasure.

TAPPER: Thanks for coming in. Happy New Year to you.

Coming up next, what new audio just coming in reveals about that deadly crash between a passenger plane and a coast guard aircraft in Japan. We're also standing by for new court filing from Donald Trump's legal team. How he responded to those two states that have removed him from their 2024 ballots?



TAPPER: Turning to our world lead now, reeling from one tragedy, Japan is now having to deal with another tragedy after an aircraft involved an earthquake relief efforts bursts into flames.

Dramatic video shows the moment the Japan Airliners plane ignited a fireball as it collided with a Japanese coast guard aircraft. 379 passengers and crew were able to evacuate with only 17 passengers reporting injuries from the collision. However, five crew members on board the coast guard plane were killed.

An investigation is now underway to determine who was responsible for that deadly crash.

Let's bring in CNN's Pete Muntean.

And, Pete, you have some new reporting about air traffic control calls. Tell us more.

PETE MUNTEAN, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, this really sort of lays out that the Japan Airlines crew was told to land on the same runway, 34 Right, they read back that transmission to air traffic control.

So, it really paints a picture here that maybe there was confusion on the part of the coast guard aircraft. Why they were in that spot is still unclear. It is something that investigators really want to know as they dig into this.

This Japan Airlines flight, 379 people on board, Flight 516, an Airbus 350, slammed right into this Dash 8 from the Japan coast guard. Dash 8, a twin turbo jet prop airplane.

Big questions about who is in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is something that we have seen over and over again in the United States. It's a wake up call around the world but in the U.S., we have seen these incidents known as runway collisions and, mostly in close calls in the United States, seven of them were investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board. The closest such one was a FedEx fight that almost ended on a Southwest airlines flight coming into land in Austin last February.


Of course, none of these incidents ended with airplanes crunching into each other that led injuries or fatalities. In this case, five people onboard the Coast Guard aircraft were killed. We know, at last check, the captain of that flight was in critical condition.

But this air traffic control audio, Jake, really buttresses what Japan Airlines says. They say that their crew was on the right place at the right time. They were told to land on Runway 34 Right at Haneda, a pretty complicated airport, multiple runways that crisscrossed one another. This has been the issue, where people have -- pilots have been confused about where they are on the airport. That can lead to really dangerous situations. Although none of them in the U.S. have lead to something as dramatic as this one.

TAPPER: Where does this investigation go from here?

MUNTEAN: Well, the French are involved in this investigation because they have this airplane. It's a French-made Airbus. Japan is leading it right now, although a lot of investigators around the world descending on Tokyo to sort of figure this out. So, of course, they will want to know, they are traffic in trial audio is key, who was told to go where and when. And there's clearly an error here. This really sort of flies in the

face of the safety culture that Japan school children are taught about from the very beginning. This is really a huge thing Japan. The safety culture, especially when it comes to transportation. We know the bullet train speed through Japan with incredible safety and incredible on-time reliability.

But for this to happen to Japan airlines which had a spate of incidents in the 80s and 90s, then cleaned up its act, it's really pretty incredible. It is really also a testament to the crew, this evacuation went so smoothly.

TAPPER: All right. Pete Muntean, thanks so much.

Let's turn to the massive rescue effort underway in western Japan, where today we are seeing two scenes of devastation after yesterday's powerful 7.5 earthquake that officials say killed at least 57 people. Japan's prime minister says it's a race against time to rescue those still trapped underneath the rubble.

CNN's Hanako Montgomery has the latest.


HANAKO MONTGOMERY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's been more than day since powerful quake, but for Minae and her mother, the impact still very fresh.

MINAE AKIYAMA, EARTHQUAKE SURVIVOR (through translator): Thinking about it now, still makes me tremble. My heart was pounding, my mind went blank, we just scrambled. Things like our wallets and ran outside.

MONTGOMERY: Minae was visiting her family for New Year's when the quake struck. Her mother's house now unlivable because of the powerful impact. The pair, luckily, able to escape unharmed. But with a constant aftershocks, they're still far from safe.

AKIYAMA (through translator): I feel like, even now, the building is shaking. Whenever an aftershock happens, I think of the main quake and my body trembles.

MONTGOMERY: But it's not just the tremors people here have to worry about. Other than a roof, there's little else.

There is no heating right now so people are sleeping on mats. They're using thick blankets to stay warm. There's also no running water, so the Japanese self-defense forces are just inside this building, handing out water to locals.

This water, a lifeline for dozens here, and thousands across the region. Left without supply or simply without homes, after Monday's powerful quake. The devastation difficult to comprehend at night, but clearly visible from the sky.

In Wajima, the shock flipping multiple story buildings on their side, and raising entire blocks to the ground. Tsunami waves forcing large vessels on to the shore and fires adding to the destruction. Amid it all, authorities desperately searching for the dozens still trapped beneath the rubble.

YOSHIMASA HAYASHI, JAPAN CHIEF CABINET SECRETARY (through translator): Prime Minister Kishida instructed us to once again put lives first, understand the extent of the damages and make an almost over to save people in emergency rescue operations.


MONTGOMERY (on camera): After a long and cold night with several aftershocks, it's now morning here in Japan, Jake. This is now the second full day that rescue operations are underway to find those remaining survivors. But authorities and medical personnel are finding to get very difficult to get access to the worst affected areas because the roads leading to this remote part of the prefecture have been destroyed by the quake, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Hannah Montgomery, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Coming up, as we wait for Trump's likely appeal to the states trying to remove him from the 2024 ballots, CNN is learning specifically how he is pushing back in another case. It's reported plans to make a, quote, MAGA freak show of the federal election subversion charges against him from special counsel Jack Smith.

We'll be right back.



TAPPER: And we're back with a law and justice lead. At any moment, we should learn about Donald Trump's legal team's filing appeals and the two 14th Amendment rulings which are right now keeping the former president off the ballots in Colorado and in Maine. This is as we're getting a better sense of the defense strategies Trump plans to use in the upcoming federal election subversion case.

CNN chief legal affairs correspondent Paula Reid joins us now.

Paula, let's start with those defense strategies. "Rolling Stone" magazine today goes as far as to say that Trump lawyers want to turn the trial, this Jack Smith's trial about Trump trying overturn the election, they want to traded to a, quote, MAGA freak show. They want to push conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and the special counsel's office.

Now, I know CNN has taken a closer look at some court filings back to November. What do they tell us? Are we going to have a MAGA freak show?

PAULA REID, CNN CHIEF LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: The special counsel is concerned about bringing some disinformation into the courtroom and potentially confusing jurors.

Now, look, the election subversion case is currently on hold while Trump litigates these larger questions about immunity.

One of those former lawyers told me over the weekend, look, he's not going to prevail on this question of immunity. Give it about a 50/50 chance that this case goes to trial this year. But if it does, he's going to need a defense. So, they're going to try a few things.


One argument they may try to make is foreign interference, that there's a good faith belief that a foreign government could have been meddling in the election and that's why he didn't trust the outcome.

Now, Trump and his lawyers, they've been asking for government documents, classified information, asked for documents related to Iran in China. They even pointed to the SolarWinds hack in December of 2020 to say, look, it was foreign meddling, potentially that happened in the election to.

But again, the special counsel says, look, there's no connection here and they don't want him bringing random information and random theories into the courtroom.

TAPPER: Trump's team also plans to push arguments of political bias?

REID: Yeah, I mean, not a terrible surprise, right? That's what they argued in the court of public opinion, no surprise they try to bring that into the courtroom. But you run into the same problem. There's no evidence to really support this.

A lot of the key witnesses were members of his cabinet, even his former vice president, Mike Pence, could be called. But he's going to try to argue that intelligence officials, other folks have it out for him. I mean, there's also this question of whether he had a good faith belief that there is something wrong with the election. But once, again, they're going to use a lot of people who are working for him. We personally selected who told him, no, in fact, you lost.

And there's a real concern, this is why prosecutors keep arguing, they want to limit the defenses he can present because they don't want him confusing the jury. Now, the judge, Judge Tanya Chutkan, she's the one who ultimately rule on which one of these defenses he ultimately can or cannot use. But currently, the case is on hold, so she can't make any decisions.

TAPPER: And let's talk about these 14th Amendment cases in Colorado and Maine, where they argue Donald Trump was involved in an insurrection, therefore, he's ineligible for the presidency. They're keeping Trump off the ballot theoretically in those two states.

Any sense of the timing of Trump's expected appeals there?

REID: I want to lean into the word expected here, Jake. Speaking with sources this morning, Trump is still expected to file an appeal to the Supreme Court on the Colorado decision and an appeal within the court system of Maine, to the superior court in Maine today. We still expect that.

But, look, Colorado, that decision is two weeks old. Time is of the essence. It's unclear what is taking the Trump legal team so long to file these appeals. But as of right now, we expect them right now and we also expect, Jake, the Supreme Court really has to weigh in here. This is what they're designed to do. Clarify constitutional questions, settle disputes among states.

TAPPER: All right. Paula Reid, thanks so much and happy New Year to you.

Turning now to our 2024 lead, cue the music. Yes, Yes. We're in the final sprint to the official start of the 2024 campaign season. The Republican Iowa caucuses, they're just 13 days away, 13 days is less than two weeks. On January 15th, Iowans will gather in classrooms and post offices and churches and caucus.

That will be followed by the New Hampshire primary on January 23rd. Today, the candidates are out on the campaign trail trying to sell their final message to voters. Reporters have spread of tracking the candidates.

CNN's Eva McKend is in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, at the Nikki Haley event.

CNN's Nick Contorno is Des Moines, Iowa, covering run DeSantis.

CNN's Isaac Dovere is here in Washington with insights on President Biden's campaign.

So, Eva, New Hampshire, critical state for Nikki Haley if she wants to be seen as the main opponent to Trump.



SUSAN LOCKE, NEW HAMPSHIRE VOTER: I work for the state for 40 years, I attend most all of the primary opportunities we have. I think she is the strongest candidate I've ever seen. She's sane, she's rational, she's a problem solver and she is absolutely direct and she's earnest. There's no drama.


TAPPER: Obviously, somebody hit a button a little early, there that is a New Hampshire voter you are talking to.

MCKEND: Yes, it sure was, Jake. What we've seen here is Nikki Haley invest heavily. Upwards of $4 million, the campaign has spent on ads, $18.5 million from the associated super PAC, all to speak directly to women like you just heard there.

To give you a sense of the folks showing up to her rally, they describe themselves as looking for someone who is reasonable. They are moderate voters, they may have voted for President Trump in 2016, voted for President Biden in 2020 and, now, looking for an alternative. That's the type of folks supporting Nikki Haley in this state.

The big question, is even if she were to do well here and enjoy some of this momentum, can she carry this on to other states? Are there others of these types of Republicans across the country in these early nominating contests?

She'll be in Rye, New Hampshire, tonight, then she will have a bevy of stopped in the state tomorrow? She'll be joined on the campaign trail by popular governor here, Chris Sununu, Jake.

TAPPER: And, Steve, DeSantis is going to be an Iowa tomorrow, where he's pulling ahead of Haley right now but still trailing Trump by 30 points.


He has a new campaign ad out today. Tell us more about it.

STEVE CONTORNO, CNN REPORTER: That's right, Jake. This is one of his closing messages to Iowa voters here. Just like every other campaign ad that he has run and most of the ones that have come from his super PAC, it's a little about the front runner in this race in this ad.


AD ANNOUNCER: They've corrupted our institutions, indoctrinated our kids, opened our border. Ron DeSantis is the only candidate who's defeated them.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We beat the teachers union, we beat Fauci on COVID. I beat Soros.

And as your president, I will not let you down.


CONTORNO: Now, even though this ad doesn't mention Trump, clearly, he's adopting some of the rhetoric that Trump used successfully as a political candidate in 2016 and carried throughout his presidency. And that is something we have seen from Governor DeSantis time and time again. Yes, he's campaigning on his Florida record, but he's also campaigning that he can be the president that finishes the Trump agenda, building the wall, draining the swamp -- all the things that Trump promised in 2016 that DeSantis has said he hasn't done yet.

He will be here in Iowa tomorrow trying to get that message across to voters.

TAPPER: And, Isaac, you've been talking to sources close to the Biden campaign as a Republican primary plays out. What angle does the Biden campaign hope to hit on? EDWARD-ISAAC DOVERE, CNN SENIOR REPORTER: Well, look, they are hoping,

Jake, to take advantage of this moment and get people focused on what the candidates are actually talking about and say, these are extreme visions of what the presidency would be. Not only Donald Trump at all the candidates. They do think Donald Trump is the likeliest nominee at this point, but they're ready to make that case against every single one of the candidates.

These are dark visions, extreme vigilance of the presidency, they'll say. They want to get voters to start focusing on that, start thinking about it. Not just in terms of the legal drama about Donald Trump, but what it would mean for him to return to the presidency. And they think they can do that on a parallel track to the next month for Joe Biden, which is going to be the buildup to the state of the union, likely the beginning of February, when he's going to start talking more fulsomely about what his own vision of a second term would be.

TAPPER: All right. Edward-Isaac Dovere, Eva McKend, Steve Contorno, thanks to all of you.

Look out for back to back CNN Republican presidential town halls this Thursday, just two nights from now. CNN's Kaitlan Collins is going to moderate the first conversation with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. That will be at 9:00 p.m. Eastern. And then, CNN anchor Erin Burnett will host a town hall with former Ambassador Nikki Haley.

Both of those Thursday night right here on CNN, 9:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. Eastern.

And then next week, Dana Bash and I are going to moderate the CNN Republican presidential debate. That will be Wednesday, January 10, just five days before the Republican Iowa caucuses.

Breaking news moments ago, Donald Trump's legal team filed the appeal in Maine after the state's top election official removed Trump from the primary ballot.

And CNN's Paula Reid, we didn't let her leave and leave the table, she's still here.

What does the appeal have to say?

REID: So, here, they're making multiple arguments about the fact that Trump was removed from the ballot in Maine. The first is that they're arguing about the secretary of state is biased against Trump. I want to emphasize that Maine is unique and that the first step for questions about ballot eligibility go to the secretary of state.

Now, she is a Democrat, but here they're arguing that she has a pernicious bias against former President Trump. Now, they're also then moving on and arguing that she should not have the power to make this kind of decision. Now, I reiterate, this is the process of Maine.

TAPPER: Right.

REID: But this is a larger question for the Supreme Court. And why I said moments ago, they really have to take up this larger issue. If Section Three of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution applies to the president who engaging insurrections, who gets to arbitrate that? Right? Who removes him from the ballot? Is it the state? Should they each come over their own process? Is there a role for congress?

Well, not surprisingly, Trump's team argues that the individual states, particularly individual state officials who are either appointed or elected, should not have this kind of power. So, they are appealing within the state court system in Maine. They're not yet appealing to the Supreme Court. Again, this is a process, asking them to overturn the secretary of state's decision and put him back on the ballot.

Now, her decision is currently on pause. So, we're waiting to see how this resolves within the Maine court system. But at the same time, we're still waiting for Trump to file his appeal to the Supreme Court about the Colorado decision.

I've said it once, I've said it again, Jake. This is a big mess. We have disputes among states. Everybody making decisions different ways, different opinions on Section Three of the 14th Amendment, the Supreme Court must weigh in.

TAPPER: Well, that's federalism, right? And that's -- no, I'm just joking.

Paul Reid, thanks so much.

Coming up, the assassination today of a senior member of Hamas and the explosion that led to his killing.

Stay with us.



TAPPER: Topping our world lead, a senior Hamas leader based in Lebanon has been assassinated according to Hamas. Hamas says, Saleh al-Arouri was one of the founding members of what they call its military wing. Considered so integral to Hamas's terrorist activities, the U.S. issued up to a $5 million reward for information on him in 2015.

Moments ago, Israel's finance minister said all of Israel's enemies will, quote, perish, though Israel has not officially taken responsibility for the assassination. As U.S. officials tell CNN analyst Barak Ravid that Israel did not notify the U.S. in advance of the attack, rather as it was ongoing.

CNN's Nada Bashir is in buried on the scene of the deadly strike.

And, Nada, how significant of a figure was al Arouri within Hamas?

NADA BASHIR, CNN REPORTER: Well, Jake, look, we're talking about the number two really in Hamas's political bureau. As you mentioned there, he is considered one of the founders of the Al-Qassam Brigade, the military wing of Hamas. This is a significant elevation.

As you can see behind me, crowds have gathered. This is a significant development.


There are concerns about how this could spread out beyond. Of course, this is somewhat unprecedented to see this kind of attack inside Beirut, remember, this is a, capital not southern Lebanon, where we see the skirmishes between Israel and Lebanon.

We heard from the Lebanese news agency where our reporting three explosions. Spin aerial strike but we have from, locals shop on just a few doors down who described hearing three loud explosions when the incident took place.

Now, of course, as you mentioned, Israel has not claimed responsibility for the incident. In fact, we reached out to the Israeli military, they declined to comment. You heard a little earlier from Mark Regev, the senior adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He said that Israel is not claiming responsibility but whoever created out was not targeting the Lebanese state, not targeting Hezbollah, crucially.

As you can see behind me, I mean, the debris here has spread out for at least 100 meters around. If you look at the extent of the explosion, it is clearly very precise, very targeted.

TAPPER: Is Israel already bracing for retaliation considering that Hezbollah vowed that they would strike back if Israel carried out any such actions in Lebanon?

BASHIR: Well, there's been mounting concern for weeks now over the escalation, we could see potential retaliation across the border. Important to underscore, we are talking about a senior Hamas official here. But as you mentioned, Hezbollah has been clear, any attack would, according to Hezbollah officials, triggers a fierce response on Lebanese territory.

Now, important to note that this comes in the context of building tensions on the border. We have seen the carrying out strikes on Lebanese villages, on that southern border region. We have seen civilians killed, as well as journalists who've been reporting. Hezbollah, in turn, has been targeting Israeli positions across the border. And, of course, we are expecting to hear from the chief of Hezbollah tomorrow, Hassan Nasrallah. All eyes will be watching here what he has to say about this latest incident.

TAPPER: And, Nada, as we enter this New Year, civilians in Gaza, millions are struggling to survive under the intense Israeli bombardment of Hamas, which embeds within the population. And, of course, this tragic lack of humanitarian aid getting through, starvation, disease.

What's the latest on the ground there? BASHIR: We've been hearing this repeated calls from aid agencies, from

the U.N., they need to be more aid getting into the Gaza Strip. Crucially, the vast majority of Gaza's population are now facing an acute hunger crisis, that is a crime (INAUDIBLE) concern, the amount of aid we're seeing getting in, the amount of food getting into the Gaza Strip is just a drop in the bucket in comparison to what is needed.

Now, we are hearing those warnings of the spread of diseases around the civilian population, particularly the hundreds of thousands now displaced taking shelter in those tent cities in the south. We're hearing about skin diseases, of respiratory infections spreading across parts of southern Gaza.

Now, as we know, some 1.9 Palestinians in Gaza are now internally displaced with no where else to turn. And there is real concern now as the Israeli military set to expand its military operation.

Of course, they say they are targeting Hamas but this is a densely populated area. The vast majority of civilians now crammed into this very small area in southern Gaza with nowhere else to go. Of, course as we've seen, that humanitarian situation is only getting worse by the way -- Jake.

TAPPER: Nada Bashir in Beirut, thank you so much.

Coming up next, what police in New York are now revealing about the men they say intentionally crashed a car into a crowd outside a New Year's concert.

Stay with us.



TAPPER: In our law and justice lead, a mystery in the lingering questions after a deadly New Year's attack here in the United States. This happened early yesterday morning outside an arena in Rochester in New York state when a man tried to ram an SUV into a crowd getting out of a New Year's Eve concert. Two people were killed.

But as CNN's Brynn Gingras reports for us, authorities think this could've been much worse.


BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A fiery crash outside a New York concert hall. After a car ramped into another vehicle, setting off an explosion.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was crazy to see that kind of fire. The flames were probably still like 15 feet high.

GINGRAS: Killing two people, injuring nine others, including one critically hurt nearby, and authorities say it appears to be intentional.

GAYLE SHALVOY, CONCERTGOER: You saw the carnage of the cars and one car burned up, and car pieces everywhere, and it was surreal to think, wow, this happened right here.

GINGRAS: It wasn't even an hour into the New Year when hundreds of concertgoers entered the Kodak Center in Rochester, New York. That's where police say 35-year-old Michael Avery driving a rented SUV packed with gas canisters, drove toward a pedestrian crossing and collided with the ride share vehicle, killing the passengers inside.

Avery also died later at the hospital.

CHIEF DAVID SMITH, ROCHESTER NY POLICE: Investigators are still combing through evidence recovered from his vehicle. But nothing thus far has been recovered that provides any additional insight into why this occurred.

GINGRAS: When investigators do know is Avery traveled in his own car from Syracuse to Rochester on and around December 27th, and checked into a nearby hotel. On December 29th, police say Avery picked up a rental car, and on December 30th, images like this one show he was alone when he bought gas canisters and fill them.

ANDREW MCCABE, FORMER FBI DEPUTY DIRECTOR: It's a very highly organized, structured, plant attacked by this person for whatever reason. The only question for investigators at this point is why did he do it, and was anyone else involved?

GINGRAS: To help answer those questions, authorities with the Joint Terrorism Task Force and FBI executing shirts warrants at various locations.

SMITH: And additionally, we have not been given any information leading us to believe that the actions of Michael Avery on New Year's Eve were motivated by any form of political or social biases.


GINGRAS: Avery's family telling authorities they believe he suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness.

MAYOR MALIK EVANS (D), ROCHESTER, NEW YORK: I think for us, as we go into the New York, is to remember the victims of this horrific accident. They were expecting to be able to ring in New Year and have a good time, but instead we have individuals that are now going to be burying family members, and we have people who have now life-altering injuries because of the choices that this suspect made.


GINGRAS (on camera): So, like you just saw, Jake, a lot of questions still outstanding, like why this concert venue? Why this time?

Authorities looking into several locations like his car, his residents in Syracuse, the hotel room he rented, hoping to recover some evidence that might point to some answers -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Brynn Gingras, thanks so much.

More breaking news for you, new criminal charges against New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez involving a different foreign country. That's next.

Plus, Donald Trump's legal team just appeal the decision in Maine, the decision to remove him from the state's 2024 abolish. What happens next, what this means for the race with the nation's primary season officially set to begin in just 13 days?

We'll be right back.