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The Lead with Jake Tapper

Trump Dominates Iowa Caucuses With 30-Point Win; GOP Battle Moves To New Hampshire After Trump's Dominant Iowa Win; Trump Back In Court For Second E. Jean Carroll Defamation Trial; Israel: Intense Stage Of Gaza Offensive Will End Soon; U.S. Launches Fresh Round Of Strikes On Iran-Backed Houthis. Aired 4-5p ET

Aired January 16, 2024 - 16:00   ET



JOE WALSH (R), 2020 PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: She just can't. She cannot beat Donald Trump. So, she will try to walk back the best she can but it will not matter. She is a fearful politician and she's never going to win the Republican primary being that way.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: All right. Joe Walsh, thank you so much for being with us. We do appreciate it.

We'll have to see. This is what she said this morning. We'll have to see how she deals with it.

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN HOST: Maximalist position, there's never been racism in this country.

KEILAR: Later today.



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: What are Governor Haley and DeSantis's plans to derail the Trumps trained?

THE LEAD starts right now.

After a blowout in Iowa, next stop, New Hampshire. As Donald Trump pushes his competitors to drop out, Governor Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley make their next moves, vowing to stay in the fight. We're going inside their campaigns to learn their battle plans.

And defiance on display, and for sale. We'll take you to a store in Trump country that has Trump memorabilia that really has to be seen to be believed.

Plus, the breaking news from the Middle East a new round of us strikes on the Iranian backed Houthis in Yemen. This after the U.S. seizes Iranian-made weapons on their way to arm the Houthis.


TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We start in our 2024 lead. Cue, the music. The election jam is underway.

A runaway victory for Donald Trump last night in the Iowa Republican caucuses. Trump's victory, the stronger showing for any non-incumbent in the modern era of the Iowa caucuses since the 1970s, with Trump winning 51 percent of the vote. That is ten points higher than the previous record. George W. Bush won 41 percent in 2000.

And turnout for Trump was sweeping. He won every single county in Iowa, except one, that one in yellow, you see there, Johnson County, Nikki Haley won 99 counties, but Johnson county wasn't one. Look at these scenes from last night, democracy in action, hard working election workers, counting votes on pieces of paper tabulating them, putting them in popcorn buckets, all of it on the up and up.

Today, no complaints of fraud even if the system frankly looks like it hasn't evolved much since the caucus began in Iowa in 1846. Now, why? Why are there no complaints of fraud today? Well, perhaps because Donald Trump won.

You might recall eight years ago when Ted Cruz won the caucuses in 2016, Trump lodged evidence-free complaints of fraud. In fact, he's still claiming he really won in 2016, even though he did not.

Here he is before the results last night.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT: We won it twice as you know, the elections, and we're going to have a tremendous night tonight.


TAPPER: He did not win in 2016, Ted Cruz did. This is a reminder that when Donald Trump loses, he falsely claims he was cheated.

This time, however, he won handily and legitimately, and Trump did not just when 98 of Iowa's counties, according to exit polls, he won the male vote. He won the female vote. He won among all age groups above the age of 30, he won the evangelicals, he won college educated and non-college college-educated among almost every single group of voters, Donald Trump won.

And Trump did all this after holding significantly fewer events than his opponents in Iowa. And while facing 91 felony charges in four indictments with the majority of caucusgoers saying they would vote for Trump for president even if he is convicted of a crime, even if he's a convicted felon. Now, whether that's related to his attempts to overturn the 2020 election based on election lies or his handling of classified material, it doesn't matter to these voters.

Now, turning to the New Hampshire primary next week and back to that George W. Bush comparison from 2000? Yes W won big in Iowa. But then days later, John McCain would pull off the prize victory in the New Hampshire primary.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ): Last Tuesday night, we interfered with the coronation. My dear friends, they call it -- they call it a bump in the road. I'm telling you my friend, it was a landmine.


TAPPER: That made huge headlines at the time.

Today, Nikki Haley is brushing off Trumps huge margin in Iowa and looking ahead to the Granite State.


NIKKI HALEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Iowa has always been of a pro-Trump state and we knew that going in. I was thrilled at the fact that we just wanted to come out strong and the idea that we were able to come out of there strong enough to come into this state was all we needed.


TAPPER: We're going to start our coverage with CNN's Jeff Zeleny now on the ground in New Hampshire.

Jeff, you were with Nikki Haley at an event in Manchester, New Hampshire today.


How is she feeling about New Hampshire?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Jake, there's no question that Nikki Haley had an air of confidence about her, but perhaps it was more a sign of relief arriving here in New Hampshire where the electorate is quite frankly much more friendly to her, particularly because of those independent and undeclared voters that she's hoping to rely upon to shake up this Republican nominating contests.

But Jake, there is no question, as the former president also is on his way here for a rally in New Hampshire this evening, he is still in dominating control this race, and she knows it.


ZELENY (voice-over): Donald Trump took his sweeping Iowa landslide --

TRUMP: This is the biggest one.

ZELENY: -- onto New Hampshire tonight for the second stop on the road to the Republican nomination, and what he hopes will be a rematch with President Joe Biden. TRUMP: This is the first, because the big night is going to be in

November when we take back our country and truly, we do make our country great again.

ZELENY: Along the way, he made a voluntary detour to federal court in New York, to watch jury selection in a defamation case against him. The latest sign of how the courtroom is a critical piece of this campaign.

Nikki Haley sought to turn a narrow third place Iowa finish into a winning message on electability.

HALEY: Our campaign is the last best hope of stopping the Trump-Biden nightmare.

ZELENY: That pointed argument rests at the heart of a weeklong push to the New Hampshire primary, hoping to tap into Americans exhausted by their leading options.

She amplified that call in a new TV ad.

AD ANNOUNCER: The two most disliked policies tensions in America, Trump and Biden.

ZELENY: Today in New Hampshire, Haley wore a confident smile as she tried to will the primary into a two-person race. She declined a debate with Ron DeSantis, telling CNN's Dana Bash she's looking beyond the Florida governor.

HALEY: He is not my concern. I'm going after Trump.

ZELENY: On the heels of a distant second place showing in Iowa, DeSantis began his day in Haley's home state of South Carolina, hoping to plant a flag outside New Hampshire to keep his presidential aspirations alive.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Nikki Haley said, only the top two from Iowa go on to be viable. Well, guess what? We punched our ticket out of Iowa yesterday.

ZELENY: DeSantis and Haley intensified their bitter duel over who is the leading alternative to Trump. Yet, the former president's 51 percent Iowa win suggests most Republicans may not be looking for one.

Trump's unifying tone in Iowa --

TRUMP: I want to congratulate Ron and Nikki for having a good -- a good time together. We're all having a good time together and I think they both actually did very well, belies the reality in New Hampshire, where he and his allies have been on the airwaves tearing into Haley, hoping to blunt any momentum.

AD ANNOUNCER: Nikki Haley, too weak, too liberal to fix the border.

TRUMP: While Iowa is the first stop on the Republican nominating calendar, once again, it marked the end of the road for two more candidates, including former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, a fierce Trump critic and Vivek Ramaswamy, the entrepreneur who endorsed Trump and is set to appear with him tonight in New Hampshire.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: To make sure that Donald Trump is successful as the next president of the United States.


ZELENY (on camera): So, as this Republican field gets smaller, even a week before the New Hampshire primary, Nikki Haley is trying to cast this as a two-person race between her and former President Donald Trump. Of course, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis would have a word or two about that. He has headed here to New Hampshire for a town hall this evening at New England College.

He, of course, is making the argument that this is not a two-person race. It's, in fact, a three-person race that he got second place in Iowa.

Jake, for all of that, though, there are serious questions facing his candidacy about the financing going forward, he's working with donors to try and keep their support alive.

For Haley, though, New Hampshire is all the centerpiece of her focus. She, of course, was campaigning with a New Hampshire Governor Sununu earlier today. She believes this electorate is good for her candidacy, but Jake Trump is coming here tonight as well. He did win New Hampshire in 2016 and went on to win nomination -- Jake.

TAPPER: Jeff Zeleny, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Let's talk about that two-person race thing with former Republican congressman and presidential candidate, Will Hurd from Texas. He's now supporting Governor Haley.

Congressman, good to see you.

So last night, Nikki Haley in her speech, after she took third place in Iowa, declared it was now a, quote, two-person race, meaning her and Donald Trump, but DeSantis came in second place. He's staying in the race. The third contest after New Hampshire is the Nevada caucuses, where I don't think Haley's even competing.

So, how is this a two-person race?

WILL HURD, FORMER U.S. REP.: Well, it's a two-person race because Ambassador Haley has the resources and the organization and all these different states. You know, Ron spent a lot of his money in Iowa, claimed that he was going to win and came in second place. Ambassador Haley banked some delegates and moving on to New Hampshire.

The reality is, if most Americans and most Americans want to see something other than a rematch from hell between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, Nikki Haley is their best alternative, not only in beating Donald Trump but going into the general election and beating Joe Biden. She is, for the last 11 months, shown that she has the ability to beat Joe Biden by a wider margin than any other candidates that are still in the race.


TAPPER: So, I mean, she did come in third, and you talk about her having the ability to compete, but I don't think she's even going to compete in Nevada. So, it still doesn't make any sense to me.

HURD: Well, look, the Nevada case, and the fact that more people are talking about it, the fact that the state party changed the rules, it's going to be two different kind of elections and that if you -- if you -- you know, historically, it had been a primary and not a caucus, Trump supporters changed it to a caucus. And so, you know, part of this is she is going to be on the ballot in the primary. But the fact that the state GOP, which is supported by -- is in Donald Trump's pocket, is not going to accept whatever happens in that, right? So I think -- I think that's an asterisk.

Going into to New Hampshire, we've seen all the polling. It's a tight race between Ambassador Haley and Trump. We've got a week before the election.

And guess who else thinks this is a two-person race? Donald Trump. All the time, energy, effort and money he's putting in. So, lies and criticizing Nikki Haley I think is a sign that their campaign recognizes her as the threat that that she is.

And here -- and the bottom line is this, we need more people to come out to vote. Less than 15 percent of identified Republicans voted last night in Iowa. Yes, Donald Trump won and got about 7 percent of that.

If we want to see a change, if we want to see someone who's going to be able to ensure, we take control of health care costs for our aging parents, for ourselves and for our kid, to be ready for a war in the Middle East and Europe and potentially with China, we need more people to vote in these primaries. We can get an option that we like in November.

TAPPER: Do you think that Governor Haley needs to be more aggressive about why voters should not vote for Trump? In the last week or so, it seems like she has been more focused on running against Governor DeSantis, than on the guy who is the clear front runner and how historic victory last night in Iowa, Donald Trump.

HURD: Well, Jake, I disagree a little bit with that narrative. Ambassador Haley has been clear on when she disagrees with Donald Trump. She's done that. And the five or so debates, she's done that in the television ads.

So I think that narrative that she's not pushing back is actually incorrect. I think she's going to continue to articulate a hopeful message for the future. She's going to talk about how there's no drama or baggage with her.

You know, Donald Trump won last night. And what did you do it to celebrate that victory? He didn't go to Disneyland. He had to go to courts, right? And this is a kind of baggage that's going to continue to deal with

him. And I think in your lead up, Jake, you talked about how there was polling by the number of Republicans that would still vote for Donald Trump if he was actually indicted. But there was a number in there that you didn't mention. Thirty-two percent of Republicans said they wouldn't. And that's going to have a huge impact in a general election. And this is something that Joe Biden and the Democrats are going to continue to focus on.

TAPPER: Right, but she has a website called She reminded viewers of that website 16 times during the debate we did.

Donald Trump is notorious for being the most mendacious --

HURD: Sure.

TAPPER: -- president and political official in American -- at least modern history, which is an achievement. There isn't a website from Nikki Haley. I just -- it seems to be --

HURD: Well, that maybe the case -- but I'm sorry. Go ahead, Jake.

TAPPER: No, no. Go ahead

HURD: Yeah. I don't know that, but the reality is is the dollars that have gone into advertising has criticized it. The mail that has gone out -- gone out has criticized him in the earned media, which is super important, important she's been willing to criticize him.

So again, I think she's been very clear that this is a race against Donald Trump, and she's -- she's looking to beat him and she's going to continue to articulate that message.

TAPPER: All right. Former Texas Republican Congressman Will Hurd, always good to see you, sir. Thanks for stopping by.

HURD: Take care.

TAPPER: One week out of the New Hampshire primary, it's going to be held one week from today. Governor Ron DeSantis is going to make his case before voters this evening in a CNN town hall. My friend and colleague Wolf Blitzer is going to moderate that. That's tonight at 9:00 Eastern on CNN and streaming on CNN Max live from New Hampshire.


If Donald Trump does manage to secure the GOP nomination, will he be a drain on the entire Republican Party? Will he be an albatross?

My next guest is gaming out what this primary race might look like for Republicans two, three, four months down the line. You're not going to want to miss this.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) TAPPER: For Republicans hoping to move past former President Donald Trump, last night's decisive victory in Iowa for Trump was a wake-up call. Donald Trump secured his first win on his path with third straight Republican presidential nomination, while seeming to cement his hold as the party standard bearer.

So what does Trump's dominance as of now in the Republican Party mean? As we look towards an increasingly light, increasingly likely rematch between Trump and Biden?

Let's bring in a conservative political commentator, Erick Erickson.

Erick, good to see us.

So we just heard Nikki Haley supporter make -- make his best-case their best-case for how she can get to the nomination. Ron DeSantis is using his distant second place finish last night to justify staying in the race. Do you see a viable path for either Haley or DeSantis as they continue running?


ERICK ERICKSON, HOST, "THE ERICK ERICKSON SHOW": No. When you look at Iowa, Nikki Haley won in college towns. She won Johnson County, actually winning a county and DeSantis didn't. But she's winning the highly college-educated areas that actually are the least likely to turn out in Republican primaries. DeSantis won suburban precincts of college educated evangelicals but he wasn't able to match that to actually win any counties in Iowa.

So I don't see a path for either one of them moving forward. I mean, one of the things from this, Jake, is that the polling averages tend to be right. And it wasn't Iowa. If so, that's probably right. New Hampshire and South Carolina, which puts Trump ahead of everybody.

TAPPER: As we look towards November and a potential rematch between Trump and Biden, you wrote, quote, Trump's victory in November will be way more resource intensive than a Haley or DeSantis victory, unquote. Meaning that the Republican Party and fundraisers and donors are going to have to divert a lot more money to the presidential race, to the top of the ticket, instead of spending it on House races, Senate races, governors graces, and beyond.

Do you think Trump's name at the top of the ticket when it comes to battleground states, at least is going to harm down-ballot races?

ERICKSON: Look, I think it can. Here's the thing Republicans aren't paying attention to. All the polls show that it Trump is actually doing better than he's ever done before. But as you actually pull people who turned out in 2020, the highest turnout presidential election, he loses to Biden by about six points.

It's one thing to say you're ahead at registered voters, but not every registered voter votes. He mobilizes Democrats more passionately that he does Republicans, which is a problem for down-ballot Republicans. TAPPER: So let me give you an example from my beloved home,

Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Republicans want to defeat Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey Jr. They see that as a possible seat to flip.

Do you think Trump will make that task harder for Republicans?

ERICKSON: Yes. When you look at Pennsylvania, already even a swing state, Biden is still slightly ahead of him in the polling averages now when people aren't paying attention. The Democrats have a good track record winning Pennsylvania. It makes Dave McCormick, the potential Republican nominee, have a more difficult path with Trump as the standard bearer, because you and I both know Trump will say something and the Republican candidates will have to answer for Donald Trump as opposed to staying on their own message.

TAPPER: Last night, we got insight into this looming question with the four indictments and 91 criminal charges facing Donald Trump matter to voters? And last time, a majority of Republican voters in Iowa said, nope. In fact, when asked specifically if Trump is fit for the presidency, even if he's convicted of a crime, 65 percent of caucusgoers -- caucusgoers said, yes, 31 percent said no.

Now, obviously caucus and primary voters are very different than general election voters. But when you consider Trump's first stop after his victory speech was back in court. How much does this benefit Biden and a general election because as Nikki Haley's supporter, Will Hurd just pointed out, 31 percent of Republicans saying he's not fit to be president if he's convicted, that's not nothing

ERICKSON: In 2022, for the first time since 2002, independent sided with the party inside the White House and 13 percent of Republicans did as well, according to the highly accurate exit polling. That's going to hold up if he found guilty. In the Florida case, there's a high likelihood of guilt in that case alone.

So, yeah, this will really affect. Republicans are kind of playing with suicide, fire in this to try to embrace Donald Trump, given all this, but they want to rally around their guy because they feel persecuted and see themselves through him. But that could cost them the general.

TAPPER: Vivek Ramaswamy suspended his campaign after finishing fourth in Iowa. He endorsed Donald Trump.

Ramaswamy did find popularity in part by saying things such as this. Take a listen


RAMASWAMY: The January 6 now increasingly looks like it was an inside job of entrapment involving our own federal government.

I'm sure the boogeyman white supremacist exists somewhere in America. I've just never met him, never seen one. Never met one in my life, right? Maybe I'll meet a -- maybe I'll meet a unicorn sooner.


TAPPER: What do you make the fact that -- I mean, his message obviously didn't catch fire exactly. But, you know, he lasted longer than a lot of more established, and respected candidates.

ERICKSON: I think he was only there to try to hurt everyone other than Trump personally. I wait for him to do a tell-all book about the rubes who loved him. And as he mocked them for believing the things he said yesterday as opposed to the exact opposite things he said two weeks ago. His entire candidacy was a troll of Ron DeSantis and I guess to that extent, it worked.

TAPPER: Eric Erickson, always good to have you on. Thank you so much. Appreciate it.

ERICKSON: Thank you.

TAPPER: Of course. On the side of the 2024 race are Trump's legal problems. Mr. Trump was in court again today in New York. What's being done specifically to protect jurors in this case? That's ahead.



TAPPER: A day after winning the Iowa caucuses decisively, former President Donald Trump was back in New York -- in a New York courtroom today for his second defamation trial brought on by E. Jean Carroll, a former magazine columnist. You might recall Carroll winning the first its defamation trial last year. After a jury found that Trump did indeed sexually assault her in the mid-1990s and then proceeded to defame her in 2022.

In this trial, Carroll is seeking more than $10 million in damages for Trump's continued defamatory statements he made in 2019, about her sexual assault allegations. Trump denies any wrongdoing.

CNN's Paula Reid is following the case.

Paula, why was Trump in court today?

PAULA REID, CNN CHIEF LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: So, great question. He did not have to be here. This is his choice. There's no requirement for him to attend this proceeding. He doesn't have any role.


But, Jake, we've seen that he and his team, they've become pretty adept at leveraging these court proceedings for their larger political narrative. Today, for example, we saw his lawyer who's also his spokeswoman, Alina Habba, get into a contentious exchange with the judge over a request to adjourn court on Thursday when his mother-in- law his funeral is being held.

Now, she likely knew this was going to be denied because they already made a similar request. But by bringing it up again, getting into a contentious exchange and then being denied, things like that feed into this larger narrative that he is somehow the victim of an unfair judicial system.

TAPPER: The judge mentioned that this jury is anonymous and the judge laid out rather strict security measures to protect the jurors identities. How common is that?

REID: Well, to have an anonymous jury is increasingly common, though it is not an ordinary thing that you see. It does happen particularly in cases where there are concerns about the integrity of the process or the safety of those -- of those jurors. For example, terrorism cases, certain murder cases, police killings. This is something that we've seen and were seeing it increasingly.

Look, there are legitimate constitutional questions about transparency in terms of having an anonymous jury. But here, given the threats that we have seen against judges, court staffers, jurors, in other cases related to Trump, it's certainly not surprising.

TAPPER: So I guess what I'm saying is, you mentioned murder cases, terrorism cases. I imagine, you know, mob cases, it would be normal. But for a case of defamation against a politician, I don't -- it doesn't sound like it's normal. It's just -- they're doing -- they're taking these extreme measures because its just known that Donald Trump incites threats against his accusers and people -- anybody who stands against him

REID: Yeah. Once you have that added word Trump, we know that he is use his bully pulpit to turn a lot of attention towards judges, towards court staffers and jurors, people who were just showing up to do either their job or their civic duty. So there are legitimate security concerns for anyone in a case related to Trump that is not anonymous.

So the fact that they're making them anonymous here, that's not a surprise at all.

TAPPER: Who are some of the potential witnesses that might be asked to testify in this case?

REID: So we know that E. Jean Carroll, for example, she wants to call out an expert to talk about damages. She would also possibly like to call some other women who say they too were sexually abused by former President Trump.

But, Jake, I think the two witnesses that I'm really focused on, are first E. Jean Carroll. She testified in that a trial last spring, I was in court for that. It was incredibly emotional. But you have to remember, she was in court today for the first time in decades with Trump in the same room for the first time in years and years. And the thought of her having to talk about this and things so emotional for the first time in front of him that could really be a moment.

Now, there's also the possibility that Trump, who could testify, but his lane like what he can actually talk about, given that this is just about damages is incredibly narrow. It's unclear. He would be able to stay within those bounds, but at this point, the judge has not said who will get to testify.

TAPPER: So Trump was there today, as you noted, he wasn't required to be, but he likes to use this for campaign purposes. How often is Donald Trump expected to attend?

REID: It'll be interesting to see. We expect him back tomorrow. I mean, this case is only going to last a few days on Thursday. His mother-in-laws funeral is being held, doesn't appear that he will attend on Thursday. Friday, there's no court and Monday is the day he could testify.

So it's going to be interesting to see, Jake, just how much return on his time investment he feels he's getting, and if he really does show up. And then that other big question, will he take the witness stand?

TAPPER: Okay. Paula Reid, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Coming up, what tons of merchandise and yeah, some of it is rather vulgar and profane, selling at a store in southwest Virginia says about Donald Trump and those who support him. Stay with us.



TAPPER: Topping our world lead, a new stage of Israel's war against Hamas in Gaza. Israel's defense minister says the current phase of the war will end soon and will shift toward more targeted operations. This after an elite IDF division exited the Gaza Strip last night, not every Israeli official seems to be on the same page.

Far right national security minister Ben-Gvir, an anti-Arab racist who has called for the complete reoccupation of Gaza, insists this is the wrong approach and the decision to remove Israeli troops will, quote, cost human lives. This as suffering for Gazans compounds with a bitter winter. The United Nation says Israel's operation has brought famine with, quote, incredible speed, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are already starving.

Joining us now, Morgan Ortagus, a former State Department spokeswoman under Donald Trump.

Morgan, thanks for joining us.

So Israel shifting war strategy in Gaza comes after pressure by the Biden administration for Israel to conduct more targeted precise operations because of the -- with the goal of saving civilian lives, you just returned from a trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia. You met with Israeli officials.

How much sway does the Biden ministration have over Israel today?

MORGAN ORTAGUS, FORMER TRUMP STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN: Well, I still think an incredible amount, regardless of which political parties and the White House, Israel knows that its most important relationship is with that of the United States. And quite frankly, the Biden administration has taken a lot of heat, even from within their own party for their support, saying that I was struck when I met with all of the senior officials in the war cabinet at a couple of things, Jake.


One is their resolve really to go after Hamas because of course we hear and its in our news headlines every day is what the Houthis are doing exchange of fire with Hezbollah. You hear warnings coming out of Lebanon. We know Israelis in the north still can't go back home. But Israelis, the war cabinet from my meetings with them seemed very, very intent on degrading and destroying Hamas as much as possible.

And, you know, when I listened to your opener and the tragic things that you just said that the Palestinians are going through, famine and others, none of this would have happened if it wasn't for the Hamas attacks. None of this would happen if Hamas didn't continue to steal the aid. And if Hamas did it continue to hide behind their own women and their own children and hostages in order to save themselves. So that's what the Palestinian people are having to deal with.

Sure. And there was a "Reuters" reported a few weeks ago that Egypt had had proposed a deal where Israel would implement an immediate ceasefire and turn over all the Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Hamas turning over all these really hostages and relinquishing power. And according to "Reuters", Hamas said, no, they're not going to take that deal.

Today, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia, are paired to do things in the relationship with Israel that they've never done before. What did you hear from Saudi leaders? What does that mean?

ORTAGUS: Listen, I thought it was very interesting in my meetings with the crown prince, MBS. He was certainly -- and Blinken has said this publicly, so I feel comfortable saying this -- he didn't dismiss the possibility that there still could be a deal with Israel. And that would, of course, have to -- have something for the Palestinian people.

He -- and most of the Arab world are going to want some sort of, if not a path towards a state for the Palestinian people, if not one in that deal, at least a path towards one. But I think they want a serious things -- series concessions for the Palestinian people.

But I think just in and of itself, that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia is not dismissing it after everything that we've seen from October 7, after what we've seen, go on in the Arab street shows to me that there is some hope. I mean, someone is going to have to stand up in this region in order to stop all of the fighting, to stop the attacks.

And we hear -- I've heard constantly for years behind the scenes whether it's Hamas or al-Qaeda or other Sunni terrorist groups, I lived in Saudi Arabia during the Obama administration when I was his treasury attache. And they're very encouraging behind the scenes for Americans and others to go after terrorists, and it's often a very different picture from what you hear publicly.

So, again, I think even the fact that we haven't gotten to a deal yet, but even the fact that MBS is willing to entertain this conversation means somebody in the Arab world is willing to step up and be a leader. I don't know if the Biden team will get there. I was a part of the Abraham accords team in the last administration I worked for President Bush, President Obama, and President Trump.

So, for me, I don't care if peace comes under a Republican or Democrat. We just need to get to peace for Israel.

TAPPER: Today, the U.S. launched a third round of attacks on Iranian- backed Houthi infrastructure in Yemen. That was a direct response to belligerent Houthi attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea. Will the Houthis and Iran ever get the message, or do you think this is going to escalate?

ORTAGUS: Sure. They can't get the message, Jake, but the problem is, is they've had three years to build up. So not only did we designate them as a terrorist organization at the end of the Trump administration, which is, of course, important, but there was a very controversial war, of course, happening between Saudi and the Houthis.

But we essentially stop that war and President Biden speech in February of '21, and we no longer wanted civilian deaths. Of course, you don't want that. But what happened in the three-year since? Iran has had billions of dollars and relief from sanctions not being enforced. They have used that money to build up the capability of the Houthis.

And, Jake, we're really seeing the nightmare scenario that you and I and many others talked about after 9/11, which is a terrorist group with ballistic missiles and sophisticated weaponry with the ability to go after U.S. ships and U.S. sailors on a daily basis. That's always what we set after 911 that we don't what and what were seeing now.

So the U.S. strikes are incredibly important. I support them. I think that they were a little late, but were going to have to be realistic that they've had three years of no one going after them. And through years of the Iranians training, equipping, supplying, and directing them.

TAPPER: Morgan Ortagus, a former Trump State Department spokeswoman, thank you so much for your time. Really appreciated.

Coming up, inside a church, converted to a store. It sells tons of Trump merchandise. Some of it kind of crude. So, who's buying it?



TAPPER: Back to our 2024 lead, in the wake of our entrance poll showing two-thirds of caucusgoers last night say the 2020 election was stolen, which it wasn't. And two-thirds feel Donald Trump is fit to be present, even if he is convicted of a crime, some of you out there might be tempted to ask, what are these people thinking? A good place to find out is a store inside what used to be a church, where faith in Trump is a given, and politics sometimes with a cheerful touch of vulgarity is on display.

CNN's Elle Reeve paid a visit.


WHITEY TAYLOR, OWNER, TRUMP TOWN USA: The mugshot was really hot. And this stuff last is probably about two months. It stays really hot. But the first week that we -- the mugshot came out, we sold like 2,000 t- shirts.


TAYLOR: That's Trumps balls. Okay.

REEVE: Okay.

(voice-over): Whitey Taylor runs a busy Trump store in Boones Mill, a town fewer than 500 people in southwestern Virginia.


We visited a week after Christmas with the Iowa caucuses just days away. Taylor predicted Trump would win the Republican nomination and then business would really boom.

TAYLOR: Can only get these here.



REEVE: Customers were bullish, too, with the super fans bought offers some insight into what they want politically. The merch is not just simple campaign slogans. It's defiant, even vulgar, aimed at buyers who enjoy being mad at the state of America, and there's one guy who will fix it.

When Trump was indicted for all these different things, did people stop buying his merchandise?

TAYLOR: No, they bought it more.


TAYLOR: Because they knew it was like Russia collusion, just all -- just all (EXPLETIVE DELETED), made up (EXPLETIVE DELETED).

Now, he has gained a lot of people because of this administration that we have now. Yeah.

REEVE: You get people coming and saying that?

TAYLOR: Oh, yeah, definitely yeah. They'll just come in and say, never again, will I be that stupid, you know?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hi, welcome to the Trump store.

REEVE: What have you observed about what people are looking for?

MELINDA WILLIAMS, EMPLOYEE, TRUMP TOWN USA: People want an economy better? They're very scared, I think because of the way things are going. They feel like where were at right now is not -- is like stagnant.

REEVE: Were you interested in politics before Trump?

WILLIAMS: Yes. And you know, it's strange because I've always been Democrat.

REEVE: Really?

WILLIAMS: Yes. So I am a firm believer in believing in a person and system that's going to make positive changes. I think in the past, I made some quick judgments about my voting and so I'm very more selective and it's more thought put into it.

REEVE: What's coming up right now?

TAYLOR: Who knows? The more the Democrats talk about MAGA crazy people than, you know, some will spin off of it.

Within 150 mile radius here, anybody gets company and they bring them here.

REEVE: Why did you come in today?

DALE COPELAND, SHOPPER FROM NORTH CAROLINA: To get some Trump stuff so I can advertise and you know, supporting oh, six or eight. I like lost everything I had but I barely survived on the only idea and this is leading up to the same thing again. Well, its coming to 95 was coming.

REEVE: And do you think Trump could prevent that? I think he can. I think he can put the brakes on it and turn around.

MARY-JEAN PALMER, SHOPPER FROM FLORIDA: I often wonder what encourages people to be a Democrat because I don't see a lot of kindness. I don't see a lot of help for our country. And I see a lot of talk, no action.

REEVE: He got into this business at the very beginning of Trump's takeover of the Republican Party. Taylor's a serial entrepreneur and attention seeker, and he prayed to god to guide him while selling racing merch at the Daytona 500.

TAYLOR: My son said, dad, what's God telling us? Came in my spirit. He wants me to help Trump. I said I'm ordering thousand t-shirts. He said, dad, but that's crazy. You know how crazy, you get this get 100. I said go big or go home, boy. I said, if God's telling me, we'll sell everyone. If not, we'll throw in the trash can and leave.

All we have was a white t-shirt, said hire the vets, fire the idiots, Trump 2016 on the front red, white, and blue. And on the back it said, finally someone with balls, Donald J. Trump. Okay? And I became known as the balls man on the tour.

REEVE: Taylor open the store in the fall of 2020, inside 100 year-old church. After the election, the big seller was "stop the steal".

Did you think the election was stolen?

TAYLOR: There's no doubt that election was stolen? Yeah.

REEVE: And what did you think of January 6?

TAYLOR: It was a bad thing, but if you look back, you actually look at the types and stuff, they were let in. But they still should have never went inside, okay? You never go in somebody's house or a house, a public house like that, yeah.

REEVE: Does that complicate what you think of Trump at all that he --


REEVE: Why not?

TAYLOR: No, definitely not. Because he definitely didn't tell him. Go and storm the House.

REEVE: Would you have any interest in running the store if Trump weren't so controversial?

TAYLOR: I doubt it. I like his controversy. You know, we need something that we can laugh about and be happy about there's liberals that think I can come in here and actually tell me what to do.

The last one was a professor from UNC. She was just tell me what a great job Biden's doing. I tried to tell her to leave.

REEVE: But do you not appreciate, you know, her coming in and wanted to mix it up a little bit, you know?

TAYLOR: Oh, I love it. Yeah. But she don't want to hear what I have, so she wanted me to only hear what she had to say.

REEVE: You said that you want to rename this town Trump town?

TAYLOR: Why not? The Boones are dead, the mill's gone. Let's change.

REEVE: Do you think other people support you with that?

TAYLOR: Not really, but doesn't really matter. It's good controversy if it never happens.

REEVE: Elle Reeve, CNN, Boones Mill, Virginia.


TAPPER: Our thanks to CNN's Elle Reeve for that report. Just in, Nikki Haley's campaign is doing a bit of cleanup for what she said today about the United States and racism. That's next.



TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

This hour, transcript leaked in the Hunter Biden investigation, chairman of the House Oversight Committee Comer had promised to release full transcripts of interviews to everyone at the same time. So why are only select portions of select interviews somehow getting out to MAGA media such as "The New York Post"?

Plus, a U.S. Navy officer, Lieutenant Ridge Alkonis, sent to prison in Japan for a tragic, deadly, accidental crash while suffering a medical condition. After paying more than $1 million in restitution, he was treated differently than a typical defendant in Japan, he says.

This is a story we've covered in depth on the show. And now, Lieutenant Alkonis is back in the United States, out of prison, and he will well be here today on THE LEAD for his first interview.