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Interview With Nevada Secretary of State Francisco Aguilar; U.S. Secretary of State in Israel; Search Continues For Missing U.S. Military Helicopter; RNC Chair Offers to Resign. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired February 07, 2024 - 11:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN HOST: What is next for the Republican Party? The RNC chairs offers to step aside. What did she do to get sideways with Donald Trump?

RAHEL SOLOMON, CNN HOST: Secretary of State Tony Blinken is in Israel right now for critical hostage talks. Where he says a deal with Hamas stands right now.

BERMAN: So, what will you watch, the game, the megastar or the commercials? The Super Bowl ads, you don't have to wait for the Super Bowl to see them. Which ones are making the biggest impact?

Kate and Sara are out. I'm John Berman with Rahel Solomon. This is CNN NEWS CENTRAL.

This morning, the Republican Party chair seems on her way out, Ronna McDaniel offering to step down at the end of February, which, of course, is several months ahead of the presidential election. This week, she met with Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago. After that meeting, she offered to resign.

Now, while the situation is still fluid, there are some big questions this morning, like, who will replace her? How will this impact the party? How did she get sideways with Donald Trump?

CNN's Alayna Treene has all of the answers for us from Washington this morning.

What do we know so far, Alayna?

ALAYNA TREENE, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, John, I mean, this is just a stunning revelation, and especially when you look back at when Donald Trump first appointed Ronna McDaniel in 2017 to serve as his loyal ally in the RNC.

And, clearly, things have changed since then. But, look, Donald Trump and the increasing pressure he's been putting on the RNC and Ronna McDaniel specifically was really the driving force behind this decision. And if you take a step back I mean, Trump and McDaniel's relationship over the past several years now has really deteriorated. And part of that is because Donald Trump still harbors a lot of

resentment toward the RNC and specifically toward McDaniel for what he argues is not doing enough to challenge the 2020 election results. And that's why -- a big part of why he is still very angry with them.

And another thing that I'm told is that this really hit a tipping point last week, when the RNC reported in the FEC filing that they had raised $8 million -- or had $8 million cash on hand at the end of last year. And that's really their worst fund-raising haul in over a decade. And so that deeply alarmed Donald Trump and his advisers, I'm told.

Now, to take a step back and look at who might be next to replace her, there have been a couple names that have been floated. I have talked to Trump's team, and the names that keep coming up are the North Carolina Republican Party chairman, Michael Whatley, also South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Drew McKissick, as well as Florida State Senator Joe Gruters.

Now, Whatley is widely believed to kind of be the front-runner for who Donald Trump would want. And I do just want to make very clear, Trump doesn't have the power to put someone in the RNC. He also didn't have the ability to oust McDaniel just on his own. But it's the pressure that he is putting on members and in his public statements that is really leading to a lot of these changes.

And the reason why he really likes Whatley is because he is someone who has repeatedly parroted Donald Trump's language about the 2020 election being rife with fraud, something we know is not true, but Donald Trump still believes to be true. He really wants a loyalist to serve in the RNC.

And that's why you're seeing a lot of this come out in these recent days, as he's continued to put a lot of his attention the national committee, which he thinks is going to be very important for him as he marches to the potential Republican nomination.


BERMAN: It really reveals what the priorities are for Donald Trump as he shapes the Republican Party.

Alayna Treene, thank you very much for all that -- Rahel.

SOLOMON: All right, John, an embarrassing defeat for Nikki Haley now in Nevada. Even though she was the only major Republican candidate on the ballot in the state's GOP primary on Tuesday, more Republican voters selected the none of these options than her.

Now, Donald Trump skipped the nonbinding primary, and no delegates were at stake, which made it largely symbolic. The former president will instead compete in Nevada's caucuses tomorrow, where 26 delegates will be awarded.

Let's bring in CNN's Kylie Atwood, who joins us now.

Kylie, Nikki Haley's camp seems to be shrugging this off, but what does this mean for Nikki Haley?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, listen, as you said, this is really fundamentally an embarrassment for Nikki Haley's campaign.

They're saying, of course, that they had no plans to actually compete in Nevada, because, as you laid it out, former President Trump is competing in the caucus, which is going to award all of the delegates in the state. So by losing the primary, Nikki Haley isn't actually changing any of her campaign's expectations about what she was going to pick up in terms of support in the state.

But we should note that former President Trump was encouraging his allies in the state to go out on primary day and cast ballots in favor of that option that was listed, none of these candidates. And Nikki Haley didn't just lose to that option, but she lost in a pretty big way. More than double the people who voted for her voted for that no -- none of these candidates option.

But I do want to read to you what her campaign is saying after that defeat, saying -- quote -- "Even Donald Trump knows that when you play penny slots, the house wins. We didn't bother to play a game rigged for Trump. We're still full steam ahead in South Carolina and beyond."

So this does blunt her efforts to show that she's still competitive with the former president even after losing these early nominating contests. But they're saying that she's focused on South Carolina right now.

SOLOMON: All right, Kylie Atwood, thanks so much.

BERMAN: With us now, CNN political commentator and Democratic strategist Maria Cardona and former RNC and White House spokesperson and now Firehouse Strategies founding partner Alex Conant.

Alex, as we were saying before, losing is bad. Losing to literally a line that says anyone else you can think of is, what, worse?

ALEX CONANT, FORMER RUBIO CAMPAIGN COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: Well, yes, I'm sure it's not the headlines that the Haley campaign was hoping to wake up to today, but it also doesn't change anything.

I think Republican primary voters in the first two contests, now the first three contests have made it clear that they prefer Donald Trump. And I don't know that there's anything Nikki Haley can do at this stage to really change that, unfortunately. I think she's going to continue to raise a lot of money. She's going to continue to stay in this I expect for a very long time.

I don't think she's quitting any time soon. But I think, at the end of the day, if you look at all the polls and you look at the first three contest results, Republican primary voters want to renominate Trump for the third time. And that seems to be an immovable problem for the Haley campaign.

SOLOMON: And, Maria, let me ask. If South Carolina goes to Trump, as it is expected, is there anything that Haley could do or show in these results that show momentum?

What if she has a better showing than she had in New Hampshire? Does that change anything?

MARIA CARDONA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think they will point to anything that will show that she is in an upward movement, and even 1 percentage point, if she does better than she did in New Hampshire, because I think they are in it to -- I mean, clearly, she wants to win it. I think that's going to be an almost impossible task.

But you never know what can happen. I'd love to hear what Alex thinks, but I have heard many Republican strategists who say we don't know what's going to happen with Donald Trump and all of his issues with the courts and everything that he's facing on the judicial front.

We have all seen the polls that say that, if he is convicted, his support drops dramatically within the Republican Party, even within his base, not all of it, clearly. And so I think that, at this point, she has nothing to lose. If she's going to continue to raise money, then stay in it, girl, because you don't know what's going to happen.

She could be the last woman standing in a situation where we all think that Donald Trump is going to be the nominee and is going to move forward to compete in the general election against President Biden. But you just never know with all of these things that are happening at the courts.

CONANT: That's right.

And I think, look, as long as she is running, Republican primary voters have a choice. Only voters in three states have voted. So 47 states are still voting. As long as she is in it, there's a choice. It seems likely that Republicans are going to continue to choose Trump. But if she drops out, then there is no choice, and Trump will be the nominee right away.

So I agree with you. I think she's going to stay in it to keep that choice. Maybe things do change in a month or two. Seems unlikely, but stranger things have happened in American politics.


BERMAN: Alex, talk to us, because you spent some time at the RNC. You're a former committee guy.


BERMAN: What does this change at the top of the committee mean practically going forward?

CONANT: Yes, so I was the RNC's press secretary in 2008. Of course, that's when John McCain was our nominee, very different time in the Republican Party.

But just as then, look, McCain, once he won the nomination, he installed some senior leadership into the RNC that I ended up working with, so that he could really control the committee. I think what's different now is that Ronna McDaniel is a Trump person. Like, Trump installed her to begin with to run the committee after he took Reince Priebus out of the RNC and put him in the White House.

So I think dumping her now, that really shows that there are legitimate concerns about the RNC. Anyone who looked at their recent fund-raising report realizes that they are woefully behind of where they need to be.

The problem is, taking McDaniel out, somebody who donors have gotten to know over the last six years, and installing a fresh face, a Trump loyalist, I'm not sure that's what major donors want to see. They don't want some stop the steal guy coming in and running the RNC, because that really gives donors a lot of trepidation.

And so if they're changing leadership in order to shore up the party's fund-raising, I'm not sure that's going to work. And it -- but it speaks to the larger concerns about the Republican Party's organizational and leadership structure going into this election year. It seems very problematic. If

I was a Democrat, I'd be encouraged by the shakeup.

SOLOMON: Maria, I mean, do you think that Democrats are feeling encouraged by, I mean, the shakeup at the RNC, but also the dysfunction that we're seeing? I mean, name the issue, with the DHS secretary, with funding for Israel, for the border bill.

I mean, how are Democrats viewing all of the dysfunction that we're all viewing?

CARDONA: I mean, Democrats view this as a disaster for the country, but, at the end of the day, what it will enable Democrats to focus on in terms of messaging going into the general election is that this is a crew of -- quote, unquote -- "leaders" that are massively unfit.

They have absolutely no desire or interest in governing. The only thing they care about and prioritize are the feelings of dictator Donald Trump, who they listen to. He says jump, they say, how high? We already saw the debacle of the border security bill in Congress.

We're seeing the debacle at the RNC. Whatever he says goes. That is not a way to run the -- one of the two major parties in the country. We are much better as a country -- and I even say this as a Democrat -- when you have two functioning major political parties. Right now, you don't have that. You only have one functioning political party, and that is the Democratic Party.

So in terms of the election, it helps us make the contrast that Republicans, not in the House, not in the Senate, and certainly not the White House, do not deserve the trust that the American people are -- have put into them, at least for leadership in the Congress.

So I think that helps Democrats going into the election.

SOLOMON: Well, the voters will soon decide. Alex Conant, Maria Cardona, thank you both.

CARDONA: Thanks.

CONANT: Thank you.

BERMAN: So, it is the case that could upend the presidential election. It is a case with huge implications. It has to do with, will Donald Trump be allowed to stay on state ballots? Can states use the 14th Amendment's ban on insurrectionists to push him off the ballot?

You can listen live as attorneys argue before the nation's highest court. Special coverage begins tomorrow morning at 9:00 right here on CNN.

SOLOMON: And, right now, Secretary of State Antony Blinken is meeting with the Palestinian Authority president in the West Bank. That's after meeting with top Israeli officials. Where the critical talks stand right now.

Also, Republicans are struggling to bounce back after two humiliating failures on the House floor. So what is plan B for House Speaker Mike Johnson?

And it's Super Bowl weekend. But are you looking forward to watching the game or the commercials or maybe what's happening on the sidelines? We're going to have a preview of the blockbuster ads.



BERMAN: All right, just in, the search for a missing U.S. military helicopter is now zeroing in on a remote snow-covered area in the mountains of Southern California, five Marines believed to be on board.

Let's get right to CNN's Natasha Bertrand with the very latest.

Natasha, what are you learning?

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Well, John, the U.S. Marine Corps has confirmed that they are searching for five missing Marines who were on board the CH-53 Super Stallion helicopter that took off on February 6 from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, which is in San Diego.

And according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention, that search is now focused on a remote snow-covered area of Cleveland National Forest, which is outside of San Diego. Now, the last time that a signal was actually received from that helicopter was around 11.30 p.m. local time last night.


And then, at 2:30 a.m., the San Diego County Fire Department, they received their first notification of the missing helicopter, and they sent out three fire engines, as well as an ambulance. But they had to pull back from that search-and-rescue mission because of the bad weather conditions there.

So, right now, it is obviously daylight there again, and they have restarted their search efforts. But it is worth noting here that this is not the first time that a CH-53 has been involved in such an incident. Back in 2018, another one of these helicopters, which is primarily used for transporting very heavy equipment -- it is a very large helicopter -- crashed during a routine training mission in California and killed all four Marines on board there.

So they're still conducting this search-and-rescue operation in that kind of remote area of this forest. And the Marine Corps says that they will continue to provide updates as and when they have them, John.

BERMAN: All right, Natasha Bertrand at the Pentagon, keep us posted on this -- Rahel.

SOLOMON: All right, John, right now, Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in the West Bank meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

It's the latest in a string of critical talks with Mideast leaders today. He's in Israel as Hamas puts forward a three-stage counterproposal for a cease-fire and humanitarian aid in exchange for releasing the remaining hostages in Gaza.

Let's go to CNN's Nic Robertson. He is in Tel Aviv.

So, Nic, Blinken says that the U.S. is reviewing this proposal. It's a pretty detailed proposal. Walk us through what exactly they're asking for.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes, detailed, and it has some issues that are perhaps going to trip up the Israelis, and perhaps we're already getting indications that there are things on there that they don't approve of yet in the language as presented, style presented.

What is it Hamas is putting forward? Three phases, each one lasting 45 days. Hostages, women, children, the elderly and the sick would be released as part of that first phase. What does Hamas want? They want a massive upscale in humanitarian aid for Gaza. They want to see 20,000 -- 60,000 housing units bought in, 20 -- 200,000 tents brought in.

But they also want to see the Israeli forces pull back out of civilian areas, stop military operations, stop drone flights. And they want to see the beginning -- and this is one of the trip points for the Israeli government -- Hamas wants to see the beginning of discussions about a permanent cease-fire.

Let's say all that goes ahead. Flip forward to phase two. Phase two, that will see the release of all the male hostages, both civilians and the military personnel. But during this phase, this is when Hamas wants to see the complete agreement agreed, signed off on of an absolute end to the war in Gaza.

And in both of these phases, they want to see a release of a huge number of Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli jails. And, again, this is a trip point for the Israeli government. They say, look, there is no way we're going to release prisoners, Hamas prisoners, who we captured October the 7th who were involved in that brutal attack.

And the last phase, if they would get to that, if the government gets to that here, that would be the release of the bodies of all the other remaining hostages, believed to be about 31 inside Gaza, and hugely important for many of the families who still have their hostages held.

SOLOMON: Yes, U.S. officials saying that they are reviewing the proposal intensively. Of course, what comes of it is still a big question.

Nic Robertson live for us in Tel Aviv.

Nic, thanks so much -- John.

BERMAN: All right, we just got word that House Speaker Mike Johnson will be speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill, this after what has been described as 10 minutes of utter humiliation for him, the Republican debacle in the House overnight.

What are his plans now? We could just be minutes away from learning. Stay with us.



SOLOMON: Welcome back.

Tuesday's GOP primary results in Nevada marked a truly embarrassing defeat for Nikki Haley. In a contest that did not have Donald Trump on the ballot, Haley actually lost to the choice "none of these candidates," as you can see.

But it's also fair to say that this primary carried little weight. That's because, this election season, state Republicans opted to award their delegates through party-run caucuses. Those caucuses happen tomorrow, and Trump is expected to be victorious.

Meanwhile, those who were on the primary ballot, including Haley, are not eligible to participate in the caucuses. And this fractured process is the result of a 2021 state law that scrapped Nevada's presidential caucuses in favor of government-run primaries.

Still, Nevada Republicans essentially ignoring the primary outcome, since no delegates are awarded from the vote.

With us now, Nevada Secretary of State Francisco Aguilar. Secretary, good to have you this morning. Thanks so much.

I think the way Nevada does this is a little bit sort of different. The winner of the Republican primary, "none of these candidates." Is that a first for your state?

FRANCISCO AGUILAR, NEVADA SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, good morning. Thank you for having us. It's an honor.

It is. I think it's -- it's gotten close in the past. However, I think this is a great opportunity for Nevadans to have a say in what the November election is going to look like once we get past this primary.

"None of the above" did receive the most amount of votes on the Republican side. However, by Nevada law, the person, actual candidate receiving the most amount of votes.