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Pressure Mounts for Haley to Drop Out After Trump Wins South Carolina GOP Primary; Aide Says, Prisoner Swap was in the Works Before Navalny's Death; Ukrainian Forces Retreat from Donetsk Village Amid Russia Advance. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired February 26, 2024 - 07:00   ET



KASIE HUNT, CNN ANCHOR: I could watch that over and over and over again, right? All right, we're sending our very best wishes to Scarlett as she fights.

Thanks to all of you for joining us on this Monday. I will hopefully see you tomorrow.

I'm Kasie Hunt. CNN News Central starts right now.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: The fallout from South Carolina, Donald Trump picks up more endorsements, Nikki Haley loses a big source of campaign cash, and why Michigan just got even more interesting.

SARA SIDNER, CNN ANCHOR: Brand new this morning, Ukrainian forces are retreating from a city in the east as Russia intensifies its attacks. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says millions will be killed if the United States does not send more aid.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: An American couple disappears from their ransacked yacht, this morning fingers pointing at escaped convicts.

I'm John Berman with Sara Sidner and Kate Baldwin, and this is CNN New Central.

BOLDUAN: This is CNN News Central, as John Berman says, and, yes, the South Carolina primary just happened, it's over, and it's also already election eve once again. Michigan's primary tomorrow, Donald Trump is picking up endorsements while Nikki Haley is losing them after getting trounced in her home state. Trump won by 20 points in South Carolina, but Nikki Haley is pushing forward.


NIKKI HALEY, REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: They can say Donald Trump won. I give him that. But he, as a Republican incumbent, didn't get 40 percent of the vote of the primary. And so the issue at hand is he's not going to get the 40 percent if he's going and calling out my supporters and saying they're barred permanently from MAGA. He's not going to get the 40 percent by calling them names. He's not going to get the 40 percent by trying to take over the RNC so that it pays all his legal fees. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: Now, in just a few hours, Nikki Haley will be back in Michigan to pitch to voters once again before then heading to Minnesota tonight for some campaigning. Her promise to fight on just got a little bit tougher.

The political network backed by the billionaire Koch brothers announced overnight they're suspending any more funding to promote her campaign, just as Donald Trump picked up some potentially important support, the number two Republican in the Senate, John Thune, he is now backing Donald Trump, giving him his endorsement. This is the same John Thune who told CNN just last month the following, I've always been worried about Trump's viability as a general election candidate. Oh, how times change.

This all leaves us where on this Monday morning? Well, here at least is a delegate math that tells you a little bit of where we are. Donald Trump now has 110 delegates, Nikki Haley, 20 delegates. A reminder, a candidate needs 1,215 delegates to lock in the nomination.

CNN's Alayna Treene has much more math she's going to do for us from Washington this morning. Alayna, Nikki Haley says the math is still not in Donald Trump's favor, not adding up for Donald Trump in the long-term. She may say that, but what is Donald Trump and the team around him saying about thinking about this week and what it means for him?

ALAYNA TREENE, CNN REPORTER: Look, the math is there for Donald Trump, and his campaign still is very confident that by mid-March they will have the necessary delegates, that 1,215 number that you shared, Kate, to declare him the presumptive Republican nominee. And he's still the favorite in the majority of the primary contests coming up.

But, look, after South Carolina, I know from my conversations with Donald Trump's campaign, they essentially think that this primary is over, and they want to shift in earnest to a general election strategy against Joe Biden.

Now, we know that Donald Trump himself has been really pivoting to that general election rhetoric for weeks now, but this is more from a campaign perspective. They want to start building out their infrastructure on the ground in these crucial battleground states, places like Arizona and Michigan and Georgia, places they know that Donald Trump needs to pick up support. They want to start really focusing all of their attacks on Joe Biden and leaving their attacks on Nikki Haley behind.

Of course, we have to put out the disclaimer here that Donald Trump is Trump, and he will continue to use whatever rhetoric he wants on the trail. Now, even just this weekend, he got up on stage in South Carolina to give his victory speech, and he didn't mention Nikki Haley.

[07:05:02] But I know that before he got on stage, his advisers were not sure whether or not he was going to attack or they had told him that they did not want him to. They wanted him to ignore her and just focus on Joe Biden But they never know with Donald Trump and so that's something to keep in mind when you think about the general.

But they are really going to be looking at these battleground states They're going to be looking at different coalitions like trying to get more black voters, Hispanic voters, working class voters to try chip away at Joe Biden's support. That is really what their key goal is now. They're ready to leave this primary behind them. Kate?

BOLDUAN: It's good to see you, Alayna. Thank you so much. Sara?

SIDNER: All right, thank you, Kate.

Joining us now, Republican Strategist Sarah Longwell and CNN Senior Political Commentator Ana Navarro. Good to see you two, ladies.

Sarah, I'm going to start with you. Haley is winning with independents, swing voters, but the vast majority of Republicans are staying with Donald Trump. Should she stay in the race and why is she staying in the race?

SARAH LONGWELL, PUBLISHER, THE BULWARK: I definitely think she should stay in the race. And one of the reasons is that this is the first step to building what is going to be critical for defeating Donald Trump in the general election, which is building the anti-Trump coalition.

The fact is it's been good to see how many independents and Democrats are motivated enough against Donald Trump that they're turning out in these primaries to go vote against him. And I think once you've cast a vote against Donald Trump, it makes it much more likely that you're going to vote against him again.

And so I think that she should stay in as long as she can, as long as she has the resources to do so. Obviously, the path hasn't been there. The math isn't there.

But she seems to have discovered sort of a mission-driven reason for being in, which is important. I feel like we're seeing the real Nikki Haley right now, which is not what we saw at the beginning of this race. And the fact is I wish we'd seen this version of Nikki Haley all along. I think it might have made a bigger difference.

But I appreciate what she's doing now. I think staying in through Super Tuesday shows a lot of grit and determination on her part. And I'm glad she's doing it.

SIDNER: Ana, I'm curious what you think about the threats that Donald Trump has made about those who stay with Nikki Haley throughout this or who back her throughout this, that they will sort of be pushed aside or pushed away from the party.

ANA NAVARRO, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, making threats is part of Donald Trump's motives operandi, right? I mean, who is he threatening today? And he has said it over and over again, his administration would be one of retribution, would be one of vindictiveness, would be one of revenge. He does not shy away from that.

So, it is not surprising that he is making those threats and that -- and I agree with Sarah, I think Nikki Haley should stay in. I think she has zero chance. And I'm not as much a fan of the current version or the past version, because I don't know what version is the real version, but I think she should stay in because it irritates Donald Trump, because it unhinges him. And anything that does that is, for me, a positive.

But I think, you know, at the end of the day, Nikki Haley needs Republican voters to be able to win a Republican nomination, and those voters aren't just there. She can't win a Republican nomination with 50 percent of independents. And she's losing Republicans to Trump by 75 percent. That's just insurmountable. She's also now, you know, lost this very large donor group, the Koch Network, when she needs it most, because the schedule is accelerating tremendously.

I mean, understand this, it there was, what, a month between New Hampshire, which she lost, and South Carolina, which was her home state, and she lost, and she's only been campaigning in South Carolina. And in that month, Donald Trump got found liable of defamation to the tune of $83 million, got found liable of tax fraud to the tune of half a billion dollars and she still has pretty much the same results as she did in Iowa, as she did in New Hampshire, that the Republican votes just not there for Nikki Haley.

SIDNER: Yes, the numbers are making it very clear. I do want to ask you about what Donald Trump has been saying over the weekend when he went after -- he sort of has been ignoring Haley and going after who he sees as his real opponent now, and that's in the general election, and that's Joe Biden. That's his point. Here's what he said about a potential four more years of Joe Biden when it comes to the immigration crisis.


DONALD TRUMP (R), FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT, 2024 PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Medicare, Social Security, health care, and public education will buckle and collapse.

I can tell you that while weaponized law enforcement hunts for conservatives and people faith, religious, Hamas and Antifa will terrorize our streets.



SIDNER: All right, so the fear mongering, the sort of throwing things out there that everything is going to be destroyed, even though it hasn't been while this administration has been in place, will this work with the general public? This is to you Ana. It's worked with Republican Party, but will it work in the general?

NAVARRO: I don't think so. I really don' because I think that more the generally public sees of Trump, the more you realize, just as Joe Biden was quoted saying last week, the crazy things that -- the crazy stuff that Donald Trump says on a daily basis. I mean, you know on that in that same speech he claimed to have won California, let's not forget the doozy from this weekend where he said that black voters like him because he's been indicted, and that makes them identified with him.

I mean, Sara, really, it's a running tally of just incoherent, stupid, crazy, divisive things that Donald Trump says every day. And I think that the more we see of him, the more, we will remember the chaos and the hostility that comes with Donald Trump that some people have forgotten because he hasn't been president for the last three years.

SIDNER: Yes. And Nikki Haley has been, as you said, sort of jabbing him a bit, talking about that chaos over and over, and over again. Ana Navarro, Sarah Longwell, thank you both so much for coming on this morning. I appreciate it.

NAVARRO: Thank you.


BERMAN: All right. This morning we got brand new reporting on how Donald Trump wants to pit federal judges against one another all in hopes of avoiding a trial.

Breaking news, we're just getting word that Ukraine has retreated from a new city on the eastern front. What these new Russian gains mean and what President Zelenskyy just told CNN about Donald Trump.

And the search for two Americans missing after escaped prisoners allegedly hijacked their yacht. What investigators have turned up this morning.



SIDNER: New this morning, we're learning from one of Alexei Navalny's top aides that negotiations were actually underway to free him in a prisoner exchange before he died in prison. The aide says that Russian President Vladimir Putin had been presented with a deal to free Navalny and two Americans in exchange for Vadim Krasikov, a convicted killer in Germany. The deal, according to Navalny's aides, was in the final stages the day before Navalny's death ten days ago.

CNN's Matthew Chances in Moscow for us. Matthew, what can you tell us about the details of this? What are you learning?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CHIEF GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Sara, it's absolutely extraordinary, isn't it, because we know that there are negotiations that have been underway for some time between the United States and Russia, to free U.S. citizens in Russian jails, Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter, and former Marine Paul Whelan. And we know that the Russians want back this, basically, FSB hitman, Vadim Krasikov, who's being held in a German prison after murdering a dissident in a park in Berlin.

But what's new, according to Navalny's team, Alexei Navalny, former opposition leader, of course, late opposition leader, is that Alexei Navalny was part of this negotiation.

Now, this has been rumored before, but this is the first time that Navalny's team has come out and publicly said that part of that swap negotiation involved Alexei Navalny.

Now, Navalny's team are also saying that that explains why he died in his penal colony. They, of course, accused Vladimir Putin of ordering his death. There's been a rejection of that from the Kremlin. But, basically, they're saying that the night before he died, the negotiations were in their final stages, and then the next day, on the 16th of February, he was pronounced dead, and so that's the latest extraordinary allegation coming from the Navalny team.

I should say there's been no confirmation either from the Kremlin, from the United States, of course, who have been part of these negotiations, or from the Germans either. So, we're waiting to try and get more verification on that.

In the meantime, there's been a separate bit of development when it comes to Alexei Navalny's funeral. Of course, it's been some time now, since Friday, when he was pronounced dead, and everybody's waiting to see when and how he is going to be finally laid to rest. It could be a big political moment in Russia.

Navalny's team now saying that they're expecting to have that funeral at the end of this work week. They're not giving it an exact day, but presumably that means Friday or even Thursday. The details are clearly not finalized yet, but that's what they're saying.

Now, at the end of this work week, that's when Alexei Navalny will be laid to rest, they say, in a public funeral. Again, that could be a major rallying point for anti-Kremlin and anti-government protests.

SIDNER: Matthew Chance, thank you so much for all of that reporting there on Alexei Navalny and the situation there in Russia. John? Kate?

BOLDUAN: I will take it, my dear Sara.

We're also just learning this morning that Ukrainian forces have now retreated from a village in the Donetsk region. This clearly not the way Ukraine wants to be entering its third year of full-scale war with Russia. And with that, President Zelenskyy's warning millions of people will die if the United States does not send more help.


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: So, you see the difference that U.S. aid makes, is what you're saying?

VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT: Yes, that this year, if we will not get anything, we will not have any success. And also I --

COLLINS: You won't have any success?

ZELENSKYY: Any new success.


And I think the route will be closed with the grain, because, to defend, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense and some other systems. And that's why without it, and without -- we can't count on this.

COLLINS: That's a really stark comment. You're basically saying that there will be no new success for Ukraine if there's no new U.S. aid, essentially, this all depends on U.S. aid?

ZELENSKYY: Steps, success forward will depend on USA, yes. Not defending, not only defending line, because if you defend, just defend, you give possibility Russia push you, yes, small steps back. But, anyway, we will have these steps back, small one. But when you step back, you lose people. We will lose people


BOLDUAN: Well, on that point, President Biden is trying once again to push the aid package that is floundering in Congress, trying to push it forward. He's getting ready to meet at the White House with the top Republicans and Democrats in Congress. He's going to be bringing them together for a meeting tomorrow.

CNN's Nick Paton Walsh is in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, with much more on this. Nick, what are you learning about this new retreat we're just hearing about this morning of Ukrainian forces in the Eastern Front?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Look, the big fear after the withdrawal by Ukrainian forces, essentially it being taken by Russian forces from Avdiivka that happened two weekends ago, was that that might potentially spark a general sense of momentum amongst Russian forces and they would keep going. That's what Ukrainian military officials warned and that's what Russia said it was going to do.

Now, today, after days of pressure on a small village three miles to the sort of northwest of Avdiivka, Lastochkyne, it is clear from Ukrainian forces and Russian forces that Ukraine has withdrawn back to potentially, some strategists say, easier to defend, higher ground around it. Some argue that taking, holding Lastochkyne was kind of pointless because it's a pretty difficult place to defend.

But, nonetheless, three full miles outside of Avdiivka, Russia is continuing to advance. And indeed, there are even suggestions that it's able to pressure some of the villages that Ukraine has fallen back to from Lastochkyne as well. And so that is essentially continued bad news.

Yes, you can justify this being a strategic decision in the same way leaving Avdiivka was, but, again, a sign that Ukraine is not able to hold certain parts of ground.

Now, does this herald the larger push by Russia? Many western analysts think the Russians simply don't have the juice yet to try something like that, but, again, bad signs for Ukraine on the ground here.

After Zelenskyy's lengthy press conference yesterday, in which he first wheeled out the first official number we've heard from him about the number of Ukrainian military dead in this war so far, 31,000, in which he gave a sort of twinkle, a germ of the possibility of what a unilateral peace process might look like from Ukraine, unclear if Russia will have anything to do with that.

And he also made it utterly clear how difficult it will be for Ukraine going forwards without U.S. aid. The loss of this village, small as it all is, still another sign that things are simply not going the way they want on the battlefield, quite the opposite, bad news again and again. Kate?

BOLDUAN: Exactly. Great to see you, Nick, thank you so much for being there. Thanks for the reporting. John?

BERMAN: All right. With us now, CNN Military Analyst, retired Army Major General James Spider, Marks.

Spider, this is the region we're talking about largely in Eastern Ukraine. We can push in here and let me show you the cities at play. Avdiivka, right here, is a city that fell two weeks ago, and Lastochkyne, the city that we're just getting word over the last few hours is now in Russian hands, with Ukrainians, we're told, retreating to some kind of a line behind that. What's the significance of that, Spider?

MAJ. GEN. JAMES SPIDER MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, the significance is that, clearly, Russia is making a push and is achieving some success on the ground. Ukraine, obviously, has not been able to prepare its defensive positions well enough to resist that.

So, what we see right now is a potential inflection point for the Ukrainians to acknowledge maybe they need to trade some space for time. What that means is, let's give up some of this terrain. Let's not resist at this point in these tactical engagements. Let's determine where we want to fight a little further to the west. As was pointed out, maybe there is better terrain.

When you look at the map, there can be better terrain as you continue to move back to the west and establish those defensive positions, which is exactly what the Russians did last year. Remember, when the Ukrainians were trying to conduct their offensive operations, then you and I had these significant conversations about these defensive belts. Now is the time for Ukraine to acknowledge, we're in a transition.

Look, if the United States and NATO are not going to cover down with additional support, Ukraine has got to make a decision.


We're still in this fight, and here's a way we can prosecute that.

BERMAN: Spider, you say trade space for time, and I made this slide here so people can see those words so you can explain what it means. How much space do you think that Ukraine can afford to give up in this region that we're talking about right there?

MARKS: Well, the significance is, how does the grain continue to move toward Odessa? What are the routes that go in there so that that can be protected? So, that's one of the key determinants. The other thing is, where can you position your forces, Ukrainian forces, to advantage what they do have, which is familiarity of the terrain.

This incredible morale that they have, they are going to resist, and then the application of force very, very precisely. But you've got to use the terrain to your great advantage. So, when you look at the map, you could start drawing lines. That's what happens. So, it could be a little further to the west, John.

And the notion of trading space for time, it's exactly that. But we, the Ukrainians, this is what's in their calculus right now, they need some time to figure this out. They've been thinking about this. They have multiple plans in place. They now need to be able to move to position to execute those plans. That means you're going to give up some of your terrain. But you're going to position yourself to ultimately get it back. That's what they hope to be able to achieve.

BERMAN: And to be clear, Volodymyr Zelenskyy told Kaitlan Collins that they will have no new success, which sounds like no new advances without U.S. aid?

MARKS: Well, that's the problem. And he tried to correct himself. Once Kaitlan jumped him, he tried to correct himself. They're going to -- they need to be -- you can be successful in the defensive. You can have your opponent slaughter themselves going against your positions, and the Ukrainians know how to do that. They know how to get themselves into the appropriate position, have interlocking fires, take advantage of what they know about the terrain, and the support that they're going to get locally. That needs to be the next step. That's a success.

BERMAN: Spider, as always thank you very much for being with us morning. General James Spider Marks, always a pleasure. Sara?

SIDNER: All right. Just ahead, why an active duty member of the Air Force set himself on fire outside a D.C. embassy, we'll have more on that disturbing protest.

Also, AT&T makes good on the massive service outages that we experienced last week. Just how much cash they're now handing back to customers. We'll update.