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Reporting Indicates Alexei Navalny Part of Potential Prisoner Swap between U.S., Europe, and Russia Right Before His Death; Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy Says Ukraine Will Not have New Battlefield Successes against Russia without U.S. Aid; U.S. Government Facing Potential Partial Shutdown as Funding Deadline Looms. Aired 8- 8:30a ET

Aired February 26, 2024 - 08:00   ET



BILL WEIR, CNN CHIEF CLIMATE CORRESPONDENT: But what happens in Mexico City is they're so dependent on the aquifers that just aren't being recharged. When the rains do come, it runs off instead of seeping back into the ground where it can be re-used there. Kanawha, the big national water system managers in the country says they will -- they've been cutting how much you can pump from that. It went from eight percent to 25 percent less. There are lots of problems in the infrastructure. A lot of the water needs to be pumped uphill. It leaks there. But something to pay attention to, John, in a warmer world.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Bill Weir, great to have you this morning. Thanks so much, my friend.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: A prisoner swap in its final stages, and one that would have included Alexei Navalny. What his team is now revealing was in the works the day before Navalny die.

BERMAN: All right, breaking this morning, Ukraine pulls back from a city in the east, a new retreat. What does this mean?

And President Zelenskyy tells CNN he cannot understand how Donald Trump can be on the side of Russian president Vladimir Putin.

SARA SIDNER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And on the eve of the Michigan primary, Nikki Haley vowing to stick it out despite two big losses, her home state primary and her biggest donor. Does she have any chance at all in Michigan? We break down the final polls for you.

I'm Sara Sidner alongside John Berman and Kate Bolduan, and this is CNN News Central.

BOLDUAN: New this morning, a top aide to Alexei Navalny now says they were in the, quote, final stages of a prisoner swap the day before Navalny's death. Now, this aide revealed this morning that the deal was presented to Russian President Vladmir Putin earlier this month, and would have included the release of two Americans for the return of a former FSB officer currently being held in Europe.

CNN's Matthew Chance has much more live from Moscow for us. He's joining us now. Matthew, what more are you learning about this? It seems we have a technical issue. We're going to try to get Matthew Chance reconnected to learn more about -- I mean, this is startling reporting about this potential prisoner swap in its final stages right before Alexei Navalny died. We'll have much more when we can get Matthew Chance back up. John?

BERMAN: We're trying to raise Matthew. We have even more news from the region. Breaking this morning, we are just getting word that Ukraine has retreated from a town on the eastern front. This is the second time this has happened in just a couple of weeks. And it comes as Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy says he cannot understand how Donald Trump can be on the side of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a new interview with our Kaitlan Collins, he said, quote, "It's unbelievable." Kaitlan reports from Kyiv.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, in this one-on-one interview with CNN, President Zelenskyy made clear what he believes are the stakes of Ukraine not getting any more aid from the United States, something that is at a complete standstill inside the U.S. Congress right now. But he made clear just how pivotal the aid to Ukraine has been on the battlefield.


COLLINS: So you see the difference that U.S. aid makes is what you're saying.

VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT: Yes. And this year, if we'll not get anything, we'll 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, because it to defend it, it's also involves 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 for Russia to 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.


COLLINS: It's just a remarkable assessment there from President Zelenskyy, laying out what the stakes here are, what this means for the battlefield. And of course, what the risk is if they don't get any more of that U.S. aid.

And I should note that as he was talking about what this next year is going to look like, reflecting on the past two years, but also what is 2024 going to look like, he predicted that Russia could conduct a counteroffensive as early as May. He talked about what that could look like if Ukraine does not have the aid by then or any new aid from the United States.


We also dug into politics as well, because he predicted that the election in the United States could be a turning point for what is happening between Russia and Ukraine as well. And we asked him his thoughts on former President Trump and what that could mean for him. All of that, of course, will air in our one-on-one interview.

BERMAN: Our thanks to Kaitlan Collins for that.

I want to get right back to Kate who has got some developing news. Kate?

BOLDUAN: So now we do. We've reconnected with Matthew Chance who is joining us from Moscow for this news coming out about, this reporting, Matthew, being revealed by a top aide to Alexei Navalny saying that there was a prisoner swap, a prisoner exchange in the works right before he died. What are you learning?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I mean, Kate, this is an extraordinary twist. And we're determined to get it to you. And what I can tell you is that there have been rumors for some time that Alexei Navalny was part of a negotiation to swap prisoners in Russia, U.S. prisoners Paul Whelan, Evan Gershkovich, "The Wall Street Journal" reporter, for a Russian national being held in a German jail. He's been sentenced to murder there. He said to be an FSB hitman, basically.

And what spin, what's come out now from Navalny's team, this is the late Russian opposition leader, is that Alexei Navalny was now, they're publicly saying he was pulled part of that negotiation, that he was going to be swapped as well in exchange for those American citizens and that Russian national in that, in that German prison. It's the first time they've come out and publicly said that.

They're also saying that this could be the reason why Alexei Navalny died. Of course, Navalny's team accused the Kremlin the ordering his death in that prison. Basically, they're saying that the night before he died, the negotiations to swap him were in the last stage. And then in the morning or the next day, he was pronounced dead, and they're saying, you know, he was basically killed to take him off the table as a negotiating chip. That's the implication and the allegation that Navalny's team are making.

Now, we should say that the Kremlin have categorically denied anything to do with Navalny's death. They've also not confirmed to us that he was part of any negotiation for a prisoner swap. It hasn't been confirmed to us by the State Department, by U.S. officials, by the Germans either. But it is a really interesting twist in this absolutely awful episode, what's been taking place in Russia over the past week or so. BOLDUAN: Absolutely. Matthew, thank you so much for jumping on to

give us this latest reporting, extraordinary reporting. Thank you. Sara?

SIDNER: All right, lawmakers are heading back to Washington this week and they are staring down a potential partial government shutdown on March 1st, that is this Friday, of course, if no deal is reached on funding.

CNN's Lauren Fox is joining us. This morning. Lauren, it feels like Groundhog Day. I feel like we've been through this, I don't know, two times very recently. What can you tell us?

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, this certainly is a repeat of what we've seen over the course of the last several months. And I think a shutdown is certainly possible by Friday at midnight. That is the deadline. And right now appropriators have been working from sunup to sundown over the last several days trying to find a way forward.

But here are the key sticking points. Republicans in the House need to have some policy victories in order to turn around and show their right flank that they got something out of these negotiations. So discussions over potential policy riders are really holding this process up right now. We had expected that we could see text of this agreement last night. It was not ready. They announced yesterday instead that negotiations are continuing.

And you had this very terse language from Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader in the Senate, in a letter to his colleagues. He wrote, quote, "It is my sincere hope that in the face of a disruptive shutdown that would hurt our economy and make American families less safe, Speaker Johnson will step up to once again buck the extremists in his caucus and do the right thing."

Now, just a few hours later, its Speaker Johnson, he hit back on Twitter, saying in a statement, quote, "Leader Schumer's letter fails to mention that many of the points still being debated come from new Democrat demands that were not previously included in the Senate bills. At a time of divided government, Senate Democrats are attempting at this late stage to spend on priorities that are further left than what their chamber agreed upon."

Now, here's what matters. The deadline is Friday at midnight, and it is very possible, given the fact that this process takes a long time on the United States Senate floor, that they may need to move forward with a short-term gap in order to make sure that the government doesn't shut down. That could be the problem for Speaker Johnson because he's been saying he did not want to have another short-term bill.


If the government potentially shuts down on Friday night, it would be a partial government shutdown. Then there's a series of bills that expire on March 8th. That is when you could see a full government shutdown. So a lot on the line this morning, Sara. And so far, what you're seeing is a war of words between these two leaders. Sara?

SIDNER: And dysfunction as well when we have to keep talking about these shutdowns and going to the very last minute. We'll see what happens. I know you'll be watching. Thank you so much, Lauren Fox there. Kate?

BOLDUAN: Joining us now to talk much more about all of this is CNN national security analyst and the CIA's former chief of Russia operations Steve Hall. Steve, I want to start with what Matthew Chance is just bringing to us, this really extraordinary reporting from a top aide to Alexei Navalny saying that Putin was offered a prisoner swap. There was an offer made and they were even final stages, is how its described, for a swap that would have included Navalny, two Americans in exchange for an FSB officer who is being held in Berlin. What do you think of this?

STEVE HALL, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes, Kate, it's pretty shocking stuff. And if that reporting is true, it raises a whole bunch of really interesting questions. For starters, the Russians have always been trying to get this guy, this FSB officer who is currently in a German prison for assassinating an enemy of the Russian, of the Russian regime, an enemy of Putin's, in Germany. The Germans, for whatever reason, had been very reticent to get -- to make him part of the deal. Perhaps German law or whatever the reasons are, but there's always been great interest in Moscow.

So this is the first we're hearing, I think, of this connection between, all right, maybe, maybe Navalny can be part of the deal sweetened with a package of Americans in order to get this FSB officer out of Germany. That raises questions, though, if he was killed because of that, because of the impending deal, who was on whose side inside the Kremlin? Because it sounds like you've got two different views of what should happen. So complicated stuff. It'll be interesting to see it all shakes out.

BOLDUAN: Complicated, right. And with the caveat, as you're well putting it, is if this all -- the reporting bears out to be true that we're hearing this, because as Navalny's team, if you will, is suggesting, they're suggesting then Navalny was killed, as Matthew Chance was describing it, to take him off the table as a negotiating chip. I mean, that -- put aside if that is true. What that would mean from the perspective of Vladimir Putin and what he views as his kind of runway to work here or what he's capable of doing without repercussions, what does that say?

HALL: Well, I mean, what that speaks to, Kate, is sort of what we've always known about Putinism in Russia today, which is that if Putin wants to get rid of somebody, it can be done very expeditiously, and there's really nobody to stand in the way of that. We've seen that time and time again with all the opposition people that he's killed in the past.

But the interesting thing here is, in my mind, so who was on the side of saying yes, let's put Navalny on the table? And then who was against it? Because all of those issues would have been behind the Kremlin walls and would indicate perhaps some sort of schism -- again, if this reporting is true, some sort of schism between those who thought, yes, let's cut a deal with Navalny, and those who say absolutely not, he's too dangerous if he remains alive. So a lot of questions still be answered on this one.

BOLDUAN: Add into this, then, something else, even before this reporting came out I was going to ask you about, is that Alexei Navalny's body has now been handed over to his mother. And Navalny's team now says that they expect to be able to hold a public funeral at the end of this week, at some course during this week. For some reason, that surprises me that that's going to be allowed in Russia considering the military clampdown on anything of protest or anything in speaking in opposition of Vladimir Putin in this moment. Does this surprise you?

HALL: You know, what doesn't surprise me is this whole back-and-forth on this. And the reason that they're going back and forth on this and the reason that sometimes it's a surprise to say, well, maybe the Russians it would allow for some sort of public thing, or maybe they wouldn't is what's behind all of this is Putin's fear of turning Navalny into a martyr, providing a moment where the Russian population can take to the streets in the tens of thousands and begin some sort of, some sort of significant protests and push against the Putin -- the Putin government. So it's not surprising that they're very, very focused on this, because they don't want to provide that opportunity.

So it's a real tough line for them to walk. It could go badly regardless of which way they go on. And so they got to treat a very, very carefully.

BOLDUAN: And then you have this new interview that Kaitlan Collins did with Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, and his commentary in the interview on Donald Trump, I thought, was really interesting, saying that he doesn't think that Donald Trump understands Putin because he never fought him. But also saying, going -- when I heard that, I thought, does this seem like Zelenskyy kind of searching for a logical explanation of some sort for, as Zelenskyy put it himself, "How Trump can be on the side of Putin?" What do you think of that?


HALL: Yes, I mean, he is asking the right questions. It's interesting that he has decided to take some sort of, I suppose limited strategic risk, to say something negative. In other words, saying perhaps Donald -- you know, he just doesn't understand how Donald Trump can be so enamored with Vladimir Putin and so supportive and not supportive of Ukraine.

You know, if it turns out that Donald Trump is elected president of the United States and of course, what he has created is perhaps a problem.

He may have calculated, it doesn't matter much anyway, so he may as well get it out there, but there is no doubt that really the fate of Ukraine in a very important sense rests with the United States and with the rest of our NATO allies, so he is concerned about that as well they should be. BOLDUAN: Yes, I mean, as he said, if the United States does not

continue its support, millions of people will end up dead.

It's good to see you, Steve, thank you so much for coming in. A lot of headlines coming in, a lot going on with this.

And we're also going to hear more from that interview from President Zelenskyy and his one-on-one conversation with Kaitlan Collins tonight at 9:00 PM Eastern -- John.

BERMAN: All right, federal officials revealing new information about the suspect accused of killing a student in Georgia.

And it is Michigan Eve in the Republican primary season. So even though he is on a roll, what are the emerging warning signs for Donald Trump among Republican voters.



BERMAN: All right, this just in: The state of Michigan is shaped like a mitten in case you didn't know, which means it's hard to see what digit It is currently showing Donald Trump and the Republican primary. Is it a thumbs up? Or a different finger?

CNN senior data reporter, Harry Enten is here.

Harry, the polls seem to suggest something relatively clear here.

HARRY ENTEN, CNN SENIOR DATA REPORTER: Yes, we're number one, let me just put it that way. Okay.

Take a look here. Choice for GOP nominee in Michigan, Donald Trump well ahead of Nikki Haley, 72 percent to 27 percent.

I'll note this poll is a little bit old. We have not had a lot of recent data in the state of Michigan, although some of the more recent data does seem to back up this wide, large spread for Donald Trump and I will note, John, look Haley in Michigan, she has only in the last week announced the Michigan leadership team, only in the last week started airing TV ads in Michigan, and only in the last week started making campaign stops.

We are not really in the early starts anymore where these candidates are spending a ton of time. This campaign is becoming nationalized very, very quickly.

BERMAN: And when you talk about the future of this campaign, Harry, the future is like now, the next two or three weeks.

ENTEN: That's exactly right, Mr. Berman.

So if we take here, cumulative delegates allotted, it's going to get very late very soon on the calendar. Only six percent of delegates are allotted so far. Eight days from now on March 5th, fifty percent, March 12, fifteen days from now, look at this, all the way up to 56 percent, a majority of delegates and 22 days from now, about three weeks from now, on March 19th, already 71 percent of delegates will be allotted.

Nikki Haley running out of time very, very quickly. This campaign, this nomination could be wrapped up rather soon.

BERMAN: And Donald Trump's wins have been convincing and they have been large. If you're looking ahead, though, past may be the primary season to the general election, some people see a few warning signs for Trump.

ENTEN: Yes, there are a few warning signs. You know, he really wants to have Nikki Haley supporters locked up, but there seems to be you know, so far in these early states, 20 percent for Haley about in Iowa, then more than 40 percent in New Hampshire, then about 40 percent in South Carolina.

How do Haley supporters feel about Trump? Look at this. Eighteen percent, only 18 percent have a favorable view. The vast majority of Haley supporters do not like Donald Trump, 75 percent. Convincing these folks to vote for Donald Trump in the general may be an uphill climb, especially, John, if there's a conviction, Trump unfit for the presidency if convicted. In South Carolina in the exit poll, it was 36 percent. In New Hampshire, it was 42 percent. In Iowa State, that Trump won his widest margin, at least in states where Nikki Haley was on the ballot, it was 31 percent.

So the fact is, John, there are warning signs for Trump going towards the general election. Yes, he is doing very well in the primary so far, but come the general, especially if he is convicted of a crime, it might get rather dicey rather quickly.

BERMAN: Look, it is a hypothetical, but not an impossibility. Something to keep an eye on going forward.

ENTEN: Exactly right.

BERMAN: Harry, thank you.

ENTEN: Thank you, sir.


SARA SIDNER, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Haley is still in the race. She is giving Independents and others a choice.

With me now is CNN political commentator and former White House communications director under Donald Trump, Alyssa Farah Griffin.

I'm curious. We just heard from Harry about this potential danger in the general. So where would those voters go? If Donald Trump, which so far all of the polling shows and all of the numbers have shown that he has won the primaries?

As we go into Super Tuesday, we will see, but that's what the numbers have shown so far. What happens to those voters who really love Haley? Do they not go to the polls at all? What do they do?

ALYSSA FARAH GRIFFIN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, let's take a step back. So Donald Trump is running virtually as an incumbent being that he's a former president and he is somebody with virtually universal name ID. There's still a lot of Americans who don't even know who Nikki Haley is if you present that name, and she has consistently gotten about 30 percent to 40 percent of the vote in these primaries, just getting about 40 percent in South Carolina.


That is a glaring blaring siren alarm bell to the Republican Party that there are a significant portion of Republicans who do not want Donald Trump. They know who he is, and they want someone else.

So if you look at those voters, we don't have clear data on how many would actually be willing to go over to Donald Trump, but there, even if there's a small margin, that are kind of this Never Trump, I can't be with him, that's enough to make him lose this general election.

And I'm just kind of stunned that this isn't a bigger wake-up call to the party. He is the least popular that he's ever been. Yes, he'll be the nominee, but his ability to actually win the general is very much in question.

SIDNER: All right, this weekend, Donald Trump expressed his support for IVF. This has become a big issue because of what happened with the Alabama Supreme Court, who basically made it impossible for IVF to be done in that state and a lot of the IVF clinics have closed, because they're in this position where they don't want to go to jail for something that happens with embryos.

Can you give me some sense of whether or not this is going to become a bigger issue when it comes to the general?

GRIFFIN: Well, just absolutely banner month for Republicans declaring war on Taylor Swift and IVF, two things with like 90 percent approval ratings in this country.

I think that it was a wake-up call to Republicans what an overstep Alabama was, and that other states in the south where there's major restrictions on abortion access, but other reproductive health that they need to get ahead of this.

And you've seen, nearly universally Republican lawmakers, governors come out and say that they support IVF. So I think the quicker Republicans can backtrack on this, the better. But I mean, it writes the ads for Democrats themselves.

SIDNER: You think that because Donald Trump also spoke about it and said that he's going to do something about this, you know, he wants them -- those folks in Alabama, he is talking to them about doing something about this, but the Supreme Court there has spoken.

GRIFFIN: That's where the challenge lies that Republicans can message that they're supportive of it, but if courts rule a certain way, there are some very in the post-Dobbs era around this and you could see other southern states very likely go this direction.

It's a huge disaster for Republicans if they cannot get ahead on this issue.

SIDNER: All right, I want to talk to you about something that Donald Trump said over this weekend. He talked about Black voters and why he believes they like him more now. Here is what he said.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I got indicted a second time and a third time and a fourth time, and a lot of people said that that's why the Black people like me because they have been hurt so badly and discriminated against.


TRUMP: They actually viewed me as I'm being discriminated against.

The mugshot, we've all seen the mugshot. And you know who embraced it more than anybody else? The Black population, it's incredible. You see Black people are walking around with my mugshot.


SIDNER: I don't know who all of these people are, who are telling him that but it is certainly not what I'm hearing from some folks in the Black population. Why did he do this?

GRIFFIN: It is -- I mean, pandering is too soft of a word, it is just cringe, it is offensive and he has waded into this before. In his last campaign, he announced a plan for the African-American community and called it the Platinum Plan, trying to lean into like hip-hop culture.

And I'm like, if he has made some inroads with Black men, specifically about 26 percent, which is historically high for Republicans, I would say that's far more likely has to do with a lot of working class voters shifting from Democrats over the last decade to the Republican Party, not any of this sort of language that he is wading into.

And I think that for Democrats, they need to kind of exploit the fact that he has waded into some to some very racist theories in the past. He has dined with a White supremacist. That's the way to get the voters back there that may be saying on the economy, we're closer to Donald Trump, but this is not someone who represents us.

SIDNER: Yes, we saw some very different numbers for basically younger Black males who in 2020 voted for Donald Trump more than they did in 2016, but overarching, if you look at the big numbers, Black voters have generally gone Democrat.

GRIFFIN: And Black women basically have never been with Trump.

SIDNER: Completely. Completely the opposite.

Thank you so much. You always bring the heat. I appreciate it. All right, over to you, Kate.

BOLDUAN: We are learning no details now about the suspect accused of killing a nursing student in Georgia. What federal officials are now saying about where he came from.

Plus, a US airman set himself on fire outside the Israeli embassy in Washington DC.

We'll be back.