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Pressure Mounts for Nikki Haley to Drop Out After Trump Wins South Carolina GOP Primary; Push for Michigan Democrats to Vote Uncommitted in Primary Tomorrow; Navalny Team Claims Prisoner Swap in the Works Before His Death; Interview with Representative Seth Moulton (D-MA) about Ukraine Aid and Michigan Primary. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired February 26, 2024 - 09:00   ET



KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: For the first time define what rights social media companies have to control what users can post. Cases that could fundamentally change what we see online and what the government can do about it.

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

I'm John Berman with Sara Sidner and Kate Bolduan, and this is CNN NEWS CENTRAL.

SARA SIDNER, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Primary season, as you know, in full swing and tomorrow it is all about Michigan. Despite two big losses for Nikki Haley, her home state of South Carolina and her biggest fundraising backer the Koch Brothers, she's vowing to fight on. Today she'll be back on the campaign trail in both Michigan and Minnesota.

And as for Donald Trump with South Carolina under his belt and moving closer to clinching the nomination, he's looking towards the general. His campaign is working to build up their team in key swing states. And it comes as he flips a big critic into a key endorsement. The number two Republican in the Senate, John Thune, now officially backing the former president.

CNN's Eva McKend is on the trail in Michigan. She joins us now live.

Eva, what is Nikki Haley telling Michigan voters at this point in time? She has lost in Iowa. She has lost in New Hampshire. She has lost in her home state of South Carolina.

EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Sara, she's essentially telling voters that there are still some warning signs for the former president. You know, as it relates to his margin of victory. Yes, he won in South Carolina by about 20 points. What she's telling these voters, listen, 40 percent isn't nothing, and that there are still real issues here with independent and moderate voters. That his margin of victory indicates that he still has some vulnerabilities with those voters. She is losing donor support. So American for Prosperity Action, they

invested over $4 million in South Carolina, for instance. She can't continue to rely on them in the states ahead, but her campaign pushing back on that, saying that they still have grassroots support upwards of $1 million from everyday Americans.

Take a listen to what she's telling Michigan voters.


NIKKI HALEY (R), 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.


MCKEND: So time is running out for Haley to make her case. The former president could clinch the necessary delegates as early as March 12th. But a good sign for her, at least in this state, is it is an open primary. That means Republicans and Democrats can participate. They can choose which primary they want to vote in tomorrow. And what we know is just last night, there are Democrats, Sara, showing up and supporting her.

SIDNER: All right. I do you want to ask you about this endorsement. John Thune, Senator John Thune hasn't been always a backer of Donald Trump. In fact, he's been critical of him. Now as the number two Republican in the Senate, he's endorsing Donald Trump.

MCKEND: It is significant. It is further illustration that the Republican establishment is ready to move on and calling coalescing around the former president. We know that Senator Thune, really there's no love lost there. He is not an enthusiastic Trump supporter. He previously actually endorsed Senator Tim Scott. But what this really indicates is that he does not see a path forward for Nikki Haley.

But, you know, her team says that she doesn't need the establishment. She's not listening to the noise there and really she's relying on the voters. And the fact that she argues that a former president, he should be commanding in these early states, upwards of 90 percent of the vote. Yes, she's losing, but she still has a base of support and that is why she is continuing to run this race -- Sara.

SIDNER: Eva McKend, always great reporting. Thank you so much. Appreciate it.

John Berman, hello.

BERMAN: Hello, Sara Sidner.

SIDNER: Nikki Haley is not the only person that is dealing with an issue, if you will, in Michigan.

BERMAN: No, and the Republicans are not the only ones on the ballot. There is a Democratic primary there as well, and President Biden is dealing with an issue there because there are some in the state, including one Democratic member of Congress, urging voters to stage a protest against the president.


CNN's Priscilla Alvarez at the White House with the latest on this.

Priscilla, what is going on in Michigan?

PRISCILLA ALVAREZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, Michigan is a critical state for President Joe Biden. It's one he only narrowly won in 2020 by three percentage points. And it's going to serve as a key test of his handling of Gaza.

As you mentioned there, there is a push for voters to vote uncommitted. This is known as the Listen to Michigan Campaign, and Rashida Tlaib, one of the representative, is in support of this campaign. Now our colleagues have spoken to some of those organizers who say this is not an anti-Biden vote so much as a humanitarian vote. But all the same, it will cause the president votes in this primary depending on how many turn out to vote uncommitted.

Now the Biden reelection campaign has responded to this. And in doing so, they have pointed to his domestic accomplishments like on abortion access and union jobs. They have said that the president is listening to concerns and they're also framing the general election as a binary choice between President Biden and former president Donald Trump.

Take a listen to what Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer had to say about all this.


GOV. GRETCHEN WHITMER (D), MICHIGAN: I'm not sure what we're going to see on Tuesday, to tell you the truth. I know that we've got this primary and we will see differences of opinion. I just want to make the case, though, that it's important not to lose sight of the fact that any vote that's not cast for Joe Biden supports a second Trump term.


ALVAREZ: Now over the weekend, President Biden thanked organizers in the state in a call. He also taped two radio interviews that will air later today -- John.

BERMAN: Which does show this is something the White House is very aware of and watching quite closely.

Priscilla Alvarez, at the White House. Thank you. Kate?

BOLDUAN: Let's talk about this. Joining us right now is CNN senior political commentator, former senior adviser to President Obama, David Axelrod.

It's good to see you.


BOLDUAN: Thanks, Axe. Let's talk about just where -- what Priscilla and John were just jumping over. In Michigan this protest, the protest vote movement against Biden in the primary, it is loud. The impact of it, though, is TBD. I mean, what do you think of it?

AXELROD: Well, look, I think that they are trying to draw attention to the issue. There is a real political issue here which is there's a large Arab-American vote around the city of Detroit, Palestinian Americans among them. And what they do in November in a battleground state is really meaningful. So this will be viewed as a barometer of that problem. And if there are large numbers of people who vote uncommitted, I think it's going to create a lot of chatter.

But I don't think the Biden administration needs a whole lot of reminders about the difficulty of this issue.


AXELROD: And I think they're hoping to get some resolution and some progress long before November and create the contrast with Trump, who has hardly been a friend of the Arab-American community and lost badly there in the past.

BOLDUAN: Yes, the campaign co-chair, Biden's campaign co-chair, Mitch Landrieu, and he'd just been in Michigan, meeting -- you know, his point was, we hear you, we're meeting with folks. He said he respects Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, but it does remain a question if a protest vote in a primary, it may -- you know, it may have an impact on actual votes. But if it turns into, I'm going to stay home in November.

AXELROD: Yes. And you know, it is hard to convert people. If you persuade them to stay -- to vote uncommitted in February, are they going to be enthusiastic about coming out in November? And again, I think events between now and then may have some impact on this. The reality is that Biden is probably the strongest voice in Netanyahu's ear right now for restraint. It hasn't helped to the degree that I think these voters would like to see. But they will be faced with a choice in November and that choice is pretty stark.

BOLDUAN: Yes, that's a good point. So Nikki -- Eva McKend was talking about kind of Nikki Haley's path forward. She charges straight into Michigan. She's going to be there, then she's going to be in Minnesota this evening. We played kind of her take on kind of the move here, which is, yes, Donald Trump may get 50 percent, but he's not going to get my 40 percent from -- you know, in South Carolina if he keeps acting the way he is.

It does remain a question of how long she remains in the race or what the message is? AXELROD: Listen, here's -- I predict that Kate Bolduan will still be

standing in nine days and Nikki Haley will not. I mean, this is the last week of her campaign. Donald Trump is the de facto nominee of the Republican Party now. He swept the first five races. On Super Tuesday next week he may sweep all 15 races. A lot of them are winner take all.


He is going to have the delegates he needs by mid-March. So this race is effectively over and the question is, how she wants to spend her last week.

BOLDUAN: You're a genius with campaign strategy. Talk to me about what this, what you would do in this last week if you don't want it to be your last week, if you work with Nikki Haley. No question, and you may want to charge on. If you got cash, you can continue running a campaign, you know, then you've got the Koch Brothers problem that you now add into it. But what do you do with your message in the last week? What do you advise?

AXELROD: Well, listen, I think a lot of it has to do with what her vision of her own future is. If she feels like she is going to be a candidate in 2028 it may affect how she approaches this last week. You know, there's a lot of affection for Donald Trump in the Republican Party. That's pretty clear. So she has talked a lot about why he can't win in November. But she hasn't talked about why he shouldn't win in November.

And the question, if she crosses that line and goes beyond where she's gone, that says to me she's not really looking at 2028. If she continues down this road and just plays the role of a Cassandra and says it's important we beat Biden, he can't do it, I can do, which is essentially what her message is, that suggests to me that she's looking to a political life beyond this year.

BOLDUAN: Let's look ahead to the potential general election matchup. Donald Trump this weekend, he spoke to a gathering of black conservatives in South Carolina making an appeal to black voters. And I want to play what was part of his pitch. Listen to this, Axe.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We've all seen the mug shot, and you know who embraced it more than anybody else? The black population.


BOLDUAN: And that's just a portion of what he said. He was talking about his legal troubles, the mug shot. Regardless if that was scripted or was it Trump off the cuff, and regardless of how it was received, this fits with his attempt to try to appeal to black men, specifically. Should this be a legitimate concern for the Biden campaign looking at it? AXELROD: I think it should. Look, he's polling, you know, 20 percent,

21 percent among African-American voters here. Biden got 88 percent of that vote back in 2020. And this is going to be a marginal race. So this is a concern and yes, black men and particularly younger black men are the ones that are drifting away. Some may vote for Trump, some may not vote at all. And this has to be a concern for the Biden campaign.

Trump knows that, and by the way, I think it may impact on his vice presidential choice. And, you know, there's a lot of talk about Tim Scott as a vice presidential candidate. I think if he picks Tim Scott, it's partly because he recognizes this would be helpful in kind of sealing in that portion of the African-American vote that he now has.

BOLDUAN: Yes. And kind of taking it full circle. It's the not even just peeling them off from Biden's board. It's the we might just stay at home which can have just as much of an impact and when you're talking about this marginal race.


BOLDUAN: It's good to see, Axe.

AXELROD: Always good to see you.

BOLDUAN: Thank you for coming on.



SIDNER: All right. Just ahead, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy says millions will be killed without more U.S. aid as Ukrainian forces retreat from yet another city in the east. That all happening this morning.

Also CNN has learned that Alexei Navalny was about to be part of a prisoner swap potentially. Ahead, what we're learning about the Americans who would have been involved in that before he was killed or died in prison.

And the Supreme Court set to take up two pivotal cases that could transform the internet as we know it. All those stories coming up.



SIDNER: A possible exchange that would have included Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. This is an extraordinary development. Navalny's team is now claiming that one day before his death, negotiations were in the final stages to free Navalny. The deal according to his aid was presented to Russian president Vladimir Putin and would have included two Americans. It would have been an exchange for this man, Vadim Krasikov, a convicted killer and former FSB officer, who was serving time in Germany now. CNN's Matthew Chance is with us now from Moscow.

What have you learned about all this? This is really an extraordinary development.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CHIEF GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: It really is, Sara. I mean, look, it's been rumored for months that Alexei Navalny may have been part of a negotiation to be swapped for U.S. citizens in Russian jails. Evan Gershkovich from the "Wall Street Journal," Paul Whelan, a former Marine, along with them in exchange for that Russian national you just mentioned, Vadim Krasikov, who is basically suspected of being an FSB hitman.

He murdered a Russian dissident in a park in Berlin and is in prison for murder in Germany. You know, but this is the first time that Navalny's team has come out publicly and said, yes, you know, Navalny was part of the negotiations. In fact, those negotiations had reached a final stage the day before he was pronounced dead in that Arctic penal colony. And what Navalny's team is saying is that that explains why he was killed.

They're saying that he was killed because basically the Kremlin wanted to take him off the table as a negotiating chip.


But look, I've spoken to the Kremlin in the past couple of hours and they've told me they've got no awareness at all, they know nothing about any such deal to swap Navalny. It hasn't been confirmed either by either the U.S. or by the Germans, but nevertheless, it still an extraordinarily -- you know, extraordinary twist in this tragic saga that's been playing out over the past few days involving Russia's main opposition leader, Alexei Navalny.

Just one last detail to add, which is that we've been waiting for a funeral to be held for Navalny. When I told by Alexei Navalny's team that they're hoping to hold that funeral towards the end of this week, they haven't given us an exact day yet, but Thursday or Friday are what we're looking at. Remember, it could be a really important political event in Russia because, you know, in life, Navalny was able to bring tens of thousands of people out in protest against the government. For his funeral that could be another opportunity for a mass outpouring of anger against the Kremlin.

SIDNER: All right. Matthew Chance, thank you for your reporting, you and your team there in Moscow. John?

BERMAN: In an interview with our Kaitlan Collins, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says that there will be no new success on the battlefield for Ukraine without more help from the United States.

With me now is Democratic congressman from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Seth Moulton.

Congressman, thanks so much for being with us. You just got back from Taiwan and Tokyo. Now, that might sound like a disconnect from Ukraine but in fact it's not.

REP. SETH MOULTON (D-MA): It was amazing. The officials in both Taiwan and Japan were supremely focused on whether or not we would deliver aid to Ukraine because of the message that that sends to Xi Jinping in China, someone, a dictator who has said that he wants to invade Taiwan. And I think we know that that literally could start World War III. There's no question that U.S. troops would likely die in that scenario.

BERMAN: What's going to shake the status quo? The status quo in the House of Representatives is no aid, no new aid to Ukraine. I know Speaker Mike Johnson is going to the White House tomorrow, but what changes the status quo?

MOULTON: Look, this is all about the speaker because if he brought this bill to a vote, like he sort of basic premise of democracy, right? You get the vote on things, it would pass, it would pass. All these different things on the table, aid for Taiwan, aid for the border, aid for Ukraine, and aid for Israel would all pass individually. But Speaker Johnson is so afraid of the extremists in the Republican conference that he thinks he'll lose his job if he simply brings this up for a vote.

BERMAN: When you're speaking with leaders in Taiwan and Japan, can they believe the inaction in Washington?

MOULTON: No, they can't. You know, they asked about aid for Ukraine because of the message that that sends in the Pacific, to Xi Jinping. The other thing they asked about is what is going on with your presidential election? They're definitely afraid of Donald Trump becoming president because they know he'll be weak on Russia, and he'll be weak on China. And that's very dangerous for American national security, for Taiwan's national security, for the security of all our allies in the Pacific.

BERMAN: When they ask you what's going on with the U.S. election, what do you tell them?

MOULTON: Look, it's hard to answer. It's hard to answer honestly because we all know there is a chance that Donald Trump becomes president, maybe a good chance. And none of us want that to happen. I mean, even in private, many of the Republicans of course will say they don't want that to happen, but we all know there's only so much we can do and the trends are not looking good. This is very concerning not just here in America, but to our allies all over the globe.

BERMAN: When you say the trends aren't looking good, what do you mean?

MOULTON: Well, look, I mean, Donald Trump is an indicted criminal. He is -- I mean, since when has a Republican nominee been pro-Russia, pro-China? I mean, all these things that Donald Trump is should disqualify him from being president. And yet he's not disqualified. He's doing fairly well in the polls. There's recent news about Michigan, which could be the deciding state in this contest, swinging towards Trump. So look, the facts on the ground are concerning and they're not just

concerning to me sitting in the House as a Democrat, they're concerning to our allies around the world.

BERMAN: So you're talking about the Republican side, are the Democrats -- is the Democratic nominee who will be President Biden doing enough? And I asked you to that because Democratic Senator Joe Manchin was on CNN with Kasie Hunt this morning musing about Nikki Haley as a third- party candidate. Listen to this.


SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D-WV): I'm not going to say who would be a better president. I know that Nikki Haley is in the fight and I think she's done a tremendous job so far, and she's holding her ground. I think she's going to be a very strong -- she's attractive for a third-party, put it that way. Very attractive from that standpoint.


BERMAN: What do you think when you hear that?

MOULTON: Well, let me say emphatically that Joe Biden would be a way better president than Nikki Haley. There's no question in my mind. But the question that you're asking really of course is who's going to win the election. And we know the polls are close. That's the reality.


BERMAN: I do want to ask you, and again, you just got back from Taiwan. As part of this, one of the things you do is you're on this China Committee in the House.


BERMAN: Which Mike Gallagher from Wisconsin is the chair of. He wrote a letter, the "Wall Street Journal" reported this morning that he's asking Elon Musk and his companies about what appears to be some kind of anomaly with their satellite coverage around Taiwan. Gallagher said in a letter to Musk that multiple sources told the committee that he leads that the satellite broadband provided through the company Star Shield unit is inactive near and in Taiwan. Frankly speaking, what's the issue here?

MOULTON: Well, the issue is that we've heard reports both in Taiwan and Ukraine that Elon Musk is supporting the Russians, allowing them access to his technology, to his internet technology and not supporting Ukraine in key areas. And likewise in Taiwan, he's not even providing this service to U.S. troops who are based on Taiwan. And obviously we want them to have every communication option that they can have.

So this is broadly concerning. Elon Musk should not be playing geopolitics. He should be following the contract that he has with the Pentagon, and we need to be able to trust him and his company to deliver service in a time of need. BERMAN: Seth Moulton from Massachusetts. Great to see you,

Congressman. Really appreciate your time. Welcome to the first earlier edition of CNN NEWS CENTRAL. Really appreciate it.

MOULTON: Good to see you, John.


BOLDUAN: Detention hearing today for the ex-FBI informant now indicted for lying about President Biden's family and their alleged foreign business dealings. We have new details coming up on that. And an American couple is feared dead after escaped inmates are believed to have hijacked their yacht. And new details that we're learning about what may have happened.