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Interview With Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-MA); Interview With Fmr. Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R-AR); Trump Lock to Win Nomination?; Israel-Hamas Hostage Talks Resume. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired February 26, 2024 - 13:00   ET



BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: Trump's unstoppable campaign. After yet another primary win, the former president appears to be a lock to win the Republican nomination. But we're going to take a look at the only potential roadblock still standing in his way.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: And new measles cases in Florida, where they're struggling to contain an outbreak of the extremely infectious disease. And it could get worse, as the state's top health official defies broadly accepted public health recommendations.

And after the death of a nonbinary teen in Oklahoma, a Republican lawmaker attacks the LGBTQ+ community, calling them -- quote -- "that filth."

We are following these major developing stories and many more all coming in right here to CNN NEWS CENTRAL.

SANCHEZ: In less than 24 hours, voters are going to start heading to the polls in Michigan's presidential primary. And, right now, Nikki Haley is back on the trail in Grand Rapids after suffering a major setback over the weekend, losing the South Carolina primary to Donald Trump.

The former president won in Haley's home state by 20-plus points, moving one step closer to securing that Republican nomination. But the former governor is undeterred, vowing to push forward, even though some of her financing is drying up.

The influential Koch network announced that it is cutting off funding to her campaign. Trump is now riding a wave of momentum, including picking up a big new endorsement from Senator John Thune of South Dakota. He's the number two Republican in the Senate.

Let's get some perspective now with CNN senior political analyst Mark Preston.

Mark, great to have you.

Donald Trump seems unstoppable right now.

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, you can also argue that he's been unstoppable pretty much from the jump.

If you look at the exit polls that came out in South Carolina, most of those people, a very strong majority, had already decided they were going to vote for Donald Trump months and months and months ago. So he has had this nomination locked up.

But the question is, when does Nikki Haley decide to step away from it?

SANCHEZ: That is a key question, especially given that you need a lot of money to run a campaign. What does the Koch brothers, the Koch network pulling funding from her campaign mean?

PRESTON: Strictly a business decision.

Now, when they did pull the funding, they did note that they're not necessarily behind Donald Trump as the nominee. But what they're going to do is move that money to the House and the Senate. The Koch network really does operate like a business, and they weren't going to throw bad money after -- or good money after something that was not going to go their way.

They are very successful in putting their money on races that they think they're going to win. Clearly, they're not going to win this one.

SANCHEZ: Yes, they are now no longer betting on Haley.

I just want to point out for our viewers this is actually live right now. These are live images from Haley campaigning in Grand Rapids. She may not be getting a majority of voters, but she had a point, I thought, this weekend when she said that there are some 40 percent of voters in South Carolina that ultimately rejected Donald Trump.

Do you think in a general election most of those voters or a significant enough number of them will come home, so to speak, to Trump?

PRESTON: I think that's a great question, because even though there is the folks, the more moderate, centrist wing of the Republican Party aren't necessarily embracing Donald Trump, I do think when it comes to November and they're given a chance between choosing Joe Biden, the Democrat, Donald Trump, the Republican, I think that you're going to see that 40 percent, maybe 20 percent, maybe even more than that, 25 percent are going to come back home to him.

SANCHEZ: It'll be interesting to see how Trump approaches those types of voters.

You mentioned money for congressional campaigns a moment ago and this is really significant. It's another sign of Trump's dominance, the RNC chair, Ronna McDaniel, stepping down, replaced by a Trump loyalist and the former president's daughter-in-law. She said that RNC funds will all be going back -- or, rather, will all be going, toward getting Donald Trump back in the White House.

What does that mean for Republicans on Capitol Hill running for reelection or those trying to flip Democratic seats?

PRESTON: Well, it means that the RNC is going to be -- really become MAGA, Inc. And we're going to see this over the next couple of weeks turn into that.


Now, you're seeing some of the members of the Republican National Committee. These are the 168 elected Republicans around the country who make up the core of the RNC. Some of them are trying to push back and say, listen, you can't spend money on any legal fees.

They're going to try to pass a resolution. The fact of the matter is, when Donald Trump does secure the nomination, he will take over the RNC. But there's a note of caution this. We saw this happen back in 2008, when Barack Obama won the presidency. He had his own political operation. He chose to put all his effort into that political operation.

And after that, you saw the Democratic National Committee really, really run into trouble. And you're still seeing the after-effects of it not being cared for, money not going into the national organization, money going elsewhere. We saw that with Obama for America. And I think we're going to see that with MAGA, Inc.

SANCHEZ: Really fascinating historical perspective there.

Mark Preston, appreciate the perspective.

PRESTON: Thanks, Boris.

SANCHEZ: Thanks so much -- Brianna.

KEILAR: And now to some new CNN reporting. As Trump is juggling his campaign and court appearances, we're learning the former president's legal team is trying to game out his federal trials and actually pit the judges against each other in an effort to avoid a federal trial before Election Day.

We have CNN senior crime and justice reporter Katelyn Polantz joining us now.

All right, just explain to us what he's trying to do here.

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Yes, so this strategy depends on what happens in his two federal cases. So there's the case in D.C. before Judge Tanya Chutkan related to the 2020 election. That's on hold, but could get back into the hands of the trial court quite quickly.

And then they would need to put it on the calendar for trial. He doesn't want to go to trial in that case before the election. So the way to prevent that, according to the sources I'm talking to, is to use his other federal criminal case in Florida, the Mar-a-Lago documents case, and take it. And it's very complex. Try and use the complexity of that case as an

argument to move it along on the calendar and box out the other case from being able to take place theoretically in a way that, if it works, could keep Trump from going to both of these trials. We're going to see if this works first this Friday, because Friday there is a very big hearing in the case in Florida.

And it is the hearing where Judge Aileen Cannon could be rescheduling that Mar-a-Lago documents trial. It's currently on the calendar for the end of May, right after his New York hush money case, which he will be going to trial on.

And then they will be asking on Friday for Judge Cannon to move him into the summer and then theoretically maybe that case will need to move again.

KEILAR: Very interesting. Just eat up all the time. He is a master at the delay, so we will see.

Katelyn Polantz, great reporting. Thank you so much.

And joining us now is national security attorney Bradley Moss.

Do you think, Bradley, that Trump will succeed with this strategy?

BRADLEY MOSS, NATIONAL SECURITY LAWYER: He's going to get some delays, but I think his luck is starting to run out. We already started to see that in Manhattan, obviously, where, unless something happens, he's going on trial in under a month.

We have this issue of which one will come first of the federal cases? Will it be the documents case in Florida or will it be the election interference case in D.C.? So long as Supreme Court keeps dragging its feet on the immunity issue, it gets harder to really tell when the D.C. case will happen.

What Katelyn just said about the Florida case is exactly what we're all waiting for is what's going to come out of this Friday hearing. It's going to be a daylong hearing that Judge Cannon has scheduled for. Will she move her trial date? Will she set it in June maybe? I can certainly see this case hitting late June, early July for a trial, but all eyes are going to be on Florida on Friday to see what comes out of that hearing.

KEILAR: Yes, it is really too just about bumping this federal election subversion case out of the way, so that voters are not dealing with that issue before the election.

If you had Cannon moving the documents case from May to the summer, and we will be watching, could Judge Chutkan in the D.C. case start her federal election case before that, or is that just not going to work?

MOSS: I don't think that's going to work because even if the Supreme Court were to issue a ruling today saying they rejected or denied the stay motion by the Trump team and sends everything back to Judge Chutkan, she's still indicated she was going to give them what was going to be the full seven months worth of prep time.

I don't see the D.C. case making it to trial any earlier than July at this point. And if the documents case is going first, that means Judge Chutkan probably starts her case some time in mid to late August. And that could be a horrible side-by-side image for Donald Trump going into the fall campaign of him sitting in trial every day, not able to be on the campaign trail like he would want to be.

KEILAR: Yes, there's also this thought that clearly the Trump team has. Aileen Cannon appointed by Trump, how much stock do you put in that, though? Cannon is a Trump appointee. Chutkan is an Obama appointee. That's going to be the loyalty.

Do you see it that way?


MOSS: No, not yet.

And we haven't -- ever since Judge Cannon got in some trouble with the 11th Circuit during the pre-indictment phase, when we were just -- when it was just still an FBI investigation and the 11th Circuit reversed her, we haven't seen her do anything of substance yet that would make me say she's going to -- in the can for Donald Trump.

She's given him a lot of procedural discretion. She's given him a lot of opportunities to make arguments I don't think she necessarily had to make him -- or let him do. But she hasn't done anything substantively yet to make me think she's in any way biased towards Donald Trump.

We're going to see between now and Friday how that actually plays out when we get these substantive rulings that she has before her, especially on the classified information issue in that case, and the deletions, the discovery that the government is trying to do under what's called the Classified Information Procedures Act.

We're going to get a sense of how she's approaching this. But at the moment, I -- anybody's putting stock the Trump side, saying, oh, Judge Cannon is going to save Donald Trump from this, I would not put your money on that bet right now.

KEILAR: All right, Bradley Moss, thank you -- Boris.

SANCHEZ: Let's discuss all these issues and more with former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson. He's also a former Republican presidential candidate and is now backing Nikki Haley.

Governor, great to have you this afternoon.

I was fortunate to be in South Carolina this weekend and speaking to a number of voters. Multiple of them told me that they don't totally understand and don't really care about the charges that Donald Trump is facing. He won by 20 points this weekend. What does that tell you about where the Republican electorate is right now? FMR. GOV. ASA HUTCHINSON (R-AR): Well, they see unfairness in the

process, but they also simultaneously say that, if there is a conviction, then that impacts their level of support.

That just doesn't bode well for a Republican nominee to go into the November election as -- with a conviction. And so there's a lot to be concerned about on Trump's part. He had a great victory in South Carolina.

But whenever you look at the independent votes that moved in the direction of Nikki Haley, the fact that she got 40 percent of the vote, and the fact that, either before or after the convention, maybe both, he will be undergoing criminal trials, and so these are storm clouds that are gathering over Donald Trump.

And that's why he wants to wrap this election up very quickly. But I think it's -- it does not bode well for him as he goes into the convention, even though he's going to control the apparatus. He's going to be able to dictate the terms of his nomination if he continues to be strong, so a lot to play out here that we don't know.

But, right now, he's in a pretty good position for the nomination, but in a very poor position for the general election.

SANCHEZ: Would you say that that's the best reason for Nikki Haley to stay in the race? You're right in that she got 40 points, but she's still lost by 20.

HUTCHINSON: Well, there's a couple of reasons it's important for her to stay in the race.

First of all, there's many Republicans, including myself, that want an alternative, that really believe it's a long-term detriment to the Republican Party if Donald Trump (AUDIO GAP) in the show. Secondly, whenever you look at the prospect of winning, there's just too much unpredictability out there to say, let's throw in the towel now.

So I applaud her. And I think she's making the case very well in Michigan that it's about Donald Trump, but it's also about the Senate and the House and whether we win or lose those races. And if we have a flawed candidate in November, then we're going to be suffering long- term consequences within the Republican Party. And Nikki Haley is making that case.

SANCHEZ: So I spoke with folks close to the Trump campaign this weekend, and they put forward a rhetorical question that I'm curious for you to answer.

If she can't win her home state, looking at the map, at Michigan and then Super Tuesday, which state can Nikki Haley realistically beat Donald Trump in?

HUTCHINSON: Well, first of all, I would point to Massachusetts. She's going to be campaigning there. That's a state that I think she can play in and hopefully win in. Those are Super Tuesday's. The challenge for is not just the fact that

Donald Trump has got a lot of momentum, but it's also that the deck is stacked. Like, in California, they move to winner-take-all state for the delegates. And that would have been a great state for her to do very well in, but it's going to be hard to her to win delegates under that circumstance.

So I look at some of the Northeastern states. Michigan is problematic, because they also now have not just a primary, but most of their delegates will be decided in a caucus. All of that tilts toward Donald Trump. So she's fighting a battle that's uphill. It's a battle worth fighting, and I think there's some states she can win.


SANCHEZ: Governor, you spoke at a CPAC counterprogramming event recently, the Principles First Convention.

I am curious to get your perspective on some of the things that I imagine you heard coming out of CPAC, though. There were a lot of references to the 2020 election being stolen, obviously false claims. There was some stuff that I imagine worries you as a more traditional Republican.

HUTCHINSON: Well, that's exactly right.

In fact, I used to be on the board of the American Conservative Union that hosted CPAC, but it's changed. It has become the Trump vehicle now, and it has become extreme in so many of their comments. And so I love going to Principles First. It is a counterprogramming effort to give an opportunity for conservatives that are more in the mold of a strong United States of America, not isolationism that is advocated by Donald Trump and now CPAC.

And so it's a much broader diversity of thought. That's important for the debate within the Republican Party. And whenever you look at the harshness of some of the rhetoric coming out of CPAC, including some of the language toward the minority community, we have an opportunity to build in the minority community, but Donald Trump is not the right messenger to accomplish that.

SANCHEZ: Former Governor Asa Hutchinson, we have to leave the conversation there. Appreciate you sharing time with us, sir.

HUTCHINSON: Thank you, Boris. Good to be with you.

SANCHEZ: Of course.

Still ahead this hour on CNN NEWS CENTRAL: Was Alexei Navalny close to being released when he suddenly died in a Russian prison? What his aides just revealed.

Plus, the U.S. says a -- quote -- "understanding" has been reached on a potential deal between Israel and Hamas. We have the latest on hostage negotiations. And a measles outbreak in Florida is growing. We're going to take a

closer look at this highly contagious, yet extremely preventable disease.

We will be right back.



SANCHEZ: Negotiations have picked back up in the Middle East to try to finalize a new hostage deal that could pause fighting between Israel and Hamas.

The Israeli delegation is in Doha today to meet with representatives from the U.S., Egypt and Qatar. Talks have hit serious roadblocks over the past month or so, but, this time, the White House says the basic contours have been agreed upon. And we have just learned that Hamas has backed off some of its demands.

CNN's Alex Marquardt has been tracking this.

So, Alex, what do we know about the prospects for the new framework of this deal?

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, we know that the talks are moving along, and that is a good sign.

We saw this meeting taking place in Paris on Friday with the intelligence chiefs from the U.S., Israel, Egypt, and the Qatari prime minister. And then today, in Doha, the Qatari capital, there's a follow-on meeting to that, where there are technical teams, as they're known, getting together to kind of iron out the finer points, really get into the weeds and dot the I's and cross the T's.

The talks had essentially been stalled. You will remember that Israel had called Hamas' demands delusional. So those Paris talks on Friday were really important to try to get the parties back to the table, to try to get moving on the broader points.

So it does look like things are progressing. The broader deal that we're looking at right now would be a weeks-long pause in the fighting. Israeli hostages would be released, primarily the women, the children, the elderly, and the sick who remain. Palestinian prisoners would also be released

And I'm told that, in order to move this along, Hamas has actually responded to those Israeli accusations of being delusional and backed off some of their key demands, notably on the number of prisoners that they want to see released, on demands that the IDF withdraw from Gaza, that there be discussions about the end of the war.

By no means are those off the table, but, for now, to launch this first phase of the deal, I'm told that Hamas has softened those demands. So one source told me that things are progressing. Another source told me that they are struggling to get this across the finish line. There's a sense that this could happen in the coming days, but, at any moment, I'm warned that this is very fluid and that things could fall apart.

One thing, Boris, is clear is that the U.S. really does want to get this done by Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. That's on March 10. That is a deadline that they are racing against.

SANCHEZ: So signs for cautious optimism right now.

Alex Marquardt, thanks so much for the update -- Brianna.

KEILAR: And here with us now to talk about all of this, we have Democratic Congressman Jake Auchincloss of Massachusetts. He's also a Marine veteran who commanded infantry in Afghanistan and special operations in Panama.

Congressman, thanks for being with us.

I first want to ask you about these negotiations between Israel and Hamas. How hopeful are you that there will be a deal, especially now that we have learned that Hamas has backed off of some of its key demands?

REP. JAKE AUCHINCLOSS (D-MA): Clearly going in the right direction, a testament to President Biden's leadership and the -- really the unique role that the United States can play in that region as a stabilizing force.

I haven't seen the text of the deal, obviously, so I don't want to comment on the specifics, but any deal that gets hostages home and that creates a cease-fire for humanitarian aid to come into Gaza is a step in the right direction.


KEILAR: The death toll in Gaza is expected to be passing 30,000 this week. Israel continues to say that, when it comes to their approach to what level of civilian deaths are acceptable as they target Hamas in Gaza, that what the IDF is doing there is no different than the U.S. military approach in Afghanistan following 9/11.

As I mentioned, you were a veteran of that war. Is Israel correct here?

AUCHINCLOSS: I think that Central Asia and Middle East is such a complicated region that analogies serve us very poorly. I think we should evaluate this situation with its own deeply complicated history and context.

And what is clear here is that we need something that gets the hostages home. There are Americans and children being held hostage for more than three months by Hamas. We need a mutual sustainable cease- fire, and that is only possible with a vision for governance in Gaza that does not include Hamas, because Hamas has promised to repeat the atrocities of October 7, and Hamas has as part of its charter the destruction of not only the Jewish state, but of Jewish people the world over.

And President Biden is driving towards the kind of near-term compromise that can create the conditions for a more long-lasting and sustainable peace in the region. And this is just one element of a broader strategy for the United States about standing with democracy the world over. It's not just Israel and the Middle East.

It's Taiwan and the Indo-Pacific. It's Ukraine and Europe. It's why this national security supplemental is so critical.


KEILAR: Back to Gaza, though, because the deaths of children and other civilians in Gaza are just very clearly outpacing those in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Ukraine conflict.

So I know that there are different elements here, that you don't want to compare apples to apples, but when we're talking about numbers and we're talking about collateral damage, there is a way to compare this. Is Israel correct in saying that their approach to how many civilians dead is the same as how the U.S. approached things in Afghanistan, in your view?

AUCHINCLOSS: Yes, again, I just think comparing one military conflict in this region to another is going down the wrong path.

The right path, to me, is to compare the counterfactual, is to say, what would this situation look like if Hamas were allowed to remain at the levers of power in Gaza? And Hamas is an internationally recognized terrorist organization. It's using its own denizens as human shields. It is holding hostages.

Hamas needs to be dismantled, so that it cannot have any role in postwar governance in Gaza. And the military operations that Israel is pursuing are the necessary leverage for the return of hostages and for the demilitarization of Gaza, so that the Palestinian people can have the kind of future that they deserve.


KEILAR: Do you have concerns about this death toll?

AUCHINCLOSS: Every person of good conscience views the death of any child, Israeli, Palestinian, as a tragedy.

And it is devastating to see what is happening in the Middle East right now, and which is why we need a sustainable cease-fire that prevents this violence from ever being repeated. And, unfortunately, insofar as Hamas is allowed to remain extant in the Gaza Strip, it will be repeated.

And that's not my opinion. That's Hamas' assertion.

KEILAR: I do want to turn now to Russia, if you can react to this new report that Putin critic Alexei Navalny, who died in prison earlier this month, was to be part of a prisoner exchange deal, along with two Americans held in Russia, according to his aides, a Western official confirming this.

They say it was to be an exchange for an FSB assassin who is imprisoned in Berlin. What's your reaction to this?

AUCHINCLOSS: I can't speak to the veracity of that claim. It's new.

But I think the overall takeaway here is unchanged, which is that Putin's treatment of Navalny is a stand-in for his autocratic and repressive vision that he has and that China's Xi Jinping shares. They want to stamp out freedom and democracy, not only in their own countries, but the world over.

And Ukraine is on the front lines of the fight against that autocratic vision, which is why it's so critical that Speaker Johnson bring the Ukraine aid bill to the floor. Speaker Johnson is on his way out. He's going to lose in November. He's going to be kicked out by his own conference.

But he can decide what his legacy will be. And his legacy should be to meet the moral moment and support our ally in Ukraine.

KEILAR: There's also this issue of a potential shutdown, which the trajectory is headed in the wrong direction, I would say, at this moment.

Do you expect that there will be a shutdown?

AUCHINCLOSS: It's entirely up to the House Republican Conference.

As you know, last May, in 2023, the president and then-Speaker McCarthy came to an agreement on funding levels that cut the deficit.