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New RNC Memo Gives Details Of Merger With Trump Campaign; Polls Open In Moscow For Presidential Election; Conspiracy Theory Leave Arizona County With $200,000 Problem. Aired 7:30-8a ET

Aired March 15, 2024 - 07:30   ET




KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: On our radar this hour, Alec Baldwin's attorneys are now asking a judge to dismiss the involuntary manslaughter charge against him in the fatal shooting that happened on the "Rust" movie set. His lawyers criticized prosecutors, saying they publicly dragged him through a cesspool, their wording, and abused the system. The charges were initially dropped last year but reinstated in January. His trial is set for July.

Now, Haiti's government has again extended the curfew in the western region of the country now through Sunday. The curfew has been in place because of the relentless widespread gang violence taking the country now, really, to the brink -- we've been seeing this over and over -- forcing the prime minister to design -- to resign and forcing the United States to send in extra security forces to the U.S. Embassy there. The Haitian government is telling police to use, quote, "all legal means" to enforce the extended curfew.

And of all the reasons for a delay of game, bees. Tons of bees. An invasion at a major tennis match as swarms of these temporarily shut down the Indian Wells tennis match in California yesterday. The bees swarmed a camera hovering above the court, like the Skycam thingy thingy, forcing the players Carlos Alcaraz and Alexander Zverev, to leave the court. A beekeeper or maybe they prefer bee specialist if you will came to the rescue, vacuuming -- technical term -- vacuuming up the bees and the match was able to resume.

The number two -- it's on the camera lens -- the number-two seed Alcaraz went on to beat Zverev and advance to today's semifinals.

The bees could not be reached for comment, Sara. They just really disagreed with the -- with the ref's calls.

SARA SIDNER, CNN ANCHOR: Don't be worrying about it.

BOLDUAN: Is it a ref? Wait a second. Is it an ump?

SIDNER: Oh, that --

BOLDUAN: Judge? It's a chair. SIDNER: It just makes me want to itch. Oh, oh, oh, it's -- yeah,

that's a lot.

BOLDUAN: It's a judge.

SIDNER: OK, thank you, Kate.

BOLDUAN: No, it's actually a vacuum.

SIDNER: Yeah, I think it's a vacuum.

BOLDUAN: I thought that was like --

SIDNER: He's vacuuming the bees.

BOLDUAN: It's a technical term -- OK.

SIDNER: Thanks, Kate.

New this morning, we are learning much more about the Republican National Committee's merger with the Trump campaign and what it might mean for November. The RNC's new Trump-appointed -- or sorry, Trump- approved chairman Michael Whatley sent a three-page memo to the RNC members just days after Donald Trump clinched the GOP presidential nomination. In it, Whatley says, "We are now a united operation and a united front."

CNN national political reporter Daniel Strauss is joining us now. Daniel, he seems to be making clear that this is Trump's party. Tell us more about the memo.

DANIEL STRAUSS, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: Yeah. What's interesting about this memo is that it lays out in pretty specific detail some of the major change going on at the committee now that Donald Trump is the presumptive nominee for the Republican Party for President of the United States.

Now, just keep in mind here it's not unusual when a national committee has a presumptive nominee or a declare -- or an official nominee for president that the national committee someone merges or gets closer to that nominee's campaign. But what we're seeing in this cycle with this Republican National Committee and Trump campaign is that there is a very, very close merger going on here.

And the priority of the RNC going forward is going to be dramatically focused on election integrity and claims of election fraud. This has been a priority for the former president for a while, since 2020, and he has since been frustrated with the RNC because he's felt that they have been insufficient in their capabilities of rooting our election fraud. And what we're seeing in this memo is details about how the committee will change to reflect Donald Trump's wishes on that front.


SIDNER: All right, Daniel Strauss. Thank you so much. Appreciate it -- John. JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: So this morning, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is facing sharp criticism for his call for new elections in Israel and calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu an obstacle to peace.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called the comments grotesque and hypocritical. Lindsey Graham called them earth-shatteringly bad. Democratic Congressman Dean Phillips called Schumer irresponsible.

With us now is former chief strategist for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, Stuart Stevens, and Democratic strategist Joe Trippi.

I don't want to talk so much about the merits of what Chuck Schumer said. That's being debated around the world, Joe. But I want to know about the politics. Who is the audience here?

JOE TRIPPI, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST, HOST, "THAT TRIPPI SHOW" PODCAST (via Webex by Cisco): Well, look, it's certainly unusual. It's not -- this is like a -- the first time I can remember anybody doing this.

I think -- I think the audience is Netanyahu. I mean, I think it's putting pressure on Netanyahu to come to terms with a ceasefire and that you -- you know, to basically -- I actually think this was an audience of one. I'm actually surprised that it took this long for someone to go out and say this, although to have it be Chuck Schumer is pretty groundbreaking.

BERMAN: Stuart, what about the audience of young progressive Democrats, many of whom seem to be very uncomfortable at this point, and that's putting it mildly, with Israel policy in Gaza?

STUART STEVENS, FORMER CHIEF STRATEGIST FOR MITT ROMNEY'S PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN, FORMER REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST (via Skype): Well, you know -- I mean, Netanyahu -- I've worked a lot in Israel -- is a very unpopular guy.

This is, I think, the message to Netanyahu, like he says. It's also a message inside Israel that those of us in the United States understand that Netanyahu may be your current leader but he is not your leader if you had an election today.

I actually think this is a good thing that Schumer did. Netanyahu has come to America and basically supported Donald Trump. He's supporting Donald Trump now. We shouldn't pretend that politics isn't part of this. And the United States should make clear to Israel that we will support Israel but we would not unilaterally support Netanyahu in what, in some ways, is becoming more of a reelection campaign.

BERMAN: So, this morning we're waking up to reports in both Politico and Axios of what you can call a "Dear Mike" letter from the White House counsel Ed Siskel to House Speaker Mike Johnson on the impeachment efforts -- what they call the floundering impeachment efforts against President Biden.

And the letter reads, Stuart, "Dear Mr. Speaker: I write you today because it is clear the House Republican impeachment is over. Members of the House majority believe the inquiry is 'falling apart.' It is obviously time to move on, Mr. Speaker."

What does this tell you, Stuart, about the shifting politics of the impeachment if the White House is making political hay out of it now?

STEVENS: Yeah. Look, I mean, Mike Johnson -- they're basically sending a letter to Mike Johnson -- you know, you may think that we're still going out but we're not.

This whole effort has been tawdry, pathetic, stupid. Counterproductive to the purposes of anybody in the United States that wants to try to have a better life because they actually elected these people to govern.

You know, there is world-changing, history-changing stuff, like passing the bill to support Ukraine, that this Congress should be addressing. And it's extraordinary that they're sitting around like a bunch of stoned kids at the end of a dorm room on a Saturday night -- the guys who can't get a date -- trying to figure out ways that they can get revenge.

The Republican Party is not a governing party. That's what -- and they're going to show it over and over in different ways. But we have to quit being surprised when they do.

BERMAN: Thank you for using a relatable metaphor there, Stuart.

Joe, what about -- what about the impeachment effort here? Can Democrats use this for political gain now?

TRIPPI: Uh, look, I think the Republicans can't get out of their own way on this stuff. I mean, even the Hur hearing that they just brought I think exposed more differences and hurt Trump and made his case -- you know, the difference in his case -- a guy who didn't -- you know, actually wanted to keep the documents and never turned them over. Fought it every inch of the way. Had his employees move the documents to hide them. All those things are so much different.

And so, here they bring this -- you now, bring in the special counsel in an attempt to resurrect again the fact that all Americans know -- geez, Joe Biden is an old guy.

So they are doing that -- again, as Stuart says -- while there's real things that need to happen here that they're not doing -- like Ukraine, like funding that.


So, again, that whole hearing I think hurt Trump and his cause and the cause of -- and, by the way, hurt a bunch of Republican members of the House who happen to be running again in districts Joe Biden won. So they keep walking these guys down the plank and they're all going to pay for it in November. It's just -- it's just stupid. It's -- we're now into the -- literally, the stupidest period of politics that I've seen in my entire career.

BERMAN: That's a pretty high bar right there. I've seen a lot of stupid periods but I understand what you're saying.


BERMAN: Stuart, very quickly, the end of today --

TRIPPI: It is.

BERMAN: -- Judge Scott McAfee, in Georgia, will rule on whether Fani Willis, the Fulton County district attorney can stay on that case. We don't know how he is going to rule, but if he is removed -- she is removed, how much of a political gain is it for Donald Trump -- a political gain?

STEVENS: Um, look, I think that what happens today is not going to matter as much as what happens when there will be a trial. You know, it could be a good news cycle for Donald Trump but it's not going to make the fact that he called up the Secretary of State of Georgia on a recorded line and told him to rig an election. None of that's going to go away. So I think we have to keep the big picture here.

Look, the Republican Party is led by a guy who is out on bail, literally, who was convicted of sexual assault that a judge classified as rape. I mean, we don't talk about this as sort of the headline in every election story. It's just amazing. And every donor to the Republican Party should know you're giving to a guy who is out on bail. Are you good with that? And I just find it extraordinary that the party can fall into this sinkhole.

BERMAN: He was found liable in a civil case of sexual assault, but I get your point there.

Stuart Stevens and Joe Trippi, thank you both so much for being with us -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: That was a really interesting conversation, John.

It is Election Day in Russia -- Election Day. Polls open across the country as President Putin is set to, and almost definitely will, secure a fifth term.

Plus, the cost of election disinformation. A conspiracy theory leads one Arizona country to spend nearly $200,000 of taxpayer money on fraud-proof ballot paper -- and they can't even use it.

And this Sunday at 10:00 on CNN, a new episode of a CNN original series, "VEGAS: THE STORY OF SIN CITY." Here is a preview.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In the seventies, you then have economic changes. There is stagflation, the oil crisis. These have an impact on Las Vegas.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It really does represent the shifting face of capitalism in the United States. Now it's not just about keeping your customers happy. It's about driving shareholder value. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: At that time, you start to see the early part of what we recognize today as a very corporate Las Vegas. The Feds were coming down on organized crime. So the seventies in Las Vegas represented a period where on the one hand, it's starting to become OK to actually do business there. And on the other hand, outside of Elvis, Las Vegas isn't so cool anymore.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Las Vegas didn't recognize that it should be looking for ways to appeal to the youth culture.




BOLDUAN: So, right now, the polls are open in Russia as President Vladimir Putin is poised to win a fifth term. He is the country's longest-serving ruler since Joseph Stalin. And ahead of this, Putin urged voters, including those in the annexed Ukrainian regions, to vote as a show of patriotism.

Now, the widow of the late opposition leader Alexei Navalny has asked for voters to turn out collectively at noon Sunday, the last day of voting, as a show of opposition.

CNN's Matthew Chance is at a voting station in Moscow for us. Matthew, what are you seeing there?


Well, certainly, Russians appear to be going through the motions in this presidential election. Join me in a polling station in the center of Moscow. You can see people registering to cast their ballots here at these desks. They then can vote at one of these electronic voting machines over here, or they can do it by hand and put their votes into the transparent ballot box that's just over there.

So, of course, they can vote, by the way, on an app for the first time in the presidential election, which critics say offers some opportunity for the final numbers to be manipulated.

But let me say this. Make no mistake. The outcome of this presidential election is inevitable with Vladimir Putin, the current Russian president, set to win a fifth term in office in the Kremlin. And the reason for that certainty is, Kate, because the Russian opposition is not being permitted to take part in these polls.

Of course, there's been a brutal crackdown on dissent in this country. Opposition supporters have been silenced. Their leaders have been jailed, they've been exiled, or they're dead. Alexei Navalny, of course, the most prominent Russian opposition leader, died in his Arctic penal colony just last month, and so that's had a very chilling effect on the atmosphere here.

That doesn't mean, of course, that there isn't a choice. And the voters here have four candidates, including Vladimir Putin. You can see people actually casting their votes right here.


There are three other candidates apart from Putin that are on the -- that are on the ballot. But frankly, none of them are significantly opposed to the Kremlin. None of them enjoy any particular public support going into this vote.

And so, as I say, the outcome of this presidential election is more or less known. It's more or less inevitable, Kate.

BOLDUAN: And Matthew, there have been calls for protests. Have you seen anything?

CHANCE: Well, that's right, and that's one of the things we're watching for closely. The widow of Alexei Navalny, for instance, has gone out there and said look, voters -- Russians should gather at polling stations at a particular time over the weekend. It's not clear what that will look like.

There's already been a show of some discontent and some protests in Moscow with one person tipping green dye into a ballot box. But the authorities have made it clear that any unsanctioned protests like that will be met with strict legal consequences, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Matthew, it is wonderful to have the access to you in these voting stations. Thank you so much -- John.

BERMAN: Yeah, I've never seen a view like that from inside Russia.


BERMAN: This morning, one Arizona county is paying a hefty price for election disinformation. A conspiracy theory about ballot paper led to spending $200,000 of taxpayer money on fraud-proof paper that cannot even be used. Now it sits in a warehouse inside two huge towers.

Only one man can report this story. CNN's Donie O'Sullivan is here now. Donie, what's going on with this?

DONIE O'SULLIVAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, there is a lot of whacky conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, one of which you might remember, the bamboo paper conspiracy theory in Arizona. And the costs of that conspiracy theory are real. Take a look.


O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): This is a story about paper -- lots and lots of paper. Americans have been voting on paper for most of the country's history, but back in 2020, bizarre conspiracy theories about paper started to spread.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: -- is looking for bamboo-laced ballots.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Fraudulent ballots were unloaded from a South Korean plane. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- into Arizona, and it was stuffed into the box.

O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): All of that led to this -- five tons worth nearly $200,000 of supposedly fraud-proof ballot paper. It's currently lying on the floor of this warehouse in Phoenix and no one is quite sure what to do with this.

O'SULLIVAN: Had there ever been a problem with the paper before?

JEFF ELLINGTON, CEO, RUNBECK ELECTION SERVICES INC.: No. No one's ever questioned the paper.

O'SULLIVAN: And then what happened?

ELLINGTON: We get into 2020. There's rumor of bamboo in the paper, and paper from China, and a lot of different stories that circulated. And so it just kind of went from there and people started questioning it.

O'SULLIVAN: As you were seeing that play out what were you thinking?

ELLINGTON: That it was nuts.

O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): Enter David Stevens. He ordered the paper.

O'SULLIVAN: The paper itself --


O'SULLIVAN: -- ballot paper. People have concerns about that.

STEVENS: There were concerns, yes.

O'SULLIVAN: And what were those concerns?

STEVENS: That people were making their own ballots and then interjecting them into the system. They were coming from foreign countries. And maybe we can make our paper more secure so we would know quicker or easier if it really is a ballot -- Arizona ballot or if it is not.

O'SULLIVAN: Do you personally believe the bamboo paper thing?

STEVENS: I don't know much about it other than they think it came from wherever.

O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): Steven is a top election official in Arizona's Cochise County. Cochise is home to Tombstone, but it's a place where election conspiracy theories won't seem to die. In 2022, election skeptics delayed certification of the midterm elections here.

Stevens' opponent in an upcoming election says he is part of the problem in Cochise.

O'SULLIVAN: Cochise has been in the headlines a lot the last few years because of elections, and mostly for bad reason. ANNE CARL, (D) CANDIDATE FOR COCHISE COUNTY, ARIZONA RECORDER: It's an uphill battle because there are people who spread disinformation about our elections -- this theory that there's a problem with our paper. So it was a -- it was a solution in search of a problem because we've never had a problem with our ballot paper. There are all kinds of safeguards and on top of other safeguards to make sure that the wrong ballot paper doesn't cause any problems.


O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): Runbeck Election Services takes these huge rolls of paper and turns them into millions of ballots that are used across the country. But not these two rolls of special ballot-guard paper ordered by David Stevens using a state grant.

STEVENS: So this is a sample of the ballot-guard paper. So when you shine on a blacklight you get these --


STEVENS: -- UV fibers that now become apparent. Additionally, there's what's called an IR Tagging (PH), and it's a chemical in there that when you hold a scanner over it, it'll (INAUDIBLE).


O'SULLIVAN: Oh, wow!

O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): A missed deadline and other bureaucratic snafus has put a halt to the so-called secure paper experiment.

O'SULLIVAN: So, I mean, it's essentially $200,000 gone to waste.

ELLINGTON: A little less than that but, yeah.

O'SULLIVAN: So this sounds like a bit of a nightmare.

ELLINGTON: Pretty much, yeah. I want it to be over.

O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): But Adrian Fontes, Arizona's top election official, says Stevens' experiment shouldn't have started in the first place.

ADRIAN FONTES, (D) ARIZONA SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, the economic costs of the conspiracy theories in Arizona are real dollars. Now, the paper that was purchased by this one county based on these conspiracy theories, that is absolutely useless and we can't even use it. They can't use it. This is taxpayer dollars down the drain based on lies.

O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): Stevens said he is not a conspiracy theorist, but in our conversation, he didn't refute any.

O'SULLIVAN: Do you accept Biden won the last election?

STEVENS: Uh, the election in Cochise County was fair and balanced and Trump won Cochise County, so -- O'SULLIVAN: But, nationally?

STEVENS: That's the way the numbers came out. So there were a lot of issues but maybe there was an explanation for them. I don't know. To be fair, there's a lot of people who think 2016 was rigged. Hillary Clinton still thinks she won the election. Are they election deniers?

O'SULLIVAN: Democrats would say well, look, our side didn't go attack the U.S. Capitol.

STEVENS: I wasn't there. I didn't go. We actually had some people here that went. I think they claim it was peaceful.

O'SULLIVAN (voice-over): But the facts are clear. January 6 was not peaceful. Hillary Clinton formally conceded to Donald Trump the morning after the election. And Arizona is stuck with tons of seemingly useless paper.


O'SULLIVAN (on camera): And, John, of course, we should stress again there isn't a problem with the paper. All election officials and security experts have told us the paper you vote on is part of a secure process. So that paper was totally unnecessary based on everybody we spoke to.

A lot of people asking me why can't they just use that paper for something else. That, in itself, could create a security issue if this sort of paper was out in the wild in Arizona because it could lead to other issues.

So a lot going on there but you can see the real cost of conspiracy theories.

BERMAN: That was a fantastic piece and a $200,000 representation of what nonsense looks like in paper form.

O'SULLIVAN: John, I have to call you out this morning on the big story.

BERMAN: Yes, I'm not wearing green.

O'SULLIVAN: No green tie.

BERMAN: It's not -- it's Sunday.

O'SULLIVAN: St. Patrick's Day weekend.

BERMAN: It's Sunday.

O'SULLIVAN: Irish eyes are crying this morning, John.


BERMAN: Donie O'Sullivan, thank you very much -- Sara.

SIDNER: You know you can celebrate as many days as you want, John, just for the record. I have no green on either. Sorry, Donie.

All right. New developments this morning on what may have caused a passenger plane to suddenly nosedive during a flight to New Zealand. Officials are looking into whether a mealtime mishap in the cockpit might be to blame for this. The Wall Street Journal this morning reporting a flight attendant may have accidentally hit a switch that pushed the pilot into the controls causing the plane to suddenly drop, leaving dozens of passengers injured.

CNN aerospace analyst Miles O'Brien joins us now to discuss. What? So, a switch is pulled and the pilot goes flying into -- like, how does that happen?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST, TECH AND AEROSPACE CORRESPONDENT, PBS NEWSHOUR (via Webex by Cisco): Yeah. It's supposed to be a convenience switch but apparently, a little bit of a memo needs to go out to warn people about this. It's a switch on the back of the seat of the aircraft and the flight deck which makes it easier for the pilots to move the seat in and out of position as they settle in to do their job. Otherwise, they'd have to kind of reach down below and to the side in order to move the seat, which is electrically controlled.

What evidently happened was this flight attendant leaned on that portion of the seat where the switch is. It activated the seat and it has a way of kind of locking into place and moving forward. At the time, the member of the flight crew was seated kind of sideways as if talking and receiving the food with his legs crossed. And so, that pushed him and his legs against the control column and initiated this nosedive. They lost well over 10,000 feet very quickly.

And can I just say this, Sara? If you're on a plane and you're in your seat --


O'BRIEN: -- please, please keep your seat buckled.

SIDNER: Yeah, I think --

O'BRIEN: Buckle your seatbelt is what I'm trying to say.

SIDNER: Yeah, it's a real reminder. I mean, because a lot of -- I mean, some people get up and they go to the bathroom. And so, those folks probably ended up on the ceiling. But it is a really good reminder to keep your seatbelt on when you are seated on a flight because you just never know with all the turbulence. And then you have this issue.