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Biden Meets Lawmakers for Demands on Ukraine Aid; Michigan Primary a Test for Biden; IDF Presented an Evacuation Plan Ahead of the Resumption of Negotiations for a Ceasefire. Ukrainian President Speaks to CNN on the War with Russia Entering its Third Year; Australia Slaps Sanctions to Seven Russian Prisoners who Mistreated Alexei Navalny; American Couple Apparently Dead in a Caribbean Boat Hijacking. Aired 3-4a ET

Aired February 26, 2024 - 03:00>   ET




ROSEMARY CHURCH, CNN ANCHOR: Hello and welcome to our viewers, joining us here in the United States and all around the world. You are watching "CNN Newsroom" and I'm Rosemary Church.

Just ahead, U.S. President Joe Biden is set to meet with congressional leaders this week as pressure for more aid to Ukraine mounts.

Meanwhile, the president is on the ballot for Tuesday's Democratic primary in Michigan, a state he's almost sure to win. But it could be a test of his support from important groups of voters.

And the IDF presents its plan for evacuations from the Gaza Strip to Israel's war cabinet as negotiations for an Israel-Hamas ceasefire and hostage release go on.

UNKNOWN (voice-over): Live from Atlanta, this is "CNN Newsroom" with Rosemary Church.

CHURCH: And thanks for joining us. Well U.S. aid to Ukraine will be on center stage this week as the U.S. House of Representatives returns from a two-week recess on Wednesday.

With Ukraine's leader blaming recent losses on a lack of assistance, President Joe Biden plans to ratchet up the pressure in a meeting with congressional leaders on Tuesday.

Talks will include House Speaker Mike Johnson, who has refused to bring a Senate bill including $60 billion for Ukraine up for a vote. Pentagon and national security officials are also calling on Johnson to allow a vote on the bipartisan Senate bill.

CNN White House reporter Priscilla Alvarez has more.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) PRISCILLA ALVAREZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: The White House is ratcheting up pressure on House Republicans to pass $60 billion in additional aid to Ukraine, saying that the country faces a dire situation and is running low on ammunition. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan taking it a step further on Sunday and calling on House Speaker Mike Johnson to take it up and take it up immediately.

JAKE SULLIVAN, U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well, the reality is that Putin gains every day that Ukraine does not get the resources it needs and Ukraine suffers. And there is a strong bipartisan majority in the House standing ready to pass this bill if it comes to the floor. And that decision rests on the shoulders of one person.

And history is watching whether Speaker Johnson will put that bill on the floor. If he does, it will pass, we'll get Ukraine what it needs for Ukraine to succeed. If he doesn't, then we will not be able to give Ukraine the tools required for it to stand up to Russia. And Putin will be the major beneficiary of that.

ALVAREZ: Now, the White House asked for the $60 billion in additional aid last year, and since then President Biden has repeatedly framed this as not only support for Ukraine, but also imperative for U.S. national security. And in recent days, White House officials have linked losses on the battlefield in Ukraine to congressional inaction, with President Biden warning that it is not out of the question for this to continue to happen if that aid isn't given to Ukraine.

Of course, the White House is limited in what it can do, meaning that they are going to continue this pressure for the days to come. In the interim, though, the president in private conversations with U.S. allies reaffirming U.S. support for Ukraine.

Priscilla Alvarez, CNN, the White House.


CHURCH: Amid the push for more U.S. aid for Ukraine, a rare admission from Volodymyr Zelenskyy on the human toll the war has taken on his country's military. The Ukrainian president said 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers have died in the war with Russia and disputed Russian claims of much higher casualty numbers. He also said tens of thousands of civilians have died in territory occupied by Russian forces. CNN cannot independently verify these numbers.

CNN's Clare Sebastian is following developments. She joins us now live from London. Good morning to you, Clare. So as Ukraine marks the start of a third year of war with Russia, President Zelenskyy is warning what will happen if his country doesn't receive U.S. aid. What's he been saying?

CLARE SEBASTIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, President Zelenskyy was speaking a lot on Sunday at a conference on Ukraine in 2024 and separately to CNN's Kaitlan Collins.

And we see him trying a sort of variety of approaches here. One is a moral argument. He said to Kaitlan Collins that he sort of couldn't imagine that it wouldn't be possible for Congress not to pass aid, that he was hopeful for a positive solution because he said, otherwise, I don't understand the world in which we live.


He's also talked about the consequences, saying millions would die without U.S. aid. So directly equating that lack of -- of weapons deliveries with the loss of lives both on the front lines and in terms of civilians. He talked about air defenses as a critical component.

And I think perhaps most interesting of all, this is something that we haven't seen him do is naming that casualty figure. Obviously, we can't independently verify that, but he hasn't gone public with that before. I think the question is obviously why now? One, perhaps to the Ukrainian people that he just can no longer hide it.

The graveyards have been filling up. Everyone knows someone who's died. But secondly, also a message to Congress that, you know, Ukraine has to get real. They have to really be honest about the toll this is taking. And it is a very serious moment as he himself put it on the battlefield with Russia on the offensive in multiple directions. This, of course as you also noted, a crucial week.

President Biden to be meeting with congressional leaders on Tuesday, really piling on the pressure there on Speaker Mike Johnson to take that Senate bill onto the House floor. And separately here in Europe, we have the French president convening a summit of international leaders to talk about aid to Ukraine. Europe is trying to step up.

But Ukrainian officials on Sunday saying that even if Europe does that, European and U.S. production together isn't going to cover Ukraine's needs on the battlefield. So here we have this very critical moment, which it seems like President Zelenskyy was trying to seize there. Rosemary.

CHURCH: All right. Our thanks to Clare Sebastian joining us live from London.

Up next in the race for the White House primaries in Michigan, although President Joe Biden is sure to win the Democratic contest, Tuesday's results could gauge his support among Arab and Muslim Americans.

Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib is asking primary voters to choose uncommitted to protest Mr. Biden's handling of the Israel-Hamas conflict. He is one of Tlaib's fellow Democratic representatives, Debbie Dinkle.


REP. DEBBIE DINGELL (D-MI): We have to focus on Michigan. There is no road to the White House that does not go through here. And President Biden knows that. And quite frankly, so does Donald Trump. Joe Biden is going to win on Tuesday and it's November that we've got to focus on. And we've got a lot of people we've got to turn out. A lot of people are impacted by a number of issues. (END VIDEO CLIP)

CHURCH: Meantime, Donald Trump won a solid victory in South Carolina's Republican primary on Saturday, beating rival Nikki Haley by just over 20 percentage points. The influential Koch network now says it will stop donating to her presidential bid and will focus on House and Senate races. But Haley insists only she can beat Mr. Biden in November and says she's staying in the race through Super Tuesday next week, while Trump argues that Republicans are already united behind him.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There's never been ever. There's never been a spirit like this. And I just want to say that I have never seen the Republican Party so unified as it is right now. Never been like this.

NIKKI HALEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Does anyone seriously think Joe Biden or Donald Trump will unite our country to solve our problems?


CHURCH: Ron Brownstein is a CNN senior political analyst and senior editor at "The Atlantic". He joins me now from Charleston, South Carolina. Good to have you with us.


CHURCH: So, not surprisingly, Donald Trump won the South Carolina primary, but Nikki Haley still got 40 percent support and is vowing to fight on despite news that one of her major donors, Americans for Prosperity, is halting spending on her campaign. What does Haley achieve by continuing her fight, and what were the major takeaways from this race, do you think?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, I think South Carolina really confirmed what we saw in New Hampshire, and that is Haley's coalition is not big enough to seriously threaten Donald Trump for the nomination.

But our coalition is plenty big enough to cause him serious problems in the general election if he can't mollify and corral it. You know, these last couple races have been very consistent in all three of the big contests so far, Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Trump is dominated among non-college voters. He's dominated among evangelical voters. He's dominated among partisan Republicans.

But he's consistently shown weakness among the groups where he has long faced resistance. He's only won about 40 percent of independents each time. She's won college graduates in each of the past two elections. And as we saw on Saturday night in the big population centers, relatively speaking, in South Carolina of Charleston and Columbia, that's where she performed the best.

And so the dual message to the Republican Party is this is Trump's party.


CHURCH: Trump is also facing a cash crunch as time runs out for him to post half a billion dollars in bonds. Where's this ultimately going, and will his legal woes continue to help or hinder him politically, do you think?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, they certainly have helped him in the primary. I mean, there's no question about that. I mean, the -- his ability to portray himself as a victim and almost a martyr for his voters. You know, they're going after me because they are really trying to silence you.

I talked to plenty of voters down here who, you know, accept that argument and kind of transmute it into quasi-religious terms, you know, that he is like literally a martyr on their behalf. But, you know, you continue again to see these kind of morning flares at the edge of the race here. Trump won a dominant victory here, as he did in New Hampshire.

But something like 80 percent of Haley voters in both states said they do not believe he will be fit to be president if he is convicted of a crime.

All of this hangs over the Republican Party, as does the question of him trying to channel campaign contributions to pay for his legal bills. That was one of the biggest applause lines Nikki Haley got down here, you know, when she argued that the RNC should not turn into a piggy bank for Trump's personal legal problems. And he will have to come up with this money for the New York judgment. And the question of where and how he do so, how he does so could create more headaches for him.

CHURCH: It's a big swing state of Michigan is set to hold its primary race on Tuesday. But some Democrats are concerned about a possible anti-abortion protest vote in that state and a call from the left to vote uncommitted. How is Joe Biden expected to go, and what might all this mean for the general election as the president also continues to battle the perception of being too old for the task ahead?

BROWNSTEIN: Yeah, I think Michigan is a really indispensable state for Democrats. You know, the -- the shortest path to 270 electoral college votes, which is what it takes to win for Biden, is to rebuild what I called, 15 years ago, the blue wall.

And that would require him to hold Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, both of which look pretty good for him. I think at this point largely around the issue of abortion, but also Michigan, where his polling has consistently been underperforming where Democrats have been. I mean, Gretchen Whitmer, the governor, won the state by 12 points in 2022.

And Trump is consistently leading there with Biden struggling among white, blue collar voters, younger people and the Arab-American community. This effort to have an uncommitted people vote uncommitted, which is being supported not only by our American interests, but also by Bernie Sanders political organization, I think is an important test. A similar effort fizzled in New Hampshire.

It didn't really generate a lot of protest votes. But if it does generate a significant protest vote in Michigan, which, as I said, is almost an indispensable state for Democrats, I think you're going to see more anxiety in the party about Biden's posture toward Benjamin Netanyahu, who, you know, whatever else you can say about him, he is someone he has identified with the Republican Party pretty overtly over the years and at the margin probably would prefer to be dealing with Donald Trump in the White House than Joe Biden.

And I think the pressure on Biden to reconsider his relationship and the amount of rope he is giving Netanyahu would probably be intensified significantly if this uncommitted effort, you know, posts a serious result on Tuesday.

CHURCH: Ron Brownstein, always a pleasure to have you with us. I Appreciate it.

BROWNSTEIN: Thanks for having me.

CHURCH: It is still winter in the United States, but much of the country won't feel like it in the days ahead. Nearly 400 heat records, both high and low temperatures, could be tied or broken across the central and eastern U.S. today through Wednesday. In some areas, the temperatures could be more than 30 degrees above average.

Meanwhile, a cold front in the western U.S. will move east, but that will bring the threat of severe storms on Tuesday. The cooler air probably won't last long, though, with another warm front expected to sweep the country later this week.

Still to come, as negotiators try to secure the release of more hostages from Gaza and a pause in fighting, Israel's prime minister warns a military offensive in Rafah will go forward, deal or no deal.

Plus, CNN speaks with the father of a Palestinian American teen killed in the West Bank who says he's still struggling to get justice more than a month after his son's death.




CHURCH: The Israeli military has presented a plan for evacuating civilians from the areas of fighting in Gaza. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office says the IDF presented the war cabinet with an upcoming operational plan earlier, but it does not specifically mention the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where Israel has been planning a potential ground offensive.

CNN has not seen a copy of the plan yet. More than a million people are believed to be sheltering in Rafah, most of them displaced from other parts of Gaza. Now this comes as talks are expected to resume in Qatar today to try

to secure the release of more hostages in exchange for a pause in the fighting. A senior White House official says the negotiators have come to an understanding on the broad outline of a potential deal.

Joining me now is journalist Elliott Gotkine. He's live in London. So, Elliott, what is the latest on those hostage and ceasefire talks set to resume today and the IDF plan to evacuate Palestinians from areas of fighting in southern Gaza?


ELLIOTT GOTKINE, JOURNALIST: Rosemary, as often is the case with these things, the devil is very much in the detail. And it is those details that the parties, the United States, Israel, the Egyptians and Qataris as mediators for Hamas are going to be trying to thrash out in those talks in Doha to try to get a deal that will see at least some of those Israeli hostages who were kidnapped on October the 7th freed in exchange for a pause in the fighting, the release of Palestinian prisoners and more humanitarian aid going into the Gaza Strip.

Now, we heard from National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan over the weekend talking about the understanding of contours of a potential deal being reached.

The sticking point up until now, at least so far as the Israelis are concerned, has been Hamas' demands for a complete end to the war and a withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip and also the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners.

Whatever the case, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the weekend saying that even if a deal is reached to free those hostages in exchange for a ceasefire, that ground operation in Rafa will still go ahead.


BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: If we have a deal, it'll be delayed somewhat, but it'll happen. If we don't have a deal, we'll do it anyway. It has to be done because total victory is our goal and total victory is within reach, not months away, weeks away once we begin the operation.


GOTKINE: And of course, the big concern expressed by the United States and others is that with more than a million Palestinians sheltering in Rafah, that evacuating that civilian population and getting them to an area of safety and shelter is going to be an incredibly tall order for the IDF.

Perhaps some of those Palestinians will not get the message as to exactly where they can go. Many will be disinclined to move, taking the view that, well, they've moved before so many times that where they are being told to go to, may not be any safer than where they are right now. So there are a lot of challenges in moving that number of people.

And the United States perhaps has seen added urgency or added to the urgency of these talks to get the hostages freed in exchange for a ceasefire in order to forestall this kind of ground operation.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Israeli government's perspective is that in order for Hamas to be destroyed, in order for Israel to be able to say mission accomplished as far as the destruction of Hamas is concerned, it must go into Rafah to destroy what it describes as the final bastion of Hamas to prevent Hamas continuing to threaten Israel with another October the 7th.

And as a result of that, this plan has been presented to the War Cabinet for the evacuation from areas where fighting is taking place. They didn't specify Rafah, as you said, but it seems likely that Rafah is a part of that plan and quite when that would be enacted or what details are a part of that plan. We're not too sure right now, but certainly Israel's intention is to go into Rafah with or without a deal for a ceasefire and the release of hostages.

CHURCH: Our thanks to Elliot Gotkine joining us live from London.

And Nic Robertson met with the father of slain Palestinian-American teen Tawfic Abdel-Jabbar who was shot in the West Bank last month. His father says their family is still struggling for answers and trying to bring the person responsible for his son's killing to justice.




ABDEL-JABBBAR: Yeah, this is where Tawfic was shot at.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): An American father, Hafeth Abdel-Jabbar, showing us his family land where he says his son was murdered by an Israeli settler in January.

ABDEL-JABBAR: He wasn't going to do anything wrong, simply a barbecue, Friday prayer and come back home. And he's not a terrorist. He's an American-Palestinian kid full of life, wanted to do so much in his life.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): His son Tawfic was 17 years old, studying towards his dream job, NASA engineer.

The family left Louisiana last spring, returning temporarily to their roots in the occupied West Bank. They visited their ancestral hilltop village home most years.

ROBERTSON: All around the village, there are murals of Tawfic, remembered, immortalized and underneath it says the smiling martyr.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): Tawfic's trauma increasingly common in the West Bank.

ROBERTSON: And this is getting worse since October 7th.

ABDEL-JABBAR: It's getting worse since October 7th, way worse.

ROBERTSON: They're turning it more like into Gaza.

ABDEL-JABBAR: Exactly. They want to turn it to Gaza. You see the bullet?


ROBERTSON (voice-over): A month after Tawfic's death, Hafez is struggling to get justice. The single shot that killed his son, an exploding bullet entering the back of his head, clear in the CT scan of his brain.

Photos of the crime scene and an investigation by the Palestinian Authority document 10 shots.

Video shows what Hafez says is a soldier taking the final shot. An eyewitness says a settler took the first shot. Israeli investigators say an off-duty police officer and an off-duty soldier were also present at the time of Tawfic's killing, but have yet to charge any of them. They say the investigation is ongoing.


ABDEL-JABBAR: That's the problem that I'm facing right now, that we all face in here, that when they do such a thing and they're not stopped and they're not questioned, it's OK for them to do it again and again and again. And that's what keeps happening here. This is not the first kid that got shot and killed in the same area.

SARI BASHI, PROGRAM DIRECTOR, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH: Since October 7th, nearly 400 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli soldiers and Israeli settlers. There are currently 9,000 Palestinians being held in Israeli prisons and jails.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): Sari Bashi is an Israeli human rights expert living in the West Bank, has been tracking Israeli security force tactics there for more than a decade.

Hamas' brutal October 7th attack, she believes, became a watershed for unprecedented Israeli violence in the West Bank.

BASHI: We have seen things piloted in Gaza and later moved to the West Bank. In terms of the levels of violence, the airstrikes, the drone strikes in Gaza are starting to become much more frequent in the West Bank.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): And not just more aggressive and more frequent, but more audacious too, not to mention possibly illegal, according to U.N. experts. Like this covert Israeli special forces op in a hospital that killed three militants believed to be planning an attack. The hospital says the men were sleeping when shot. IDF diggers gouging up West Bank streets, rendering them unusable,

akin to Gaza's battle-torn thoroughfares, also deepens fears the West Bank is worsening.

The impact of Israel's actions, according to respected Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki, is enabling groups like Hamas.

KHALIL SHIKAKI, PALESTINIAN POLLSTER: The West Bank is becoming more militant today than Gaza was before the war or today.

ROBERTSON: Because of what the Israeli government is doing here?

SHIKAKI: Because of what the Israeli government is doing, what the army is doing and what the settlers are doing.

ABDEL-JABBAR: Why are we supporting such a regime like that?

ROBERTSON (voice-over): Hafeth is angry President Joe Biden isn't doing more to pressure Israel to rein in radical settler leaders, like security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, whose party has called for the annexation of the West Bank.

The Israeli government maintains its military operations only target terror suspects. But settler violence has spiraled in recent months.

ABDEL-JABBAR: These officials on TV from the Israeli government making these comments and passing weapons from Ben-Gavir to these settlers, that's why they feel like they can do anything without being charged or without being stopped.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): Impunity that is ripping irreversibly through his family.

ABDEL-JABBAR: How can they forget their brother? Can they ever forget their brother? Can they ever forget who shot their brother? No. When I told my wife I want to have another Tawfic, and I want my older son to get married and have another Tawfic.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): Across the square from his family home that predates Israel's creation by more than 70 years is the town's cemetery. Where Tawfic is buried.

Feet from two of Hafeth's uncles, whom he says were killed by settlers 36 years ago.

ABDEL-JABBAR: That's a message to them, to the Israeli government. We're not going nowhere. Even if you put all of us right here, generations will come and free this country from you guys.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): Defiance, yes, but beneath it, a father struggling.

ABDEL-JABBAR: When do I see him again? When do I see my 17 years old again? When do I get to see him again? That's the minute that I, right now, I think about. I don't think about money. I don't think about businesses anymore. I don't think about anything else other than when do I see my son again?

ROBERTSON (voice-over): Nic Robertson, CNN, the West Bank.


CHURCH: The White House is ramping up its pressure on lawmakers to approve billions of dollars in additional funding for Ukraine as the war there enters its third year. Back with that in just a moment.