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Haley Fights on in Michigan; Navalny Aide Says, Deal to Free Him, Two Americans was Near; Zelenskyy to CNN, Millions Will be Killed Without U.S. Aid. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired February 26, 2024 - 10:00   ET




JIM ACOSTA, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everybody. You are live in the CNN Newsroom.

Ahead this hour, Donald Trump tightens his grip on the GOP as we learn new details about Nikki Haley's plan to stay in the race.

Plus, the former president is rolling out a new legal strategy to avoid trial. It involves pitting federal judges against each other.

And Alexei Navalny's team says, days before his death, the deal was being finalized to swap Navalny and two Americans for a Russian intelligence officer.

I'm Jim Acosta in Washington. This is the news right now.

All right, today, Nikki Haley is pushing forward in her long shot bid for the Republican nomination, hitting the stump in Michigan on the eve of its presidential primary. Despite a bruising defeat in her home state, she's vowing to fight on and barking on a fundraising swing through at least seven states this week, that's after one of her mega donors, the influential Koch Network, pulled its funding this weekend.

CNN's Eva McKend is in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Haley is set to hold a rally. Eva, very important question here, is the money drying up for Nikki Haley?

EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning to you, Jim, from windy Grand Rapids.

Well, yes, yes and no. Her campaign pushing back against this, Americans for Prosperity Action, they have stepped aside. They did invest more than $4 million, for instance, in South Carolina, but her campaign says that she's still getting grassroots support upwards of a million dollars from everyday Americans.

And though she has lost all of these early contests, she says that there are real warning signs for former President Donald Trump and the Republican establishment, that essentially the 40 percent that she commanded in South Carolina, that that isn't nothing, that a former president, you know, he should be at upwards of 90 percent, and that what her margin shows and what his margin of victory shows is that there is still support for her among independents, the independent voters that Republicans will need in the general election.

That is her message to Michigan voters. Let's listen.


NIKKI HALEY, REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: 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.

Why should the 40 percent have to cave to him?


MCKEND: So, she's pressing along here, but she is -- time is running out. The former president, he could wrap up the delegate math as early as March 12th. Jim?

ACOSTA: You know, Eva, that is a great point that you're making there about what took place in South Carolina. The narrative initially was, oh, Donald Trump, he crushed everybody. And yet, I mean, 40 percent of Republicans said, you know what, we won Nikki Haley.

And the flip side of that, President Biden did very well in South Carolina. I mean, he really did outpace the competition in a huge fashion. But in Michigan, there is this other storyline about dwindling support among Arab-Americans in Michigan. It's an important, critical constituency there. Is the Biden campaign concerned about that?

MCKEND: They should be concerned because Democrats really rely on a patchwork of constituencies to win elections. And so they can't ignore this threat. There is a grassroots effort here in this state among Arab-American voters to vote uncommitted, to send a message to this White House that they don't feel as though President Biden is showing adequate leadership in this time in not calling for a ceasefire.


So, this is something that they will have to pay attention to. We don't know what the numbers will look like, but it is a warning sign for President Biden as well, Jim.

ACOSTA: All right, very interesting. We'll be watching that as well. Eva McKend, thank you very much.

Let's discuss more now with former Republican Presidential Candidate in Texas Congressman Will Hurd, he's backing Nikki Haley in the race. Congressman, thanks so much for being here, great to see you.

Let me just start by asking this. I mean, is it time for Nikki Haley to drop out? FMR. REP. WILL HURD (R-TX): Absolutely not. Four states have had the chance to have a real choice. We're going to see 21 states over the next 10 days. They just go into the polls. They deserve to have a real choice as well, not some Soviet-era election where you only have one person.

As your reporter at the top of the segment said, and we're still getting -- Ambassador Haley is still getting donations in 24 hours after the polls closed in South Carolina, she raised more than a million dollars. These are from Americans all over the country that want to return to normalcy.

It's not normal to have an open border. It's not normal to spend almost $60 million on your legal fees, right? This is 40 percent of Americans, we've seen this in the last couple of elections, want something different.

And we know, Jim, you've covered this a lot. 70 percent of Americans that vote in general election want somebody other than Donald Trump and Joe Biden. And as we get to Super Tuesday, those people are going to have a chance of a real choice and someone who we can be proud of and who recognizes her role.

ACOSTA: But let me ask you this. I mean, what you're saying, I mean, a lot of people would agree with what you're saying, but in the Republican Party, it appears to be ride or die with Donald Trump. I mean, just in the last several days, he compared his legal woes to the prejudice that some African-Americans have faced in the legal system claiming they see him as a victim of discrimination.

Let's listen to this.


DONALD TRUMP (R), FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT, 2024 PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I got indicted a second time, and a third time, and a fourth time. And a lot of people said that that's why the black people like me, because they have been hurt so badly and discriminated against, and they actually viewed me as I'm being discriminated against.

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


ACOSTA: Well, he's saying bonkers stuff like this all the time. If somebody on a park bench said this to you, you'd get up and move, but he says this stuff, and he's way out in front in the Republican contest here. I mean, Nikki Haley, she can hang in there. But what is your reaction to what Trump said there?

HURD: Well, my reaction to what Trump said is it's absolutely ridiculous, obviously. And guess what? When Joe Biden cuts that into an ad and runs that in Georgia, in Michigan, in places around the country, these gaffes are going to continue. We talk a lot about Joe Biden's age. Donald Trump is getting up there, too. And the more he starts having to show up -- he's been ducking. This is one of the reasons he's ducked doing a debate with Ambassador Haley, is he knows that these kind of things are going to continue, and what's going to lead to his demise in November.

This is another reason why Ambassador Haley should stay in the race.

ACOSTA: What's happening in the party where there's so many -- well, I'm sorry, we have to go, but why are so many Republicans in your party overlooking things like that what he said the other night about black voters, about African-Americans in this country, that they would somehow sympathize? It just boggles the mind.

HURD: Look, I think people are more concerned with staying in power than saying what's right. They're more interested in going along than having ideological consistency. And that's one of the troubling things that I've seen during my political career. But, unfortunately, Americans want someone who's ideologically consistent. And that's why you're seeing Ambassador Haley have 40 percent and growing.

ACOSTA: All right. Will Hurd, We'll continue the conversation. Hey, thanks for coming on this first edition of the program on weekdays. Will, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

Let's discuss more now with CNN Political Commentator, Democratic strategist Maria Cardona, CNN Political Commentator, Republican strategist, Alice Stewart. Maria and Alice are hosts of the podcast, Hot Mics from Left to Right and were frequent guests on the weekend edition of this program.

I feel like it's like we're in a Vegas casino and, you know, there are no windows. They're pumping in the oxygen. I just got cleaned out at the crabs table (ph).


Yes. It just feels like we're just going to do this like it were the weekend. But, anyway, but the produce will yell my ear because there's not enough time, but let me let me start with this.

I mean, Alice, Nikki Haley had this double-digit loss. But there is another storyline that Donald Trump, you know, he was not -- he was not a picture of strength coming out of South Carolina, it seems, this weekend. In deep red South Carolina, almost four in ten Republicans are -- they're not on board.

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, that's not a good sign. And, look, as Nikki Haley has said, when four in ten people in South Carolina are looking for a choice, that sends a stark message. And that's why she is continuing to stay in this race.

And, look, as we've heard, since South Carolina, she's raised a million dollars in small-dollar donors, and that goes a long way. When you're running a lean, mean campaign machine, you don't need all kinds of money to keep the wheels on the track and keep things moving. And that's what she explicitly plans to do.

And, look, you look at the delegate map, to win the GOP nomination, you need 1,215 delegates. Right now, Donald Trump only has 110, Nikki Haley has 20. So, from the long game standpoint, there is a lot of ground game between 110 delegates and the 1,215 necessary.

Look, the reality is, while we're still in the double digits with Nikki Haley, and the delegate math might be difficult, her determination to provide a choice for change is strong. And there's a lot of people that are still listening to her.

ACOSTA: Well, there's no question about it, and, Maria, I want to get to some other big news happening this morning. Ronna McDaniel just announced she's stepping down as the head of the RNC. This comes on the heels of the CPAC gathering over the weekend, where, I mean, Steve Bannon gave a very disturbing speech. Let's listen to some parts of that.


STEVE BANNON, FORMER TRUMP WHITE HOUSE CHIEF STRATEGIST: Media, I want you to suck on this. I want the White House to suck on this. You lost in 2020. Donald Trump is the legitimate president of the United States.

Trump won. Trump won. Trump won.

November 5th to drive the vermin out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Biden, you and your crime family are nothing but trash.


ACOSTA: I mean, Will Hurd was just saying a few moments ago you could bottle what Trump said the other night to black voters and put that in a campaign night. Do you want to put Steve Bannon in a campaign?

MARIA CARDONA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Oh, yes, absolutely. And I guarantee you that that is already happening. The ad makers are very busy. They have a lot of content from this past weekend.

But this I think underscores the choice that we have. And I think the reason why Nikki Haley is staying in because she's right that there are a lot of voters within the GOP that are not happy with Donald Trump.

And I agree with Nikki Haley and what she said in South Carolina, Donald Trump cannot beat Joe Biden. And that is part of the reason because this election is going to be about a contrast. If it is Donald Trump against Joe Biden, Joe Biden is a decent president who has had historic accomplishments. He's going to boost the economy for everyone, protect our rights and freedoms.

One of the other things that we didn't play is somebody else talking about how the GOP with Trump at the helm is going to finish destroying our democracy. And that's going to be a huge, huge message going into the '24 election.

ACOSTA: You know, it's interesting you bring that up, Marie, because one of the things that I heard talking to people this weekend is this IVF issue. People are really concerned about that, Alice, that, I mean, this is another example of people worried about their rights being taken away, and unintended consequences of the Roe decision being overturned.

STEWART: Well, you've heard across the board from Republicans weighing in on this issue that Republicans and conservatives are pro- life and IVF is an important way for many families and many couples to have children. And they support the idea of having IVF. You're not hearing anyone in the Republican Party say that they do not support IVF. And that is a consistent message across the board. Even we heard Donald Trump say the same.

If I can push back on my dear friend, Maria, in terms of Joe Biden will be so easy to win. Look, the majority of Americans are frustrated with the economy. They're certainly concerned about the border. They are certainly concerned about public safety. They are certainly concerned about jobs. And Joe Biden is underwater with approval on the issues, not to mention the fact they are concerned about his age and his stability and up (ph).

ACOSTA: But it's going to be a choice. It's going to be a choice.

CARDONA: That's right.

ACOSTA: I mean, there're so many families who rely on this.

CARDONA: That is exactly right.

ACOSTA: It's unbelievable. I mean, everybody's got a friend who --

CARDONA: That's exactly right. And you already saw what happened when the Supreme Court then the state Supreme Court said that an embryo is a person, those clinics in that state shut down. That is going to take away the ability for so many families who are desperate to have kids to be able to do so. And so this is going to yet again front and center going to be an issue in the election.


And I'm not saying it's going to be easy because we live in a very divided electorate, but when your choice is about whether you have the choice and the freedom and the liberty to make decisions, personal intimate decisions about your family and someone is going take that away, you're going to vote for the person who's going to protect those freedoms.

ACOSTA: Yes. And we're going keep this conversation. I am so glad you guys are here on the first day. But I do want to get into this, the stakes versus of the horse race, the polls versus the choices. There's a lot to talk about. We've got a lot of ground to cover here in the coming days.

CARONA: Thanks, Jim. Congratulations.

ACOSTA: Thanks so much. Congratulations. I've been at CNN for 17 years. This is not that different. But, anyway, ladies, thank you very much. Come again.

Coming up, one of Alexei Navalny's closest advisers, have you heard this, is now saying that a prisoner exchange was being finalized just before his death. We'll have the details next.



ACOSTA: New this morning, a new claim in the death of Russian opposition leader Alexeu Navalny. One of his closest advisers says a prisoner exchange to free Navalny and two Americans was being finalized before his death.

CNN's Matthew Chance joins us from Moscow. Matthew, fascinating development, what are you learning?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CHIEF GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Well, Jim, we knew for some months that it was possible that Alexei Navalny may have been part of negotiations for a prisoner swap, which would have involved swapping him along with two U.S. citizens, at least two in Russian jails. We're talking about Evan Gershkovich of the Wall Street Journal, and Paul Whelan is a former U.S. Marine, who are being held accused of espionage.

But it's only now that Alexei Navalny's team has come out and said that publicly. And they've said that those negotiations were in the final stage just the day before Alexei Navalny, the late Russian opposition leader, was pronounced dead at his Arctic penal colony. And, of course, their allegation is it was the Kremlin that killed him so that he wouldn't be swapped and he wouldn't be freed and let go.

There's been, of course, a rejection of that from the Kremlin. They've called allegations or anything to do with this as obnoxious. And they've confirmed to me within the past few hours that they've got no knowledge of this kind of deal, this kind of negotiation. It also hasn't been corroborated by the Americans who, of course, have been engaged with Russia to try and forge a swap deal with Moscow or by the Germans either. But, nevertheless, it is another twist in this very tragic saga involving Alexei Navalny.

One other small development, Jim, which I want to tell you is that we've been waiting since last Friday when Alexei Navalny was pronounced dead about when the funeral was going to be. Well, his team now say that they're planning a memorial service at the end of this week, so Thursday or Friday, we haven't got the exact day yet.

But, remember, in life, Alexei Navalny was able to rally tens of thousands of people onto the streets of towns and cities across Russia. And so there is concern that if there is a public funeral like the one the Navalny team say they're going to stage, well, that could also be a focus, a focal point for anti-government protests. Jim? ACOSTA: Yes, Matthew. And I remember when you were reporting on this last couple weekends ago and they were rounding the police were rounding people up just because they were paying their respects to Alexei Navalny. Of course, we'll have to see if it happens again.

Matthew Chance, thank you very much.

Happening right now in Paris, a major donor conference in support of Ukraine. President Biden is also preparing to meet with congressional leaders at the White House about how to get more money into the hands of Ukrainians as they fight that brutal war against Russia.

The Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is warning millions will be killed without more U.S. help and that Donald Trump does not understand Putin will never stop. And CNN's Kaitlan Collins spoke with Zelenskyy in Kyiv.


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: You're basically saying that there will be no new success for Ukraine if there's no new U.S. aid. Essentially, this all depends on U.S. aid.

VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT: Steps, success forward will depend on USA. Yes. Not defending, not only defending, because if you defend, just defend, you give possibility to Russia, push you. Yes, small steps back, but, anyway, we will have these steps back, small one. But when you step back, you lose people. We will lose people.


VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT: And CNN Military Analyst, retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton joins us now.

Colonel Leighton, I mean, you know, Zelenskyy says 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers have died in the war with Russia. And, obviously, you know, you can hear the desperation in his voice of what he is saying. More Ukrainian soldiers are going to die. More Ukrainian civilians are going to die. What does this tell us about the reality of the battlefield?

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: So, the reality on the battlefield, Jim, is that there are a lot of problems here. So, the Ukrainians have to defend this entire front right here, plus they also have to worry about what's going on up here in the north and in the northeast, and then they have to worry about what's going on potentially in Moldova. There's this area called Transnistria right along the border. That area is right before a Russian takeover, basically.

And what the Russians are planning potentially is for them to annex this area, just like they did these areas right in here in the Donbas region, Luhansk and Donetsk. And if they do that kind of a political move, that could also spell trouble for the Ukrainians in a military sense, because all of these areas would involve increasing the front area that the Ukrainians have to defend against. ACOSTA: And if they don't get the aid, where are the flashpoints? Where could this have an immediate impact?

LEIGHTON: So, basically, what we're looking at here, so look at when we look at this, this is back in August, and what the Ukrainians were able to do was they were able to move into these areas right here.


But the problem with this is the gains were really only incremental. And when you see this kind of a thing happening in these particular areas, you know that everything is stalled out. That's the problem.

So, when you look at what has happened here, the eastern front, as it is right now, shows those areas that were fought over, like you have Bakhmut right there, you have Avdiivka, which they just lost, and then there's a town just to the northwest of Avdiivka that has also allegedly been taken over by the Russians.

So, the Russians are clearly moving forward in this direction, and it's all about momentum. So, if the Ukrainians lose momentum, then what Zelenskyy is talking about is that they're going to have problems not only defending what they have here, but keeping everything here.

And, of course, the Russians want to take over the rest of Donetsk. They want to take over that little piece of Luhansk that's still outside of Russian control. And when they do that, that could have a major impact on everything, not only in the east, but also right here when it comes to the Black Sea and Odessa being able to export grain from this particular area.

ACOSTA: All right. Time is clearly running out. That is the issue. And if these towns start to fall, then you get into a situation where the Russians will start building momentum, it's going to make things that much harder for the Ukrainians.

LEIGHTON: Absolutely.

ACOSTA: Colonel Leighton, thank you very much. And you can see more of Kaitlan's one-on-one interview with President Zelenskyy on The Source with Kaitlan Collins. That's tonight at 9:00 only on CNN.

Coming up, new legal strategy by Donald Trump, it is about pitting federal judges against one another. We'll talk about that next.

Newsroom is coming right back.