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Today: Trump at Defamation Trial for Closing Arguments; Trump Joins Effort to Get D.A. Dismissed from Georgia Case; CIA Director to Meet Israel & Egypt Intel Chiefs on Hostages. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired January 26, 2024 - 06:00   ET


ANDY SCHOLES, CNN SPORTS: Yes, excited for the game in Indie, Kasie. Going back to East-West. Like, you know, the game I remember growing up.



SCHOLES: And you know, Luca, congrats to him. He's -- he's a new dad. Had a baby girl there in November. I asked him what's more difficult, Kasie: changing diapers or a step back three. And he said changing diapers.

HUNT: Oh, come on. It's not that bad. Andy, for the record, how tall are you?

SCHOLES: I'm only 5'11" generously.

HUNT: OK. Well, that's tall enough. I just want our viewers to know you were interviewing someone who is --

SCHOLES: Luka the giant.

HUNT: -- that much taller. It's not -- All right.

Andy, thank you. Have a wonderful weekend.

SCHOLES: All right.

HUNT: And thanks to all of you for joining us. I am Kasie Hunt. CNN THIS MORNING starts right now.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Good Friday morning, everyone. So glad you're with us. I'm Poppy Harlow with Phil Mattingly in New York.

And the Republican National Committee jumping the gun with a draft resolution declaring Donald Trump the presumptive nominee. Now we know who pressured the RNC to pull that back.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN ANCHOR: The former president back in a New York courtroom this morning for closing arguments in the E. Jean Carroll defamation trial. A jury set to decide soon how much Trump must pay. And breaking overnight, a new method of capital punishment has just been carried out in the U.S. Alabama become the first state to use nitrogen gas to execute a death row inmate. A witness detailing what exactly happened in Kenneth Smith's last moments.

CNN THIS MORNING starts right now.

HARLOW: Well, this morning Donald Trump is taking his presidential campaign right back to the courtroom as he tries to bend the judicial system to his will on multiple fronts.

Just a couple of hours from now, he will be back at his defamation trial for closing arguments right here in New York City after briefly taking the stand yesterday. The jury will soon decide how much the former president needs to pay his rape accuser, E. Jean Carroll, for branding her a liar.

Yesterday we did hear Trump testify that he only wanted to defend himself, his family and the presidency. But overnight, he unloaded in a short video he posted on social media.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT, 2024 PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I have no idea who she is, where she came from. This is another scam. It's a political witch hunt. And somehow, we're going to have to fight this.

The whole thing is a scam. And it's a shame. And it's a disgrace to our country.


MATTINGLY: That happening while down in Georgia, Trump has joined an effort to throw Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis off his election conspiracy racketeering case.

His lawyers are pushing to disqualify Willis for allegedly having a romantic relationship with the special prosecutor she hired. And they're accusing her of injecting race into the case and stoking racial animus.

Those developments all coming at the same exact moment Trump is tightening his unquestioned grip on the GOP and trying to destroy the only bipartisan effort on Capitol Hill right now to address the border crisis politically fueling his campaign.

Let's start with CNN's Alayna Treene and start with Trump's legal drama. Alayna, what was Trump trying to do in that very brief testimony yesterday? How is he trying to use this to his political advantage?

ALAYNA TREENE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You're right, it was very brief. We saw that yesterday. He was only on the stand for a near mere minutes.

And part of that was because he was extensively prepped by his lawyers. We know that Donald Trump has wanted to testify repeatedly in the past, even said he wanted to testify before in this specific case, only to ultimately be convinced by his lawyers that he shouldn't.

And part of that is because there are a lot of concerns around whether Donald Trump would cross the line, make a mistake on the stand or do something that could really jeopardize the case.

But that's why he was up there for just a couple minutes. And there was a couple reasons why he wanted to get up there. One is because remember, this case is about damages and money. And that is something that Donald Trump cares very much about.

But the other is because he really wanted to defend himself against these claims, I'm told.

And I found it really interesting to look at the language that his attorney, Alina Habba, used in saying that she thinks that Donald Trump needs to respond to these claims.

Part of that, as well, we're hearing, is because Donald Trump himself wanted to defend himself. And we've heard that some of that comes from Melania Trump.

Melania Trump has told Donald Trump in the past that she thinks that he needs to respond to these claims. Again, they relate to sexual assault. That's not something that is actually being considered in this case.

E. Jean Carroll was already found in favor of those allegations. This is about the money and the damages that Donald Trump owes.

But it's something that Melania Trump has told Donald Trump that she thinks he needed to defend himself from. Now, I want to just give you a quick exchange that I found really telling yesterday.

Alina Habba, his attorney, asked Donald Trump, "Did you ever instruct anyone to hurt Ms. Carroll in your statements?"

And Donald Trump said, "No, I just wanted to -- I just wanted to defend myself, my family and frankly, the presidency."

And that was really all we heard from Donald Trump on the stand. He had some other moments there where he spoke without turn -- out of turn, I should say. And the judge encouraged him not to do that.


But that was really the main message of his brief testimony.

And again, this is also a fundraising and public relations vehicle for Donald Trump. We saw his team blast out a fundraising text, trying to raise money off of this just hours after he took the stand.

And as well, I think, you know, as we've been reporting, this is a campaign stop for Donald Trump. And he is trying to draw attention to what he argues is him being a victim of political persecution. MATTINGLY: Yes. Make no mistake, this is political, as much as it is

legal. Alayna Treene, thanks so much.

Joining us now to discuss all this, CNN political commentator Errol Louis; strategic communications expert and former Republican strategist and pollster, Lee Carter; CNN senior political analyst and anchor, John Avlon; and courts and legal reporter for "The Hill," Zach Schonfeld.

Zach, you were in the courtroom yesterday. The moment when the former president took the stand, started talking, some of what he said was struck down by the judge. What was that like in the room?

ZACH SCHONFELD, COURTS AND LEGAL REPORTER, "THE HILL": Well, before he even took the stand, there was about ten minutes where the judge was going back and forth with Alina Habba, his lead attorney in the case, and they were talking about the ground rules for Trump's testimony: the questions that could be asked and the things that could not be asked, given the fact that so many of the issues in this case has already been decided.

And when that happened, we saw the energy level in the room really change. Trump, when he had walked into the courtroom in the morning, wasn't making a whole lot of audible comments. Maybe whispering to his lawyer -- lawyers a little bit.

But otherwise, just watching the proceedings and watching the witnesses before him. But then, when we got to talking about the conditions of Trump's testimony, all of a sudden, he started speaking up, talking to his lawyer, Alina Habba; saying that he had never met Carroll, again claiming that; and espousing many of the claims, starting to do in the courtroom that we've seen him do on the campaign trail and in public in recent days.

So the energy level really changed once we got to that subject of Trump's testimony.

HARLOW: Errol, talk about the context of this happening yesterday as just sort of a remarkable thing almost happened from the RNC, that they almost went ahead before this thing is looked up and --


HARLOW: -- were going to name him a presumptive nominee. And then Trump says no, don't, I want to actually win this thing.

LOUIS: Yes, yes. I mean, he pointed out, I think wisely, that they need to let the process play out a little bit.


LOUIS: I mean, the RNC could have, you know, issued a statement that, you know, the sun's going to rise in the East. Right?

HARLOW: To be clear, it was put forward by one person. The whole -- it wasn't like Ronna McDaniel put it forward. The whole -- they all voted on it.

LOUIS: Well, my understanding is the fact that she's not empowered to do that. It has to be others.

But the whole idea of crowning him is unnecessary. Like, why would you need to do this? You won, you know, all but one county in Iowa. You won by double digits in New Hampshire. He's going to win by -- you know, he's going to win Nevada walking away. And he's going to win these 30 points up in South Carolina. So why do this?

They want this to be over, because they know that there is a problem. There is a problem out there. If you look at the numbers closely enough, you see that there are a number of Republican constituencies that are not with the Trump team at this point.

They want to wrap it up as quickly as possible. They thought that that would help him. He, I think, properly says let's tease this out. He needs the press. He needs the hits. He needs the attention.

JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: He's a bottomless thirst for attention. And that's why I think when sometimes we say, Wow, he's really parlayed these court cases in a Judo move way to boost his presidency, no, it's about sucking up the oxygen of attention.

It also should be a giant flashing red sign for Republicans who say, you know, maybe somebody who's, you know, got sexual assault claims and 91 indictments and an insurrection and, you know, has negative appeal to independents and moderates is not such a good nominee, but the party is falling in line.

Where it's most disgracefully seen is with regard on Capitol Hill right now. Donald Trump has been running on the border, calling it an invasion. We talked to his supporters. In every state, we've seen this from the exit polls, saying it's the No. 1 issue.

And Donald Trump is the person stopping a bipartisan border security deal from happening right now.

HARLOW: Can we listen to Republican senators lamenting this moment, if that's what happens? Here it is.


SEN. MITT ROMNEY (R-UT): I think the border is a very important issue for Donald Trump. And the fact that he would communicate to Republican senators and congress people that he doesn't want us to solve the border problem, because he wants to blame Biden for it is -- is really appalling.

SEN. TODD YOUNG (R-IN): Anything that interrupts that negotiation, I think, would be tragic.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): I don't think making the border better changes the 2024 outcome presidentially. I think it's what we're expected to do.


HARLOW: Some allies, Lee.


HARLOW: Not all of them, not Mitt Romney, but Lindsey Graham.

CARTER: Absolutely. And I think there's two ways of looking at this. Right? And there are -- there's a lot of people saying that Trump is blocking the deal from happening.

And that is one way that I think a lot of moderates are -- I think Nikki Haley is certainly going to and capitalize on that. And so are the Democrats.

But then when you look at some of his solid base, they're saying, you know what? Trump is back. He's going to make sure we're tougher. We're getting better deals. The deal wasn't good enough. It wasn't strong enough.

He's got Ted Cruz out there, talking about how this deal was like -- he called it a crap deal. And you know, he had -- and so what they're trying to position it as, is saying, no, we're actually doing a tougher deal. And we're going to say no to a deal that's going to tie this to the Ukraine, and we're going to make it stronger if we get it through.


AVLON: But that's utter B.S., and it's important to point that out to folks. Right? Donald Trump is trying to stop this deal from happening so he can stop bipartisanship and Biden from getting credit, so he can campaign on the issue while it gets worse. Right?

I mean, he is playing those supporters who care about the borders for fools yet again. And a lot of folks on the far right of the party are doing that for their own political purposes, as well.

They learned from Donald Trump he'd rather demagogue an issue than deal with it. But so we shouldn't say -- yes, that may be folks' perception, but they're being drugged and deluded. So that's -- that's important to point out.

MATTINGLY: Zach, can I ask, when it's -- I'm always struck by the fact that Trump didn't actually attend the initial trial that found him liable for sexual assault and defamation, as it pertains to E. Jean Carroll. This is the second defamation trial, to some degree.

What effect has his presence had, given the fact he wasn't even there for the first one that you could argue is probably more substantial, given the findings?

SCHONFELD: Well, as this trial approached, we had heard a lot from Trump expressing regret that he had not attended the trial. He said that he was advised by his lawyers at that point last year to not go and that he was told by his lawyers that the trial was beneath him. So we had seen him as this trial approached now, having this renewed

resolve to go to all these trials. Not only this E. Jean Carroll trial. We saw him go to his business fraud trial in New York. And so all these proceedings.

That being said, when Trump was not on the stand and when other witnesses were testifying, the jurors in the room really weren't paying attention to the former president. They weren't in that courtroom all day long staring at him. Instead, they really were watching the testimony that was happening in front of them.

But they certainly have heard a lot from Donald Trump, not only his testimony on the stand. But they've also heard his depositions in many of his cases over the last few years.

AVLON: A baller move, by the way, for Nikki Haley to attend this trial.

HARLOW: I don't think really --

AVLON: If you want to fight politics on this level, like draw the attention, double -- triple that.

MATTINGLY: I'm just trying to get to the weekend, man. Can you not play the eight-deep chess here? Real quick?

CARTER: I think the point that you were making earlier, though, is Trump knows that it's -- his best campaign platform right now is the courtroom. So we had 2020 Biden from the basement. This year is going to be Trump from the courtroom.

He's even said it himself: Every time I get indicted, my polls bump. I don't get it myself.

HARLOW: But he raises a lot of money. In that way, it may be Judo.

LOUIS: You also -- you have a split screen on the president of the United States announcing billions of dollars for infrastructure in swing states. And on the other side, Donald Trump going in and out of courtrooms.

MATTINGLY: To get to the point, there's a primary and then there's a general. We'll see if it transfers over.

All right. Zach, Errol, Lee, John Avlon, thanks guys. Appreciate it.

Well, Donald Trump taking on Fulton County D.A. Fani Willis, as well. He's trying to get her disqualified from the election interference case in Georgia. We'll tell you how, next.

HARLOW: Also, a significant international event happening today. The International Court of Justice about to hand down a ruling on the genocide case brought against Israel by South Africa. The world is watching the Hague. And we are there, live.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) HARLOW: Welcome back. Donald Trump is now joining the effort to try to get Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis dismissed from the Georgia election subversion case against him, due to misconduct allegations.

Willis suggested last week that racism is a factor in accusations of an improper relationship with the lead prosecutor she hired for that case. But now Trump is arguing she's the one trying to stoke racial bias in all of this.

Zach Cohen joins us now with this reporting. I am completely fascinated by how this is all going to go. She's been subpoenaed. Will she comply? There's going to be a hearing. And now Trump's involved.

ZACH COHEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Trump formally joining that effort to get Fulton County D.A. Fani Willis dismissed from the case. Running a new court filing yesterday that these allegations that she and her lead prosecutor, Nathan Wade, had an improper romantic relationship should disqualify her.

Look, her -- Trump's attorney, Steve Sadow, wrote in his filing yesterday, put -- made it very clear the decision is up to the judge in this case. He says, "Although this court may not have the authority to disbar D.A. Willis, it certainly does have the power to dismiss the indictment and to disqualify her, the special prosecutor she hired and her office from any further involvement in this case."

As you pointed out, too, he said also adding that Fani Willis -- accusing Fani Willis of injecting racial animus into this case against his client, Donald Trump, and the other co-defendants in this case.

And he point -- he's pointing to comments that Willis made right after these allegations first surfaced. Take a listen to what Sadow was talking about from Willis.


FANI WILLIS, FULTON COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY: I hired one white man, brilliant, my friends. And a great lawyer. And I hired one black man, another superstar, a great friend, and a great lawyer. The first thing they say, oh, she going to play the race card now.


COHEN: So it remains to be seen if, put together, these motions will have an impact on the case.

You know, experts and sources on both sides of the equation that I've talked to say it's unlikely that it will get the entire case dismissed.

And it's also an uphill battle that Fani Willis will get thrown off the case, as well. But let's be real: politically this has been a distraction for Fani Willis, and it's added fuel to Trump's attacks against her personally. And really, the longer he can string this out, and the longer it takes for this case to go to trial, the better it is for Donald Trump.

MATTINGLY: Zach, can we dive a little deeper, what Poppy was talking about? Fani Willis facing this increased pressure. Defense attorneys expected to subpoena her to testify. What exactly is going on as it pertains specifically with her right now?

COHEN: Yes, Phil, we were reporting yesterday sources telling us that the defense attorneys in this case want Fani Willis to take the stand and testify publicly under oath.

There's a February 15th trial where these allegations of an improper relationship with her lead prosecutor are going to be the focus, and the subpoena is for her to come, take the stand in that -- in that hearing and testify publicly.

As you know, all the hearings in this case are video -- broadcasted on video. So if that does happen, we will be able to watch it live.

MATTINGLY: All right. Zach Cohen for us. Thank you.

HARLOW: The CIA director now getting involved in the Israel-Hamas hostage negotiations. What we're learning this morning.

MATTINGLY: And breaking overnight, Alabama has carried out the country's first known execution with nitrogen gas. More on this new method of capital punishment, that's next.



MATTINGLY: We're looking at live pictures outside the Hague in the Netherlands. We're waiting for the International Court of Justice to deliver its ruling after South Africa accused Israel of genocide against the Palestinians. It's a charge the Israelis have objected.

The 17-judge panel is expected to issue -- could restrain the Israelis in their war against Hamas with what they issued, though it would be nonbinding.

HARLOW: Yes, that's a real question, is how do you enforce whatever this ruling is? We'll know more this morning.

Meanwhile, CIA Director Bill Burns is set to meet in the coming days with the intelligence chiefs for Israel and Egypt, along with Qatar's prime minister.

They will discuss a deal to potentially trade the remaining hostages held by Hamas, which is over 130 in this exchange. Priscilla Alvarez joins us now at the White House with more.

It's significant, right, that Burns is getting involved here. Qatar has always been at the center of it. How likely is this to actually happen, and what shape would it take?

PRISCILLA ALVAREZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's just another top U.S. official getting engaged in these talks. As there are intensive discussions about the parameters of a deal that would include the release of hostages and the cessation of fighting in Gaza.

Now, as you mentioned, the CIA director will be going to Europe where he's going to meet with Israel and Egypt's intelligence chiefs, as well as the Qatari prime minister.


All of these are key players in these talks. Now, whether they can get to a deal is still unclear. We've known over the course of time since October 7 that these talks are still very sensitive and delicate, and they can break at any moment.

But we do know that White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGuirk is in the region already, engaging in these talks, as well, and the White House here has described it as sober and serious.

Now, we should note that there are tensions between Israel and Qatar after a leaked reporting of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling Qatar problematic.

This, of course, is something that the White House has not weighed in on, but what they have stressed is that their relationship with Qatar is strong. It's a key player in brokering any deal with Hamas, along with Egypt.

So where these talks go, again, still unclear. But clearly, getting more and more serious as these top U.S. officials start traveling to the region to get more engaged in these talks.

HARLOW: Yes, that statement from John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesman, last night, not subtle when it comes to Qatar in the U.S. view of their role here.

So you guys reported the call that President Biden and Prime Minister Netanyahu had last week. The first call they'd had in a while. There has been a lot of tension in that relationship, as well.

Our contributor, Barak Ravid, has new reporting that, in that phone call, they discussed the length of the war, the path out of the war. Officials have been pressing Netanyahu to keep this as short as possible. What do we know?

ALVAREZ: Well, I reached out to the White House about more details about this call and whether President Biden did give him a direct timetable in terms of what he wants to see.

But as you mentioned, Phil, U.S. officials have repeatedly said that they are pressing Israel to move to low-intensity operation. They also pressed Israel on a solution for a Palestinian state. This is something that President Biden and the prime minister are still at odds over and something that came up in their conversation last week.

We know it lasted about 40 minutes. According to the White House readouts, though, it didn't yield any new agreements about the future of Gaza, the trajectory of operations.

But this also, of course, comes at a very difficult and crucial time for President Biden as he launches his presidential campaign. We're seeing protestors calling for a ceasefire in Gaza in multiple events.

The presidency acutely aware of the anger that is felt in his own base and willing to talk to critics. But this is an issue that's not going away and one that's going to be front and center for White House officials and campaign official this year.

HARLOW: Priscilla, thank you for that reporting.

Liz Cheney urging Nikki Haley to stay in this race through Super Tuesday, even though Cheney hasn't ruled out a run for the White House herself.

MATTINGLY: And we're going to take you to the Gulf of Maine, where extreme weather has people seeing the effects of climate change in real time. History washing away before their very eyes.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Pretty obvious they're gone. You know, if you've never been here before, you might not have --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You wouldn't know. Right?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And they didn't leave any kind of impression up there either. There's no --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- no trace of them whatsoever.