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Erin Burnett Outfront
Maine's Top Elections Official Removes Trump From 2024 Ballot; Recordings Reveal New Details In Fake Trump Electors Plot; Nikki Haley Does Damage Control On Civil War Stumble; Fears Of Widening War Intensify Amid Hezbollah Attacks; American Marks "Surreal" 5 Years In Russian Detention. Aired 7-8p ET
Aired December 28, 2023 - 19:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ERICA HILL, CNN HOST: OUTFRONT next:
Breaking news. Donald Trump removed from Maine's ballot. We are reading through this decision right now.
Plus, newly-revealed emails and audio recordings showing how team Trump made a chaotic and fringy push to overturn the 2020 election just hours before January 6th. It is a CNN exclusive.
And five years in Russian captivity. CNN has new exclusive audio of American Paul Whelan making a desperate plea from behind bars -- a plea directly to President Biden.
Let's go OUTFRONT.
And good evening. I'm Erica Hill, in for Erin Burnett.
Breaking news tonight, Donald Trump kicked off another state's 2024 ballot. Maine's Democratic secretary of state just moments ago issue a decision which bars Trump from that state's ballot. In her decision, she cites the 14th Amendment insurrection ban. The decision can be appealed in state court, an appeal that is almost guaranteed given Trump's legal team had already demanded that Maine secretary of state recuse yourself from the matter, pointing specifically to tweets she wrote, saying Trump had engaged in insurrection and should have been impeached.
Trump's attorneys say she showed biased by prejudging the matter. This Maine ruling, of course, follows a similar decision in Colorado. It's at odds, though, with other decisions in Michigan, Minnesota, Arizona, and New Hampshire. The Colorado Republican Party saying it has asked the Supreme Court to overturn that Colorado ruling.
Many legal experts expect that Supreme Court will settle this issue for the entire country.
Paula Reid is OUTFRONT with more on this breaking news for us tonight.
So, Paula, I know we're all doing through this right now. What more are you learning? What do you see here in this decision? PAULA REID, CNN CHIEF LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Erica, Maine
now becomes the second state after Colorado to ban Trump from the ballot based on Section Three of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
And let's break down exactly what that says. Under Section Three, it holds that officeholders who engage in an insurrection are barred from future -- ever holding office in the future. But while it lays out some specific offices, it does not specifically mention the president or the presidency.
So, we have seen this question of Trump's eligibility based on the 14th Amendment litigated across multiple states with different outcomes. Again, this has been litigated across half a dozen states. But Maine and Colorado are the only ones that have concluded he should be removed. Other states for various regions have opted not to remove him. Some of those decisions are procedural.
Initially, even Colorado said, look, it doesn't specifically say the president, so this should not be applied to him even though that state in a trial found he engaged in insurrection. But that state's Supreme Court overturned that lower court ruling and that has been appealed, at least by the Republican Party of Colorado to the Supreme Court.
And, Erica, when you have a state split like this over a key constitutional question, that is really the right time for that Supreme Court to weigh in. Though they haven't been asked, again, by the Republican Party of Colorado, former President Trump has not yet filed an appeal with the Supreme Court in Colorado. It's too soon to do that in Maine, but we expect Hillary appeal in the state as well.
Now, we're waiting to see if that Supreme Court wants to weigh in on this issue. But it would be something that would be beneficial for all parties involved here to get clarity from the Supreme Court because we've seen in states like Minnesota and Michigan, even though they've said, look, we're not going to ban him from the primary ballot, they left the door open. This whole issue could be relegated for the general election.
So, this issue right for Supreme Court review. We are waiting to see if they weigh in, and this Maine decision also on hold until that Supreme Court reveals if they're going to step in and offer some clarity or not.
HILL: Yeah. Well, in terms of the clarity, we even heard from there secretary of state in Michigan on the heels of that decision in her state saying specifically, we -- I would like to see some clarity and some finality from the Supreme Court. So, we will -- we will wait for the Supreme Court to tell us whether they're taking it up.
Paula, thank you. Stay with us. We're going to come back to you in just a moment.
I do want to bring in, though, Ethan Strimling, who's one of the main residents who challenged Trump's eligibility for the state ballots. He's also a former Democratic state senator. [19:05:02]
Ethan is with me on the phone tonight.
I appreciate you being with us. So, first of all, just your reaction to this decision from the secretary of state?
ETHAN STRIMLING (D), FORMER PORTLAND, MAINE MAYOR (via telephone): It's a big day for democracy, a good day for our Constitution. You know, the law in the United States should apply to everybody, no matter what position you hold or held, and our secretary of state today, after clear, objective deliberation made the right call.
And as I said, democracy was served.
HILL: As -- I don't need to tell you this, but maybe for the folks at home, this is the next step in Maine, is an appeal. An appeal is likely, as we know.
When we look at the similar challenges that have been out there, a challenge succeeded in Colorado to take Trump off the ballot, which was Paul was just going through, has now been appealed, likely to go to the Supreme Court.
Are you confident that this decision in Maine would be upheld in a Maine state court?
STRIMLING: I believe so. The issue of whether Donald Trump is an insurrectionist, there are now two courts that have deemed him an insurrectionist. And now, there is the judicial body in Maine that oversees our election, our secretary of state, that three different racial bodies. Two of them have now determined that the 14th Amendment clearly applies to the former president.
So I feel like, you know, our courts will recognize those and if anybody who watched this saw that it was an insurrection and saw his involvement in it. And if you read the 14th Amendment, it's absurd to imagine that the 14th Amendment would apply to every elected official in the country but the highest officer. So, I feel like I haven't read all the details of this decision yet, it just came down. But from what I hear from our attorneys, people feel very good about that decision, well-reasoned, and well thought through.
HILL: As you know, you've heard from other states, when it comes to the push back on decisions, that given the fact the former president has not been charged, that Jack Smith did not specifically charge him with this, there is some skepticism as to whether or not this would play out, in fact, the way he said it did, or would rather, and whether this does in fact apply.
How do you respond to those allegations?
STRIMLING: Well, there's two ways. Number one, again, as you mentioned, two courts have deemed that he incited an insurrection and now one of our constitutional officers in Maine, the highest officer that oversees our election, has deemed the same thing. So, three bodies have now deemed he was an insurrectionist. So it's
false to sort of claim he's never been charged with that and found, in essence, guilty of that. Yes, there has not been a criminal charge around it. But -- doing some research around the 14th amendment, there was no crime for insurrection that was on the books back in 1868 when it was passed. I understood what insurrection was, you didn't have to have it on the books. And they didn't charge any of the Confederates with it.
And yet, Jefferson Davis obviously and other Confederates were not allowed to hold office. So I think those arguments are pretty weak in the end. Our Constitution is clear. You cannot violate our Constitution, and then violate your oath and then run for office. That piece should be held I think no matter what.
HILL: Ethan, really quickly, the clock is ticking here. Super Tuesday, Maine goes to the polls, the back time, 45 days. This basically needs to be settled by January 20th to get the ballot in order.
Are you confident that will happen?
STRIMLING: Well, I hope so. I mean, this ruling is a very strong ruling. And so, we hope that this will be upheld and that his name will not be placed on the Maine ballot. If it goes up to the line and it gets to the Supreme Court, hopefully, they will rule very quickly.
HILL: We'll be watching for all of it. Ethan, appreciate it you jumping on the phone with us tonight, thank you.
STRIMLING: Thank you.
HILL: Also tonight for you, a CNN exclusive. New audio and new details about the great length the Trump campaign went to, to overturn that 2020 election, including talk of chartering a private jet to bring a fake elector certificates to Congress in time.
All of those revealed and emails and recordings from pro-Trump lawyer Kenneth Chesebro, the architect of that fake electors scheme who is now a cooperating witness in multiple investigations.
According to Chesebro, the Trump campaign's top lawyer was frantic after learning from another top aide that fake electors certificates from two key battleground states, Michigan and Wisconsin, were stuck in the mail.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
KENNETH CHESEBRO, PRO-TRUMP LAWYER: The general counsel to the Trump campaign is freaked out that Roman reported that the Michigan votes are still in a certain facility and Michigan, it doesn't look let go get to Pence in time.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HILL: All that set a frenzy scramble, and this was two days before the insurrection, scrambling to get the documents to then Vice President Pence by any means necessary, including looking to try to write a private jet to Washington to make sure the fake certificates would arrive in time for the election certification on January 6th.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
CHESEBRO: So, the general counsel campaign alarmed and was chartering -- they didn't have to charter a jet, they did commercial.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HILL: The stunning details almost certainly to figure prominently in the case special counsel Jack Smith is building against Donald Trump.
Paula Reid is back with us, OUTFRONT.
So, Paula, what more can you tell us about all of these details?
REID: Well, Erica, let's start with this incredible new reporting for the federal and state investigations. Now, we know that the fake elector scheme features prominently in the federal indictment against former President Trump. Now, we've also learned that some of the people involved in this specific incidents have spoken with federal investigators.
Now, this instance is vaguely referenced in the federal indictment. But at this point it's unclear how prominently it will factor in any eventual trial. We know that case is currently on hold while the former president appeals on some of the larger constitutional issues.
Now, Ken Chesebro is an unindicted coconspirator in the federal case. And our colleagues have learned he and his lawyer actually reached out to the special counsel back in October before he entered a guilty plea in the Georgia case. But they haven't heard back. Smith basically left him on read.
I mean, he has not responded and it's unclear, Erica, if that means they don't want to use him as a witness, if they think there are credibility issues, or if they're just kind of putting the coconspirators to the side and focusing solely on Trump. But I want to remind you, he's also -- Chesebro is also a key cooperator in other states. He's entered a guilty plea in Georgia. He's also spoken with prosecutors in Michigan, Nevada, and Wisconsin.
HILL: Paula Reid, appreciate it, thank you.
OUTFRONT now, Karen Friedman Agnifilo, former federal prosecutor who worked with special counsel Jack Smith, and John Dean, former Nixon White House counsel and Watergate whistleblower.
Karen, we're going to get to all of the new -- we've got a lot of new tonight. Let's really quickly though if we could talk about Maine for a moment. What do you make of this decision, Karen, by the secretary of state saying that Donald Trump cannot be on the ballot there? KAREN FRIEDMAN AGNIFILO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: So, in order to run for
president, you have to be qualified under the Constitution of the United States. And there's many different requirements to be qualified to run for office. You have to be at least 35 years old, you have to have lived in that United States for at least 14 years. You have to be a natural born citizen.
If you recall, Trump tried to claim that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. And another example is you can also not run for more than two terms. And if, we're talking about any of those qualifications, right, if it ever came out that Donald Trump wasn't born in the United States, or if he had served two terms in office, we wouldn't be having these discussions about whether or not he should be on a ballot.
So really this boils down to because the 14th Amendment specifically addresses this issue about if you have engaged in an insurrection, and violated the Constitution, if you can be -- if you can -- if you are qualified to run. I think this just really boils down to whether or not, two things, whether or not it applies to the president, and I think that's one of the issues that Supreme Court is going to have to settle.
And what type of process has to happen in order to find you, like a due process, right? You have to be convicted, you have to be found to be -- what is it? Because there is no doubt, if he did engage in an insurrection, that that disqualifies you from running for office.
So it's just interesting that this has been treated so differently from these other really objective factors.
HILL: John, when we look at this, perhaps not surprisingly, we heard from the Trump campaign slamming this decision, just moments ago saying, in part, quote, Biden and the Democrats simply do not trust the American voter in a free and fair election.
How potent the political argument can that be? We are hearing this from a lot of Republicans. Hey, leave it up to the voters to decide. Put somebody on that ballot and they'll tell you if they should be an office or not?
JOHN DEAN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, they like to ignore the Constitution, we know that. I think the Maine solution is very solid. It was fully briefed. There is ample due process in this proceeding, and they just lost by a straight, honest reading of the 14th Amendment, Trump's in trouble. He's in trouble wherever this is legitimately raised and addressed.
So, yes, the Supreme Court is going to have to weigh in on it. I want to say those strict constructionists and originalist get around that language. How are they going to do it? I don't know.
It looks so applicable, Erica. I don't know what they can do with it other than take him off the ballot.
HILL: It will be fascinating to see what they decide if they take it up. It would be surprising if they didn't, of course.
I also want to get your take, both of you, on this new reporting from CNN about -- from Kenneth Chesebro. It really gives us a more robust understanding of this fake electoral scheme and the Trump campaign's involvement in it. We know, of course, that Chesebro is cooperating. This is also a window into that cooperation.
Karen, how damaging do you think this new information is to Donald Trump?
AGNIFILO: So, that's an interesting question, right? Donald Trump is going to always say, look, just because everybody else was scrambling and my lawyers, they told me I could do this, right? That is how he will try to push this off and blame others.
But I think this scramble to get these fake elector ballots, the fact they were going to go to such great lengths to charter a plane if they had to, to get this to Mike Pence, it just really goes to show the desperation and what was going on at that time around this.
But I think it's interesting that Jack Smith has not taken Ken Chesebro up on his request to cooperate with him and that he doesn't seem to be interested to hear what he has to say. If you remember, Ken Chesebro's apology letter in Georgia, we won't even call at that, is basically not an apology letter. He basically regrets doing it, we just kind of what he's saying here, too, right? He regrets it because he's being thrown under the bus.
So, until he comes and says, Donald Trump knew he lost the election. We were doing this anyway to try to steal the election from the country. I'm not sure how valuable can Chesebro ultimately is to Jack Smith. But we'll see.
HILL: John, what do you make of these details of this new report?
DEAN: I think Karen's point is well-taken that Ken Chesebro seems to have lots of regrets. He also regrets that the lawyers for the Trump campaign appeared to desert him at one point, and he turned on them. We seem to now know his motive for coming forward and pleading, because he was not going to let the other one point a finger at him.
This is not unusual in a conspiracy, but we don't always have a record of it. But he's clearly explaining to the prosecutors and Michigan and in these recordings. So, we have a little bit more insight.
And the reason I don't think Jack Smith has talked to him, doesn't need him. He's got such detail already without, maybe, a troubled witness that he doesn't need to go there.
HILL: John Dean, Karen Friedman Agnifilo, great to have you both with us tonight. Thank you.
DEAN: Thanks, Erica. HILL: OUTFRONT next, Nikki Haley scrambling to explain after failing to mention slavery as a cause of the civil war. So will that gaffe to fund her campaign going forward?
Plus, Donald Trump's campaign has a new look. And a new approach, led by season strategists. Is it working? We're going to break down the numbers.
And another Russian official and Putin ally is dead. The 46-year-old just that latest lawmaker to mysteriously die since the start of the war in Ukraine.
HILL: Next tonight, growing criticism for Nikki Haley after she initially failed to say slavery caused the Civil War. Haley spending today on damage control.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NIKKI HALEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Of course, the civil war was about slavery. We know that. That's unquestioned, always the case. We know the civil war was about slavery.
But it's also more than that. It was about the freedoms of every individual. It was about the role of government.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HILL: Those comments come in less than 24 hours after she was asked a question that started this all. That simple question, what caused the civil war? It came at a New Hampshire town hall.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HALEY: I think the cause of the civil war was basically how government was going to run. The freedoms and what people could and couldn't do.
TOWN HALL AUDIENCE MEMBER: In the year 2023, it's astonishing to me that you answer that question without mentioning the word slavery.
HALEY: What do you want me to say about slavery?
TOWN HALL AUDIENCE MEMBER: No problem. You've answered my question. Thank you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HILL: Eva McKend is OUTFRONT in Lebanon, New Hampshire.
So, Eva, these comments really dominating the coverage of Nikki Haley today. EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: It sure is, Erica.
And perhaps beyond the coverage, most important is the response from voters here on the ground. We've heard from at least one tonight at this town hall event here in Lebanon, New Hampshire. And he asked her, sort of very forcefully, he said, this is a chance to redeem yourself from last night's question, where you tripped up on slavery, will you categorically say that you will not be Trump's running mate?
And she did not categorically reject it. She only said she doesn't play for second place. She is not in this content for VP, something she has said time and time again.
So the blowback does continue here, not only from voters, but from her opponents on the campaign trail. Let's listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'll make it easy for you. If someone asked me what the cause of the Civil War was --
It's easy. It's slavery.
GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I notice that Nikki Haley has had some problems with some basic American history. She was asked a very simple question and responded with just really incomprehensible word salad.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MCKEND: And listen. Haley will maintain that she continues to have momentum here on the ground. She spent the day campaigning with Governor Chris Sununu and she is addressing a crowd of folks here in Lebanon, with a packed audience. But she will continue to have to, sort of, make sense of all of this, Erica.
HILL: We appreciate that reporting, thank you.
OUTFRONT now, Harry Enten, our numbers guru, Bakari Sellers, former Democratic member of the South Carolina House of Representatives, and Jonah Goldberg, editor-in-chief of "The Dispatch".
And to note for a full disclosure, Jonah's wife previously worked for Nikki Haley.
Good to see all of you tonight.
Harry, let's start with you here. When we look at Nikki Haley, she has been surging in the polls. It has been a good couple of weeks for her. You saw something today, though, that really stood out to you. What was it?
HARRY ENTEN, CNN SENIOR DATA REPORTER: Yeah. You know, if you look at Google searches, and sometimes they can be a leading indicator. Today was the day she was more searched than any day outside of a debate in the last six months. So, clearly, something happened in that last 24 hours, and more than that, the state she was most searched it was New Hampshire, the state where you mention she's had some poll momentum. And if you look at the curve most closely associated -- its slavery and the Civil War.
I don't think this is an area that Nikki Haley wants to play on, especially as she's trying to gain momentum and potentially overtake Donald Trump in the polls in that first primary.
HILL: So, given that, Jonah, we're looking at obviously New Hampshire, first primary state. Prior to that, we've got the Iowa caucuses. Is this a problem for Nikki Haley moving forward?
JONAH GOLDBERG, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It's a problem for her today. It might be a problem for her tomorrow. Frankly, I think this is partly the product of a really slow news week. She's screwed up an answer. It was a bad answer. I don't really like her cleanup stuff on this either.
But it's very difficult to make the case -- like there a bunch of voices on the left that want to make it sound like somehow that she is racist when she took down a Confederate flag, she appointed Tim Scott to the Senate, she was on the opposite side of internal Republican fights in South Carolina against that neo-segregationist crowd. She's the children of immigrants.
I think this is one of the things where she -- her real mistake is that she gave a very political answer. And I think has to do with two things. One, muscle memory from having to talk about this stuff in South Carolina, which has got all sorts of issues with this history. And, two, because she is trying to speak libertarian in New Hampshire and give some sort of live free or die state kind of answer, and it just sounded like she got too clever by half, too cute, and thought she was trying to anticipate gotchas from both the Trump world and from the media. And she messed up.
But I don't really see how this is going to have legs when she said what everyone wants her to say, and probably say it five more times. It's not that interesting a story.
HILL: So, you noted that she's had to discuss this and I'm paraphrasing what you said here, but I heard was tiptoe around it in many ways in South Carolina.
Bakari, the two of you actually served in the House of Representatives at the same time in South Carolina. As she was trying to clean this up today, she said basically everybody understood slavery was part of the Civil War, that part doesn't need to be set out loud. Take a listen.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
HALEY: I'm from the South. Of course you know it's about slavery.
I guess if you grew up in the South, it's a given that it's about slavery.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HILL: Bakari, she says it's given but it's important to note, when she was pressed on it last night, we played that sound, she deflected. You have known her for sometime. Again, you served in the state house together. Were you surprised by the answer last night and by what we're hearing today?
BAKARI SELLERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: So, first, I'm not surprised by the answer last night. Second, I love Jonah but let me just hassle articulate, that in South Carolina, we're not necessarily intellectually dishonest about our history. But we know Nikki Haley very well. I know Nikki Haley very well.
We're both from Bamberg County, a small county that is probably 15,000 people total. We set beside each other. Our desks were beside each other in the state house. We served together.
I remember in 2010 when she gave a very similar answer. So, to say this with some type of fondling, just in this moment, that not the case. I would actually say Nikki Haley is immensely talented. I've said that time and time again. I think she is one of the most talented politicos in the entire country.
The problem Nikki Haley has is that she oftentimes doesn't stand for much. And when that light shines bright, you can see that.
Let me just also go back and say one more thing, just -- I have to say this because my good friend Jonah say it. Nikki Haley did not take down the Confederate flag. That also was something part of her bravado, part of her resume. Nine people died in a church, including one of my good friends, Clemente Pinkney.
Nikki Haley takes credit for that, but in order to take credit for that, then in the other breath say she does not necessarily understand this was a mistake, because we know that in 2010 when she was running for governor, she said the same thing. So Nikki's problem is a lot larger than --
HILL: Bakari, to that point, we have some sound from 2010. I think it would be interesting for folks at home to here. This is from our good friends, our colleagues at KFILE. This is an interview from 2010 from those comments. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HALEY: I think you had one side of the civil war that was fighting for tradition. And I think you had another side of the civil war that's fighting for change.
INTERVIEWER: Tradition versus the change on what?
HALEY: On individual rights and liberty of people.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HILL: Jonah, I think you are about to jump in. You know, I think that -- go ahead.
GOLDBERG: Look, I didn't say that people in South Carolina are intellectually dishonest about their history. I said that Nikki comes from a branch of the Republican Party that was opposed to a lot of intellectually dishonest neo-segregationist jack wads on the right side of the Republican -- on the right wing side of the Republican Party and she had to deal with it in primary politics and Republican politics in South Carolina.
A lot of those Republicans were up until fairly recently lifelong Democrats who moved into the Republican Party. It's a complicated state. It's a complicated history.
I don't like Nikki's answers, but the idea that somehow -- like your -- the fact she doesn't say it was about slavery, which is wrong and kind of, dumb, does not necessarily -- that's not a transitive property there that say therefore, she somehow racist.
I think Bakari's criticism --
GOLDBERG: -- she tries too hard, she's a lot like Bill Clinton who like to take a position to people -- to appease people on both sides.
You know, Bill Clinton used to say, you know, I smoked marijuana but I didn't inhale. I sided with the minority, but I would have voted with the majority. That's that rap against her and I don't think it's going to last very long because it's kind of hard to explain to a normal person like the scandal, controversy here is she didn't mention slavery but she says, of course -- but then she said, well, of course, it's about slavery. I just don't think there's a lot of "there" there.
SELLERS: I don't think Nikki Haley is racist and I think a lot of people may -- you know, that's not the conclusion that people who know Nikki would make. You can't.
I actually saw Nikki Haley at that she went to all nine funerals in Charleston. I wouldn't dare say that. I -- that is -- that is separate from the conversation that we're having. We both make it blasted for that on Twitter, but that may not be real life or X or whatever it's called.
What I am saying --
HILL: Can confirm it is not.
SELLERS: -- she is not prepared to take on one -- she's Icarus. She's flying too close to the sun. She's not prepared to take on someone who stands on business, as the kids say, or stands on their ignorance, as I would say in Donald Trump, and would double down on their ignorance.
Nikki is flailing. She's digging a deeper hole. She's not prepared for the moment.
HILL: We're going to have to leave it there --
GOLDBERG: She's done better than all of her competitors, except Donald Trump so far by actually being a good politician. And, look, again, I'm not defending what she said, I just don't think it's this incredibly damning thing. We'll see how --
HILL: We'll see how it plays out but I have to cut you both off there. We're all going to get in big trouble.
Also, Harry Enten has done a really good job of sitting here, so, good job, Harry.
ENTEN: Thank you.
HILL: Gentlemen, thank you all.
We'll continue to discuss --
GOLDBERG: You're a good senator, Harry.
HILL: OUTFRONT next, the breaking news, new details tonight from the Maine secretary of state's decision -- that decision to remove Donald Trump from the ballot.
And exclusive new audio of Paul Whelan begging President Biden for help today as he marks his fifth year in Russian captivity.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
PAUL WHELAN, AMERICAN DETAINED IN RUSSIA: Please use every resource available to secure my release as you would do if your own son had been taken hostage.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HILL: The CNN reporter who spoke to him is OUTFRONT.
HILL: Back now with our breaking news. The Maine secretary of state deciding just moments out to remove former President Trump from the state's 2024 ballot, citing the 14th Amendment's insurrectionist ban.
Paula Reid is OUTFRONT for us this hour with those new details.
Paula, what more do we know about this decision?
REID: Well, Erica, the Trump campaign saying it will file a legal objection to this decision out of Maine. Now, one thing that is unique about the process in that state is that the first stop for questions about ballot eligibility is the secretary of state. Not the courts.
Now, that decision is then appealed, if he would like, to the Maine court system. But it's unique this goes to an official, who in this case is a Democrat.
And tonight, of course, the Trump campaign is seizing on that and attacking her personally, accusing her of, quote, trying to interfere in the 2024 election. That is the argument that they have made for pretty much all of former President Trump's legal troubles.
But, Erica, at the core of this case, one of the questions that has been appealed to the Supreme Court is whether state officials have the authority to remove people from ballots. The first question is, of course, if the 14th Amendment, Section Three of that amendment applies to presidents. Another question is, well, if it does, do state officials have the power to enforce that or is it up to Congress?
And then another question that has been posed by the Republican Party of Colorado to the Supreme Court, is whether you are depriving a political party of their First Amendment right if you remove someone?
So, even though the statement from the Trump campaign is somewhat hyperbolic in the attacks on the secretary of state, the court here has some serious constitutional questions for which we have no answer. You may or may not get one from the Supreme Court.
HILL: We'll be watching and waiting to see if they take this up.
Paula, appreciate it. Thank you.
Also tonight, the time for a diplomatic solution is running out. That is according to a member of Israel's war cabinet. All of this as the fighting is intensifying a second front. Hezbollah launching simultaneous attacks on Israel's northern border. The IDF telling CNN, 50 launches were detected today alone, 25 fired toward Kiryat Shmona, the biggest town on Israel's Lebanese border.
Elliott Gotkine is following all the developments for us tonight from Tel Aviv.
So, put this in perspective for us, if you could. When we look at this specifically at this escalation, Elliott, along the northern border.
ELLIOTT GOTKINE, JOURNALIST: Erica, the United States has from the beginning of Israel's war with Hamas trying to deter Hezbollah, which, of course, is an Iranian proxy based in southern Lebanon by having warships and aircraft carriers in the Eastern Mediterranean, and also trying to persuade Israel from exercising restraint.
Now, so far, that kind of seems to have been working, but we have seen missiles, rockets, drones being fired from Lebanon, from Hezbollah towards Israel on a daily basis. We have seen as retaliated on a daily basis. In one incident today, air raid sirens were set off by a drone being far towards Haifa. This is one of the most important cities in Israel. It's the home of Israel's biggest port. So things are still simmering. We are not quite at the point where we
have another northern front, another full blown war going on between Israel and Hezbollah. But the problem here is no one really has much leverage over Hezbollah aside from Iran. The Lebanese government doesn't have leverage over Hezbollah. And the United States certainly doesn't either.
So, it's either Iran, Iranian Hezbollah, or Israel threatening to do what it did in the words of Benny Gantz, member of the war cabinet, former defense minister, which is, essentially, if Hezbollah does not pull back, then Israel will make it do so.
Back to you, Erica.
HILL: Elliott, appreciate it. Thank you.
With us now, investigative journalist Christo Grozev. He is also on Russia's most wanted list. And retired Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, a former assistant secretary of state for political and military affairs under President George W. Bush.
General, if I can begin with you. As Elliott just laid it out for us there, it seems there is two answers here -- either Iraq pulls back or Israel. How do you see this playing out?
BRIGADIER GEN. MARK KIMMITT (RET.), FORMER ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE FOR POLITICAL-MILITARY AFFAIRS: Well, if you are talking about the northern front against Hezbollah, look, I think we need to understand that Hassan Nasrallah said on October 10 that he wanted nothing to do with this fight. I think what's happened is he expected this to be short, brutal, but would be on to the process now of returning hostages from Palestinian prisoners.
I think we have gone well beyond that point. He needs -- and he believes he's the leader of the axis of resistance. He needs to ramp this up a bit, be serious about the invasion. But Benny Gantz is right. This needs to be worked out pretty quickly.
HILL: Christo, Hezbollah funded, of course, by Iran. You've actually been investigating this connection here between Iran, Russia, and the Hamas terror attack on October 7th. What have you found?
CHRISTO GROZEV, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST: We'll separate facts from what -- hypothesis at this point. But what we've found, with my colleagues "Der Spiegel (ph)", and inside of Russia, is that since February of this year, they've been continuous trips of Russia's military intelligence units, in particular, a unit that is very, very focused on subversive actions, from sabotage actions, so assassinations and explosions to Tehran. And they've been meeting with members of the Iranian guards.
And that has been a sort of tendency. We've seen started in February of this year, and it has continued until September. And then we see that members of this unit, of the GRU, Russia's military intelligence, also were absent from Russia exactly at the time of the attacks on Israel.
So, we are looking and where exactly they went but it seemed -- what we see at the moment is a very strange preference of Russian intelligence officers to spend time in Iran, long stretches of time, shortage of time, consistent with training for example.
And I do think Iran was training Russians. It's most likely the other way around. So, the question is, was that in any way linked on September -- on October 7th? We'll find out in the next few days, I believe.
HILL: In the next few days?
HILL: So, fairly quickly. We know you'll come back to us when you have that.
As we -- as we look at what else is happening in Israel, General, we have the IDFTA saying, the IDF rather, today saying, it regrets the harm caused by a strike at the Hamas-run health ministry says killed dozens of people in a refugee camp in Gaza earlier this week. In fact, noting a, quote, preliminary investigation revealed that additional buildings located near the target were also hit during the strike, which likely caused unintended harm to additional, uninvolved civilians.
How does something like that happen? Can it be avoided?
KIMMITT: Well, look, we have gone through this many, many times in the American army as well, both Iraq and Afghanistan. When you're firing the amount of rockets and missiles and drop in the number of bombs that you are, inevitably mistakes will be made.
It's clear that part of the mistakes made are a function of intelligence, part of it may have been some bad target bearing. We can only hope the Israeli defense force were to do a thorough investigation into the bottom of why these mistakes happen, and hopefully avoid them happening again in a future.
HILL: When we're looking at this, there's also this news this week, Christo, hearing different reports, explanations from Hamas and Iran's revolutionary guard in terms of the explanations for the October 7th attacks. And so there's been a little back and forth, Hamas coming out again.
What do you, though, of this back and forth and the fact that it's coming out now?
GROZEV: Well, it comes out now because Iran chose to take credit for it. And I chose to take credit for it because it was pressure domestically to explain how it's going to respond to what -- how it has responded to the Soleimani killing and most recently to the killing of Brigadier General Mousavi.
So I think it was a force decision to come out and claim responsibility. In the hypothesis that Russia and Iran plotted this, it would have been a very deniable plan. It was supposed to be top secret. It's supposed to be delegated to Hamas so they have full credit for. And Hamas did that, and they want to do that for domestic reasons.
HILL: Right. They have continued, we should point out, yes.
GROZEV: Exactly, they have continued to do that.
And suddenly, it seems Iran is breaking from the deal because it needs to explain to its own electorate, its own populace what it's doing to avenge for the death of these important generals. I think the disconnect is kind of predictable because they have different interests, different motivations here.
HILL: Yeah. It is fascinating to watch all of this.
Christo, General, thank you both for your time tonight.
OUTFRONT next, exclusive new audio from Paul Whelan as he marks five years in Russian captivity.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
WHELAN: It's a disintegrating experience. Your mind, your body, your soul -- everything.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HILL: And also at this video that will likely make you very happy you are not on the plane.
HILL: Tonight, rare explosive new audio from an American held inside a Russian prison. Today is the fifth anniversary of Paul Whelan's detention. He tells CNN today, his conditions in prison are getting worse. Whelan was arrested in Moscow on espionage charges which he vehemently denies and is now serving a 16-year sentence doing manual labor at a remote present camp.
OUTFRONT now, CNN State Department reporter Jennifer Hansler.
So, Jennifer, you spoke with Paul Whelan today. The two of you also spoke last week. Tell us more about the competitions and what he's told you about the state of affairs right now.
JENNIFER HANSLER, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT REPORTER: Well, Erica, there is definitely a sense of frustration and exasperations from Paul Whelan at the fact he's still behind bars in Russia, five years after he was detained. Now, he's told me it's surreal that he's still in this situation, that he cannot believe two administrations, that Trump and now the Biden administration, have not been able to secure his release.
And you can tell he's getting increasingly concerned that he may not see freedom. He may be left behind again. He was not included in two prisoner swaps last year. The U.S. government refused to negotiate for him. He also said it's very difficult to deal with the fact he's there. He may not see his parents who are in their 80s, again. He's already lost friends, his beloved pets.
This is what he told me about the state of his on mental state right now. Take a listen.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
WHELAN: I start the day with, you know, singing the national anthems for my four countries, and, you know, things get progressively worse from there. But, you know, there are people I speak to. I make calls home, I write letters, I read books, but it's extremely difficult being innocent and in prison and waiting for people to help you.
It's a disintegrating experience. Your mind, your body, your soul, everything.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HANSLER: And so, Erica, I've been speaking to him over the past two years, half a dozen times, and he's definitely -- this is the most frustrated I've heard him about his situation right now.
HILL: He also hit a direct message for President Biden. What did I tell you?
HANSLER: That's right, Erica. He had a very clear message today on the fifth anniversary of his detention. He wants Biden administration to pull out all the stops to bring him home. These were his exact words.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
WHELAN: I'm more than past ready to return home and I'm counting on the U.S. government to come for me and soon. The time is now to take decisive action and bring this debacle to a close. President Biden, please use every resource available to secure my release as you would do if your own son had been taken hostage.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HANSLER: Now, Erica, I should note that the Biden administration has said they're working tirelessly to bring home Paul Whelan. Secretary of State Antony Blinken put out estimate last night saying this is something they take day-to-day, they are not going to rest until he comes home. We know the Biden administration put forth and offered to the Russians for both Paul and Evan Gershkovich, and that was rejected by the Russians -- Erica.
HILL: Jennifer, I really appreciate the reporting. Thank you.
And joining me now is Paul's brother, David Whelan.
So, you just heard your brother there. You heard him pleading with President Biden to use every resource available to do this as what he would do if your own son have been taken hostage -- Paul's words there. He says he feels forgotten. I know he said that before. Today, it must ring differently.
Do you agree with him at this, point that he's been forgotten?
DAVID WHELAN, BROTHER OF PAUL WHELAN: I don't think so. I think unfortunately Paul's mental health is breaking down. His resilience is starting to crumble and that's not unexpected after five years.
Unfortunately, I think no matter how tirelessly that U.S. government wishes it could bring Paul home, without the cooperation of the Kremlin, it's unlikely to happen. I think there is this very frustrating point with Paul's situation, where he may have to last another 11 years, or some part of, that before that U.S. government is successful in bringing him home.
HILL: You mentioned those efforts, and Jennifer just alluded to the State Department saying that Russia had rejected these new and significant proposals the way it was characterized to secure Paul's release. Are you aware tonight of any other deals that may be on the table?
WHELAN: I'm not. And I'm a little bit concerned. I think our family is concerned that we have seen concessions made to the Russian government, concessions that Russian governments have been very clear they wanted and that are in control of that U.S. government.
But now, the U.S. government is having to look at third-party allies, other countries, to create concessions that the Russian government might take and I think what we are right now is what the U.S. government really doesn't have, a clear plan of what it can give to the Russians that the Russians want in order to bring Paul and perhaps Mr. Gershkovich home as well.
HILL: How does that sit with you as his brother?
WHELAN: Well, it's hard. I mean, there is always that worst case scenario, which is that poll has to be there for another 11 years of injustice. That would be unfortunate. I think what's worrying, Paul, and worrying all of us is can my parents lost another 11 years so they can see their son again? And I think time is our enemy all over again.
HILL: We heard Paul there, in his conversation with Jennifer describing his daily life from prison. He called this a disintegrate experience -- your mind, your body, your soul, everything. That seemed to be your assessment, too, of where he's at right now. What more has he told you or a family?
WHELAN: Well, I think we are starting to see things happened to Paul that may have not happened, say, over the last four and a half years. The physical assault at the end of November really put him on notice his physical safety was not guaranteed, and up until that point hit really only been attacked once by a guard before and the pretrial detention facility.
So, I mean, that's something he's now concerned about that he wasn't before. The deputy warden is trying to shake him down for protection money. So what we're able to make invests to the prosecutor to invest -- investigate all of these, he's really on his own. American consul officials are eight hours drive away, they can't get there, they can intervene in these things until something happens.
HILL: Dave, we appreciate the time tonight and your insight, too. And we hope the next time we speak, I know I say this every time, but the next time we speak, I hope we have some better news about Paul. Thank you again.
WHELAN: Me, too. Thanks, Erica.
HILL: OUTFRONT next, this is a flight that you would have been very happy to miss. Not only does it look bad, but listen to the audio here.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, oh, stop it!
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HILL: Tonight, if you have turbulence issues, this would be the wrong flight to be on. It's kind of tough to stick that landing when you're dealing with the conditions at Heathrow. You see this flight wobbling side to side as it approach. Everything seemed okay we are told until the plane was seconds from touchdown, and the winds really started to howl. Some of the gusts, by the, way clocked up to 70 miles an hour.
This was a flight from L.A. to Heathrow in London. While that is tough to watch, it's kind of remarkable, too, is when you add in the audio reaction as this plane is coming in for a landing. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, oh, stop it! Oh! Oh!
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HILL: Sums it up. Remember, to put your tray tables everything under the seat.
Thanks for joining us.
"AC360" starts right now.