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Erin Burnett Outfront

Trump Appeals Decision Barring Him From Maine Ballot; Senior Hamas Leader Killed In Beirut Attack; Iran Dispatches Naval Destroyer To Red Sea As Tensions Rise; Calls For Protests Emerge After Harvard President Resigns; DeSantis-Haley Ads Inundate Airwaves, Rivalry Intensifies With 13 Days To Iowa Caucuses. Aired 7-8p ET

Aired January 02, 2024 - 19:00   ET




Breaking news: Trump appealing the decision that got him kicked off the ballot in Maine, as another state Supreme Court weighs in.

Plus, Harvard's first Black president steps down amid allegations of plagiarism and disastrous congressional testimony. Was race also a factor?

And an exchange student in the U.S. falls victim to an elaborate kidnapping plot, one that cost his terrified family $80,000. Tonight, a warning from the FBI that he is not alone.

Let's go OUTFRONT.

Good evening. I'm Erica Hill, in for Erin Burnett.

OUTFRONT tonight, breaking news. Trump appeals. The former president's legal team appealing the decision that keeps him off the ballot in Maine, saying the secretary of state there had no legal authority to remove him from the ballot, calling her a, quote, biased decision- maker, who should've recused herself and otherwise failed to provide lawful due process. Trump's team is also expected to appeal Colorado's decision, which bans him from that states ballot. He's expected to appeal that to the Supreme Court at any moment, following in the steps of Colorado's GOP.

Now, those decisions are based on Section Three of the 14th Amendment, which was, of course, passed after the civil war, and says a person is ineligible to run if they, quote, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion, against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.

And now, tonight, another state weighing in. Oregon's highest court asking Trump and a liberal advocacy group for more details about the case, to block the former president from the state's primary contest. These cases involving the 14th Amendment could put the nine Supreme Court justices squarely at the center of the 2024 election, forcing them to decide, and decide quickly, by Supreme Court standards, whether to rescue or possibly sink Trump's 2024 political ambitions. Time is really a major factor here. The primaries for both Colorado

and Maine are set for Super Tuesday in early March, just days before Trump railing against those Colorado and Maine decisions, calling them desperate attempts to rig the election.

Evan Perez is OUTFRONT live in Washington tonight.

So, Evan, so what more do we know about the arguments from Donald Trump's legal team tonight in this appeal?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, one of the first things that he tackles in this, or his legal team tackles in this filing today, Erica, is the fact that the former president said he's not actually an insurrectionist. Taking that on head on, which is the finding by the Maine secretary of state, it's the finding by the Colorado Supreme Court, and it's one, of course, that's going to have to be fought in front of the Supreme Court.

And the U.S. Supreme Court, that is. And the fact that, as you pointed out, Oregon is now looking at a similar challenge, it tells you what the problem is for the former president. They're going to be fighting these types of battles in state after state, unless the Supreme Court steps in and decides once and for all what really is the law here? Does the 14th Amendment apply to the status of candidate for president, which is one of the things that Trump mentions in his brief today.

He says that the 14th Amendment does not apply to the office of the presidency. So we anticipate that a similar argument, as you saw today in this main decision, we'll see a similar arguments in the case of Colorado, and we expect that because there have been some states that have decided in the opposite direction, Erica, that the Supreme Court will try to settle this once and for all, right?

Because you have some states that have gone in the opposite direction, saying that these 14th amendment challenges don't really stand any ground. So we expect that the Supreme Court will have to make a final decision in the coming weeks.

Of course, we also know the Supreme Court is likely to eventually have to consider whether Trump is immune in the other cases that he's facing in the Jack Smith investigation.

So, plenty of action for the Supreme Court in the coming weeks -- Erica.

HILL: Yeah, we just need the Supreme Court to tell us whether they're going to take them up, right?

Evan, appreciate it.

PEREZ: Right.

HILL: Thank you.

OUTFRONT now, former ambassador Norm Eisen, he's former counsel to House Democrats during the Trump impeachment trial; and Ben Ginsberg, former national counsel for the Bush-Cheney campaign.

It's good to see both of you tonight.

Ben, in his main filing tonight, Trump called Secretary Bellows a, quote, biased decision-maker, saying she should've recused herself.


How effective is that argument for him?

BEN GINSBERG, REPUBLICAN ELECTION LAWYER: Well, the case is going to go to court, so I'm not sure it matters that much. But the fact of the matter is we had an oddity in our American election system where we elect partisan officeholders in elections to do nonpartisan things. So it is a natural argument that is bound to come, and he has a point.

HILL: He has a point. Norm, what about the fact that this state law of Maine said that she had to. If people filed these petitions, right, as a secretary of state, she has to look at them. Would she just doing her job? Or did she, as Trump says in the filing, did she act beyond her authority?

NORM EISEN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I do not think that she acted beyond her authority, Erica. And while I agree with Ben, that we give these jobs, which might well be done in a nonpartisan way to elected officials, I think it's a healthy thing that our democracy, the people of the United States, make choices about who is going to be resolving these kinds of momentous questions.

In my view, she has the power to make this decision. Many other states, the secretary does not. In Maine, they do, and I think she's made a strong case that Donald Trump engaged in insurrection under the 14th Amendment, and does not belong on the ballot. What the higher courts and the Supreme Court will do, that's a whole other question.

HILL: Yeah, that certainly is. It's quite the parlor game these days, too, as we wait to hear from them. I was struck by this new Washington poll, "Washington Post", rather, poll out today, which finds 46 percent of Americans say Trump's actions related to his role in the January 6th attack on the capitol shouldn't disqualify him for the presidency. And it's interesting because in August, CNN had a poll that asked that same question, at that time 51 percent of respondents said he should be disqualified.

Ben, do you think these 14th amendment challenges are helping Donald Trump?

GINSBERG: Yes, I actually do. I think the impeachment counts helped him, I think the 14th Amendment actions are helping him. Look, I think the essential point with Donald Trump is that he needs to be defeated at the polling place by the voters, and partisan attempts to get rid of him by masquerading in supposedly objective processes is absolutely backfired.

The most important priority for the country right now is to come together and heal, and these sort of partisan actions to go after Donald Trump I think are hurting that effort, and the poll -- "The Washington Post" poll verifies that.

HILL: While we wait, right, to hear from the Supreme Court, Norm, do you think there's any chance of the Supreme Court would not take up these cases?

EISEN: Well, you never know what the Supreme Court is going to do. You have both sides asking for review in the Colorado 14th Amendment case. And you also have the question of whether Donald Trump is immune or not. There is polling data to the contrary that says that once Donald Trump is convicted, if he is convicted, you see massive swings in the polls. I had an op-ed on this in "The New York Times" last week.

In some polls you see a swing of as much as 14 points. The American people understand the difference between allegations and findings. I do not think that the findings that Colorado or Maine made, switching back to the 14th Amendment question, those were objective findings of fact.

Donald Trump did engage in serious conduct, there is a solid basis for them to adjudicate that he violated the 14th Amendment, and does not belong on the ballot, even if the Supreme Court may or may not agree with him.

HILL: Ben, is their chance, and I was speaking with another very wise -- last week, who was saying to me he believes there's a chance that maybe they just do piecemeal here, the Supreme Court. And there's a chance that they may not actually weigh in on the 14th Amendment.

Do you think that's a possibility?

GINSBERG: Well, it's always a possibility. It's especially a possibility because the cases before him now involve primaries, and the Supreme Court's prior jurisprudence gives parties a great deal of leeway for selecting their candidates. That's different from the general election.

But it is really essential that the Supreme Court deal with the issue head on for the general election, and certainly before the Electoral College votes are opened on January 6th, because one of the few things the members of Congress can do is object to the qualifications of a presidential candidates, and that is not an issue you want litigated for the first time on the congressional floor on January 6th.


HILL: Yeah, there is a lot weighing on this, as we keep saying. It is so important, and so we will wait.

Really appreciate your insight, as always, gentlemen. Thank you.

GINSBERG: Thank you.

HILL: OUTFRONT next, a senior Hamas leader dead, raising fears of a widening war on the relief, this as Iran sends a naval destroyer to the Red Sea. Plus, Harvard's first Black president resigns after facing mounting

controversies, including botched congressional testimony and allegations of plagiarism. Was race also at play?

Plus, Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley taking aim at each other.


AD ANNOUNCER: Phony Ron DeSantis, too lame to lead.

AD ANNOUNCER: Tricky Nikki potentially is tough on China.


HILL: Attacking each other, but why not take on Trump?


HILL: Tonight, a senior Hamas leader is dead amid serious concerns the war in the Middle East is about to get bigger.

Saleh al-Arouri, a top official in Hamas's military and political wing, killed in Beirut. Hamas said the leader was killed by an Israeli airstrike, Israel, however, is not taking responsibility. And this is all happening as Iran is dispatched a naval destroyer to the Red Sea.


Tensions there escalating, following a series of attacks by the Iranian-backed Houthi militia, including against the United States. And now, the U.S. Navy has killed Houthis for the first time since this conflict broke out, sinking three Houthi boats after being attacked in the Red Sea this weekend.

Oren Liebermann is OUTFRONT tonight. So, Oren, the U.S. really getting drawn further and further into this conflict. Iranian involvement, clearly evident.

What is the U.S. going to do next?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Erica, the Biden administration's position is they don't want to see a regional escalation. They don't want to see a widening of the war. Clearly, it's not just up to the U.S. to make a unilateral decision. In this case, the events that we've seen over the course of the past couple of days make a widening of the war and escalation a growing possibility. Not only, as you pointed out of the weekend, the U.S. military and U.S. attack helicopters seeking three Houthi attacks votes that were going after a commercial vessel and killing the crews of those for the first time since the war, but also now the killing of Saleh al-Arouri, a senior Hamas militant in Beirut.

So the U.S. has to watch all of this, the U.S. does have the backing of the international coalition in the Red Sea, and that gives it essentially some weight here in its actions. The U.S. monitoring that Iranian Navy vessel that's in the Red Sea. For the U.S.'s position, it is an international waterway, a critical one at that.

So they're allowed to be there, but the U.S. military will keep a very close eye on them as it watches where this all goes. For the killing of Saleh al-Arouri, who you saw there with the ayatollah, the leader of Iran, we've seen promises of revenge and condemnation from the Iranians, from Hamas, Hezbollah, and even some others.

The question now, of course, what did they do? They have a lot of options, all of these Iranian proxies. Attack U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, go after U.S. vessels in the red sea with the Houthis there from Yemen, attack Israel, Iran doesn't see much of a difference between the U.S. and Israel.

So these are all possibilities that we have to watch out for and that the U.S. is watching out for. Now, as you note, Israel hasn't officially taken responsibility for the killing of Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut, Israeli officials have been a bit coy about this, but it's worth pointing to this tweet from Danny Danon, a current member of Knesset and the Israeli ambassador to the U.N. He said on Twitter, I congratulate the IDF, the Shin Bet, the Mossad, and the security forces for killing the senior Hamas official Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut. Anyone who's involved in the October 7th massacre should know that we will reach them and settle the account with them.

So, Erica, pretty clear there. It's also worth noting that Benjamin Netanyahu promised Israel would go after Hamas leaders wherever they are.

HILL: Yeah, that's for sure.

Oren, appreciate your reporting as always. Thank you.

OUTFRONT now, retired Army Lieutenant General Mark Hertling.

Good to see you tonight.

So, let's pick up right there where Oren left off, the senior Hamas leader was killed by the strike in southern Lebanon, also a longtime military political leader in Hamas.

How likely do you think some sort of retaliation is in the next 24 to 48 hours?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: This is what -- Oren's reporting, first of all, Erica, was phenomenal. But this is the kind of thing that the Biden administration has been worried about. They've been trying to repress any kind of expansion of this conflict, and this strike in Beirut against the Hamas leader is not going to help that at all.

You also have to consider that Hezbollah leader Nasrallah has said that any strikes inside of Lebanon by Israel, especially in Beirut, will cause serious repercussions for the Israelis. This is the Hezbollah leader.

What Israel has been trying to do is not allow this to come into a multi-front war. But we are already seeing that. They are fighting hard in Gaza, they have been fighting hard in northern Israel against Hezbollah terrorists coming out of the southern Lebanon, they have now struck in Beirut, they've had these missile attacks from Yemen, we have seen PMF forces in Iraq and Syria continue to try and attempt to influence this operation. This is a tinderbox right now, Erica.

HILL: And as we look at this tinderbox, too, as we look at the broader region here, the Iranian naval destroyer now heading to the Red Sea. Days after the U.S. sank three Houthi ships, killing all onboard.

Can the U.S. at this point avoid getting drawn in deeper?

HERTLING: It's going to be challenging. It's going to depend on what that Iranian naval vessel does in the Red Sea.

Those are international waters, there's a lot of transportation and elements going through that. There are non-combatant, you know, the strike against the three Houthi rebel boats that tried to attack the Maersk carrier the other day, is an indicator of what the Iranians were attempting to do.

By putting a naval destroyer in this area, confronting an entire carrier strike group from the United States is just -- it has the potential for explosive activity. And it's going to be very dangerous.


The naval forces in that area are going to have to watch their stuff and be very careful about what they do.

HILL: I'd also like to get your take on what we are seeing in Ukraine. I mean, it's really astounding number of Russian missile and drone attacks on Ukraine, at least 500 over the past five days. That's according to President Zelenskyy. We know at least five people killed today, at least 53, the number stands right now, killed from Friday's massive attacks. We are nearly two years now into this war.

How do you read the message that Putin is sending to Ukraine?

HERTLING: Well, first of all, from the technical perspective, what Russia has been trying to do is, I'll use a basketball term, flood the zone. They're trying to put as many missiles in the air as they can, and they are all different types coming from multiple directions and multiple platforms, air, sea, and ground. They are some of the types of missiles, the hypersonic missiles, are very advanced, but Ukraine has been very successfully shooting most of them down. Today's activity, Ukraine was very successful.

But what I would say is two things are happening. First of all, Russia is continuing their strategic approach to try and affect Ukrainian infrastructure, to make it a harsh winter for Ukrainian citizens. To continue to say, even though the United States and others may be balking, we are still going to attack Ukraine.

And what's happening from the Ukrainian side is they just don't have enough air defense to cover everything. Air defense are points weapon systems, Erica, that means they have to be paced in a location to guard a specific target. So that means you can't defend everywhere.

So the reason Russia is attacking so many different targets is they are trying to figure out where Ukraine is soft, and where they have their defenses. And I think that's going to continue on for the next couple of days, and it just shows the importance of the United States getting the Congress back, and passing this bill which will give more ammo and arms to Ukraine during this period of time. This is a critical period.

HILL: Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, always appreciate your insight. Thank you.

HERTLING: Thank you, Erica.

HILL: OUTFRONT next, breaking news: Senator Menendez facing charges of bribery connected to another country now. So, why is he still getting classified briefings?

Plus, the dramatic video of a jet bursting into flames after colliding with another plane. How all 367 on board a passenger plane made it out alive, with just seconds to spare.



HILL: Breaking news: New charges against Senator Bob Menendez. The New Jersey Democrat is now accused of accepting bribes in exchange for a helping Qatar, including tickets to the Formula 1 Grand Prix. He was also offered an expensive watch, according to the allegations.

Menendez, of course, is already facing bribery related charges in connection to Egypt's governments, allegedly accepting gold bars, half 1 million dollars in cash, and a brand-new Mercedes convertible. His trial is expected for May. Menendez has pleaded not guilty.

Manu Raju is OUTFRONT.

So, Manu, not only is Menendez not stepping down, he is still receiving classified briefings. What's happening there?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, that's right. In fact, he's getting all the full privileges of a United States senator, despite facing these charges. This superseding indictment adding to the already serious allegations he faced in the first indictment, that first indictment talking about how he allegedly uses power to assist the Egyptian government corruptly, according to the indictment. This saying you try to help the Qataris, as well as trying to help real estate developer from New Jersey who was trying to get millions of dollars from a fund tied to the Qatari government.

That same developer allegedly gave him gifts such as a luxury gold watch, gold bars, and exchange for help from the senator, who allegedly took official action to promote some of the actions of the Qatari government. This scheme allegedly happened up until 2023. Now, tonight, the senator for -- putting out a statement, attacking these allegations.

According to his attorney, Adam Fee, saying: The government's new allegations stink of desperation. What they have insisted is a string of faithless assumptions and bizarre conjectures based on routine, lawful conduct between the senator and his constituents or foreign officials. Those interactions were always based on his professional judgment and to the best interest of the United States, because he is and always has been a patriot.

Now the question is, will that fly with his colleagues? So far, most Senate Democrats have called on him to resign. One person who has not, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer who just a few weeks ago, I asked Schumer about Menendez still attending these classified briefings. He said that it's right for the senator to do so.

I should ask Melendez himself. Menendez has defended his actions, and denied this, saying that he can attend those briefings and act as United States senator just as he did before he was charged. Big question tonight, Erica, he's up for reelection's this year. Many of his colleagues do not want him to run. So far, Menendez has not said whether not he will be on the ballot in the state of New Jersey later this year -- Erica.

HILL: Manu Raju, appreciate it. Thank you.

Also tonight, there are calls for protests after Harvard's president resigned earlier today. Claudine Gay, Harvard's first Black president, stepping down after just six months on the job, amid plagiarism allegations and nearly a month after her widely criticized testimony at a congressional hearing on antisemitism. That is when she and other two Ivy League presidents failed to fully condemn calls for genocide against Jews.


REP. ELISE STEFANIK (R-NY): Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard's rules of bullying and harassment? Yes or no?

CLAUDINE GAY, HARVARD PRESIDENT: It can be, depending on the context.

STEFANIK: What's the context?

GAY: Targeted as an individual, targeted at an individual.

STEFANIK: It's targeted at Jewish students, Jewish individuals.


HILL: Gay later apologized for her testimony, but as the backlash continued, she began to face charges of plagiarism, forcing her to submit corrections for a pair of articles published in 2001 and 2017, in addition to her PhD dissertation from 1997.


Well, Harvard found there were inadequate citations. They did not reach the university's threshold for research misconduct.

Yet, now, nearly a month later, she is resigning, writing in a statement, it has been, quote, distressing to have doubt cast on my commitments to confronting hate and to upholding scholarly rigor. Two bedrock values that are fundamental to who I am, and frightening to be subjected to personal attacks and threats fueled by racial animus.

OUTFRONT now, Bakari Sellers, former Democratic South Carolina state representative, and Scott Jennings, former senior adviser to Mitch McConnell.

Good to see both of you tonight.

Bakari, you have seen much more at play here, more than her testimony and missed citations. Do you think she should have stayed on?

BAKARI SELLERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, first and foremost, I think that this is a very nuanced issue. The first thing is, you have to state and say that she was below par in her testimony. Many of those presidents were below par, I'm not even sure why they went. They gave a lot of legal answers to moral questions, and that was just not appropriate. So that's first.

The second thing, though, is these issues of plagiarism, the piling on that we've seen, the accusations of plagiarism, I should say, and the piling on -- yes, it is rooted in racial animus.

Should she have resigned? The answer is no. The answer is no. And I'm disappointed that she did.

The fact is, you have a lot of individuals who are coming in, questioning her scholarly credentials, who cannot hold a candle to her. They're questioning whether not to just got the job because of the color of her skin, they are calling her an affirmative action hire.

This woman deserves more respect from that. She got her colleagues in academia's respect, and now you see the piling on and you see individuals who should not be in this arena having this conversation.

The last thing I will say about this is one of the great American phenomenons is the ability for mediocre white men to succeed. And what we are seeing is a lot of mediocrity, particularly in conservative rights, piling on to the former president of Harvard University at this time. And I just -- it infuriates me, because this woman deserves more respect, even though she fumbled, tripped and fell in that congressional hearing.

HILL: Scott, you taught at Harvard, and you think she did screw up. But was her resignation or firing, do you think, really the only answer here?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think it was long overdue, frankly. And I agree with Bakari, actually. She does deserve respect. She deserves the respect to be held to the same standards that any university would hold its students to. And she obviously fell short of that.

But if you go back to the hearing, I also agree with Bakari. But it stronger terms, I would just say this was an epic disaster. When they went and could not -- all these presidents, including Professor Gay, when they could not clearly denounce genocide, when they cannot clearly denounce antisemitism, that to me was a moment that should've ended her tenure right there. It should ended the tenure of anyone sitting at a table who can tell the American people that this is not acceptable on a college campus.

I'll tell you what this is uncovered for a lot of parents. I'm one of them. And someday, I hope to send for kids up to a college somewhere. I'm going to look hard at any college and how they're going to treat this kind of hatred, and are they going to allow it to foment on a campus the way all these campuses in the Ivy League and a lot of other places are doing. I think the failure at that hearing, to me, was a red flag that should have been taken action on at that moment.

But plagiarism stuff? I mean, there's nobody at fault here but her. She has to answer for her own record. And by the way, there's a lot of conservative journalists, Rufo, Sibarium on "The Washington Free Bacon" deserve a lot of credit for doing what other media outlets would fail to do here.

Harvard is our national flagship university. It has to be held to higher standards than this. And so, hopefully, they'll get a new president who will meet up to those standards.

HILL: Well, in talking about standards, Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, a Harvard alum, who questioned Gay at that House hearing, taking a victory lap this evening, promising the, quote, robust congressional investigation will continue. The House Education Committee is investigating these plagiarism allegations.

Setting aside, right, the testimony, setting aside those issues, the plagiarism, Bakari, why do you think they're such a focus from the house on this now?

SELLERS: I mean, it's not like they don't have anything better to do, right? There's no "there" there. I mean, I've spoken to people who were smarter than I, who have looked at these articles and say maybe, correct. She did not annotate or cite properly. But this doesn't rise to the level of plagiarism.

The fact is, people who she allegedly plagiarized from have raised no concern or no issue. It was not an issue throughout the rigor of vetting her to be the president of Harvard University. Do you think Harvard did not vet this young lady? Did not vet her work?

And so, I just find this to be a nothingburger. But yet, there's something more there. I, mean, we've seen this a lot, when particularly women of color get into a level of power, people assume they should not be there. It goes from Ketanji Brown Jackson, to Kamala Harris, to Laura Coates, to Abby Phillips. We now see it with the president of Harvard University.


And so when you see that, you have to call it out for what it is. And no, I don't give credit to Mr. Rufo from "The Free Beacon". I think his plagiarism claims, if you talk to scholars, do not rise up to that. They don't rise up to that level.

And should she correct those things? Yes, she should be held to that standard. But resignation should not be something that she should have done. I wish she had more support from the university, but we are here now.

HILL: As we look at what is happening in Congress, right, during this investigation that is happening. Scott, the reality is to is that there are 17 days left to strike a deal to avert yet another government shutdown. Is this the best messaging right now, in terms of usage time?

SCOTT: Well, number one, it is a private university. But public money has flowed through there. Number two, it is our national flagship university. It's probably the most famous university in the world. And so, do we have a vested interest in making sure that truth and ethics are at the top of our national flagship university? Absolutely.

All it took was one day in one hearing to expose the excusing of genocide and antisemitism that's going on on these campuses. I think that is a great use of time.

Parents in the United States of America need to understand what they are getting into at any university that fails to denounce genocide and antisemitism. Period. It is rampant, and it is coddled, and it is encouraged in some cases on these campuses. That's what was uncovered at that hearing.

So yes, is this a good use of time? You're darn right, because those parents all of this country who need to understand what they are getting into when their kids go there, and universities need to take this as a learning moment and as a moment to say, let's have some introspection here. Have we gotten so far off the rails that we can't see the own problems -- the problems that are own policies are causing on these campuses?

HILL: Scott Jennings, Bakari Sellers, appreciate it. Thank you both.

SELLERS: Thank you.

JENNINGS: Thank you.

HILL: OUTFRONT next, Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis stepping up their attacks on one another, while avoiding any attacks to the front runner, Donald Trump. Is this strategy working for them? Harry Enten goes beyond.

And an exchange student falls victim to a sophisticated kidnapping plot involving artificial intelligence. His family forking over $80,000. And tonight, the FBI says we should be on the lookout for more. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


HILL: Tonight, dumpster fire, Tricky Nikki, just a few of the names that Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis are using for each other next two weeks before the Iowa caucuses both also using the other of being weak on China.


AD ANNOUNCER: DeSantis called China Florida's most important trading partner. DeSantis even allowed a Chinese military contractor to expand just miles from a U.S. naval base. Phony Ron DeSantis, too lame to lead, too weak to win.

AD ANNOUNCER: Tricky Nikki pretends she's tough on China. But as governor, she promised to do whatever it takes to get Chinese companies set up on our backyard. We just can't trust Tricky Nikki.


HILL: So it's not in those ads, you probably noticed this, any mention of the candidate who is leading, soundly, in the polls, Donald Trump.

Harry Enten is OUTFRONT to go beyond the numbers.

So, Harry, you took a look at this, I suppose as a feud between Haley and DeSantis. They are going after each other, is it working for either one of them in terms of a boost with their numbers?

HARRY ENTEN, CNN SENIOR DATA REPORTER: Yeah. I mean, look, in New Hampshire perhaps, though we obviously haven't seen Nikki Haley go up there, but take a look at Iowa, because that's the first in the nation contests. And what do we see there since October? Donald Trump's numbers have gone up. He now has an enormous lead, north of 30 percentage points with Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley fighting it out for second place.

I have to ask myself, what are they doing? Do they just in that second place is good enough, do they want to be second fiddle? Because at the end of the day, you've got to beat the leader. And at this particular point, Donald Trump has a larger lead going into the Iowa caucuses at this point than anybody since 1980 on the Republican side of the aisle.

HILL: That is quite a, lead and quite a number if you are looking back that far. The one thing that Haley and DeSantis have started to hit Trump on now, is that he is not going to participate yet again in this upcoming CNN debate.

Is that affective? Do voters care if he is there or not at this point?

ENTEN: I mean, some voters care, right? But they're the vast majority of voters. I mean, look, there was a great poll question that was asked, essentially do you believe that skipping the debates makes Trump, in your eyes, stronger? Is it a strength? Is it a weakness, or does it not matter?

The vast majority of Republican primary voters say, meh, it doesn't matter. There's even a small portion he thinks it strengthen. Some people who say it's weakness, you see there in the poll, 24 percent, that's eight basically equal to his unfavorable rating among Republican voters.

So the fact is when you look at this data, all you are really seeing is that the people, the voters, do not care that Trump is not participating. And that of course mirrors the polls in general, which show that Donald Trump has only become stronger, not just in Iowa, but nationally as well, since the debate started.

HILL: It's also interesting, some of the reporting we have today when it comes to the Biden campaign. That now, there may be a little bit of a shift. They are going to look to hit Trump on being more extreme, more of a threat to democracy, maybe pulling back on trying to push Bidenomics. Is that effective?

ENTEN: I don't think, it's certainly not effective among the Republican base, right? We've still got a long way to go until the general election. But if you look at the Republican base, there was a really interesting poll that came out from "The Washington Post" -- that essentially said, do you believe that Biden's win in the 2020 election was legitimate or illegitimate?

Look at that illegitimate number. Not only is that the vast majority of Republican voters, but this has actually become an even large majority over the last two years. What these numbers suggest is that Trump's stranglehold over the Republican Party is only becoming stronger. And what his opponents are doing is not working.

HILL: Harry, appreciate it. Thank you, my friend.

ENTEN: Thank you.

HILL: Happy New Year.

ENTEN: You as well.

HILL: Thank you.

Just ahead on Thursday here, be sure to be with us for back-to-back CNN Republican presidential town halls. Ron DeSantis live from Iowa, hosted by Kaitlan Collins, at 9:00. And then, Erin will host a town hall with Nikki Haley at 10:00.

OUTFRONT next, a college student found alive in Utah, after an elaborate kidnapping plot. The FBI with a new warning tonight about how A.I. is being used in these crimes, that we need to look out for.

Plus, new video tonight that passenger jet with hundreds of people onboard, that crashed into another plane -- the miraculous stories of survival.


HILL: Tonight, a teenager in Utah found alone in the woods. His family scammed out of $80,000. All of this after a sophisticated kidnapping plot. And it comes as kidnappers are often using A.I. technology. So the FBI warns they are getting better at using every day.

David Culver is OUTFRONT.


DAVID CULVER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Found cold, scared, but alive. Riverdale police in Utah seen here rescuing 17-year-old Kai Zhuang, missing for three days, the Chinese exchange student had trekked this backcountry area, sleeping in this tent, running low on food. With him, several cell phones. That's how police say virtual captors manipulated and controlled the teen, likely from thousands of miles away.

They call it cyber kidnapping. The cyber kidnappers convinced the victim, under duress, to take photos of themselves that make it appear they are being held captive, and then send the photos to their parents.


In China, Zhuang's parents equally terrified, unable to reach their son, reportedly receiving threatening messages, and contacting his school in Utah.

CASEY WARREN, RIVERDALE CITY, UTAH POLICE CHIEF: The reason why they have him secluded self in the woods, or away from somebody, and everybody in society, is so they can continue to extort as much money as possible.

CULVER: In recent months, police across China warning Chinese students in and out of China that these scammers often impersonate officials. They then intimidate the international students with threats of immediate arrest, deportation, and harsh sentencing if they do not cooperate. The police advising students if they get a call like that, hang-up immediately and contact the Chinese embassy or consulate, your teachers and classmates and your school, or the local police.

In November, Shanghai police reported a couple getting a threatening call while on the highway. They could hear their son's cries over the phone. The scammers demanding the equivalent of $70,000. While on the phone, the couple spotted a police officer at a toll booth, who suspected it was a scam, and stopped the mother just as she was about to transfer the money.

There have been similar cases targeting folks across the U.S. in recent years.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If I didn't do what he said, he would kill my mom.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It looked exactly like my sister was calling. It was a man's voice on the other end, screaming at me.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: IF somebody told me that wasn't my wife, and I would say you're lying.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's so hard for me to describe to you how real this all sounded.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You are in that crisis mode, and you immediately want to try to fix it, which in most cases means money.

CULVER: Police say Zhuang's family did just that, ultimately, transferring the equivalent of roughly $80,000 into Chinese bank accounts. When they found him, officers say Zhuang asked for two things, to talk to his family in China, to be sure they are okay, and to eat a warm cheeseburger.


HILL: So, David, as you point out, this type of scam is targeting people all over. And the scams are getting more sophisticated now, how so?

CULVER: Well, Erica, you hear some of those folks who are victims in the U.S. in particular. And they swear it was their loved ones voice, right, or that it came from a number that was identical to one of their family members.

And the FBI tonight is warning that with A.I. in particular, these scams are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and impersonations are really difficult to tell from reality.

Also, I want to point this out. We just got this a few hours ago, Erica. And this is an update to Zhuang's case in particular. We have just learned that he was under those scammers control and manipulation for more than a month. He was terrified to tell his family back in China, fearing that their lives would be taken. It's just really disturbing.

HILL: It is, it is so disturbing.

David, we really appreciate the reporting, thank you.

OUTFRONT next, a packed passenger jet goes up in flames after a deadly collision with a coast guard plane. So, how did it happen?



HILL: Tonight, cleared to land. Japan Airlines announcing its crew was given the okay to land by air traffic control, before colliding with the Japanese Coast Guard plane. You are looking at what is left of that plane tonight.

Take a watch here, as the passenger plane with nearly 400 on board lands, hitting the other plane in the same runway. You see them both burst into flames there. In the plane, and you could see, continues down the runway before it is eventually just completely engulfed.

Now, miraculously, everyone on that flight survived. Five of the sixth crew on the coast guard plane, however, were killed.

Will Ripley is OUTFRONT.


WILL RIPLEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A Japan airlines jet touches down in Tokyo. The cabin calm until passengers look out the windows.

We saw fire coming out of the engines, and I found it strange, Satoshi Yamake tells CNN. Within seconds, black smoke billowing through the aircraft. The Airbus A350-900, packed with nearly 400 passengers and crew, including parents with young children.

He says some passengers were scared, especially the kids and women. The scene outside, even scarier. People on other planes captured the chaos.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And just as we were starting to pick up some speed, we heard the big bang, and I saw the flame, that was making a trace. And then we saw the plane go in flames.

RIPLEY: The runways, full for a Tuesday evening, Haneda Airport in the heart of Tokyo, handling extra holiday traffic, and a Japan coast guard plane with six crew members, carrying badly needed relief to parts of Japan, jolted by a massive 7.5 magnitude earthquake. The quake, causing widespread destruction, dozens of deaths, just hours into the New Year.

Japan's transportation minister says the two planes collided on the runway. The coast guard captain, badly hurt, and five other crew members killed. A very different outcome from the Japan Airlines jet, with just seconds to spare, 12 crew members safely evacuated all 367 passengers, including eight children under the age of two. Only a handful had to go to hospital. Everyone walked away, as flames fully engulfed the plane.

For a nation obsessed with transportation safety, one question, how could the New Year begin like this?


HILL: So, Will, there is new cockpit audio now that details the crew was cleared to land. We know there is an investigation is underway, what more do we know at this hour?

RIPLEY: Erica, it seems as if this investigation is focusing now on that Japan coast guard aircraft. What were they doing on the runway? Did they disregard an instruction from air traffic control? Or, were different people with an air traffic control not communicating in the same way to these planes?

Because as you said, the pilots in the cockpit of this Airbus A350- 900, they got clearance to land, they look down on the runway, and they didn't see that there is another, much smaller aircraft on the runway, until it was too late, Erica.

HILL: Well, Will, appreciate it, thank you.

And thanks to all of you for joining us tonight.

"AC360" starts right now.