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Erin Burnett Outfront

Trump Claims He Will Debate Biden "Anytime, Anywhere"; Subpoenas Issued In Arizona Tied To Trump Efforts To Undo Election; Fani Willis Slams Georgia Republicans' Probe Into Her As "Games"; Russian Missile Hits Near Zelenskyy Convoy In Ukraine Port City; CNN Captures Video Of Dramatic Chinese Confrontation With U.S. Ally. Aired 7-8p ET

Aired March 06, 2024 - 19:00   ET




Trump challenges Biden to a debate as Nikki Haley bows out of the race. Her supporters scrambling for another option. Which way will they go?

Plus, the breaking news tonight, Arizona's investigation into efforts to overturn the 2020 election getting bigger. New subpoenas just issued as investigators look into people tied to Trumps campaign.

And this hour, a CNN exclusive. Our Ivan Watson spending 48 hours on a Philippine coast guard ship as, suddenly, it is confronted by the Chinese -- windows shattering, Chinese water cannons blasting America's ally ship. And tonight, the Pentagon responds.

Let's go OUTFRONT.

And good evening. I'm Erin Burnett.

OUTFRONT tonight: anytime, anywhere, any place. The former President Trump claims he wants to debate President Biden now that he is just a few hundred delegates away from securing the Republican nomination, now unopposed. This from the man who refused to debate any of his political opponents no place, no time during the primaries, walking away from the second presidential debate back in 2020.

Well, tonight, Biden's campaign responding, writing that it's a conversation that they'll have, quote, at the appropriate time.

Trump's sudden, his newfound desire to debate does come just hours after Nikki Haley suspended her campaign. And she stopped short of endorsing Trump.


NIKKI HALEY (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It is now up to Donald Trump to earn the votes of those in our party and beyond it who did not support him and I hope he does that.


BURNETT: Oh, so how is he trying to do that?

Here's what he wrote online: Nikki Haley got trounced, all caps, last night and record setting fashion. Then Trump went on to say that he would like to invite all of the Haley supporters to join the greatest movement in the history of our nation. Well, that's quite an appeal when you feel like you're lost and he really liked somebody and, you know, okay, obviously.

The question is, it's more than that. It's more than the optics. It's whether Nikki Haley's supporters can look past some truly stark differences between the two and what they stand for, not just who they are and how they conduct themselves, what they stand for, like the crucial issue of NATO and Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

Here's Nikki Haley:


HALEY: Russia said once they take Ukraine, Poland and the Baltics are next. Those are NATO countries, and that puts America at war. This is about preventing war. It has always been about preventing war.

Putin has made no bones about the fact that he wants to destroy America. And Trump is going to side with him over our allies who stood with us after 9/11?

Don't take the side of someone who has gone in and invaded a country and half a million people have died or been wounded because of Putin.


BURNETT: Consistent, strong, and she never wavered on that.

Meantime, as for Trump, he is on a very different end of this spectrum, saying that he would let Putin invade NATO countries.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT & 2024 PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want.

Look, if they're not going to pay, we're not going to protect, okay?


BURNETT: And it's not just comments like that. It's that Trump has time and time gone out of his way to speak glowingly of Vladimir Putin.


TRUMP: He's taking over the country for $2 worth of sanctions. I'd say that's pretty spot.

This is genius. Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine -- of Ukraine -- Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that's wonderful.

Putin respected me. Putin would never have gotten into Ukraine.


BURNETT: The differences between the two on those issues are night and day. And that may have some of Haley's supporters not just happy to be talking about being trounced, but literally looking for another option, whether it'd be Biden or a third option. And I use the word third on purpose, a third-party candidate. Those candidates are frankly now appearing on ballots across this country.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. now going to be on the ballot in Utah. His campaign and super PAC say they've had the signature threshold hold meant to qualify now for five more states, including crucial battlegrounds like Nevada, Georgia, Arizona. They're also on the ballot. They say in New Hampshire and Hawaii.

Cornell West is on the ballot in three states already -- Alaska, Oregon and South Carolina.

And Jill Stein is back and she is on the ballot and more states than any of them, 19 and Washington, D.C.


And that includes Wisconsin, which I mentioned for a specific reason, because a third-party candidate can matter so much. In 2016, Clinton lost to Trump by 22,748 votes in Wisconsin and Jill Stein had more votes than that, 31,000 in the state.

Jessica Dean is OUTFRONT live in Arlington, Virginia, to begin our coverage tonight.

And, Jessica, I know you've been talking to Haley's supporters there all day who are now having to deal with this choice that they face. What are they telling you?

JESSICA DEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Erin, across the board, they're disappointed and what was interesting was honestly a lot of these people we talked to were Democrats who voted for Nikki Haley in Virginia. It was an open primary, either as an opposition vote to Donald Trump or because they thought that the country would be better off with a race between Biden and Haley.

And then there are, of course, the bona fide Haley supporters who are now really, truly without a candidate. But for all of these people, the question is, what comes next.


DEAN (voice-over): As she announced the suspension of her presidential campaign on Wednesday, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley had a clear message for her rival.

HALEY: It is now up to Donald Trump to earn the votes of those in our party and beyond it, who did not support him. And I hope he does that.

DEAN: Were will Haley support go now that she's exited the race? In Virginia, where she captured nearly 35 percent of the vote on Super Tuesday, we caught up with voters to ask, what will you do in November?

Now that she's out and it's Trump versus Biden, what do you think?

BARBARA GREEN, VOTED FOR HALEY: Oh, no question. Biden. We cannot have another four years of that man.

CAROLE COLBURN, VOTED FOR HALEY: I at this point can't answer that question. I think that this country can do better than the choice we've been given. And I don't know how we can change that, but I think it's going to be a lot of difficult, thoughtful, for people to decide what to do in the future.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think people are looking closely at the vice presidential candidate because it's a very probable possibility that they will be president by the end of the four years.

DEAN: So far, the former president has offered little in the way of an olive branch to Haley or her supporters, writing on social media, quote, Nikki Haley got trounced last night and record setting fashion after weeks of lobbing insults and their direction --

TRUMP: Nikki Haley has made an unholy alliance with RINOs, never Trumpers. The people behind Nikki are pro-amnesty. You like that?

DEAN: CNN exit polling found among Haley supporters across five states, that 19 percent say they'd be satisfied with Trump is the nominee, and 79 percent dissatisfied.

And yet her supporters could be crucial for Trump's chances of winning back the White House, especially in battleground dates where the margins are likely to be slim.

But still, some voters told us now that Haley is out, neither Trump nor Biden will win their support.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not going to vote for either one, Biden or Trump. I'd love to vote for her again. He's just lost me on these past few years, and I -- it's mostly -- mostly his attitude about foreign policy and Ukraine lecture and has the chaos. Biden, I just think is not fit for office.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think it is not a sure thing that Donald Trump is going to win the general election because if you're a voter like myself, I'm going to write her in. I am not going to go to -- to vote for Trump. I don't think he's going to be able to corral Nikki Haley supporters, and independent voters back.


DEAN (on camera): So, now, we turn our attention to the likely general election matchup of Trump versus Biden, Erin. And, of course, President Biden going to have huge opportunity tonight with his state -- or tomorrow night with his State of the Union Address where his likely to have one of the biggest audiences he's going to get between now and election day in November.

And, of course, he's got to rile up his base. But the question is, can he persuade any of these persuadables? Erin, that is going to be the question for him, and for Trump going forward.

BURNETT: All right. Thank you so much. Jessica.

And let's go now to Ron Brownstein, the senior editor for "The Atlantic", Alyssa Farah Griffin, former Trump White House communications director, and the former Democratic congressman, Max Rose.

So, Ron, this crucial question because it really everything could matter and then you layer in those third parties. Where do Haley supporters go?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, look, the Republican primaries taught us two big things are made, two big things clear. One is that Trump's coalition is the dominant faction in the party. He's going to win more primaries and caucuses than any non- incumbent Republican president ever. In fact, we probably should be thinking of him as a quasi-incumbent.

But the Haley's coalition, this kind of hold-out coalition, is substantial and not only is it significant in its size, its significant in its consistency. I mean, demographically, it is the same people from state after state.


And it's the same people that we've seen pull away from the rubble Republican Party in the entire Donald Trump era, white-collar, suburban voters focus probably more on economics that on the cultural grievances that Trump emphasizes.

Big numbers of them in the exit polls are saying they are not going to vote for Donald Trump. I don't know anyone in either party who thinks it will be as high as they are saying now, but it doesn't have to be, you know? As Jessica was saying, even a thin slice of these voters in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Grand Rapids, Detroit, Philadelphia, that could matter in a very close election. So it is still a challenge for Donald Trump. Same challenge really, he's been facing demographically from the outset.

BURNETT: So, Alyssa and Trump's statement early, you know, he said she was trounced and he put the word trounced in all caps and said here, money and voters were mostly, quote, radical left. And we did see as David Axelrod pointed out last night, among, you know, some of the Haley voters, you did see independents and Democrats in states where they could turn out.

But he went after calling them, trounced to invite them to join the greatest movement in the history of our nation, to talk about his candidacy. Does that win anyone over in that group of Republican voters?

ALYSSA FARAH GRIFFIN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No, and this is -- this case in point the problem with Trump, is he always gives into his worst instincts. I guarantee that his campaign and Susie Wiles did not want a statement like this to go out. They would have liked something a bit softer to try to reach some of those Nikki Haley voters, but he just can't get over the personal grievance. I'm sure he's spiraling over the fact that she won Vermont.

But here's the thing I come from the old school part of Republican politics where you want someone who can win independents. That is one of the first things that you would look for in someone to be an eventual general -- general election candidate. And Nikki Haley's prove that. That is where Donald Trump suffers.

And to Ron's point, even if that margin shrinks because I don't think it's as big as the 30 percent that won't be with Trump --


GRIFFIN: But if she holds an eight to 10 percent, that could sway the entire election.

BURNETT: Right. And then you've got the third parties. Now, you know, we made the point about the issues where they are starkly different and that there are some traditional Republican voters who are not nativist and not populist and do deeply care about America's role in the world. And for them in a Trump party, it's hard to find a spot, right intellectually.

Not a small group, and not a large group maybe anymore, but doesn't have to be. The point that Biden made today when he put out that statement, he said Donald Trump made it clear he doesn't want Nikki Haley's supporters. I want to be clear, there's a place for them in my campaign.

And he went on specifically to mention Haley's attempts to call out Trump for -- as the statement put it -- cowering before Vladimir Putin, specifically mentioning NATO.

Does that work?

MAX ROSE (D), FORMER U.S. REPRESENTATIVE: Absolutely. Look, if you look at some of Ambassador Haley's comments that this program aired just a few minutes ago, she sounds like a Democratic surrogate for Joe Biden, talking about the absolute necessity for American leadership, both at home and abroad to preserve and bolster our alliances.

Look, what was shocking about this primary is, if you go back 48 hours ago, everybody knew that Joe Biden was the presumptive Democratic nominee. And Donald Trump was the presumptive Republican nominee. And nonetheless --


ROSE: -- many, many, many people, a sizable coalition voted against Donald Trump in that primary, far more than Joe Biden.

But the second shocking thing though, is that look, some people voted against Joe Biden in Democratic primary. Did you see any attempt by Donald Trump, any attempt whatsoever to say that those folks have a place in his coalition? Absolutely not, because everyone knows that the Democratic coalition, that primary base is absolutely unified irrespective who they voted for, but everyone also knows that Republican side, it's completely divided.

BURNETT: And then, of course, you've got these third parties.

Ron, Trump now calling for those debates. And obviously, it -- it wouldn't do it in the primary, you know, wouldn't do it every time, last time around, now calling for them. Will it happen?

BROWNSTEIN: Count me surprise if it does happen. I mean, I'm not sure either of them really, really wanted debate. You know, Trump, it's hard to imagine him submitting to any kind of process through the commission on presidential debates, which is -- which he's criticized in the past asked I mean, the argument about debates really goes to this kind of core question of whether you have to reach the middle to win this election, right?

Donald Trump's superpower has always been his ability to mobilize his core coalition and turn them out in enormous numbers, right? But the issue of whether what independence do who are presumably the target audience above all for these debates are soft partisans on each side. That's much more of an open question because, you know, as we're saying -- as the congressman just said, it is extraordinary that this many people still voted against Trump on Tuesday when they knew he was going to be the nominee.


BROWNSTEIN: On the other hand, those Haley voters have a very negative view of Biden's performance and his capacity.


The ones I talked to in New Hampshire and South Carolina were deeply negative on Biden. Those are the core of what many people called the double haters and how they ultimately sort out what cues, what cues they take. You know, there's also, by the way, a separate group of what may be described as double-haters, which are younger, non-white voters who are down on Biden and down on Trump.

So it could be a lot of them and how they make their decisions will probably decide where we go after November.

BURNETT: And the double-haters, I was watching that whole phenomenon today and you know, the Venn diagram, Alyssa, how it's all put together. But, you know, Trump often says things he has no intention of doing or didn't do. So it's one thing to say. I want to debate. It's a totally different thing to actually mean it.

GRIFFIN: True. I do think its smart politics and I predicted that Trump would be the first to say that Joe Biden should debate. We know Joe Biden's biggest vulnerability is the question over vitality and age. So if he refuses to show up to debate, Donald Trump is going to message the hell out of it and say, he's not up to the task. He can't do it.

I would implore the Biden campaign. There is no stronger juxtaposition than standing next to Donald Trump and showing his character and who he is and who Donald Trump is. But also remind folks, he's not a good faith actor in this. He lied about his COVID tests before the prior debate in 2020 and went on air when we later found out who was COVID positive.

So, there's a lot of factors that I think has to be weighed in the structuring of debates.

BURNETT: Max, final word?

ROSE: Look, everyone knows there's going to be a debate. So I think it's pretty irrelevant at this point. But here's what's going to happen over the course of the next two months. The Biden campaign has money. The Trump campaign, it's actually not a campaign. It's a legal defense fund with a campaign side hustle.

So you're going to see the Biden campaign for the next two months over and over and over again, reminding people of the incompetence and the chaos that was the Trump years. And when that happens, you're going to see Biden's numbers surge and he's going to be well on the way to winning this election.

BURNETT: Al right. Well, we all appreciate your time. Thank you all.

And next, breaking news, Arizona issuing subpoenas in its election interference investigation and that state's probe is getting a whole lot bigger tonight. It's a crucial development. Sources tell CNN investigators are now looking into more people tied to Trump.

Plus, a near miss. A Russian missile exploding just a few hundred yards from Zelenskyy's motor fade. So close Zelenskyy heard it, saw it. Was it targeted?

And alarming new satellite images just into OUTFRONT. Look at this, what you're seeing is a Chinese the shipyard. That shipyard on your screen is producing more vessels than all of Americas shipyards combined. We're going to tell you all about it.



BURNETT: Breaking news, new charges could soon be coming in Donald's Trump -- Donald Trump's effort to overturn the 2020 election. CNN is learning prosecutors in Arizona are ramping up their probe. It issued grand jury subpoenas to people connected to the former president, a decision on criminal charges could happen very soon.

And our Zach Cohen is breaking the story OUTFRONT. So, Zach, what are you learning about the extent of this investigation and what it means for Donald Trump?

ZACHARY COHEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Yeah. Erin, it's pretty clear now that this state-level investigation in Arizona is not only active, but it's accelerating. We know that because these grand jury subpoenas were sent out there, issued at people connected to Donald Trumps campaign and his effort to overturn the election results in Arizona. And we've known for a while now that the Arizona attorney general was investigating, again, the effort to overturn the 2020 election.

But our understanding was that he was really focused or she was really focused on the fake elector plot, these 11 individuals who served as fake Trump electors, and the people who organize them to sign those false certificates, but I'm getting indicators from my sources that the investigation may have expanded. And as this gears -- charging decision which is also clear from the grand jury subpoenas, that could mean that there are people on the national level, people who are closer to Trump including the attorneys who were advising him at the time, who they could become under scrutiny.

And one of those people who we know, its already talked to Arizona investigators is pro-Trump attorney Ken Chesebro. We've heard a lot about him recently, obviously, but it's interesting because Ken Chesebro has related formation about an Oval Office meeting where Trump was there in December 2020 and Ken Chesebro says that he told Trump all about the fake elector plot and specifically how it relates to Arizona.

Listen to what Chesebro said when he interviewed with Michigan prosecutors a few months ago.


KENNETH CHESEBRO, FORMER TURMP ATTORNEY: So I ended up explaining that Arizona was still hypothetically possible because the alternate electors voted. So it was I think clear in a way that maybe hadn't been before that we had until January 6 to win.


COHEN: So that's Chesebro telling investigators in Michigan about Arizona, but I've heard from my sources that Arizona prosecutors have asked Chesebro about this same meeting. They've asked about people at the national Trump campaign level, the people who were organizing the fake elector plot across all seven battleground states. So it's interesting as we get closer to a charging decision, will it -- will criminal charges only come for the 11 or so people in Arizona or could we see potentially people closer to Trump also be indicted?

BURNETT: All right. Zach, thank you very much with that breaking news.

And we also have some breaking developments now in Georgia and Fulton County. The district attorney, Fani Willis, slamming Georgia Republicans who are now investigating her. She's saying, quote, I think it's just a political quest. They can continue on with their games and I'll continue to do the work of the people.

Well, those remarks from Willis coming after a state Senate hearing today featured Ashleigh Merchant. She is the defense attorney, who was pushing to disqualify Willis in the Trump Georgia election interference case, including testimony about how taxpayer money was allegedly used to pay for personal trips that Willis took with the lead prosecutor, Nathan Wade.


BILL COWSERT (R), GEORGIA STATE SENATOR: You show the trip to Aruba, another one in Bahamas, one to Belize, one to Napa Valley, California.


COWSERT: These are all from October 22 up until May of 2023?


COWSERT: OK. This is a document you produced us?


COWSERT: So do either of them deny these trips occurred?


MERCHANT: No, not at all.

COWSERT: So, it is the impropriety, the financial impropriety of getting financial benefit from the job that he's paying for her way on these trips with money?


COWSERT: That she's paying him on approving.

MERCHANT: This -- this is the -- what I would call undisputed.


BURNETT: All right. Both Willis and Wade deny any wrongdoing in that relationship or funding for vacations.

OUTFRONT now, the man that you just heard there and saw questioning Merchant, who led today's hearing, the Republican state senator and majority leader, Bill Cowsert.

Senator Cowsert, I appreciate your time.

So I just want to start with where you are on this. You've said whistleblowers inside, I'm quoting you, inside the Fulton County D.A.'s office. You've said they've reached out and that you plan to subpoena additional witnesses.

Can you share anything else about who else you may call to testify and about what?

COWSERT: No, I can't tell you right now publicly who else we may call to testify. It is true there are a number of people that have reached out, volunteered and they want to, and they have information to share with us. Well, we're just going to let the investigation lead wherever it may.

Today was the first witness and this is the lady that broke the story, so to speak, when she filed her motion to disqualify Mr. Wade and Ms. Willis from continuing to prosecute the case. And that was due to improper behavior, unethical behavior, conflicts of interest and financial improprieties. So we wanted to hear from her today to see exactly what evidence she had to support those allegations. And it was quite revealing.

BURNETT: And you found it revealing.

All right. So it -- just to understand where we are, Judge McAfee is expected to make his ruling any day. He has the ability to disqualify Willis or not. He's going to rule based its on all of what we all saw televise in the Georgia election interference case. There's a county commission also investigating Fani Willis. Georgia Bar could get involved.

Your committee, just to be clear, does not actually have the power to disqualify her from the case. And in that context, you're Democratic --

COWSERT: No, we don't intend to interfere.

BURNETT: Right and you've been clear about that.

COWSERT: We have no intention of interference here.

BURNETT: So, your colleague, Harold Jones, state senator, was also in that room today. He questioned Merchant. And after the hearing, he said this:


HAROLD JONES II (D), GEORGIA STATE SENATOR: I'm not really sure what the endgame is, my friend. We can't remove her. I think the endgame probably is trying to bring publicity, negative publicity to the situation, possibly try to influence the trial. But I think juries are going to be smarter than that.


BURNETT: He said at the endgame is just to bring negative publicity to the situation to possibly try to influence the trial.

How do you respond to that? Does he have a point?

COWSERT: No, we didn't bring this information forward. We are simply investigating allegations that were made by others. This isn't any attempt by the Senate inject itself in that criminal prosecution. We need to find out what behavior took place and we wanted a fresh slate to look at the evidence independently and determine where state laws violated and are there adequate laws to prevent this type of unethical behavior by prosecutors.

We're trying to restore the faith of our public in the fairness and impartiality of the criminal justice system. And there are a lot of very really -- really outlandish claims here and very few of them have been rebutted or denied and it's very troubling.

BURNETT: And so, just to be clear, you're looking into claims of whistleblowers and I know you're not -- you're not yet saying who they are but misuse of funds in -- by the D.A., not related just to this Trump case and Nathan Wade, is that the case?

COWSERT: That is true. And in this case, in particular, she, Ms. Willis, signed a contract. She hired Mr. Wade as an independent contractor, a special prosecutor. There is a procedure in Georgia law to do that, and it requires the approval of the county government where the district attorney sits. That didn't happen here.

And it's very clear she hired this man who would not I have been eligible to be hired directly by her D.A.'s office or under county policy either because of the nepotism clause. You can't hire your lover to be a contractor to pay him government taxpayer funds. So, she circumvented that.

BURNETT: I understand that. But just to be clear -- okay, but she's saying they weren't dating at that time. And I understand that, you know, that's also now, but --

COWSERT: Oh, yeah.

BURNETT: But that -- but that's what -- that's what she's saying.

So if they weren't dating at the time, you have an issue with that.

COWSERT: Well, later, she now admits.


BURNETT: That hasn't been proven.

COWSERT: Yeah. No, it hadn't. But boy, there were some very compelling evidence today of people that reported that. And there's phone information that shows that as well, but that's not our job to determine whether she did that, which would clearly disqualify her.

I think that's why she's fighting the date so bad. But even after that, she never disclosed any financial benefits that she received and their county policy requires you to do a financial disclosure if you get anything of benefit of more than $100.


She did from this employee that she hired and she approved his bills undoubtedly, went on four or five trips overseas and -- Caribbean and to California. And there were credit card statements that were reported that were revealed to us today that shows that Mr. Wade bought the tickets and paid for the rooms that she'd benefitted from and she failed to disclose that.

BURNETT: It -- one final point to you though, if she -- as it is a fact pattern that has been established as opposed to when they dated, which has not -- at least nothing to confirm that what they said is untrue at this point, that she did try to hire other people to take that job. And people said she wasn't able to.

So, at least on the face of it, I mean -- but how do you square that? I mean, if this your lover, as you use, your word, you know, you try person one, you try person two, and you try person three.

COWSERT: No, her words. And they have both confirmed that.

BURNETT: Yes. But not at the time -- they're saying not at the time of hiring.

COWSERT: That they have a romantic relationship.

BURNETT: But I'm saying does it change your view at all --

COWSERT: That's true.

BURNETT: That she did, the facts have established, tried to hire multiple people before she hired him. He was not her first choice. He was not even her second choice.

COWSERT: She did hire -- she did hire two other people and they have expertise in RICO cases and these type of investigations, and they were paid significantly less. Neither of them received over $100,000. This gentleman was getting $35,000 a month. He's over $700,000 now that he's been paid by her office, and she approves those invoices and they were very sketchy invoices today.

He is billing them blocks of eight-hour increments. In one day, he billed for 24 hours, and she approved that. And that's part of the factual pattern that I don't believe anybody can deny here. And that really erodes the trust in the public of the fairness and impartiality and how our tax dollars have been spent by this prosecutor without government oversight or approval.


COWSERT: That's why we're paying attention to it. We may need to change these laws to make it clear, you can't do this in the future in the state of Georgia.

BURNETT: All right. Senator Cowsert, I appreciate your time and thank you.

COWSERT: Thank you very much.

BURNETT: And next, former President Trumps says he's going to respond live to Biden's State of the Union Address. How is Biden responding to that? His communications director is OUTFRONT next.

And a CNN exclusive this hour, dangerous showdown. Our Ivan Watson and is on a ship when it is suddenly surrounded by the Chinese coast guard


IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Look over to the starboard side here, there's another Chinese coast guard ship right here.




BURNETT: Tonight, a deadly attack dangerously close to President Zelenskyy, at least five people are dead after a Russian missile struck dangerously close to a convoy carrying Zelenskyy while he was traveling in southern Ukraine. Zelenskyy saying he was close enough to see and hear the missile strike.

OUTFRONT. Now, the White House communications director, Ben LaBolt.

And, Ben, I appreciate your time.

This strike coming so close to Zelenskyy's convoy obviously is in the context of American funding for Ukraine that is totally stalled in Congress. How sharp is President Biden's message to Republicans going to be about this aid in the State of the Union tomorrow night?

BEN LABOLT, WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: Well, it's certainly a strong case that the president will be making tomorrow night and that he's been making over the past several weeks. Look, now is the time to pass the national security supplemental, would provide with -- the Ukrainians with military assistance they need to take on Putin's war of aggression. They've been suffering from casualties not because of the lack of will or courage, but because of the lack of munitions.

And we need to get them that military assistance as quickly as possible, it would also help the Israelis defend against the threat posed by Hamas and make sure that humanitarian assistance gets into Gaza.

So, you know, look, MAGA Republicans have been holding this up. The speaker, if he allowed for a vote, we know that both parties would support it and would have enough votes to pass. And former President Trump has been intervention is here trying to stop it from passing.

But the president is going to make the case to the country in the world tomorrow night that we've got to pass that national security supplemental.

BURNETT: So, our longtime political analyst Ron Brownstein, he was on earlier in the program. He's been talking to a lot of voters and he says that it's not enough for Biden to deliver an anti-Trump message through November, tomorrow and through November and he says Biden really needs to improve voter perceptions of him.

And that tomorrow night is going to be a crucial moment. Obviously, you've got a viewership that you might not have again, right? That there is -- there's so much at stake and his description is so Biden has to rebuild his standing is how he put it.

So, Ben, is Biden going to mention Trump at all tomorrow or how is he going to handle that?

LABOLT: Well, look, I can't preview the exact text that you'll hear tomorrow night, but I can talk about some of the key themes. I think the president is going to make the case that we've rebuilt the strongest economy in the world here in the United States and done it in a way that's benefited the average American, that wages are up, inflation is down by two thirds, 15 million jobs have been created, more jobs than under any president or any administration. And there's a contrast point there because the MAGA Republican agenda is to just offer trillions of dollars in tax breaks to corporations and billionaires.

Well, the president doesn't think that that's tax fairness and the American people don't agree with that. He'll also have the chance to make the case that we need to defend our democracy. We need to defend democracy at home and abroad in this moment. The president's predecessor embraced the insurrectionists to the Capitol that tried to overturn the results of the last election. Well, that's anti- democratic and our democracy is on the line.

And finally, our rights and freedoms are under assault by MAGA Republicans.


That includes reproductive rights. That includes rights for gay Americans. And then includes if you're a parent who believes you should be making decisions about what books for your children have access to instead of ideological governors across the country.

This is really an inflection point for the nation and the president will be very strong in making the case tomorrow night.

BURNETT: And as he does that, of course, on top of it is what has become an important issue for him -- of course, age, and that -- you see that in every poll. Hillary Clinton today came out, Ben, and said that Biden, who's obviously 81 and Trump who's obviously 77 are, quote, effectively the same age and that any differences between the two are negligible.

The reality of it is, Ben, the polling shows that that is not how people see it. Seventy-three percent of voters, registered voters think Biden is too old to be an effective president. Only 42 percent of registered voters say the same about Trump in the latest "New York Times"/Siena poll.

What is your plan to address this problem? LABOLT: Well, there's a few layers to it, Erin. First, I would point

to the president's record, getting the economy back on its feet, helping to build the strongest economy in the world, 15 million jobs created under his watch, all sorts of bipartisan legislation passed that so many commentators were skeptical of when he came into office.

He has a record of being an extremely effective president. You've seen that play out over the past three years. But I also think the age of the president's ideas matter.

As you pointed out, Donald Trump and Joe Biden, about the same age, but their ideas are very different. Donald Trump took his back 50 years, when it came to Roe versus Wade. Donald Trump doesn't believe that climate change is real.

On issue after issue, Donald Trump's ideas are from 50 years ago. The president is working to restore Roe versus Wade to address the existential threat posed by climate change and to lead our country into the future.

BURNETT: All right. Ben, thank you very much. I appreciate your time.

And tomorrow night, for State of the Union, I'll be live on Capitol Hill for OUTFRONT ahead of the address. And also back at 8:00 for our special coverage, along with Jake Tapper, Dana Bash, and Anderson Cooper. We all hope to see you then.

OUTFRONT next, a CNN exclusive. Our Ivan Watson is there in the South China Sea when the Chinese confront and harass the ship of an American ally and he was there for all of it.

Plus, with Nikki Haley out of the running, calls are growing for third party candidate. The group No Labels you may have heard of it, they are running up against a deadline to name their candidate. Do they have someone?


BURNETT: Tonight, you're looking at exclusive CNN video and what you're looking at here is a dramatic standoff between China and a U.S.-allied Philippines coast guard ship. And this all happened in the South China Sea.


Violent confrontation captured by our Ivan Watson who was with the fleet for 48 hours. And you could see China's ships become aggressive. They swarm and they harass the U.S. allied ship, blasting water cannons that were so powerful that the windows shattered.

Well, the Pentagon tonight responding, calling China's behavior reckless and saying that the United States will act if China continues.

Ivan Watson is OUTFRONT with this exclusive U.S. television report.


WATSON (voice-over): Water cannons, and the collision of heavy ships, CNN getting a rare chance to witness the David and Goliath confrontation between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea.

The Chinese ships make their move at dawn, outnumbering and swarming a small convoy from the Philippines.

We have a very good view of a large Chinese coast guard ship. You can see it written on the side of the vessel and it is currently steaming I would say maybe two stone throws away from this Philippines coast guard ship.

And that's not all. Look over to the starboard side here. There is another Chinese coast guard ship right here.

Not far away. Another Chinese ship collides with another Philippine ship. Fortunately, no one's hurt.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You are sailing within the Philippine exclusive economic zone. What is your intention, over?

WATSON: I'm aboard the BRP Cabra, a Philippine coast guard ship. Its mission, escort to resupply boats to those Second Thomas shoal, at teardrop-shaped reef claimed by both the Philippines and China, even though it's clearly much closer to Philippines territory.

For more than 20 years, China ignored competing claims from smaller countries, occupying and eventually building man-made islands on top of several contested reefs and shoals.

In 1999, an unusual step from the Philippines. It grounded the Sierra Madre, a rusting World War II era ship on Second Thomas shoal. Filipino marines have been guarding it ever since.

Our convoy is supposed to resupply those marines. But a much larger ship surged dangerously close to the BRP Cabra, and eventually pulls in front, stopping it in its tracks.

Meanwhile, this resupply boat doesn't stand a chance.

That little boat in front is a Philippines resupply boat. And it is currently being pursued by one, two, three, at least four Chinese ships.

They blast the boat with water cannons shattering windows, and likely injuring four service members on board, forcing the crew to abort their mission.

The Chinese fleet includes what looked like civilian vessels.

We're currently blocked and surrounded by what looked like ordinary fishing boats that are flying Chinese flags. And they're working in tandem with the Chinese coast guard. They appear to be members of China's maritime militia, a way for Beijing two project power here in the South China Sea.

Beijing now accuses the Philippines of being dishonest and deliberately stirring up trouble.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): The Philippines' rights infringing and provocative attempts will not succeed.

WATSON: But the Philippines remains defiant.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If the hope of China is to weaken the Philippine resolve, they will be sorely disappointed.

WATSON: The night before the confrontation, we steamed past a U.S. Navy ship, the USS Mobile, apparently being shadowed from a distance by this Chinese Navy ship and helicopter. A looming question: would the us come to the help of its mutual defense treaty ally the Philippines if tensions escalate further with China, owner of the worlds largest navy?


WATSON (on camera): Now, there really is the risk having witnessed this firsthand, Erin, there is the risk that something could go wrong here. The -- these giant ships are essentially playing chicken and they don't stop on a dime. The crews are uniformed on each others bows and vessels.

They're facing seeing each other. They're not making faces at each other. They're not cursing at each other. There is constant communication between radio operators.

But if there's a miscalculation, or a further provocation and some Filipino sailors or hurt, or killed or a ship is sunk. The U.S. is obliged under a treaty to come to Manila's defense.

Part of why the Philippines is not backing down is in 2016, there was an international court of arbitration decision that ruled China cannot basically claim all of the South China Sea to itself.


Beijing declared that illegal, null and void, and that's part of why the Philippines is so adamant about going up against its much wealthier and larger rival -- Erin.

BURNETT: Those accents, though, you start up on an escalation trail and nobody may like where that ends.

Thank you so much, Ivan. That was incredible to see.

And this comes as we have obtained an OUTFRONT some new satellite images showing how China is beefing up its naval fleet huge way, running laps around the U.S., as the navy estimates, that a single Chinese shipyard, and that this is the exclusive images you're looking at, one single Chinese shipyard, okay, is what you're looking at parts of here, can produce more vessels that all U.S. shipyards combined. The United States falling behind as a new report details how China is preparing for war.

And OUTFRONT now, with brand new reporting that he is sharing with us along with these images is Seth Jones, the senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

So, Seth, I mean, this is incredible. You've got these satellite images. Can you tell me exactly what were looking at on our screen? Why -- and why it is so alarming to you?

SETH JONES, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: Yeah, Erin. So we're looking at the Jiangnan Shipyard, which is outside of Shanghai. I mean, there are at least two or three things that are important to note. One is this has been a huge expansion of the Chinese to build ships primarily for the People's Liberation Army navy. So the Chinese navy.

Second, these aren't just any ships. We've got aircraft carriers in here. So really indicating that the Chinese are building high-end capabilities.

And third, if you look overall at what the Chinese are building, they're acquiring high-end weapons systems, five to six times faster right now than the U.S.

And overall, the Chinese shipbuilding capacity is about 230 times larger than the U.S. And then you noted, one of Chinese --

BURNETT: Two hundred thirty times more capacity?

JONES: Yes, 230 times more capacity right now, than the U.S. It's stunning right now.

U.S. secretary the navy is aware of this huge divergence right now, but we are behind.

BURNETT: I mean, that would seem to be the one of the greatest understatements of the day, at least, Seth. But you -- 230 times on the shipping and just looking at those images here, and then also you mentioned and munitions, that they are investing in munitions five to six times faster than we are.

What -- what are the numbers there? Which obviously the context of that brings in other, other conflicts like Ukraine, so short on munitions.

JONES: Well, the point on the munitions is their acquisition process is moving quickly. They are moving from research and development to the production of weapons systems fast. If you look at the U.S. system right now, we are slow. It takes years to build some of our high-end weapons systems.

And if in some of the war games we've done in around the Taiwan Straits, we run out, we don't have enough long-range anti-ship missiles, for example, in Taiwan Straits where the us runs out of them after about a week of war. So, it really undermines not just wartime capabilities, but also deterrence with such few munitions.

BURNETT: That -- that sure would if a war game runs out in a week.

All right, very sobering. Thank you very much for sharing all of those images with us, Seth.

JONES: Thanks, Erin.

BURNETT: And next, the deadline fast approaching for a third party for the movement, No Labels, specifically to actually name their ticket. Who -- what will it be?



BURNETT: Tonight, deadline. The group No Labels has been making noise for months about a potential 2024 presidential campaign. And its self- imposed deadline is just days away. They put the date March 15th and its holding a massive secret meeting on Friday with 800 delegates to determine whether to put someone on the ballot.

"Politico" is reporting that its donors though are, quote, starting to fear that the third-party group missed its window. We are now of course, past Super Tuesday and the group has no clear candidate that we know of.

OUTFRONT now, Joe Lieberman, the former U.S. senator and vice presidential nominee, who is the founding chairman of No Labels.

So what there is to know, you know, Senator, and the context is this -- Nikki Haley is out. Your self-imposed deadline is next week to announce a campaign.

Do you still expect to launch a formal No Labels presidential bid for 2024?

JOE LIEBERMAN, NO LABELS FOUNDING CHAIRMAN: Well, it's up to the delegates, 800 from all 50 states that are going to meet on Friday. There are rank-and-file members.

We got into this because our members about a year-and-a-half ago said to us, oh, my God, another Trump-Biden match. It's not good for the country. It offers no hope of bringing bipartisanship back to Washington regardless of who wins.

Let's, let's look at running a third choice, bipartisan unity ticket. And we said, we can't decide that until after Super Tuesday. We can start gaining access to the ballots, which we've done. But Super Tuesday was yesterday. I'm sure enough it is Trump and Biden.

So, we're at the moment of truth and we're ready for it. We're right on schedule. We're going to ask the delegates on Friday, do you want us to go forward to do some final surveying of public opinion because we've said we're not going to do this unless we have a chance to win. We're not going to be spoilers. And then we will make a recommendation to the same delegates if we

decided to go forward, a really unique by partisan unity ticket. Think of Trump, Biden, RFK Jr., Cornel West, Jill Stein, and a totally different bipartisan ticket.

BURNETT: And I was about to mention all those other names because those are -- those are really going to matter in a lot of states. At least at this point, that seems very clear. RFK Jr. polls steadily and strongly nationally.

Nikki Haley has said that she would not run on your ticket, but, you know, she's been very clear about that. Here's a couple of her supporters in North Carolina when Jeff Zeleny asked them about her future and the potential of running for president in another -- with another label.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've been intrigued for a while now at the whole notion of a -- of a couple of legitimate third party.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thought about that a lot. Part of me really would like to see that.


BURNETT: So do you think she made a mistake to rule out an independent run?

LIEBERMAN: Well, that's her choice and I think she's decided that her future is in the Republican Party. But listen to those Haley supporters and a lot of others.

You know, the polling is showing that the American people, 65, 70 percent want another choice other than Trump and Biden, and we've been talking to some really exceptional candidates, who can offer that choice. So, well, let's see what the delegates sound Friday. But I think this is a unique moment in history where the American people are so fed up with the two parties and the two logic of probable candidates that they're going to welcome a bipartisan unity third choice on the ballot.

And we're only going to do it if we think we could win. And right now, our polling tells us we can.

BURNETT: And that 800 delegates, are we going to see that process play out or is that going to be behind closed doors?

LIEBERMAN: Well, it's a virtual process. It -- but it -- but the chairman of the meeting, Mike Rawlings, just a perfect No Labels leader, former CEO of Pizza Hut, former mayor of Dallas. He will report after the convention on what happened and it will be ready to go and make a decision about a ticket within the next couple of weeks, I expect. BURNETT: All right. Well, of course, everyone is going to be watching

because as we know, right, these -- these people already on the ballot in so many states could already affect the entire direction of this election.

Senator Lieberman, I really appreciate your time. Thank you very much.

LIEBERMAN: Thank you, Erin. Have a good evening.

BURNETT: All right. You, too.

And thanks so much for -- to all of you for being with us.

"AC360" begins right now.