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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Four Republicans Debate In Battle To Be Top Trump Alternative; Rep. Kevin McCarthy Resigning From Congress At End Of Year; LeBron James Reacts To UNLV Mass Shooting. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired December 07, 2023 - 05:30   ET



KASIE HUNT, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Thanks for being up early with us. I'm Kasie Hunt.

With the Iowa caucuses less than six weeks away, four Republican presidential candidates went after each other on a heated and sometimes insulting debate stage in Alabama last night. Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, and Vivek Ramaswamy sparred over a number of issues trying to set themselves apart to become the key rival -- the number two to frontrunner Donald Trump. Trump, of course, skipped all four debates, including this one, and his absence loomed large.


CHRIS CHRISTIE, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The fifth guy, who doesn't have the guts to show up and stand here -- he's the one who, as you just put it, is way ahead in the polls. And yet, I've got these three guys who are all seemingly to compete with Voldemort -- he who shall not be named.


HUNT: Nikki Haley, who has gained momentum in recent months, became a target for Ramaswamy and DeSantis.


GOV. RON DESANTIS, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Her donors -- these Wall Street liberal donors -- they make money in China. They are not going to let her be tough on China and she will cave to the donors.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Nikki, I don't have a woman problem. You have a corruption problem. And I think that's what people need to know. Nikki is corrupt.


NIKKI HALEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: No. It's not worth my time to respond to him.


HUNT: And New Jersey's former governor saying, again, his rivals are afraid to take on Trump.



JOHNSON: Guys, no talking over each other.

DESANTIS: We don't have to worry about --

CHRISTIE: He won't answer.

DESANTIS: -- who is almost 80 years old.


CHRISTIE: He's afraid to answer.

DESANTIS: No, I'm not.

CHRISTIE: He's -- no. You have to. Either you're afraid or you're not listening.

DESANTIS: No, it's not.

CHRISTIE: There's a simple question.



HUNT: CNN's Arit John joins me now to talk more about this. Arit, good morning. Thanks for being here.

Christie fiery there. He also pointed out the multiple felony indictments against Trump. This is really the big question looming over this field. He has skipped all of these debates.

Do you think that what we saw play out on that stage last night moved the needle at all?

ARIT JOHN, CNN REPORTER: It's hard to say. I think that what we saw on stage was that Nikki Haley was sort of cemented as the ascendant candidate in this race for a distant second place.

Chris Christie is the only one who is willing to go after Trump and the only one really willing to, like, make a distinction and talk to voters and say you should vote for me instead of voting for Trump.

From Haley and from DeSantis, we hear sort of these sort of measured criticisms. And then you have someone like Vivek Ramaswamy saying January 6 was an inside job.

So there's not really this concerted effort among all of the candidates to try to draw that contrast. And now we're less -- we're just a few weeks away from Iowa and the time -- the time period to sort of make that distinction has probably already passed. But in this limited time that they have they're clearly not taking advantage of it on the debate stage.

HUNT: Arit, what did you take away from Christie? He aggressively defended Nikki Haley against attacks from, in particular, Vivek Ramaswamy on stage. That's I think going to lead to speculation that he might actually be willing to get out of the race and back Nikki Haley even though he has said repeatedly that is not the plan.

JOHN: I think that's -- yeah. There's -- he could be looking to sort of say like Haley -- of the people who are on stage, Haley might be the person that he is the most sympathetic to or the one he could, like, stomach seeing advance further.

I think the other thing, too, is just like Vivek Ramaswamy has really come across as very annoying to a lot of the candidates and to a lot of Republicans. And so, if going against Vivek Ramaswamy and saying, like, hey, what you're saying is, like -- is unfair. Like, you're attacking someone's character. I mean, going after him probably makes Christie look good, too.

HUNT: Yeah. I appreciate your directness, honestly. I think sometimes it can be a little bit difficult to talk about that. And there's a lot of that kind of sentiment certainly in the private conversations I'm having about people and how they feel. That they don't -- they don't enjoy Vivek's -- Vivek Ramaswamy's presence on the stage, but it can be hard to say.

So, Arit John, thank you very much for being with us this morning. I really appreciate your time.

JOHN: Thanks for having me.

HUNT: And Sarah Matthews, Matt Gorman, and Christian Hall are back with me to talk a little bit more about this.

And I want to keep the conversation all on the big picture here beyond the debate stage itself. I mean, yes, this was the last debate before the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary in January. And again, I just want to repeat this is still a race for number two to try to take on Joe Biden.

And I want to bring it kind of back to the big picture that we have been talking about with the recent comments that Donald Trump made about being a dictator on day one. Republicans have said that -- his defenders have said he was joking there.

President Biden actually responded to some of this yesterday at a fundraiser. He did not speak on camera about it but he basically said again -- he repeated -- if we could put that up on the screen.

He says, "God bless me. What do you think that means when it comes to upholding federal trust and treaty obligations" -- he was at a tribal nations event and that's why he's saying that. "I'm serious." And then he goes on to say, "Something else is at stake. The future of American democracy. Not a joke."

And then, Matt Gorman, we heard on stage from Chris Christie about this. I want to show everyone what Chris Christie had to say and we'll talk about it on the other side -- watch.



CHRISTIE: He's made it very clear. There's no mystery to what he wants to do. He started off his campaign by saying I am your retribution. Eight years ago, he said I am your voice. This is an angry, bitter man who now wants to be back as president because he wants to exact retribution.


HUNT: And actually, let me put this question, Sarah, to you first -- and then Matt, I'll get you to weigh in as well. But Sarah, you worked for Donald Trump and have since come out and been outspoken in talking about the danger that you view that he poses.

How do you view what Chris Christie said on the debate stage last night and how this is playing out broadly?

SARAH MATTHEWS, FORMER DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY, TRUMP WHITE HOUSE: I thought that was probably Chris Christie's strongest moment, actually. And it highlights something that I have been vocal about, too, which is that the Donald Trump of today is very different than the Donald Trump of the 2016 campaign. Back then, he was running on a vision to make America great again and was a voice for those who felt left behind by this country.

And today, that is not the message at all that we're seeing from him. He literally is campaigning on saying stuff like I am your retribution. And he has talked about proposing things such as weaponizing the DOJ to enact revenge on his political enemies. He's called for doing away with parts of the Constitution.

And so, people think sometimes, I think, that when we say democracy is at stake that it sounds alarmist. And I think that there have been these kinds of dire warnings ever since he, honestly, came onto the political scene back in 2015.

But the thing is that we need to be paying attention to his words and what he's actually saying. And so, I don't think it's necessarily a joke when he says I'm going to be a dictator on day one. And he was actually given multiple opportunities during that interview with Sean Hannity to say that he wouldn't break the law or that he wouldn't abuse his power, and he sidestepped the question and then tried to play it off as a joke. But I think that that's very telling that he wouldn't just outright say no.

HUNT: Well -- and Matt Gorman, there's reporting out there about how Trump's advisers view this dictator question. That even before that Sean Hannity interview they were urging allies on Capitol Hill to basically push back against this idea. And I think, to Sarah's point, you could see Sean Hannity in that interview trying to get him to say no, I will not be a dictator.

The reasoning that the campaign -- you know, for the campaign to be concerned about it is the general election. Because there does seem to be some concern among people who work for Trump that this line of conversation is problematic for the general election.

How do you -- like, how do you view that in this -- in this context? I know you and I talked yesterday. He's clearly making a play to the base of the Republican Party that seems -- and Mitt Romney was out there yesterday saying yeah, his base is fine with these authoritarian tendencies. But there is this potential tension between the primary voters and general election ones.

MATT GORMAN, VICE PRESIDENT, TARGETED VICTORY: Yeah. I think a couple of things can be true at once. And I think you're right -- we talked about this yesterday. It could be a very Trumpian clumsy way, intentionally or not, of talking about what you want to do executive power-wise on the border and on energy.

But you're right. This does reinforce a concern that Republicans, and even Kevin McCarthy, had where he said look, if you want to make this campaign about revenge -- or as Chris Christe said, retribution -- this will not help you. It will hurt you. And especially, when you have a president like Joe Biden in the 30s in his approval rating, you have an opportunity to talk about voters and what they want.

And so, making it about yourself -- which again, as Christie pointed out he often does -- hurts you to win a general election.

So those two things can be true, and I think that was what Christie was trying to point out there.

HUNT: Yeah. So, speaking of President Biden's approval rating, Christian, we can put up on the screen a graph that is relatively stark. And this is -- this was the most recent CNN poll is at 37 percent that you can see there now. This goes back to March 2021 right after he was sworn in. He was above 50 and took that really significant dip with the Afghanistan withdrawal. But this is the lowest we've had him in this -- in this job approval survey.

If you're the Biden White House -- the Biden campaign, how are you viewing what played out on stage last night? I know that they seem to think that the fight against Trump would be an easier one. But we also know that the Hillary Clinton campaign made that mistake back in 2016.

CHRISTIAN HALL, POLITICS CORRESPONDENT, BLOOMBERG: Yeah. I mean, I would be really concerned. I know that President Donald -- former President Donald Trump has said that he's excited to run against Joe Biden, and Joe Biden believes that he's the one to take on Trump.

But just looking at the debate last night, even if it's not Donald Trump being the nominee -- Nikki Haley, as an example. I think at one point she said that I'm the one who can defeat President Joe Biden.


She was really strong in the debate. I mean, I think, again, she showed viewers that she is a very strong debater. She was clear on the issues. She was very -- she did a very good job of being able to get some zingers in and some standout moments.

So I would be very concerned if I were President Joe Biden. Just being able to see President Joe Biden on stage next to any of the other candidates last night and taking into consideration the job approval rates, I would be very concerned.

HUNT: Yeah.

So, speaking of Nikki Haley, I'm glad you raised that because again, this is kind of the overarching theme of this race. We're going to start to see voters voting this big question: can anyone break out enough to actually take on Trump for the Republican nomination?

We can show you just a little bit of how Haley pushed back at the various attacks. You can see that both she was the target of these attacks and we'll show you how she responded -- watch.


RAMASWAMY: The only person more fascist than the Biden regime now is Nikki Haley.

HALEY: I love all the attention, fellows. Thank you for that.

DESANTIS: Her donors -- these Wall Street liberal donors -- they make money in China. They are not going to let her be tough on China and she will cave to the donors. She will not stand up for you.


HALEY: First of all, he's mad because those Wall Street donors used to support him and now they support me.

RAMASWAMY: Nikki, I don't have a woman problem. You have a corruption problem. And I think that that's what people need to know. Nikki is corrupt.

JOHNSON: Governor Haley, would you like to respond?

HALEY: No. It's not worth my time to respond to him.


HUNT: Sarah Matthews, what did you make of how Haley handled all of this? And how do you think her performance affects what had been a pretty upward rising trajectory in momentum and polling?

MATTHEWS: I think that her -- definitely, her strategy was to try to not be as contentious maybe as she had been in the previous debates. We obviously saw in those debates that she had kind of sparring moments with Vivek, particularly. But I think in this debate she chose to try to rise above it and look like the adult in the room.

And I -- and I will say it was a strong debate performance from her. Do I think it was her strongest that she's had? No. I think that DeSantis and Chris Christie probably had their strongest debate performances to date. But I think that she still looked like that she was the person who is rising in the polls, and the others looked like their campaigns were flailing, and that's why they were attacking her so aggressively.

HUNT: Yeah.

Matt Gorman, I'm going to give you a quick last word.

GORMAN: One quick note. One argument we didn't hear against Trump anymore was on electability. I think with these recent spates and the pattern of polls showing him beating Joe Biden, the other folks had to resort to other things, whether it was moral grounds on Christie, chaos and drama on Nikki, or more conservative policy criticisms like DeSantis. That was a notable change than in past debates.

HUNT: Yeah -- no. It's a really interesting note.

Sarah Matthews, Christian Hall, Matt Gorman, very grateful to have you all here on this early morning to post-game this. Thank you very much.

All right. Up next here, former House speaker Kevin McCarthy resigning from Congress. What this means for House Republicans' slim majority, up next.



HUNT: Kevin McCarthy calling it quits. The California congressman announced yesterday he will not seek reelection in 2024. In fact, he's leaving Congress at the end of the year just months after being ousted as House Speaker in a dramatic battle with his conference's right wing.


REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): And when the stakes were the highest, we rose to the challenge. We were willing to risk it all no matter the odds, no matter the personal cost. Simply put, we did the right thing.

But now, it is time to pursue my passion in a new arena. While I'll be departing the House at the end of this year, I will never, ever give up fighting for this country that I love so much.


HUNT: McCarthy announced his decision in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. He did not mention his historic ouster. He touted his party's accomplishments in the face of a slim majority. That majority, of course, is going to get even thinner once McCarthy leaves.

Let's bring in Mychael Schnell, congressional reporter for The Hill. Mychael, good morning.

I think all of us who have known and covered Kevin McCarthy smiled, nodded -- maybe were minorly amused by his own description of being persistently cheerful. That was what he said in his Wall Street Journal op-ed.

I have to be honest. I was not surprised to see that he was leaving. Were you?

MYCHAEL SCHNELL, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, THE HILL: No, Kasie. And look, this has been the stunning rise and the stunning fall of Kevin McCarthy this year.

But look, his time with the gavel and his time in the House have been difficult all year long. It started with that protracted speaker's race in January, taking him 15 rounds to actually get that gavel.

And then after that, it was legislative battle after legislative battle. Him getting pushed to the right by his right flank -- a times, squeezed by those conservatives. And of course, this all came to his decision to put a clean continuing resolution on the floor to avert a government shutdown at the end of September.

And that was just the last straw for some of these hardline conservatives. Eight of them, led by Matt Gaetz, bringing that motion to vacate that ended up being successful and deposing McCarthy from his position in a pretty stunning and embarrassing fashion.

So after that, this speculation had swirled. Would McCarthy stay in the game? Would he stay out? Would he run for reelection? Finish his term?

He openly said this was a tough decision and ultimately, saying it would be a gut decision. At the end of the day, he decided to tap out early. Again, I don't think anybody is too surprised by this just considering that he had been at the top of the House -- the top of the GOP conference and had this embarrassing fall. He didn't really have a place in the conference afterwards and it didn't seem like he liked being a rank-and-file member.

HUNT: Yeah. I mean, the reality is it's very unusual to have a former speaker remain. And the fact that -- I mean, Nancy Pelosi has stayed as a, basically, rank-and-file member. I think a lot of people were surprised that she did that. But Pelosi obviously handles things a little bit -- a little bit differently.


Let's talk about the majority, though, in the Republican House now. Because this -- honestly, McCarthy leaving makes Mike Johnson, the new speaker's job all the more difficult. It clearly seems like McCarthy doesn't really care that he's making Mike Johnson's life more difficult.

But explain why and how much harder -- it's going to be that much harder. Marjorie Taylor Greene, I think put it in pretty stark terms, no?

SCHNELL: Yeah. So this majority is slimming and slimming and slimming. Now with Kevin McCarthy leaving, the House Republicans essentially to put it to make it easy -- they can still only afford to lose three votes on any partisan vote. But they lose that one vote of a cushion and this just narrows that House majority that Republicans had, which at the start of this Congress was slim. I don't think anybody thought that it could get this slim, Kasie.

And you mentioned Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene -- of course, a very close ally of Kevin McCarthy -- has spoken out against the eight Republicans who forced this vote to oust McCarthy and has since been critical of Speaker Johnson. She bluntly said yesterday, "I hope nobody dies." Because if anybody dies in the Republican Conference, that slims their majority even more and brings them in very close territory, Kasie, of losing the majority.

So, in any way that you look at this, Kevin McCarthy's leaving Capitol Hill at the end of the year is significant for House Republicans.

You bring this back to Speaker Johnson. We are heading into a very high-stakes period of legislating appropriations. There are two government funding deadlines next year. Leaders still want to pass funding for Ukraine and funding for Israel. There's that vote on opening an impeachment inquiry into President Biden expected next week.

But if it gets punted until next year, after the recess, these are all going to be heavy lifts. On any day, they are going to be heavy lifts for Speaker Johnson and his leadership team. Now having an even smaller majority, it gets that much harder.

HUNT: Yeah, it does, indeed.

All right, Mychael Schnell of The Hill. Thank you very much for being here today. I always appreciate your reporting.

All right. Just ahead, LeBron James speaking out about guns in America after the shooting at UNLV.



HUNT: Welcome back.

In the wake of yesterday's mass shooting at UNLV, Lakers star LeBron James says it's ridiculous that there have been no changes to gun laws.

Andy Scholes has this morning's Bleacher Report. Andy, good morning.

ANDY SCHOLES, CNN SPORTS ANCHOR: Yeah, good morning, Kasie.

You know, LeBron and the Lakers -- they are in Las Vegas right now preparing for the In-Season Tournament semifinals later tonight. And LeBron said, you know, it's really sad that we have to keep having the same conversations without any change.


LEBRON JAMES, LOS ANGELES LAKERS FORWARD: The ability to get a gun, the ability to do these things over and over and over, and there's been no change is literally ridiculous. It makes no sense that we continue to lose innocent lives on campuses, on schools, at shopping markets, and it's ridiculous. It's ridiculous. And the fact that we haven't changed anything, it's stupid.


SCHOLES: Yeah. LeBron and the Lakers are going to take on the Pelicans in Las Vegas later today.

Here's the colorful court for the semifinals. According to ESPN, the NBA actually told the Lakers they couldn't wear their black jerseys because of contrast problems with the court. Not sure the gold jerseys will look much better but we'll wait and see.

Now, in the other matchup, you're going to have the Bucks taking on the Pacers.

And before this all started, there were questions how serious the players were going to take the In-Season Tournament, but they've been all in.


TYRESE HALIBURTON, INDIANA PACERS GUARD: We play in the best league in the world with a bunch of the greatest competitors in the world. And so -- I mean, I don't know if people really care what the prize is, to be honest with you. You just want to win because you want to say that you did and others didn't.

DAMIAN LILLARD, MILWAUKEE BUCKS GUARD: It's an opportunity to be the last man standing. And the surprise in the end is something that could have an impact on a lot of people involved. And we've got an opportunity at it, so -- and it's high stakes. It's something to be had.


SCHOLES: Yeah, high-stakes is right. Each player gets $500,000 if they win.

The Pacers and Bucks are going to get things started at 5:00 Eastern, followed by the Pelicans and Lakers at 9:00 Eastern on our sister channel TNT. "INSIDE THE NBA" -- a special version -- is going to get started at 7:30. The winners are going to face off in the NBA Cup Saturday night.

All right. Luka Doncic, meanwhile, put together a performance for the record books last night. He became the first player in NBA history to record a 25-point triple-double in the first half. The Mavericks star posted 29 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists in the opening half of a 147-97 blowout over the Jazz. He finished with 40 points in just three quarters.

And we have our first blockbuster trade coming out of baseball's winter meetings. The Yankees acquiring superstar outfielder Juan Soto from the Padres in a seven-player deal. The three-time All-Star played just two seasons in San Diego after being acquired from the Nationals. Soto, still only 25 years old. He's going to be a free agent after this upcoming season.

All right. And finally, Panthers tight end Hayden Hurst is in the NFL's concussion protocol, but his father says he's dealing with a much more serious issue. Jerry Hurst posted on X that his son has been diagnosed with post-traumatic amnesia after suffering a concussion during the Panthers' loss to the Bears four weeks ago. Jerry added, "Slow recovery. Don't know when he'll be back. Prayers appreciated."

A team spokesperson told CNN that Hayden Hurst returned to practice in a limited capacity yesterday.

Kasie, post-traumatic amnesia is when a person forgets part of what happened before and after an injury. So, you know, we certainly are wishing Hayden well. Definitely, a scary situation there.


HUNT: Yeah, very scary, indeed. Very difficult for his family. Here's hoping he can recover there.

Briefly, Andy --


HUNT: -- Juan Soto. I miss him here in Washington. What do you make of this?

SCHOLES: Yeah. Well, the Yankees' offense was dreadful last season so you knew they were going to do something. And they -- you know --

HUNT: Yeah.

SCHOLES: -- they got Trent Grisham in that deal as well -- so, Juan Soto, Trent Grisham. They already got Verdugo. You know, the Yankees -- they might be looking more like the Yankees next season --

HUNT: All right.

SCHOLES: -- unfortunately, for your Orioles.

HUNT: Unfortunately. I was just going to say --


HUNT: -- let's go O's!"

All right, Andy, thank you very much.

SCHOLES: All right. HUNT: And thanks to all of you for joining us. I'm Kasie Hunt. Don't go anywhere. "CNN THIS MORNING" starts right now.