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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

GOP Candidates Ramp Up Attacks Ahead of Iowa Caucuses; Crews Search for Survivors in China Earthquake; Volcano Erupts After Earthquake in Iceland; Trial of Media Tycoon Jimmy Lai Underway in Hong Kong. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired December 19, 2023 - 05:00   ET



JOHN AVLON, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to our viewers here in the United States, and around the world. I'm John Avlon, in for Kasie Hunt. It is Tuesday, December 19th.

Now, four weeks from today, we'll be waking up to results from the Iowa caucus. So, this is crunch time in the land of cornfields and presidential politics. Donald Trump holding a rally there tonight while Nikki Haley is going on offense.


NIKKI HALEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I've done well over 120, something, 140 town halls. I never talk about my opponents. But today I am.


AVLON: The former U.N. ambassador and South Carolina governor's sharpening attacks against her opponents, calling out Donald Trump last night for his persistent praise of dictators. Also, the Haley campaign and super PAC both releasing new TV ads knocking Ron DeSantis and President Biden.


HALEY: I'll just say it, Biden is too old, and Congress is the most exclusive nursing home in America.

AD ANNOUNCER: In a world consumed by chaos, Ron DeSantis is another disaster. The DeSantis campaign a dumpster fire. His style always trying to out-Trump Trump, phony and feeling. A weaker nominee than Trump.


AVLON: Armed with those new ads, Haley and her super PAC have more airtime booked than any other candidate. But is it too little, too late?

For that, let's bring in "Semafor" reporter, Shelby Talcott.

Shelby, good to see you.

Look, Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, they are now spending millions attacking each other in these final weeks before Iowa and New Hampshire. There's some amazing stats here. Haley spent around $6.4 million in broadcast TV ads attacking DeSantis, while DeSantis spent about $5.9 million attacking her.

Is this just a burn it all to the ground strategy, or could it actually sway some voters' minds?

SHELBY TALCOTT, REPORTER, SEMAFOR: I think certainly there's still a chance to sway some voters minds. There's a sect of the Republican Party in term of voters that don't make up their minds until the last minute. And so, that's really what they're trying to do here, the question that I have is whether it's going to sway enough voters to really make a difference.

Now, we saw Nikki Haley in particular out in New Hampshire, has taken a pretty big bump. But there's still the question of Iowa and South Carolina, are these candidates going to be able not only get into second place, and get into a solid second place. But compete against Donald Trump, of course, which is the ultimate question.

AVLON: Well, South Carolina, of course, Haley's home state. New Hampshire and Iowa different set of constituencies in the Republican Party. A lot of independent voters can vote in the primary in New Hampshire. The caucuses are something totally different.

Explain to our viewers kind of the calculus of how voters make up their minds in that. And why it's less predictable than many other contests?

TALCOTT: Yeah, that's a good question, and I think one of the reasons that it's less predictable, is because they make up their mind so late. And the other reason is because you have all of these candidates who are going to be heading to the states, doing last-minute events. It really depends on each voter to voter and what they care about.

I've been on the ground in many of the states, and heard multiple a different issues that voters care about, from abortion, to health care, to the economy. So voters are each going to decide what they are going to the polls with at the top of mind.

AVLON: It's very retail.

All right. I want to get your take on Nikki Haley taking on Trump's praise of dictators. Take a listen.


HALEY: The part that bothers me is, our national security is at risk. And what's he doing? He's praising dictators. When Israel fell, to her knees, what did he do? He talked about an old vendetta with Netanyahu, and praised Hezbollah.

(END VIDEO CLIP) AVLON: Now we know that Haley's been a little more hesitant than other candidates to directly attack Trump, Christie has criticized her for this. But could we see something change in her approach as we head into this final campaign stretch? After all, campaigns are about contrast, and she seems suddenly wanting to make the contrast.


TALCOTT: Yeah, this is certainly a big difference for Nikki Haley, and, quite frankly, a big difference when you compare Nikki Haley to some of the other candidates like Vivek, and Ron DeSantis who have also criticized -- well, Vivek Ramaswamy has not criticize Trump, but Ron DeSantis has been critical of Trump but in different ways.

And so, I think for Nikki Haley's team, they are seeing that they are gaining traction, and it's time to start going after Trump. I'm still hesitant, whether or not that's going to rise to the level of say a Chris Christie, because when you look at Nikki Haley's constituents in the voters that she's trying to get, she's still trying to peel of that sect of voters who are don't, necessarily hate Trump, but are tired of the drama and chaos that he brings.

AVLON: Yeah, look, she's not going to wharf into Chris Christie. She's not a jersey tough guy. She's a different style all her own.

All right. Shelby, I want to praise you from some scoops yesterday, because scoops always deserve a shout-out, saying that Haley has been courting her South Carolina colleague Senator Tim Scott for his endorsement after he dropped out of the race last month. They've had some bad blood on the debate stage and she's, of course, not alone. Trump, Christie, even possibly DeSantis, you say, have all done the same.

What influence do you think Tim Scott's endorsement would have on the race at this point?

TALCOTT: It's interesting because, I think endorsements by and large haven't made a massive impact in this presidential race thus far. What I will say when it comes to Tim Scott is, remember when he was in the presidential race, he had some of the highest favorabilities out of the candidates.

And so, people like him. Voters like him. Donors like him. And so, that could matter when it comes down to the last few weeks of these primary seasons in some of these early voting states, and particularly for Nikki Haley, it could help in South Carolina where Trump still has a significant lead despite it being her home state.

ALVON: It could indeed.

All right. "Semafor's" Shelby Talcott, thank you very much for joining us this morning.

All right. Texas going where no other border state has gone before, with the new law that makes entering the state illegally a crime in state law. Plus, tens of millions of Americans under winter weather alert this

morning as temperatures plunge. We're going to have the latest forecast, and a volcano erupting in Iceland. We are tracking the lava flow. Take a look at that.



AVLON: Search and rescue teams are combing through rubble in subzero temperatures following a deadly 5.9 magnitude earthquake in northwest China. More than 100 people were killed. That number is expected to rise.

Let's get right to CNN's Marc Stewart live in Beijing with the latest -- Marc.


These rescue teams have been dealing with obstacle after obstacle. Right now, there are really three big challenges. First of all, it is already Tuesday evening here in China, and the darkness has been a challenge from the start, and now, we are entering another night, and just navigating all of the wreckage, all of the debris. It's certainly going to be difficult. Two, China is dealing with many parts with very cold weather, this earthquake zone as seen subfreezing conditions that makes things difficult for rescue crews as well as survivors.

And then number three, this is a high altitude region in northwest China. And that within itself poses strains, the fact that it is so high up above sea level. Right now, people are doing what they can to survive, they are lighting fires. They are doing things as simple as jumping up and down, just to stay warm. Rescue crews really are depending on the basics.

All day long, we have seen that basically they go building to building with shovels, trying to find survivors, and people who have survived are without question, very lucky, because as we have been seen as the day has moved forward, the death toll has climbed and sadly, it may likely climb in the hours ahead.

A big issue is not only comes that a destroyed, but damaged shows. According to CCTV, which is the state broadcaster, more than 100,000 homes have been damaged. John, the government is pledging around $28 million in assistance, when you have things like cold weather, like darkness, high altitude conditions, that money is moot. These obstacles are just that significant.

AVLON: Those are definitely tough conditions adding to the difficulty. Marc, thank you very much.

All right, a developing story now in Iceland. We've got a volcano eruption, spewing bright orange lava, you see if there. Not long after an earthquake rocked the region.

Now, this is not exactly a surprise. People in the town of 3,000 were evacuated last month.

CNN's Melissa Bell live in Paris with the latest -- Melissa.

MELISSA BELL, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, what we've been seeing tonight over the course of the last, this is an eruption that began at 10:00 p.m., you're right, no surprise at all. Authorities have been warning of this for more than a month, they've seen that seismic swarm as they call it, with 1,000 small earthquakes in a 24- hour period, those evacuations taking place from that town, that fishing town of Grindavik, 4,000 people evacuated in all.

They have been allowed home during the day. Now they're being kept away, you can see in those pictures just how spectacular the scenes are there in Reykjanes peninsula in southwestern Iceland. That began at 10:00 p.m. yesterday, what we saw is that fissure, the main crack is now four kilometers long, and for a while, you are seeing 200 cubic meters of lava erupting, emerging from that crack every single second, so many hundreds overnight.


What we're hearing, the very latest, though, is that Grindavik may yet be spared from the lava flows, we understand from local authorities that they are now heading towards the north and east and away from the town itself. Icelandic authorities have said obviously, the main priority here, John, is to protect human lives, although infrastructure, of course, is crucial consideration. You have to cross your mind back to 2010 the case was caused by the volcano eruption. No suggestion of that for now this time, John.

AVLON: Indeed, Melissa Bell, thank you very much.

In Hong Kong, the long awaited trial of media tycoon and Chinese communist party critic Jimmy Lai is underway. Lai faces multiple counts of violating Hong Kong's national security law, instead of supporting the city's pro-democracy movement. He's been jailed since 2020.

CNN's Kristie Lu Stout has more on the high stakes of this high profile trial, and why the wider world is paying close attention.


KRISTIE LU STOUT, CNN HONG KONG: Here in Hong Kong, outside the West Kowloon magistrate's court, on the first day of the national security trial of China critic and media mogul Jimmy Lai.

Outside the court, security has been tight. Authorities have warned against any disruption and inside the court, we saw Jimmy Lai make an appearance. He appeared calm and he was wearing a gray suit. He was surrounded by four corrections officers who are guarding him. He was also seen smiling and waving to supporters inside the room.

The national security law was imposed by Beijing on Hong Kong, in 2020. In the wake of the 2019 massive anti-government protests, Jimmy Lai is arguably the most high-profile target of the national security law, he faces multiple counts of colluding with foreign forces which if convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of life in prison. He also faces a separate charge of sedition under a law that dates back to Hong Kong's colonial past.

Now, the 76-year-old Jimmy Lai has been in detention for three years, and family members have expressed concern about his condition including his son, Sebastian Lai.

SEBASTIAN LAI, JIMMY LAI'S SON: I think psychologically he's very strong, there is always that element, nobody escapes the gravity at age, and at his age, he is at a tremendous amount of risk being an in maximum security.

LU STOUT: The Hong Kong government says all national security cases are handled in a timely and fair manner.

And in a statement to CNN, a Hong Kong government spokesman said this, quote, as relevant legal proceedings are still ongoing, it is not appropriate for anyone to comment on the details of the case. Without commenting on individual cases, we must point out that the -- law enforcement agencies have been taking law enforcement action based on evidence, and strictly in accordance with the law in respect to the acts of the persons or entities concerned.

The trial is fanning growing concerns about press freedom in Hong Kong. The trial has been criticized by the governments of the U.S., the U.K. as well as a committee to protect journalists, all entities calling for the release of Jimmy Lai. In a statement, this is what we heard from the Asia coordinator of CPJ saying this, quote, this is the dark stain on Hong Kong's rule of law, and is doing a disservice to the governments' efforts to restore investor confidence, unquote.

The Hong Kong government has repeatedly said that freedom of the press, and freedom of speech are enshrined in basic law, and are not at risk.

Kristie Lu Stout, CNN, Hong Kong.


AVLON: Pope Francis with what some are calling an early Christmas present for same-sex couples. That story is ahead.



AVLON: We've got your quick hits across America now.

Governor Greg Abbott signed a tough new border bill that makes entering the state of Texas illegally a state crime. It empowers local law enforcement to deport illegal immigrants.


GOV. GREG ABBOTT (R-TX): The only thing we are doing by this law is making sure the law enforcement have the tools they need to actually take action against those who are actually coming across the border illegally.


AVLON: Civil rights groups are threatening to sue Texas over what they call an anti-immigrant bill. It takes effect in March.

Meanwhile, a federal appeals court rejecting Mark Meadows' attempt to move his Georgia election interference criminal case to federal court. The former White House chief of staff claiming his actions were connected to his official duties in the Trump White House.

And in a major shift for the Catholic Church, Pope Francis is permitting priests to bless same sex couples. The Vatican says, the blessings may be carried it out provided they are not part of regular church rituals, or liturgies nor at the same time as a civil union.

Now, millions of Americans are waking up this morning under winter weather alert. Snow could soon blanket the Great Lakes, all the way down to the Appalachian mountains. All this temperatures plunge in the Northeast.

Let's go to meteorologist, Derek Van Dam for the latest.

Derek, what are we going to see?


I think if you step outside you can probably confirm this, it's on the mild side even though the rain was there, in the wind was an attack. But the cold front has come through sense and drop temperatures considerably, along the East Coast. So, you're waking up to the upper 20s, and lower 30s, in terms of wind chill that's sort of feels like.

But it gets more and more bitter the further west you travel, Buffalo to Pittsburgh, Columbus to Detroit, even Green Bay in the single digits this morning. It's all thanks to that powerful system that moved through yesterday at this time, knocking out power for hundreds and thousands of customers across New England.


We're still contending with that across Maine, Massachusetts and parts of Connecticut. Look at these wind gusts associated with that storm, this is hurricane-force in Maine, Massachusetts, and even North Carolina. That is incredible to see, we saw top a trees, and of course, some minor damage as well.

Now, behind it, the cold air settles in. That's going to kick in the lake effect snow machine downwind from Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario, you can see the watches and warnings in place, right along the coastal regions of the Great Lakes and then the spine of the Appalachian Mountains.

Still some high running waterways across the rivers, throughout New England, that's why we had the flood warnings in place. In fact, eat gauges at major flood stage at the moment across northern New England, 36 at moderate. So, flooding still concern of those water levels try to edge their way down through the course of the day today.

Here's a look at your temperatures, what you need to know about it is going to remain cool through the rest of the week, but there is torch mess coming up across the upper Midwest in the East Coast. So, warmer weather is on the way just in time for the Christmas break -- John.

AVLON: That's just whiplash.

All right. Derek Van Dam, thank you very much, my man.

VAN DAM: OK, take care.

AVLON: Up next, renewed pressure in Washington for a border security compromise after the White House warns that Ukraine is about to run out of cash.