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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Trump Asks Supreme Court to Stay Out of Immunity Dispute; Biden: Courts Should Decide If Trump is Disqualified; U.S. Intel Analysis: Hamas' Influence Has Grown Since 10/7 Attack; 6 Wrongfully Detained Americans Back in U.S. After Venezuela Deal; Heavy Rain, Major Flood Threats to Hit Southern California. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired December 21, 2023 - 05:00   ET



JOHN AVLON, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to our viewers in the United States, and around the world. I'm John Avlon, in for Kasie Hunt. It is Thursday, December 21st, and it is 5:00 a.m. in New York.

It's also 5:00 a.m. in Washington, D.C., where Donald Trump is now urging the Supreme Court to reject a fast-track review of his claim for presidential immunity after he tried to overturn the 2020 election. His legal team filed a motion on Wednesday, and it comes on week after special counsel Jack Smith requested the justices rule quickly on whether immunity would protect Trump from prosecution, so that his federal election interference trial can begin as scheduled on March 4th.

Now, Trump's legal strategy has always been to delay the proceedings as he campaigns again for the White House in 2024.

Meantime, President Biden was asked about Tuesday's unprecedented Colorado Supreme Court ruling that Trump is an insurrectionist, and does not belong in the state's primary ballot.


REPORTER: Is Trump an insurrectionist, sir?

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, I think it's self- evident. We saw it. Now, whether the 14th Amendment applies, I'll let the court make that decision. But he certainly supported an insurrection. No question about it. None, zero.


AVLON: Joining me now is "Axios" political reporter Stef Kight.

Stef, good morning. Thanks for getting up early with us.

You just heard President Biden 's reaction, but how is his campaign thinking about this ruling and how it might play out in the general election?

STEF KIGHT, POLITICS REPORTER, AXIOS: I mean, you know, this is a huge ruling. Everyone is watching it very closely. No one is watching this closer than the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, and this is really going to force their hand and potentially create a situation where the Supreme Court is weighing in on the 2024 election in a way that has never really been seen before.

And, you know, we are seeing Democrats being, you know, quiet about this. No one is being super loud, or celebratory too early. The same thing goes for the Biden campaign. But, of course, you know, we hear Biden, we've long heard Democrats making a case that the former president was involved in an insurrection, so they're going to be watching this closely to see if this is finally something that will stick and damage Trump's campaign going forward.

AVLON: So it is interesting, the dynamic are describing is, Democrats and President Biden trying to be muted, saying this is a matter of law, and Republicans kind of leaning into it. The Trump campaign trying to fund-raise off, it might even create a boomerang effect and benefit them.

But politics perception, let's look at the data and what people are saying. "The New York Times" released a new poll yesterday showing the slim majority of registered voters, that's 52 percent, are paying some or a lot of attention to Trump's legal woes and cases.

How does that seem to be playing out of the campaign trail that you are seeing on a day-to-day basis?

KIGHT: Look, I mean, we all know that the former president has long been able to evade any negative consequences from any legal issues that he may be facing. That is something he has done time and time again over the last several years, if not decades. And we are seeing again, he and his campaign things the right strategy here is to double down. They are confident that their supporters are going to continue to support him no matter what, and some of the polls do show us that with a significant majority of primary voters saying that even if Trump were to be convicted after running primaries, that he should still be the primary candidate, he should still be the nominee despite that.

So, there are certainly support for Trump no matter what. We know that his base is not going anywhere. The question is, whether that other half of Americans, once they start paying closer attention, once we start seeing these court cases move forward, whether we start to see some impact on the polls in Trump lead there, or whether we will continue to see the former president move forward and people just accepting that this is who he is.

AVLON: Well, as you say, his hard-core support is not going anywhere. But, that is a significant part of the GOP base. The deciders ultimately selection will be folks on the middle of the electorate, so we will see how that all plays out as you say.

All right, I do think when you take a step back here, this can be legitimately confusing, folks.

[05:05:01] There are now three legal cases that could wind up before the Supreme Court relating to Trump, with massive implications for the elections. So the sets up a situation where not exactly like the year 2000 where the Supreme Court couldn't decide a role, but the Supreme Court could play a major role in the 2024 election.

So, let's talk about the perception of the court. We have seen that perception of the court, particularly in the wake of Dobbs, have become more divided. People see the court as more partisan. And that's not what the court wants. That's not what Chief Justice Roberts in particular wants. He understands that the power of the court, the influence of the court and its perception of independence and integrity.

So, how do you think these three cases are culminating in the court right around primary time, could impact that battle perception?

KIGHT: I mean, this is certainly a crisis point for the Supreme Court. As you point out, for a long time now, there has been increasing distrust in the court and Americans are increasingly seeing the court as political in nature. That is, of course, something that is counter to the historic brand of the Supreme Court, and goes against its credibility, and could cause problems moving forward.

And that's just going to be even more complicated when they are dealing with these three separate cases involving around Trump and the various charges that he is facing across the country, federal charges, state charges. And how the Supreme Court decides to handle each one of those unique cases, is going to be read politically. We are heading right into 2024 in the middle of an election season, and it is going to be very difficult for the court no matter how rules to avoid being caught up in that political debate and conversation.

So, you know, we'll have to see whether they are able to navigate that in any way, any nuanced way. The other thing I want to point out is that the Trump campaign, Trump and his followers, they have been for years now playing this victimhood playbook. They are embracing this idea of Trump being targeted by the justice department, the justice system within the U.S., so they know that no matter what happens, they are going to be able to take any ruling and spin it in a way that they think is going to continue to push that narrative of Trump being the victim here.

AVLON: You are so right about that. Stef Kight of "Axios", thank you so much for joining us early. Be well. Have a good day.

All right. Still to come, a deal to free ten Americans, and a wanted billionaire fugitive from Venezuela. We're going to take you behind that controversial swap, ahead.

Plus, what are the prospects for the remaining hostages of Hamas. We're going to break down ongoing talks with the possible release, next.



AVLON: Just into CNN, a brand-new analysis of U.S. intelligence warning that Hamas' influence has grown since its October 7th attack on Israel. A senior administration official telling CNN before October 7th, Hamas was, quote, not a wildly popular organization. Today, it's more popular.

CNN's Clare Sebastian joins us now from London.

Clare, what else have we learned?

CLARE SEBASTIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, John, this is a new body of analysis from U.S. intelligence agency. CNN has spoken to officials familiar with this analysis, and it seems to suggest that as we know, the Israeli goal is to eliminate Hamas completely. The exact opposite could be happening.

That is the risk. There is key things to note here, the analysis suggests Hamas's influence and power may be gaining outside of Gaza more than inside of Gaza. There was a poll cited by senior administration official those conduct in the first week of November that found support for the October 7th attacks is higher in the West Bank at 68 percent than it is in Gaza at 47 percent. So that is significant. I think half of the suffering civilians in Gaza, Hamas has a bigger hill to climb there in terms of gaining support.

And the second thing is, the fear is among U.S. intelligence agencies, that this risk inspiring terrorism abroad, the FBI Director Christopher Wray has been vocal about this, they have been on the lookout for a lone wolf attacks in the U.S. inspired by Hamas and several other Hamas members arrested in Europe and Germany and Netherlands last week, accused of plotting attacks. The E.U. has warned of a huge risk, that is a direct quote of terror attacks in airport over the holiday season. So, that is a big concern here.

This, of course, shows the kind of information that is being put in front of administration officials. This may be why we are seeing warnings likely heard this week from Lloyd Austin this idea of strategic defeat that Israel risks pushing more people into the arms of Hamas through the scale of its offensive -- John.

AVLON: Clare Sebastian, thank you very much.

All right. The infamous fugitive billionaire known as Fat Leonard is set to appear in federal court today. This is in a notorious case. Leonard Francis now back in U.S. custody, as part of a prisoner swap with Venezuela, for him and nine other Americans.

CNN's Ed Lavandera has more.


ED LAVANDERA, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The release of ten Americans from Venezuelan custody unfolded so quickly, their families didn't arrive in time to greet them at the San Antonio airfield where six of the ten walked off a plane with U.S. State Department officials who negotiated their release.

SAVOI WRIGHT, RELEASED FROM VENEZUELAN PRISON: Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, free at last.

LAVANDERA: Savoi Wright was one of the six American detainees who arrived in Texas. Venezuelan authorities arrested him in October. He was wrongfully imprisoned on terrorism charges, and accused of conspiring with political opposition of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

Wright says he was kidnapped by Venezuelan authorities, and held for ransom.

Did you think you are going to see this day anytime soon?

WRIGHT: I did not know if I would make it out. It is really scary to be in a place where you are used to having freedoms you are locked into a cell, sometimes with four other people, a very tiny cell. And to realize, am I ever going to get out of this?

LAVANDERA: Roger Carstens is the U.S. government special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, and was part of the extensive team involved in negotiating the prisoner release.

ROGER CARSTENS, SPECIAL PRESIDENTIAL ENVOY FOR HOSTAGE AFFAIRS: We left with everyone right now. There are no more Americans left in Venezuela that are being held in prison facilities.

LAVANDERA: The deal also included the return of the infamously corrupt military contract known as Fat Leonard Francis. Was the mastermind of the largest bribery skinner in U.S. naval history, and has escaped to Venezuela last year after his conviction in 2015. In exchange, the U.S. agreed to return Alex Saab, a close ally of the Venezuelan president who was facing prison time in the U.S. on corruption and money laundering charges.

CARSTENS: If you don't make a hard decision like this, you're basically writing these guys off. Just -- the other side never asked for something easy.

EYVIN HERNANDEZ, RELEASED FROM VENEZUELAN PRISON: I'm incredibly -- incredibly grateful, I'm sorry I can't even speak.

LAVANDERA: Eyvin Hernandez was wrongfully imprisoned in Venezuela for 630 days. He says he was held in a makeshift prison, and endured psychological mistreatment.

HERNANDEZ: So they keep there, in inhumane conditions, and they make your life a living hell. They do everything in their power for you to lose that peace and try to make you go crazy.

LAVANDERA: Despite this, Hernandez says he doesn't harbor any anger or hatred to those who imprisoned him, and he hopes the U.S. and Venezuela can come to discover peaceful relations.

HERNANDEZ: All you think about when you're in prison is, how you did not appreciate being free while you weren't free. There's no way to understand why it is like to be in prison unjustly, and not having any way out. And so, it's been a long time coming.

LAVANDERA: Ed Lavandera, CNN, San Antonio, Texas.


AVLON: Still ahead, a migrant surge triggers fresh talks between the U.S. and Mexico. We'll be back in a moment.



AVLON: Take another sip of coffee. It's time for quick hits across America right now.

President Biden will speak with Mexico's president this week. They are sent to discuss additional assistance Mexico can provide as a migrant search pushes federal resources to the limit.

And a judge says that election workers $148 million in the defamation case against Rudy Giuliani can begin trying to collect immediately. Typically, they would wait 30 days.

And the New York City Council has approved a measure to ban solitary confinement, except during a four-hour period in an emergency. Mayor Eric Adams has vowed to veto the measure.

And now to the weather. An atmospheric river, think about, that bringing heavy rain and flood threats through southern California today, including Los Angeles. Of course, that is just a very busy Christmas travel weekend.

Let's go to meteorologist extraordinaire Derek Van Dam.

What is the West Coast going to see?

DEREK VAN DAM, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, they're going how travel problems today, everybody trying to get that jump start on their holiday travel plans, while Southern California, that is our tricky travel spot of the weekend.

And, unfortunately, we've got some active weather this morning that actually has some recent tornado warnings that are ongoing. Right now, you can see just west of Los Angeles. You see the town of Oxnard, about 35,000 people, seaside community, Ventura County. This tornado warning, which is a radar-indicated storm, moved on shore within the past 20 minutes.

And again, this is a radar-confirmed, so there's no visual confirmation, but nonetheless, we want to be high alert for this area, for the potential at least, a very isolated weak, shortlist, tornadoes the other major threat being the heavy rainfall. This is observed rainfall, and you focus in on Ventura County, some locations, some of the cheddar we are getting from the national weather service have seen three inches per hour in Oxnard.

So the potential for flash flooding does exist, it will be focusing on Ventura County today, but you could see the watches extended from southern California into Arizona, about 27 million Americans under this flood watch, including Phoenix, all the way to Los Angeles and San Diego, as John so aptly mentioned an atmospheric river just pointed directly at southern California, ringing out all the available moisture in the atmosphere, because of those mountain ranges that run east to west just north of Los Angeles.

So that is what we have this moderate risk of flash flooding here. You can see it last throughout the course of the day today. Slight risk extends further eastward. You see that surge of moisture making its way into central and southern sections of Arizona for the day tomorrow.

Elsewhere across the country, aside from the flood threat, they're generally quiet and very calm travel conditions for the East Coast. Here it is, torch mist, we have been talking about it for so long, above average temperatures through the weekend, and into the start of next week, which, of course, Christmas eve, Christmas day being Sunday and Monday.

John, happy first day of winter, by the way, starts this afternoon.

AVLON: How about that, happy first of winter. Did you say torch mist (ph)?

VAN DAM: Torch mist (ph), I'm going to coin that new term.

AVLON: You trademark that right away. So that's -- you know, it's not a white Christmas, Vegas, but, you know, break out the football, the baseball, go to a backyard.

VAN DAM: That's Wednesday.

AVLON: Derek Van Dam, thank you very much. Be will.

VAN DAM: All right. You, too.

AVLON: All right. Just ahead, how the Supreme Court could play a key role in the 2024 election on at least three fronts.

And the historic ruling in Colorado, that could maybe beat the presidential front runner of the ballot. How the Civil War era 14th "Amendment might work against Trump. That's next.