Return to Transcripts main page

Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Fears Rise Of Wider Mideast War As Attacks On U.S. Troops Escalate; Pressure Mounts On Biden As Migrant Crossings Spike; Haley Releases New Hampshire Ad Featuring Gov. Sununu. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired December 27, 2023 - 05:30   ET



HELENA LINS, CNN PORTUGAL REPORTER: Hello, Danny. This is -- indeed -- this hit is, indeed, an achievement for Ukrainians, although Russians say that only some damage has occurred to the Novocherkask.

But even the U.K. defense secretary has said that for over the past four months, 20 percent of the Russian Black Sea fleet has been destroyed, which means that right now, Russian dominance in the Black Sea is challenged.

And this strike, specifically, is a strike on Russian logistics because as you were saying, this is very strategical for Ukraine and also for Russia. I mean, Crimea is one of the entry points for Russia for troops and for ammunition. So for Ukrainians to strike this ship means striking Russian logistics.

And this ship, specifically, was reportedly carrying Shahed drones, which have been used by Russia to attack many regions in Ukraine. Even here in Kyiv, in the capital where we are right now, there has been some alerts since we've arrived of Shahed drones -- Shahed drones.

So -- for example, overnight, 46 drones were launched by Russia and the Ukrainian air defense managed to shoot down around 32. But some of them were not neutralized, which means there were some cites damaged in Kherson and Odesa, for example. In Odesa, one person was -- one person died and some were injured by drones that were shot down but still fell on houses and started a fire.

But as I was saying, striking this Navy -- it is for Ukrainians a big achievement right now almost two years since the war started. And it is, indeed, a strike on Russian logistics.

DANNY FREEMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Helena Lins, thank you so much for that report. Those images are stunning. Appreciate it.

All right. Tensions continue to flare in the Middle East, meanwhile. Iran is vowing revenge against Israel and Israel is intensifying operations in Gaza. But as the U.S. also comes under repeated attacks in the region, fears are growing that an all-out wider war will break out.

CNN's Oren Liebermann has more. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Rising tensions in the Middle East with U.S. fighter jets carrying out a series of strikes in Iraq against Kataib Hezbollah, one of Iran's regional proxies. The U.S. said the Monday strikes targeted drone facilities used by the militant group and its affiliates.

Mourners leading a funeral procession through the streets of Baghdad as U.S. Central Command said the strikes likely killed a number of militants.

President Joe Biden ordered the strikes after Kataib Hezbollah, recognized by the U.S. as a terrorist organization, claimed responsibility for the Monday drone attack on U.S. forces in Iraq. The attack injured three U.S. service members, the Pentagon said, including one in critical condition.

In a statement, the National Security Council said, "The president places no higher priority than the protection of American personnel serving in harm's way. The United States will act at a time and in a manner of our choosing should these attacks continue."

U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria have been targeted approximately 100 times since October when the Israel-Hamas war started. The U.S. has tried to calibrate its retaliatory strikes to send a message to Iranian proxies in the region without sparking a wider war.

Last month, the U.S. also carried out strikes against Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq, killing at least eight of their fighters, according to the group. Iraq's government has condemned both of the attacks, calling them hostile acts that are unacceptable under any circumstances.

The unrest has not been limited to land. Over the weekend, the U.S. says a one-way attack drone launched directly from Iran, struck a chemical tanker in the Indian Ocean. No U.S. Navy ships were in the vicinity. The attack caused no injuries but it did spark a fire on the ship, according to Central Command, as it raised concerns of a broader conflict the U.S. has been trying to avoid.

LIEBERMANN (on camera): U.S. Central Command says according to their preliminary assessment of the U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, there were no civilians affected. However, the Iraqi government says there were 19 people injured, approximately -- one serviceman and 18 others, including civilians.

So that is part of the reason the Iraqi government is angry over these strikes. Again, also seeing them as an infringement of Iraqi sovereignty -- an important point here as the U.S. operates with its forces in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government.

Oren Liebermann, CNN, in the Pentagon.


FREEMAN: Oren, thank you. Today, thousands of migrants are headed for an already overwhelmed U.S.-Mexico border, bringing into focus the migrant crisis that U.S. officials warn is nearing a breaking point. The White House under mounting pressure to address it with local leaders criticizing the federal government for what they say is the undue burden it is putting on their communities.



MAYOR ROLANDO SALINAS, EAGLE PASS, TEXAS: This is unacceptable. Our city here in Eagle Pass -- we've been getting slammed with 2,000 to 3,000 people a day. And it's just an unfair, unethical situation what's going on here in Eagle Pass. We feel ignored by the federal government.

MAYOR ERIC ADAMS, NEW YORK CITY: The federal government said to New York City we're not going to do our job. You do our job. You take care of 4,000 people a week, Eric.


FREEMAN: Now, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas -- they're both set to meet with Mexico's president this afternoon to discuss efforts to stem that ongoing surge.

For more on this, let's bring in Kadia Goba, political reporter for Semafor. Kadia, good morning.

I just want to dive into this. Listen, there seems to be some urgency now about the border situation. We've been seeing President Biden speak with the Mexican president. Now we're seeing this trip.

What do you think has lit this fire under President Biden at this point?

KADIA GOBA, POLITICAL REPORTER, SEMAFOR: Well, I think Democrats being vocal about this is probably one of the bigger pressure points. I mean, we saw lawmakers leave the Capitol last week unresolved -- with issues unresolved about the border. And then we saw Speaker Johnson come out and tell Biden that he needs to issue and executive order.

There isn't -- there's no progress. So, people in New York -- you saw the mayor showing more frustration about the border crisis and how it's impacting New York. I think some of -- the more Democrats speak out about this the more likely he will act or put pressure on his Democrats in the Senate to act.

FREEMAN: Kadia, I'm glad you mentioned Speaker Johnson right there because as you said, he asked for Biden to do some sort of executive action here. But, I guess, can you help me understand what options does Biden actually have in that space? GOBA: I mean, obviously, he can do whatever he wants as the president in terms of executive order. But we know that the White House has been steadfast that Congress needs to move on this. This needs to be an action from Congress. And we know that it is in exchange for the billions of dollars the White House is requesting for aid to Ukraine. So I don't see the administration moving on an executive order for that simple fact.

FREEMAN: Kadia, before Congress left for the recess, Sen. Schumer said that overall, Democrats are serious about addressing border security and will continue to negotiate a deal with Republicans when they get back.

But I guess from your perspective, where are we most likely to see a compromise when it comes to border policy because these two parties have been far apart for a while?

GOBA: Yeah. So, I mean, the issue at hand is Democrats do not want extreme restrictive points at the border but they understand, it appears, that there needs to be an issue.

And I've said this before. I don't think they want this -- this is not a winning issue going into the 2024 election. I don't think they want to carry this over their head. So I think there will be some kind of compromise. Like you said, they're far apart so it's not clear where that compromise stands but I do know that parties -- both parties want to address the issue.

We are now seeing unprecedented -- or an influx in migrant crossings now. And again, it just becomes a huge political talking point for Republicans going into 2024.

FREEMAN: Kadia, I want to pick your brain on one more thing. Obviously, another matter weighing on the president is the Israel- Hamas war and there's fears of a rising -- excuse me, there's fears of a widening Middle East conflict and U.S. troops are very much now in the firing line.

How is the White House responding?

GOBA: Yeah. So, we see, again, more pressure mounting. I think right after Israel retaliated after the October 7 bombings, we saw progressives kind of push for a ceasefire. Now we see Republicans and more -- well, now we see more moderate Democrats, specifically those with a background in national security, calling for the administration to put some pressure on Israel and how -- their military strategy.

And now, it appears that he's responding. We will see. Like the border, he has sent representatives to Mexico and now we'll see -- we'll see where this is going from there.

FREEMAN: Semafor's Kadi Goba. Thank you very much for your insight this morning. Appreciate it.

All right. Nikki Haley's presidential campaign gaining lots of momentum just weeks before the first votes are set to be cast. Where things stand in the 2024 race coming up next.



FREEMAN: This morning, Nikki Haley is pulling out all of the stops in the final fight for voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, releasing a new campaign ad touting her recent endorsement from New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu.


GOV. CHRIS SUNUNU, (R) NEW HAMPSHIRE: A president should bring out the best in all of us. That's Nikki Haley. She's a leader who builds people up. She's a live free or die Republican who understands fiscal responsibility and individual liberty. She's a new generation of conservative leadership who can help leave behind the chaos and the drama of the past.


FREEMAN: All right. So Haley is hoping her momentum can carry her in the Iowa-New Hampshire contest and through to the February 24 primary in her home state of South Carolina where she has bet big despite indications that Trump's grip remains strong there.

For more on all of this, let's bring in Julia Manchester, national political reporter for The Hill. Good morning, Julia.

Let's get right into this. Help me understand the influence of Chris Sununu here because I get he's popular in New Hampshire -- he's the governor -- but will he be an effective surrogate with the base of the party who still loves Trump?

JULIA MANCHESTER, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, THE HILL (via Webex by Cisco): Yeah, good morning, Danny.


I think a lot of political watchers are asking the same thing because remember, in Iowa, we saw the Iowa governor Kim Reynolds endorse Ron DeSantis and that hasn't really done too much to drastically increase his poll numbers. So I think when we saw Chris Sununu endorse Nikki Haley there were questions about how valuable this endorsement will be.

However, in New Hampshire, where retail politicking is huge, where Sununu is a popular governor -- the Sununu name is very popular -- I think it certainly does make a difference with voters there. And I think Chris Sununu, as the governor of New Hampshire, represents sort of a different kind of Republican than a Trump. I mean, he's not in the Trump wing of the party. I wouldn't say he's necessarily more moderate but he's not with this populist wing of the Republican Party.

But you bring up a good point. We see that in New Hampshire, even though it's a bit closer than Iowa, most Republican voters are still backing Trump. So there is a question as to how strong this endorsement will ultimately be.

FREEMAN: Well, and it's a wild thing, just as you said, thinking about it that both governors of Iowa and New Hampshire have endorsed someone other than the frontrunner and maybe those people who got those endorsements won't win.

I want to -- play a game with me. Let's say Haley does not win Iowa or New Hampshire but actually holds her own as the Trump alternative. Then you have South Carolina. It'll be critical.

Explain. Can she win her home state?

MANCHESTER: You know, that's a good question because we see Donald Trump still polling ahead in South Carolina. She's polled decently for a Trump alternative in South Carolina. But I think Iowa and New Hampshire come in here and why they're so important is that they give the momentum to candidates going into South Carolina.

And even if South Carolina voters, a majority or a plurality of whom say Donald Trump is the best -- is best suited to be their nominee in 2024, if Nikki Haley doesn't have that momentum coming from Iowa or New Hampshire, that's not going to be a good sign for her going into South Carolina. Because at that point, you have more voters sort of looking at Donald Trump as the presumptive nominee.

FREEMAN: Right. All right.

All right. I want to turn to one of my favorite stories of the past 24 hours. NBC News is reporting that less than a month before Iowa and New Hampshire, Vivek Ramaswamy's campaign is stopping all TV ad spending.

And I just want to read this tweet, and this is why it stood out to us that Vivek tweeted out over the past several hours that "Presidential TV ad spending is idiotic, low-ROI and a trick."

I mean, is this -- is this really a strategy right here because normally, stopping spending on TV means a sign that your campaign is sputtering?

MANCHESTER: Yeah, exactly. Stopping spending on TV can be a death knell for a campaign.

Look, when you look to Iowa and New Hampshire, TV spending is huge. We saw that when Nikki Haley got that endorsement from the Koch network. That was big for her because she could really delve into TV ads. Digital ads also major.

So the fact that he's peeling back from these advertisements means that his face, his brand, his campaign won't be in front of a major voting bloc as much as maybe Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, or even Donald Trump would be.

On top of that, you have the Ramaswamy campaign saying look, we have to -- we're going to focus on social media, mailers, et cetera. Well, those only go so far. TV is so powerful. So as someone who is not maybe as well known as a DeSantis or a Trump or a Haley, that's not a good sign for the Ramaswamy campaign.

FREEMAN: And Julia, from your perspective -- I mean, I think that Ramaswamy, Christie -- we're going to see both of them probably go through Iowa and New Hampshire. But is there -- is there a date, in your mind, on the calendar that they could potentially drop out just because the polls keep showing them so low?

MANCHESTER: It's really hard to say because they've made it so far. I think there's a question of why drop out now. Why not see it through?

However, if you're Ron DeSantis or Nikki Haley you're certainly hoping they drop out. For DeSantis, looking at Ramaswamy's support you could certainly expect to see maybe some of that support to go to -- go to either DeSantis or even Trump. But for Chris Christie in New Hampshire -- if he were to drop out before New Hampshire that would be a really good thing for Nikki Haley.

FREEMAN: Julia, last thing before you go. I want to get your take on some of these third-party candidates that we keep talking about. Obviously, I think the popular knowledge is that -- or the popular expectation is that none of them might have a chance of actually winning. But you've got RFK Jr. and Cornel West -- even Joe Manchin was floated out there.

What is your take on these third-party candidates? Are they serious? Are they not? Are they going to be a factor here?

MANCHESTER: I think they're going to be a factor and they could be a serious factor. Not in the sense that they could ultimately be a major contender for the presidency but in the sense that they could peel votes away from a Biden or even a Trump.


If you are Cornel West you're obviously more progressive, and we see that the progressive base of the Democratic Party is very unhappy with Biden's handling of the Israel-Hamas war and just, in general, not enthusiastic about Biden. So that could certainly help Cornel West in that regard.

For a while, we saw Republicans sort of touting RFK Jr. because the theory was he'd take away votes from Biden in a Democratic primary. But now that he's running as an Independent and we've gotten a look at RFK's supporters, RFK has drawn a huge umbrella of supporters, both Trump and Biden and those in between. So I think there is concern on the Republican side that he could draw votes away from Donald Trump.

FREEMAN: Julia, I've got to say this is a fascinating race and I'm excited to watch all of it unfold. Because I do think that while the expectation is that Trump is the frontrunner, I do still think that there is room for some surprises as we go through Iowa and New Hampshire because that's what they do, right? It's Iowa and New Hampshire. They give us surprises.

Julia Manchester of The Hill. Thank you so much for your time. I really do appreciate it this morning. MANCHESTER: Thank you, Danny.

FREEMAN: All right, changing gears now.

A developing mystery is emerging around the sudden death of South Korean actor Lee Sun-Kyun. Now, he's best known for his role in the Academy Award-winning film "Parasite." Police say Lee was reported missing by his manager and later found in his car -- presumed to be suicide.

CNN's Hanako Montgomery is live in Hong Kong for us. Hanako, there is some other unusual circumstances though surrounding his death. What can you tell us this morning?


So the sudden death of Lee Sun-Kyun, a beloved actor both domestically in South Korea and internationally, was very tragic to all of his fans.

Now, what South Korea's police has confirmed to CNN is that they presume it to be a suicide. We also know that, at the same time, Lee was being investigated by the police for alleged illegal drug use since October of this year. We know that he was brought into questioning three times, most recently on December 23 when he was questioned for 19 hours. He was released on Christmas Eve.

Now, it's important to note that throughout the investigation, Lee's multiple drug tests came back negative. We also know that Lee has said that he denies ever taking the drugs knowingly. He said that instead, he was tricked into taking the drugs and then blackmailed. He has filed a lawsuit against this blackmailer.

Now, on social media, there has been just an outpour of grief and tributes to this actor. As you mentioned, internationally, he was very well known for his role in "Parasite," a film that made Oscar history in 2020 for taking home a Best Picture, the first non-English language film to do so -- as well as three other Oscars. Really, a feat there.

But domestically, his career spanned two decades and he was a household name. He starred in a number of TV shows, in films. And really just a very sorrowful and sad time for many of his fans. Local media has reported that a funeral will be held for the actor, quietly, for bereaved family members and colleagues.

FREEMAN: Wow, such a sad story.

Hanako Montgomery, thank you so much for that report. I really do appreciate it.

All right. If anyone can say 2023 was their year it's Taylor Swift. The pop music icon achieved everything from having the highest- grossing tour of all time to finding love and boosting NFL ticket sales at the same time.

CNN's Anna Stewart has more.



ANNA STEWART, CNN REPORTER (voice-over): She's certainly not the anti-hero of 2023.

SWIFT: Singing "ME!"

STEWART (voice-over): In fact, she's Time Person of the Year.

Even in Taylor Swift's wildest dreams, it would be hard to imagine greater success or bigger revenues. Not one, but three best-selling albums. They're not all exactly new. "1989" and "Speak Now" were rerecorded as Swift continues to reclaim ownership of her music.

SWIFT: We're about to go on a little adventure together and that adventure is going to span 17 years of music.

STEWART (voice-over): In March, Swift embarked on a record-breaking worldwide tour. It's expected to rake in more than $2 billion in North American ticket sales alone.

Swift even helped bail out the box office in a difficult year with a movie version of the Eras Tour concerts. it made $96 million on its opening weekend in the U.S. and Canada.


Spotify and Apple Music have both named her Artist of the Year.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There isn't an artist on the planet who has achieved so much in a calendar year. And we at Apple Music -- we felt the same way and there was just no denying that what she's achieved over the last 12 months, in my lifetime at least, from a -- from a productivity and a quality point of view is sort of unprecedented.

STEWART (voice-over): Bloomberg says Swift became a billionaire in October.

And Swift-fluence spread beyond music this year. The artist was spotted not on the bleachers but in a box as she debuted a new relationship with Kansas City Chiefs player Travis Kelce. The love story boosted ticket sales and NFL TV ratings.

It all comes down to a powerful bond Swift has forged with her fans using hidden messages and clues known as Easter Eggs in songs, performances, and social media.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Every time she puts anything out there's a sense of anticipation that surrounds that experience. And also, the idea that we as fans can be invested in that by uncovering details and moving in different ways. I mean, the depth of Easter Egg placement is sort of unbelievable. And it just strengthens that connective tissue between the artist and the fan, which is what this is all about and something that Taylor Swift has been completely dedicated to her whole career.

STEWART (on camera): Do you think we have now hit peak Taylor Swift?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If Taylor Swift has proven anything, even to people who don't listen to her music, is that she will not stop creating at the highest level. So, no. Only Taylor will decide how and where she moves. And when she comes back, like every other time, she'll be dedicated and committed to it. That's one thing I really appreciate about Taylor Swift is when she comes out with a record or a tour she's all in.

STEWART (voice-over): The Eras Tour continues through 2024.

SWIFT: Singing "All Too Well."

STEWART (voice-over): So we know all too well that it will probably be another year of Swift success.

Anna Stewart, CNN, London.


FREEMAN: (INAUDIBLE) the Swifties.

All right. The Detroit Pistons made history Tuesday night but not the kind any team wants -- an NBA single-season record 27 straight losses.

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

ANDY SCHOLES, CNN SPORTS ANCHOR: Yeah, Danny. You know, the Pistons have been one of the worst teams in the NBA going on five years now. But this isn't -- I mean, they're taking it to a whole nother level. They actually started 2-1 but they haven't won a game since before Halloween.

And last night they were taking on the Nets trying to avoid breaking the single-season losing streak record.

And here's a nice play to sum up the season so far. Alec Burks throwing the ball off his teammate's face on the fast break. The Nets would go the other way after that and make a three.

Now, Cade Cunningham, for the Pistons, scored 37 of his 41 points in the second half. He was on fire. But it still wasn't enough. They lose for the 27th straight time, setting that record. The final was 118- 112.


MONTY WILLIAMS, HEAD COACH, DETROIT PISTONS: Everybody has to be in the boat and accountable for where we are. You have to be real about where we are. Nobody wants something like this attached to them. Right now is the easiest time to stand off and be off on your own but we need to continue to lean on each other. There's nothing positive about this situation right now that we've put ourselves in. So that's why we've got to dig deep and get ourselves out of it. (END VIDEO CLIP)

SCHOLES: All right. Ja Morant and the Grizzlies, meanwhile, have turned it around since he returned from his 25-game suspension. Ja was named the Western Conference Player of the Week and he continued his stellar play against the Pelicans last night. Ja had 31 points, including this alley-oop slam to put the game away in overtime. And some fans questioned whether Ja was doing a gun-shooting celebration after that dunk.

But the Grizzlies -- they came back from down 15 in the second half to win that one 116-115. Memphis started 6-19 but now a perfect 4-0 with Ja.

All right, how about a little bull action? Texas State versus Rice in the First Responder Bowl in Dallas. The Bobcats, a little trickery, throwing it back to offensive lineman Nash Jones. The six-foot-five 320-pounder runs it in for the score. He's going to tell his grandkids about that one.

Texas State wins their first-ever bowl game beating Rice in that one 45-21.

And finally, the Pop-Tarts Bowl is tomorrow in Orlando and may have the coolest bowl trophy ever. It's got two slots like a toaster with some Pop-Tarts in it.

And a reminder, Danny. The mascot for this game -- it's going to be a giant Pop-Tart that runs around the stadium and the winning team gets to eat it. So I'm fascinated to see how that's going to work. I'm assuming there's going to be a person inside a real Pop-Tart and, I guess, get out of it so the team could eat it. We'll see. I'm excited about it though.


FREEMAN: OK, Andy, that is terrifying.

But before -- just for a second, I'm just glad that the Sixers now don't have to have the designation of the worst losing streak. That's at least the one bright side.

SCHOLES: Well, they do have the overall one but it spanned two seasons. They lost two at the end of one and then they lost -- I think it was 27 to start the next. So the Pistons are going for that one, too. Don't worry.

FREEMAN: Exactly.

SCHOLES: They've got a tough schedule.

FREEMAN: Exactly.

Andy, thanks so much for it. Appreciate it.

SCHOLES: All right. FREEMAN: All right. Thank you all for joining us at home. I'm Danny Freeman. "CNN THIS MORNING" starts right now.