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Blinken, Mayorkas Had "Very Productive" Meeting With Mexico; Nikki Haley's Slavery Question; Biden Administration Announces $250 Million In Ukraine Military Aid. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired December 28, 2023 - 05:30   ET




KASIE HUNT, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Thanks for being up early with us. I'm Kasie Hunt. It is 5:30 here on the East Coast.

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas says the meeting that he and Secretary of State Antony Blinken had with their Mexican counterparts on Wednesday was quote "very productive." It comes as the record number of migrants moving across the Western hemisphere remains an overwhelming challenge for both countries.

CNN's Rosa Flores has more.


ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As border authorities near a breaking point from the weekslong migrant surge, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas meet with Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico City to discuss ways to drive down the unprecedented number of illegal migrant crossings. The seven-day average earlier this month, 9,600.

Blinken and Mayorkas are expected to ask Mexico to move migrants south, control railways that are used by migrants to move north, and provide migrants incentives to stay in Mexico, like visas.

In Eagle Pass, Texas, although migrant apprehensions dropped from about 3,000 daily encounters last week to about 2,000 Monday, according to a law enforcement source, one of two international bridges are still closed to vehicle traffic to redirect personnel to process migrants. The wait time to cross by car Wednesday afternoon an astounding 15 hours. Many Americans who frequently drive back and forth are opting to cross on foot, like (INAUDIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (Speaking foreign language).

FLORES (voice-over): She says that when she ditched her car in Mexico she saw a group of about 100 migrants walking towards Eagle Pass, some with children.

One Eagle Pass business owner says the migrant surge is tearing the community apart.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can tell that tempers are flaring everywhere you go. That's why I'm hoping that there is a peaceful resolution to this crisis.

FLORES (on camera): Would you like to see President Biden visit Eagle Pass?


FLORES (voice-over): Texas State Rep. Eddie Morales, a Democrat who represents residents from 11 West Texas counties along the state's border with Mexico, says the federal government's ongoing closure of the bridge and the recent five-day closure of the international railway cost the U.S. economy hundreds of millions of dollars.

MORALES: Everyday Texans are the ones that end up suffering.

FLORES (voice-over): Morales says he's hopeful that the top-level talks in Mexico City will pave the way for realistic change at the border, but says he would have liked to see Texas Gov. Greg Abbott have a seat at the table.

MORALES: We're only going to get there if there's communication between these two countries, and also with the state of Texas.

FLORES (voice-over): Texas recently passed its own immigration bill and has come under fire for Abbott's border security tactics like busing and flying migrants to blue states, separating migrant families, and deploying controversial border buoys and concertina wire.

Morales initially supported Abbott's border security push, which has cost billions of dollars, but now says those efforts have fallen short.

MORALES: We have nothing positive to show to our taxpayers for the amount of money that we've invested.

FLORES (on camera): If you take a look behind me you'll see an open field with no migrants and you might think that there is no border crisis. Well, here's the thing. The U.S. federal government has gotten really good at something called decompression because they've had a lot of practice. That's when migrants that are in an area that is over capacity are transported to an area that has processing space.

Now when it comes to the talks in Mexico City, one of the things that I'll be looking for as a possible clue for the outcome of those talks is the posture of law enforcement on the Mexican side of the border.

Rosa Flores, CNN, Eagle Pass, Texas.


HUNT: And our thanks to Rosa for that report. Let's go now though to Tia Mitchell. She is Washington correspondent for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Tia, good morning. It's always wonderful to have you on the show.

This is a really tough situation for the Biden administration. I mean, they're saying that this meeting was very good, very production, et cetera, but obviously, it doesn't solve the problem.

I mean, what is the ideal outcome for the Biden administration here?


And the ideal outcome -- I think the top level -- they want to reduce the surge. Reduce the pressure on the southern border. But how to get there is easier said than done.

That great package we just listened to from Rosa talked about the fact that the governor of Texas doesn't have the greatest relationship with the White House. You -- reducing the surge at the border also will require some cooperation and perhaps some policy changes with the Mexican government, which the U.S. can ask. It can negotiate but it can't control what Mexico does as a nation.


So there are just so many variables as well as the pressure points. Certain things that the U.S. has done have affected businesses along the border. Have affected commerce between the two countries, which depends on a -- if not an open border, a flexible border. A border that's easy to cross for truckers and people who are doing business.

So there's just so many variables. It's such a complicated issue. But again, at the end of the day, Biden wants to reduce the number of people trying to cross into the U.S. from Mexico.

HUNT: Yeah.

Tia, I mean, you can see it in these sound bites from Democratic officials. People like Eric Adams, the mayor of New York, who is saying this is a problem for us.

In Congress, you have progressives who are pushing back on some of that. I mean, the administration has actually said to Congress that they are willing to make significant changes to U.S. asylum policy to try to address this. I think that really speaks to the incredible political pressure that this issue puts on Biden in a general election setting.

I mean, how -- according to your reporting -- I mean, how is the White House balancing? They obviously have progressives on their left who are saying you're going too far, but they know -- they can see the writing on the wall when it comes time to face a Republican in the fall.

MITCHELL: That's right. And again, that's part of the many pressure points that makes border policy so complicated. It's reasons why many presidents prior to Joe Biden have been unable to get it done.

The question really is -- yes, the White House is involved now in these high-level discussions, particularly as this group of senators -- one Republican, one Democrat, one Independent -- really worked nonstop before the holiday break to try to get something done. They say they've had progress but still no final agreement.

But then you've got the House. You've got a slim Republican majority. They want to get something done but there are hardliners that could derail something that has a lot of widespread Republican support, which means the president would have to depend on at least some Democrats to support the plan.

But then, Democrats will say well, if you need us to support the plan you can't give Republicans everything they want. You've got to give some things that we want. You've got to pull it back some.

And that's -- again, presidents before Biden have not been able to thread that needle. There is new pressure -- additional pressure on Biden not just because it's an election year but again, because these numbers are so troubling and even Democrats -- as you mentioned, Democrats leading blue states are saying the way it's drawing on our resources is not sustainable.

So it truly is --

HUNT: Yeah.

MITCHELL: -- becoming a crisis.

HUNT: No, for sure. And I -- the best shot I think Congress had to doing a real immigration reform was back in 2005 under George W. Bush. He couldn't get it done then and we have seen the politics of this just become increasingly difficult over the following couple of decades.

Tia, I want to stick with this idea of pressure on Biden from the -- his left, quite frankly. Because obviously, the Israel-Hamas war is grinding on. We know the Secretary of State is planning another visit next week. But the pressure does not seem to be lifting on Biden from the left. Pro-Palestinian demonstrators disrupted flights out of L.A. and JFK over -- in the last couple of days during these busy holiday travel.

How is the White House grappling with this right now, and do you think that they have started to change or shift their posture in any way in the last week or so?

MITCHELL: So, I think the White House, again, is in a really tough, almost no-win situation because, at the end of the day, Israel is a very important ally. So again, in some ways, President Biden is not that much of an outlier in his allegiance with Israel. His hesitancy to go too far in criticizing Israel.

But he's got new pressures that his predecessors didn't face, particularly with progressives, with the activism, with social media amplifying the case of Palestinians in ways we haven't seen in the past. So there's a lot more openness and sympathy towards the plight of Palestinians that are creating new pressure to be harder on Israel.

Now, we are seeing that from the White House. Again, not necessarily going as far as some progressives would want, asking for a ceasefire, but the White House has said hey, you've got to do humanitarian aid. Hey, you've got to look at the number of civilian casualties and limit it. Hey, we think Israel needs to come up with an end game for this.


But again, the U.S. can make suggestions and it can negotiate but at the end of the day, it does not control what Israel does as a nation. It puts President Biden in a tough spot. We're already seeing that progressives are saying he's not doing enough. They want to see more. But I don't know if the U.S. as a government is ready to go that far, particularly when it comes to talks of pushing for or insisting for a ceasefire.

HUNT: All right, Tia Mitchell of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Tia, thank you very much.

And coming up next here, it sounds like it could be a fifth-grade essay question, but on the campaign trail it's become a headline.


VOTER: What was the cause of the United States Civil War?



HUNT: Welcome back.

Eighteen days until the Iowa caucuses, 26 to the New Hampshire primary. That's when Nikki Haley will likely have her cleanest shot at Donald Trump in the fight for the Republican nomination.

Our Stephen Collinson writes this morning, quote, "In a normal campaign, Haley would be peaking at just the right time, ahead of the Iowa caucuses and the first-in-the-nation GOP primary in New Hampshire a week later. A slow-boiling rise in polls and donor enthusiasm -- based on solid debate performances and shrewd political positioning -- has created momentum in the Granite State, where she has a case to be the most credible anti-Trump candidate."


But with that momentum comes heightened scrutiny.

Let's bring in CNN's Stephen Collinson to talk more about this. Stephen, good morning. It's always good to see you.

STEPHEN COLLINSON, CNN POLITICS WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Hi. HUNT: So, of course, as I know you write these columns day in and day out and there was news that broke kind of late last night. So I want to show you and all of our viewers an exchange that Haley had on the campaign trail yesterday with a voter who asked her what was the cause of the Civil War -- watch.


VOTER: What was the cause of the United States Civil War?

NIKKI HALEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, don't come with an easy question, right? I mean, I think the cause of the Civil War was basically how government was going to run. The freedoms and what people could and couldn't do.


HUNT: So after that, she had a back-and-forth with the voter. He told her that he wasn't the one running for president when she went back and said what do you think? But then she continued her answer saying this -- watch.


HALEY: I mean, I think it always comes down to the role of government and what the rights of the people are. And we -- I will always stand by the fact that I think government was intended to secure the rights and freedoms of the people. It was never meant to be all things to all people.

Government doesn't need to tell you how to live your life. They don't need to tell you what you can and can't do. They don't need to be a part of your life. They need to make sure that you have freedom.

And we need to have capitalism. We need to have economic freedom. We need to make sure that we do all things so that individuals have the liberties so that they can have freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to do or be anything they want to be without government getting in the way.

VOTER: Thank you. In the year 2023, it's astonishing to me that you answered that question without mentioning the word "slavery."

HALEY: What do you want me to say about slavery?

VOTER: No problem. You've answered my question. Thank you.

HALEY: Next question.


HUNT: "Next question."

So I wanted to make sure we played that entire exchange because you heard -- there was a lot of words there that Nikki Haley had to say about this. But take a look at what the Biden campaign put out last night -- an

immediate reaction. They posted this and said, "It was about slavery."

She had said at the top well, don't give me an easy question. I mean, it seems actually pretty straightforward.

Stephen, what do you make of this exchange?

COLLINSON: Yeah, it shouldn't be that difficult, as the questioner said, in 2023 to say exactly what the Civil War was about and has been proven to be about through subsequent history.

I think the fact that Haley gave that waffling answer, making -- dancing on the head of a rhetorical pin if you like and talking about state's rights shows that she was trying to give an answer that she thought perhaps the Republican primary audience might like to hear. The problem with that is it goes against her reputation as someone who is a straight talker. She says what she thinks. And it's going to distract now from the story that the Haley campaign would like to tell -- that she's surging in New Hampshire and she is a real threat to Donald Trump.

I think we're going to hear her defenders talk about how she was the South Carolina governor who was instrumental in lowering the Confederate flag after that mass shooting in Charleston back in 2015 I think it was. That did follow a long period of equivocating on this issue, which clearly has been a very sensitive one, especially in her home state of South Carolina.

This is, I guess, something we're going to hear going into the South Carolina primary where if she wins against Trump in New Hampshire that could end up being a final showdown with the former president in the Republican nominating race.

HUNT: Yeah. I mean, it's interesting you mention all of that, Stephen, because this voter would not identify himself apparently to -- there were a couple of reporters in that room who had filed stories, including someone from CNN. But the voter apparently referenced previous comments she had made. And as you point out, this was all rooted in -- the state of South Carolina has this incredibly complicated relationship with all of this.

I actually have a little bit -- we found a little bit of what she had to say to CNN, actually, in 2015. This, of course, in the aftermath of that horrible shooting at the church in Charleston, South Carolina. And she ultimately pushed to have the Confederate flag removed from State House grounds. Here's how she explained it then to us -- watch.



HALEY (THEN-GOVERNOR OF SOUTH CAROLINA): A flag is living and breathing and so it represents something. I think it should be in any museum setting. I think it should be at Fort Sumpter. I think it should be in those places of historical settings, not in places that represent all people. You know, if someone wants to travel to see it that's one thing, but it shouldn't be in front of someone's face to where they have to feel it.


HUNT: Really, really interesting nuanced way of talking about this issue -- obviously, one that she didn't feel she could put on display in the Republican primary.

COLLINSON: Yeah, that's right. I think what this shows us is that every step of a presidential candidate at this point in a race comes with massive scrutiny. It's not possible just to give that answer in a town hall in New Hampshire and not expect it to blow up. Haley's critics in the party and outside the party, as you saw from President Joe Biden -- they're going to seize upon this as what they say is an example of political opportunism -- which is, according to her critics, a running theme throughout her political career.

On the question of whether it will hurt her, it seems unlikely in the broader Republican primary, especially in a place like South Carolina, to do her damage in a party that has gone a long way to the right in recent years. We've heard all sorts of controversy about Donald Trump's attitude towards race and his use of that issue.

In somewhere like New Hampshire, however, where Haley is probably trying to attract some Independents and even Democratic voters who want to vote in the Republican primary to oppose Trump, it could be a more serious issue in that particular race in that particular context. So it's going to be worth watching to see how her campaign navigates this and how the other Republican candidates try to use it against her.

HUNT: Yeah. Well, speaking of that, I want to show everyone what -- the DeSantis campaign seized upon this immediately. The war room account on the platform formerly known as Twitter put this up -- put the clip up almost immediate -- well, a couple of hours after it happened. And they said Haley inexplicably does not mention slavery in her response.

Now, I do think we should underscore DeSantis isn't necessarily the perfect critic on this. I mean, he has -- he has come under a lot of criticism for his approach to race in his own state, including questions about the African American studies AP course and other ways in which he's handled it. But it does show you, as you mentioned -- I mean, this is really the crucible here of this presidential race.

COLLINSON: Right. And DeSantis, who by most accounts and most polls is in trouble in this race and he's really banking his campaign on a good showing in the Iowa caucuses a week before New Hampshire, really is grappling for anything to give him leverage in New Hampshire.

I think it will also be worth watching in the coming days Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor who seems to be going for a lot of the same voters in New Hampshire as Haley is. And he's resisting calls to get out of the race to give her a free shot at Trump. How he picks up on this issue and tries to use it for his own advantage will be -- will tell us a lot about how much resonance it has in the Granite State.

HUNT: Indeed.

All right, CNN's Stephen Collinson. Thanks very much for being with us this morning.


HUNT: I really appreciate it.

All right. The Biden administration announcing a $250 million military assistance package for Ukraine on Wednesday. It marks the last such package the U.S. can provide to Ukraine without additional funding from Congress. The White House has asked lawmakers for $60 billion additional dollars for Ukraine but the legislation is tied up in a dispute between Republicans and Democrats over U.S. border security.

CNN's Helena Lins is live in Kyiv with more. Helena, what are Ukrainian officials saying about further U.S. aid not coming their way right now?


So is there is this sense of war fatigue. Ukrainians know that the West is currently decreasing their support -- not only the U.S. but also the European Union. They are aware that the Ukrainian war has been receiving less focus on the media and on international news, and that impacts the aid that Ukraine receives.

But -- and actually, an interesting thing is Zelenskyy said in the conference -- his last conference that that's something that -- an achievement on the Russian side. Not so much on the front lines but on this front of Ukraine receiving less aid.


But the -- about the current situation as of today regarding this new U.S. package, it is good news for Ukraine. Of course, not knowing when the next one will be not so good news.

And yesterday, the economy minister of Ukraine, in an interview to the Financial Times, was saying that if the Western aid stops that means that Ukraine will most likely have to prioritize defense over some social fronts of life in Ukraine, which means probably using money for defense that would be used otherwise for paying pensions and salaries. So that means that wages of millions of people can be impacted by this need to fund the front lines.

So as I speak with Ukrainians on the streets but also having these -- having these -- receiving this information from government officials, Ukrainians are worried about this decrease of help -- of aid from the West.

Nevertheless, the minister of foreign affairs -- he also gave an interview very recently saying that European Union funds were still likely to come soon. So there is some confidence that there will be some help still coming at some point.

HUNT: All right, Helena Lins for us in Kyiv. Helena, thank you.

All right, time now for sports. The Green Bay Packers suspended one of their players for nearly messing up the pre-game coin toss.

Andy Scholes has this morning's Bleacher Report. Andy, I will say I, on my holiday break, saw this chyron on ESPN. I was actually at the gym yesterday. I'm glad you're going to explain it to me because I was confused.

ANDY SCHOLES, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: Yeah. Kasie, this is pretty wild.

So, Jaire Alexander -- he was not one of the captains for the Packers on Sunday against the Panthers, but since he's from Charlotte he decided he was going to be a captain for the coin toss. So he went out there and he got it right, calling tails. But then he said, "We want to play defense." Now, by saying that, that means the Packers would have had to play defense to start the game and to start the second half. So you're supposed to say "Defer."

Luckily, Packers coach Matt LaFleur had already told the officials their plan. So the referee asked Alexander, "You mean you want to defer?" To which he then said, "Yes."

Well, after the Packers' win, Alexander -- he was asked about the whole ordeal.


JAIRE ALEXANDER, CORNERBACK, GREEN BAY PACKERS: You know, I don't think coach knew I was from Charlotte, you know, so --

REPORTER: So you just had that on your own.

ALEXANDER: I mean -- I mean -- you know, I mean, it was like a -- the guys back me up. I told them that -- I said I want -- I want our defense to be out there. And they all looked at me like I was crazy. I'm like, I mean, it's pretty simple what I said. I wanted the defense to be out there. They're like you mean defer? I'm like, yeah, I guess.


SCHOLES: Yeah. He didn't seem too concerned about messing up.

Now, Alexander is the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL. Coach LaFleur called his actions "a big mistake" and suspended Alexander for this weekend's big game against the Vikings.


MATT LAFLEUR, HEAD COACH, GREEN BAY PACKERS: I'll just say this. It's never for one thing. But like I said, I think there's a lot of lessons along the way from everybody involved and hopefully, we learn from them. I think we will. (END VIDEO CLIP)

SCHOLES: All right. The Broncos, meanwhile, are benching Russell Wilson for the rest of the season. According to the Bleacher Report's Jordan Schultz, the benching has been in the works for weeks because Wilson would not remove injury guarantees from his contract.

So, Wilson's five-year, $245 million extension kicks in next year. The Broncos owe him $39 million whether he's on the team next season or not. And Wilson would have gotten an extra $37 million if he could not pass a physical in March. So an injury in the last two games of the season could have triggered that guarantee.

Now, Coach Sean Payton says the decision to deactivate Wilson was about winning.


SEAN PAYTON, HEAD COACH, DENVER BRONCOS: We're desperately trying to win. And sure, in our -- in our game today there are economics and all those other things, but the number one push behind this -- and it's a decision I'm making -- is to get a spark offensively.


SCHOLES: All right. NBA Denver Nuggets player Aaron Gordon is out indefinitely after getting bitten on the face and hand by a family dog on Christmas. The team saying Gordon is in good condition but is going to be away from the team while he recovers.

Elsewhere, USC getting a record-setting performance at the Holiday Bowl last night from quarterback Miller Moss. In his first career start, the sophomore throwing for a Holiday Bowl record six touchdowns as the Trojans upset 15th-ranked Louisville 42-28. '

Caleb Williams sitting this one out as many experts believe he's going to be the top pick in next year's NFL Draft.


For winning, Lincoln Riley -- he got doused with a jug of eggnog, so that's pretty great. But what's even better is the Duke's Mayo Bowl tradition of the winning coach getting a bucket of mayo poured on him. This year, the honor went to West Virginia's Neal Brown.

Kasie, that is some runny mayo right there. It must have been sitting out for quite a while. I always loved the Mayo Bowl when they did it. Look at the ESPN reporter Harry Lyles Jr. He loves himself some mayo. Dipped some fries right off Neal Brown there.

HUNT: Oh my gosh.


HUNT: It's so disgusting. I can't. I cannot. All right, on that note, Andy, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

SCHOLES: All right.

HUNT: I will see you tomorrow.

Thanks to all of you for joining us. I hope that much mayonnaise is not in your lives today. Don't go anywhere. "CNN THIS MORNING" starts right now.