Return to Transcripts main page

Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Maine Secretary of State Disqualifies Trump From State Primary Ballot; Haley Seeks To Clarify Civil War Comments As Backlash Mounts; Browns Rout Jets 37-20 To Clinch Playoff Spot. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired December 29, 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 where Maine is now the second state after Colorado to disqualify Donald Trump from its Republican primary ballot for president. Maine's Secretary of State Shenna Bellows telling CNN's John Berman last night the decision is based on the 14th Amendment of the Constitution that officials who, quote, "engage in insurrection cannot hold office."


SHENNA BELLOWS, (D) MAINE SECRETARY OF STATE: And when we looked at the weight of evidence it became clear that January 6 was an attack not only on the Capitol, on government officials, but also an attack on the rule of law that it was an insurrection and that the U.S. Constitution does not tolerate an assault on our government -- on the foundations of our government.


HUNT: So this ruling comes after a bipartisan group of former Maine lawmakers filed a challenge against Trump providing what she called compelling evidence about the January 6 attacks.

Colorado's Supreme Court made a similar decision last week. A challenge based on the insurrectionist ban is also pending in Oregon. The California Secretary of State released a certified list of candidates just last night, opting to keep Trump on the ballot there.

Let's bring in CNN legal analyst and criminal defense attorney Joey Jackson. Joey, good morning to you. Thank you so much for being here.

So, when the Maine Secretary of State was asked why she made this decision she said this. Take a look at that.


BELLOWS: We do not set the qualifications but under Maine law, the Secretary of State is tasked with assessing those qualifications when presented with a challenge by any registered Maine voter. We looked at precedent in the Civil War. We looked at the law and looked at the facts. We looked at what was brought forward in this hearing that is specific to Maine law.


HUNT: So, Joey, what do you make of -- what do you make of this and how it plays into Maine law? And also, how's it going to play out? This is something that can be appealed.

JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY (via Webex by Cisco): Yeah, it certainly can, Kasie. I mean, what I make of it is that this is what democracy looks like, right?

You have 50 states that form a union and in those 50 states you have laws, rules, and regulations that must be abided by. Every state, remember, has a governor, has a legislature. That governor and legislature, independent from the federal government, set their own rules, processes, and procedures.

And here in Maine, Kasie, you have the Secretary of State who is empowered by the legislature to make an assessment as to who is qualified. In making that assessment, what she did is she had a hearing where she heard views and issues pertaining to the matters before her and she evaluated that and considered.

And in giving her considered judgment issued a 34-page opinion noting that the former president is disqualified because of the insurrection and number two, he engaged in an insurrection. And number three, based upon the totality of those circumstances he would not be qualified to appear.

So she embraced her role. Call her partisan. Call her a Democrat. Say she should be disqualified. I read it -- the opinion and decision, which certainly to your point will be appealed -- no question -- but I read it as a very factual analysis with respect to those events, what they mean, and what Maine law required that you do. And in keeping with that she said you're out.

HUNT: So, Joey, this obviously is -- we're going to see this in other states. We've already seen it in Colorado but these challenges are pending elsewhere as well. And it's likely that the Supreme Court is going to have to weigh in on this.

I think what really interests me is -- and you mentioned this, kind of, at the top, right? Fifty states each decide their own rules and regulations for conducting elections. And that's honestly a prerogative that the, particularly, conservatives have always been obsessed with protecting, right? They haven't wanted the federal government to be involved.

But it seems like the Trump team is going to be saying to the feds basically -- to the Supreme Court -- hey, fix this. Override the states. It's a little bit of a -- the script has been flipped if you will. [05:35:06]

JACKSON: It has been. But you know what, Kasie? Where you stand is a function of where you sit. And the reality is that they are, the Trump team, sitting in a very difficult spot.

And so, yes, the U.S. Supreme Court, because we need uniformity if we're to conduct a country in a way that's organized, in a way that's orderly, and in a way that's true to our democracy -- the Supreme Court will absolutely weigh in.

But I think the core issue is going to be what these states have viewed. And even lawyers aplenty will debate and have different points of view as to what the Section 3 of Amendment 14 means. But if any office applies to the president, which is an office, and if an insurrection, as this opinion noted in Maine --

Look, Kasie, it talks factually about what happened. Seven hours, 2,000 protesters, 175 officers assaulted, seven deaths. If it's not an insurrection the essence of the decision is then what is? And in terms of engaging in it, if you sow discontent in an election beforehand hand and distrust, if you're waxing poetic about how it's rigged, et cetera, and how it's the only way I can lose.

So it will be interesting to me once it gets to the Supreme Court, which it will, what their conclusion will ultimately be as to what Section 3, Amendment 14 means. Did you engage in an insurrection? Should you have? And are you disqualified? It's going to get there. It's going to take some time but we're all going to find out.

HUNT: Right. Well, and you just outlined -- and I was at the Capitol complex on the sixth and experienced all those things that you just talked about.

We're actually learning more here at CNN. My colleague had -- my colleagues have some exclusive reporting about the plan that was laid before that day to actually try and get the system to give Donald Trump the presidency, and that's through the fake electors' scheme.

We have this audio from Chesebro, the lawyer -- the pro-Trump attorney Ken Chesebro, who talked to investigators in Michigan about this. Listen to what he had to say.


KENNETH CHESEBRO, PRO-TRUMP ATTORNEY: The general counsel of the Trump campaign is freaked out that Roman reported that the Michigan votes are still in the sorting facility in Michigan, which doesn't look like they're going to get to Pence in time.

So the general counsel of the campaign was alarmed and was chartering -- well, they didn't have to charter a jet, but they did commercial. This is like -- yeah, so this is a high-level --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yeah. CHESEBRO: -- decision to get the Michigan and Wisconsin votes there, too. And they had to enlist, you know, a U.S. senator to try to expedite it to get it to -- get it to Pence in time.


HUNT: So just to be clear, what he's talking about there is getting an airplane on the eve of January 6 to get these electors from where they were in Wisconsin and Michigan to Washington, D.C. where Mike Pence was set to certify the election on January 6 at the Capitol.

What does -- what does this tell you -- this exchange tell you about these questions about former President Trump and an insurrection?

JACKSON: Kasie, this is remarkable. It is utterly remarkable the steps that were being taken, that were being plotted, that were being planned, that were being orchestrated in order to upset the results of an election. So if you credit what was going on, what he said, et cetera -- that is Mr. Chesebro, who is now cooperating with Michigan. We know he pled guilty in Georgia. We'll see what happens federally.

But this is like an organized crime ring to upset the results of a sound, fair, and full election process. Delivering fake ballots. Getting them to the Vice President of the United States. Enlisting support of a government -- of a United States senator in order to do so. Those ballots being stuck in the mail somewhere. What?

And to think that this could have been pulled off. But even before thinking about that Kasie, thinking about all the planning that went into trying to effectuate it and make it happen in the United States of America.

And so, if you look at Georgia, which talks about conspiracy -- I'm talking about, obviously, the prosecution in the state of Georgia, which alleges Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act -- a conspiracy is, of course, the coming together of two or more minds to really effectuate a plot, which is criminal in nature. This speaks to that issue.

And so, it's dumbfounding as to how this could potentially happen and how they think they could have gotten away with it.

So again, innocent until proven guilty. That's what courts of law are for. But the evidence here is just remarkable that this could happen in the United States of America at this day, at this time, even if only a few years ago. Wow.


HUNT: Joey Jackson, thank you as always for being with us. We'll see you here in a few minutes for our end-of-year segments, so stand by.


HUNT: But first this. Nikki Haley was scrambling yesterday to minimize the fallout after she failed to name slavery as the cause of the Civil War when a voter asked her about it during a New Hampshire town hall.

President Biden and rival Ron DeSantis both criticized her within hours, but it took her until the next morning to address it.


HALEY: I'm from the South and, of course, you know it's about slavery.

I guess if you grow up in the South it's a given that it's about slavery.

Well, it was definitely a Democrat plant.


HUNT: All right, let's bring in Jess Bidgood, senior national political reporter at The Boston Globe. Jess, good morning. It's always good to have you on the show.

She did address it in a -- she had a radio interview. She addressed it at the top of her campaign -- her first campaign stop of the day. Obviously, she was asked about it. You saw those clips there.

But the reality is this was a major unforced error at a moment in the campaign where she has been ascendant and the focus is there because of that very ascendancy.

How do you think this affects -- I mean, I know you've been following her very closely on the campaign trail. What did you see in how this happened, and how do you think it affects her going forward?

JESS BIDGOOD, SENIOR NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, THE BOSTON GLOBE (via Webex by Cisco): So, absolutely, this is the biggest backlash yet faced by a rising campaign that has generally been cautious and disciplined. And as you say, it's a real test for Nikki Haley.

Her rise has come, in part, because she has been seen as the adult in the room in a chaotic primary. She's worked really hard to sort of feed that perception. And this really hurts that in the minds of voters, or at least has the potential to.

HUNT: Jess, I want to show you a little bit of what Haley's rivals had to say about this -- Ron DeSantis and particularly, Chris Christie as well, who is obviously also focused on New Hampshire -- watch.


GOV. RON DESANTIS, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's not that difficult to identify and acknowledge the role slavery played in the Civil War.

CHRIS CHRISTIE, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'll make it easy for you. If someone asked me what the cause of the Civil War was it's easy. It's slavery.


HUNT: Christie does not -- is not backing away.

BIDGOOD: Absolutely, absolutely. Christie is using this as an opening to accuse Haley of really being afraid to offend anybody by telling the truth. And as you saw there, DeSantis has found an opening. Even allies of the Trump campaign are using this moment to depict Haley as not being ready for prime time. And it really shows how this gaffe has given her opponents an opportunity to hit her. To find a way to make something land where they've struggled to in recent weeks.

And this is happening -- all this is -- all of this is unfolding in New Hampshire, a state that Haley is really counting on for a strong showing to prove herself as the most viable alternative to Trump.

HUNT: Yeah.

Really quickly I want to show you this exchange that Haley had with a young voter who clearly has picked up on some of the themes that Haley's rivals have been hitting her with -- watch.


9-YEAR-OLD BOY: So, Chris Christie thinks that you are a flip-flopper on the Donald Trump issue. And honestly, I agree with him. You're basically the new John Kerry, if you remember John Kerry from 2004.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's the question?

9-YEAR-OLD BOY: So my question is how can you be -- how can you change your opinion like that in just eight years, and will you pardon Donald Trump?

HALEY: I would pardon Trump. What's in the best interest of the country is not to have an 80-year-old man sitting in jail that continues to divide our country.


HUNT: So, first of all, that boy was nine years old. I'm interested -- I'm interested to know who taught him about John Kerry because that was before his time, obviously.

But that's -- you know, it's an interesting answer from Haley. It doesn't have -- she saw no interest in having an 80-year-old man sitting in jail.

BIDGOOD: Absolutely. And I think an answer like that shows how carefully she has been treading over the course of this campaign to not alienate Trump supporters while casting herself as, like, a better candidate for the presidency.

HUNT: Yeah.

BIDGOOD: And part of her -- part of her strength in New Hampshire is that she is trying to get both Republicans and Democrats -- moderate voters who maybe backed Biden in 2020 to come and support her by threading this needle ever so carefully.


And I think what that answer shows and what the episode this week shows is when you are working so carefully to thread the needle -- you know, just one card out of place, one answer out of place can create real doubts about what you've been carefully and delicately trying to build.

HUNT: It sure can.

All right, Jess Bidgood of The Boston Globe. Jess, thank you very much for that. I think you're going to be back with us in just a moment as well.

Up next, we saw some outrageous and unprecedented stories in Washington this year. We're going to talk about who the political winners and losers of 2023 were up next.



REP. TIM BURCHETT (R-TN): I got elbowed in the back and it kind of caught me off guard because it was a clean shot to the kidneys. And I turned back and there was -- there as Kevin.

SEN. MARKWAYNE MULLIN (R-OK): Well, stand your butt up then.


MULLIN: Big guy.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): Oh, hold on. Stop it.

GEORGE SANTOS, FORMER U.S. CONGRESSMAN: Sue me for having a life.

HALEY: You're just scum.




DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He says you're not going to be a dictator are you? I said, no, no, no, other than day one.

YOON SUK YEOL, SOUTH KOREAN PRESIDENT: Singing "American Pie" to President Joe Biden.


HUNT: All right. From pulled fire alarms and punches to the kidney on Capitol Hill, to push-ups on the campaign trail, it was a wild and frankly, often whacky year in Washington.


We saw four Trump indictments, 19 House Speaker votes, and at one point, 19 presidential campaigns. And a partridge in a pear tree?

Since we will be ringing in the new year this weekend, I wanted to show you -- we'll play a little game with our panels this morning and try and get them to tell us who they think were 2023's biggest winners and losers in politics and walk through some of the most memorable moments. Maybe we'll also make some predictions for the year ahead, although I've got to tell you, I have learned that is a bad -- a bad thing to do in this day and age.

Let's bring in Jess Bidgood, Sophia Cai, and Joey Jackson who have been kind enough to stick around to do this. Guys, thank you for being here.

Let's start with the year's biggest political losers. And we're going to set Donald Trump and Joe Biden aside and we're going to give them their own day, and next year is going to kind of answer this question for us. Write-ins are welcome, but some options. Kevin McCarthy, Bud Light, Bob Menendez, George Santos, Rudy Giuliani; Ron DeSantis; Elon Musk.

Sophia Cai, who do you think qualifies as this year's biggest political loser?

SOPHIA CAI, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, AXIOS: I think definitely Kevin McCarthy. Definitely, Bud Light. Kevin McCarthy -- that was my nomination, yes. Yep, this would be my two.

HUNT: Why Bud Light?

CAI: Yeah. I mean, look -- like, they're an example of a company where you had a real political loss. I mean, this was a real boycott that, in many ways, worked, and it spurred on the other side of the aisle a whole anti-ESG, anti-woke economy. And I think that is something to watch in the next year is what have Republicans got in response to companies like Bud Light and others.

HUNT: Interesting.

Jess, biggest loser?

BIDGOOD: So, it's hard to pick just one. Kevin McCarthy was a political loser in a pretty epic way. As a presidential candidate, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has probably taken the hardest fall.

But I'm going to go with a write-in and say that I think the biggest political loser is the Republicans, particularly the donor class who wanted to stop former President Trump's march to the Republican nomination. They failed to find a message that worked or to coalesce around an alternative. And we're heading toward the Iowa caucuses in just a few weeks with the former president miles ahead of the competition. HUNT: It's a very good point.

Joey Jackson, biggest loser in 2023?

JACKSON: So I have to with two that hit close to home for me.

George Santos -- being my former congressman. How he got elected in the first instance is perplexing but I guess if you make up stories that resonate with people and they're not fact-checked this can happen. But also accountability can happen because he's no longer there.

The second one would be Rudy Giuliani. Wow -- I mean, Kasie, he was an incredible mayor. Being a New Yorker -- being a person in New York daily. What he did for the city. Just who he was. A U.S. attorney prior to that. A star getting us through 9/11. And then his collapse and demise.

I just don't know what happened to him not only as it relates to just his politics and his indictment but also the latest ruling about defamation. Rudy, what happened? It's just upsetting, it's shameful. And you've got to catch the CNN analysis on him, too -- "WHAT HAPPENED TO AMERICA'S MAYOR?" It's fascinating.

HUNT: It is a -- I still have the Time Person of the Year cover from 2001 when he was named that. He's a remarkably different public figure now.

All right. Quickly, biggest winners of the year. Perhaps some options. Gavin Newsom, J.D. Vance, Sarah McBride. Andy Beshear won his reelection.

Sophia, who do you think is the biggest winner?

CAI: I would say Gavin Newsom. I mean, if you look at the presidential benchwarmers, the back-benchers, the waiting in the wings, I would say that Newsom is the biggest winner because he debated Ron DeSantis. He sparred with Sean Hannity. He did all of these things that both 100 percent put him in the camp of Joe Biden and raised his national profile.

And so, I think he's the one to watch. I think he will be our biggest non-presidential winner this year.

HUNT: Jess, what do you think?

BIDGOOD: So, there didn't seem to be a lot of winners this year in my eyes. But one group that consistently and literally won in 2023 was supporters of abortion rights who put their issue directly on the ballot or Democrats who tied their campaigns closely to it.

This year, we saw voters in Ohio enshrine abortion rights in their constitution. State Supreme Court justices in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania won races in which the issue figured prominently. And in Virginia, Democrats won control of the state legislature as they campaigned against Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin's pitch to restrict the procedure to 15 weeks.


HUNT: Yeah.

Joey, what do you think?

JACKSON: Andy Beshear -- wow. Beautiful family. Beautiful message. Winning the governor of Kentucky for the second time. Winning a second term. Carrying a dozen more counties than he did before.

Bringing the message to the people. Unifying people. Talking about a positive message, an uplifting message in times, Kasie, where the divisiveness of politics, and how my opponent is, and what my opponent is, and how to degrade.

He's just an uplifter. I think he's a person to watch very closely in the future in terms of the Democratic Party.

HUNT: It's going to be -- it's just going to be very interesting and I think it's a good point.

All right. So before we go, I want to show you -- we've got a couple of memorable moments. I remember we started off the year -- it might have been -- I mean, I think it was January, right, when Kevin McCarthy struggled to become House Speaker and it led to this moment on the floor of the Hill. And I think we can show everyone where Mike Rogers lunges at Matt Gaetz and has to be pulled back as Kevin McCarthy walks away.

And then, there was this moment from Elon Musk that, in some ways, kind of sums up I feel like the attitude that many people have brought to this year if you want to look at it through a negative lens. This is Elon Musk on stage at the DealBook conference.


ELON MUSK, CEO, TESLA MOTORS: If somebody's going to try to blackmail me with advertising, blackmail me with money, go (bleep) yourself.


HUNT: Jess, does that about sum it up?

BIDGOOD: About that -- yeah.

HUNT: You know, I mean, it's been -- we are heading into an election year that is at this moment and at this writing looking to be a rematch of what we saw in 2020 but with, in many ways, darker overtones.

BIDGOOD: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think that in 2024, one prediction that I expect is we are seeing Trump dominating polls, clashing with the legal system, likely to go on trial, and dialing up his authoritarian rhetoric. So I would expect democracy to really be tested in 2024. HUNT: All right, Jess Bidgood, Sophia Cai, Joey Jackson, thank you all very much. Happy New Year to all of you.

CAI: Happy New Year.

JACKSON: Thank you.

HUNT: All right, sports. The Cleveland Browns blew out the Jets last night punching a ticket to the playoffs for the first time since 2020.

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


You know, the Browns -- they're one of the most tortured fan bases in the entire NFL. And they'd only made the playoffs twice since getting their team back in 1999. So it certainly was a party in Cleveland last night.

And the guy throwing that party was 38-year-old quarterback Joe Flacco. The former Super Bowl MVP -- he was sitting on his couch six weeks ago but has just had an incredible resurgence with the Browns. Flacco was great again against the Jets, throwing for over 300 yards and three touchdowns.

The Browns would win big 37-20. They clinch a spot in the playoffs for just the third time this century.

Now, we did have a scary moment in this game. Flacco found Elijah Moore with his pass right here and when Moore gets tackled his head hits the ground very hard and he appears to start seizing on the ground. You see his teammates were certainly concerned at what they were seeing and calling for help. Moore was able to walk to the sidelines on his own and he left the game. After that, the team said he was being evaluated for a concussion.

All right. And elsewhere, finally, we did have the inaugural Pop-Tart Bowl yesterday between Kansas State and NC State and the reveal of the Pop-Tart mascot was pretty epic there. Kind of equivalent to when Taylor Swift pops out at her concerts.

Now, at the end, we knew that the winning team was going to get to eat that Pop-Tart, Kasie, and we wondered how all of that was going to happen. Well, he went back into the toaster at the end and he popped out the side. Well done. And he was a frosted strawberry apparently and the whole team just got to go to town there at the end -- he has a winky face -- to enjoy that mascot for the very first time.

I thought it was great -- the whole thing.

HUNT: Uh -- I mean, we talk -- I feel like we talked about this before, Andy. I will say I would have preferred the Pop-Tart to be chocolate there. You know?

But hey, I've got to get your take, Andy. We were doing best moments of 2023 and honestly -- SCHOLES: Oh.


HUNT: -- the person that I keep coming back to over and over again is Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce, and karma is the man on the Chiefs coming back home to me. Is she -- is she calling his wins or his losses -- neither or both?

SCHOLES: Well, you know, the Chiefs have lost three out of four. Some fans are blaming her presence for some of those losses. But, I mean, she has nothing to do with it, right? But if the Chiefs flame out and don't do well in the playoffs I'm not sure if their fans are going to be fans of the Kelce-Swift relationship.

HUNT: Well, we'll see. I personally wish Taylor and Travis all the best in 2024.

Happy New Year, Andy.

SCHOLES: You, too.

HUNT: Thank you very much for everything this year.

And thanks to all of you for joining us. I'm Kasie Hunt. Have a great weekend. Have a Happy New Year. Don't go anywhere. "CNN THIS MORNING" starts right now.