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DeSantis, Haley Hit Trump Harder In CNN Town Halls; New Middle East Violence Sparks Fears Of Wider Conflict; Former Olympian Oscar Pistorius Released From Prison. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired January 05, 2024 - 05:30   ET




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

We are a week and a half out from the Iowa caucuses and two of the 2024 GOP presidential contenders appeared right here on CNN in back- to-back town halls last night. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley took questions from Republican Iowa caucusgoers. Among the topics covered, abortion, immigration, gun reform, taxes, and the race's frontrunner, Donald Trump.


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: It sounds like you're saying Republican voters can't trust Donald Trump.

GOV. RON DESANTIS, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, what I'm saying is if you've run before, promised things, didn't deliver, and then you're running on the same things, wouldn't it be reasonable to say well, gee, I don't know that I can take that to the bank going forward. So, yes, I think the fact that he's campaigning on something -- that does not mean that he would actually follow through on it.

NIKKI HALEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I personally think President Trump was the right president at the right time. I agree with a lot of his policies. But the reality is rightly or wrongly, chaos follows him, and we all know that's true. Chaos follows him. And we can't have a country in disarray and a world on fire and go through four more years of chaos. We won't survive it.


HUNT: Those jabs at Trump representing an overall departure from the dynamics that have defined this presidential race so far and certainly, from the dynamics that these campaigns are putting money behind. DeSantis and Haley have been much more focused on attacking each other, not the guy who is actually beating both of them in the polls.

So, can Haley or DeSantis move the needle? Let's bring in CNN national political reporter Daniel Strauss to talk more about this. Daniel, it's great to see you.

These town halls last night -- the Trump -- this -- that's how they answer Trump questions typically. That is not a message that they are putting money behind on the airwaves. And it does seem like DeSantis got a question from a voter about this here kind of in the final stretch.

Where do you think things stand right now, and is there any chance for either of these two to shake up the fundamental dynamic that's defined this race for the last year?

DANIEL STRAUSS, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER (via Webex by Cisco): I mean, what's clear from both town halls last night and recent advertising in general is that these two candidates -- the highest polling candidates who aren't Donald Trump in the race are still just vying for second place. There is a tacit but very clear acknowledgment across the party that Donald Trump is the firm frontrunner in this primary and that right now, the question is who can secure a strong second-place position in these early primary contests.

And so, that's why we're seeing right now a somewhat light touch in attacking Donald Trump. But also, in both of these town halls, Haley and DeSantis were very clear in contrasting and warning that electing Donald Trump would be a liability for the Republican Party in their chances for actually winning the White House in 2024.


HUNT: So let's kind of lay out the stakes for, particularly, Nikki Haley here because Ron DeSantis was the -- considered the man that was most likely to beat Donald Trump. He was the one that the Trump campaign focused on right from the beginning. He has obviously not lived up to the expectations that people had for him in early 2023. Iowa is kind of everything for him.

Nikki Haley, of course, has been the recipient of momentum here late in the game and she has really focused on -- she was in Iowa last night but she really has focused on New Hampshire to the point that she made a remark about how the role each state, Iowa and New Hampshire, play in the process. She, of course, hails from South Carolina, which is the third -- they call themselves the first in the South primary.

But she ruffled some feathers with some remarks she made in New Hampshire and she was asked for the first time about them on stage last night. I want to remind everyone what she said in New Hampshire and then show you how she answered questions about it last night. Take a look.


HALEY: And I trust you. I trust every single one of you. You know how to do this. You know Iowa starts it. You know that you correct it. You know that you continue to go -- (Applause)

And then my sweet state of South Carolina brings it home. That's what we do.

We have done 150-plus town halls. You've got to have some fun, too. We banter against each other on different things. New Hampshire makes fun of Iowa. Iowa makes fun of South Carolina. It's what we do.


HUNT: Worth noting, Daniel, that there were some boos in the hall when she was initially asked about this. Obviously, not exactly what Iowa caucusgoers would want to hear.

What do you make of this? Is it a campaign trail mistake or not? And what is the Haley's campaign's kind of expectation in Iowa right now?

STRAUSS: I mean, I think this applies to the saying 'if you're explaining, you're losing' and that's what Haley had to do about those remarks during last night's town hall. She had to explain that this was just a joke. Come on, guys -- I was just having a little fun -- ha, ha.

And so -- I mean, this is the second in a series of comments that it's pretty clear the Haley team wishes had not unfolded the way they had. But overall, it's doubtful that this will have much of an impact in any of the early primary contests simply because it's -- these days, in presidential campaign politics unless it's a very, very unusual or offensive comment most things candidates say don't have an overall impact on their standings in the primary polls. For most jokes, anyway.

So -- sorry. Yeah?

HUNT: No. I mean, I --

STRAUSS: And so --

HUNT: But, I mean, I guess the question is -- actually, I think you're absolutely right, especially in the way that the media environment -- I mean, there is so much information coming at people. It is very, very difficult for anything to break through, even a big mistake.

I guess my question is do the laws of political gravity still apply to people that aren't Donald Trump? I would argue they definitely apply more than they apply to him.

STRAUSS: Yes. And look, this is the other thing. There is a -- I mean, for a long time, there's been a caution that candidates have had to take in describing these early primary contests simply because they view themselves as a very, very important part of the nominating process.

So for candidates other than Trump, at the same time, yeah. I mean, joking about how important a caucus or a primary is can matter.

Now, it's important to also remember through all this that for Iowa, Haley's team is prioritizing just exceeding the expectation game. There is not a strong sense that she needs to win Iowa. That she needs to go into New Hampshire having won the previous contest. She just needs to show that there is momentum and that all of the hype that she's enjoyed recently is real and substantive.

And so, that's what they are looking for right now and that's the approach they're taking the final few days before voters go and -- go to the polls in Iowa.

HUNT: All right, CNN's Daniel Strauss. Daniel, thanks for being with us on this Friday.

All right. The Biden campaign starting 2024 with a renewed focus on what they believe is the central focus for his reelection bid, and that is the fragility of American democracy. The president is going to be making his first major campaign speech of the year near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania today. That, of course, is the historic Revolutionary War site where George Washington and his troops endured a brutal winter nearly 250 years ago.


There, Biden will use that backdrop to mark the third anniversary of the January 6 attack on the Capitol and argue that Trump is a danger to democracy. The Biden campaign previewing that message in this new campaign ad.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There is something dangerous happening in America. There's an extremist movement that does not share the basic beliefs in our democracy. All of us are being asked right now what will we do to maintain our democracy. History is watching. The world is watching.


HUNT: All right, let's bring in Axios publisher Nicholas Johnston. Nicholas, good morning. It's always good to see you.


HUNT: I'm missing your family menu behind you that I have seen from you in the past.

JOHNSTON: I came into the bureau today.

HUNT: I appreciate it. It means a lot.

Let's talk about this democracy messaging from President Biden. This is something -- I mean, they're betting that democracy is going to be a voting issue, especially for Independents, in the general election. Do you see that happening? I have also talked to Democrats who say well, they've got to connect it back to the kitchen table issues people put at the top of their concern list -- inflation and other things.

JOHNSTON: Yeah. I mean -- well, Bidenomics was a big part of the early, pretty pre-election rollout that the administration was going through. But now we're 304 days away from Election Day so now let's let the real general election begin. And I think what the campaign is saying is they're hitching their horse to what they think is maybe a probably more powerful issue, which is this threat of democracy. And they're definitely previewing it, as you showed in the ad.

They're telling reporters on calls previously previewing this. They're really starting to say that democracy is at stake. And I think they're looking at the data.

Like, there's two things that I've been looking at is that a) Bidenomics really didn't take hold although the economy is doing very well from a data standpoint -- consumer sentiment. The way people view the economy is really not taking off.

But in the polling data around January 6 and around Trump is very clear. There was a poll out earlier this week that said a third of Republicans thought -- or a third of voters thought that the protest was peaceful or was even an FBI false flag.

But look on the flip side of that poll. That means two-thirds think it was a serious issue. That it was something that was actually criminal and violent. And majorities of voters say that President Trump is possibly legally liable or criminally liable for what happened on that day.

And when you look at horse race polls that are very much neck-and- neck, that majority that say that Trump -- that tie Trump to January 6 in a negative way, I think the Biden campaign is looking at that and saying that that's a winning issue. So they're hitting the road today to kick off the general election campaign to talk about it.

HUNT: Nicholas, this is also very personal for the president.


HUNT: You know, obviously, January 6 happened before he had -- or, excuse me, after he had launched his campaign for president in 2020. But I remember when he got in then they talked so much about what happened in Charlottesville and how --

JOHNSTON: Absolutely.

HUNT: -- and how -- you know, thinking about the history of the country and what -- the message that was being -- you know, he talked about the soul of America quite a bit.

And honestly, the sort of more candid remarks that the president has made, some of which I think his campaign probably wishes he hadn't made -- they suggest he really is only in this race because Trump is also in this race and because beating him is that important. I mean, how much of that do we see on display here?

JOHNSTON: Oh, 100 percent. Joe Biden, when he's off message, off script, perhaps is when you get the real authentic Joe from Scranton.

And what I love looking through is the transcripts from fundraisers where he's not on a teleprompter or he's not reading from prepared remarks. That's where he very much authentically, I think, goes and honestly, said that he wouldn't be running this time at his age, at this point in his life if he didn't think he was the person to beat Trump and that he had to beat Trump because Trump is a threat to democracy in this nation.

And you mentioned also Charlottesville and some of the racial angles of this. Remember, this is a one-two punch for the president. He's going to be in Valley Forge drawing the connections to George Washington today, and then later heading down I think to Charleston to talk about some of the racial strife in this country.

And so, they are definitely pulling back I think to a very wide lens to look at this. It's not an election -- just not -- but a choice between two different candidates. But a serious choice for America deciding on the future of the nation.

HUNT: Yeah. I mean, I have to say, every presidential election I have covered, the candidates always want to say this is the most important election of everybody's lifetime. It's all on the line. I will say this one actually -- it always used to frustrate me a little bit because sometimes it felt like the boy who cried wolf.


HUNT: And this one, not that. I mean, this election --

JOHNSTON: And I think --

HUNT: Yeah, sorry -- go ahead.

JOHNSTON: And that's 100 percent the way the Biden campaign is planning to frame it -- exactly.

HUNT: Yeah.

All right, Nicholas Johnston of Axios. Thank you very much. I hope you'll come back soon.

JOHNSTON: Great seeing you.

HUNT: Great to see you.

All right. Up next, fears escalating of a wider war in the Middle East. The possibility of the U.S. being dragged into the conflict. That's up next.

Plus, Oscar Pistorius has been freed on parole nearly 11 years after murdering his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. How her family is responding to his release. That's ahead.



HUNT: Welcome back.

Fears of a widening conflict in the Middle East are intensifying as the U.S. grapples with how to respond to escalating attacks from Iran- backed proxy groups on American troops and ships in the Red Sea.

Amid these heightened tensions, Secretary of State Antony Blinken is making his fourth trip to the region since the October 7 attack on Israel.

Let's bring in CNN political and national security analyst David Sanger. He's also the White House and national security correspondent for The New York Times. David, good morning. It's great to have you.


HUNT: So, in the past five days alone, all of these things have happened.


The U.S. targeted and killed a pro-Iran militia commander in Baghdad. ISIS claimed responsibility for the deadliest attack in Iran since the 1979 revolution. Israel killed a senior Hamas leader in Beirut. And U.S. helicopters sank three Houthi rebel boats in the Red Sea after they came under fire.

This is a lot. Can you help us understand just how much of a tinderbox this is, and what are the central U.S. concerns right now?

SANGER: Well, it is a big tinderbox, and in that firing on the -- on the Houthi boats, there were apparently 10 Houthi militants who were killed in all of that.

So we have -- for the first time, really in a while, we have seen the United States in sort of direct combat with some of these Iranian proxies. And so, that raises the question are we headed into something much bigger with Iran or are the Iranians going to show a bit of restraint as they have before because they haven't wanted to get into a direct conflict with either Israel or the United States?

And the balancing act that the U.S. is trying to do right now with only limited success, so far, I would -- I would say, is to both reestablish some deterrents. That's why they went after those three boats that fired on the U.S. Navy helicopters. But also, try to act with enough restraint that they don't tip themselves into something much bigger than just the Israel-Hamas fight.

HUNT: So, David -- I mean, on the Houthi question, in particular, CNN has learned -- officials have told us that there actually are plans -- the Pentagon has drawn up options for the Biden campaign to strike the Houthis inside Yemen. But so far, it seems like they've been very reluctant to do that. Why?

SANGER: They've had those plans for many months if not years because that's what the Pentagon does. It plans for all of these things.

But partly, it's coming up now and is much more intense now because I think there's a recognition inside the Pentagon that there's only so long that you can go on playing defense here, trying to intercept missiles or stop these fast boats as they attack one of these ships. And what they're fearful of is that at some point, one of those ships is going to sink where it would be a much bigger incident.

The lesson of the fight with the Somali pirates years ago and others suggested you've got to get at their -- at their equipment, their missiles on the land.

But President Biden has been very hesitant to do this, in part because he doesn't want to trigger that larger war and in part, because there's been a civil war in Yemen to which there was a negotiated truce that was quite delicate to keep balanced. And that truce has held, astoundingly, for more than a year. And so they don't want to upend that and trigger off another civil war.

So it's a real tightrope that they are -- that they're on. But I know there are many in the U.S. military who think if you don't strike the Houthis back on their base you're not going to stop this series of attacks. And the attacks really began after the Israeli action into Gaza and the Houthis have said it will continue as long as that action is going on in Gaza.

HUNT: Yeah.

So, briefly, David, Blinken is on his way to the region. What is the top goal of his trip?

SANGER: I think there are two or three.

So one of them is to see if they can get the hostages -- more hostages out. You'll remember there was this -- a brief period of time when there was a lull in the fighting -- a declared, sort of, brief truce of a few weeks, and they got 100 hostages out. And then that all fell apart. They'd like to reassemble that.

The second is he's trying to talk the Israelis down from a general bombing of Gaza and the shift to a much more targeted approach -- sort of what you saw happen in Lebanon with the killing of the Hamas leader. Now, of course, that killing may, itself, make it much more difficult to get the hostages back. The Hamas leader they went after had been involved in the hostage negotiations.

And I think the third thing is to keep the rest of this from spilling out of control and get other Arab states to try --

HUNT: Right. SANGER: -- to step in and try to calm all of this.


HUNT: All right, David Sanger. Very grateful to have you on the show today. Thanks very much for being here.

SANGER: Always great to be with you, Kasie.

HUNT: All right.

So, this morning, former Olympic and Paralympic sprinter and convicted murderer Oscar Pistorius has been released from a South African prison. He was granted parole last November after spending nearly nine years behind bars. He killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine's Day in 2013. During his trial, Pistorius claimed he believed he was shooting an intruder in his home.

CNN's David McKenzie joins us now live from South Africa. David, Pistorius -- at the height of his celebrity he was referred to as "Blade Runner." Now he's on parole until 2029. What's next for him?

DAVID MCKENZIE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kasie, he was a worldwide celebrity. If you cast your mind back to more than 10 years ago, Oscar Pistorius was seen as a global athlete. A superstar who overcame his own disability of being a double amputee from a very young age to the height of Olympic fame.

That all came crashing down on Valentine's morning in 2013 when he shot four shots through a bathroom door to where his girlfriend was, Reeva Steenkamp, killing her on the scene, which unfolded into a very high-stakes drama in court here in South Africa that was followed by people from across the world.

Well, what's at stake for him now? He has been released on parole. He -- as there is heavy security outside his uncle's house in Pretoria, the capital. He will be under strict conditions, including he won't be able to speak to the media. He won't be able to drink alcohol. He cannot leave the confines of that city. We'll have to see if he does appear in public in the coming days.

For their part, the family of Reeva Steenkamp say they've forgiven Oscar Pistorius. Her mother, in particular, saying that she doesn't believe his version of events that he says that he believed it was an intruder.

She released a statement a few hours ago saying, "There can be justice -- can never be justice if your loved one is never coming back, and no amount of time served will bring Reeva back. We, who remain behind, are the ones serving a life sentence."

Tragically, Reeva's father died a few months ago. June Steenkamp has been the public face in recent weeks of the family and she says the pain is still very raw and very real -- Kasie.

HUNT: It's so hard. David McKenzie for us. David, thank you.

All right, time now for sports.

The defending champion Nuggets capped a huge comeback win over the Warriors with a 40-foot shot at the buzzer.

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

ANDY SCHOLES, CNN SPORTS ANCHOR: Yeah, good morning, Kasie.

So, Nuggets coach Mike Malone said after this game that great players make great plays, and that's exactly what two-time MVP Nicola Jokic did with time winding down last night. And Denver was down 18 with less than 7 1/2 minutes left when they just went on an incredible run. Jokic would eventually get the ball here and hit a fall-away in the lane to tie it with under 30 seconds to go. And then, Denver had the ball with the game tied with three seconds on the clock.


ANNOUNCER: He's across the timeline from 45 feet. Got it at the horn! Nikola Jokic buries the Golden State Warriors! For the second year in a row, Denver stuns the Warriors with a last-second three-point shot. And the Golden State Warriors can go ahead and take that on the way out.


SCHOLES: Yeah. You see what a shot there by Jokic. His teammates mobbed him. It was a 40-foot game-winner.

The Nuggets closed the game on a 25-4 run to win 130-127.

And afterwards, Charles Barkley joked with Jokic about that incredible shot.



NIKOLA JOKIC, CENTER, DENVER NUGGETS: My friend, it went in. I'm happy.


SCHOLES: He certainly was happy.

All right, Victor Wembanyama, meanwhile, was celebrating his 20th birthday by going up against Giannis Antetokounmpo for the first time. In the second quarter, Wemby picked up his dribble but then threw it off the backboard to himself for the slam. And look at this again. His dribble was picked up at the three-point line. That's just incredible.

In the third quarter, Wemby then using that eight-foot wing span to get the steal. Then he goes around the world and slams it over Brook Lopez, plus the foul.

Now, Giannis was incredible in this game as well. Under a minute to go, game tied. Giannis drives it in with a monster slam to take the lead. Moments later, up three now, Giannis -- he tried to go right at Wemby but Wemby, this time, with a block -- one of five that he had in the game.

The Bucks, though, would hold on to win this 125-121. Giannis had 44 points and was certainly impressed with Wemby afterwards.


GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO, FORWARD, MILWAUKEE BUCKS: I've never seen anything like him -- seven-four, seven-five. I don't know how tall he is. He's (INAUDIBLE). So whoever said it to, that's a lie.


But, like, you haven't seen anything like that, you know. I haven't. Maybe you guys have seen it. I don't think you guys have seen everything. So, the sky is the limit.


SCHOLES: Yeah. And Kasie, that was just an epic first meeting between those two. And, you know, Wemby, 20 years old. Giannis is still in the prime of his career. Looking forward to a lot more great matchups between them over the years.

HUNT: Amazing and so much fun to watch.

Andy Scholes, thank you very much. Happy Friday. Have a wonderful weekend, my friend.

SCHOLES: You, too.

HUNT: All right. Thanks to all of you for joining us this morning. Have a wonderful weekend. But don't go anywhere. I'm Kasie Hunt. "CNN THIS MORNING" starts right now.