Return to Transcripts main page

Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Early Voting Underway Ahead Of South Carolina GOP Primary; Global Pressure Mounts On Rookie House Speaker; Accused Fraudster George Santos Sues Jimmy Kimmel For Fraud. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired February 20, 2024 - 05:30   ET




KASIE HUNT, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Thanks for being up early with us. I'm Kasie Hunt. Five-thirty here on the East Coast.

Nikki Haley, the last remaining Republican challenger to frontrunner Donald Trump -- she's promising to stay in the race for the long haul, and she's also been sharpening her attacks against the former president in the final days ahead of Saturday's South Carolina primary.


NIKKI HALEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I promise you this. On Sunday, I'm headed to Michigan, and then we're going to Super Tuesday states, and we're going to keep on going. Everybody is telling me why don't you just get out.


HALEY: I will never give up.


HUNT: The South Carolina showdown is going to be a crucial test for Haley who despite serving two terms as governor there remains far behind Trump in most polls.

Haley spent her final weeks holding events across the state. She spent $6 million in a flurry of ads. And she's been attacking Trump on his military record, on foreign policy, and on his fitness for office. But it's unclear if any of those attacks are going to be enough to save her on Saturday.

Let's bring in someone who is in South Carolina right now, Meg Kinnard. She's national politics reporter at the Associated Press. Meg, good morning. It's always wonderful to see you.

You, of course, live in South Carolina. You've been covering the lead- up to these events -- to this primary on Saturday. What do you -- how did it feel at these events? I mean, does this actually feel like a fight or does it feel like a foregone conclusion?

MEG KINNARD, NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS (via Webex by Cisco): Hey, Kasie. Good morning. It's always good to be with you.

There is a mix of both I think. At these Haley events, there are a lot of people who are excited to see her, some of whom remember her from her time as governor and some of whom are new to the state and are just getting to know her.

But from a lot of the voters I talk to, they do feel that their vote, while they're excited to cast it for her, is just kind of a symbol at this point. They feel certain that Donald Trump is going to be victorious here and they wish that weren't the case. But they feel that it's their duty and their obligation to at least do what she's doing now in her campaign, which is stand up to him.

So it's not necessarily, even for some of her most fervent supporters, about defeating Donald Trump on Saturday. It's just standing up and saying well, at least I cast my vote for somebody who wasn't Donald Trump.

HUNT: Yeah.

Meg, Nikki Haley has said -- she's set pretty clear expectations for herself, honestly. She says I've got to do better here than I did in New Hampshire to keep going. That seems unlikely based on the polling. I mean, the New Hampshire electorate -- there's a lot of undeclared voters, Independents -- even people who have previously voted Democratic who switched to be able to vote in that primary. She was above 40 percent there. The polls show that she's below that in South Carolina.

Do you think she's going to stick to that, or do you get the sense she is going to follow through on her current claims, which are that she's going to Michigan and Super Tuesday?

KINNARD: I think that is also a little bit of both. I do think that she is going to be sticking in this and going on through the next states that follow Michigan, Super Tuesday, et cetera. But it doesn't seem likely at this point that she's going to be shrinking that margin between her votes and Donald Trump's votes.

I asked her that last week and said what does victory here for you actually look like, and she continues to talk about getting that margin closer and closer to Donald Trump. But when you look at the math and you think about the voters who represent -- who is likely to show up on Saturday in South Carolina's primary, it really doesn't seem that she's going to be able to close that gap even further than she did in New Hampshire.

You rightly point out New Hampshire is full of different kinds of voters that are here in South Carolina. Yes, it's an open primary. Yes, people who didn't vote in the Democratic primary a few weeks ago can vote on Saturday if they so choose. That's a line that we've also heard her testing out in front of crowds -- not directly saying hey, Democrats, come vote for me, but just reminding people that they are available to vote if they didn't a couple of weeks ago.

It just doesn't seem likely at this point that those numbers between her votes and Donald Trump's votes are going to be smaller than they were last time.

HUNT: Yeah, really interesting.


Meg, can I ask you -- I mean, Alexey Navalny's death has been in the news and we were talking at the top of the show about how Donald Trump has handled that, basically by spending days not mentioning it. Then when he did mention it he talks about himself.

That all reflects or helps us understand why Republicans in Congress are not sending aid to Ukraine. It's a real switch on the part of the Republican Party.

I'm curious what you're hearing from the voters that you see at these events in South Carolina. I mean, is it obvious to you when you talk to people about these kinds of issues why the Republican Party is going where it's going? I mean, what do you hear from people on the ground? Because Haley is really running on her foreign policy record, which is at odds -- and the way she is talking about Russia and Navalny is at odds with Donald Trump.

KINNARD: A lot of voters, frankly, aren't bringing up foreign policy to me. This is something that we heard a lot more of I think last fall and over the winter right after the Hamas attack on Israel and when Haley was really showcasing her foreign policy experience given those circumstances.

But when I ask voters what are you really concerned about and what are you thinking about, number one is always the economy swiftly followed up in large part by border security and immigration-related issues.

But I'm not hearing voters bring up to me a lot of those lines that she is consistently referencing about Trump's connections to Vladimir Putin and concerns about what he might do if he gets back in office when it comes to Russia.

Nikki Haley talks about that all the time but it doesn't really seem to be breaking through to the voters who are coming out to hear her and may really like her. It's just not top of mind for them, really, at this point.

HUNT: Interesting.

So, let's talk about the endgame for Nikki Haley here staying in this race. The Boston Globe laid out a couple of options for them. One, to set herself up for 2028 -- plausible. To serve as Trump's VP or in a high-profile cabinet position. I find that less plausible.

Become the de facto leader of the Reagan wing of the GOP. That may have already happened. Option number four, she doesn't know what she wants. I find most people who have come this far on the national stage typically do know what they want.

But you've covered her for a long time. What do you see as the endgame for her here?

KINNARD: Obviously, the next cycle is something that we as reporters are always talking about and thinking about, and who is going to be a lead contender for that. But let's not forget there are a couple of options coming open here in South Carolina.

Tim Scott, whom she appointed to the Senate in 2012 -- he has said he's not going to run again and his seat would be coming up in 2028. So my unpopular opinion, maybe she's got her eyes on that. I don't know. But she's definitely raised her name I.D. to the point and reminded herself to South Carolina voters hey, remember me? You voted for me a lot. I could be coming soon to a ballot near you in several years.

So we'll see, but I think that could certainly be an option, particularly if Tim Scott -- since he's on that VP list, too -- is perhaps exploring his own options here when it comes to what he's going to be doing next.

HUNT: Very interesting possibility, I will say, after this primary presidential run. If she's going to do that she ought to prepare for a Trump-backed challenge to that Senate seat, but you never know. That would be a -- that would be a -- that would be a fascinating race. I would love to come down and cover that if it happens.

Meg Kinnard of the Associated Press.

KINNARD: Come on down.

HUNT: I love it. Thanks very much, Meg. I appreciate it.


HUNT: All right. House Speaker Mike Johnson is facing growing international pressure to act on military assistance to Ukraine. He is, of course, stuck in the middle between Republicans who want to help Ukraine and Republicans who don't because there is a large number, again, of House Republicans who would vote to back Ukraine aid. But that right flank has been so resistant and they have been threatening Johnson's job as speaker.

Still, there's a new sense of urgency for Johnson to act after the death of opposition leader Alexey Navalny. The upcoming two-year anniversary of Russia's war against Ukraine is looming. And Ukrainian forces have been warning that they are running out of weapons and ammunition.

Let's bring in Mica Soellner. She is congressional reporter at Punchbowl News. Mica, good morning to you.

What is up next for this? What are the pressures facing Johnson? We're sort of understanding the White House may try to put something else out there. But even -- no matter what it is, I feel like Johnson's likely to face these threats from the right win. How do you see this playing out?

MICA SOELLNER, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, PUNCHBOWL NEWS (via Webex by Cisco): Yeah, good morning, Kasie.

Speaker Johnson is in a really difficult position as he's been put in for pretty much every move that's he made so far as speaker. I think that when it comes to foreign aid there's essentially an internal war within the GOP between more traditional Republicans who remain hawkish on the global stage, and then the rise of these America First-type Republicans that are more aligned with former President Donald Trump's movements.

So he really has to deal with the right flank that has put increasing pressure on him to basically not give any aid to Ukraine and to withhold their votes against major legislation if he does do that sort of thing. So his hands are really tied here.


HUNT: So, Mica, how serious do you think the threats are from the right wing to actually push forward with a motion to vacate? I mean, I know that that's gotten thrown around a lot and obviously, we saw that happen with McCarthy. But I struggle to understand how they would have an -- I mean, getting Johnson in this position was incredibly difficult. Do you think that they'd actually follow through?

SOELLNER: I think it's very possible. I know that the idea has been floated and I mean, like, these are the same members that did it once with Kevin McCarthy and they could do it again with Mike Johnson. And I think the thing that we're seeing is that a lot of these House conservatives are growing really frustrated by Johnson's job performance so far and pretty much everything that he's done.

Johnson has made it clear that he's very indecisive. He can't make decisions given his newness to leadership, one, but also I think that he just doesn't know how to handle this very, very divided conference.

They've been upset about the way he's handled passing short-term government funding bills to avoid government shutdowns. How he's yanked bills off the House floor prior to expected votes, like what just happened last week with the FISA bill.

So there's a lot of frustration right now and I think that House conservatives are very much seeing Johnson as less of the ally that they thought he was going to be.

HUNT: Yeah. Governing is hard. Episode 735.

Mica, can we talk about the possibility of a discharge petition here? Because one of the kind of lines of reporting that came out of Munich over the weekend is that suddenly, all of these international leaders are very up on lingo that previously I would have hesitated to even use on TV because it can be so hard to understand. But this idea that Congress could get together -- Republicans, Democrats -- to force a vote on Ukraine aid. Possible? Not possible? SOELLNER: You know, I think that -- I guess I won't rule anything out. Anything's possible. I know that there's now a bipartisan solution coming out of the House. But right now, I would say that it's really, really challenging with the state that the House is in right now. I think that there's a growing faction of the House Republicans that are against Ukraine and against giving more aid in general on foreign policy.

And I am going to add that these members are not only just against providing aid to U.S. allies, but they're against the U.S. even being in these global organizations like NATO. And this all really started -- I think it's been brewing for a long time, but I think it really became public with the rise of Trump and how a lot of these members have really followed this kind of America First policy or a movement, I should say, when it comes to how the U.S. should lead on the foreign stage.

HUNT: All right, Mica Soellner of Punchbowl News. Mica, thanks very much.

All right. Coming up next, a panel of presidential experts have ranked U.S. presidents from best to worst. Where they say Biden and Trump stand. That's next.

Plus, ironic don't you think? Former congressman and accused fraudster George Santos now suing Jimmy Kimmel for fraud.



HUNT: All right, welcome back.

In honor of President's Day this week, a panel of presidential experts from the American Political Science Association -- they ranked the best-ever occupants of the Oval Office, as well as the worst.

The survey rated Donald Trump as the worst commander in chief as well as the most polarizing. Biden was ranked 14th from the top which is, of course, significantly better than the average. The Biden campaign quickly tried to capitalize on that ranking in their latest campaign email.

Let's bring in CNN national politics reporter Daniel Strauss. Daniel, good morning to you.


HUNT: I have to say I get why the Biden campaign sent this email. I also think it's rankings like this that tend to animate Donald Trump supporters as well.

What do you make of it?

STRAUSS: I mean, the real interesting thing is that the Biden campaign blasted this out pretty quickly after it came out. It's a pretty academic study or list. A

And the fact that they wanted to highlight that shows two things.

Number one, President Biden, like a lot of presidents, is very invested in his legacy. He's met with historians to discuss the presidency multiple times.

And then second, that they are trying to fix a gap between what Americans associated as Biden and his accomplishments from the Investment Reduction Act to lowering prescription drug prices. And that's one of the key hurdles that this campaign faces going into November 2024. November is almost already here, right? Like --

HUNT: It does --

STRAUSS: -- this is 2024 now.

HUNT: Election years are getting shorter and shorter I have to say --


HUNT: -- which is part of why Democrats have been so agitated, I would say, about the state of the Biden campaign and kind of where things are going.

There is one major date looming on the calendar also, Daniel, and that is March 7, which is the date that Joe Biden is planning to deliver -- President Biden is going to deliver the State of the Union address. And they are looking at that as a potential reset moment -- the campaign is.

What is your sense of -- I mean, every high-profile moment like this, especially considering kind of the narratives around Biden's age and how upset the White House has been about coverage in the wake of the Hur report -- it's like every one of these moments, he's got to perform at a certain level or he's potentially adding to those concerns that they have.

How do your sources talk about the lead-up to this big moment for him?

STRAUSS: Yeah. I mean, it's more than -- it's a big moment for any president but this is an especially big moment for this president because so much of the narrative that they want to reverse has to do with things that can be addressed with a -- with a public showing and, sort of, a convincing argument about what he's associated with in his presidency.


The Hur report did not help because it underscored the critique that the president is too old and, although well-meaning, just unfit for the job. And so, the State of the Union is a good opportunity for the Biden White House to push back on that and to show him as vital, and pugnacious, and really push back on the narratives that he is not closely connected with all of the accomplishments of this administration. HUNT: Daniel, the other thing Axios is reporting around, kind of, the

State of the Union is this potential for an executive action around the border, which I also think underscores the degree to which they view this as a driving, central political issue. They're going to try to stop the flow. It's unclear at this point, like, how they would go about doing that.

They are trying to -- Democrats can say hey, we made this compromise with Republicans. It's Republicans who prevented it from moving forward. They're the ones who are preventing us from fixing the problem at the border.

My question is whether voters are going to buy that after the way, kind of, Trump has made immigration such a Republican issue. But I also think the fact that they're focused on this ahead of the State of the Union really underscores the nature of the problem.

STRAUSS: Yeah, yeah. I mean, look, it shows that this is not just the Republican boogeymen effect here of just trying to gin up the Republican base. That this is stretching across the American political spectrum to voters that are going to vote in the general election only, and swing voters, and Democratic voters.

We've seen over the last few months mayors of Democratic-leaning cities really complain and argue that immigration and the flow of illegal immigration has gotten out of control. And the fact that the Biden administration -- again, leading up to the State of the Union, it wants to issue an executive action here I think underscores how serious they are trying to take the problem.

HUNT: All right, CNN's Daniel Strauss for us this morning. Daniel, thanks very much.

STRAUSS: Thanks.

HUNT: All right. Up next, NASCAR season kicking off with a serious bang. How the last lap of the Daytona 500 -- oh gosh -- ended in an 18-car pileup. That's ahead.


NASCAR ANNOUNCER: Keselowski -- he gets turned by William Byron. Blaney gets caught up, Gilliland, Truex.




HUNT: Welcome back.

Irony alert. Disgraced former congressman and accused fraudster George Santos is suing Jimmy Kimmel for fraud. Santos claims the late-night host tricked him into recording ridiculous Cameos, which Kimmel then turned around and mocked for a national audience. Cameos like, oh, say, this one.


JIMMY KIMMEL, HOST, "JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE!": Can you please congratulate my legally blind niece Julia on passing her driving test?

OK, will George Santos say it?


GEORGE SANTOS, CAMEO: Hey, Julia. Congratulations on getting your driving test. You proved that even the legally blind can do it.


HUNT: The lawsuit claims that Kimmel's show used fake profiles to solicit and pay for the videos.

CNN has reached out to Kimmel, ABC, and Disney for comment.

All right, time now for sports. The rain-delayed Daytona 500 brought plenty of high-octane drama last night.

Carolyn Manno has this morning's Bleacher Report. Carolyn, good morning.


The Daytona 500 is referred to as the Great American Race. Everybody knows it. This year's edition well worth a one-day postponement the fans had to wait for. The tension was very high.

Just eight laps remaining. Alex Bowman making contact with teammate William Byron from behind. That triggered a massive 23-car crash that brought out the red flag. This is what the race is known for. Racing was stopped for more than 15 minutes.

And when the action did resume it was Byron and Ross Chastain going bumper-to-bumper for the lead. Byron was out front. Another crash broke out behind him just as he had crossed under the white flag marking the final lap of the race. The 26-year-old went on to take the checkered flag under caution for his first-ever Daytona 500 win.


WILLIAM BYRON, 2024 DAYTONA 500 WINNER: I'm just a kid from racing on computers and winning the Daytona 500. I can't believe it. I wish my dad was here -- he's sick -- but this is for him. And we've been through so much and we sat up in the grandstands together and watched the race. This is so fricking cool.


MANNO: A really nice moment there.

Geno Auriemma adding to the history books Monday night with a 20-point win over Creighton, and that gives the UConn women's basketball coach 1,203 wins in his career, moving him past Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski for the second-most wins by a head coach in men's or women's division one basketball in history.

In Auriemma's 39 seasons with the Huskies, he has won 11 national titles and reached the Final Four 22 times. Only Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer has won more games in her career. She has one 1,209 and counting.

And a really ugly scene after last night's game between Texas A&M- Commerce and Incarnate Word. Punches thrown and a wild brawl breaking out in the handshake line. It's still unclear right now what sparked this fight but it did take several minutes for the order to be restored after this.

Both teams later issuing a joint statement apologizing for the behavior. But really rough stuff.

And Minnesota Wild fans who left last night's game against the Vancouver Canucks, Kasie, missed a comeback for the ages. After being down by three goals in the second period, the Wild stormed back seven goals in the third, six unanswered goals in the span of less than six minutes.


Joel Eriksson Ek broke (INAUDIBLE). Each had hat tricks in the 10-7 win. Canucks forward J.T. Miller also scoring three goals for a hat trick of his own. So this was the first time that three hat tricks were scored in a single game since the L.A. Kings did it all the way back in 1992.

If you were one of those fans that thought it was over, Kasie -- you grabbed your keys and you started headed towards the parking lot, you missed it. And I'm sure the coaches were a little bit frustrated as well. Crazy, crazy, crazy third period.

HUNT: Yeah -- no, for real. And I guess -- I'm glad I'm not alone in thinking that is a wild score of a hockey game.

MANNO: Completely wild.

HUNT: I was, like, what sport are we watching here?

All right, Carolyn. Thank you very much.

MANNO: Sure.

HUNT: And that's to all of you for joining us this morning. I'm Kasie Hunt. Don't go anywhere. "CNN THIS MORNING" starts right now.