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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Indicted FBI Informant Told FBI He Got Dirt On Hunter Biden From Russian Intel Officials; Haley Pledges Not To Drop Out: "I'm Not Going Anywhere"; "Messi Mania" Returns Tonight With MLS Season Opener. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired February 21, 2024 - 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.

The indicted FBI informant who allegedly lied about the Bidens' ties to a Ukrainian power company now says he got his information from Russian intelligence officials. Prosecutors say that Alexander Smirnov has also been, quote, "activity peddling new lies that could impact U.S. elections" after meeting with Russian spies late last year.

These lies are -- some Republicans have long been using them to try to undermine President Biden and smear his son Hunter.


SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R-IA): The foreign national who allegedly bribed Joe and Hunter Biden allegedly has audio recordings.

REP. NANCY MACE (R-SC): We already know the president took bribes from Burisma.

KEVIN MCCARTHY, THEN-HOUSE SPEAKER (R-CA): Even a trusted FBI informant has alleged a bribe to the Biden family.


HUNT: OK, let's bring in criminal defense attorney and CNN legal analyst Joey Jackson to talk more about this. Joey, good morning. It's always wonderful to have you.

So, this is now kind of making its way into the discussion around Hunter Biden's plea deal because his lawyers are accusing the special counsel in that instance, David Weiss, of using these discredited bribery allegations to blow up that plea deal that he had last year.

Is there a recourse for Hunter Biden in this case? How do you understand what's played out here?

JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY (via Webex by Cisco): Yeah, Kasie. Good morning to you.

There certainly needs to be recourse. This is awful and certainly a black eye on the Justice Department yet again, and I think it goes to the notions of whether people trust the government and trust justice.

Looking back before we look forward, Kasie, what happens? You're entering into what's called a diversion agreement last July. What on earth does that mean? It means that you know what, the government has a case that we can build against you. In fact, we have two. We have the case predicated upon your tax filings that we believe to be misleading and fabricated. And we have a case predicated upon you owning guns when you shouldn't because apparently, you had a problem associated with an addiction.

But we're going to forgive all and we're going to enter into a program. You're going to get yourself better. All is going to be well and this will go away. That's the essence of the deal last July.

A question is asked by a judge -- fair question. Before you plead any client guilty Kasie, you want that to be comprehensive. You want any plea to cover everything and anything that your client may face with respect a governmental prosecution.

What happens? The judge asks does this cover anything related to foreign -- the Foreign Affairs Registration Act? No. What? It doesn't cover that? So there's a dispute between prosecutors regarding FARA, right, and there's a dispute of whether they -- Mr. Biden -- the younger -- can be prosecuted.

His lawyers -- Biden's -- are thinking this plea agreement covers everything, right? The prosecutor is saying no, it doesn't. Now we're learning that the reason that they weren't committing to it -- they, being prosecutors -- is because they were relying on information that was flawed, faulty, misleading, and completely a lie.

And then you add to that, Kasie, the fact that you have House Republicans opening up an impeachment inquiry based upon information which is fabricated. What? What world are we living in?

And so, I think the recourse is the filing of these motions to get at what precipitated this diversion agreement being blown up. Why was it blown up? Let's come clean. And if he should have gotten diversion he should still get diversion and the immunity agreement should still be operative.

So that's what we're all facing. A lot to unpack. But it's just horrible in this day and age that you can have misinformation ruin someone's life. It just should not happen and I think that's why Biden's lawyers -- the younger -- are looking for recourse.

HUNT: Yeah. I mean, Joey -- and this is kind of a political question, but the way that this kind of fits into everything that we've experienced in our politics over the last four-six years where Republicans -- you hear from Donald Trump the phrase "Russia hoax" all the time. This is going to get swept up in that as well. But, I mean, I just kind of want to underscore these recent

revelations, right? I mean, they say now -- these prosecutors are alleging that this guy has had recent contacts with Russian intelligence officials and that there is additional information -- probably things we don't know. And we know that this is what he said about Hunter Biden. But things that could actually affect this 2024 election.


Based on what you understand about how these cases can play out are we going to learn what that is at some point? Isn't it potentially in the national interest for us to know?

JACKSON: Yeah. You know, Kasie, great question -- and political or not, I mean, it's hard to separate the two, and that's the problem. The two meaning the legal questions from the political.

Because I think so many people are thinking look, what is the Justice Department doing? It is predicated upon law or is it predicated upon politics? Where does the information come from? Is it reliable? Doesn't the public have a right to know? What specifically were you relying upon and when?

Did he have information and intel from Russian contacts? Did he not? Is this fabricated as well?

So many questions to answer, right, with respect to your question to me, but those are the realities. And I think there is a public interest in knowing what information is being relied upon in the prosecution. And if it's up to Hunter Biden's team -- yes, Kasie, we will know specifically and exactly what these reliances are upon, who these foreign officials were, and what influence they had over him. Is this just another thing that is made up?

It's just scary. The government has a lot of power and they can ruin people's lives. And if you're going to pursue claims against people they should be credible. They should be based on information that is vetted and investigated before -- you have people -- in the clip, you showed, Kasie, the speaker, right, of the House of Representatives just talking about bribes that are not true. It's just insane.

But I think, hopefully, we'll get to the bottom of that information. This just cannot happen in a civilized society.

HUNT: Yeah, and it's -- I mean, it is the challenge of our time separating mis and disinformation from the truth in an era when it's just becoming more and more confused.

Joey Jackson -- Joey, thank you very much for being with us.

JACKSON: Of course.

HUNT: Smirnov's arrest, meanwhile, is raising new questions, as we've just been discussing, about the way Russian disinformation could influence our politics. Democratic Congressman Jamie Raskin is now saying his GOP colleagues

have been duped by Russia -- we saw a few clips of those -- and they've made, he says, discredited bribery allegations against the president and his son. Now, this is, of course, key to the impeachment probe.

Here's Raskin.


REP. JAMIE RASKIN (D-MD): It's very clear that they have all been duped to a Russian disinformation propaganda effort that, of course, continues to this day. And my Republican colleagues say oh, this is just more about the Russia hoax. Really, what's the hoax? Is it the invasion of Ukraine? Is it the death of Alexey Navalny?


HUNT: All right, let's bring in CNN political national security analyst David Sanger. He's also the White House national security correspondent for The New York Times. David, I'm very grateful for your time.

I do feel like I'm in a time warp the way we're suddenly talking about Russia and hoaxes and -- I mean, I feel like we've seen it before but this is an incredible situation.

What is your, kind of, reaction and understanding around this guy, Smirnov, and the relationship he had with Russian intelligence, and how that could -- you know, they're saying again that they're trying to put more -- they're trying to tell more lies -- this is according to the prosecutors -- in terms of our 2024 election.

I mean, what is next? And, like, help us understand this.

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST, WHITE HOUSE AND NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES (via Webex by Cisco): Well, it's really hard to understand. And when you go through that complaint that the Justice Department filed, they describe Smirnov as a serial liar about everything -- his past life, his employment, and so forth.

So separating out what's true about Russian intelligence and what isn't is going to be extraordinarily difficult. Clearly, the Justice Department seems to give some credence to this view that the story was launched by Russian intelligence, but this has been a hard thing to do on all sides.

We've seen on the reverse side of this there was very little credence to the Steele report that came out during the first campaign or the last campaign events. And so, it's pretty easy to fake information and it takes a long time to catch up with the truth.

Here's what we do know, Kasie.

HUNT: Yeah. [05:40:00]

SANGER: We do know that in the upcoming election, both Russia and China have a significant interest in interfering with considerable disinformation because they each have their issues about President Biden and they each have their reasons to want to promote President Trump, although there is some debate about where the Chinese would stand on that.

And we do know that there's lots of other activity underway that has less to do with the election but will affect it, including the Navalny killing, the Russians launching -- potentially launching nuclear satellites, and so forth.

HUNT: So, David, I'm glad you mentioned Navalny because there was a little bit of news overnight. President Biden speaking at a fundraiser. He talked about Navalny and Trump's response. This was in California.

I just want to read his remarks to you. They were not on camera.

He said, quote, "When Navalny died last week, when the world holds Putin responsible, Trump fails to even condemn him. It's outrageous. The bottom line is Republicans have to decide who do they serve, Donald Trump or the American people."

He also made a joke about his age, which we don't hear him do that often. He said, "By the way, I know I'm only 40 years old, times two. But, you know, the only thing I do know is that I may not run as I used to -- but I tell you what, I have been around long enough to know what's going on." So he's obviously taking on his biggest vulnerability there.


HUNT: But really hitting Donald Trump and focusing on how he talks about Navalny and the Russians. I mean, when you hear Donald Trump fail to condemn Navalny's death and then also compare himself to Navalny in terms of political persecution, what is the national security reporter in you hear in terms of him potentially becoming President of the United States again?

SANGER: Well, it was stunning but it wasn't surprising, right? We've almost never heard President Trump condemn a human rights violation if he thought that it might hurt some other interest he had.

You may remember that when he was president he told Xi Jinping, the leader of China -- the president of China -- that he wouldn't say a whole lot about their takeovers of Hong Kong, right, and that the suppression of dissent there if it meant that they could go get their trade deal.

And here, it's somewhat stunning to hear any candidate not condemn Russia and Putin directly for the death of Navalny -- death under the most highly suspicious of circumstances even if we don't know precisely what caused it yet. And it's hard to imagine if you move back in history any candidate --

but any Republican candidate, in particular, who wouldn't step up and declare that this is a huge violation. Think of where the Republicans were in the days of the old Soviet dissidents -- Solzhenitsyn, others. It's a stunning turn.

HUNT: It absolutely is.

All right, David Sanger. David, thanks very much for being with us. I always really appreciate your time.

SANGER: Great to be with you, Kasie.

HUNT: Thanks.

All right. Up next, Nikki Haley showing her softer side. We'll show you the moment that she teared up because she misses her husband who is deployed. That's next.


NIKKI HALEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I wish Michael was here today, and I wish our children and I could see him tonight.





HALEY: I'm not afraid to say the hard truths out loud. I feel no need to kiss the ring. I have no fear of Trump's retribution.


HUNT: Nikki Haley defiant and not backing down in that highly anticipated speech that had some speculating whether she might announce the end of her campaign.


HALEY: I'm not going anywhere. I'm campaigning every day until the last person votes.


HUNT: Haley does face poor polling, of course, ahead of the Saturday primary in her home state of South Carolina.

Here's her opponent, Donald Trump.


LAURA INGRAHAM, FOX NEWS HOST, "THE INGRAHAM ANGLE": Why do you think she's staying in the race?

DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Um, I don't think she knows how to get out, actually. I really don't.


HUNT: Hmm.

Let's bring in Semafor reporter Shelby Talcott, who covered that speech yesterday. Shelby, good morning. Good to see you.

I have to say I kind of wondered why she chose now to give this speech. I mean, it seems like, sure, if she loses South Carolina on Saturday there's going to be questions about whether she's going to get out.

Does she feel a need to preempt them? I mean, what was the backstory?


Yeah. I think the big thing is that there's been so much speculation about what exactly Nikki Haley is doing, particularly after Iowa and New Hampshire where she did not win. And now we're seeing these polls in South Carolina where Trump remains dominant.

And so, I think she was trying to indicate that regardless of the results in South Carolina -- which if we look at all of the polls, as of now, it does seem like Donald Trump will win by a significant margin -- is that she has no plans to drop out immediately after her home state, and she is in this for the long run.

And so, I think it was not just for voters here in South Carolina but also voters in all of these future states that she, by all intents and purposes, means to continue on.

And it was also for the donors, right? After South Carolina, she's still going to need to raise money. And so, she's sort of letting everybody know that she is still going to be in this.


HUNT: Yeah, and it's -- for sure. And, you know, they're booking airtime in Michigan also -- which, of course, is up next after South Carolina.

Shelby, CNN's Randi Kaye did a focus group with some Republican women voters in South Carolina. I want to play you a very short, kind of, clip of this and get your take on it since you've been reporting on the ground -- watch.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE 1: But my vote is going to Nikki Haley based on my conscience.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE 2: I think there are a lot of closet Nikki Haley supporters as well.


HUNT: Closet Nikki Haley supporters.

I mean, how does this -- how is that dynamic playing into this -- that there are -- it's almost the reverse of 2016, right, where there were people that were going to support Trump that felt uncomfortable telling their neighbors. Now, if you're a Republican, the push to support Trump is so strong that people don't seem to want to say out loud that they are going to potentially support Nikki Haley.

Do you think this is a factor or a non-factor here?

TALCOTT: Well, I do think that there are a significant amount of people who really like Nikki Haley and want to be able to vote for her. And that's actually -- it's really interesting that you played that clip because that's an argument that I have heard from her campaign and from people who support her. And this was back before Iowa and New Hampshire. But it was that if she can compete in these early voting states, there's a whole swatch of quiet voters who will feel like they have permission to vote for her.

Now, at the same time, has she competed enough in these early voting states to give those swatch of voters permission to vote for her? We'll see here in South Carolina, I guess.

HUNT: We will, indeed.

One other thing I -- we -- that stood out to us about the speech is she spoke about her husband, Michael, who is deployed, and we don't often hear her talk about this in this way. I just want to show everyone what she had to say and how she said it -- watch.


HALEY: I wish Michael was here today. And I wish our children and I could see him tonight, but we can't. He's serving on the other side of the world where conflict is the norm. Where terrorists hide among the innocent. Where Iran's terrorist proxies are now attacking American troops.


HUNT: A pretty remarkable moment there. And just a reminder that Donald Trump has denigrated her husband's service.

TALCOTT: Yeah. We really haven't seen this kind of emotion from Nikki Haley at all here on the campaign trail besides yesterday. So that was one of the key takeaways I also had from her speech was this is something her and her family are dealing with. And it's sort of a way to connect her with a lot of these conservative voters to sort of remind that they're going through this as well, particularly when you see Donald Trump going after her for something like this.

HUNT: Yeah. All right, Semafor's Shelby Talcott. Shelby, thanks very much for being with us this morning.

Up next, Messi mania. How much is too much for tickets to see a soccer legend?



HUNT: Welcome back.

Creighton pulls off a feat that's never been done in school history. They knocked off the number-one team in college basketball.

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


UConn, the defending national champs went into last night's game against Creighton riding a 14-game winning streak, the first unanimous number-one this season in the AP poll. But that did not deter the 15th-ranked Creighton Bluejays. They came out on fire in this game. Steven Ashworth scoring 16 of his 20 in the first half.

Creighton went into the break with 43 points. Just for some context here, it was a very different story when they only scored 48 total against UConn the last time they met. Creighton went up by 23 with 10 minutes left. They saw the lead cut down to 10 before holding the Huskies scoreless on five straight possessions.

The Bluejays holding on in the final minutes to grab the dominant 19- point win. Students storming the court, of course, to celebrate the first win against a number-one ranked team in school history.


GREG MCDERMOTT, HEAD COACH, CREIGHTON: We played a really, really good game and we beat an incredible team. You know, a team that has a legitimate chance to win a national championship. But we're pretty good as well.


MANNO: It's almost March. Get ready for it.

To California now and the first match of the CONCACAF W Gold Cup where the U.S. women's national team looked dominant in a 5-nil win over the Dominican Republic.

Teenager Olivia Moultrie was in the right place at the right time on the opening score. She ended with a pair of goals in her first career start. The 18-year-old is the program's third-youngest player to net multiple goals in a match behind Cindy Parlow and Mia Hamm.

Alex Morgan also picked up her 122nd goal for the national team, converting a PK in stoppage time.

"Messi Mania" returns tonight with the start of the new MLS season. Messi beginning his first full season with Inter Miami when they host Real Salt Lake tonight.

Manager Tata Martino says the Argentinian superstar, who has been troubled by an adductor injury, is fit to play the full 90 minutes.

And the ticket prices for the home opener are going for about $185 per seat, according to TickPick, and that is 585 percent more expensive than last year's first home game without Messi. He is box-office good when he's healthy.

And forget about what the groundhog says. This is the first official sign that spring has arrived. Baseball players have all reported to spring training, including new Yankees slugger Juan Soto.

The Bronx Bombers acquired the 3-time All-Star in a blockbuster trade back in December. Expectations are high. Yankees fans hoping he's going to lead the team back into the playoffs after missing the postseason last year.

And teammate Aaron Judge was asked if there's a greater urgency to win with Soto in the mix.


AARON JUDGE, OUTFIELDER, NEW YORK YANKEES: When you play in New York it's every year, you know. The expectation is to win a championship. It doesn't matter who is here, who is not here, who is going to be here. It's just about putting in the work and doing what we can to put this team back on top.


MANNO: Grapefruit League games start tomorrow afternoon with the Dodgers taking on the Padres. New L.A. superstar, Kasie, Shohei Ohtani not expected to play.


I know your Baltimore Orioles also feel the pressure, the expectations. Another season is upon us.

HUNT: I've got to tell you -- I mean, I love baseball season. It's -- I'm -- spring training -- all of it. I have season tickets to the O's this year. I can't wait to get back to see Camden Yards, I have to say.

MANNO: We'll see what they can do. We'll see what they can do.

HUNT: They -- the -- it's a young team, right, which we've talked about. And they say that they're using what happened in the ALCS as inspiration. Fingers crossed. I've got a lot riding on it.

MANNO: They should come through. HUNT: Carolyn, thank you very much.

MANNO: You're welcome.

HUNT: All right. Thanks to all of you for joining us. Don't go anywhere. I'm Kasie Hunt. "CNN THIS MORNING" starts right now.