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Biden: U.S. To Sanction Putin Directly For Opposition Leader's Death; Tomorrow: Trump And Haley Compete In South Carolina GOP Primary; Republicans Struggle To Respond To Alabama IVF Ruling. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired February 23, 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.

Later today, the Biden administration will announce a major new round of sanctions against Russia in response to two years of war in Ukraine and, especially, to the sudden death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. A spokesperson for Navalny says an autopsy claims his death at a prison camp in Siberia was from natural causes.

U.S. officials say that the new sanctions are aimed at more than 500 people and entities. President Biden telling reporters among the targets is Russian President Vladimir Putin himself.

The president met yesterday with Navalny's wife and daughter in California. This is what he had to say right after that meeting.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: As to state the obvious, he was a man of incredible courage. And it's amazing how his wife and daughter are emulating that. And we're going to be announcing the sanctions against Putin who was responsible for his death.


HUNT: All right, let's bring in CNN political and national security analyst David Sanger -- also, the White House and national security correspondent for The New York Times. David, good morning to you.

Sanctions, so far, have not seemed to impact the continuation of the war in Ukraine. Is there going to be anything different here? And what do you make of the targeting of Vladimir Putin himself?

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST, WHITE HOUSE AND NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES (via Webex by Cisco): Well, it's not the first time Kasie that they have tried to target Putin. He's been pretty good at hiding his assets and making sure that they are spread around the world and hidden in the hands of some of his oligarch friends. So part of this is how well they track that.

But as you point out, the sanctions have not been very effective. Two years ago -- and the anniversary of the invasion will be tomorrow. Two years ago, the IMF predicted that the Russian economy would shrink considerably under sanctions. It has expanded. Well, actually, it's actually grown a little more than Germany, where I am right now. The Russians have found ways to sell their oil (audio gap).

So I really look for two things, Kasie. It's not really about Putin, which is satisfying but maybe not very effective. It's does the United States and Germany -- do they drop their objections to seizing $300 billion in Russian assets sort of spread around the West and turn those over to Ukraine? And can they find ways to do secondary sanctions on the countries that are buying oil? China, Argentina, some in Europe. And, so far, they have not been willing to go do that.

HUNT: Yeah.

David, what's your assessment of how Navalny affected this package of sanctions? Did they actually turn it up more aggressively in the wake of that? And we're learning that there is this -- they've put out this autopsy saying he died of natural causes. His mother says that they're trying to control the nature and the -- how his funeral plays out, essentially.

What do you take away from all of that?

SANGER: So, to your first question, I don't know what sanctions they were planning on the second anniversary before Navalny died, but now that Navalny has died I'm sure that probably amped it up some.

What you're seeing happen with his -- the games the Russians are playing over releasing his body I think are two-fold. Their first concern is they don't want a real autopsy done on him because it could easily get in the way of their story.

But the second thing is they don't want a funeral that becomes a center point for opposition to rally around, much as people came by the thousands when Gorbachev died -- the last symbol of reform -- a year ago.

Remember, there is an election in Russia next month. There's no doubt how it's going to turn out. But Putin does not want to give the opposition any reason to have large gatherings that he'd have to crack down on. And I think that's what you're seeing happen in the battle over who controls the body.

HUNT: David, our reporting has been -- you know, if you talk to our CNN colleagues -- and you're also, of course, in Europe -- they're seeing or saying, I suppose, that there isn't really -- you know, Russia is kind of -- Vladimir Putin shrugging off the response -- the negative response in the wake of Navalny's death.

Is that how you view this? I mean, are they -- I mean, if they're this concerned about these gatherings -- I mean, it says that they understand the challenges here. But briefly, do you agree with that? [05:35:09]

SANGER: So, I'm not sure he's shrugging it off. But one of the assessments that both European and American intelligence had prior to his death was that the big crackdowns from Putin would come after the elections -- maybe including a new draft and certainly, crackdowns on opposition. What we're seeing now is it's happening beforehand.

And I think it was Navalny's ability to mock -- to still communicate even when he was in prison, even when he was in the Arctic. To use new trial appearances to make the entire thing look like a kangaroo court. You can just see it in the expressions that he offered. And I think that become too much for them. He was a master of making himself the symbol of a larger movement.

HUNT: Yeah.

SANGER: And I think the big mystery is has Putin squelched that or does this happen even after his death?

HUNT: Really, really interesting.

David Sanger, thank you very much. I always really appreciate your perspective.

SANGER: Great to be with you, Kasie.

HUNT: All right. Up next here, Nikki Haley and Donald Trump are going to compete tomorrow in South Carolina's Republican presidential primary. The two candidates will barnstorm the state today as they make their final pitches to voters. And while polls point to a big win for Donald Trump, Haley is remaining defiant, promising voters that she will stay in the race even if she loses her home state.

Let's bring in someone who is on South Carolina on the campaign trail right now, Semafor reporter Shelby Talcott. Shelby, good morning to you. It's always good to see you.

Let me just start with what you're hearing from the trail on the ground. Obviously, Haley's been really trailing in the polls. Can you pick that up as you go to events across the state?

SHELBY TALCOTT, REPORTER, SEMAFOR (via Webex by Cisco): Yeah, I certainly can. And even when I've talked to staunch Haley supporters -- and there are a number of, sort of, diehard Nikki Haley supporters, especially here in South Carolina -- there is still sort of a feeling even with some of them that they are not really sure -- they're not super confident that she can actually win. But they really like her and so they plan to go out and vote for her on Saturday. And so that's sort of the overwhelming vibe that I get from a lot of these people.

When I ask what her path is they seem a little bit unclear. They say, well, if she does really well here in South Carolina, then there's a whole group of quiet voters, as we talked about last week, that will come out and vote for her in other states. We'll see if that actually happens. HUNT: Yeah, really interesting.

So, of course, the frontrunner is Donald Trump. Sort of, what's playing out with his MAGA movement is happening simultaneously as voters are heading to the polls in this primary.

I want to show you a couple of things. Donald Trump spoke at a Christian convention in Nashville. I want to show you what he had to say and then we're going to take a tour over here, back to Washington, to CPAC. But first, watch what Trump said.


DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: How any Christian can vote for a Democrat -- Christian or person of faith -- person of faith -- how you can vote for a Democrat is crazy.


HUNT: So, again, this was a Christian convention. That coming from Donald Trump, who is not known as a particularly religious man before he became President of the United States.

But then, also playing out, members of his movement here in the Washington, D.C. area for the Conservative Political Action Conference known as CPAC.

And Jack Posobiec, who is a far-right conspiracy theorist essentially talked in a side panel at CPAC about what's next for the movement. And I'm just going to -- it stands by itself. Just watch it.


JACK POSOBIEC, ALT-RIGHT CONSPIRACY THEORIST: Welcome to the end of democracy. We are here to overthrow it completely. We didn't get all the way on January 6 but we will -- we will endeavor to get rid of it and replace it with this right here (holding his fist in the air). We'll replace it with his right here.



HUNT: And that amen coming in the background from Steve Bannon -- obviously, a figure in the first Trump administration.

But he said it very baldly -- "Welcome to the end of democracy. We are here to overthrow it completely."

What do you make of the fact that they are just willing to say that out loud now?

TALCOTT: Well, part of me wonders is this -- I guess -- I haven't seen the floor comments because I'm out here in South Carolina. So you have to wonder, right, is this -- is this a joke? Is this a serious comment? But, of course, it stands out because of what happened with January 6.

And the fact that this has been really Joe Biden's main argument when it comes to Donald Trump is the, sort of, argument that there is a threat to democracy. And you have to assume that sort of a clip is going to be pulled out and used going forward to benefit the Biden campaign.


HUNT: Yeah. I mean, I just -- having covered a number of these CPAC conventions over the course of the last decade, to go from Ronald Reagan sitting on a hill, tear down this wall, and him being the hero of this conference to that, where -- joke or not -- like, to have somebody joking about the end of democracy in the United States, instead -- like --

TALCOTT: Absolutely.

HUNT: -- is just -- it's mind-blowing.

All right, Semafor's Shelby Talcott. Shelby, thank you very much for being with us this morning.

All right. Coming up next, some Democrats are a bit apprehensive about being seen with President Biden. What they say it's going to take for them to campaign with him. We'll have that new CNN reporting coming up next.

Plus, that controversial IVF ruling in Alabama is becoming much more than just a political headache for Republicans. How they are trying to respond ahead.



HUNT: Welcome back.

There's new CNN reporting this morning looking at how Democrats in tight races will or won't campaign with President Biden. There are conditions, apparently. Biden currently has a 40 percent job approval rating and dozens of Democratic candidates and campaign strategists say that they'll be seen with him as long as he's bringing money and tangible results to their districts.

CNN's Isaac Dovere joins us now. Isaac, good morning.

EDWARD-ISAAC DOVERE, CNN SENIOR REPORTER (via Webex by Cisco): Good morning.

HUNT: It's always good to see you.

What is your latest reporting? I mean, look, this is an issue every time there is a president who is struggling with popularity. I covered it when Democrats were distancing themselves from Obama in 2014.


HUNT: I mean, it's nothing new under the sun but it is a major challenge for them. What do you know?

DOVERE: It is. And what struck me this time in talking to all of these candidates in campaigns that are looking -- whether they're House candidates or Senate, or even one of the gubernatorial candidates is here -- is that they're willing to be with Biden, which is sort of a shift here.

They're willing to be with him though on this condition that you said. They want it -- they want him to be showing up and saying here is a bridge that we're building. Here is a project that's underway because of the Infrastructure Act, because of the CHIPS Act. All these investments that have been going on. They feel like that's good news for them.

They don't really want to be at campaign rallies with him. That remains true. But they're also saying that unlike past years where there would be a situation and they would try to say oh, I'm not really connected to the presidential candidate, they say look, we know now. This is where things are -- tribalization, polarization. I'm a Democrat. I'm connected to Joe Biden if I'm one of these candidates.

And that's how they're looking ahead at this year thinking about the decision that they're going to make.

And by the way, the Biden campaign seems pretty much fine with this. It is the kind of campaigning that Joe Biden has been doing essentially, so far.

HUNT: Yeah -- no, it makes sense. It's also smart, you know? If you're a congressional candidate -- Nancy Pelosi was the queen of this. If it was going to help them win, she was happy to steer clear.

CNN's Isaac Dovere.


HUNT: Isaac, thanks very much for being with us.

DOVERE: Thank you.

HUNT: All right, now this. A third fertility clinic in Alabama is pausing IVF treatments following the state's Supreme Court ruling that embryos are considered children.

And some Republicans are having a hard time threading the needle, to put it mildly -- Alabama's own senator, Tommy Tuberville, who said this yesterday.


SEN. TOMMY TUBERVILLE (R-AL): Yeah, I was all for it. We need to have more kids. We need to have an opportunity to do that. And I thought this was the right thing to do but -- REPORTER: IVF is used to have more children and right now, IVF services are paused at some of the clinics in Alabama. Aren't you concerned that this could impact people who are trying to have kids?

TUBERVILLE: Well, that's for -- that's for another conversation.


HUNT: Many questions about how he actually -- what he actually knew about the ruling.

Former Alabama senator Doug Jones, who is a Democrat, responded to what Tuberville had to say -- watch.


DOUG JONES, (D) FORMER ALABAMA SENATOR: He had no idea what that reporter was talking about. He may have thought it was intravenous or something with Gatorade. I don't know. But he clearly had no idea. And that's just who he is.


HUNT: Wow.

OK, let's bring in senior congressional reporter for Punchbowl News, Andrew Desiderio. Andrew, good morning to you.


HUNT: I do think we need to read Tuberville's statement in the wake of this. They said afterward, quote, "In no way was he supporting the reaction from various medical facilities to cancel IVF. He supports the U.S. Supreme Court's decision overturning Roe to return decision surrounding life back to the states."

I think we should also underscore that a lot of House Republicans from purple districts -- I mean, they are trying very hard to distance themselves from this ruling.

What was going on with Tommy Tuberville here -- Sen. Tuberville, former football coach, and now Sen. Tommy Tuberville?

DESIDERIO: Yeah. Look -- I mean, you saw him struggling in real time to sort of justify this and explain this. This has become a real problem for Republicans as the debate post-Roe has sort of widened to not just abortion care but access to contraception, access to medication, access to emergency care, miscarriage care -- things like that.

And now it's extending to IVF, which is obviously overwhelmingly popular and is not something that is political in any way, right? It's not something that is done on party lines.

And you're even seeing Republicans like, Matt Gaetz, for example, right? Matt Gaetz is as tied to the hip to Donald Trump as anyone. He came out and said he's interested in a legislative response to this to make sure that it's made clear that Republicans don't agree that IVF procedures should be completely shut down.

And so I think that's as good an indicator as any that this is a political problem for Republicans in the wake of the overturning of Roe V. Wade, and as we see Democrats really trying to use this issue to their advantage overall in the November elections, especially in some states where there are some really competitive Senate races where this issue could actually be the -- sort of, the decision point.


HUNT: Yeah, a significant one.

I mean, look, I think it's important that we underscore there is an element of the Christian right that thinks the process of IVF, where you create embryos that then are stored -- that that's morally wrong and they don't want to do it.

But you are -- I think we are in the right place on the political conversation, which is that the vast swath of -- you know, especially in Donald Trump's Republican Party where, yeah, he put those justices on the court but abortion not exactly the forefront issue for him. He understands how problematic this is and he said out loud -- Trump has -- like, we've got to win elections. They know how difficult this is going to be for them.

Andrew, I want to ask you -- there's new reporting from Punchbowl this morning about how Senate Democrats are trying to press to get Ukraine aid across the finish line. I know CNN is still trying to confirm what you're reporting but tell us what you know.

DESIDERIO: Yeah. So, Senator Majority Leader Chuck Schumer arrived in Ukraine this morning for a congressional delegation. He brought four Democratic senators with him. I sat down with Sen. Schumer on Wednesday evening right before he left for this trip.

Look, this is his first time to Ukraine and he is the highest-ranking congressional leader to visit Ukraine since then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi did it back in 2022.

This also coincides with the two-year anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and it comes at a very critical point not just for Ukraine and not just for the West, but for Congress, especially.

And Schumer is looking to use any avenue he can to sort of put pressure on the House of Representatives. Put pressure on Speaker Johnson and on those Republicans who might be on the fence over what to do over this issue.

Obviously, he's only -- he only brought Democrats with him on this trip. But Schumer told me he hopes that this can help persuade his House colleagues to do something impactful on this issue, whether it's the Senate bill or not. Obviously, the Senate bill included $60 billion of both military and economic aid for Ukraine. There's a separate discussion happening over whether this should be just focused on the lethal aid aspect of it, so that would reduce the number to about $45 billion.

The point is they want to get something done and they're pointing to what's happening in Ukraine as, sort of, like a consequence of Congress' inaction on this issue.

For example, we saw a number of battlefield losses for Ukraine over the last few weeks.

HUNT: Yeah.

DESIDERIO: A major city in the east recently fell.

Schumer is -- told me he wants to go and make the case directly to the Ukrainians that a) Americans have your back, and b) he wants to bring that message back to the United States and put pressure on the House of Representatives to take some sort of action here.

HUNT: Right.

All right, Andrew Desiderio of Punchbowl News. Andrew, thanks very much for bringing that to us. I appreciate it.

DESIDERIO: Thank you.

HUNT: All right, up next, Florida lawmakers passing a bill that prohibits kids under 16 from being on some social media platforms. How they plan to enforce that ahead.

And the body of 11-year-old Audrii Cunningham discovered in a Texas river. How the medical examiner says she died. That's coming up on "CNN THIS MORNING."



HUNT: Caitlin Clark and Iowa struggling on the road in a loss at Indiana last night.

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

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

You know, we all know it's not easy stopping Caitlin Clark --

HUNT: We sure do.

SCHOLES: -- but Indiana certainly had a plan. And a sold-out crowd of more than 17,000 at Assembly Hall -- they were eager for an upset.

Now, Clark was coming off a career-high 49 against Michigan in the game. She became the NCAA women's all-time leading scorer but she struggled in this one. Clark making just eight of her 26 shots. She scored just 24, which was her lowest output since December 2. And the 14th-ranked Indiana would pull off the upset, beating fourth- ranked Iowa 86-69.

Clark now 75 points away from passing Pete Maravich for the all-time NCAA scoring mark, men's or women's.

The Hawkeyes have got three regular-season games remaining before the Big Ten Tournament, and then the NCAA Tournament.

All right. If you were going to build the most perfect offensive center in basketball, I'm not sure you could do much better than Nikola Jokic. Last night, Jokic becoming the first player in more than 40 seasons to score more than 20 points, have 15 or more rebounds, and 15 assists while not missing a shot the entire night.

This was Jokic's 16th triple-double of the season and with it, he became the third player in NBA history to have a triple-double against every single team. LeBron James and Russell Westbrook are the only others to do it.

The Nuggets beat the Wizards in that one 130-110.

All right, Charlie Woods, meanwhile, had a day to forget in yesterday's PGA Tour pre-qualifier. Tiger's 15-year-old son shooting 16 over par in his first-ever attempt at making a PGA tournament field. Charlie didn't shoot under par on any of the holes, and the worst of them was on the seventh where he recorded a 12 on the par 4. He was better on the back nine, though. He recorded six pars. He finished with an 86.

All right, spring training now off and running. The Padres and Dodgers opening things up yesterday in Arizona. A nice start for L.A. The Dodgers scored eight runs in the top of the first against the Padres. San Diego's starting pitcher Joe Musgrove -- he was taken out of the game before he could even record an out. Shohei Ohtani -- he did not make his Dodgers debut in this one. We'll have to wait for that.

The Dodgers won 14-1.

But, you know, the talk is pretty crazy right now over the anger over the uniform changes. So, Nike and Fanatics are making them now. The players and fans have not been very happy with the way the names and numbers look on the back, but another complaint is the pants are kind of see-through. Major League Baseball and Nike both say they're going to use player input to tweak the uniforms and make some changes before opening day.

But, Kasie, you don't want see-through pants out there.

HUNT: You sure don't. This is -- this is a family game, Andy.


HUNT: It's a family game.

[06:00:00] All right. Thank you very much, Andy.

SCHOLES: All right.

HUNT: Have a wonderful weekend.

SCHOLES: You, too.

HUNT: All right, before we go here, I have some exciting news to share. Beginning on Monday, my show will formally become "CNN THIS MORNING WITH KASIE HUNT." We're going to expand these hours from 5:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. Eastern on both CNN and CNN Max.

I want to say thank you to the small and incredibly scrappy and mighty team that has gotten this show on the air over the course of the last 12 years and for welcoming me to become a part of it.

I also want to say thank you to the incredible staff of "CNN THIS MORNING" in New York for all the work that they have put in helping us be on the air every day.

I'm also very grateful to all of you. I love starting my day with you and I hope that you'll stick around as we start this new adventure.

In the meantime, have a great weekend. Don't go anywhere. "CNN THIS MORNING" starts right now.