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Sen. Bob Menendez Facing New Charges; Sen. Mitch McConnell Endorses Trump; Nikki Haley Suspends Presidential Campaign. Aired 11- 11:30a ET

Aired March 06, 2024 - 11:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN HOST: Good morning. Welcome back to the CNN NEWS CENTRAL. I'm Jim Acosta alongside Wolf Blitzer.

And, Wolf, a lot of breaking news this morning.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We're following a lot of breaking news today.

Nikki Haley, as all of our viewers now know, has suspended her presidential campaign after Donald Trump's near-sweep on Super Tuesday. Haley did not endorse her now former 2024 rival last hour in her address to the nation, about a five-minute address to the nation.

Instead, she urged Trump to earn the support of her voters. The former president did pick up a major endorsement just a few minutes ago from the former -- soon-to-be former Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, despite the fact that the two men have not necessarily spoken in more than three years.

ACOSTA: That's right, Wolf.

And, today, there is no longer any doubt the GOP is Donald Trump's party, and Donald Trump is the GOP, his iron grip solidified, his dominance largely unquestioned. The majority of Republican voters in six Super Tuesday states say he is fit for the presidency, even if he is convicted of a crime.

It marks one of the most stunning comebacks in American politics.

CNN's Kylie Atwood is at Haley's campaign headquarters in Charleston, South Carolina.

Kylie, on this very busy morning, you were there for her speech a short time ago. What can you tell us? What stood out to you?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, listen, Nikki Haley said she has no regrets. She said she is filled with gratitude. She also said that, even though she is suspending her presidential campaign today after running for president for more than a year, she's going to continue to use her voice for the issues that she cares about. And when it comes to former President Trump, the person that she has

been challenging, really sharpening her attacks on him over the course of the last few months, she congratulated him. But she also said that he is going to have to work to earn the support of the folks that have supported her throughout the course of this primary. Listen to what she said on that.


NIKKI HALEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It is now up to Donald Trump to earn the votes of those in our party and beyond it who did not support him. And I hope he does that.


ATWOOD: Now, Nikki Haley playing her leverage here, because she knows that there is a faction of the party that voted for her, a significant amount of voters in some of these states.

Even though she was only able to win two states, Vermont and D.C., as part of this Republican primary process, there was a faction of the party that was with her and she believes they are still with her. But she did also have a forgiving tone when it came to Trump here. The race between the two of them has become quite personal over the course of the last few months and weeks here.

But she said that she does hope that he is able to win over the support of those who have voted for her. We will have to watch and see how that conversation plays out -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Kylie, stand by. We're going to get back to you.

I want to go to Capitol Hill right now, where the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, has just announced he's endorsing Trump for president.

Our chief congressional correspondent, Manu Raju, is with us.

Manu, did this come as a surprise, given, shall we say politely, their complicated relationship?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, McConnell has indicated for some time that he would endorse the eventual nominee, but he has barely uttered Donald Trump's name in the aftermath of January 6.

In fact, he pointedly blamed Donald Trump in that scathing floor speech in the aftermath of January 6, calling him morally and practically responsible for the events of that day and then would not endorse him as the candidate, said he would wait to see what would happen in this race.

But, ultimately, putting out a statement, he has said that he is the nominee and obviously he's going to support him. In his statement, he goes on and talks about some of the legislative achievements from Donald Trump's time in office, confirming three Supreme Court nominees and said that he's ready to get behind Trump.

Now, this is not just McConnell. This is the Republican establishment falling in line behind him, despite their past concerns about Trump, things that he has said, and his viability as a candidate, particularly when it comes to suburban voters, who will be critical in November.


I just caught up with the number two Senate Republican who wants to succeed Mitch McConnell as Republican leader, and I asked him about his past concerns about Donald Trump.


RAJU: Are you still concerned about Trump's viability in the suburbs and the impact down-ticket as your candidate?

SEN. JOHN THUNE (R-SD): I think we got to -- we're going to have a united ticket going into the fall, and we will go out and all help aggressively win those people in suburban areas, independent voters.

It's now a -- it's a straight up one-on-one. And...

RAJU: But you have been concerned about his message, his ability to communicate with suburban voters in particular. You have repeatedly voiced that concern. Do you still have that concern?

THUNE: Well, I think that he will and our ticket will, and all of us are going to be working together, obviously, not only on the presidential race, but on Senate races around the country, will work to unify people behind the things that we're going to be offering in terms of solutions for the future of this country.

And I think that that will appeal to the middle of the electorate, to independents, to suburban voters.


RAJU: Now, Thune ultimately did endorse Donald Trump, even though he had reservations about him, even though he himself had a bit of a rocky relationship here.

But, Wolf, you're seeing the party fall in line. Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, in particular, have had a very frosty relationship. Trump has been attacking McConnell for some time, pretty regularly on the campaign trail and on social media, attacking his wife, Elaine Chao, and the like, but Mitch McConnell falling in line, saying it's time for the party to unite, and now that Trump is the nominee, he will get behind him -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We will see how all that unfolds up on Capitol Hill. Manu Raju, thanks very, very much.


And CNN's Kristen Holmes is live for us in West Palm Beach, Florida, right down near Mar-a-Lago.

Kristen, what is the Trump campaign's plan to pivot to the general election? And is it in sync with the candidates' comments this morning?

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Donald Trump's campaign had already pivoted to the general election. They were talking about how the next couple weeks are really going to look like expanding their ground game, how they were going to build out in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona, those battleground key states, Pennsylvania being one of them as well.

But I do want to note one thing that happened, because you heard Manu there talking about these lawmakers, the Republican Party really falling in line between -- behind the former president. We also heard from the Republican National Committee.

They issued a statement saying, essentially, congratulations to Donald Trump. But the real key part of this is that they acknowledge him as the presumptive Republican nominee for president. The reason why that is so key is because, once someone is the presumptive nominee, the RNC no longer is a neutral with a candidate, and they get all the resources, meaning Donald Trump gets all the resources that the RNC has.

That means access to funds, fund-raising, donor lists, infrastructure in various states. Donald Trump's campaign needs this. As we have reported time and time again, they have kept a very lean staff, a very small staff, and they need more money.

They were waiting for this moment to become the presumptive nominee. It's also part of why they were so annoyed that Nikki Haley stayed in the race, because they wanted access to all of these resources. The other thing to note, it's really the Republican Party becoming the party of Donald Trump.

I know we have said this for years, but it couldn't be more clear in what is happening right now. Keep in mind, the chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel, has said that she's going to step down after Donald Trump becomes the presumptive nominee. That is because Donald Trump had grown frustrated with McDaniel.

Now he has nominated the head of the North Carolina Republican Party, Michael Whatley, who focuses on elections, to be the chairman. He also nominated his daughter-in-law, Laura Trump, to be the co-chair. On top of that, his campaign manager, co-campaign manager, Chris LaCivita, is expected to go into the role of chief operating officer.

I'm also told that various other campaign staffers have been approached about various positions within the RNC. You are seeing a full alignment of the Republican Party and Donald Trump really coming together right now even faster than you have ever seen before.

ACOSTA: All right, Kristen Holmes, thank you very much. Really appreciate that update. BLITZER: It's interesting. The Biden campaign at the same time is

also weighing in on Nikki Haley's exit from this presidential race and making a direct appeal to her supporters in the process.

Let's go to our White House correspondent, Arlette Saenz.

Arlette, what exactly is President Biden suggesting right now?

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf President Biden wasted no time in trying to reach out to Nikki Haley's supporters, saying that there's a place for them in his campaign.

It comes as Biden campaign officials really believe that this race has now crystallized after Super Tuesday between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. And one of the main challenges and tasks ahead for them is trying to pull in more moderate voters and potentially Haley supporters who are turned off by Donald Trump into the Biden fold.


Now, in a statement released moments ago, the president praised Nikki Haley for her role in this campaign, saying specifically -- quote -- "It takes a lot of courage to run for president. That's especially true in today's Republican Party, where so few dare to speak the truth about Donald Trump. Nikki Haley was willing to speak the truth about Trump, about the chaos that always follows him, about his inability to see right from wrong, about his cowering before Vladimir Putin."

Biden goes on to say: "Donald Trump made it clear he doesn't want Nikki Haley's supporters.I want to be clear, there is a place for them in my campaign."

The president was even more explicit in a social media post after that statement. He said -- quote -- "You don't have to agree with me on everything to know MAGA extremism is a threat to this country. We need everyone on board join our campaign."

And if you take a look at the bottom there, the president specifically highlighted a previous social media post from Donald Trump, where he called Nikki Haley by name and said that those contributing to her campaign would not be part of the MAGA movement going forward.

And, really, Biden campaign officials are viewing this as an opportunity to try to siphon off some of these Republican supporters, moderate supporters who were backing Nikki Haley. They believe that they can make some inroads when it comes to suburban voters, moderate voters who simply do not want Trump to have a second term in office.

Of course, there are many challenges facing Biden himself within his own coalition, but that will be one of the plays that they try to make in the coming months, since they're trying to secure that second term in the White House.

BLITZER: Lots of politics going on right now, and it's only going to intensify in the coming days and weeks and months ahead.

Arlette Saenz at the White House, thank you very much.

ACOSTA: And here with us now to discuss CNN political director David Chalian, CNN political commentators Maria Cardona and Alice Stewart. Maria is a Democratic strategist and Alice is a Republican strategist.

David, to you first.

A lot happening this morning.


ACOSTA: Where do you think -- I mean, the general election campaign is on, and we're seeing Trump and Biden trying to get those Nikki Haley supporters. It's going to be a tough sell probably from both sides of this.


And with our polling director, Jen Agiesta, been looking at some numbers this morning to try to understand this conversation about Nikki Haley voters. Who are they and what did her composition of voters look like?

So, across the six states that we have exit polls for in this contest, 48 percent of Haley voters were Republicans, 41 percent of Haley voters were independents, and 11 percent of Haley voters were Democrats. So what we're calling Haley voters are actually going to be independents, never-Trumper Republicans, and some Democrats.

So what we're looking at is pieces of the Biden 2020 coalition. I mean, in our January poll, we found 19 percent of Haley supporters said they voted for Joe Biden in 2020. So there is overlap there. That's why you see the Biden statement as what it is, because they understand this may not be a very hard sell.


CHALIAN: These are people with some affinity for Joe Biden. Perhaps they voted for him in 2020 as an anti-Trump measure, and so trying to keep them in the fold.

Obviously, the Trump campaign, as Nikki Haley alluded to in her remarks, will need to court some of this support as well. Remember, Donald Trump lost to Joe Biden in 2020 because he lost independent voters by 13 percentage points to him.

Well, where are independent voters in the context of this Republican primary? They're with Nikki Haley. Donald Trump's going to need some of those independents back into his fold if he is going to succeed in getting back to the Oval Office.

ACOSTA: Yes, and two very different reactions from Biden and Trump, Biden trying to extend the olive branch, make that outreach to those Nikki Haley supporters.

Donald Trump saying he trounced Nikki Haley, sort of tap-dancing on her political grave. And let's talk about the Mitch McConnell factor here as well, Alice. It wasn't that long ago when McConnell was going after Trump for his actions on January 6. Let's look at this right now.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): There's no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day, no question about it.


ACOSTA: I mean, Alice, I mean, this is quite a pivot.

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, there's going to be quite a laundry list of people with similar statements that McConnell had that are now on board with Donald Trump.

And, look, you look further in Donald Trump's statement this morning, he is appealing to Haley voters. He is saying, I'm welcoming you to our campaign. Our enemy now is Joe Biden and his policies have hurt this country. And it's time to join,as he says, the greatest movement in political history and take out Joe Biden.

And it's really important to note that he is going to work on addition, rather than division. And that's the only way to move forward. And, look, you can't understate the significance of what -- the fact that he will be the presumptive nominee means moving forward.

As Kristen said, his team now, the campaign team, has now merged with the RNC and he's able to use their joint fund-raising agreement, their election integrity department, their communications department that has really helped shape Joe Biden as one of the most unpopular presidents in history.


And the fact that they are able to join forces and move forward and take on Joe Biden, that is going to be significant to him moving forward. And, look, you can underestimate Donald Trump. If you do so, you don't understand Republican voters. They're not concerned with the January 6, his legal woes and the chaos and confusion.

They're looking at policies like immigration, the economy and national security that Donald Trump espouses and they say will take our country in the right direction.


I mean, it sounds like Trump is trying to keep that base revved up. Biden making a play for those Haley voters, those folks in the middle.


ACOSTA: David Chalian is right. Perhaps it's not the right thing to call them Nikki Haley supporters now, now that we're moving into the general election.

CHALIAN: They were up until today.

ACOSTA: Up until today.

Now they're sort of up for grabs, independent, never-Trump, folks that might vote for the Democrat, might vote for Joe Biden. Biden said this in a statement. "Donald Trump made it clear he doesn't want Nikki Haley supporters. I want to be clear, there is a place for them in my campaign."

CARDONA: Yes, that's exactly right.

And, clearly, I think that the Donald Trump campaign understood that those words that Donald Trump was saying in terms of saying Nikki Haley supporters are not going to be welcome into the MAGA movement, we're going to purify the MAGA movement, no Romneys, right?

And that kind of language, the campaign, Donald Trump's campaign understands that that is not how you do addition. And I guarantee you the person who wrote the statement this morning for Donald Trump, which is opposite of what he has been saying, was not him.

And so I think, moving forward, I think it's going to be hard for him to maintain that stance, because, for him, it is all about just the MAGA movement. And, interestingly, in Nikki Haley's statement, she kind of went after the MAGA movement. She talked about how dysfunctional Congress was.

Well, Congress is dysfunctional because of the MAGA movement. They haven't been able to do anything. She went after people who were not supporting money for Ukraine, money for Israel. Who is that? That's the MAGA movement.

And so I think it's interesting. She also is trying to continue to have her lane. And the way that she did this was also out of a position of strength, of dignity, and not from a position of weakness, which is normally how somebody leaving a campaign does it.

BLITZER: Let me get Alice into this conversation.

Judging from CNN's exit poll, the results that we were showing all of our viewers last night -- and David did a great job on that -- is it likely that Haley supporters out there could eventually wind up voting for Biden?

STEWART: Absolutely.

And, look, she has appealed to more moderate Republicans and certainly the independent voters. Look, I happen to pull my Haley flier that I got in my door the other day. She specifically put a note on here, open primary. She was appealing to the independent voters and Democrats who might vote for Joe Biden. She appealed to them.

So the fact that those are the voters that may have come out for her, they could potentially go to Biden. But I tell you what. Fact-check what Joe Biden just said that Donald Trump is not appealing to try and win over Haley voters. He specifically said in his statement this morning: "I welcome Haley voters to come to my campaign because right now our enemy is Joe Biden."

So he can say that Biden's not welcoming them. That is simply not true.


CHALIAN: Right after he trashed Nikki Haley.


CHALIAN: OK. Just want to make sure we've got...


STEWART: Right after he trounced her, he welcomed her voters onto the Trump team.

CARDONA: And he also did it after several times when he said anyone who supports Nikki Haley is not welcome in the MAGA movement.

So, again, he's lying, right? Surprise. But that's going to be, I think, part of the case for the Democrats and for Joe Biden moving forward.

CHALIAN: But we should just make clear, guys, this is bigger than just Haley voters.

Joe Biden -- Donald Trump has a very enthusiastic base of support. Joe Biden is showing some diminution of support in his core constituencies, whether it is voters of color, especially young male voters of color, whether it is progressives over the Israel-Gaza issue. He has work to do with some core components of his base, apart from the need to get some of these Nikki Haley voters.

The Nikki Haley voters piece is a slice of this, but this is also going to be, with these two disliked candidates, a real contest of revving up each side's base.

STEWART: That -- I think one of the most important crosstabs we're seeing out of polling lately was "The New York Times" seeing a poll over the weekend where they asked voters, whose policies help you personally and whose policies hurt you personally?

And the majority of those polls say that Donald Trump's policies helped them personally more than Joe Biden's. And that fact right there and that appeal to voters on what affects them personally is going to be a big factor in helping Donald Trump to win more voters into his camp.

CARDONA: But just very quickly on the enthusiasm for Joe Biden, clearly, the Democratic coalition has not come home yet. They will.

But if you look at what happened last night in the primaries, Joe Biden was taking his supporters 80 percent, 90 percent. It was Donald Trump, the one that was losing and has been losing 20 percent, 30 percent, 40 percent.


ACOSTA: Those are big numbers.

CARDONA: So -- exactly. So that core for President Biden is there. He understands he's got to grow this.

The Democratic coalition is in a position right now where they might tell a pollster out of frustration, yes, I don't like Joe Biden, I am dissatisfied with what he has done, because they know that that answer right then and there is not consequential when it comes down to voting.

And that's why you see special elections where Democrats have been overperforming. That's why you see President Biden completely trouncing in fund-raising, record amount of money for a president going into a reelection campaign, $132 million cash on hand. That's going to be a really strong position.

BLITZER: And on the Democratic side, he really doesn't have any opposition right now. He's basically all by himself.

ACOSTA: American Samoa was the only place.


CHALIAN: I will just say, Maria, that's -- you just laid out the bet that the Biden campaign is making. You said they will come home. That's his challenge over the next eight months. We don't know that that will happen.

CARDONA: No question.

ACOSTA: They need that to happen.

CARDONA: No question.

CHALIAN: But that's the bet that they're placing.


CARDONA: That's right.

BLITZER: All right, David Chalian, thank you. Maria, Alice, guys, thank you very, very much.

CARDONA: Thanks, Wolf.

STEWART: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Don't go too far away.

Lots of news unfolding right now. We will take a quick break. We will be right back.



BLITZER: All right, there are major new legal troubles for Senator Bob Menendez.

Federal prosecutors have indicted the New Jersey Democrat on a dozen new criminal charges in the case, accusing him and his wife of accepting bribes to benefit the governments of Egypt and Qatar. Most Senate Democrats have called for Menendez to resign. Menendez says he is innocent, rejects the calls to step down and won't say if he will seek reelection this fall.

ACOSTA: All right, let's discuss all this and more with former Nixon White House counsel John Dean.

John, great to see you.

I mean, Senator Menendez is already facing a mountain of legal issues. What is the significance of these charges? These new charges sound very serious.

JOHN DEAN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I think he's facing more charges because he appears to have the attitude he had as a result of winning last time he was charged criminally. He was able to actually prevail in that case.

The government, however, has obviously a lot of evidence. They hadn't rolled it all out in the first cases. They have -- they're rolling it out right now, and he's in a whole heap of trouble, Jim.

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting, John. This is Wolf Blitzer.

Trump is the presumptive GOP nominee right now. It's a two-man race shaping up, face -- he's facing a lot of criminal charges, 91, to be specific. What does this say about this moment right now, the historic moment in American politics?

DEAN: Well, it says there's been a dramatic change in the Republican Party to make him the nominee with 91 felony counts against him in four different cases in four different jurisdictions.

So it's quite shocking to me. I don't know any Republicans anymore that embrace Trump or can embrace the party. They have all become independents. I think a lot of people don't understand what's going on. I know that the type of personality that is attracted to Donald Trump isn't troubled by this.

They're authoritarian personalities, and they think this is their strongman, and they want to have him prevail. So it tells us where we're going. I suspect we're in the general election mode right now. While Haley was mentioning his criminal problems, not very much. I think that's going to change, and I think that they're going to become much more front and center as the White House goes after him. ACOSTA: Yes, I mean, John and Wolf, I mean, one of the things that we

didn't talk about very much this morning is all of the legal hot water that Donald Trump is in and will stay in for the duration of this campaign, it looks like.

And I do want to ask you about a new CNN exit poll last night that indicates the majority of Republican voters in six Super Tuesday states say Trump is fit for the presidency even if he's convicted of a crime.

John, what does that say about the state of your former party? I can't imagine, when you were around during the Watergate days, that you would have seen similar numbers in the case of Richard Nixon.

DEAN: No, not at all.

And Nixon had a very good political antenna. To the contrary, the party elders told him it was time to go. They didn't want him to go through with even an impeachment, and he, of course, was pardoned by Gerald Ford, and that cost Ford a chance to get elected on his own after becoming the appointed vice president.

So, times have changed dramatically. It is stunning. As I say, the fact that it's going to become much more of a campaign issue, because the Republicans just weren't talking about it. They didn't want to talk about it. They don't want to talk about it.

But we're going to have to talk about it, because it's got to be resolved. And also, with Haley out, Trump is much more free now to get about the business of defending himself. He can't use that excuse that he's got to be campaigning. He's got the nomination for all practical purposes.