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Iraq Says, U.S. Strikes On Iran-Based Groups On Our Soil Hostile Acts; Awaiting Special Counsel's Filing After Trump Asked An Appeals Court To Toss His Election Subversion Indictment; Trump Doubles Down On New Rant, Special Counsel Should Go To Hell; Putin Critic Navalny Found At Remote Arctic Penal Colony; Authorities Move Hundreds Of Migrants To Neighboring Border Towns To Relieve Pressure On Eagle Pass, Texas; Apple To Appeal U.S. Important Ban On Newest Watches. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired December 26, 2023 - 18:00   ET



PAMELA BROWN, CNN HOST: Happening now, the tense aftermath of U.S. airstrikes inside Iraq targeting Iran-backed militants after an attack on American forces. Iraq accusing the Biden administration of hostile acts at this dangerous moment in the Middle East.

Also this hour, Donald Trump is spewing more anger at Special Counsel Jack Smith, saying his criminal prosecutor should, quote, go to hell.


Trump picking up where he left off during a Christmas meltdown with less than three weeks to go before the first presidential votes of 2024.

And CNN is at the southern border where more than 11,000 migrants are waiting to enter the United States. We're going to have an update on efforts to ease the crisis at a critical crossing from Mexico.

Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. Wolf Blitzer us off today. I'm Pamela Brown, and you're in The Situation Room.

Our top story this hour, new fuel for growing fears of a broader war in the Middle East, U.S. Airstrikes inside Iraq at sites used by Iran- backed militants. The Pentagon says it's payback for an attack on American troops who are increasingly being targeted in the region.

Here's CNN's Pentagon Correspondent Oren Liebermann.


OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Rising tensions in the Middle East with U.S. Fighter jets carrying out a series of strikes in Iraq against Kataib Hezbollah, one of Iran's regional proxies. The U.S. said the Monday strikes targeted drone facilities used by the militant group and its affiliates. Mourners leading a funeral procession through the streets of Baghdad as U.S. Central Command said the strikes likely killed a number of militants.

President Joe Biden ordered the strikes after Kataib Hezbollah, recognized by the U.S. as a terrorist organization, claimed responsibility for the Monday drone attack on U.S. Forces in Iraq. The attack injured three U.S. service members, the Pentagon said, including one in critical condition.

In a statement, the National Security Council said the president places no higher priority than the protection of American personnel serving in harm's way. The United States will act at a time and in a manner of our choosing should these attacks continue.

U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria have been targeted approximately 100 times since October when the Israel-Hamas War started. The U.S. has tried to calibrate its retaliatory strikes to send a message to Iranian proxies in the region without sparking a wider war.

Last month, the U.S. also carried out strikes against Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq, killing at least eight of their fighters, according to the group. Iraq's government has condemned both of the attacks, calling them hostile acts that are unacceptable under any circumstances.

The unrest has not been limited to land. Over the weekend, the U.S., as a one-way attack drone launched directly from Iran, struck a chemical tanker in the Indian Ocean. No U.S. Navy ships were in the vicinity. The attack caused no injuries, but it did spark a fire on the ship, according to Central Command, as it raised concerns of a broader conflict the U.S. has been trying to avoid.


LIEBERMANN (on camera): And staying in the maritime domain, U.S. Navy forces intercepted a barrage of attacks, they say, were launched from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen. Houthis are another Iranian proxy. Over a course of ten hours, U.S. Central Command says us navy forces in the Red Sea intercepted 12 one-way attack drones, three anti-ship ballistic missiles and two land attack cruise missiles that were fired by the Houthis over the Southern Red Sea.

Those interceptions from the USS Laboon, a destroyer, as well as F-18 fighter jets operating with the Eisenhower carrier strike group in the region. The U.S. very much concerned about the threat from the Houthis, putting together a multinational force to try to deal with these attacks, even as major shipping companies say they will avoid the Red Sea for now.

So, Pam, this is very much a space we will be watching. The Houthis, however, say they were targeting a ship that didn't respond to their naval forces. And they say these operations are conducted to show a message of solidarity to the Palestinian people.

BROWN: All right. Oren Liebermann, thanks so much. Turning now to the Israel Hamas war, a close confidant of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been meeting with senior Biden administration officials about the next phase of the conflict in Gaza.

So, let's bring in CNN's Priscilla Alvarez at the White House and CNN's will Ripley in Tel Aviv.

Starting with you, Priscilla, this meeting today, is it bringing the U.S. and Israel any closer on their differences over the war in Gaza?

PRISCILLA ALVAREZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, this meeting is underway with a close confidant of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as Secretary of State Antony Blinken, as well as National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. It's a significant meeting that comes at a critical time as the U.S. urges Israel to move away from its high intensity war as the death toll grows in Gaza.

Now, Israel has assured the U.S. before that it would move toward lower intensity fighting, more precise military strategy targeting Hamas' leadership, but they haven't offered a timeline. And U.S. officials have previously said that they would expect those localized operations to happen in January. So, this meeting underway with, again, Ron Dermer, who is a close confidant of Netanyahu, also a member of the war cabinet, and previously served as Israeli ambassador to the U.S.

And over the course of the day, senior Israeli official have maintained that the U.S. and Israel continue to be in close discussion, that there isn't daylight between the two and they're both on the same side.



TAL HEINRICH, SPOKESPERSON FOR ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Well, we take advice from friends. We consult with friends. We don't have to agree on every small detail with friends. But in the bigger picture, we all share the same goals.


ALVAREZ: Now, President Biden been under increasing domestic and international pressure again as that death toll in Gaza grows. He's also said that Israel risks losing support on the international stage as this conflict unfolds, if it doesn't contain those casualties, all of this topics of discussion underway now.

BROWN: All right. So, Will, to you. What is the latest today on the state of the fighting in Gaza?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it is certainly intensifying. Even though the Israeli military has secured the northern part of the Gaza Strip, Pamela, they're now moving their efforts to the central part of Gaza and the south. The problem with that is that you have around 2 million displaced people who are also gathered in those areas.

And so over the last two 24 hours periods, so over the last 48 hours, we've had some of the deadliest -- in terms of civilian death toll, some of the deadliest incidents that we've seen, 250 people killed from Christmas Eve through Christmas, and then 241 for the following 24-hour period after that.

Also, new numbers from the Israel Defense Force, 161 now confirmed dead since the ground operation in Gaza began 20 days after the October 7th attacks. On October the 27th, of course, those attacks killed 1,200 Israelis. And so far in Gaza, the death toll is now getting closer and closer to 21,000 people, according to the Hamas- controlled health ministry. The number of injured more than double that, nearly 55,000 now, although CNN cannot independently verify those numbers.

The prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, saying that this is going to be a very long conflict ahead, that soldiers may be having to fight for many months. Even if there is a dialing down of the intensity of the operation, there's still going to be a lot of Hamas militants embedding themselves within the civilian population. And Israel says if there are Hamas militants, even if they're underneath somewhere where people are sheltering, that is still a legitimate military target under international law.

And that is what makes this war unprecedented in the eyes of the Israelis. The fact that basically you're dealing with an organization that deliberately puts civilians in harm's way is not concerned, apparently, according to the Israelis, about the rising death toll because they know that the pressure is continuing to grow from around the world for Israel to offer more concessions to Hamas to get the hostages handed over. Still more than 100 of them believed to be alive and in custody and bring this war to an end.

Now, in The Wall Street Journal, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, did write an op-ed, peace where he talked about the three prerequisites for peace. He said that Israel must destroy Hamas, must demilitarize Gaza and de radicalize the whole of Palestinian society. That is not going to happen anytime soon, Pamela.

BROWN: It certainly not. And you brought up the hostages that Hamas is holding, Priscilla. Any progress on those talks?

ALVAREZ: Well, that, too, is going to be a topic of discussion with the senior U.S. officials and Ron Dermer today. But so far, there has not really been a resolution on this front. And it's been difficult for U.S. Officials to provide much clarity on what is happening now as they still do not know all of the conditions of the hostages nor where they are.

Now, Israel had proposed another pause in fighting in exchange for the release of hostages similar to what was done before. And that would include women who are still held hostage by Hamas in Gaza, but that did not come to fruition. Now, what we know is that U.S. officials and Qatari officials have been in close touch, Qatar serving as a mediator in all of this, the president also speaking with the emir today. BROWN: And, Will, to you, there is this proposal from Egypt, and Hamas is already rejecting that proposal, right?

RIPLEY: Yes. According to Reuters' reporting, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad have rejected an offer by Egypt or a proposal by Egypt to end this war. Basically, it would involve a plant that would release all of the Israeli hostages, all of the Palestinian prisoners. And keep in mind, there are many more Palestinian prisoners than there are Israeli hostages, but back in 2011, Israel traded over 1,000 prisoners just to get 1 IDF soldier back.

And in return for this, also Hamas would have to agree, according to Egypt's apparently rejected plan, to relinquish Hamas power over a period of time and establish a new government in Gaza. Hamas has said aside from the Israeli hostages, there is nothing else on the table, which means we're back to square one here.

BROWN: Yes. And they want all the fighting to stop before even talks with the hostages began again, something Israel has not shown a willingness to do.

Will Ripley, Priscilla Alvarez, thank you so much.

All right, so now let's bring in a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense, Evelyn Farkas. She is now director of the McCain Institute. Thanks for coming on.

So, let's start with the U.S. airstrikes. U.S. forces have been attacked now more than 100 times in recent months.


Do you think the U.S. is doing enough, going far enough with its retaliatory strikes?

EVELYN FARKAS, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, MCCAIN INSTITUTE: Yes, well, thanks for having me, Pam. I would say that this was actually a really good retaliatory strike that we took because it was proportionate. It happened almost right away and we explained it very clearly. I think, having watched the lead-up to this, though, many people like myself have been concerned, because, as you said, there were over 100 strikes on U.S. facilities and we were just lucky that Americans were not hurt more and were not killed up to now.

So, frankly, the deterrence, whatever deterrence we were using, and you have to use military means, wasn't working. Hopefully, this more punitive attack, this stronger strike, will deter these forces, all the Iranian-backed forces, frankly, from striking U.S. forces on the bases. But there's also the problem, as you mentioned, Pam, and I think the correspondent also said, of the strikes against maritime shipping in the Red Sea.

BROWN: Yes, it's happening in a lot of different places. So, do you think the U.S. took too long then for this more punitive retaliatory strike? FARKAS: I mean, it's hard to say because I'd really have to go down and look microscopically at each of the individual incidents. But the fact that there were 100 of them does tend to lead one to come to the conclusion that we probably should have struck harder and more definitively earlier so that they understood what our limits were, and, hopefully, this will make it clear. We cannot be afraid to punish them and remind them of us massive military power.

BROWN: Right. And, of course, it is that fine line of also not wanting to spark this broader conflict, right? But if these attacks on the U.S. forces continue, do you think the U.S. will more directly confront Iran? Is that smart?

FARKAS: I think that the U.S. government has a smart position here, Pam, where maybe they didn't react strongly enough to all these strikes, but it seems that they now have gotten the attention, hopefully, of the Iranians. They are taking a firmer line and that should deter them from escalation.

I don't think that Iran wants a war with the United States, and we certainly don't want the war to spread to areas beyond where there is a full scale war being waged right now. So, we're trying to signal, I would imagine, behind the scenes and also publicly to the Iranian government to get their proxies in line, because there could be real damage, real danger to Iran if these proxies were to be conducting operations that did end up in a loss of life for Americans, and, of course, the temptation for us to escalate really quickly.

BROWN: Really quickly, before we let you go, I want to talk about the Israel-Hamas War. The Biden administration, as we know, is attempting to persuade Israel to move to a lower intensity phase of war soon. How likely is that given Israel's defense minister declare that it's fighting a, quote, multi-arena war right now?

FARKAS: Well, obviously, it doesn't sound very likely, Pam, because, of course, this government led by Prime Minister Netanyahu, is very right wing, very hardcore. They do not seem to have much compassion for the regular Palestinian civilians who, of course, are hostage to Hamas. And this is why it's actually smart to throw everything back on Hamas.

And I'm glad to see that the Egyptians and, of course, the Qatari government are highly engaged now, it seems, in diplomacy, because, ultimately, the onus has to be on the Arab population, the Palestinian people, to frankly tell the Hamas terrorists to go take a hike because they have been the cause of all of this death and destruction. And the longer Israel bombs in this massive bombing campaign, the longer it takes for that reality to sink in across the world and certainly, of course, in Gaza.

BROWN: Evelyn Farkas, thank you so much.

FARKAS: Thanks.

BROWN: Just ahead, the next round of Donald Trump's battle with Special Counsel Jack Smith as the former president claims he has immunity from alleged election subversion crimes.



BROWN: Tonight, Special Counsel Jack Smith has the next move in his ongoing legal battle with Donald Trump over the former president's claim of immunity.

CNN Justice Correspondent Jessica Schneider is following this all for us. So, Jessica, what can we expect in the days ahead?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Pam. We're waiting for the special counsel to file arguments in this federal appeals court here in D.C. It's due by Saturday, so sometime Saturday.

They had a loss late last week from the Supreme Court. Jack Smith had urged the high court to take up the immunity issue instead of waiting for this appeals process to play out. But the Supreme Court shut him down late on Friday. So, now, this will have to go through at least a few more weeks of pause and waiting.

Now, Donald Trump's team, they filed their arguments over the weekend. They are arguing here that Donald Trump is immune from criminal prosecution because, as they put it, he was acting within his official duties on and around January 6.

So, we will see the special counsel's reply sometime Saturday, and then the appeals court will hear the arguments on this issue the second week of January, January 9th.

They could decide on this issue fairly quickly after that. But, really, since all of the proceedings in this D.C. case have been paused, it is very unlikely that will stay on track for the start of this trial. It was slated for March 4th. The special counsel had been pushing to keep that date, but it's pretty unlikely at this point.

And that's a win for Trump's team because they've been making delay part of their defense strategy. The legal team has been trying to push back on all of the cases that are confronting Donald Trump in early 2024 to clear the way for his campaign schedule. But right now, there is a lot on deck.

The civil case against Trump for defamation from E. Jean Carroll, that's slated to start in mid-January unless his legal team can figure out a way to delay. They've been working on trying to figure out a delay strategy.


And then the Manhattan D.A.'s hush money criminal case, it's also set to start in March. The D.A. there, Alvin Bragg, he signaled, though, that he could be open to moving that start date if it conflicted with other cases.

So, Pamela, Trump's team, they will be working a lot in the final days of 2023, but even more work on the legal side going into the beginning of 2024, just as the campaign really heats up. Pam?

BROWN: Certainly. Jessica Schneider, thank you so much.

So, let's dig in deeper on this was seen in Law Enforcement Analysts John Miller and Andrew McCabe.

Andrew, first to you. How do you assess Trump's argument that he has absolute presidential immunity in this case, and how do you expect this case to play out from here?

ANDREW MCCABE, CNN SENIOR LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, as for his argument, I think most legal scholars are in the camp of it's a real long shot. I think that the basic premise of holding the president essentially above the criminal laws of this country, it contradicts with everything we know about what the framers intended and captured in the Constitution itself. So, I think they're going to have a really hard time persuading the appeals court and the Supreme Court, if it gets in front of that court eventually.

However, what's going to happen as we go forward? Who knows, Pam. This is a really -- this ball is still in the air. It will obviously go through the schedule that Jessica laid out and will be heard by the D.C. Circuit. If Trump loses at that level, he has two options. He can ask the D.C. Circuit for a rehearing in front of the entire court. He's not entitled to that, so they might turn him down. Or he could go right to the Supreme Court. And the question of whether or not the Supreme Court will even take the case, I think, is a relevant one. So, we'll have to see what happens.

There's a bunch of legal issues involved in each one of these determinations. So, we have a little ways to go, which is, of course, not good news for Jack Smith.

BROWN: Yes. And these legal determinations could set precedent, right? They could make history. And so the stakes are very high. They're involving a leading presidential contender on the Republican side.

So, John, in Colorado, the FBI is investigating reports of violent threats against the judges following their ruling last week to remove Trump from the GOP primary ballot. What can you tell us about that, the threat level there and what's behind it?

JOHN MILLER, CNN CHIEF LAW ENFORCEMENT AND INTELLIGENCE ANALYST: Well, the threat level there is obviously increased. You've got the Colorado State Patrol providing additional security around where the judges work. You have Denver police working with the FBI and the state patrol increasing security around the judges' homes, and this was know, three to four split and a seven judge panel, six judges and a chief judge. But the language that is in some of the chat rooms and some of the message boards has turned very ugly.

It's a tough case, though, Pam, because it's not just enough to say, I think these judges should die to meet the bar to prosecute crimes like that. Threats using interstate commerce against public officials in the course of doing their job almost says that a specific person has to make a direct threat against another specific person, saying, I am going to kill that person, or something very close to that.

So, what the FBI can do here, of course, is trace these threats back to the origin, see who needs to be interviewed. That sends a message in and of itself. But you have statements from Donald Trump about judges and prosecutors in almost every case he's involved in, some of them extraordinarily harsh, that kind of normalize this language. And you now have -- because of a judge whose family was attacked, whose son was killed, you have a federal law that limits what people can access about judges and where they live and so on. So, this is being taken at an extraordinarily high level of seriousness.

BROWN: Yes. So, Andy, as John just laid out, there's this unprecedented level, threat level right now against public officials. I mean, does the FBI even have the bandwidth to investigate all of these threats pouring in? In your experience, how does the FBI handle this?

MCCABE: Yes. Pam, the Bureau has an extraordinary amount of bandwidth and has the ability to put agents on any issue anywhere in the country really at any moment. And I'm absolutely positive that they're doing that here. The question becomes, what are those agents taken away from to address this elevation in threats?

And so that becomes a challenge for FBI leaders to manage those resources, to de-prioritize issues of lower importance. But there is no question that threats against the judiciary have been escalating over the last several years, really in tandem with the Trump administration and the former president's continued attacks on people in the judiciary.


So, none of this comes as any surprise, I'm sure, to the FBI and to their colleagues in the law enforcement community, and then the question in my mind that they will do whatever they can to shed as much light on these people and prosecute those that they can.

BROWN: All right. Andrew McCabe, John Miller, thank you so much.

And coming up, after an angry Christmas rant, Donald Trump is back online tonight unleashing fresh attacks. We're going to tell you who he's targeting now.


BROWN: Well, tonight, as the nation is on the brink of ringing in the 2024 election year, Donald Trump is following up on the tirade he unleashed online over Christmas.

CNN's Kristen Holmes is here with more. So, Kristen, Trump just posted about Special Counsel Jack Smith again, and he seems to be sticking to his message of the past couple of days, unsurprisingly, not really a message of peace.

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Not a message of peace and not a message of Christmas cheer. It is a message of a lot of grievances and a preview of what we're going to see in the next year as Donald Trump tries to win back the White House.

So, what we just saw on Truth Social was this him posting, Biden's flunky, deranged Jack Smith should go to hell.


Now, this, of course, follows what we saw on Christmas Day, another out-of-the-ordinary message for a world leader when he wrote Merry Christmas to all, including crooked Joe Biden's only hope, deranged Jack Smith, the out of control lunatic who just hired outside attorneys. I'm going to skip ahead here just to get to the point. May they all rot in hell. Again, Christmas. Not messages of peace, not messages of calm and just an airing of grievances.

But this is what the former president does. And he is clearly using this platform to put out this message of divisiveness. And that, again, is likely what we're going to see in the next year. And we have already started to see Donald Trump ramping up this rhetoric.

Now, when it comes to his legal issues, the thing to keep in mind here is that, yes, his team has their own strategy of filing motions, of trying to delay each of these trials. But Donald Trump has his own strategy in the political sphere, which is playing this out in the court of public opinion. And we are going to see him continue to hammer this idea that this is election interference and political persecution throughout the next year.

BROWN: So, how is this angry rhetoric impacting him in the polls?

HOLMES: Well, Pam, that's the thing. It's not. Actually, what we've seen, at least if you look at Iowa, is that as he has amped up his rhetoric, he's actually seen a boost in poll numbers. And that's why you're unlikely to see any sort of toning it down because there is no outside political pressure.

Now, does this change if he does become the nominee and he is up in a general election and looking for more moderate voters? Well, that's something that we're going to have to wait and see. But right now, he and his team, they're not facing any sort of political pressure to tone it down, to backtrack.

So, he's going to continue doing what he's doing. And one thing that we know, of course, about Donald Trump is that he likes to make things about himself. He likes to make things about himself being a victim. And clearly, in this case, it is working for him.

BROWN: All right. Kristen Holmes, thanks so much.

Let's talk more about Trump's message with our political experts. Alice Stewart, I want to start with you. Let's start by taking a look at this word cloud that Trump just posted from the Daily Mail. And it shows revenge, power and dictatorship as the most common words voters use to describe a second Trump term. Also, we should note economy is in there as well. How concerning is it, though, that Trump seems to be co-signing some of these troubling ways to describe him?

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: He's certainly not looking at that word cloud. He's looking at the cloud of his supporters that say he is a victim, he is a martyr, and he is their leader, and that's what he's focused on.

And, look, Pam, nothing says Merry Christmas like telling someone to rot in hell or go to hell, but Donald Trump has never been accused of being Santa Claus and certainly has no intention of changing. And what we're seeing with this rhetoric he's put out in the last few days, he is really sending a message to his base that you knew what you got when you voted for me back in 2016. I have not changed. And he's really trying to encourage them to get out.

On the other side, there are many people that are frustrated with that and ready to turn the page and get away from this toxic, divisive type of language. That's why they're looking at other candidates, like Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis. So, he can bring it on and energize his base, but there are other Republicans out there that are looking for someone that is less chaotic and less toxic in their rhetoric and language.

BROWN: All right. So, Ron Brownstein, Trump is emphasizing revenge and dictatorship while making a legal argument that he is fully immune from any prosecution because he was president. What does all of this bode for American democracy if he does win back the White House next year?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, as Alice said, he's leaving no mystery about how he intends to govern. I mean, he is running on an agenda that is more militant, more extreme than he ran on in 2016 or ran on in 2020, talking about weaponizing the Justice Department against his enemy, talking about setting up internment camps, military action against Mexico, repealing the ACA again, and, of course, possibly invoking the Insurrection Act to use the military to put down protests against all of this in American cities.

The Supreme Court is in a pivotal and historic position here. I mean, they are part of the real world. They know what Donald Trump is trying to do. Even if most legal analysts believe this claim of absolute presidential immunity is specious, I mean, taken to the extreme that he is, it is. I could choose someone on Fifth Avenue and not be prosecuted. The court also knows, because they are part of the world, that his strategy throughout his life, not only as a political figure, has been to use delay as a legal weapon, and they can choose to be complicit in that or not.

They have it in their power to ensure that voters have the information about whether a jury of his peers find him guilty of some of the serious crimes he's been accused of before the election, if he the nominee or not.


And so I think they have a very clear choice ahead of them and we'll see which way they go. BROWN: So, Kate Bedingfield, as Ron said, Trump is also insisting again that he would repeal Obamacare, even though it is a popular program that Republicans have largely given up on fighting against. So, why is Trump fixating on this?

KATE BEDINGFIELD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think he has a preoccupation with Barack Obama, for one thing. We see this time and again, he's consistently referring to the current president as Barack Obama. And I think there's probably some really ugly strategic thinking behind that. And we know he has this absolute preoccupation with Obama and everything that Obama got done.

But, I mean, this is a strategic error on his part. I mean, this is an incredibly popular piece of legislation. People can feel the difference that it makes in their lives. We've seen over the course of the last few elections that taking the position that you're going to repeal Obamacare is a loser. I mean, we've seen essentially every other Republican, every other elected Republican walk away from this as a policy.

So, as you look at what Donald Trump is doing this week with this really heated and hateful rhetoric and tripling down, quadrupling down, I've lost count, on repealing Obamacare, this is not a good general election strategy for him. And this is where it would be, I think, smart to see some of the other Republicans running against him try to really go hard on this case that he is a terrible general election candidate.

I don't expect any of them to get a profile in courage award for taking on what he did on January 6. But if you look at what happened in Colorado last week or a week-and-a-half ago now with him potentially being removed from the ballot there, that was an opportunity for Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley to say to the Republican base, this guy can't win a general election.

And so the more we see him making this kind of aggressive rhetoric, talking about acting as enemies, the weaker he gets. And it would be a good thing to see some of the folks who are running against him in the Republican primary really go hard and make that case because they're running out of time.

BROWN: Yes. But, I mean, the polls, the bottom line is, as Kristen just laid out, when you look at polls, like an Iowa, he's only gaining in popularity regardless of this rhetoric. And when it comes to the ACA, it's interesting, he said that also before, right, and he didn't repeal it when he was in the White House. Why would he be bringing it up now?

But, Alice, I want to talk about Governor DeSantis here. Kate brought him know. Look, The New York Times is reporting that his close adviser is privately saying, quote, they are now at the point in the campaign where they need to make the patient comfortable. That is a phrase, of course, evoking hospice care. DeSantis is banking, of course, on a strong show in Iowa. I mean, that's really where he's put all of his eggs right in that basket. How revealing is it that his own campaign advisers are preparing for the end? STEWART: Look, I take a lot of these 11th hour unnamed sources comments with a grain of salt. And, look, so many reporters and those in the media are drafting, they're circling the drain stories. But the DeSantis campaign is circling the wagons and they've got just three weeks left.

And, look, it's not a good place to be. You would certainly rather have the momentum in your sails, like Nikki Haley, than the struggles that the DeSantis campaign is going through. But I can tell you this, voters in Iowa are not concerned about news coverage of the caucuses. They're concerned with the commitment to caucus.

And the question now is the ground operation and the commitment to caucus operation that DeSantis has, the people that have left, did they take that with them or the people in Iowa committed to caucusing, as they have said? And that's going to be the question we'll soon find out as we get closer to January 15th.

BROWN: So, Ron, if Ron DeSantis doesn't win in Iowa, is it over for him? What do you think?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, look, the last three Iowa winners didn't win. I mean, you know, DeSantis', he chose a strategy of running at Trump primarily from the right. And the theory that if you peeled away enough of his supporters to make yourself viable, eventually, the people in the middle would have no place to go but to you, the ones who are the most resistant to Trump in the first place. That really hasn't worked on either end. He hasn't peeled away a lot of the Trump supporters. And he left this vacuum that Nikki Haley has filled in the center. So, he is in a very difficult position. His runway after Iowa looks pretty bleak.

Nikki Haley, even if she does well in New Hampshire, ultimately, is going to have to do better among Republicans (ph). And that's going to require her, if she's serious, to make a stronger case against Trump than she's been willing to do so far.

BROWN: All right. Thanks to you all. I really appreciate it.

And just ahead, a jailed Putin critic who his team lost contact with for two weeks turns up at a remote prison in the Arctic Circle. We're going to tell you about the lengths they had to go to find him.



BROWN: Well, tonight, after losing contact with Russian political dissident Alexey Navalny for two weeks, his team says they finally know where he is, at a remote penal colony up in the Arctic Circle.

CNN's Nada Bashir has this story.


NADA BASHIR, CNN REPORTER (voice over): One of President Putin's most famous adversaries, relieved, exhausted, but most importantly, alive.

KYRA YARMYSH, NAVALNY SPOKESPERSON: We filed 680 requests in different Russian prisons trying to locate Alexey.

BASHIR: For weeks, Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny's whereabouts were unknown. Now, his team has located him at a remote penal colony north of the Arctic Circle, after a journey, Navalny says, took almost three weeks.

They brought me here on Saturday night, messages posted on social media by his aides say. I didn't expect anyone to find me here before mid-January.

Navalny's team raised the alarm weeks ago after he failed to show for recent court hearings. At the time, the Kremlin stated it had neither the capacity nor willingness to monitor prisoners' whereabouts.

YARMYSH: According to Russian law, after the prisoner is being transferred to another colony, they have to notify his relatives. But we know very well that there is no law that applies to Alexey and they will never notify anyone about his whereabouts.

BASHIR: In a statement on Monday, the director of Navalny's anti- corruption foundation said the colony in Northwestern Siberia, known as the Polar Wolf colony, is infamous for its remote location and harsh conditions.


Navalny was sentenced to 19 years in prison in August, after he was found guilty of extremism related charges, which he and his legal representatives have consistently denied. This in addition to a previous 11-1/2-year sentence for fraud and other crimes.

Known for organizing anti-government street protests and using his blog and social media to expose alleged corruption in the Kremlin, Navalny has posed one of the most serious threats to Putin's legitimacy during his rule.

His disappearance coming to light just days after Putin announced he would run for reelection in March 2024.

VLADIMIR MILOV, NAVALNY ADVISER: It is no coincidence that Navalny disappeared exactly at the moment when the so-called sham presidential elections were announced. And Putin announced that he's going to be running again for, sorry, I lost count, which term already.

BASHIR: And more news of his whereabouts has brought some reassurance to supporters. There is deep-seated concern over the conditions the opposition figure now faces at Polar Wolf.


BASHI (on camera): And, Pamela, according to a local government media outlet in Siberia, the focus of this particular penal colony is reeducation through occupational therapy. But, of, course the conditions are set to be harsh and there is still concern over what Navalny may face at this during his time in the tension. Important, of course, to underscore that Navalny, his legal team and supporters have consistently denied the charges laid against him. They say they believe this is a politically motivated attempt to stifle Navalny's criticism of President Putin -- Pamela.

BROWN: All right. Nada Bashir, thank you so much.

Coming up, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM, a town along the U.S.- Mexican border gets some reprieve from the unprecedented deadly influx of migrants coming in from Mexico, even as thousands more wait on the Mexican side to try to enter the country illegally.



BROWN: Eagle Pass, Texas, is getting some relief from the influx of thousands of migrants coming in from Mexico. But elsewhere, along the U.S. southern border, there is no letup to the unprecedented surge.

CNN's Rosa Flores has the story from Eagle Pass, Texas.


ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As the migrant caravan forms in southern Mexico with thousands from Central and South America, the scene on the U.S. southern border in Eagle Pass, Texas, has changed. The areas where thousands of migrants were waiting outdoors to be transported for immigration processing last week were emptied out this week. The flow this morning appearing to be down to a trickle.

A senior Customs and Border Protection official telling CNN that while the scene in Eagle Pass has improved, the agency is not out of the woods yet. CBP is still grappling with elevated numbers of migrant encounters on the U.S. southern border. More than 11,000 migrants are waiting in shelters in northern Mexico, 3,800 in Tijuana, 3,200 in Reynosa, 4,000 in Matamoros. Many hoping to enter legally but some opting to cross illegally, say community leaders.

U.S. federal authorities report of the seven-day average of more than 9,600 migrant encounters in December. That number was 6,800 at the end of November.

U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken is scheduled to meet with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador Wednesday in Mexico City. The Biden administration is expected to put pressure on Mexico to do more to stem the flow of migrants.

To deal with the flow, CBP has temporarily suspended operations at several ports of entry in several states to reassign personnel to process migrants. This as CNN learns from a CBP official, that the surge is in part driven by pseudo-legitimate travel agencies abroad that promise trips to the U.S., but instead connect travelers to smugglers self of the border. That might explain this recent scene in Arizona.

I work for CNN. Now, I'm wondering where you're from? What country are you from?


FLORES: Senegal? Senegal? Senegal? Senegal? Everybody from Senegal?

Smugglers are dropping off 500 to 1,000 migrants in remote areas of Arizona, the officials said, creating a logistical nightmare for border patrol agents who have to find ways to transport them for immigration processing.

For the volunteers who distribute water to migrants in the desert, it's the children who get them every time.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's heartbreaking when you see the little children.


FLORES: Now, migration is feeding migration and, Pamela, here's what I mean. I met one woman from Ecuador who says so many business owners, job creators, are fleeing Ecuador, that that is forcing other people, the workers, to flee as well, to find jobs here in United States -- Pamela.

BROWN: All right. Rosa Flores, thank you so much.

And, coming up, a story well worth your time. Apple's new watches have been banned from store shelves in the United States. We are going to tell you why up next and what Apple did after the clock struck midnight, and what could've been a White House intervention.



BROWN: Well, the clock is ticking for tech giant Apple. Apple says it'll appeal a U.S. International Trade Commission ruling that blocks the company from selling its two top-of-the-line watches.

CNN's Rahel Solomon takes a look at why and what the reaction has been.


RAHEL SOLOMON, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Pamela, two very different reactions on the one hand, you have the Office of U.S. Trade Rep saying that they consider this issue carefully and decided not to reverse the decision and that as of December 26th, it's final. Now, long after that statement, you have Apple saying he strongly disagree with this decision and we are appealing. In other words, it's not exactly final.

Now, this is all about the technology that Apple uses in its watches to read blood oxygen levels. It's a light-based technology. It's a technology that California-based company Masimo says is rightfully there. This is covered by a patent.

Now, the two companies have to speak to this issue for years but in late October, the U.S. international trade commission which is a group that advises the White House and Congress on issues like these sided with Masimo and which ruled this technology does infringe on those patents. Now, there was a 60-day review period where the Biden administration could have intervened and be told the ruling that ended at midnight with the White House opting not to get involved, meaning, that the ruling is now in effect.

It applies to the Series 9 and Ultra 2. That means for consumers if you are looking for those models you likely won't find it on Apple Stores or in Apple Stores or the Apple website. You could however find a different retailers because retailers tend to sell what they have an inventory. But, they can't restock.

As for what it means for Apple -- well, analysts say that, financially, it's actually not a massive blow, but that the optics here are not a good look. It's a black eye as one analyst told me. And because Apple says that it's appealing, it's also unclear whether this ruling is really final or just in place for now pending that appeal. The only time will tell -- Pamela.


BROWN: All right. Rahel Solomon, thank you so much.

I'm Pamela Brown in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks very much for watching.