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Soon, DeSantis And Haley Face Iowa Voters At CNN Town Halls; Documents Show China Spent Millions At Trump Properties While He Was In White House; ISIS Claims Responsibility For Deadly Twin Blasts In Iran; Court Releases More Jeffrey Epstein Documents; Homicide Rates In Five Biggest U.S. Cities Drop In 2023. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired January 04, 2024 - 18:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Next Wednesday, I'm going to moderate the CNN Republican presidential debate along with my colleague, Dana Bash. We will also be live from Des Moines in beautiful Iowa.

Until tomorrow, you can follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Threads, X, formerly known as Twitter, and on the TikTok @jaketapper. You follow the show on X @theleadcnn. If you ever miss an episode of The Lead, you can listen to the show whence you get your podcasts, all two hours just sitting there like a delicious, ripe peach.

Our coverage continues now with one Mr. Wolf Blitzer in The Situation Room. I'll see you tomorrow.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, Republican presidential candidates Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley are preparing to take questions from Iowa voters live here on CNN. We're setting the stage for our back-to-back town halls with Donald Trump's top GOP rivals. And I'll speak with another Republican in the race, Chris Christie, this hour.

Also tonight, newly released documents reveal that China and other foreign governments spent millions, millions at various Trump owned properties while he was president. We're following the money trail.

And ISIS is now claiming responsibility for a pair of deadly explosions in Iran. Stand by for new details on the terror group's apparent motives and how this attack could impact wartime tensions in the Middle East.

Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Will Blitzer. You're in The Situation Room.

In Iowa tonight, the most heated rivalry of the Republican presidential race is taking center stage. Behind me are live pictures from Des Moines where Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley will soon appear in back-to-back CNN town hall events.

Right now, let's go to CNN's Kristen Holmes. She's joining us live from Sioux City in Iowa. Kristen, with the Iowa caucuses now only eleven days away, what are we hearing from the candidates? KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, what we're hearing is a lot of ramped up rhetoric in the fight for second place. I mean, the thing to keep in mind here is that as Haley's poll numbers have continued to grow, Ron DeSantis has used every opportunity to attack her. Many of his attacks really centered around these comments that she made in New Hampshire to voters there about their importance in the primary. Take a listen.


NIKKI HALEY, REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I trust you. I trust every single one of you. You know how to do this. You know Iowa starts it. You know that you correct it. You know that you continue to go.


HOLMES: Now, Ron DeSantis obviously seizing on this opportunity. Listen to what he just told NBC and the Des Moines register in an interview.


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think it's a slap in the face to Iowans to say that they somehow need to be corrected. It's almost as if like she's acknowledging she's not going to do well here and so she's blaming the voters. She's phony. She doesn't have core set of convictions. She's coming in here, she's trying to be relatable, but just doesn't get Iowa.


HOLMES: Obviously an escalation there calling her phony.

Now, the important thing to note is that there are still a lot of undecided Iowa voters. That is why these town halls tonight are so important, so they can get their questions out there and make their decisions before the caucuses. Wolf?

BLITZER: Kristen Holmes reporting from Iowa for us, Kristen, thank you very much.

I want to bring in some top members of our CNN political team, and let me start with John King. John, how is Nikki Haley's joke, and it was supposedly a joke earlier today, going to play with Iowa voters?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, she's going to have to clean it up. But when she's asked probably first or second question in the debate tonight, even if she's asked her name, she should probably clean it up as soon as she can.

How big of a deal it is? Iowa voters will decide that. That's how political reporters talk. Because history does tell you Iowa often supports one candidate and New Hampshire says, thanks but no thanks and supports somebody else. She's not supposed to talk like that.

Now, how big of a deal? I don't know. I think the bigger question is this is the second unforced error in just a couple of weeks for Nikki Haley. When she was asked about the civil war, she forgot to mention slavery as the key cause, the central cause, the central reason of the civil war, the war of the states.

And so it's another unforced error by a candidate who has had some momentum. How much momentum is an interesting question. But the old cliche in politics, if you're explaining you're losing, you don't want to be cleaning up. She wants to be building support, not trying to keep what she has. And as Kristen noted, those undecided voters, you don't want them thinking, I was going to go there, but maybe I should look somewhere else.

BLITZER: Yes, important point. Nia-Malika Henderson is with us as well.

DeSantis says Haley just doesn't get, doesn't understand Iowa voters the way he does.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, listen, I mean, it's not like DeSantis is doing so well right now in the polls either. If you look at them, you've got Trump, who has been leading most of the polls that have been taken over the last month. He's been trying to break out of the pack. DeSantis has, he's got the endorsement of some top officials there on the kind of evangelical side, as well as the governor there.


But he hasn't really had any momentum either.

He is looking, I think, to gain some momentum in this town hall tonight, really sort of block any path that Nikki Haley will have. But, listen, you know, it's the closing final stretch of this.

One of my colleagues at Bloomberg was reporting that his advisers see a sort of ten-point loss. If he can keep it sort of within ten points of Trump in the Iowa caucuses, that would be a sort of win. But, obviously --

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. But Trump wants to get above 50 percent.

HENDERSON: I think that's right. And you don't get any delegates if you come in second. It's a winner take all. So, it's a fight for second.

BLITZER: Yes, it's a critically important point.

CNN, as you know, Gloria, we ran some numbers on the DeSantis and Haley campaign's ads in Iowa. Let me put some of those numbers up on the screen. They each spent a lot more attacking each other than Trump, who is the frontrunner, as we all know. Haley spent $10 million targeting DeSantis, just 1.5 million targeting Trump. DeSantis spent $7.6 million targeting Haley, just 500,000 targeting Trump.

BORGER: Well, what does that tell you? They don't want to target Donald Trump. They've each dipped their toe in the water. They've said he spent too much, he's full of chaos, et cetera. And they can go on and on, but they don't talk about the insurrection, they don't talk about democracy. They don't talk about him saying he wanted to be a dictator, even if only for a day. They're afraid of losing his voters.

And so they're trying to thread the needle here. And the ads show it perfectly. I mean, they're attacking each other for second place.

HENDERSON: A distant second place.

BORGER: A distant second place. But, you know, the feeling that Nikki Haley has is if she does okay in Iowa, then she can really give Trump a run for his money in New Hampshire and then on to South Carolina, right? That's the theory of her game.

BLITZER: I thought it was interesting, John, that Trump launched his first official T.V. ad attacking Nikki Haley in New Hampshire. Let me play a clip.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Haley and Biden opposed Trump's border wall, yet Haley joined Biden in opposing Trump's visitor ban from terrorist nations. Haley's weakness puts us in grave danger.


BLITZER: So what does that tell you?

KING: That he's worried about her. That's what it tells you. You don't spend money, and Donald Trump especially doesn't spend campaign money going after somebody unless he's a little worried about it, which is, again, why, if these comments hurt Haley in Iowa, if saying New Hampshire corrects Iowa, that would be a lost opportunity for her because everybody you talk to in New Hampshire, where, again, independents and Democrats, if they want, could show up and vote in the Republican primary, that she has a chance there.

There's one poll out today that shows her actually pretty close to Trump in New Hampshire, you know, don't believe any one poll, but there's an opportunity for her there. But there's a week between Iowa and New Hampshire and you want to come out of Iowa with at least some momentum. But Trump is not going to spend that money unless he sees a threat. So, he clearly sees a threat.

HENDERSON: Yes, I think that's right. New Hampshire is, in so many ways, a perfect state for Nikki Haley. She's seen as sort of more moderate. She is sort of selling herself as a more modern face of the GOP, somebody who's younger, and so, yes, definitely a threat.

And, listen, if she does decently there, then she's on to South Carolina, which, of course, is her home state. A lot of the polls show that Donald Trump seems to be the favorite of South Carolina Republicans. But listen, it's anybody's game, I think.

BORGER: And DeSantis calls her the establishment. He said, oh, okay, she's the establishment. You don't want the establishment anymore. We're over that in the Republican Party.

KING: It's a reminder, though, Wolf, if you're going to stop Trump or at least slow him, prove he's vulnerable, you have Iowa and New Hampshire, maybe Nevada and South Carolina to do it. So, we're three weeks and a month away from knowing, is this going to go on or is it Trump out of the gates.

BLITZER: He heads -- Trump heads to Iowa tomorrow. He's cleared by all the polls, the frontrunner right now.


BLITZER: Do you see any possibility that could change?

BORGER: Let me look into my crystal ball. Look, I think it's very unlikely that Trump is not going to win Iowa. Let's just say that. Let me go out on a limb.

HENDERSON: That Trump is going to win Iowa.

BORGER: Sorry, that he is going to win Iowa, and that he's trying to get above 50 percent.

I think the question is how close did the other candidates, one of the other two come to him in Iowa? Are they ten points behind? Are they 30 points behind him? I mean, that is going to make a difference. I mean, there's no doubt about it that Nikki Haley wants a springboard to New Hampshire where she's doing well. So, if she can come in even second place in Iowa or a close third, then they'll consider that a victory.

BLITZER: It will help her. What do you think we should be looking for in tonight's two town halls?

KING: To see if it just is the fight for second place. If Haley wants to spend most of her time going after DeSantis, or if they do, make a calculation, the story today about foreign governments paying money to Trump businesses while he was president of the United States.


Republicans want to talk about Hunter Biden's swampiness.

Here's an opportunity to say, well, wait, we got a problem too. Do they go after Trump or do they go after each other? DeSantis is stressing cultural issues, like abortion, trying to get evangelical support in Iowa. Haley is trying to go for a more moderate, more suburban mix. Do they change what they were doing yesterday, today? That will tell you their calculation for the final stretch.

HENDERSON: Because they've got to bend this arc, right? I mean, so far, they are in a distant second place, both DeSantis and Haley, and that only benefits Trump. I mean, you talk to Republicans at this point. They see a path for Donald Trump to run the table and win every single state.

Can something tonight, can they have breakout moments, not only tonight, but in the --

BORGER: But they had no choice but to each one to try and destroy the other. They have no choice.

BLITZER: We shall see what happens. It's going to be interesting, guys. Thank you very, very much.

And stay with CNN tonight for our back-to-back Town Halls with Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley, all live from Iowa, and it begins at 9:00 P.M. Eastern only here on CNN.

I want to get to some breaking news out of Iowa right now, a deadly school shooting. Police now say a 17-year-old student opened fire at Perry High School just outside of Des Moines, killing a sixth grader and wounding five other people.

Authorities say the gunman died of a self-inflicted wound. An explosive device also was found at the school, and an investigation is underway with no word at least yet on a motive, very sad.

Just ahead, a new report outlines millions, millions of dollars in foreign government spending at various Donald Trump properties during his presidency. I'll get reaction from Republican Presidential Candidate Chris Christie, as the former governor has a new ad calling his 2016 endorsement of Trump a mistake.



BLITZER: A new report from House Democrats details at least $7.8 million of foreign government spending at various Donald Trump properties during his presidency. And that includes $5.5 million from China alone.

CNN's Melanie Zanona is joining us from Capitol Hill right now. She's got details. Melanie, what does this report show about China's potential influence on Trump?

MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: Well, Wolf, this report certainly raises questions about whether Donald Trump was influenced by foreign entities and foreign governments during his time as president because his businesses received a lot more money from foreign countries than was previously known, including from China, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia. In fact, the Chinese government alone spent more than $5.5 million at Trump properties during just two years of Trump's presidency, which is significantly more than any other foreign country.

And we should also point out that that number is likely only a tiny fraction of the overall payments that Trump's businesses actually received because this report, Wolf, only covers two years of the Trump presidency and only accounts for a handful of Trump's businesses.

So, the question really here is whether that money influenced Trump's policymaking. One example cited in this report was that Trump declined to issue sanctions on the Chinese bank despite the fact that the DOJ had issued a complaint and accused the Chinese bank of conspiring with North Korea to avoid sanctions. And that bank, Wolf, was one of the largest tenants of Trump Tower.

Now, a lot of these lease agreements were happening before Trump became president, so it's complicated. It's not a clear cut and dry issue here. And meanwhile, the Trump Organization has denied any wrongdoing. But we should point out that this report from House Democrats is coming as House Republicans are pursuing an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden over his son's foreign business deals.

But at this point, Republicans have not proved that Biden has personally profited or made any policy decisions because of those foreign business deals. So, no doubt, Democrats going to try to use this report to draw a contrast between Biden and Trump ahead of a potential impeachment and ahead of the 2024 election, Wolf.

BLITZER: I'm sure they will. Melanie Zanona up on Capitol Hill, thank you very much.

And joining me now, Republican Presidential Candidate and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Governor, thank you so much for joining us.

First, I want to get to this report alleging that the Chinese government and its state-controlled entities spent over $5.5 million at various Trump properties while he was in office. Do you believe Trump was actually compromised by this Chinese spending?

CHRIS CHRISTIE, REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, it certainly doesn't look good, Wolf, that's for sure. And whether he made any decisions based on that, I have no idea. But what I would say is this was the problem from the beginning in the way Donald Trump decided to handle his business affairs and having his sons nominally be in charge. I think all of us know that he never really let go of his business interests while he was president.

And so these are things that just continue to add to the reasons why he's unfit to be president of the United States again. The fact is that this putting himself before the people of the country is an ongoing pattern in this and many other instances. And so whether it compromised him or not, I don't know. I wasn't in the room as he was making decisions. But what I can tell you is that it's just the repeat of a pattern where he doesn't care about the American people as much as he cares about people whose last name is Trump.

BLITZER: I want to get to this new filing also, Governor, from Donald Trump's legal team, which wants the Justice Department's special counsel, Jack Smith, sanctioned and possibly held in contempt. I know you served as the U.S. attorney in New Jersey. What do you make of this?

CHRISTIE: No, I don't make much of it, Wolf. Look, Donald Trump knows that as Jack Smith continues to make filings, public filings about the case regarding January 6th, that it continues to make Donald Trump look worse and worse. And so what he'd like to do is to have that stop because he recognizes that people are getting ready to start to vote in 11 days in Iowa and in 19 days here in New Hampshire, where I am tonight.


And fact is that he wants that to stop. And so he's instructing his lawyers to go ahead and file things like this.

I don't think this will lead to any sanction for Jack Smith. He's preparing his case while the case is on appeal. He's getting the matter ready, filing discovery and other matters with the court, so that if, in fact, Donald Trump's immunity claims are denied, which I believe they will be by the D.C. Circuit Courts, then they'll be ready to move to trial as expeditiously as possible and have a trial so that the public knows the results of that case before the election in November of '24, if, in fact, Trump were to be the nominee.

BLITZER: You just released an unusual new digital ad, Governor, in which you admit to making what you call a past mistake. Let me play a little clip of that for our audience. Watch this.


CHRISTIE: When I decided to endorse Donald Trump for president, I did it because he was winning. And I did it because I thought I could make him a better candidate and a better president. Well, I was wrong. I made a mistake.


BLITZER: So, Governor, why should voters trust your judgment now? And what other mistakes have you made?

CHRISTIE: Well, jeez, Wolf, I don't know. Are we going to have an hour long program to review all of that? I mean, like any person who's lived 61 years, there's a number of mistakes I've made over time. I think the difference between me and other people in this business is I'm willing to admit when I make a mistake, and I think that's what that digital ad is all about. And I think we'd be a much better country and our government would be run much better if people didn't try to pretend they were perfect.

I think the public knows that there's no perfect person out there, certainly no one who's offering themselves their office, who are perfect. And when I make a mistake, I'm willing to admit it. I've done that in the past, not only here in this campaign, but when I was governor of New Jersey, when I made a mistake, I'd admit it. I did what I thought was best at the time, but I turned out to be wrong. And when you decide that you did something that you think was a mistake, I think the right thing to do, the way I was brought up was to admit that.

BLITZER: The way I was brought up as well, you admit your mistakes and you move on. The New Hampshire governor, Chris Sununu, who's endorsed Nikki Haley for president, as you know, says you should actually drop out of the race. I want to play a little clip. Watch this.


GOV. CHRIS SUNUNU (R-NH): Chris has an opportunity to be kind of the hero here. Not just bow out gracefully, but help consolidate this race, help do the right thing, help deliver Trump that loss in New Hampshire, that we all know is very possible.


BLITZER: So, how do you respond to Sununu?

CHRISTIE: Well, look, I wish that Governor Sununu would remember all the things that he used to say about Donald Trump before he started working for Nikki Haley. And now he's got at least a partial muzzle on him because the Haley campaign doesn't want to say negative things about Donald Trump, wants to say he's the right president for the right time, that, for some reason, chaos and drama follow him wherever he goes.

Look, I remember when Chris used to be one of the most outspoken folks on Donald Trump in the country and how unfit he was to be president. Since he's working with Nikki Haley, he's now saying that he would vote for Donald Trump.

So, I don't know how to respond to Chris in that way. He's obviously made a political decision. That's his right to do as it is my right to make decisions that I think are in the best interest of the country. And my candidacy and the honesty and the integrity that we're presenting regarding Donald Trump is something that not only the whole party needs to hear, but the whole country needs to hear. And I wish Chris would get back to that and stop with some of the political nonsense that he's putting out there now.

BLITZER: Governor, thank you so much for joining us.

CHRISTIE: Wolf, thanks for having me.

BLITZER: And coming up, ISIS claims responsibility for a deadly twin bombing attack in Iran. Is the latest outbreak of violence in the Middle East at risk of spiraling totally out of control?


BLITZER: Tonight, a flurry of violence in the Middle East is sparking new fears that the war between Israel and Hamas could widen well beyond Gaza's borders. And that includes a deadly pair of bombings in Iran now claimed by ISIS.

CNN's Nic Robertson is joining us right now from Tel Aviv and Israel. He's got the latest information. What is ISIS saying, Nic, about this attack? NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes. ISIS is saying that they used two suicide bombers, two brothers, in fact, to attack and kill those civilians in Iran. Indeed, they are claiming to have killed over 300 people at that attack.

Now, part of the rationale they laid out as well was that Iran is using its Sunni neighbors as proxies for its own fight, for its own end. So, this is a critique ISIS is leveling at Iran here. And also they're targeting Soleimani, it appears the memory of him, the memorial, because they saw him as part of the coalition trying to bring down ISIS. So, they're saying they're responsible.

Their story is not quite matching up to what Iran said. Iran had said that one of the bombs at least was in a suitcase, that it was remotely detonated. ISIS is saying suicide bombers. But the pattern and the style of attack, killing a large number of innocent civilians, is very typical of ISIS. And here, they are doing it quite simply because they are Sunni and all these people here that they killed, they believe are Shia Muslims.

BLITZER: Very sad indeed. Nic, amid a spike in these attacks by various Iran-backed groups, the U.S. targeted now a key commander.


Tell us what you can about that.

ROBERTSON: Yes. This is a key commander based in Iraq, an Iraqi in a faction that's backed by Iran. They say that he had U.S. blood on his hands and this is a bold and strong move and is a number of strikes against Iranian interests. We have the killing of the Hamas leader in Beirut under the noses of Hezbollah, the Iranian proxy there, and just about ten days prior to that, the killing of an important Iranian commander inside Syria. No one claimed responsibility for that, but the indications were that it was very likely Israel.

So, I asked the former head of the IDF's military intelligence, Amos Yadlin, what he thought about the rise in all these strikes. And he said he believed at the moment that they were underneath a threshold that could lead to an escalation. And part of the rationale for that is because that whatever is done at the moment, even the fact that Iran has sent a destroyer to the Red Sea to apparently back up for Houthis in their attacks against shipping and Israel from there, that even if that destroyer ship was sunk, that Israel -- that rather Iran wouldn't strike back. This is how he told me.


AMOS YADLIN, FORMER HEAD, IDF'S MILITARY INTELLIGENCE DIRECTORATE: I think the Iranians will be very, very careful, even if after a provocation they will suffer a loss, but starting a war with the U.S. or even with Israel, they are not there yet.


ROBERTSON: And so I think that's the assessment from here, despite the fact that there have been incidents that could raise the temperature in Tehran, it is not sufficient to bring a significant and big escalation right now, Wolf.

BLITZER: Nic Robertson at Tel Aviv for us, thank you very much.

I want to bring in Democratic Congressman Jason Crow of the House Intelligence and Foreign Affairs Committees. He's joining us now live. Congressman, thanks so much.

What's your understanding, first of all, of why ISIS seems to have perpetrated this latest attack inside Iran?

REP. JASON CROW (D-CO): Well, Wolf, good to be with you. I mean, that the ISIS conflict and their attacks throughout the region date back decades now and really centuries. This is the Sunni-Shia conflict that we see playing out in a lot of different ways throughout the Middle East. So, it is interesting to see a large-scale attack like this in Iran and what Iran's response is going to be to combat ISIS.

But ISIS has been a problem in Afghanistan, has been a problem in Syria and, of course, it was a huge problem in Iraq. We were able to help address that problem with our counter-ISIS campaign and we still have thousands of troops in the region Iraq and Syria and other places to help our allies address it. But, of course, Iran is not an ally but they've been caught up in this fighting as well.

BLITZER: As you know, Congressman, as the U.S. strikes Iranian proxies in Baghdad and threatens more action against the Houthis in Yemen, how does the U.S. military stop Iran-backed aggressors without sparking a much wider war?

CROW: Well, this is tough stuff, Wolf. I mean, the Middle East is a delicate volatile and dangerous place. You have dozens of countries some of which are allies and partners, some of which are not, dozens of different offshoot terrorist organizations, and, of course, we have tens of thousands of troops in many installations, U.S. military installations and in other facilities in the region.

So, making sure that we put the right assets in place, number one, that we surge assets and that we create the rights right force protection level, making sure that we have enough defensive of layers around our troops and around Americans, but that we not do too much of, that we not tip the balance and create more conflict in the process. And all the while, we're doing this while we're addressing the conflict in Gaza as well, where we have Israel, our partner, trying to dismantle the Hamas terrorist organization.

So, coordinating all of this is very tricky business and the administration is working very hard to do so.

BLITZER: On Israel's war against Hamas inside Gaza, Congressman, the State Department now says Israel is still falling short of protecting Palestinian civilians there. You've criticized Israel's military strategy, and, as you know, your Democratic colleague, Senator Bernie Sanders, is going further saying Congress should actually stop funding this war. Would you support conditions on weapons to Israel? CROW: Well, what I want to do is I want to make sure that when we're using U.S. taxpayer money to support an ally as in Israel, which is one of our closest allies, that we do so in a way that makes sure that U.S. interests are protected and our allies' interests are protected.

And I do have very deep concerns about Prime Minister Netanyahu's approach. It's Prime Minister Netanyahu and his war council that is deciding to approach this in a certain way that has resulted in untenable and unacceptable levels of civilian casualties.


Now, we know how to fight terrorism. We have learned some really hard lessons over the last 20-plus years fighting our own war on terrorism. And some of those lessons that I learned is this. You just can't cut the head off of the snake. If you treat this as a snake and you do what's called decapitation operations, you just can't cut the head off of the snake and hope that the snake will die, in the case of Hamas, because they're more like hydras, you cut the head off and it sprouts three new heads. So, every time civilians are killed in these strikes, you're creating the next generation of terrorists. So, you have to have a drastically different approach than what they're taking right now.

And you have to center the protection of innocence and the protection of civilians and the provision of humanitarian aid in safe zones while you, in a very surgical way, go after these terrorist organizations. And right now Israel has not been doing that. And that's why I've joined with many of my colleagues to push them to do so because we want this to be successful.

BLITZER: Congressman Jason Crow of Colorado, thank you so much for joining us.

CROW: Thank you.

BLITZER: And just ahead, we're counting down to CNN's back-to-back town halls with Republican Presidential Candidates Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis. A key Haley supporter, New Hampshire's Republican Governor Chris Sununu, is standing by to join me live. That's coming up next.



BLITZER: We're closing in on tonight's back to back CNN town halls featuring two of the Republican candidates with the best shot at potentially beating Donald Trump. We're talking about Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis.

Joining us now, New Hampshire's Republican Governor Chris Sununu. He's endorsed Nikki Haley for president. Governor, thank you so much for joining us.

As you know, Donald Trump has taken notice of Nikki Haley's rise. It's been pretty dramatic and is slamming her and comparing her to President Biden in a brand new ad that they just released. I want you and our viewers to watch this clip. Watch it.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Haley and Biden oppose Trump's order wall, confirmed warnings of terrorists sneaking in through our southern border. Yet Haley joined Biden in opposing Trump's visitor ban from terrorist nations. Haley's weakness puts us in grave danger.


BLITZER: So far, Haley has been largely reluctant to attack Trump, yet he has no problem slamming her. Does she need to more forcefully make the case against Trump?

SUNUNU: Well, look, I think Nikki does a great job talking about the former president. She and I both support him in '16 and '20. Moving on, when you see that the president is now trying to attack Nikki Haley, there's one reason, he's scared. He knows that she's surging. He knows her numbers are moving in Iowa and New Hampshire. She has a shot to beat him in New Hampshire. He has to win both states to maintain expectations. But she's kind of outdone expectations and we expect her to do so here in New Hampshire.

So, I think it's great that he's attacking her. I think it shows his weakness and he's scared. I mean, the fact that he's trying to say that she didn't support his border wall, that's the number one thing she talks about is border security. And I would remind Donald Trump, there is no border wall. Where is that southern border wall that you promised Republicans and didn't deliver on?

So, the more the former president gets nervous about her, the more it means Nikki is doing the right thing. And she's campaigning, right? She's on the trail. She's engaging with voters. She's not just buying ads, you know, big ads and sitting at home. She's really working that campaign trail, allowing folks to interact with her. And that's why her numbers are surging. She's doing it the right way.

BLITZER: At the same time, Governor DeSantis is now accusing Nikki Haley of insulting the people of Iowa for suggesting New Hampshire would, quote, correct Iowa's vote. Was that a mistake?

SUNUNU: No. Look, it was a joke. I mean, look, Iowa and New Hampshire have always gone first and second. We're always a little chippy at each other, but we understand our roles. I think Nikki made a joke last night, and it was clearly just a joke.

And anyone trying to blow that out of proportion is clearly overly sensitive and realizes that Nikki is surging. They're looking for anything they can to try to slow her down in Iowa. It's not going to work because she's so genuine. She's so out there. She's making the investment of her time. She's listening to the voters.

Again, I think the last three polls in Iowa have those two basically dead even, DeSantis and Nikki, and that gets the DeSantis people nervous.

So, it's understandable that they're trying to make hay out of a joke, but she's moving forward so well.

BLITZER: You've called for Chris Christie to actually drop out of the race. He responded to that just a little while ago right here in The Situation Room in an interview with me. Watch this.


CHRISTIE: I wish that Governor Sununu would remember all the things that he used to say about Donald Trump before he started working for Nikki Haley. And now he's got at least a partial muzzle on him because the Haley campaign doesn't want to say negative things about Donald Trump.

My candidacy and the honesty and the integrity that we're presenting regarding Donald Trump is something that not only the whole party needs to hear, but the whole country needs to hear.


BLITZER: So how do you respond to that, Governor?

SUNUNU: Well, look, yes, obviously, I haven't changed my position on Trump. Nothing has changed in the past month. Chris is a great guy and was a great governor. I chose not to endorse my. I know he's disappointed.

At the end of the day, this is about winning, and Chris Christie knows that more than anybody. This is about consolidating the vote, beating Trump in the primary, making sure -- and we always knew, and Chris knew that it was a long shot, all of them are -- for all of them it was a long shot and we always had to consolidate around the candidate that was going to make it a one-on-one race. That's clearly Nikki Haley. It's Haley versus Trump at this point going forward.

And, again, he has a strategy. It's kind of a one-state strategy New Hampshire, a one-message strategy, just being anti-Trump. It hasn't translated into the votes, right? It hasn't translated into enough of a message, in a strong enough message to galvanize the votes. It's all about winning, right, it's not about it's not about anything but making sure that we can defeat Trump.

Now, he has an amazing opportunity, as you've heard me say before, to be the guy that kind of gets behind Nikki Haley, allows all of his voters to come behind her, which they would and be that margin of victory and not kind of cost it.


I mean, he has the chance to deliver Trump the lost that he's been talking about for so long. That's an amazing opportunity for Chris. I think he'll get off board. I think he'll find that he's done a great job and that he just has -- he has an opportunity to finish really strong right now and deliver Trump the loss that Trump never thought he have.

BLITZER: Governor Sununu, thanks so much for joining us. SUNUNU: You bet.

BLITZER: All right. We'll be right back. We have more news.


BLITZER: Breaking news we're following. A court unseals a second batch of documents about accused sex trafficker, Jeffrey Epstein.

Let's go to CNN's Kara Scannell. She's following the story for us.

What are you learning, Kara?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So, Wolf, this new batch just landed. It's a little more than 300 pages and our team is diligently working through it. This followed the batch that was released yesterday, that had no bombshells but it shed light on the elite circle that Jeffrey Epstein traveled in.


SCANNELL (voice-over): Politicians, a prince, and other prominent man. Their identities all contained in new Jeffrey Epstein documents, unsealed Wednesday. It's the first batch of sealed court filings related to the late sex trafficker released following a judge's order last month, with dozens more documents soon to be public.


Epstein's circle of associates as well known, but the records provide the public more context about the exclusive world he traveled in while facing accusations of misconduct.

GLORIA ALLRED, WOMEN'S RIGHTS LAWYER: I would say that there's not much new in this, but I do think that it's important that the public have access to the documents, because it isn't just about Epstein.

SCANNELL: The pages name prominent figures including Prince Andrew, former Presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, and stem from a civil defamation lawsuit brought in 2015 against Epstein's former girlfriend, Ghislaine Maxwell.

Included are depositions, including one taken in 2016 from Johanna Sjoberg, who worked for Epstein. She said in the document that she and Epstein had a conversation and, quote, he said one time that Clinton likes them young, referring to girls. When asked if Clinton was a friend of Epstein's, she said she understood Epstein had, quote, dealings with Clinton.

Clinton has not been accused of any crime to wrongdoing related to Epstein and has denied any kind of criminal activity. A spokesperson for Clinton on Wednesday reiterated that Clinton knew nothing of Epstein's crimes. Sjoberg also recalled the time she was with Epstein on one of his planes. And a pilot said he needed to land in Atlantic City. Jeffrey said, great, we'll call up Trump and go to, I don't recall the name of the casino but we will go to the casino. She says in the deposition she never gave a massage to Trump.

In 2002, Trump called Epstein a terrific guy but later said he threw Epstein out of his Mar-a-Lago club. Trump is not accused of any wrongdoing. When CNN asked for a statement, the Trump campaign responded by attacking the media.

The documents also contain excerpts of a deposition taken from the woman behind the lawsuit, Virginia Roberts Giuffre who previously reached an out of court settlement in a separate sexual abuse lawsuit against Prince Andrew. Giuffre alleged in her deposition that she was Epstein's sex slave and Maxwell directed her to have sexual contact with people including Prince Andrew, and former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson who died last year.

But, Prince Andrew and Richardson have denied wrongdoing. A spokesperson for Richardson denied he had ever met Giuffre.

LISA BRYANT, DIRECTOR, "JEFFREY EPSTEIN: FILTHY RICH": I think for the survivors and the attorneys who have been working so hard to bring this to light, I do think it gives them a sense of at least some satisfaction and justice that we are keeping the conversation going.

SCANNELL: Giuffre's attorney says the disclosure furthers the important goal of shutting down sex trafficking wherever it exists, and holding more to account. The unsealing of these documents gets us close to that goal. Attorneys for Ghislaine Maxwell, who is serving a 20-year prison sentence that in a statement on Wednesday, she has consistently and vehemently maintained her innocence.


SCANNELL (on camera): Now, this new batch won't be the last batch of documents that we get. We're expecting to receive dozens and dozens more over the next coming days -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Kara Scannell reporting for us, thank you.

Coming up, the five biggest cities in the United States reporting drops in their homicide rates. We're going to take a closer look at what's going on.



BLITZER: The five biggest U.S. cities are now reporting significant downturns in their homicide rates during 2023.

Brian Todd is looking into this for us.

Brian, why is this?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The explanations vary, Wolf, from a more functional and efficient criminal justice system, to police departments and major cities dramatically changing their strategies on the streets. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): Following years of crime surges in America related to the pandemic and tensions over social justice, new indications tonight that the tide of violent crime may finally have turned in some cities. CNN has compiled numbers from police departments of major American cities. And, in the five biggest cities in the U.S., New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Phoenix, homicide rates were way down in 2023 from the previous year, a drop of more than 10 percent in all those cities.

ANDREW MCCABE, FORMER FBI DEPUTY DIRECTOR: Folks who have been in and around law enforcement for decades, like I have, I don't think we ever thought we'd see decreases like this.

TODD: New York City's homicides dropped last year after four consecutive years of homicide increases in the city.

MAYOR ERIC ADAMS (D), NEW YORK: These numbers tell us that we are turning the corner of crime in the city.

TODD: In Baltimore, victimized by relentless violence in recent years, 2023 was the first year the city saw fewer than 300 homicides in almost a decade. Detroit experienced the fewest homicides that city has seen since 1966. Analysts say part of that is due to an excess of people from Detroit. But, part of it isn't.

MCCABE: It speaks to the way they are thinking about law enforcement. They're thinking about interacting with the public, the way they are approaching solving crimes.

TODD: Other possible factors in the overall decline, the criminal justice system being more functional now after much of it was shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic. And, experts say, police departments have started using affective strategies like focused deterrence.

ED DAVIS, FORMER BOSTON POLICE COMMISSIONER: There is always a small number of people in a small number of locations in the cities that drive these horrendous numbers. You can go in and use this targeted enforcement process to take out the major actors.

TODD: Still, the perceptions amongst Americans tend to contradict the numbers. According to a recent Gallup poll, more than three quarters of Americans believe there is more crime in the U.S. than a year ago. Analysts say the rhetoric from the campaign trail sometimes fuels misperceptions.

DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT: Crime is rampant and out of control, like never before.

TODD: And, experts say the tension on sensational crimes like smash and grab robberies, fuels perceptions that crime is rampant.

DAVIS: Social media tends to exacerbate peoples perception of things by continually publishing videos that are out there that show really outrageous crimes.


TODD (on camera): Now, not all the news on major crime is positive. The FBI says vehicle thief went up in 2023, and here in Washington, D.C., police report more homicides last year than the city has had in over 20 years, Wolf. Things are still pretty bad here in D.C.

BLITZER: Very sad, indeed.

All right. Brian Todd reporting. Thank you very much.

And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.