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Buttigieg Looks to Iowa to Get His Momentum Back; New DHS Rule Let Administration Detain Migrant Families Longer; DOJ Newsletter Included Link to White Nationalist Site; Pelosi Holds Dem Caucus Calls As Impeachment Calls Grow Louder. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired August 23, 2019 - 12:30   ET


[12:30:00] JOHN KING, CNN HOST: -- this is not as Congressman Moulton says a three-candidate race.


MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG (D-IN), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We can't get too caught up in what's happening from day to day or even week to week. What we know is that we have arrived as a major presence in this competition. Now we've got to do the often unglamorous, often behind- the-scenes work of firming up the relationships that turn a lot of sympathy and interest and goodwill into actual wins on the caucus night.


KING: Welcome back.

Jealous of any trip to Iowa. He has a point. This is tackling and buckling, organize, you can change the national polls by win, place, or show in Iowa. How are they doing?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's interesting. Keep in mind that just a few months ago they have four people on their campaign team, now they have stuffed up to 300 total, they got 60 in the states. So really they're just starting to become a fully functioning campaign nationally and in the state itself. And what they're trying to do is essentially figure out a way to not just to build a team on the fly but also break through.

Keep in mind it's August, people are on vacations. You've got 20-plus people that are calling every Democrat that's in a voter file, nothing is breaking through, people aren't picking their phones. And so the idea the Buttigieg campaign has is twofold. One, if people hear him and his name recognition has steadily risen over the course of the last couple of months, he has a chance with them. And you hear that a lot in certain parts of the state. That he's in their top three, they're interested in what he has to say.

And the other is they're trying to use their volunteers and they give some behind-the-scenes look at this to really use relationships as opposed to that voter files, as opposed to just door knocking to try and get people to pick up the phone, call your relatives, call family, call Facebook friends and start through that process. Get your diehards to sell him himself and that way supplement or almost serve as a multiplier effect to the campaign.

I think everybody's theory of the case is that Biden's numbers are very clearly upfront but are also vulnerable and they want to be there through their organization, through their ground operations when that actually happens, if that actually happens.

KING: So here's the plus for Mayor Pete Buttigieg in the sense that we can show you the polling graphic. You've had the same top five candidates in the Democratic race since June. He's down there at the bottom. He's down at the bottom, he's around five percent.

Senator Harris in recent polls has slipped down there with him. Joe Biden as you noted at the top. If you add up Warren and Sanders, you get Biden. The block thereof the progressive candidates so that's great. He's in the top tier in 21. But the five percent has been a pretty static line despite him being on the stage in two rounds of debates. What's he missing?

DARREN SANDS, POLITICAL REPORTER, BUZZFEED: Yes, it's very difficult I think, to make an incremental argument about your progress that you're making in your campaign whether -- especially in an election like this where there are so many candidates and there's such a rush by the Democratic electorate to want to beat Trump. Mayor Pete has an advantage which is essentially that he has a lot of money to sort of make that case over the course of the next few months here. And I think we're going to see as him really sort of lean into that idea of electability as an operation that's going to have a lot of resources to do what they need to do especially on the ground in a place like Iowa. Don't count out New Hampshire. These are places with, you know, lots of young people who's already out there I think really early talking to lots of college students. I think he's in South Carolina if I'm not mistaken. But, I mean, he's already taking these really, I think, deft moves, these steps to not just reach out to these people but to make the case for himself that --

KING: And he makes the case and we'll play a little bit more from your interview. He makes the case that Washington is talking about impeachment or tracking the latest Trump tweets and there's, you know, the left and the right. He's convinced and a lot of candidates say this, the question is can he prove it that if you go county-to-county through Iowa, talk about the stuff that matters locally, you can change the conversation.


BUTTIGIEG: People aren't following the blow-by-blow of what's on cable. They don't care about what's happening with the fight over Greenland or the latest tweet. They want to know am I going to lose the last rural hospital in my region. Are my kids going to have the ability to grow up and thrive in this town that we've lived in for generations?

If I'm newer in this country, am I going to feel welcome and are my kids going to thrive here? Is it safe? How am I going to pay for prescription drugs? It's very much on the ground.


KING: Now somebody will surprise us in Iowa, probably a couple of people. Some will surprise us and underperform, some will surprise and over perform. The question is does he have the right ideas for it and the right team to help him do the nuts and bolts?

MATTINGLY: You know, it's interesting. As the campaign has evolved, he started with -- he was critiqued a lot for not having any policy proposals, right? And over the course of the last month along with building ground operations, you're seeing a lot more of those roll out. And it's really kind of trying to back what he just said is his theory of how this is going to work.

Big investment in rural communities plans that came out a couple of days ago. It was pretty well received in Iowa when I was talking to people. A big mental health plan that was rolled out today. This idea which has been pervasive in the Democratic field that policy can win. Having big policy conversations is what voters want to hear about is something that he's now bringing to the table as well.

I think -- and Julie was on my flight to Des Moines so I know she was there too. I think the biggest question right now is given how many people are in the field, what actually breaks through.

[12:35:04] And if you think back to the two debates, Pete Buttigieg had two very solid debates but nobody was really talking about him afterward and he didn't get a big bounce. And is that and the idea that we just want to beat Trump and whoever is the safest one can do it and maybe a late 30s mayor who hasn't had any national exposure as a guy, can he still find a way to break through given those dynamics in the current race.

KING: There will be several different adjustments and resets in this race starting debates in September, debates in October, and more winnowing of the field. So we shall see. We shall see, it's interesting to watch. Appreciate the reporting.

Flashback Friday as we go to break here, 11 years ago today, Barack Obama announced a guy named Joe Biden as his running mate. Biden, of course, in the race now playing up that relationship with the most popular Democrat in the country, calling it the greatest honor of my life.


[12:40:18] KING: Topping our political radar today, a Trump nominee for a federal appeals court seat now facing backlash over editorials he wrote in college newspapers and other publications back in the 1990s and early 2000s. Steven Menashi denounced feminist marches against sexual assault, he dismissed education about multi-cultural awareness and accused an LGBTQ group of exploiting a gay student's murder for political gains. If confirmed by the Senate, Menashi, a Stanford-trained lawyer would serve on the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That court covers New York, Connecticut, and Vermont.

We just learned moments ago President Trump and the Danish prime minister talked on the phone. That following their big dust-up earlier this week over Greenland. A spokesperson for the Danish leader said they had a constructive conversation yesterday. They talked about how to build on their existing cooperation and the need to manage shared security and political challenges. No word on who initiated that call.

The White House has scrapped a plan that would have cut $4 billion in foreign aid funding without congressional approval. A source telling CNN it was President Trump's decision not to move forward with that proposal despite administration complaints about what it considers wasteful spending. Here's what the secretary of state had to say.


MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: What I have consistently said with respect to every penny the State department spends including our foreign assistance budget, is we've got to get it right. We've got to make sure we are using it in ways that are effective, that American interests are represented in the way he spends that money and that includes our foreign assistance program.


KING: Up next, a new and major controversy at the Justice Department after it says it mistakenly send a blog post full of racist and anti- Semitic content to the nation's immigration courts.


[12:46:41] KING: There's a new wrinkle as the Trump administration takes aggressive and controversial steps designed to slow illegal immigration and even legal asylum requests. A new frontman who shares the president's vigor and his vocabulary.


KEN CUCCINELLI, ACTING DIRECTOR, USCIS: This is a deterrent because they know that instead of rushing the border which is what's been going on for a number of years now, by using the massive numbers coming to the border and overwhelming our facilities that -- and our capacity to hold folks, now they can and will to the extent we're able to do so hold them until those hearings happen. They won't simply be released into the interior for us to never see them again.


KING: Ken Cuccinelli just recently joined the administration but he is a constant media presence now giving the president an ally on television as he pushes policies the president sees as central to his 2020 re-election message. The latest, that proposed rule that would allow the administration to indefinitely detain families taken into custody trying to sneak across the border. That policy which is sure to face operation in the courts.

In addition to that policy fight, there's also a new dust-up over an e-mail sent, an e-mail from the United States Department of Justice to immigration court employees. First reported by BuzzFeed and confirmed by CNN, the National Association of Immigration judges says the Monday e-mail contained material, quote, from a website known for publishing white nationalist ideology and anti-Semitic tropes.

Who's in charge that that can happen? It's -- I say it almost flippantly but the idea that people in the Justice Department of all places are distributing to immigration court employees, including judges around the country, trash, hateful trash, how does that happen?

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It's stunning. And I mean, I think one of the things that, you know, the reason that Ken Cuccinelli is where he is at the Department of Homeland Security is because for such a long time the president has been displeased with the leaders of that agency and feeling like he did not have enough of an ally there, not a person who really shared his view on immigration and wanted to sort of -- and was able to articulate his hard-line stance in a very public way which we know is very important to him. And, you know, the fact is we are two and a half years into this administration, a lot of people have left. There's been a lot of turnovers. He basically purged the Department of Homeland Security.

Jeff Sessions was -- you know, left the Department of Justice after, you know, a very long, intense period with the president. They are in a lot of ways down to some very chaotic leadership organizational charts in both of those agencies and around the entire administration. And I think it's in those situations where you can have a situation where you're going to have something that controversial included in news clips from a website that is, you know, that traffics in hate.

JOSH DAWSEY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: But I think the point that Julie makes that's particularly cogent with the president is that he has approached all of these folks around him in immigration circles besides Stephen Miller and besides, you know, Ken Cuccinelli who breathe the kind of same way he does on this. And you're seeing a lot of pressure being put on those agencies now, DHS, USCIS to do more rules, to do more regulations to actually take the president's broad- stroke visions and put them into policy formulation that actually affect people. And I think on immigration in the next six or 12 months you're going to see even more of that because I think Stephen Miller and Cuccinelli and others are really pushing these agencies to be more and more aggressive, to be tougher and tougher on the border and to make some waves.

[12:50:09] KING: And the interesting part is the president's policies are quite controversial and there are a lot of people out there who view them as mean and cruel. A lot of the president's base views them as necessary and overdue. The interesting part about Ken Cuccinelli is that Stephen Miller, the architect from day one, occasionally will do a Sunday show but he's not a public face of the administration. Ken Cuccinelli, again, you may disagree with the president and you may disagree with the president's approach, but Ken Cuccinelli is an active and aggressive and comfortable presence in the media.

And to your point about he speaks the president's language, let's go back in time a little bit.


CUCCINELLI: We're being invaded. Being invaded, right? One person at a time, we're being invaded. And the president isn't protecting us from invasion, he's encouraging the invasion.

Their purpose here is to violate the border, to violate our sovereignty for their own purposes. That's an invasion.


KING: And he does share the president's vocabulary as he now gets -- he's a government official but he gets a central role in the campaign because the president is determined to push these issues.

JULIE PACE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And Stephen Miller you remember had this pretty central role in the '16 campaign. He was often out there introducing Trump at rallies. He's really receded to the background over the last couple of years though his influence remains enormous. So Cuccinelli has kind of stepped into that role.

He's like the Peter Navarro on the economic team of the immigration team. He speaks the language. He believes deeply in it.

I mean, sometimes what you see around Trump is people who are willing to play the part for a little bit, but they don't really believe deeply in what the president is doing. Cuccinelli is the opposite of that. He believes this deeply. He's a pretty effective communicator for what he believes in. And Trump likes that idea of having somebody else out there who he doesn't have to be the only one, somebody else out there who can back him up on this.

KING: All right. Coming up for us, the conversation House Democrats about to come back to work here in Washington. The House speaker wants to talk about the agenda. She doesn't want to talk about impeachment.


[12:56:39] KING: Speaker Nancy Pelosi is leading a call of House Democrats today to discuss the August congressional recess. In her letter announcing the meeting, she lists a number of Democratic priorities for returning lawmakers. From new gun violence measures to spending differences with the Trump White House. The letter is notable for what it doesn't mention. During the August break, the number of House Democrats calling for impeachment proceedings climbed past the halfway mark, and two more joined the list just today. Now stands at 130 of the 235 House Democrats.

One of Pelosi's committee chairmen also has a noteworthy letter today. The House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler asking other committee leaders for any materials, quote, you believe may be relevant to the Judiciary Committee's ongoing impeachment investigation relating to President Trump.

I'm curious, why wouldn't Nancy Pelosi's letter note that they passed the halfway mark and a majority of Democrats now want to impeach the president? I'm saying this with a smile on my face but it's a serious point of tension and a challenge for her to manage when she thinks it would politically be a disaster. And yet Nadler says he sort of kind of impeaching, what's that about?

PACE: Yes, he kind of keeps it -- keeps the prospect out there a little bit. I mean, Pelosi was really hoping that she could send everybody off on the August recess, come back and have impeachment be in the rear-view mirror. And instead, we have seen a slow but steady increase in the number of members of her caucus that are pushing for impeachment. I think the question is when they come back, what does that look like?

Are some of those members going to be actively agitating for impeachment proceedings? Or was this sort of a step where people felt like they needed to lay down a marker after Mueller testified and say that they were on this side of the issue but they're not really going to do much aggressively.

I think that -- it seems like that is probably where this is headed. You have some people that will have a bit of a little louder voice but I do think Pelosi feels pretty comfortable that even as those numbers grow, the actual real tangible pressure on her hasn't increased too much.

KING: I think that's a great point because some of these people are Pelosi allies who held off for a long time but now see the prospect of getting a primary challenge. You have the base stirring back home saying you should impeach him, and so some of them are doing it I think to protect themselves almost.

SANDS: And you see these challenges already coming out not just Nadler but someone like Anita Kulik has a challenger. These people are younger, they're more people of color who are getting involved with some of these races in places not just like New York but -- in other states as well. And I think that's going to be one of the big things that the speaker is going to have to account for as whether or not she's going to have her people sort of out there kind of on an island when it comes to impeachment and these --

KING: Because those folks look around and they see Alexandria Ocasio- Cortez, they see Ayanna Pressley and they know this can be done, it's been done recently. Younger, especially candidates of color challenging longtime Democratic incumbents.

Here's what Pelosi hopes (INAUDIBLE) sway on these calls. Monmouth University poll just out yesterday, should Trump be impeached and compelled to leave the office. Yes, 35 percent, no 59, percent. Six in 10 Americans still think maybe we don't like the president but let's settle this at the ballot box.

DAVIS: Right, and I mean, you -- that can be true. And what Darren just said can also be true that the base and the progressives and the people who are primarying sitting incumbent Democrats can be very much geared up in favor of impeachment. But I think this is all baked into Nancy Pelosi's strategy and it's why so many Democrats will tell you privately that they think she has played this so smartly because she's basically saying to people do what you have to do politically, do what you have to do but my position is it's not happening right now.

KING: Now the next chapter starts.

Thanks for joining us today in the INSIDE POLITICS. Have a great weekend. Brianna Keilar starts right now.