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Democrat Presidential Candidates Debate in Houston Tonight; House Judiciary Democrats Approve Parameters for Impeachment Inquiry. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired September 12, 2019 - 12:00   ET




JOHN KING, ANCHOR, CNN: Welcome to Inside Politics. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

It is debate night for the 2020 democrats, the first time Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren share the same stage and perhaps a last chance for some of the struggling contenders to prove to voters and to donors they deserve to stick around.

Plus a big Supreme Court immigration win for the Trump White House. The justices allow the President's tough new asylum rules to be enforced while a legal challenge makes its way through the lower courts.

And words matter, except maybe when it comes to house democrats. Do they have a formal impeachment investigation under way or just a lower level inquiry to determine whether to move to an impeachment investigation. Well it depends on who and how you ask.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You can see now (inaudible) impeachment inquiry for President Trump is underway.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): Do I concede now? Have you not paid attention to what we've been talking about for months? We are legislating. We're investigating as six committees have been doing for months. Six committees have been working four months. And third we are litigating.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you uncomfortable with the term "impeachment inquiry"? Is there another term we should be using?

PELOSI: I'm not - thank you (inaudible).


KING: Field goal, right, field goal. We're come back to that story a little bit later. And it is confusing that's why she was annoyed. But we begin with tonight's democratic debate. Round three for the 2020 contenders, she had also a very important

first - Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren on the same stage just a few feet apart debating for the first time for three hours.

With them in the center of tonight's 10 candidate Houston (ph) showdown, Bernie Sanders, the more moderate (ph) Biden bookended by the two leading progressives in the race who also just happened to be the two closest contenders to Biden in the national polling.

Take a look. Our new CNN polling shows the former vice president on top of the pack, 24 percent followed by Senator Warren at 18 percent, Senator Sanders at 17 percent. The rest of the field as you can see all in single digits.

Tonight's face off a key opportunity for voters. The first one night opportunity to access the field or at least the 10 who made the cut and for these 10 candidates a change to build upon or gain momentum as the leaves turn and we move from the long 2020 warm up phase to a full sprint to 2020, the election year.

Joining me to set the scene from Houston, CNN's Jeff Zeleny and NPR's Asma Khalid, Jeff and Asma an important night all the tension on Biden/Warren. What's the buzz in Houston?

JEFF ZELENY, CORRESPONDENT, CNN: There's no doubt that there is going to be so much focus on the fact that Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren are just going to be in the same space.

There's not been much of this opportunity really throughout this campaign and so I think that is interesting and of course they have so much of an interesting history, John, going back to when Elizabeth Warren was appearing even before she came to the senate. She was going after then Senator Biden on bankruptcy, bills and other things.

So that is certainly going to be the dynamic to watch. The Biden campaign has been already telegraphing that they are going to go after her plans. They are going to say how can you pay for all these plans, are these realistic?

So that is the central argument - the central plan of the Biden campaign but Asma I'm curious to see how much Joe Biden is actually going to do that himself. Will he be as tough as some of his advisors have been? We'll have to watch that tonight.

ASMA KHALID, CORRESPONDENT, NPR: No that's a great point and on behalf of Senator Warren I think she's increasingly shown that she's a really tactile politician and she's seen what happens to the candidates who have directly combated Joe Biden.

That doesn't seem to be a really wittable strategy. It doesn't seem like it has (inaudible) necessarily dealt really well for some of those candidates like California senator Kamala Harris who took that straight attack (ph) at the former vice president in the first debate.

The other thing I'm really interested in is that Senator Warren has increasingly been presenting this electability argument on the campaign trail. She made this argument just in New Hampshire over the weekend that voters shouldn't just choose the candidate that they feel is the safe choice. They need to choose who they believe in and venture to say this is as an argument maybe that she will present today but it will be rather an indirect attack or argument against former vice president Joe Biden.

ZELENY: For sure.

KING: Jeff Zeleny and Asma Khalid on the ground in Houston. I'm a little envious. Enjoy the debate tonight, interested to hear your thoughts when it's over. Take care guys.

With here in the studio to show their reporting and their insight, CNN's Kaitlan Collins, Franco Ordonez with NPR, CNN's Arlette Saenz, Karoun Demirjian with the Washington Post.

The media expectation is Biden/Warren together for the first time. He's the leading candidate. She's been the growth stock throughout the summer. Here's a bit of a flavor of it. Jeff just talked about it there and Asma. Joe Biden says sure, plans are great but can you get things done?


JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What we have to do is we have to understand that you need to be able to bring people and countries and interests together to get anything done.


You can have - plans are great, but executing on those plans is a very different thing.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well I think that we start with a plan and then we get out there and fight for it. To me, that's what being president is all about. It's about laying those plans out and showing the direction for this country and then getting in the fight, leading the fight, and bringing people along.


KING: Candidates, not just those two, Arlette, but candidates don't always bring to the debate stage what they say when you're one on one or at their events. Will we get a clash here?

ARLETTE SAENZ, REPORTER, CNN: I think that's currently the big question. Are they actually going to directly engage? The two of them have avoided any direct clashes over the course of the summer.

You had Elizabeth Warren when Joe Biden just got into the race criticizing him for cozying up, she says, to credit card companies, but I think right now it's really unclear whether Biden is going to deliver that punch against Warren when it comes to the plan.

His argument may be a little bit more implicit than it is explicit but you've seen his advisors recently that I've spoken with who really are trying to make this contrast clear. You have other allies of Biden like Ed Rendell, who are very vocal in their criticism of Warren but it's unclear whether Biden's actually going to do that this evening.

KING: You say very vocal. Ed Rendell wrote an op-ed, the former governor of Pennsylvania for those of you who don't know the former mayor of Philadelphia, a long time democrat - a long time out spoken democrat, let's just say that he likes to mix it up.

He wrote an op-ed in which he called Elizabeth Warren a hypocrite. Saying that yes in this campaign she's decided to square off big fundraisers and big money and good for her that's all fine, but his point is in the past she has taken and loved (ph) that money.

He used the word hypocrite. He's a former Democratic Party chairman, former governor of a big state, big Biden surrogate. Is he speaking for the candidate? Will Joe Biden call Elizabeth Warren a hypocrite?

FRANCO ORDONEZ, CORRESPONDENT, NPR: I mean I think that's a huge question. Is Biden going to use that information? And on the other hand is Elizabeth Warren going to attack Biden because of what Rendell said and because of the ties that they have. I think that's a huge question that's going to be asked.

Just to the earlier point about whether there will be fireworks between them I think there's no question that there will be somehow. And also, from other candidates because frankly Warren has been so much on the rise someone's going to have to put a stop to it, I mean people are running out of money.

KING: And the Warren - I'm sorry go...

KAITLAN COLLINS, CORRESPONDENT, CNN: She's been shielded from that criticism from other candidates so far. That hasn't really been their method of attack yet. They haven't focused in on her. That could happen tonight, not just from people like Joe Biden but also from other candidates on the stage.

What will be interesting is how Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders handle this because so far they have had this alliance where they weren't attacking each other but eventually that's going to have to give because one of them wants to beat the other. And so the question is does that start tonight or do they try to stretch that alliance out as long as possible.

KING: Right and let's just show the debate line up, can you (ph) show it up on the stage here? You do have Biden, he's right here in the center. I mean he's leading in the polls.

I don't even like to use the term front runner anyway because he's below 30. That's not disrespect he's just below 30 and if you look at the early state polls he's getable (ph). They're much tighter but he's leading candidate without a doubt and he has proven after dipping after the first debate he's rallied a little bit and it's been persistent. A lot of people question where it was deep. And then you have the progressives here and here. We'll come to some of the other candidates too, I mean them no disrespect but these are three who right now hold 60 percent of the democratic vote if you look at our poll.

Now that means there's 40 percent in those other seven so as candidates drop out the math can rejigger, but is Biden in the center (ph) going to have to defend being a more moderate, pragmatic, centrist outwork with Mitch McConnell or Bernie Sanders going to go after Elizabeth Warren? How's this play out?

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Well I mean imagine the camera angles right of all, right. We're going to be transfixed on those three. Another question is who's going to punch at who, right.

So is Biden going to try to knock out his opponents by pointing out that they're trying to stress that they're too liberal and his way of doing things is better or are Sanders or Warren going to land the first punch and put him on the defensive?

Frankly when Biden's been on the defensive when people have really calculated a strategy of attacking him in these debates he hasn't been as strong as when he's making his own argument.

So presumably they're all planning for any contingency situation because the moderators questions will kind of dictate who gets the first turn, but they are going to be having to have that reckoning on the stage and we'll see if any of the other people who are more on the fringes of the dice are able to kind of take advantage of that situation and try to promote themselves in the midst of any argument that may develop at any time.

KING: It's a great point and we'll come back to this a little bit later. It's the third round for these candidates and so they learn too. You feel shut out in some debates. You have to answer the questions.

They've all complained about the amount of time they get but you learn as you go and you see that's the one big test of candidates. Do they learn? Do they grow? Do they figure out how to make their mark? We'll come back to this in a little bit. I can't wait for tonight.

If you do have a question about tonight's debate or any of the political stories we've talked about today for anyone here at the table tweet us. Use the inside politics hash tag. We'll try to answer your question at the end of the show. As we go to break, a little history here.

The Houston Chronicle reminds us the last time Joe Biden was in Houston for a presidential debate.



KING: On Capitol Hill today a turbulent conference with reporters. It was just last hour the house speaker Nancy Pelosi swatting away questions about whether house democrats are now conducting an impeachment investigation. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PELOSI: You're the only ones who are sewing this - it isn't true (ph). Look I travel the entire country, come with me sometime.


JOHN KING, CNN HOST: They had turbulent press conference with reporters. It was just last hour. The House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, swatting away questions about whether House democrats are now conducting an impeachment investigation.


NANCY PELOSI, HOUSE SPEAKER: You're the only ones who are so in this ...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's not true.

PELOSI: But is (ph) true. The -- look, I travel the entire country -- come with me sometime and you'll hear what the American people are saying. They understand that -- that impeachment is a very divisive measure. But if we have to go there, we'll have to go there. But we can't go there unless we have the facts.

I'm not answering any more questions on possible inquiries, investigations, and the rest. I've said what I'm going to say.


That's the Speaker. Those questions, legitimate questions come after the House Judiciary Committee, just this morning, approved parameters for an impeachment investigation, they call it.

And there's wide spread confusion among rank and file democrats about whether an impeachment investigation is happening now, happening later, or happening at all. It also follows word the Judiciary Committee democrats have discussed in private how to draft articles of impeachment. Let's get straight to CNN's Capitol Hill reporter, Manu Raju. I'm confused, are you?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Lot of democrats are when you talk to them because some democrats say look, they're just simply doing what they're actually doing, which is what the Speaker has said that this is just a simple continuation of their ongoing investigation to potential obstruction of justice, Russian interference, and perhaps down the line maybe they'll decided on impeachment.

But that is not the message that's coming out of the House Judiciary Committee today, including the Chairman, Jerry Nadler, who's indicated this is a clear escalation of their investigation.

He promises aggressive hearings in the fall starting next with the former Trump campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski. And he calls this an impeachment inquiry. That's something the Speaker refuses to call it.

Now when I had a chance to ask the -- the Chairman about the Speaker's refusal to call it an impeachment inquiry, he didn't respond.


What kind of -- what kind of vote -- what are the implications of the leadership not calling this an impeachment inquiry? You have any concerns that the Speaker won't call it an impeachment inquiry?

REP. JERRY NADLER (D-NY), CHAIRMAN, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: I'm not going to give that a no (ph).


RAJU: So there's probably a reason for the -- the different messages here, John. One being that a number of democrats, particular freshman from districts in which President Trump carried are not there yet. I just talked to a couple of moderate democratic freshmen.

Anthony Brindisi of New York as well as Mikie Sherrill form New Jersey. Neither of them support moving forward with an impeach probe at this point. They don't support circling (ph) articles of impeachment but a lot of democrats, a majority of democrats believe it is time to move forward with an impeachment investigation.

That's why they say what they're doing is exactly that. But at the end of the day, John, it could just be all the debate about semantics because what the democrats on that committee are saying is that look, whenever they decide whether to recommend articles of impeachment that could be decided by the end of the year.

So what we call this investigation it doesn't really matter because the end result could be the president could be -- just be the third to be impeached by the House, John.

KING: Manu Raju, confusing but important day on Capitol Hill. Appreciate the reporting there. CNN Sara Murray joins our conversation in studio. Whatever your party at home, whatever your politics at home, whatever you think of the president at home; impeachment is a pretty significant loaded, weighted word in our life, in our politics, in our constitution.

So this idea that democrats -- if you're liberal you can go home and say the Judiciary Committee is moving forward on impeaching the president. If you're a moderate you say there are no articles of impeachment. There's no impeachment inquiry, we're just looking around and if something comes up we'll deal with it down the road. Is that the way to deal with this?

SARA MURRAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I -- it kind of makes me wonder how dumb members of Congress think the American public and the voters are because I think that people -- to the extent that they are watching what their members of Congress are doing or looking at this and saying like this is a mess. You guys do not have a plan, you do not know what you're doing, you're flailing around on this issue, and frankly that -- that's how it's been. I mean they were expecting the Mueller report to come out and for there to be this very sort of, you know, clear way for them to move forward and to say that this is exactly what the president did wrong and he should be removed from office because of that.

The Senate was never going to go along with that to begin with but instead they got a more mixed view and they have basically been stumbling over themselves ever since.

KING: And you could -- you could run out of fingers if you're raising one for each of the quite legitimate areas of Congressional oversight. Is the president making money using his properties around the world, steering -- you know steering the Air Force and other people (inaudible).

It's a legitimate question. The democrats, if you look -- or and wish republicans would go along with them, look at the response. Was there a cover up, was there obstruction of justice and more (ph). Legitimate question.

You could look at that. But you have to clearly explain to the American people, especially in a polarized country, what it is you're doing. What's your timetable where you are. This is just from Politico, you heard Manu talk about this in his own reporting.

This is from Politico on Tuesday. Three different House democrats.


We have been in the midst of an impeachment investigation. That's one. No, we're not in an impeachment investigation. That's two. We're investigating whether or not there should be an impeachment investigation. That's three important members of the same majority party in the House. What?

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: I think part of the problem here -- obviously there's a problem. But part of the problem is that, you know, as Sara was just saying, they were putting so much stalk in the Muller report giving them something to go on.

And by the time the Mueller report came out, so many democrats had already made their opinions known about what they want to do vis a vis (ph) the impeachment that you couldn't stuff the genie back in the bottle at that point.

You had to kind of go with this term and this explanation. There was never clear marching orders given from the top about this is exactly what we're going to say about what we're doing.

And this is exactly the reasons why we're doing it. That's always changed and it's always been a negotiation. And so that's why you end with this gobblely gook (ph), basically, of nobody being sure of which nuance and you know point of circulation around the term they're actually feeling comfortable using.

It has implications for politics; it has potential implications for the court cases that they're pursuing. It matters but they haven't been able to figure out how to pull everybody into one line because everything goes kind of out there before they realize they had to.

FRANCO ORDONEZ, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, NPR: And the republicans that I speak to are loving this gobblely gook (ph), as you said. And they are just loving the disarray. I mean one was talking to me today about just how comical it was seeing how the different messages -- and Pelosi is such in a hard place to try to deal with that.

She can't oppose those who want impeachment but she can't give in as well. As Manu is saying there's too many swing districts. On the other hand, I was talking with a democrat who was saying look, we tried to go forward with all these investigations and the administration just blocks us. There's so much obstruction that we can't do anything. That impeachment may be the only answer.

KING: But if you lay that case out plainly, as opposed to having a semantic or linguistic or whatever debate, I don't even know the right word for it; maybe eventually over time you get there. Henry Waxman is long gone. You used to, you know, have the investigation first. Don't drop the impeachment word until you actually have -- you know don't drop the conclusion until you get there with the investigation.

There's a way to do this. To your point about republicans, and look, you could rewind the tape. Republicans deserve no gold stars for when they were in change and they had oversight hearings either.

Those often became a circus in and of themselves. But in the current moment, you're right. This is Doug Collins, the ranking republican on the Judiciary Committee who finds this kind of funny.


REP. DOUG COLLINS (D-GA), RANKING MEMBER, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: What's happened today is great. The Judiciary Committee has became a giant Instagram filter to make you appear that something's happening that's not. You are using your Snapchat filter here. You went basically to say that -- do what now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Instagram you said.

D. COLLINS: Instagram, Snapchat. Now, oh god, I missed it. Darn it. I mean what -- we're so -- we're so in fantasy land here nobody knows what's going on. Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter. It doesn't matter we're not in an impeachment inquiry. It doesn't matter what we're doing here.


KING: He needs to do a little social media.

KAITLIAN COLLINS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes that was a stretch to make that joke. But that's the thing. This is politically helpful for republicans because they can say the democrats don't know what they're doing, look at this.

But also it could be legally helpful for the White House because as democrats are fighting some of these subpoenas and people who are fighting their own subpoenas and the White House is -- they're going to court over this.

If they can't say yes, we are in an impeachment inquiry that's why this is so important that you do let us subpoena whoever this former aid, staffer, what have you that also is going to help the White House make those arguments that they don't need to have those aids got to Capitol Hill and testify.

KING: Yes, they let that word get way out in front of them and now they can't get around is what has happened. There are many legitimate issues to look at. They're just caught up in trying to get to the end before they have the information. Up next for us, more on the democratic debate and what those candidates not at center stage need to get done tonight. One of them, Andrew Yang has his own pre-debate ritual.


ANDREW YANG, 2020 DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Yes, the debate is very much and individual endeavor and basketball is very much a team sport. Actually I liken (ph) the debate stage more to a pro wrestling than basketball.



KING: For seven of the democrats on stage tonight in Houston, the biggest challenge is to prove they belong. Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren are consistently the top three. National and early state polling.

And then there's a big gap before you get to everyone else. Seven of the lower tier democrats met tonight's debate criteria and they're also in for next month's too. But raising money gets more and more and more difficult if they can't claim some form of a debate break up.

Now momentum swings do happen. Kamala Harris saw a boost for example after the first debate fireworks with Joe Biden but it soon faded. Pete Buttigieg, you see, saw a spike in his campaign early on but he too is upholding flat liner of late.

Beto O'Rourke also had an early visit to the top tier of the race; he now struggles to break 5 percent. Four others on stage tonight stuck at 1 percent or 2 percent. There's time, yes, 144 days until the votes in Iowa.

But -- and it's the but, it -- it does get hard. No disrespect, it's hard to run for president. These men and the women, they give hours. Their staffs give hours. But it's hard to pay the staff and it's hard to keep traveling if you can't raise money. And so then -- then if you can't raise money then you have to make a decision. If you want to stay in, do you just run in Iowa, just run in Nevada. Tonight's important for the -- the other seven on stage, never mind the other 10 who didn't make it. But if you're one of those other seven, how do you do it.

ORDONEZ: Yes, I mean the -- I mean its 140 days but it -- it is now when it -- when you're talking to donors and you're trying to raise money. I mean that -- that money translates into this. And if you're not getting the money, you're not going to stand ...