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Democrats Facing Divisive Set of Issues Tonight in Debate; O'Rourke, AOC Target Buttigieg Ahead of Debate; New Digital Buttigieg Ad Hits Warren, Sanders By Name; U.S. Troops Express Anger At Trump's Syria Policy; Hunter Biden Speaks Out. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired October 15, 2019 - 12:30   ET



[12:31:52] JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Welcome back.

Debate night in Ohio tonight. The challenge for the candidates, 12 of them, try to stand out and try to breakthrough. Twelve candidates are ready to face off tonight. You see them all right there. It's the most crowded stage of the cycle so far, the most crowded primary debate in history. The candidates were sure to be asked about impeachment and much more.

Some of those issues certainly highlight the big ideological gap among these Democrats. To name just a few, healthcare and how to approach whether it's Medicare for All or something more modest. Gun control whether buybacks were the answers to gun violence. Economics, approaching issues in a capitalist way or as Bernie Sanders says in a Democratic socialist way. How to address educational reform, things like tuition assistance or student debt loan forgiveness. And climate change, specifically their support of how far to go, how fast to go, how much to spend on elements of the so-called Green New Deal.

It is -- it's a race that has had three candidates at the top but if you look at the breadth of the candidates, there are remarkable differences between and among them. Some of them are just shades but they do matter as the Democrats try to first pick who, but first, they have to decide what, as in how far left are we willing to go?

Coming into this has been a bit of a debate where Alexandra Ocasio- Cortez has jumped in against Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Smaller-dollar grassroots campaigns a.k.a. what Buttigieg insults here as pocket change out-fundraised him by millions. Our nation's leaders should be working to end the era of big-money politics not protect it. And Beto's gun policy isn't picking a fight, it's taking a stand.

Beto O'Rourke jump back in on that, Pete can belittle the grassroots, he can call buybacks a shiny object. He can say whatever he wants but guns kill 40,000 people each year. Those people deserve action. I'll be fighting for them.

How much does this become a flashpoint tonight when, no insult intended but Mayor Buttigieg is at five or six, Beto O'Rourke is at two? Do they fight it out or does this become more about Biden, Warren, Sanders?

MOLLY BALL, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well I think there's an opportunity here. I'm not one of the moderators but if I were one of them, I would see an opportunity to broaden that debate. Bring more candidates --

KING: I would get in a lot of trouble if I said right now you should be.

BALL: Get -- no, but get more candidates -- get more of the candidates' views on this issue. I personally have heard plenty about healthcare at this point. I feel like we spent about an hour on it at the last minute. I mean, that may be literally true.

And so it would be nice to see some of the distinctions on some of these other issues. Whether it's the ones that you just named, foreign policy, I would love to hear some of the candidates talk about that, obviously, a lot going on in the world and very few of these candidates have any experience. So, to hear them -- you know, the extent of which they can show any expertise on foreign affairs would be illuminating, on trade I think as well. There are very big differences between -- within the Democratic Party on trade issues.

So we'll see how creative those great moderators get. But, yes, I mean, we have seen the candidates going after each other more explicitly whether it's on Twitter, whether it's, you know, Buttigieg calling out Warren and Sanders for their approach to healthcare. So there's an obvious opportunity to try to foreground some of those distinctions and then it's up to the electorate whether they care about those distinctions.

KING: All right, for the record, the moderators are awesome but you would also be -- you know, you'd be a great debate moderator. And I'm sorry to be the skunk at your garden party.

[12:35:02] But healthcare is likely to come up again in the sense that it is a big issue between them. And again, if you're a candidate, you see the top-tier that has been the same three, Warren, Biden, Sanders. You're Mayor Buttigieg, you've been on the top five but you're trying to break through including with this digital ad and you do this for a reason. A digital ad questioning Medicare for All, so maybe you could ask about it in the debate.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren believed that we have to force ourselves into Medicare for All. He's trying to focus on choice not infringing on people's freedom to make that decision voluntarily.

Mayor Pete said Medicare for All who want it. That's a much better formulation.


KING: Now it's Mayor Buttigieg using news clips in that ad, not Mayor Buttigieg himself staring at the camera and saying, I think they're wrong. He has in the past, the question is how aggressive are you tonight?

RACHAEL BADE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. I think if -- you know, this is a good place for him to make that argument. I mean, Ohio, a long-considered sort of a purple swing state. It's become more conservative and there's a lot of Trump backers there. There will be a lot of people who are going to be skeptical about Medicare for All. So for him to take sort of this opportunity right now to, you know, go on stage tonight, put these ads up today to say, look, Medicare for All, it's not working. This idea that Warren and Bernie Sanders have, not going to -- how are we going to pay for it? You know, there's an opportunity here where he could really breakthrough and I think, you know, we should watch if he does that.

MARGARET TALEV, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: There's also an opportunity for Elizabeth Warren to separate herself a little bit, at least rhetorically, from the hard-core Bernie Sanders' Medicare for All version from which everything has sprung because she's got an eye now potentially on the general election. And at least rhetorically -- I mean, I will be looking to see how she answers those questions not just debating questions about taxes. But what is the plan, what is her version of that plan and how does she want to convey that to voters? I think we're going to see it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How are they going to pay for that?

KING: Right. To the people asking this question for a while because for all here policy plans right now she says, I'm with Bernie and Medicare for All. She does not have a plan of her own. But people have asked this for a very long time, so if she's going to move away or move to his left or his right -- yes -- I don't know (INAUDIBLE) Iowa votes. We'll get it before then, I think.

Up next, a point of friction between the Republican majority leader and the president of the United States.


[12:42:11] KING: I'll show you a scene from the debate site in Ohio. Just moments ago, one candidate walking out, another walking in. It was the former vice president Joe Biden leaving after he's walked through in the debate hall. Walking in, the South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg. You see Mayor Buttigieg there in the white shirt with former vice president Biden, their aides around them, shaking hands, a little quick, what looks like a very pleasant conversation between the two candidates.

They're generally aligned on most of the issues. Mayor Pete wants to make the generational argument that it's time for the Democratic Party to find younger leadership. But on most of the issues, they see eye to eye. Obviously a pleasant conversation there. We'll see if that happy mood shall we say carries over into the debate tonight.

Moving on to our political radar today focusing largely on the Syrian conflict. The U.S. official telling CNN U.S. troops have now pulled out of the Northern Syrian town of Manbij. That town, one-time ISIS hub liberated by U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces back in 2016. U.S. troops stayed there to help deter aggression from Turkish-backed rebels. With the Americans out of the way now, though, the official says it appears forces allied with the Syrian regime and Russia have moved in.

Turkish President Recep Erdogan is defending his military incursion into Northern Syria in a Wall Street Journal essay. He calls on the European Union and the world to help Turkey and (INAUDIBLE) in Syria and he says to help restore peace and stability in the region and to prevent a flood of refugees into the west. That op-ed, of course, comes as the White House imposes economic sanctions on Turkey and calls for a cease-fire.

President Trump threatening in his words to destroy Turkey's economy if President Erdogan doesn't end that offensive. And the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in a very toughly worded statement says, he's, quote, gravely concerned that events in Syria could lead to a resurgence of ISIS. In a statement, the senator says he looks forward to meeting with fellow senators and administration officials to discuss what the United States can do now to avoid a, quote, strategic calamity.

Even as the White House pressures Turkey to end its offensive, President Trump's critics including many Republicans and U.S. military personnel blame him for allowing it to happen in the first place.

Our Pentagon Correspondent Ryan Browne joins us now. Ryan, take us inside your reporting. A lot of tough words for military officials, special operation forces about the president's order to pull U.S. troops out, a decision they see as a betrayal of an ally.

RYAN BROWNE, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Well, that's right, John. It's almost unprecedented at the level of vocal criticism we're hearing from U.S. military personnel, particularly those special operation forces that had been deployed in Syria. Now they had forged very strong bonds with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, these Kurdish fighters while they've been battling ISIS for years, driving ISIS out of Syria, and now they're seeing many of the towns they had fought so hard to liberate be ceded to Russia and the regime.

So we're hearing words like feelings of betrayal, seeing their Kurdish -- one-time Kurdish allies being killed by Turkish forces and Turkish- backed rebels.

[12:45:04] Ashamed was one particularly strong word. A senior U.S. officer in Syria told us that he was feeling ashamed given at the U.S. failure to protect the Kurds.

A lot of these criticisms stem from the fact that the U.S. convinced the Syrian Kurds to pull their fighters back from the border with Turkey to dismantle their fortifications in order to appease the Turkish Government. They also didn't provide the Kurds with any heavy weapons, only light arms like AK-47s that they're now using to go fight against a much better armed Turkish military using tanks, artillery, and warplanes. KING: It's fascinating reporting. I really appreciate it, adding some important context to this developing story. Ryan Browne at the Pentagon.

When we come back, Hunter Biden gives an interview, he says, yes, some of his overseas work was probably a judgment error, but he insists he did nothing wrong.



[12:50:30] HUNTER BIDEN, JOE BIDEN'S SON: I know where I stand with my dad, I know where I stand with my family. Being the subject of Donald Trump's ire is a feather in my cap. My dad doesn't have to defend me. My dad only has to love me, and my dad loves me unequivocally.


KING: That's the former vice president Joe Biden son Hunter in an interview this morning on ABC News trying to disassociate any issues you might have with him from his father's presidential campaign. The timing of the interview, remember there's a big Democratic debate tonight, Joe Biden could use a strong performance.

Curios to say the least. Hunter Biden insisting, though, he is not and will not be a campaign distraction.


BIDEN: I'm not necessarily a distraction to his campaign. I'm never a distraction to my dad. But as it relates to actually going and being on stage with him, this is not a family business. Everybody kind of thinks that somehow whether it's a compliment that we're like the Kennedys or whether it's a backhanded compliment like you're the Trumps, my dad has a job. But that does not mean that I ever had any plans to go do rallies.


KING: We talked a little about this at the beginning of the program, but it's just interesting. After weeks of attacks from the president who continued his attacks after the interview on Twitter, Hunter Biden and the campaign says they knew he was going to do this. They weren't involved in the substance of it but they knew he was going to do it.

On debate day, coming out and saying, yes, I made some judgment mistakes, but I never did anything unethical, anything illegal, and Donald Trump he calls a feather in his cap.

BALL: It will be interesting to see sort of how this plays, right? I mean, I think most people understand that everybody got a family and you can't necessarily control them. But the Biden campaign has really struggled to respond to this whole thing, and we've seen them, you know, take a long time to come up with a response to the scandal as it began to swirl, by Joe Biden himself being alternately sort of forcefully defensive and then wanting to change the subject.

And so, you know, do people see this? Do they see a sort of sympathetic figure who's caught up in the middle of something that doesn't have much to do with anything? Or does this just become something that he can't put to rest, right? Does it become a thing like Hillary Clinton's e-mails where there's just always some new rock that gets turned over, always some new question, always some new shadow of, but wait a minute, why is this.

KING: It's a great -- well, I just want to know for our viewers you see Mayor Pete Buttigieg doing his walk-through inside the debate hall. They were talking about Hunter Biden but you see Mayor Pete on the stage. I just want to explain what's happening there. All of the candidates get a chance to go through and just test the microphone and the like. I'm sorry.

TALEV: Hunter Biden's framing of this was so interesting. Don't expect us to be the Kennedys but we're not the Trumps either. That's a sweet spot right in the middle. We're not the Kennedys but we're definitely not the Trumps. And that's instructive, you know, I think.

But for anyone who's followed the Biden family, it's just they have had one tragedy after another. The death of Hunter Biden was devastating not just to Joe Biden (INAUDIBLE) but also to Hunter Biden, and I think part of the death of Beau Biden has been devastating to both the vice president but also to Hunter Biden. And I think you see that as one of the factors in Joe Biden's reluctance to kind of throw his son under the bus and distance himself is that, his son is obviously in a pretty fragile space in the last couple years.

KING: And to Molly's point about what happened to Hillary Clinton and what the president said about the Hillary Clinton Foundation, Donald Trump was not the incumbent then, it's interesting to see if he can pull this off as the incumbent who has run a very swampy administration, facts support that, sorry.

You know, to make the case that somehow everyone else is corrupt, but if you listen -- Hunter Biden did say, sure, it was swampy for taking the job with the -- meaning Ukraine which has a swirl of corruption. And listen, we played this at the top of the show but I want you to hear it again about him talking about his name and how he got access to these jobs, and ask the question, isn't this why people hate Washington?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What do you say to people who believed this is exactly why people hate Washington? A vice president's son can make money where your father is doing official government business.

BIDEN: By the way, well, I don't know what to tell you. I made a mistake in retrospect as it related to creating any perception that was wrong. And so, therefore, I'm taking it off the table and I'm making that commitment. I will see if anybody else makes that commitment, but that's the commitment that I'm making. (END VIDEO CLIP)

[12:55:08] KING: Trying to pivot quickly there and essentially say, you know, Jared and Ivanka Trump. That's what he's talking about there.

BADE: Yes, but, you know, by saying I promise not to do this in near future, you know, Biden administration, I mean, that also opens the door for people to say, well, why didn't you have these thoughts before. So even though he's making the sort of not quite an apology but no apology, apology saying I won't do this in the future, I mean, that in of itself is exposure for them.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's an acknowledgment that it's problematic just as Hillary Clinton's issues were a problem for her in 2016.

KING: The question is can they deal with it. Now quickly, we'll see. Big debate night tonight.

Thanks for joining us in the INSIDE POLITICS. Don't go anywhere. Brianna Keilar starts after a very quick break. Have a good afternoon.