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President Trump Endorses Rep. Jeff Van Drew After Switch To GOP; Joe Biden Says He's Open To A Republican Running Mate; Thousands Flee Deadly Wildfires In Australia. Aired 7:30-8a ET

Aired December 31, 2019 - 07:30   ET




JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Congressman Jeff Van Drew threw a big curveball into South Jersey's second congressional district race when he switched parties from Democratic to Republican because, he said, of House Democrats' move to impeachment President Trump. What does that mean for the Republican candidates in the race?

Joining me is one of them, David Richter. He's the Republican challenger to Congressman Drew. We appreciate you taking the time this morning.


SCIUTTO: Now you made the point and it's consistent with CNN's own reporting, that this was less about the decision to impeach Trump by Democrats and more about his own election chances in 2020.

RICHTER: Yes -- no, absolutely. Congressman Van Drew has a very liberal voting record during his first year in the House. He voted with Nancy Pelosi 91 percent of the time and voted against the president. If you take out the impeachment vote, he voted against the president's legislative agenda 100 percent of the time.


RICHTER: This was not somebody who saw the light and decided that he'd -- you know, philosophically, it was the right time to become a Republican. This is someone who took a poll that showed he was about to lose his own Democratic primary with only 22 percent support among likely Democratic voters, and within days was in the White House begging to become a Republican.

SCIUTTO: You're in an interesting position because prior to that switch you were the anointed one of the Republican Party. You're among this group of what the GOP calls the Young Guns -- candidates around the country -- promising young candidates that they backed. But, of course, they've backed away from you now. Tell us your reaction to that.

RICHTER: Well, the Young Guns program is for challengers trying to turn Democratic states Republican. So now, the National Party, the NRCC, views this as a Republican seat and isn't very helpful in my race as a challenger trying to unseat an incumbent Republican.

SCIUTTO: What's your message to the president here because, of course, the president has latched onto this story to some degree -- to see a Democrat switch to Republican in the midst of the impeachment process? He's latched onto this as a sign that there is not the public support for his impeachment. But you say listen, you're the loyal Republican in this race based on your positions, et cetera.

What's your message to the president here to -- if you want to try -- to convince him to back you instead of Jeff Van Drew?

RICHTER: Well, the president is a smart dealmaker and this was a good deal for the White House. During impeachment week, they had the opportunity to promote a Democrat flipping to the Republican Party. Based on the impeachment vote, it was a good headline for him and he was smart to make this deal with Van Drew. But that's essentially what it is -- it was a deal.


I'm a lifelong Republican. I registered to vote when I was 18 and voted for Ronald Reagan. I've been a registered Republican ever since and I'm going to die a registered Republican.

Van Drew has been a Democrat for 40 years. He's got a liberal voting record in the House. He recently endorsed Cory Booker for president.

This is not somebody who saw the light. This is somebody who opportunistically decided that his best chance for reelection was as a Republican. And he didn't leave the Democratic Party, he was essentially thrown out of it.

SCIUTTO: Tell me about your district. This was a plus-five district for Trump in 2016 over Hillary Clinton.

As you speak to constituents, where do they stand on impeachment as a question today?

RICHTER: I think the president is very popular in the second district. It does lean Republican. It had a Republican congressman for 24 years before Van Drew won the seat in 2018. And I think it's going to support the president in 2020 by a wider margin than five percent.

The president remains popular. I think the impeachment, when it goes to the Senate and then gets rejected, which I expect will happen, will give him a launching pad on his reelection campaign and I expect that he's going to do very well. Not likely to win New Jersey but he will absolutely win the second district.

SCIUTTO: More broadly, though, as you follow this year, the White House blocked key administration officials from testifying in this trial while claiming that the process wasn't fair. We've learned from outside the impeachment inquiry, including this "New York Times" reporting, things that we didn't know because these officials would not testify.

We learned, for instance, that Pompeo, Esper, and Bolton -- his three senior-most national security advisers -- came to the president directly and said release this aid to Ukraine. It's in America's national security interest.

That does one thing. One, it tells you they knew it was the president's decision. Republicans have claimed we don't know that the president ordered this.

I just wonder as an American or just to your constituents, how do you explain Republicans not calling on those key officials at the center of this to tell their story?

RICHTER: Well, as you know, the executive branch has the right to executive privilege and the president has the right to invoke that privilege, as well as attorney-client privilege. The president should have a right to speak with his advisers confidentially and privately without those advisers being hauled in front of Congress and having to testify.

SCIUTTO: A blanket privilege? Every conversation that happens with this president with anyone at any time? Because you know courts have previously ruled that if we're talking about wrongdoing that privilege does not apply.

RICHTER: You made a very important point, which is the courts have the right to decide. So the executive branch can assert executive privilege. Congress can challenge that privilege and it should go before the courts.

I don't think asserting rights that the president has can possibly be justification for an obstruction of justice -- obstruction of Congress charge in an impeachment hearing.

SCIUTTO: David Richter, we wish you luck in this upcoming primary and perhaps, general election to follow. Thanks for joining us and best wishes to your family for the holidays.

RICHTER: Thank you, Jim. Thank you very much.



So this might surprise you. Joe Biden says he is open to a running mate that many Democrats might be scratching their head about. We'll tell you who he's thinking about, next.


[07:42:53] HARLOW: All right, welcome back.

The former vice president, Joe Biden, catching some people off guard, I think, with his answer to this question. Would you consider a Republican running mate? Here's what he said.


JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The answer is I would but I can't think of one now. You know, there's some really decent Republicans that are out there still, but here's the problem right now of the well-known ones. They've got to step up.


HARLOW: Joining us now, political commentator Bakari Sellers. He is a former Democratic South Carolina House member and CNN commentator. Aisha Moodie-Mills, she's also a Democratic strategist.

So, I mean -- you know, McCain considered a Democrat as a running mate. It's not out of the question.

Was this smart strategy or a smart answer strategically, if you will, if you are an adviser to the Biden camp?

AISHA MOODIE-MILLS, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Yes, so here's the thing. It's not so much about who would he choose as he is picking a running mate. I think that he's making the point clear that this current generation of Republicans who are running around behind Donald Trump, who is completely anti-everything that Republicans used to believe in, is the problem.

And I think he's trying to appeal to a group of Americans who might be in the middle. Who might say you know, I used to vote Republican; now I can't. I'm not understanding why the people that I've supported for decades have suddenly turned an about-face and are apt to showing up and not acting like themselves.

And so, you know, he's pretty much calling out all of these clowns in the Senate and saying what is it with you because we grew up together in this game? We used to be able to talk about things. We didn't always agree. And now, I just don't understand this whole Trump fascination which has gotten the Republican Party kind of flipped on its head.

SCIUTTO: Bakari, first of all, I'm liking the beard. It's a big change.


SCIUTTO: I want to give credit where credit's due.

Second of all, this is part of a broader message, is it not, from Joe Biden because he's made the point previously -- listen, I've worked with Republicans on the other side of the aisle in the Senate. I'm the man who can turn the corner on divisiveness in this country today.

And I'm curious how you think that message is playing, particularly in the Democratic primaries. Does it have -- does it have appeal to Democratic voters?


SELLERS: First of all, this is a perfect example of why Twitter is not real life.


SELLERS: I mean, social media has been crazy talking about this clip. Joe Biden simply answered a question that he was asked. I have no problem with that.

But I think what it does highlight, though, is a certain level of naivety. Joe Biden has been running this campaign and there are a lot of individuals who believe that bipartisanship is right around the corner. That believe as soon as Joe Biden gets elected he will crack through this cement block that we have of just people running to their particular corners -- this tribalism.

And it's also this kind of futile effort that some Democrats had that we want to convince Republicans to come and vote for us. I'm not necessarily certain that's the correct path or tact to take. And I do think that all we have to do is look back to the way that this same Republican Party treated Barack Obama when Joe Biden was vice president.

I think it's an awesome effort. I think that we don't have to have a 'or' strategy. I think it can be both 'and' -- but I do think we need to spend more time actually mobilizing our base and not having these wild dreams of converting all of these Republicans to come out and vote for Democrats in November because that simply ain't happening.

HARLOW: Aisha, if you were running a campaign running against Joe Biden, would you flip that comment on him in the next debate?

MOODIE-MILLS: No, not necessarily. I think Bakari's right. I think that we try to sensationalize things that really shouldn't be the talking point of the media fodder, frankly.

And to get back to the point of how the Democrats get rid of Donald Trump and kind of focus on even making some headway in the Senate, the Republican Party of today -- the Republican Party's always been disastrous, at least since I've been working in politics, for people of color, for the base of the Democratic Party.

And I think that what Joe Biden could do, but what all the Democrats need to be focused on, is really having a conversation that animates and excites the base. And at the end of the day, that is drawing a deep contrast between who these folks are today and what we need, and that should be the focus. I think that all the candidates should be talking about that. This idea that we're trying to chum up to a group of so-called moveable middle people which frankly, I think are fictitious and don't really exist, is foolish and no the way that we're going take back the White House.


SCIUTTO: But is that necessarily true because, I mean, if you look -- if you look at the 2018 midterms -- I mean, there was a moveable middle that -- particularly in a lot of congressional districts -- went from --

HARLOW: Moved.

SCIUTTO: -- red to blue and that was the key. And that was key to the Democratic strategy, was it not, in winning back the House. Wouldn't that then apply to 2020 as well if you want to win the White House?

SELLERS: No. What we saw in 2018 actually was a massive surge in black and brown voters throughout the country. A massive surge in women showing up to the polls. So that is what we saw. That was the result that we saw in 2018.

Let me remind you. I mean, I actually thought the strategy was one that was profound. It would work in 2016 for Hillary Clinton. That's why she gave the speech on white nationalism. That's why she rolled out all of the Bush alums as endorsements.

Because we actually thought that as repulsive as Donald Trump was -- I mean, we had the "ACCESS HOLLYWOOD" tape, we had the racist comments. We had all of these things. People knew who Donald Trump was when they voted for him in 2016.

And there was this belief that there would be some Republicans who would come out and vote for Hillary Clinton. We found out that was wrong and I'm not sure it's going to change now. And I think we can spend time -- a little bit of time and a little bit of resources attempting that strategy again. I don't mind that.

But I do believe that we have to move away from that and focus our efforts more fully, as Aisha said. And what we need to be doing is ginning up our base and making sure that our base turns out like they did in 2018. That's the result that we want.

HARLOW: Thank you, both. Get a nap. Have a great new year's.


HARLOW: Jim's going to come back with a beard to rival yours, Bakari.

SELLERS: I love it.

SCIUTTO: I couldn't rival it.

SELLERS: Happy New Year. SCIUTTO: I mean, I -- he wins that battle.

MOODIE-MILLS: Happy New Year, guys.

HARLOW: Happy New Year.

All right. So, Pete Buttigieg has gone from small-town mayor to a top tier Democratic candidate. As he gets ready to leave his mayor's office we're going to look at what has changed in South Bend, Indiana and how people there are responding to all of this.



HARLOW: Welcome back.

South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg is marking his final 24 hours in office as the Democratic presidential candidate sets his sights on the White House. In his farewell address, he declared, quote, "South Bend is back." And while he has had major accomplishments during his tenure there, he is still struggling to win over black voters.

Our Abby Phillip has more.


MARK NEAL, FORMER DEPUTY MAYOR, SOUTH BEND, INDIANA: What are we doing to promote business? I always like to think of trains as being commerce, right? That's the sound of commerce.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Pete Buttigieg's city, South Bend, Indiana, is vibrant again.

NEAL: For many folks, that's a sign of sort of the South -- the beginning comeback of South Bend.

PHILLIP (voice-over): The Studebaker plant that was once the heart of this Midwestern industrial town, now at the center of its comeback story.

During Buttigieg's eight years as mayor, he not only led what he calls a turnaround city, but also deployed to Afghanistan, announced he's gay, and is now setting his sights on the White House.


PHILLIP (voice-over): His small-town accomplishments -- 3.7 percent unemployment, nearly $200 million in private investment downtown, a reinvigorated stadium, and tackling urban blight are a big part of his presidential campaign.

BUTTIGIEG: Washington experience is not the only experience that matters.

PHILLIP (voice-over): Then there's what's happening outside of downtown South Bend.


TYREE BONDS, BROTHER OF ERIC LOGAN: I mean, they don't -- 100 percent don't care about the community. They care about what's going on with downtown.

PHILLIP (voice-over): Tyree Bonds lost his brother, Eric Logan, killed by police this summer and sparking racial tensions across Buttigieg's city -- now following him on the campaign trail.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Like, why should you be the president if it doesn't like -- if he didn't go down (ph) to South Bend?

BUTTIGIEG: So, let's be really clear. Most people in South Bend believe I did a good job.

PHILLIP (voice-over): But his black supporters here feel their voices are being drowned out, literally.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who chose these people as black leaders? (ph)

PHILLIP (voice-over): This meeting ended in chaos with City Council member Sharon McBride, who supports Buttigieg, interrupted by protesters.

SHARON MCBRIDE, SOUTH BEND COMMON COUNCIL: I was born in the -- raised in the hood. I love my city.

PHILLIP (voice-over): This is personal for you?

MCBRIDE: It's personal, so it was very hurtful. But, you know, I love what I do.

PHILLIP (voice-over): Bonds was there, too.

BONDS: But what's he saying was the truth. Who put them in the place to say they was our black leaders because they was not our black leaders?

PHILLIP (voice-over): Those close to him say this summer's protests changed Buttigieg.

KAREEMAH FOWLER, FORMER CITY CLERK AND BUTTIGIEG SUPPORTER: And I think that was absolutely a learning experience for Pete. I think that he welcomed and maybe needed it if he's going to be -- if he's going to be the President of the United States.

PHILLIP (voice-over): And, McBride feels some of the criticism unwarranted as this problem goes far beyond South Bend.

MCBRIDE: I don't think anybody can solve the problem with race overnight. In time, you could make steps and I think that in South Bend, we have done so.

PHILLIP (voice-over): Abby Phillip, CNN, South Bend, Indiana. (END VIDEOTAPE)

HARLOW: Abby Phillip reporting. Abby, thank you for that.

Sad news to report. A father and son are dead and four others are unaccounted for as erratic winds are fueling raging wildfires in southeastern Australia. Thousands of people taking refuge on the beach after fleeing their homes. The fires turning the sky -- look at that -- that's not altered -- turning the sky a deep red.

Journalist Simon Cullen has the latest.


SIMON CULLEN, JOURNALIST: Jim, Poppy, this is a bushfire crisis that continues to get worse every day. Here on the Southern Highlands, not far from Sydney, you can see that the air is thick with smoke. There is bushfire ash falling from the sky. In fact, the nearest fire front is just a few miles behind me -- behind the obscured mountain.

This state, New South Wales, is where dozens of fires continue to burn out of control, tragically claiming more lives, too. One of those is a young fireman. He died when the truck that he was in flipped over in hot, gusty winds. Sadly, he leaves behind a young, pregnant wife.

Now, further south in the state of Victoria, thousands of people there have been forced to flee their homes. They are seeking shelter on the beachfront because there is nowhere else to go. Authorities there say it now too late to leave. They've been forced to close major roads because the fire threat is just so intense.

Now, at this stage, they're sheltering on the beach. There is the possibility, though, that they will be evacuated by sea. At this stage, though, that has not been necessary.

As you can imagine, there is a total fire ban in place in many states. That has caused the cancelation of New Year's Eve celebrations. In many towns and cities, fireworks have been canceled. In Sydney, though, they have applied for and been granted exemption, so fireworks in Sydney will go ahead tonight.

But this thick smoke, which is casting a big shadow over Sydney, is an eerie reminder that this bushfire crisis is still far from over -- Jim, Poppy.


SCIUTTO: Just alarming to watch that play out there -- lives in danger.

We want to share with you now a viral video of how desperate the wildlife in Australia is, too. This is a koala bear, of course, approaching a cyclist in the city of Adelaide, to drink from one of their water bottles. A demonstration of how wildlife affected by these forest fires as well. Almost a third of the koala bears may have died in the wildfires there. Thanks very much to our international viewers for watching this morning. For you, "CNN NEWSROOM" is next.

For our U.S. viewers, we are following all of the breaking news. NEW DAY continues right now.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

SCIUTTO: And a very good morning to you and welcome to your NEW DAY. I'm Jim Sciutto, along with Poppy Harlow here. John and Alisyn off today. It is 8:00 here in New York, the waning hours of 2019.

And we're following breaking news this morning. A dramatic -- a dangerous scene unfolding this hour in Baghdad where hundreds of Iraqi protesters tried to storm the U.S. embassy there. This, after funerals were held for some 25 fighters from the Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militia. They were killed by U.S. airstrikes on Sunday.

HARLOW: President Trump reacting the unfolding events by pointing his finger and blaming Iran. The president wrote this morning, "Iran killed an American contractor, wounded many. We're strongly responding and always will.