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The Lead with Jake Tapper

Hearing Ends With No Riling In Trump Special Master Request; DOJ Moves Forward With Grand Jury Hearings, Arrests And Prosecutions Relating To Capitol Riot; President Biden To Make A Speech On The "Soul Of The Nation" In Philadelphia; GOP Senate Candidate Struggling In Ohio Race; GOP Senate Candidate Struggling In Ohio Race; IAEA Inspectors Arrive In Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant; Math And Reading Scores For 9-Year-Olds Decline Due To The Pandemic. Aired 4-5p ET

Aired September 01, 2022 - 16:00   ET




ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: Give that woman an Edward R. Murrow Award right now. She deserves it. She just carried on with reporting after swallowing a live fly.

BLACKWELL: I feel like she needs a sip of something strong after that, too.


CAMEROTA: Well done, well done.


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Is it just like having an overdue library book? THE LEAD starts right now.

That's one of the ways Trump's legal team described the dispute over classified documents seized from Mar-a-Lago. We have new details from this afternoon's hearing to determine if a judge will order an independent review.

Then President Biden is just hours away from delivering a rare primetime address. In it, he's expected to issue a dire warning about extremism led by his predecessor.

And the sobering numbers about just how harmful virtual learning was for American schoolchildren. Math and reading scores plummeting to their lowest levels in decades.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Kaitlan Collins in for Jake Tapper.

We start today with our "Politics Lead" and the Florida courtroom showdown unfold this afternoon over the classified documents found at Trump's Mar-a-Lago home. The hearing ended a little over an hour ago, with no immediate decision from Judge Aileen Cannon on whether or not to appoint a special master in the case. A special master would be a third party attorney put in charge of reviewing the evidence seized from Trump's Florida home.

His newest lawyer in his first appearance as part of the legal team today argued that a special master is needed to restore order and, quote, "lower the temperature in the nation." And another Trump attorney compared the battle over the classified documents to a dispute over a, quote, "overdue library book."

Let's get straight to CNN's Kara Scannell who is outside the courthouse in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Kara, tell us more about what arguments these lawyers were making, but also what the Justice Department was saying in that courtroom today.

KARA SCANNELL, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Kaitlan, so this hearing lasted about two hours. And as you said, the judge did not make a decision from the bench. She said she will issue a written order in due course. But during the hearing, there was of course some barbs between Trump's attorneys and the Justice Department, with Trump's lawyer saying that this whole dispute about classified documents was basically a fight over an overdue library book.

The prosecutors saying that Trump had no right to take these documents and that they opposed the special master. And Trump's lawyers, you know, really leaning in hard on trying to get a special master saying that, you know, the government is just basically asking the judge to look away and move on and saying that this, you know, refusal to grant what they call a modest request for a special master was extraordinary.

You know, but prosecutors say that they haven't seen any evidence from Trump's legal team that any of Trump's rights were violated. They don't need a special master, they argue. They also said that, remember, earlier in the week that they already had their filter team, that's the FBI agents who were not involved in the investigation, review the records. They said they completed that review.

They determined that a subset of them could possibly have information related to attorney-client privilege. Today, they put a number on it, saying it's about 520 documents in that subset that they are reviewing, although one of the prosecutors said that he did not believe a big portion of those documents would actually be covered by that privilege.

So, again, the judge not ruling on this. But, you know, both sides kind of laying out their case today. And when Trump's lawyers left the courthouse, they didn't provide any additional comment on the hearing or where they thought it was going to go -- Kaitlan.

COLLINS: Yes. We're waiting for that written order to come down from the judge. But, Kara, one other question that has been at the center of this and what people were waiting to see what Judge Cannon would say is when it comes to executive privilege. Because I know Trump's team has been making the argument that some of these documents are covered by that. The Justice Department has said, no, that does not apply because he's no longer president. What did the judge seem to say about that today?

SCANNELL: Well, that was a key point in this hearing with Trump's lawyers, again, pressing this point saying that this was really an issue that they wanted to get resolved. They said executive privilege is still in play. And prosecutors were saying that the special master, there's no role for her on executive privilege. The special master generally handles things like attorney-client privilege.

So the judge weighing in on this and she's saying that it is not entirely settled law that a former president does not have a claim on executive privilege when he leaves office, and she kept posing to the government, what's the harm in putting in place a special master to deal with this issue -- Kaitlan.

COLLINS: Yes. Certainly not what they wanted to hear on that front.

Kara Scannell, outside the courthouse in West Palm Beach, thank you.

I want to turn now on these developments to Alexis Hoag-Fordjour. She is an assistant professor of law at Brooklyn Law School.


So we were all waiting. This is relatively a procedural decision that was being made today, but it got so much attention because of these scathing filings that we've seen from the Justice Department, the arguments from Trump's team. What are your immediate takeaways from what you've just heard from Kara?

ALEXIS HOAG-FORDJOUR, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF LAW, BROOKLYN LAW SCHOOL: What we heard from Kara is basically that the judge is really operating with an abundance of caution. And this idea of keeping the potential, the consideration for executive privilege and not necessarily weighing in on that, I think speaks to the fact that she doesn't want to put her neck too far out there.

Executive privilege is something that came about after Nixon's presidency. And so it's part of the presidential basically records act of 1978. And it said that records that are produced by a president belong to the institution of the presidency, of the Executive Branch.

COLLINS: Not to the individual.

HOAG-FORDJOUR: Exactly. It doesn't attach to an individual person. And the irony here is that the Department of Justice is located within the Executive Branch. And so it's somewhat nonsensical argument, if I can go that far, to say that Trump would want to assert an executive privilege against the Department of Justice.

COLLINS: What about this idea that you saw his attorneys were arguing saying they were really trying to downplay that he took all these documents, which they've been trying to do since that photo came out comparing it to an overdue library book.

HOAG-FORDJOUR: Yes. So an overdue library book, I think probably all of us have experienced that at some point, you know, incur a fine. Here we have issues of national security. We have issues of potential federal criminal charges. We already know that a federal magistrate judge issued the search warrant, which means that there was probable cause, enough to find evidence that could support these three charges. The Espionage Act, obstruction of justice, and the unlawful removal of government documentation.

COLLINS: What's so ironic about that is that Trump's team has been arguing he declassified the information that was taken. He just had this standing order, even though a lot of senior officials told CNN they have never heard of such a thing. But in their filing last night, the word "declassified" was not mentioned in there. I looked through all the pages for it. And also they made an argument that a special master if one is assigned should have a security clearance.

What do you make of the fact that they're not in court making the argument about declassification, at least not yet?

HOAG-FORDJOUR: Yes, I think they're coming up with novel arguments to play whack-a-mole. They realized that the declassification classification argument is really not going to carry the day. And so now they're talking about executive privilege, now they're talking about potential attorney-client privilege. And I don't think that Trump's team has a clear legal strategy here.

COLLINS: When they said, today in court, Chris Kise, he is one of the newest attorneys, he's the former solicitor general of Florida. He has actually won four cases before the Supreme Court. They wanted him because he has experience in Florida law. He talked today about lowering the temperature in the country.


COLLINS: There has been a criticism that Trump has not done enough to lower the temperature in the country, when you've seen these spike in threats against FBI agents. Something that President Biden spoke out against this week. What did you make of that?

HOAG-FORDJOUR: Yes. I think it's really important that the temperature is lowered. But what I really wanted to focus on, too, is the fact that you have the Department of Justice laying out this carefully worded response to Trump's request for a special master, and it really lays out the government's case, clearly, not just for the judge, not just for Trump's team but for the American public.

COLLINS: One other thing, when it comes to the two sides here, the Justice Department and Trump's attorneys both making their arguments today, there's been a question about whether or not the spotlight is turning back to some of Trump's attorneys. Evan Corcoran, who was in the courtroom today, Christina Bobb who was often seen on television, she was not in the courtroom today, about whether or not they could go from being attorneys to being potentially witnesses, maybe defendants, given they said they -- Christina Bobb signed that letter saying no more classified information left at Mar-a-Lago. Do you see that as a possibility here?

HOAG-FORDJOUR: Unquestionably. And I fear for Christina Bobb and her career as an attorney. I would never sign a document that says that based on my information, that this is all that exists in terms of the materials that Trump removed from the White House. And I'm sure you noticed that in that -- the government's response, they mentioned she put a little caveat that said based upon the information that has been told to me, this is all that exists.

And so I think maybe part of her knew that there may have been more. And I'm sure that other folks in Trump's team kept information from Christina Bobb, so that she could sign that based on the limited, narrow information she knew, all that existed was this basically accordion folder I think they referred to as a Redweld folder that this sort of the accordion with a flap wrapped and taped and she hands that to the government.

COLLINS: Does she need to get an attorney, you think?

HOAG-FORDJOUR: Oh, for sure.

COLLINS: Because of her potential exposure here and her potential role in this?

HOAG-FORDJOUR: I have no doubt that she'll turn into a witness.

COLLINS: Wow. And then what do you make of the timing when it comes to the special master and if the Trump team does get one?


I think a lot of people have been learning the term "special master" for the first time.


COLLINS: It's not a well-known term. It's this third party attorney. If they do get one, and if this special master can consider executive privilege, what does the timing look like on that?

HOAG-FORDJOUR: Sure. So the government actually laid out a timeline in the filings. We don't think a special master is appropriate, but if one is appointed, let's have both sides get together, come up with a list of names of these potential sort of independent arbiters, generally they're retired judges, retired lawyers, and that will happen by I think it was September 7th. And then let's have the special master review all these materials by the end of September.

And the government says, this is a discreet number of documents. I think that folder contained 38 unique classified documents. The boxes had over 100 unique, again, classified designated documents. I think there was another bundle of over 100 documents. So this is a discreet number. The government has already gone through it. They have a separate investigation team, and they have a basically filter team in case anything was privileged and shouldn't be part of the criminal investigation.

And so the master, the special master, if one is appointed, could probably get through everything by the end of next month. COLLINS: So the timing wouldn't be -- it would be delayed but not the

investigation derailed.


COLLINS: Alexis, we will wait to hear from Judge Cannon and see what she decides. Thank you for joining us today with your insights, though.

HOAG-FORDJOUR: Thank you, Kaitlan.

COLLINS: Coming up, we also have a lot of new developments surrounding January 6th. One rioter could get the longest sentence to date. And former President Trump says he is now helping out some of the accused insurrectionists.

Plus Sarah Palin's loss potentially a warning for Republicans this November or maybe Democrats are reading too much into it.



COLLINS: Aside from the Mar-a-Lago search, there are several new threads in the Justice Department's investigation into the U.S. Capitol attack. Two top Trump White House attorneys are now set to appear before a federal grand jury tomorrow, and in Texas today, the feds arrested a lawyer for the Oath Keepers. Also, several accused rioters were also in court today, making their appearances.

So for all of these, let's bring in CNN's Whitney Wild.

Whitney, let's start out of all of these headlines today with the grand jury appearance tomorrow. That is happening from two of former President Trump's top attorneys in the White House, and it's quite an escalation by the grand jury to be bringing them in.

WHITNEY WILD, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. A person familiar with this matter tells CNN's Evan Perez that former White House counsel Pat Cipollone and his former deputy, Patrick Philbin, are expected to appear before a grand jury in D.C. That's happening tomorrow. Philbin and Cipollone were both key witnesses to then President Trump's actions in the last days of his presidency, specifically, they repeatedly pushed back on efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

They were also, Kaitlan, very much against a proposal to replace the acting attorney general with someone who was willing to look into those false claims of election fraud.

COLLINS: And Whitney, we also have this arrest of an attorney for the Oath Keepers coming 18 months after the insurrection actually happened. What is she accused of doing?

WILD: Well, now she's facing four charges related to this Capitol attack. That includes conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, obstruction of justice. She was seen outside the Capitol on the day of the insurrection. She was in court today, she's scheduled to go back to court, Kaitlan, in about a week.

COLLINS: Well, we'll wait to see what happens when she returns to court. But also remarkably today, we heard from former President Trump, as his attorneys were in court in Florida, he was touting his financial help for some of the January 6th defendants.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT: I met with -- and financially supporting people that are incredible. And they were in my office actually two days ago. It's very much on my mind. It's a disgrace what they've done to them.


COLLINS: He didn't say who was in his office, but we also do know that two notable defendants were in court today. What did we hear about them?

WILD: Well, these are two really big cases. And Kaitlan, I think it's important, too, but when we hear that, you know, a former president speaking about this, we don't actually know of any examples of times that he's actually funded these defenses, but nevertheless he keeps saying it. But again, back to court, there were these two really big cases today. One of them centers on someone named Julian Cotter.

He is one of the January 6th defendants who's really at the center of this case that, you know, many people believe took the life of Brian Sicknick. He assaulted Capitol police officer Brian Sicknick with a can of bear spray. Sicknick later died a day after the attack. The medical examiner said he died of natural causes but the events of the riot that day played a role in his death. Cotter pleaded guilty today to two counts of assaulting police with a dangerous weapon and faces up to 20 years in prison.

The other big case is of Thomas webster. He's a former New York City police officer. He was convicted of assaulting a D.C. police officer. Prosecutors were pushing for 17 years, which would be the longest sentence yet for a January 6th defendant.

Kaitlan, that hearing happening right now. So we should get an update on that in just a couple of minutes.

COLLINS: Yes, we'll wait to hear that update. It's also just stunning to see the people who are going to court, what they're accused of simultaneously with Trump saying that if he goes back to office would issue them pardons and a government apology as well.

Whitney Wild, thanks for those updates.

Coming up, the GOP is bringing in the big money as one Republican Senate candidate appears to be missing in action.


COLLINS: In our "Politics Lead," President Biden will take the stage in just a few hours from now at Philadelphia's Independence Hall. Officials say to expect a serious and somber speech about democracy and the forces that are threatening it.

Before Biden begins, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is going to deliver a prebuttal, attacking Democrats on crime and inflation.

CNN is covering both of tonight's speeches on the ground in Pennsylvania. Jeff Zeleny joins us live from Philadelphia and Jessica Dean is in West Pittston.

Jeff, President Biden has been wanting to give this speech for a while, but why did the White House picked now, why today?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kaitlan, the short answer is 68 days. That's how much time is remaining between now and the midterm elections. And during that period of time, Democrats and President Biden first and foremost, is trying to change the subject. He's trying to turn this away from any criticism of Democrats, inflation, the economy, trying to make this election a referendum on Donald Trump, and as he calls it, the MAGA Republican Party.

So that is what this speech is going to be here tonight. As you mentioned, it's going to be grave and sober. That's what we are hearing -- and somber, that's what we're hearing from White House officials, really talking about the threat of democracy.


Of course we've heard President Biden say this before, but we're told not quite in this way. He's talked about President Trump sort of sporadically throughout his time in the White House, not wanting to be overshadowed or really dwell on that. But in recent days and weeks, as the former president has come into the news more often through the legal cases and the search of Mar-a-Lago, the White House believes this is an opening for them politically speaking.

They believe that they can sort of focus voters' attention and mind on making this, again, a referendum, a choice between Republicans and Democrats, not a referendum on President Biden. So that's what we will hear tonight. Of course, coming back to Philadelphia where he began his campaign more than three years ago, talking about that fight for the soul of the nation -- Kaitlan.

COLLINS: Yes. And Jessica, with this backdrop, you know, the White House is say thing speech is not about all Republicans, it's about the Republicans who are shaping themselves, likening themselves in the image of former President Trump and extremism. I know the Republican National Committee has been railing against President Biden today calling him the divider-in-chief as he is set to give the speech. So what are we expecting to hear from McCarthy when he speaks before Biden? JESSICA DEAN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kaitlan, that's

exactly right. And a source has told me that we can expect to hear McCarthy tell Biden to apologize for calling some Americans fascists. He's of course referring to the president's comments from last week where he said that the underpinnings of the philosophy of Trump and those who support former President Trump are rooted in semi-fascism. And so we do expect to hear more pushback from the House minority leader on that.

We also know that he wants to turn the focus, as much as Jeff was saying, the Democrats and President Biden want to turn the focus on to this, they want to turn the focus back to the issues they think are going to win them back the House in the fall. That's things like crime, inflation. We know that he'll be talking about that as well, and trying really to frame this as a divisive speech that we're going to hear from President Biden later today.

Now, Kevin McCarthy of course is here just outside of Scranton. That's President Biden's hometown. It's also where he was for a major speech just a few days ago. So there's no mistake about that. They know exactly where they are, and that is very important as the House minority leader has been spending the last month going to 20 different states. I'm told this is his 21st as he really tries to hammer home this message.

Of course they are hoping to take the House back, Kaitlan. They had hoped for a major, major win. Now we are hearing that it may be a smaller margin that they're going to have. And of course, as McCarthy eyes the gavel, he really wants to be speaker of the House. It's going to be very important to him.

COLLINS: Yes, it will be. Jeff Zeleny, Jessica Dean, both reporting live from Pennsylvania, thank you.

Top Republicans meanwhile are sending a pretty pricey rescue squad to Ohio to try salvage J.D. Vance's Senate campaign. He's polling worse than expected and his controversial comments keep surfacing, as he's not even helping his own cause. He was ridiculed online this week after he shared an Irish coffee shop owner's tweet about a sky high electricity bill and blamed Democrats' energy policies. Again the cafe was in Ireland, baffling critics who wondered why he didn't highlight a business in Ohio instead.

As CNN's Manu Raju reports, this was Vance's to lose, and now Republicans are working hard to stop that outcome from happening.


MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In just six weeks, Ohio voters will begin casting their ballots. Yet J.D. Vance has been difficult to find. The rookie GOP candidate goes days without any public events. And now a super PAC linked to Mitch McConnell is planning to spend a staggering $28 million on TV ads here, all to save a Senate seat once viewed as a near lock. The question even conservatives are asking --


RAJU: Bill Cunningham, a longtime conservative radio host here, says that is a common question in GOP circles.

CUNNINGHAM: He's been spoken to by at least one U.S. senator and at one governor he respects to kick him in the ass.

RAJU (on-camera): Given how this state has trended Republican in recent cycles, do you think that he's taking it for granted?

CUNNINGHAM: Yes. He thinks the R is going to pull him over the line and he's probably right.

RAJU (voice-over): Vance has suddenly found himself in a competitive race against Congressman Tim Ryan.

REP. TIM RYAN (D-OH): Let's flip this Senate seat.

RAJU: The Democrat has raised six times the amount of money as Vance. Ryan in turn has spent eight times the amount of money on TV ads as Vance, allowing him to burnish an image as a blue collar warrior.

RYAN: So when Obama's trade deal threatened jobs here, I voted against it. And I voted with Trump on trade. I don't answer to any political party.

RAJU: One thing Ryan's ads do not emphasize, he is a Democrat and often votes with President Biden.

(On-camera): You don't advertise that you're a Democrat. Is that because it's an implicit recognition that it's a liability here?


RYAN: Yes, well, I mean, the Democratic brand, as we know, and you and I have talked about this for a long time is not good in a lot of these places. And I tell people, look, I'm an American. You're an American.

RAJU (voice-over): The GOP expects the coming ad campaign will doom Ryan by spotlighting his progressive votes in this increasingly conservative state.

(On-camera): You ran against her, Nancy Pelosi, but then you voted for her.

RYAN: What I want people to know is in this environment, do you have the guts to take on your own party? And from my vantage point for me, it's a resounding yes.

RAJU (voice-over): Unlike Ryan, Vance is a political newcomer. A best- selling author, venture capitalist, and former Marine who used to say --

JD VANCE (R), OHIO SENATE CANDIDATE: If I'm a never Trump guy --

RAJU: Yet Vance won over Donald Trump and his endorsement, and that was enough for him to win the crowded GOP primary in May. Voters still say they are waiting to hear more about him.

(On-camera): Have you seen a lot more Tim Ryan?


RAJU: Have you seen much of J.D. Vance around here?


RAJU (voice-over): Vance repeatedly declined to be interviewed. And his campaign would not provide a list of his events list. CNN did obtain copies of invitations to two high priced fundraisers. CNN tried to find Vance at his campaign office and attempted to call him on his cell phone.

(On-camera): To see if you'd be feeling to chat.

(Voice-over): But some Vance defenders insist he has had a strong presence across the state.

ALEX TRIANTAFILOU, CHAIRMAN, HAMILTON COUNTY REPUBLICAN PARTY: I see J.D. Vance here, I see him active. His team has been really strong.


RAJU: Now Republicans believe that J.D. Vance will ultimately benefit because Mike DeWine, the Republican governor, he's up for reelection. He's expected to win in his race. Could have coattails long enough to help Vance. Plus Democratic outside groups are not planning to spend nearly the amount of money that Mitch McConnell's group is.

Republicans do expect Vance to be more public in the coming days. He is expected to attend a Labor Day parade on Saturday. And just moments ago, he was at a closed event at the church behind me here in Columbus with pastors. He did not allow any press coverage there. We tried to interview him. We put a bunch of questions to the campaign. The campaign instead sent us a statement attacking CNN -- Kaitlan.

COLLINS: Manu Raju, thank you for that reporting from Columbus, Ohio.

Now let's discuss all of this with "Washington Post" national correspondent Philip Bump and "New York Times" political reporter Astead Herndon, who is also the host of the "Run Up" podcast.

Thank you so much for being here, both of you.

Astead, I want to start with you on this remarkable fight that is playing out, that's the best way to put it, between the Senate Republican's campaign chief and their party leader, Mitch McConnell. This is between Rick Scott and Mitch McConnell over a comment that McConnell made about the quality of the candidates that Republicans have, people like J.D. Vance, and the fact that they are having to put all this money into these races.

Rick Scott is not happy with that. And he said in an op-ed today in the "Washington Examiner," "Many of the very people responsible for losing the Senate last cycle are now trying to stop us from winning the majority this time by trash talking our Republican candidates. It's an amazing act of cowardice, and ultimately it is treasonous to the conservative cause."

He is literally telling Mitch McConnell to pipe down without naming him at this point.

ASTEAD HERNDON, POLITICAL REPORTER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: I mean, the subtlety is not subtle at all. And this has been a feud that's been playing out over a set of months. You've had kind of different strategies about how they should go about trying to get back the Republican majority in the Senate. Rick Scott has skewed a little closer to Trump, has kind of stayed away from the party putting its thumb on the scales in the primary, out of that believe that you really can't anger that Trump MAGA wing of the party.

Whereas Mitch McConnell who, you know, is recognized largely in D.C. as being the mastermind of kind of Republican strategy there, has had a series of wins kind of understanding the mechanisms of the Senate, has been pushing for a more traditional Senate candidate, someone who he thinks is better positioned to win over those independents and moderates. But it's gone beyond that. You now have criticism of Scott for how he's managed the money, about how maybe that these Senate candidates aren't meeting where medium voters are.

And the problem for Scott is that some of the polling is now backing the McConnell point of view. You have had candidates like Herschel Walker in Georgia, like Dr. Oz in Pennsylvania, who have been falling behind in races that we expected them to play closer in per polling because they haven't been able to keep up where the kind of energy of the party is. As issues have moved away from Republicans and have focused more on Democratic agenda, and then following through, those Senate candidates have struggled and the criticism of Senator Scott has ramped up, too.

COLLINS: Yes, and of course, what these candidates all have in common, Philip, is that they're all political novices. They got these Trump endorsements, which helped them in their primaries. But the question then, and the issue that's playing out between McConnell and Rick Scott, is that it's not translating to general election votes based on the polling right now.

PHILIP BUMP, NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, THE WASHINGTON POST: Well, this is the fundamental question in the Republican Party that's prevalent right now is how much do you just rely on turning out your base, getting your base come out and vote for you, and how much do you need to appeal to the crossover voters? Donald Trump's strategy all along, entirely from 2016 and 2020, was always turn out the base, energize the base, play to the base, get the base to come along. It worked for Donald Trump, worked for him on 2016. Didn't work for him in 2020, obviously. But this is the strategy that the Republican Party is doing.


You saw Lindsey graham, for example. Lindsey Graham was asked, you know, give us your pitch on Herschel Walker. And he basically just said, look, he's going to win, right? Because he is playing the game where Republicans are going to come out and vote for the Republican. You heard the radio commentator there saying, he's going to rely on that R next to his name. Is that going to be enough? That's the fundamental question.

And I think it's also important to differentiate between an Oz and a Walker, and a Vance and Masters in Arizona. The Vance and Masters in Arizona both won because they got all this outside money from this guy, Peter Thiel, who's got all his case, and now there's a fight between McConnell and Thiel about whether or not Thiel is going to come in, in the general. And so there's all these layers at play here, but it really fundamentally comes down to how are Republicans going to win, base strategy or appealing across.

COLLINS: Yes. And they're struggling more than they thought. Another Trump backed candidate, Sarah Palin, also lost her race last night. There have been questions over whether, you know, it's Alaska, so there are questions over whether or not you can read too much into that and what it foreshadows for Republicans this November. What do you think?

HERNDON: Yes, I mean, I think that it builds on the larger trends we've seen before. It's just not that Palin race in isolation, it is a repeated example. You have the special election race in New York. You have individual referendums across the country where Democratic enthusiasm has risen from the summer. I think that's probably universally recognized. You have seen the backlash particularly after that Dobbs decision really fuel Democrats.

And you're also seeing kind of weak Republican candidates who a few close to Trump, not getting the Trump boost. Right? Trump's strategy can work as Philip was talking about because he finds a voter that will come out for him. It is not clear that that same type of voter will come out for a Sarah Palin, will come out for a Blake Masters or will come out for a J.D. Vance in Ohio. What they are hoping for is that this race becomes nationalized, right, that these individual races become wrapped up in the larger D versus R battle of polarization, and so someone can pull them over the line.

I think in Alaska, it has a lot of local forces in that race.


HERNDON: But again, it builds on the larger trend we're seeing where Democrats are feeling increasingly good about their chances in November, when we started off with a kind of feeling that this might be a Republican wave year.

COLLINS: Yes. And your colleague at "The Washington Post" agreed with that sentiment, writing that -- Aaron Blake writing that Democrats have overperformed their 2020 margins, talking about those special elections that we have seen ever since the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade. Congresswoman-elect Peltola, who defeated Sarah Palin last night, said that she does think abortion rights is the key issue in her race. And so I do wonder how Republicans are viewing this, given they're

fighting over all over who is supporting whom. What do they do going forward here if they are going to try to have this red wave that they've been touting for November?

BUMP: Well, the first thing they've been doing is scrubbing their Web sites of any mention of their positions on abortion that they had during the primaries, right? I think that more than any polling is telling, right?


BUMP: That's saying this is -- they do a lot more polling that we do, and they're saying, hey, look, we got to walk away from this. You know, it's a very traditional general election move. You move back toward the middle. You know, the Sarah Palin race, it's important to know this was a ranked choice voting race. And so it gave voters the opportunity to say, hey, I don't really like Sarah Palin, I want to rank her third, after the Democrat. And so a lot of people did that. And that's how the Democrat ended up (INAUDIBLE) past.

So there's a lot of these unusual scenarios, too, that are sort of affecting things. And I think there's a really important thing that I wrote about yesterday that is worth highlighting here is that we've seen a lot of polling errors in recent years. Even in 2018 when Democrats did well, a lot of the Senate race polling in particular overestimated how well Democrats were going to do. I think that also is sort of the shadow that's lingering behind what the Democrats are feeling.

COLLINS: Yes. It's a good word of caution as we're all trying to read so much into this. One thing that we do know that's happening is this speech tonight from President Biden. It harkens back to what we heard from him very often on the campaign trail, which is this battle for the soul of America and the way the White House is describing it is that there's these extremist forces. They're very careful to say it's not all Republicans, but the ones who style themselves after former President Trump, that are a threat to America.

I think the question is, you know, he has been making this argument since the campaign trail. He still feels the need to make it tonight.

HERNDON: Yes. Certainly. I think he's actually emboldened in making that argument. I mean, I think you're seeing new language from the president as we talked about the White House doubling down on that comment, framing some Republicans as semi-fascists, saying the underpinnings of that movement -- I think that is actually an escalation of that type of rhetoric. But it's important to go back that this is where President Biden started his campaign, right, with those type of messages saying that he planned to heal the country, to unify the country but beyond that, to restore democracy kind of to its place.

Framing the key contrast of the race, not just being D versus R, but being democracy protectors versus folks trying to erode it. But what we have now is a Republican landscape which actually makes that argument easier for Democrats, right? You have a Republican landscape in which they have prioritized Senate candidates, governor candidates, who are stoking conspiracy about the 2020 election, that have endorsed Donald Trump's false claims that that election was rigged.


And so that is empowering the White House to go even further on that language. Framing November, not just this D versus R, but as a core to the democracy fight.

COLLINS: What do you make of it?

BUMP: Yes, that's right. I mean, if you go back and look at Biden's inaugural speech, he very clearly framed democracy against autocracy. He didn't say fascism, instead of autocracy. He framed it broadly in a geopolitical context internationally. But it's clear he was talking about America as well, and now we're seeing that same argument coming back into play because he also understands it brings Trump into the picture.


COLLINS: Yes. We'll be watching 8:00 Eastern tonight. Philip Bump, Astead Herndon, thank you both so much.

Everyone, listen to Astead's new podcast, "The Run Up," which starts on Tuesday.

HERNDON: Thank you.

COLLINS: Coming up, the inspection team has now arrived at the massive nuclear power plant in the middle of a war zone in Ukraine.


COLLINS: In our "World Lead," Ukraine's nuclear operator says that most inspectors from the nuclear watchdog, including its chief, have just left the Zaporizhzhia power plant after being there for just about four hours today.


That plant, remember, is a major source of power for Ukraine, and five inspectors are expected to stay until Saturday. This comes as one of the only two working reactors at the plant was shut down today.

CNN's Melissa Bell takes a closer look at the unstable situation and the nuclear inspectors' risky mission.


MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The shelling began at dawn around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. The worst that the town of Enerhodar had seen since it was occupied in March, according to its mayor. Briefed on the situation but undeterred, IAEA inspectors decided to head through the frontline nonetheless. RAFAEL GROSSI, INTERNATIONAL ATOMIC ENERGY AGENCY DIRECTOR GENERAL: We

are moving now.

BELL: The 14-strong team, seeing for itself as it traveled, the artillery and mortar fire that led to the shutting down of one of the plant's last two functioning reactors. After an hours' long delay on its way, the IAEA inspectors arrived. A glimpse at last into a plant that's been occupied by Russian forces for months.

GROSSI: It is obvious that the plant and the physical integrity of the plant has been violated several times, by chance, and this is something that cannot continue to happen.

BELL: Which is why he said five members of his team had stayed behind to ask more questions, and to dig deeper. In a plant controlled by Russian forces but manned by workers who say that it's been almost impossible for them to do their jobs.

UNIDENTIFIED ZAPORIZHZHIA PLANT WORKER (through translator): We feel like hostages. We actually can't do our jobs. We can't carry phones, flash drives, memory cards, and God forbid if you look at a soldier the wrong way, you could be thrown into the basement.

GROSSI: The Ukrainian employees, I was with them throughout the day. Of course, they are in a difficult situation, but they have an incredible degree of professionalism. And I see them calm and moving on.

BELL: The plan, he said, for the IAEA to establish a permanent presence at the plant and to make good on his word to its workers, that the U.N. nuclear watch dog is now there to stay.


BELL: Kaitlan, that is why this is the real moment when the work of the inspectors begins. Not just what that five-man strong team will do over the next few days which is really working out what damage has been done, but also trying to figure out by staying longer term how the plant can function more safely, how its workers can do their jobs, and perhaps by their very presence, bringing a little more peace and quiet to what is Europe's largest nuclear power plant.

Remember that it is with every round of shelling, Europe that moves one step closer, Kaitlan, to another Ukrainian nuclear meltdown.

COLLINS: Yes. A major concern. Melissa Bell, thank you for that fantastic reporting.

Coming up, we have new numbers that should deeply concern every parent, every teacher, everybody.



COLLINS: In our "National Lead," a troubling but sadly predictable report on the coronavirus pandemic's devastating impact on schoolchildren. Math and reading scores for 9-year-olds in the United States not only fell sharply but had one of the largest declines on record.

CNN's Gabe Cohen takes a closer look at just how far this age group is falling behind, and how the pandemic erased years' worth of progress.


GABE COHEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): New test results from the National Assessment of Education Progress show math and reading scores for 9-year-olds in the U.S. falling sharply between 2020 and 2022, the worst drop-off for reading since 1990. And the first-ever decline for math.

MIGUEL CARDONA, EDUCATION SECRETARY: That is very alarming. It's disturbing, but it's not surprising, keeping in mind a year and a half ago, over half of our schools were not open for full-time learning.

COHEN: Students who were already struggling in school showed the most dramatic drop-off.

MARTIN WEST, HARVARD EDUCATION PROFESSOR: Some colleagues of mine estimate that that amounts to about nine months' worth of instruction.

COHEN: Martin West is a member of the board that oversees this test.

(On-camera): How long could it take these students to catch up?

WEST: In my view, it's going to take a number of years before students are able to make up this lost ground in full.

NICHOLE, TEXAS TEACHER: I have students that are coming into 4th grade that are performing two and three grade levels below where they should be.

COHEN (voice-over): Nichole is a 4th and 5th grade teacher in Texas, who asks us not to show her face, fearing retaliation.

NICHOLE: I don't know that I can make up two years of growth in one year.

PEGGY CARR, COMMISSIONER, NATIONAL CENTER FOR EDUCATION STATISTICS: I don't think it's over yet. We will have to do better than what we were doing before the pandemic.

COHEN: Schools nationwide have been trying to hire more staff, including tutors and psychologists.

WEST: I think the first step is simply to make up some of the lost instructional time that could come through extended school days, it could come through after-school programming and tutoring, or it come through summer school programs.

COHEN: But with teacher burnout and a shrinking pipeline, many schools face a teacher shortage, especially in rural areas, and those with more low-income families and students of color.


COHEN: And right now, the federal government is pumping more than $100 billion in relief funds into schools and requiring them to spend at least 20 percent of it on this learning loss.


But Kaitlan, in the short term, at those schools that can't find enough teachers right now, students who need more attention than ever are likely getting less.

COLLINS: Yes, not something that teachers or parents of those students want to hear.

Gabe Cohen, thank you.

Meanwhile, Serena Williams is having fun proving that she is the greatest of all time, and she's back on the court tonight.



UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Are you surprising yourself with your level?



WILLIAMS: I mean, I'm just serena, you know, so.


COLLINS: Yes, she is.