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The Lead with Jake Tapper

DeSantis Reacts To News Trump Is Target Of Special Counsel's January 6 Investigation; Trump A Target Of Special Counsel's Jan. 6 Criminal Probe; Rep. Zoe Lofgren, (D-CA), Is Interviewed About Special Counsel's January 6 Criminal Probe; DeSantis On Criticism Of His Campaign; U.S. Soldier Detained By North Korea. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired July 18, 2023 - 17:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Trump's lawyers have not responded to the request, we're told. If Trump were to be charged in the January 6th probe, it would be his third criminal indictment since March of this year, something that has never happened in American history. But then again, neither has Donald Trump's behavior. There are the criminal charges involving the hush money payments to Stormy Daniels, of course. And as well, there is the classified documents trial, where Trump's attorneys actually just wrapped up a critical appearance earlier today before the judge in Florida. When I asked Governor DeSantis to respond to the news about Trump during our interview, this is what he had to say.


TAPPER: So, I do have to ask about the breaking news today --


TAPPER: -- your chief competitor, the front runner right now, Donald Trump, says he was informed that he is the target of Special Counsel Jack Smith's investigation into efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. And Mr. Trump has until Thursday to report to the grand jury. If Jack Smith has evidence of criminality, should Donald Trump be held accountable?

DESANTIS: So here's the problem, this country is going down the road of criminalizing political differences, and I think that's wrong. Alvin Bragg stretched a statute in Manhattan to be able to try to target Donald Trump. Most people, even people on the left acknowledge if that wasn't Trump, that case would not have likely been brought against the normal civilian. And so you have a situation where Department of Justice, FBI have been weaponized against people they don't like. And the number one example of that happened to be against Donald Trump with the Russia collusion.

That was not a legitimate investigation that was being done to try to drive Trump out office. And so what I've said, as president, my job is to restore a single standard of justice to end weaponization of these agencies. We're going to have a new FBI director on day one. We're going to have big changes at the Department of Justice. Americans across the political spectrum need to have confidence that what is going on is based on the rule of law, not based on what political tribe you're in.

And then the second thing I would say is this country needs to have a debate about the country's future. If I'm the nominee, we'll be able to focus on President Biden's failures, and I'll be able to articulate a positive vision for the future. I don't think it serves us good to have a presidential election focused on what happened four years ago in January. And so, I want to focus on looking forward, I don't want to look back. I do not want to see him. I hope he doesn't get charged.

I don't think it'll be good for the country. But at the same time, I've got to focus on looking forward and that's what we're going to do.


TAPPER: Wanting to look forward, not backward. The closest Ron DeSantis came to criticizing Donald Trump in the interview. We'll have more from the interview in just a few moments.

But first, I want to bring in CNN's Evan Perez, who has extensively covered all of the Trump investigations.

And, Evan, today was not the first time Trump was the one to break the news of his own impending possible arrest, arraignment, indictment. Has the special counsel's office yet confirmed it?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: They have not, Jake. They have declined to comment on all of this. But we obviously have heard this now repeatedly, including from Trump's own lawyers today that he had received this notification from the special counsel, the notification coming on Sunday. And Donald Trump choosing today to announce that he had received a notification from the special counsel, which signals that they are close to bringing an indictment.

Now, he has until Thursday to come before the grand jury if he wants to make his own case. At this point, we do not expect that the former president is going to avail himself of that. The last time, Jake, that he was notified that he was given a target letter from the special counsel, it was about three weeks before we saw an actual indictment. And that -- during that period, the former president went to his lawyers, went to the Justice Department to try to stop the Justice Department from bringing this case. And, of course, the case was moved to the Southern District of Florida.

This time, we expect a much shorter timeline as possible, perhaps as soon as Thursday, if Donald Trump declines to appear before the grand jury, Jake.

TAPPER: So Trump's lawyers are very busy today. They had a hearing with Florida Judge Aileen Cannon on this classified documents case in addition to everything about the January 6 case. Update us on what happened in the courtroom regarding this national document, security documents case. PEREZ: Well, Judge Cannon pushed back against the Justice Department's very speedy, speedy timeline. The Justice Department said that they want a trial perhaps as soon as December. They said that could be ready to begin this trial in December. The Trump team has been pushing back against that. They've asked the judge not to even set a trial date.

She seems to be, based on what happened today, Paula Reid was in the courtroom there today, she seems to be of the view that there perhaps will be a trial date that she will be able to set. It could be something that might -- that gets pushed back. But the Trump team is really making a point, Jake, that, you know, they have a lot of litigation, they want to challenge the very nature of the charges that are being brought against him down in the Southern district of Florida.


They also obviously raised the issue that the former president got a notification of yet another set of charges. They say that that adds complications to the preparation that they have to do for this trial that could be starting soon. We expect, Jake, that the judge will issue an order. At some point, setting a trial date, acknowledging, of course, that some of that could change at a later date. Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Evan Perez, thank you so much.

Joining us now to discuss former Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Tom Dupree and CNN's Abby Phillip, as well as CNN's Anchor Kaitlan Collins.

Kaitlan, listen to DeSantis when I pushed him on the investigations into Trump.


TAPPER: Jack Smith has prosecuted Democrats, too. I mean, he prosecuted, or at least was part of the prosecution of Senator Menendez, Senator John Edwards. Are you saying that if he finds evidence of criminality, he should not charge Donald Trump anyway?

DESANTIS: What I'm saying is, when you're going after somebody on the other side of the political spectrum, if you're stretching statutes to try to criminalize maybe political disagreements, that is wrong. Now, look, this is all speculation, but I think we've gone down the road in this country of trying to criminalize differences in politics rather than saying, OK, you don't like somebody, then defeat them in the election rather than trying to use the justice system.

So, we don't know what's going to happen. But I can tell you with the Bragg one that was stretching criminal law, the evidence of criminality was very weak. And even if that existed, other people would not have been charged under those circumstances. That's the problem.

(END VIDEO CLIP) TAPPER: So, let me just repeat what he said there, because I said, do you think if Jack Smith finds evidence of criminality, he shouldn't charge Trump? And he said, well, defeat him in the election rather than trying to use the justice system? Kaitlan, obviously the whole point of this latest possible indictment is over Trump's role in overturning a free and fair election.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's interesting to me that Governor DeSantis maybe not surprising that he focused instead on the Manhattan case, that one has been criticized from conservative attorneys, even Democratic more liberal attorneys, who have said they don't believe it's a strong case that the Manhattan District Attorney, Alvin Bragg has. But he completely avoided talking about what Trump has gotten a target letter for today, which he announced, which, of course, was his efforts to overturn the election. He could face an indictment in that. Trump's attorneys likely know what those possible charges are because they include them on a target letter. And he also didn't make any mention of the documents case either. Something that has been more difficult for Republicans like DeSantis to cast as political because you've seen people like the former Attorney General Bill Barr come out and criticize Trump over it and say that he had no right to do what he claims that he had a right to do.

So I think when you listen to the words of people like Bill Barr, someone who is certainly not attempting to be a Trump critic, generally, he has now been thrust into this role. And you compare it with what DeSantis said about criminalizing political behavior, I don't think people would look at taking state secrets to Mar-a-Lago as political behavior or Trump's efforts to overturn a free and fair election desperate attempts to overturn the election.

TAPPER: Abby, DeSantis obviously trying to thread the needle like almost every other Republican presidential candidate except for Chris Christie, Asa Hutchinson, and Will Hurd, careful not to criticize Trump really in any serious way, although he did say he wants the election to be looking forward, not backward, going strongly after the Justice Department. If any of these Republicans eventually do take the highest office, do you think they will ultimately change their tune on the DOJ or the FBI, Abby?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN ANCHOR, INSIDE POLITICS SUNDAY: I doubt it. I mean, I think if Ron DeSantis is elected on this particular message, that's because that's what Republican voters expected of them, and if they were to just turn around and do something different, that would become politically very problematic for them. DeSantis is in a political bind right now because I think he has decided that rather than try to find credibility more to the center of the right, that he wants to be further to the right, even perhaps further to the right than Trump himself. And if he's going to do that, there's actually really no way he can criticize Trump for these investigations because folks on the far right of the Republican Party right now do not think that these investigations are legitimate.

And Kaitlan's right. I mean, he avoided actually talking about what Trump may be charged with in the January 6 case because the facts of that case and also the documents case don't support the argument that he's making that this is all just sort of a stretching of the law. And even this idea of political differences, January 6 was not about political differences, it was about people using violence to gain political means. So, you know, I think DeSantis is trying to avoid those arguments altogether.


TAPPER: Tom, in addition to being a former Justice Department official, you're a former Republican administration official, what do you make of the way that almost all of Trump's rivals, including Governor DeSantis, don't really seem to take Jack Smith's investigations very seriously?

TOM DUPREE, FMR. PRINCIPAL DEPUTY ASST. ATTORNEY GENERAL, GEORGE W. BUSH ADMIN.: Jake, I think it's purely a function of what the numbers look like right now in the Republican primary. You know, many of us thought it was inconceivable that you could have a leading presidential candidate get criminally indicted not once but multiple times and yet retain such strong poll numbers. And so I think the support you're seeing from the other Republican candidates simply reflects that right now the Republican base stands behind Donald Trump. And whether it's because they do see these prosecutions as political, whether it's because they do think the president is innocent of the charges, it's unclear exactly what's driving it, but the numbers are what they are.

I think that Governor Christie or former Governor Christie, I think is charting a different tack. We'll see how it plays out, but he and the others that you mentioned have, you know, kind of beaten a different drum here and really said, look, there is smoke, there is fire here, what the President did was serious, and it's appropriately pursued.

TAPPER: All right. Tom Dupree, Kaitlan Collins, Abby Phillip, thanks to all of you. Really appreciate it.

And coming up, more from my sit down interview with Ron DeSantis, including his response to critics who say he's not doing well enough in the polls, why he says he's not worried ahead. Then, CNN has learned the special counsel has spoken to officials in every 2020 battleground state. What might that tell us about where charges might be filed in the January 6 probe, if at all? That's next from the campaign trail here in Columbia, South Carolina.



TAPPER: I'm Jake Tapper, joining you live from the campaign trail in Columbia, South Carolina, where I just sat down for an exclusive interview with Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis. More on that in a moment.

But first, Special Counsel Jack Smith's office has been rather busy. CNN has now learned federal investigators for the special counsel's office have interviewed election officials from all seven 2020 battleground states. All seven, of course, were targeted by Trump and his allies. CNN's Katelyn Polantz joins us now to discuss.

Katelyn, does this give us any indication about when prosecutors might bring charges if they do?

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Jake, it shows how much work the special counsel's office has done and just reiterates how close we are to the end, potentially, of this investigation now that they've notified Donald Trump that he's a target. And if you look at that map, those seven battleground states, those are the seven states Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, those are the seven states where there were fake electors who were assembling for Trump trying to submit false ballots to the Electoral College that were not in line with the popular vote result in those states, those states which Donald Trump had lost. Those are also states where there have been election officials speaking to the special counsel's office who were witnessed to two different things, people who were receiving calls from Trump himself as he was pressuring either the state legislatures to block the election result or pressuring in Georgia to find votes for him or they were the people who were administering elections, people who were the recipients of threats of harassment and who bore witness to how Donald Trump was trying to hurt the result of the popular vote in those states. And so we put those all together, and it is a national part of this investigation, bringing all of those states under the banner of the special counsel criminal probe.

TAPPER: Right. So that's the national part and there's also state by state investigations. And Kaitlan, today, as you know the Michigan Attorney General filed criminal charges against 16 people accused of posing as fake electors for Donald Trump in the 2020 elections. Tell us the significance of that.

POLANTZ: Yes, a totally different case, totally different prosecutor, totally different level of government, state related charges in the state of Michigan being brought by Attorney General Dana Nessel there. And these charges are against the 16 fake electors who signed those false certificates saying Donald Trump won that state when he had not. People who had tried to get into the state Capitol, into the state House to try and say Trump should be the winner here, even though he did not win the popular vote. And Nessel, whenever she spoke about this today, she talked about how it's quite possible these people, these 16 people now charged with felonies may fully be aware that at the time they believe there was election fraud or that they were following the president who said that they should give their ability to have a patriotic duty here and submit these. But that is not a legal justification, the Attorney General said.

And now we do have the result in a state court that these 16 people will be charged with a crime. And she said that there could be more of this investigation to come. Jake.

TAPPER: Katelyn Polantz, thank you so much.

Joining us now to discuss, Democratic Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren who was a member of the House Select Committee investigating the January 6 attack. Congresswoman, good to see you as always. The target letter to Trump, according to Trump, indicates the charges could be coming soon and that he needs to talk to the grand jury by Thursday at the latest. Your committee investigated Trump's role in the January 6 attack extensively, you're also a lawyer, what crimes do you think he is likely to be charged with?


REP. ZOE LOFGREN (D-CA), FORMER MEMBER, JAN. 6TH SELECT CMTE.: Well, I don't know what he's going to be charged with, but we referred four matters to the Department of Justice, obstruction of official proceeding, conspiracy to defraud the United States, submission of false statements, and incitement of insurrection. And we felt we had mountains of evidence to support each one of those four charges, which was why we sent them to DOJ.

But of course, the Special Counsel has been able to talk to some people who refuse to talk to us, for example, Mark Meadows. So he may have information we could not get that might support additional charges. We'll just have to wait and see.

TAPPER: I interviewed Trump's chief rival, at least as of now, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis earlier. When asked about these potential charges, he said that he hopes Trump is not charged and that it would be bad for the American people. He said, if you want to defeat Donald Trump, do it at the ballot box, not in court. What would your response be to that?

LOFGREN: Well, it's absurd. This is not a political action. In fact, the Special Counsel was appointed so that the Biden administration would have no say in this. So it's completely independent.

To think it's, you know, what Jack Smith should run for president is ridiculous. And the idea that because someone is a candidate for president, that they are above the law, that's not what our country is about. No one is above the law.

And I think actually, all of the individuals who were the foot soldiers, they attacked the police in the case of the Oath Keepers and others, they engaged in seditious conspiracy, but they were the low level people and that only the low level people would be held to account and not the generals who orchestrated this. That would not be right.

TAPPER: Democratic Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren of California, thank you so much. Good to see you again, as always.

We've got a lot more from South Carolina ahead. As you know, I sat down exclusively with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, where he laid out his campaign trail strategy and claimed he's not worried about any lagging poll numbers. Stay with us.


[17:26:51] TAPPER: Returning now to our politics lead in our exclusive interview with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican presidential candidate competing here in South Carolina, he filed his paperwork here today. Let's take a listen to one key section, a political section not a policy section where I asked him about his perceived electability or lack thereof as he seeks to sit in the Oval Office and his strategy to focus on a few key states in order to win the Republican presidential nomination. Take a listen.


TAPPER: So, this issue gets into the state of the race because some of your supporters are disappointed that your campaign has yet to catch fire the way they would want in terms of polling. One Republican pollster, one who is sympathetic to you, I was asking her about your campaign and she said she thought the issue was you bumped up at the beginning because voters, Republican voters, saw you as a more electable conservative like Trump, like Trump without the baggage. But then they say as you go further and further to the right on some of these divisive social issues that could alienate moderates, suburban moms, et cetera, Republican voters see you as less and less electable. What do you say to that analysis?

DESANTIS: Well, I don't think it's true. I mean the proof is in the pudding. I mean I took a state that had been a one point state and we won it by 20 percentage points, 1.5 million votes. Our bread and butter were people like suburban moms. We're leading a big movement for parents rights to have the parents be involved in education, school choice, get the indoctrination out of schools.

Of course there's bread and butter issues that matter too, inflation, more economic opportunity. Florida's economy is ranked number one of all 50 states. We've worked hard to make that happen. Crime, you see crime in all these different communities that is now even going into suburbs and some areas. So I think that there's a lot of things.

I don't think that's the reason. I think the reason is I was getting a lot of media attention at the time coming off the victory. I had to do my job as governor with my legislative session and we had a great legislative session. We did a lot of great things, actually things that appeal to huge majorities of the population. So I think that that analysis is wrong. But I had to do that.

And so I was basically taking fire really nonstop since then because a lot of people view me as a threat. I think the left views me as a threat because they think I'll beat Biden and actually deliver on all this stuff. And then of course people that have their allegiances within the -- allegiances in Republican side, you know, have gone after me. But the reality is this is a state by state process. I'm not running a campaign to try to juice, you know, whatever we are in the national polls.

I mean I -- whatever we did in the CNN compared, whatever, it's fine. I'm definitely doing better than everybody else.

TAPPER: By state by state, obviously. DESANTIS: It's state by state.

TAPPER: Right.

DESANTIS: So, we're focused on building an organization. You got to get people to come out in the middle of January in Iowa to caucus for you. That requires an organization, it requires to know where those votes are. Now that is not going to make the same type of splash as if you were trying to run ads nationally or do those other things.

And so, we've been making, you know, really good progress. I think this weekend was really good in terms of the family leader and some of the other things we were doing in Iowa. Of course we're here in South Carolina, we're going to do a lot in New Hampshire. But that's going to be our focus. Focusing on those early states, continuing to build our coalitions and going forward.

And I would also just note, Jake, there is a narrative that they're almost trying a little too hard with this to try to say, because they've been saying that I've been doing poorly for my whole time as governor, basically, this is always the case during COVID. Oh, you know, he has a state open, he's going to lose. Then he fought Disney, he's going to lose, and then this.

So they always want to get there. It never quite works out. And in fact, I actually remember you did the debate with us in '18.



DESANTIS: And before we did the debate on CNN and you didn't have anything to do with this, CNN released a poll saying I was down like 14 or 15 points. Now, that was the narrative at the time. He's going down. So I think some of this is motivated reasoning, but I kind of get a kick out when they say he didn't fundraise well when I did more than Biden and Trump in the second quarter and I'm just the governor.


TAPPER: I want to bring in our panel, former South Carolina state lawmaker Bakari Sellers, a Democrat, Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson and Scott Jennings, who used to work under President George W. Bush.

Kristen, let me start with you. I mean, is he right? Is the reason he's faltering in the polls because or not soaring as people had hoped he would, even going down in some polls because he had to govern in Florida and the left hates him and, you know, Trump people hate him and that's what was going on?

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, there is something to be said for the idea that his late start in all of this did hamper him a bit. I think of immediately after the midterms, Republicans are wounded. They've just not had that red wave materialize. They're thinking we cannot let this happen again in 2024. TAPPER: Although they did great in Florida, we should note.

ANDERSON: And they did great in Florida. So suddenly the attention is all on DeSantis. He's the winner. He's got the vision for the future. And it was a moment where Donald Trump was really weak in all of my polls. That was the moment when suddenly you saw this real appetite for something different. It's like when you're playing a video game and suddenly the boss that you're fighting, their shields go down, now's the moment to strike. But DeSantis couldn't strike then.

He still had session to go through in Tallahassee. And so I think he's right that there was this moment where suddenly he could have had more support. I think, if he had gone for the jugular right away. But he did have to govern the state of Florida, so it's tough for him.

TAPPER: Could he not have compartmentalized? Could he not have done a bunch of interviews and gone after Trump more directly?

BAKARI SELLERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: So, respectfully, the facts are Ron DeSantis is just not that talented. And I think people --

TAPPER: As a politician.

SELLERS: As a politician, I think people are seeing that. I mean, like I've always said, that the clearest way to describe Ron DeSantis is when voters meet him, they reject him when they meet him. You know, there are two comparisons to make in races that are a summer before primaries begin. The first is Barack Obama. Barack Obama was 20 points down when he was traversing South Carolina --

TAPPER: Behind Hillary Clinton, yes.

SELLERS: Behind Hillary Clinton in 2007. When you had a young, handsome state lawmaker who supported him named Bakari Sellers, and you know what happened? He was able to catch fire. The other way --

TAPPER: You just called yourself handsome?

SELLERS: I did. And I spoke about myself in the third person.

TAPPER: OK, interesting. Yes.

SELLERS: But the other comparison is Scott Walker and Tim Pawlenty. And I think that Ron DeSantis is more Scott Walker than he is Barack Obama. And I think voters are just starting to realize that.

TAPPER: So, Scott, what do you take from this? And what did you think of his answer when it came to where he is in the polls? He's not wrong that he is doing better in the state by state polls than he is in the national polls, and that the state by state are far more significant. But I just looked at a bunch of Iowa polls. None of them are really great polls in terms of their quality, but Trump is far and away in first place, you know, in the 40s or 50s and DeSantis is generally in the 20s or 30s.

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, look, I think he's better in the states, but that still doesn't mean Trump isn't crushing it in the states as well. And if you talk to the Trump people, you know, as the polls fluctuate, they still feel like in Iowa, they have this structural floor that they can never go below. You know, think about 200 to 215,000 people will make up the Iowa caucus.

I mean, they think they probably got, you know, 30 or 40,000 votes in the bank if they do nothing. And so if you're DeSantis or anyone else, that's a high hurdle to leave. The real issue for DeSantis is, can you get close to Trump in Iowa, or can you beat him, stay close and move on and stave off the idea that if Trump crushes everybody in Iowa, that the race is just over. You've got to get it down to a two person race fast, because if you don't, it won't matter whether your name's DeSantis or Scott or anybody else, it will be hard to win.

SELLERS: I just have one thing to piggyback on Scott's analysis of this. There's one person in this race that if they stay close to Donald Trump in Iowa, has an opportunity. And I think that's Tim Scott. And I think that --

TAPPER: More so than Ron DeSantis.

SELLERS: More so than Ron DeSantis. Because I think if Donald Trump wins Iowa, if he wins it by five, six, seven, eight points, then even -- I think he's only by more than that. But let's say he only wins by five, six, seven, eight points, the race is over. However, I think that if Tim Scott stays within that five point margin, then the ability for Tim Scott to go into people's homes, the ability for him to say that I am a consummate conservative who has a I'm the only United States senator running who has a 97 percent voting with Donald Trump record. I am a Christian Conservative. I stand for these things.


He goes in the households in New Hampshire and does really well. And then he comes back to South Carolina. And although he and Nikki Haley together are coming up to the same, you know, 10 percent, I do think that he has an opportunity to catch fire because he has a story to tell. Whether or not the Republican Party actually votes for a black man to be nominee is a totally different thing. But I think destructurally Tim Scott has an opportunity.

ANDERSON: The thing that Tim Scott and Ron DeSantis have that's a little bit different is that Ron DeSantis has tried to fashion himself to be a lot like Trump. So when the moment comes for him to draw that contrast, he's going to have to spell it out here's where I'm actually not like Trump. Tim Scott he's different from Trump, and you just know it. Listening to him, the way he carries himself, his demeanor, the way he talks, his focus on optimism, no one's confusing Tim Scott and Donald Trump. And so he doesn't have to distance himself from Trump.

SELLERS: One plays in racism, the other is Tim Scott.

TAPPER: So let me just ask you, because it used to be in presidential races in this country, the candidates would compete from the center left and the right left, you know, and the center right. And then towards after they get the nomination, they'd pivot back to the center to win over the undecided voters in the middle, et cetera.

There's a different theory of the case now that it's all just about turnout, driving turnout. Now, you could argue that Joe Biden disproved that by beating Trump in 2020 and the way he beat Donald Trump, but it does seem like Ron DeSantis is running A, I just need to get all the Republicans out race, not A, I'm going to pivot back to the center race.

JENNINGS: Well, I think it's because everybody but Donald Trump is going to pivot to the generational argument, sort of it's not going to be as much about issues and policy as much as it is about Joe Biden's in his 80s. I'm in my 40s. It's time for a new generation of leadership. And that really sidesteps a lot of the policy arguments, and we've not talked about it much lately.

But remember, the country does not want Joe Biden to run, and they do not want Donald Trump to run. And coming up against him in a generational argument I think would be effective.

TAPPER: Stick around because we're going to keep you here. Kristen, Scott and Bakari, stick with me.

I also asked Governor DeSantis the one question he has refused to give a yes or no answer to, even when pressed repeatedly by conservative media. Would he sign a nationwide six week ban on abortion like the one he signed in Florida? We'll have more of our exclusive interview that's next.



TAPPER: Welcome back to The Lead live in South Carolina, where earlier today I sat down for an exclusive one-on-one interview with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is a Republican presidential candidate. Roughly, you could say that he's in second place in many of the polls behind Donald Trump, but far behind Donald Trump. We discussed a lot of social issues, and I want to talk to my panel about them right now.

Kristen Soltis Anderson, he did not back off the fact that he supports a six week abortion ban, which he signed in law in Florida. But when asked would you sign it nationally, as he was asked repeatedly by various conservatives on Fox and Tucker Carlson and the rest, he did not say yes. He said, well, I don't think Congress would bring me such a thing, but I'm a pro-life governor. Obviously, he's trying to avoid a soundbite saying I would support his, I mean, is that what's going on, do you think?

ANDERSON: Well, I also think he knows he doesn't have to go there, because Donald Trump's definitely not going there. He's already to the right of Donald Trump on this issue. And to the extent that you are a Republican voter who cares very deeply about this and believes that six weeks is the right place to draw the line, then DeSantis already has that contract working for him. He doesn't have to further affirm it. I think the reason why he wants to be cautious there is that he knows when he had that blockbuster victory in Florida back in the end of 2022, it was in the wake of the Dobbs decision where Republicans were getting, you know, their clocks cleaned elsewhere. But in Florida, they had passed a 15-week ban at this point, which is kind of where the median of public opinion tends to be in America.

And so this was a departure from the recipe that gave him that big blockbuster victory. I think he recognizes that there is some potential weakness there. At the same time, he doesn't have to double down on it too much because he is to the right on Donald Trump of this already in a primary.

TAPPER: So this is not a theoretical argument anymore, as it was when, for instance, George W. Bush ran for president. And there always was this kind of nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Abortion is never going to be illegal. Roe is the law of the land. Even if President Bush believes that it should be illegal, it won't be. Don't worry about it. But now we're in an uncharted territory where states are actually passing bans. And I think there's a lot of consternation and concern among Republicans that a position like Ron DeSantis's could cost them the voters they need in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, maybe even Georgia.

SELLERS: It's unquestionably. It will. I mean, the fact and this is where you get into a great deal of difficulty, even as much as I praise Tim Scott's campaign, I think he's run the best campaign on the Republican side. So to this point, like, you cannot not take a position on this, like, have some courage, look in the camera and tell the American people what you think.

Even more importantly, Ron DeSantis, Tim Scott, Nikki Haley, others tell women in this country what you believe. And we're talking about 52 percent to 54 percent of the electorate, depending on what census numbers you're looking at. And the fact is and you're right in Atlanta, in Philadelphia, in Milwaukee, in Detroit, where these votes will count --

TAPPER: And their suburbs.

SELLERS: And their suburbs, especially in their suburbs, Republicans are handcuffing themselves not only because they're out of step with women in this country. But the fact that they are so cowardice like Ron DeSantis and Tim Scott and many others who will not take a position on what they want to do as men with women's bodies are cowards on this issue. And Joe Biden will lap them on this particular issue.

TAPPER: So the other question I asked him on social issues had to do with transgender Americans. His campaign has certainly expressed some hostility towards Americans. They retweeted that ad or that not ad, that video mocking Trump on the issue. And if he wants to ban, he announced today he wants to ban all transgender Americans from serving in the military as the gender with which they identify.

[17:45:15] I know that a lot of people this is a very small percentage of the country, but is there a compassion issue that might affect voters in a general obviously not in a Republican primary, but in a general election?

JENNINGS: Well, I mean, his concern right now is talking to voters in Iowa who are going to turn out in caucus. And I'm just telling you the belief among those voters would be they should not be serving in the military, that this is a mental illness essentially, and that we're essentially trying to inject it into the mainstream of every American institution. And whoever we're going to vote for as a Republican nominee has to be strong enough to stand up and say so.

That's what they would believe. And to go any softer than that, if you're Ron DeSantis or any other candidate, would be a difficult position for a lot of those evangelical type voters. So I think he is where he has to be for the Republican primary. And I, you know, I don't think any of the Republican candidates are going to back off of this.

The idea of gender ideology being inserted into American culture and American institutions and American schools right now is so motivating for Republicans but I just think it's going to be a core of every primary out there, this one, and even down the ballot.

TAPPER: So there are exceptions, of course, to what Scott said. These people aren't doing very well in the polls necessarily, and certainly not in Iowa. But both Chris Christie and Governor Asa Hutchinson have said when it comes to youth people under 18, that should be up to the parents. That should be up to the parents. I might not agree with it that's what Governor Hutchinson says, but I'm not going to intrude that's Governor Christie's position as well.

Is there room in the GOP primary for that kind of argument? I don't understand it, but I'm not going to tell parents what to do, you know, what to do or not to do with their kids.

ANDERSON: I think the overwhelming position of most Republican voters is that when it comes to institutions like the military, things like our schools, there is a great deal of skepticism about gender ideology and anything that kind of diverges from the traditional view. And so I think that Scott is right in his assessment of what Republican voters are going to be looking for.

Now, I think Governor Hutchison's challenges in the Republican primary are going to be a lot more than just about social issues. I think Chris Christie's challenges in a Republican primary are going to be that his unfavorables are quite high among Republican voters already. But it's also the case that to the extent there are sort of more socially moderate Republicans, they are not necessarily a majority of the party, and they're certainly not a majority of your caucus goers in a place like Iowa.

TAPPER: How do you think this issue -- how do you see this issue as a Democrat? SELLERS: Well, I mean, they are wading into issues that not only do they lack sensitivity or empathy or understanding or science, but I also think they turn off a great deal of Americans because they're not focused on pocketbook issues. The further Republicans delve into wokeness or the further they delve into cultural issues, the further they are leaving Main Street.

I will also say that when you look at someone like Nikki Haley, who has made one of her landmark campaign topics to be transgender women playing in sports, there are literally more bills in this country that outlaw transgender women from participating in sports than there are women, transgender women actually participating in those sports.

TAPPER: It is a very small number.

SELLERS: It's a very small number. And so, yes, I would say that if someone in my family wanted to grow up and be transgender, then I would love them the same way, right. And being able to look into a camera and say that and articulate that, unfortunately, is something that many Republicans either can't do because they don't have the empathy or won't do because they won't win a race either way is sad.

TAPPER: All right, thank you all. Appreciate it.


We're also monitoring some major developments abroad. An American soldier is detained in North Korea right now after crossing over the border at the DMZ. We're now learning that the soldier was already in trouble before this happened. Stay with us.


TAPPER: In our World Lead, new information just in about a U.S. soldier who has apparently been detained in North Korea. After the soldier crossed the Demarcation line in the demilitarized zone, or the DMZ, this is the space between north and South Korea. CNN's Will Ripley has been to North Korea more than a dozen times and joins us now from Taiwan. Will, I've been to the DMZ. That's one of the scariest places I've ever been on this planet. What are you learning about this soldier?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, you're right, Jake. It is like a cold war relic that basically there are these old buildings that straddle the border, one building on the south side, the other on the north side. And it seems as if this young man, who's now being identified as Travis King, is the U.S. national who crossed into North Korea.

Now, Travis King apparently joined the army in 2021. He was serving as a cavalry scout. He had no deployments on his record, but he did spend 50 days in detention in South Korea. Apparently, he was facing some sort of disciplinary action over assault and was actually about to be sent back to the United States. He was even at an airport where he was able to break free from the people who were minding him, if you will, trying to get him back on that plane. And instead he went to the DMZ and, you know, because he was set to be administratively separated from the army, apparently, Jake, he decided that he'd have a better deal going to North Korea. Well, we'll see how that works out for him.

TAPPER: Yes, that doesn't seem that smart. You have a unique perspective on how North Korean officials think and operate given how many times you've obviously been to North Korea, how do you think the North Koreans are navigating this? It really could turn into serious diplomatic dispute.


RIPLEY: Yes, I mean this is -- they've had Americans defect before, although the last time it happened was more than 40 years ago, back in 1982. And I'm talking about American servicemen. There have been people that have defected from the United States. Like there was an NYU student I interviewed just several years ago who was there and was basically held and then released eventually back to the United States.

You know, they will talk to this person and if there's some sort of propaganda value to show him or, you know, to have him share his story about how he thinks the DPRK is such an amazing place if they put him on state T.V., you know, they've done that in the past with detained American servicemen. In fact, some Americans even appeared on North Korean movies where they played the casting of an evil Westerner Jake.

So probably, though, he'll probably just stay locked up until something's worked out and he's sent home.

TAPPER: All right, Will Ripley in Taipei, Taiwan. Thank you so much. Good to see you. And former Ambassador Bill Richardson has been to North Korea to try to negotiate the release of various Americans detained. He's been rather successful, and he joins Wolf Blitzer in The Situation Room right after this. We're going to squeeze in a quick break. We'll be right back.