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Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) Says, Every Hour Matters on Debt Negotiations; Soon, Oath Keepers Founder to be Sentenced for Seditious Conspiracy; Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) Campaign Kickoff Marred by Twitter Glitches. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired May 25, 2023 - 10:00   ET




RAHEL SOLOMON, CNN ANCHOR: Happening right now, sentencing is underway for Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes for his role in the US Capitol riot. We are live outside court waiting for word on the prison time he will get after being convicted of seditious conspiracy.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Ron DeSantis has a huge pile of cash to burn to try to poll -- close the poll with Donald Trump. We have new reporting on how he plans to use it.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: And it's a medical breakthrough, truly, a paralyzed man is able to walk for the first time in more than a decade. The experimental implants that are helping him move. This is CNN News Central.

SOLOMON: Negotiators are working 24/7 to get a deal on the debt limit, as the Treasury Department warns that the U.S. could default just one week from today. Here's what House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said in the last hour.


REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): Every hour matters. That's why White House has to do something very serious about this. That's why we worked well past midnight last night. The team, they have very professional, very bright, they know where the differences are. We're going to work 24/7.


SOLOMON: And as those talks play out, the House will recess later today and head home for the holiday weekend. But McCarthy is promising he will call lawmakers back if a deal is reached. There are still a handful of policy items to be hammered out, but the biggest sticking point remains spending cuts.

CNN's Manu Raju just talked to Speaker McCarthy on the Hill. So, Manu, what did he tell you?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, the speaker is optimistic that they could eventually get a deal. He would not say when he believes that a deal could be reached, but he indicated that talks have been very late into the night last night. We expect more talks today. He would not guarantee that they could get a bill on the House floor by next week. And, of course, that is significant because they need to potentially avoid a default as soon as June 1st. But there is still more work to be done.

He would not indicate what areas there have been movement on and whether the White House has come down to his push to agree to spending cuts below this year's level. The White House has pushed back on that. There's been a ton of negotiations about that point. But the speaker also indicated that there are other issues that he is still seeking that Democrats have been concerned about, including new work requirements on social safety net programs, like food stamps. That is an issue that has caused a lot of Democratic angst.

And he also indicated to us that the Pentagon -- cuts to the Pentagon are essentially off the table. He says he wants to put more money into the Pentagon. A lot of Democrats want to cut Pentagon spending. And that has caused a lot of concerns within the Democratic ranks. They are concerned that Kevin McCarthy is not giving them anything other than one concession, to raise the national debt limit, and they have to give a number of other Republican demands in order to avoid the first ever default.

And speaking to what the number of Democrats, some are second guessing their party strategy.


REP. RITCHIE TORRES (D-NY): I think the greatest regret that we should have is the failure to raise a deadly ceiling limit back in December when the Democrats were in control of both chambers of Congress.

REP. DAN KILDEE (D-MI): The speaker has decided to make this really a public relations effort and really turning it into a political process. And so do we sacrifice something in the short-term as a result? We do. We sure do.

REP. ELISSA SLOTKIN (D-MI): I think that the Republicans are always very disciplined in their messaging and they continue to be.


And that's something that Democrats aren't always as disciplined about.

REP. DEAN PHILLIPS (D-MN): I would have liked to see negotiations start sooner because, as a Democrat, there are also some elements that I would have like injected.


RAJU: Now, one thing that they have agreed to behind closed doors, I'm told, is to rescind some money that was given to COVID relief. That will be part of any ultimate deal here. But all those other issues that I mentioned, spending cuts, work requirements, easing the construction of energy projects, including electronic transmission lines for electric utilities, all issues that are still on the table. And they got to sort this out, get it through both chambers of Congress, count the votes, all huge questions as that deadline looms.

SOLOMONS: Yes. It sounds like a bit of progress, but still a lot of work to be done as time continues to take. John?

BERMAN: Rahel, any moment now, the founder and leader of the far right group, the Oath Keepers, will be sentenced for his actions surrounding the attack on the US. Capitol on January 6th. Stewart Rhodes will be the first of nine defendants sentenced. The second, prominent member, Kelly Meggs, will receive his sentence this afternoon. Prosecutors want between 10 to 25 years.

CNN Senior Crime and Justice Reporter Katelyn Polantz is watching this, this morning. Katelyn, what is the news? What are you expecting to see?

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, we are now into the sentencing hearing for Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers, after being -- after he was found guilty of seditious conspiracy by a jury last year. And that hearing, we do expect it to go on for a little bit of time today. There are many things that have to happen in a sentencing hearing like this. There are arguments from both sides.

We know that the Justice Department is going to be asking for Rhodes to be sentenced to 25 years in prison. So, that would be by far the largest sentence any January 6 Capitol rioter would be facing if the judge, Amit Mehta, does agree with the Justice Department and what they want here.

But then Rhodes aside, they also are going to be arguing that he shouldn't be sentenced for that much. And I was reading some of the arguments that they made already in writing, and one of the things they say is that he should be credited for the amount of leadership he had in this organization, the Oath Keepers, for all of these years.

Obviously, now, that is an organization that the Justice Department says led this conspiracy around the violence of the Capitol attack on January 6th. And not just Rhodes, many, many other members of the Oath Keepers have been found guilty of different types of charges, including seditious conspiracy related to that.

But the judge is going to be looking at those arguments. He's also going to be taking into consideration an emotional hearing yesterday where many victims of the Capitol riot were able to speak about how it impacted them. One of them said a Metropolitan Police officer, Christopher Owens, said they chose to be a part of a group that surrounded us, taunted us. My physical scars, bruises and wounds have healed, but my mental trauma haunts me to this day.

And so Judge Mehta is going to be thinking about those victims as he decides what to do with the sentence. He's also going to have to do a bit of math whenever he comes to determine exactly how much prison time if that is going to be given to Stewart Rhodes here today. John?

BERMAN: Katelyn Polantz outside the courthouse, the news just reported by Katelyn, the hearing has begun. Thank you for that important update, Katelyn. Kate?

BOLDUAN: So, Katelyn is going to be standing by to bring us the news when that sentence does come down.

In the meantime, joining us now is Danya Perry, former federal prosecutor with the Southern District of New York. Danya, thanks for being here.

We're waiting to see exactly what sentence that Rhodes will get, but prosecutors have asked, as Katelyn points out, has asked for 25 years, where do you think this could land today?

DANYA PERRY, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Look, there's a massive delta between the 25 years sought by the prosecutor and the time served sought by defense counsel. The judge has a tremendous amount of discretion here. But the prosecution has portrayed this sentencing in particular as a real outlier. They describe it over and over as unparalleled, unprecedented. They say it defies any comparison. And that is because witness after witness spoke about the impact and the trauma that the events of January 6th had on them.

But the government also portrays the real victim here as our normal, democratic functioning. It's our democracy itself. And that flies off the pages of their 180-page sentencing memorandum, where they repeatedly talk about the injury to democratic functioning, peaceful transition of power and the rule of law. And so I think that's going to be a real focus for Judge Mehta in his sentencing decision today.

BOLDUAN: So, prosecutors have called the Oath Keepers' actions on January 6th the terrorism and asking the judge, can I kind of weigh that in sentencing? This is part of what they wrote in their memo. Here, the need to deter others is especially strong because these defendants engaged in acts that were intended to influence the government through intimidation or coercion, in other words, terrorism.


And after seeing that, I was kind of wondering what impact you think it has in calling this out as terrorism and making that argument to the judge in this.

PERRY: So, the judge is required, as a matter of the statutory sentencing scheme, to look at deterrence, both specific deterrence for these individual defendants, but general deterrence. And I think that is a very powerful argument for why this judge should put these defendants away for decades.

What the prosecution is really leaning on very heavily is, Judge, if you allow these people to go away with a slap on the wrist, then it's a watershed moment, as they put it. And we see an uptick in political violence and they're saying, Judge, you have an opportunity to put an end to that and make a statement here, deter others who would do the same as the Oath Keepers, the so-called Oath Keepers, or as the government calls them, Oath Breakers, did on January 6th.

BOLDUAN: And, Danya, Rhodes is the first January 6th defendant convicted of this serious charge, seditious conspiracy, that's going to be receiving his punishment. That's a big part of, obviously, what today is about, as well as just who Rhodes is and who he's become to be known as. What kind of standard does the sentence today set, if any, does it set for the other sentencing that are going to be coming?

PERRY: Well, it's not coincidence that Rhodes is being sentenced first. He is the ringleader. He was the actual leader of this extremist group. And so the government has put forward a scheme, a framework of how they think these sentencing should apply, ranging from 10 years for the lowest level offender to 25 for Rhodes. So, we'll see where the judge comes out between time served and 25 years. And that will be, of course, a baseline for what to expect with respect to these other sentencing.

BOLDUAN: This is an important day as we continue to see how many people have been charged in much lesser charges, how many people have faced sentencing already. But this could be a very big moment in the fight for justice after January 6th. It's good to see you, Danya. Thanks for coming in. Rahel?

SOLOMON: And, Kate, off with a hitch and a glitch. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis facing the music this morning after a far from pitch perfect presidential launch.

Also, a Mississippi family demanding justice after an 11-year-old boy was shot by police after he called 911 for help. What we know about the child's condition and the circumstances around the shooting, next.

And the IRS whistleblower concerned about the handling of the Justice Department's investigation into Hunter Biden's finances speaking out more on the irregularities that he claims to have seen throughout the years' long probe, just ahead.



BOLDUAN: This just into CNN, the Supreme Court has handed down a major decision having to do with the EPA. Let's get over to CNN's Senior Supreme Court Analyst Joan Biskupic for more on this. Bring us up to speed, Joan. What are you learning?

JOAN BISKUPIC, CNN SENIOR SUPREME COURT ANALYST: Sure. Good morning, Kate. And this is a case that revives the idea that this Idaho couple had wanted to build their dream home on a plot of land on Lake Priest in Idaho, and been stopped by environmental regulators. The EPA said that their land was essentially wetlands that needed special permits if they were even going to be able to build the sackets.

The family challenged the Environmental Protection Agency. And today, the justices ruled, first of all, that their case can be revived. They can try to be able to build their home. But more importantly, Kate, the justices, by a 5-4 vote, instituted a new test to determine when the EPA can regulate wetlands. It had to do with how close parcel of land had to be to a body of water to be considered wetlands.

And the justices today, again by a five four vote, in an opinion by Justice Samuel Alito, said that the parcel of land had to be continuous to actual water. They separated it under an old test. There just had to be kind of a significant nexus that, in this case, allowed the EPA to regulate the property. The EPA had won in a lower court, but now the justices, again, by a 5-4 vote, have reversed the lower court.

And the other thing I should mention here, it's not just of consequence to this couple that for nearly two decades, as I say, has been trying to build this dream home on this piece of property, as they made their case to the justices, this is actually the second time that this case has come up to the justices. But more broadly, Kate, this is yet another ruling by this Supreme Court that cuts back on the power of the Environmental Protection Agency in its regulation.

Last year, they did it under the Clean Air Act to restrict what the EPA could do. And this one, Kate, is under the Clean Water Act.

BOLDUAN: Yes. The broad implications here are absolutely part of this story with this decision coming down. This is just coming in and it will be very interesting to hear what the Biden administration, how the EPA reacts to it, what the what President Biden has to say about it. But, Joan, thank you so much for bringing us that, just in from the Supreme Court. Thank you.



BERMAN: So, regrouping after a rollout glitch, that is what Team DeSantis is doing this morning after his troubled campaign launch on Twitter. New this morning, the campaign giving a preview of the states the Florida governor will visit first Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, a very traditional itinerary after a non-traditional launch.

The new CNN poll shows him trailing the frontrunner, Donald Trump, by a big margin, but he is clearly one of the top two choices for the vast majority of Republican voters. DeSantis and Trump have separated themselves from the rest of the field.

So, let's get right to Florida and get the latest on the DeSantis campaign from Steve Contorno. Steve, I know you've been talking to donors who are gathering there all morning. What are you hearing?

STEVE CONTORNO, CNN REPORTER: Yes, John. So far, we're hearing a positive spin from a lot of the people who are already gathered in Miami for DeSantis' event here, and they're saying, look, last night, it wasn't great. Let's laugh it off and let's move on to the challenge of getting Governor DeSantis elected and chosen as the nominee.

And right now, he is working to set up a contrast between himself and the former president, Donald Trump, who you mentioned is still leading these polls. And he is doing that by really criticizing Trump's time as president and suggesting that he would do much better and actually get done a lot of the things that Trump talked about doing but didn't actually accomplish.

And as far as the rollout goes, most of the Republicans that I've been talking to are saying, look, this was an unconventional start. It was always going to be a little bit of a weird entrance into the race. The real question is how he campaigns and moves from here.

And, really, we won't get a sense of whether he has the ability to take on Trump until these two guys get on a debate stage together. We know Trump has been somewhat coy about whether he's going to participate in those GOP debates in the end of summer. DeSantis yesterday talking to Fox News, said, let's do it, Don. Here's what he said.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you plan on participating in all the debates? And would you have a word of counsel for any candidates that were maybe equivocating on whether or not to participate in all the debates?

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): I think we should debate. I think the people want to hear it. You know, I grew up blue collar, working minimum wage jobs and learned nobody is entitled to anything in this world, Trey. You've got to earn it, and I think all of us have to go out and earn it. That's exactly what I intend to do, and I think the debates are a big part of the process.


CONTORNO: Now, John, there's a lot of time between those potential debates and last night's launch. And in between, DeSantis is already going to be hitting the road. He is expected in Iowa on Tuesday, where he will have sort of an official kickoff event, and then he will travel from Iowa to New Hampshire and South Carolina. Those early nominating states are going to be really key for him in this race.

BERMAN: All right. Steve Contorno in Miami, Steve, thank you for that update. Rahel?

SOLOMON: And, John, let's keep this 2024 conversation going now with CNN Political Commentator S.E. Cupp. S.E., welcome, good to have you.


SOLOMON: I want to play for you really quickly a clip from the last hour when we spoke to former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson. He spoke to John Berman. Let's take a listen and discuss on the other side.


GOV. ASA HUTCHINSON (R-AR): Well, I think first of all, they are competing for the same vote. Both President Trump and also Governor DeSantis have much of the stale, same pugilistic style, and that appeals to some.


SOLOMON: Do you agree with that? I mean, who is the DeSantis primary voter?

CUPP: I think that's the key question. He's running think more to the extreme than Trump on several issues, including abortion bans, book bans, curriculum bans, on the Disney question and attacking corporations. I mean, a lot of this stuff is a turnoff to practical conservatives, moderates and independents, otherwise known as all the voters he'll need to win. So, it's an odd strategy, and that's forgetting that he'll eventually have to pivot to a general election where all of that stuff is wildly unpopular.

SOLOMON: I think that's the question, right, because he has said that Florida is the blueprint. But, I mean, I wonder how much do these policies -- and we can show for you on screen just some of the policies that have been put in place in Florida, how much of these policies would actually land outside of the state of Florida?

CUPP: Yes, I think he has a really great chance at becoming the president of Florida. But outside of Florida, as you say, these are really, really unpopular. Let me say that six-week abortion bans are unpopular in the state of Florida among Republicans. So, some of this stuff is just a non-starter. In fact, I think Congresswoman Nancy Mace called this abortion ban a non-starter.

So, he's alienating a ton of voters that he'll need to both win a primary and a general. And he's doing that, I think, because he's made being anti-woke his entire personality, and that's not really a full national platform.


Again, that's a great way to win in Florida.

SOLOMON: And yet, I think his campaign and his press secretary did say that he raised a million dollars in the first hour. So, someone apparently liked what he said. I mean, how do you react to that?

CUPP: Yes, well, there are definitely Republicans who are, quote/unquote, over Trump and see DeSantis and his poll numbers as maybe the best place to park their votes, park their money, their support. But I don't know. I think it's kind of a folly. Still, all of the energy, a lot of the condensed energy in the Republican Party is still with Trump. No one is better at being Trump than Trump. And DeSantis doesn't seem to have a cogent, cohesive plan other than to be anti-woke.

SOLOMON: Well, so I wonder then, who is DeSantis' biggest concern? Is it Trump or is it DeSantis himself because of all the reasons that you've already listed? CUPP: Well, it's Trump. I mean, Trump is a big concern for him and every other opponent. Like I said, the energy is with him. But also if you're unmoored as he is from principles, conservatism, and really all you're doing is following the culture war trade winds, he's going to face, I think, incoming from all the candidates. I mean, that gives everyone a real opportunity --

SOLOMON: All the candidates, yes.

CUPP: -- from Tim Scott to Nikki Haley, to go to a more moderate place, if they choose to do that.

SOLOMON: And the GOP field is growing.

CUPP: Yes.

SOLOMON: S.E. Cupp, thank you.

CUPP: Sure.


BOLDUAN: Coming up for us, a veteran IRS employee has come forward as the whistleblower in the Justice Department's investigation into Hunter Biden's finances. What he is saying concerned him so much about how the probe was handled. That's coming up.

Plus, a new public advisory coming from the Department of Homeland Security, the agency saying that the United States is still in a heightened threat environment for terrorism after several racially and ethnically motivated attacks. We'll be back.