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Republican Presidential Candidates Set For Second Debate; Republicans Heading Toward Government Shutdown?; Senator Bob Menendez in Court; North Korea Expels U.S. Soldier. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired September 27, 2023 - 13:00   ET





ZELENY: Great.


BASH: Thank you so much for watching. Don't forget to tune in tonight. CNN's Anderson Cooper and I will host the Republican presidential debate post-debate analysis live tonight at 11:00 p.m. Eastern. Get the critical context and political analysis that you need right here on CNN.

Appreciate you joining INSIDE POLITICS from Simi Valley today.

"CNN NEWS CENTRAL" starts right now.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Expelled from the Hermit Kingdom. The U.S. army private who deliberately bolted into North Korea is now back in U.S. custody, Pyongyang saying it had to expel Travis King and its investigation is finished. What we're learning about his release.

Plus, Senator Bob Menendez faces a federal judge and growing calls to resign, but the New Jersey Democrat is fighting back against bribery charges. We will have the details on what went down in court.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: Plus, skipping the debate stage for a swing state, the elephant not in the room. Former President Donald Trump will be a no-show at tonight's Republican presidential debate, as his business faces serious trouble in court.

We're following these major developing stories and many more all coming in right here to CNN NEWS CENTRAL.

KEILAR: For the second time in his Senate career, Democrat Bob Menendez has pleaded not guilty to federal bribery charges.

A short time ago, the New Jersey senator and his wife were arraigned, and he is set to leave the courthouse at any moment. And we have our eyes on that. You can see this live shot here of the courthouse. Prosecutors saying that they both received cash, gold and a luxury car in exchange for favors for the Egyptian government.

More than half of Senate Democrats are now calling on him to resign. Last night, when that number was slightly smaller, but not that much, he dismissed the idea outright, telling reporters that he will not step down because he's innocent.

We have CNN's Kara Scannell, who is at the arraignment, for us.

Kara, tell us what played out inside of the courtroom.

KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, Senator Menendez and his wife entered pleas of not guilty to these bribery charges. The hearing lasted only about 30 minutes.

And he -- we're waiting for him to exit the courthouse now. What happened inside was that he sat there in the court flanked between his attorneys. He sat with his hands clasped, and he really only addressed the judge twice to say, "Yes, Your Honor." His lawyer entered the plea of not guilty.

And when he entered the courtroom, he came through a side door, which is where defendants walk through and where defendants were kept. And you could see a cell in that hallway. So, it really gives you a sense of the seriousness of the moment.

Now, this arraignment, again, only took about 30 minutes. He was released on a $100,000 personal reconnaissance bond. He has to surrender his official -- his personal passport. He can keep his official passport. And he also has a restriction where he can't have any contact with staff members of his office, of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, or political advisers who have knowledge of this investigation outside the presence of counsel.

And as we know from the charges in this case, they relate a lot to his time on the Senate and these allegations that he took bribes in exchange for helping and aiding Egypt. So you can imagine a number of staffers were interviewed by investigators, and that is why this provision is part of his bail and his release.

Now, he didn't answer any questions by reporters in the hallways. And, in fact, when he entered the courthouse today, he walked in holding his wife's hand, a co-defendant, a partner in crime, according to authorities. And when he left the courtroom today, they walked out again hand in hand, so a sign of alliance between them.

Now, she also entered a plea of not guilty in the case. She was released on $250,000 bond secured by their home. And she has to surrender her passport. They both have some travel restrictions, though the senator's is less severe because he is a senator.

But the other two defendants that appeared today also pleaded not guilty. We are getting a sense that they are starting to wrap up this process. They have to sign paperwork for their bonds, and they also have to surrender their personal passports. So that is what's taking place inside the courthouse now. But we're told that it's beginning to wrap up. We're expecting the

senator and his wife to leave momentarily. Their car is out front. That's why you see the pack of cameras around it waiting for him. There's also microphones to see here.

We understand he's walking out right now.


SCANNELL: If you can see him and his wife, they're heading toward their car.

KEILAR: And they are not taking -- they are not making any comments, it appears, at this point, Kara.

SCANNELL: Right. No, it does not sound like he has answered any questions. He didn't answer any as he walked into court this morning. And, again, he didn't answer any leaving the courtroom.


But now he's in the car. If you can see it, it's starting to pull away from the curb and the courthouse, surrounded by photographers and reporters. And here he is making his way past our camera now. So, he has left the building after pleading not guilty to these bribery charges alongside his wife and those two other co-defendants.

I had asked the senator's aides if he was heading back to Washington, D.C., today, but I did not get an answer on that, Brianna.

KEILAR: All right, so I just want to go back, Kara, as I think we heard the senator's car there honking a couple times, to these provisions that came about today, a couple of them, one, surrendering of the passport.

He is not right now the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, right? So he stepped down at least temporarily. But so you would presume then that he cannot travel internationally or could he have some sort of provision where he could for work?

I don't know. That's one question I have, but the other one being, any staff having been interviewed? Are you saying that he cannot speak to them not in the presence of a lawyer? And I ask that because how does he go about his business of the Senate if he cannot talk to staff not in the presence of a lawyer?


That does ask a very important question here. I mean, so the terms of his release, he's released on a $100,000 personal bond. He has to surrender his personal passport, but not his official passport. And he can have foreign travel only on official business. Otherwise, his travel is restricted to the United States.

He's not allowed to have any contact with the co-defendants other than his wife. But there is this provision of his release that says he cannot have any contact with his staff, with staff of the Senate Foreign -- the Senate -- the Senate committee.

KEILAR: Foreign Relations Committee, yes.

SCANNELL: Or any political advisers with knowledge.

Thank you, Brianna.

Or any of the political advisers with knowledge of the case outside of the presence of his attorneys. And that is a signal that there may have been some people who have knowledge of this investigation, of some of the issues that are alleged in this indictment, and that is why that provision is in his bail, so he doesn't try to talk to any witnesses about what their possible testimony could be, Brianna.

KEILAR: Yes, that raises a lot of questions, as you point out there.

Kara Scannell, thank you so much for being our eyes and ears there on the ground at this arraignment. We do appreciate it.

I want to bring in now one of New Jersey's top Democrats, LeRoy Jones Jr. He is the chair of the Democratic State Committee.

Sir, I wonder, have you spoken to Senator Menendez since this indictment dropped?


KEILAR: What's your message to him right now, then?

JONES: So, Brianna, just given the gravity of what's just been reported with the bail restrictions that he has, the inability that he has to discharge the offices -- the responsibility of his office, is -- it's quite a great compromise for a person that is in such a responsible position.

I listened to my pastor this morning, and she said something that just rang really loud to me that I think Bob Menendez should understand. And that is, the worth and value of a person's name is more important than a title. And that's why the call for resignation have been so voluminous lately, because he should be concentrating on defending his name and alleviating the responsibilities of the title.

KEILAR: I mean, he's accused at this point of giving sensitive information about U.S. Embassy personnel in Cairo to Egyptian government officials through his wife. These are some of the most serious charges in this indictment.


KEILAR: Is this different -- and I know this is a bit of a political question, but it's also because it's a legal question about maybe what may be more damaging and more serious.

Is this different to you than his last indictment?

JONES: Well, I'm not a lawyer.

But just listening to the gravity and the content of the indictment and the charges that ensue with the indictment are extremely disturbing and very, very critical to the rule of law. And it seems to breach the spirit of our Constitution.

So, that's why -- and I hate to keep going back to the call for resignation. But that's why it is critical that he begin to defend his name and leave the title on the table, for purposes of just stepping away and understanding that he will not be able to discharge the duties, given the conditions of the bail requirements.


KEILAR: LeRoy, we have heard Menendez say that he's being targeted in part because he's Latino. Does that ring true to you?

JONES: No, I don't think that's relevant in this particular case.

The charges are very serious. They're compelling. And it's not, in my mind, anything that speaks to a person's heritage or their ethnicity. It is incumbent upon him to recognize that this is time to protect what your family has given you. And that is your name.

KEILAR: LeRoy Jones Jr., we appreciate your time today. Thank you.

JONES: Thank you, Brianna.

KEILAR: Boris.

SANCHEZ: Another major headline we're tracking today, the U.S. Army private who ran into one of the most repressive nations on Earth on purpose is now back in U.S. custody.

More than two months ago, Travis King raced across the DMZ, the demilitarized zone, while on a public tour of the joint security area that separates North and South Korea. Now, this is a picture of King on that tour before making a run for it. You see the back of his head there.

Of course, this is a rare move, this release, considering North Korea's brutal record on human rights.

Let's take you now to the State Department and CNN chief national security correspondent Alex Marquardt.

So, Alex, do we know exactly how this went down, his release?

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Boris, I think you hit the nail on the head. It is a rare move. It is something that we are still trying to understand.

North Korea saying today that they were expelling Private King, that he had confessed to crossing the border illegally. Why exactly North Korea decided to do this today is still unclear. But what we do know now from senior Biden administration officials is that, earlier this month, North Korean officials told Swedish officials that they were willing to release Private King.

Now, why Sweden? Well, the U.S. doesn't have an embassy in Pyongyang. So, Sweden is what is known as a protected power. They represent U.S. interests in Pyongyang. Now, this was the culmination, this release is the culmination of months of what Biden administration officials are calling intense diplomacy, not just involving the U.S., North Korea and Sweden, but other countries as well.

Certainly, China was involved because we know that Private King left through China. Now, over the course of the summer -- he's been held since July 18 -- there were concerns that Private King would be used for propaganda purposes. Those never really materialized. There were concerns, of course, about his health.

He is said, according to these officials, to be in good health, to be very happy, very eager to get home to his family. There are also major questions about what North Korea might have gotten in exchange. Biden administration officials are insistent that there were no concessions, that there was no exchange here, that this is North Korea releasing Private King.

Now, Private King was taken from North Korea to China. From China, he flew to South Korea to a military facility, and then he is set to fly onwards home to the United States.

Boris, we have heard from King's mother. She said that she will be forever grateful to the United States Army and all its interagency partners. Now, when Private King arrives back in the United States, he's going to go to Texas. He's going to go to a medical facility called Brooke Army Medical Center for both mental and physical evaluation and treatment.

Big question still, Boris, about what will happen in terms of disciplinary procedures, because he had been -- he was being sent home back in July because of an assault that he carried out in South Korea. Those issues, we're told by U.S. officials, will be addressed once Private King is back up on his feet -- Boris.

SANCHEZ: Yes, still many unanswered questions.

Alex Marquardt, thanks so much for the update.

Let's expand the conversation now with "Washington Post" columnist Josh Rogin.

Josh, thanks so much for sharing part of your afternoon with us.

So, the U.S. is saying that King was released without any concessions. Does that ring true to you?

JOSH ROGIN, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, to be sure, Boris, that's very unusual, especially in the North Korean context.

Charles Robert Jenkins, an Army soldier who defected in 1965, was held for 39 years and used for propaganda, forced to marry a Japanese wife, had some kids, before they eventually let him out. Otto Warmbier, American college student, was taken hostage in 2018, returned 18 months later on a stretcher in a coma, and he died six days later.


So, Private King is very lucky man. He did a very foolish thing by running across that border. And it's true, as Alex said, that it took extensive machinations by the U.S. government, the Swedish government and the Chinese government, not to mention the North Korean government, to orchestrate this release over the last couple of weeks.

And, according to administration officials, he's in good health and good spirits. They say he's very happy to be on his way home. What happens next? Well, after things settle down, he could face a court- martial, because that's usually how the Army handles deserters.

SANCHEZ: Yes, you mentioned the machinations by China and South Korea, Sweden included in there as well.

What kind of dealmaking goes on in a situation like this? Because I I'm still in a bit of disbelief that they would let him go, given their history, in exchange for seemingly nothing.

ROGIN: Right.

Well, most of the negotiations were logistics, according to administration officials. Swedish officials had to fly into North Korea, and then they had to accompany him all the way to the North Korea-China border. The U.S. embassy had to coordinate with the Chinese government to pick him up on the Chinese side of that border and then get him out of China.

And so all of that is a huge logistical operation. As for what the North Koreans -- why did the North Koreans let him go? I think that's the $65,000 -- $64,000 question, something that Private King may have some insight into once he gets stateside.

But suffice to say they didn't see the value of holding him greater than the value of releasing him. And it shows that they don't want to deal with the United States. The Kim regime is pointing towards China. They're dealing with Putin. They don't want to talk to us, even to get something out of releasing an American hostage.

That's not a good sign at all.


So, ultimately, what does it mean for U.S.-North Korea relations if they don't want to even have a conversation?

ROGIN: Not much you can do, except leave the door open for them and wait -- and hope they come back to the table.

I mean, I have argued in "The Washington Post" that we should put some more humanitarian and economic support on the table for the North Koreans, try to get in between them and the Russians and the Chinese. But the Biden administration doesn't seem interested in that. We can see this as a sort of moment of cooperation, but it doesn't

portend or indicate that there's going to be any real progress. I think all the signs, other signs coming out of North Korea state that they're going to get worse. They're going to build more missiles and more nuclear weapons and become closer to our adversaries.

And I think that's the bigger problem now the U.S. government will have to deal with one way or the other after they get Private King home.

SANCHEZ: Josh Rogin, always great to get your perspective, my friend.

ROGIN: Any time.

SANCHEZ: Of course -- Brianna.

Oh, actually, we will stay right here.

Still ahead, with just four days until a government shutdown, Speaker Kevin McCarthy is test-driving a new strategy, blame everybody else but the Republican hard-liners that are holding up that government funding deal.

Plus, seven Republican presidential candidates will take the debate stage tonight, none of them named Donald Trump. We're going to preview what to expect.

And wide-scale looting across Philadelphia overnight. The police commission calling it an attempt to destroy our city.

Much more on this news still to come. Stay with CNN.



KEILAR: The federal government is on track to shut down here in four days, and the deal that Senate leaders just cut that could prevent it is on a road to nowhere in the House.

Under pressure from Republican hard-liners, Speaker Kevin McCarthy won't even offer the Senate's stopgap bill to the House. Instead, he's deflecting from his conference's infighting and placing the blame elsewhere.


REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): The Senate has done nothing. The Senate has not done one thing when it comes to appropriation. Is that different than we have in the past? No, normally, the Senate doesn't even bring them up in committee.

So the Senate's done nothing.


KEILAR: CNN's Lauren Fox is on Capitol Hill for us.

All right, Lauren, tell us where things stand.

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Brianna, if it feels like we're headed or marching toward a government shutdown, it is because we are.

The two sides are extremely divided right now. And this is not just about Republicans and Democrats. This is about the House and Senate, as you noted, the Senate announcing yesterday that they had a bipartisan deal on a bill to fund the government through November 17 that included $6 billion in disaster aid, $6 billion in Ukraine assistance.

But that bill is dead on arrival in the House of Representatives. And House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is pledging to his members that, no matter what, if the votes are there or not, on Friday, he is going to bring a short-term resolution to the floor of the House and force his members to vote on it.

The expectation, the hope from some of his allies is that some of those hard-liners who have been saying all of this time that they are opposed to any short-term spending bill, that they will start to see the light, given the fact that they are closing in on a potential government shutdown on Saturday night.

That, of course, is a huge gamble from McCarthy, because time after time, over the last several weeks, his hard-liners have proven again and again that they are not willing to cave. And one of those members, Andy Ogles, who came out of the House conference meeting this morning where leadership was trying to encourage their members to unite, to be a team, to work together, he said he was still a no on a short-term spending bill and to prepare for turbulence ahead.

Another senior appropriator, the chairman of the House Rules Committee, Tom Cole, said this to me:


REP. TOM COLE (R-OK): Obviously we have got our challenges here as well, and the two chambers are a long way apart. So, again, I'm not at all confident we won't end up in a shutdown.


FOX: And the House is continuing to work through several amendments on individual appropriations bills, while we expect that those bills potentially could face problems on the House floor.


Keep your eye on Friday and what happens when House Speaker Kevin McCarthy does try to bring that short-term spending bill to the floor. Are his hard-liners starting to change their mind? We will see -- Brianna.

KEILAR: All right, we will be watching very closely.

Lauren Fox, thank you so much -- Boris.

SANCHEZ: So, seven Republicans will take the stage tonight in California for the second presidential debate, but the front-runner, the elephant not in the room, is former President Donald Trump.

He's again skipping a debate in favor of his own counterprogramming, giving a prime-time speech in front of current and former union members in Michigan, one day, we should note, after President Biden was in that battleground state joining autoworkers on the picket line.

And as Trump tries to court blue-collar voters, he and his adult sons just lost a white-collar lawsuit in New York, a judge ruling they committed fraud for years by overvaluing their properties to get favorable loans and insurance deals.

Let's discuss all of that and more with Alice Stewart -- she's a Republican strategist and former Ted Cruz communications director -- and Doug Heye, a Republican strategist and former RNC communications director.

Alice, first to you.

This judge's ruling in New York, should that be something that the seven candidates up on stage tonight at the debate should hammer him on?

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It should, and it will, I guarantee you, because what this does, this goes to the very heart of what Donald Trump really built his name and his empire on is how wealthy he is and his assets.

And this cuts right into the heart of that. So that is fair game for them. But we're also hearing from a lot of these candidates -- I have talked with many of them -- Donald Trump is going to be on the receiving end of a lot of attacks tonight, because what they have realized, in this first debate and up until now, they have dodged and weaved around Donald Trump and tried to a soft-punch him.

It's not working. They're behind 40 points in a lot of these polls. So what they're going to do is, they're going to deliver direct punches to Donald Trump. We're already seeing it. Nikki Haley has done it with regard to the debt. She's also now calling -- she's put out an ad today for competency tests for candidates over 75.

We're seeing DeSantis and others go after Donald Trump on his soft position now on abortion. So he's going to get exactly what he should've been getting all along, but they're doing it in a way not to alienate the base. It's going after him on policy, but saying, look, I can deliver the same -- the policies that you want without all of the drama.

And that's going to be the difficult challenge for them.

SANCHEZ: Doug, it's like a high-wire act, trying to court the base while not attacking the guy that drives so many voters.


SANCHEZ: What are you anticipating from tonight?

HEYE: I think we will see some of that, but we also won't see a lot of that.

And what we have seen so far when it comes to all things Donald Trump is, the people who are running against him sort of defy the political gravity that you would do in any other campaign, meaning, if your opponent gets indicted, you use that against them.

And instead of doing that, which is just the basic, obvious politics 101...


HEYE: ... they not only don't go after him. They reinforce his messaging.

So they may criticize Donald Trump on spending too much. He sure did spend too much. And Nikki Haley did a lot of that in the last debate. They may find other areas to choose, but they're not going to call Donald Trump a fraud, as the judge has. And they certainly aren't going to go back on what they have said, that there's a two-tiered system of justice and that the system is rigged, which, again, reinforces Donald Trump's messaging.

Why are these candidates 40 points below Donald Trump? Because they don't give Donald Trump anywhere to go. It may be too little too late. Tonight may be their last option to do so.

SANCHEZ: Is this going to be a make-or-break night for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis? He's been in second place, seemingly not gathering momentum, for a long time.

STEWART: It is clearly a big night for him. He has a lot to lose, and Nikki Haley has a lot to gain. He is the one that has been higher up in the polls and has slipped down. Nikki Haley now has momentum at her back.

But what he is clearly planning to do is show he is a proven leader in the state of Florida. He has delivered on issues that are important to not just Republicans, but general election voters. And he's going to make the case Donald Trump has been a loser on the general election stage. I am a winner. And he certainly has the policies and the winning record to win just -- not just the primary, but the general election.

And that's going to be a big message we see out of him tonight.

SANCHEZ: And, Doug, it could be make-or-break, not just for DeSantis, but for all the candidates, when it comes to donors, right?

HEYE: Yes, absolutely. This is a case to make for small-dollar and also large-dollar donors, to make your case directly to them.

I think one of their challenges is, we have heard a lot from whether it's DeSantis or Nikki Haley or others that Donald Trump can't win. And the reality is, the polling shows that he's neck and neck with Joe Biden. The latest poll that we saw is sort of an outlier that has him well up on Biden.

Anything that shows that Donald Trump isn't a guaranteed loser in this means that their rhetoric falls short, makes it much harder for them to make that real case.

SANCHEZ: I'm also wondering about working-class voters, because we saw Biden and Trump go to Michigan, a battleground state.

How critical is that vote going to be?

STEWART: It's going to be critical.

But here's the way you go after working-class voters, is your -- you speak to them. You don't use them as a prop. That's what Donald Trump is doing when he's going to Michigan to talk to these