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President Biden Fighting For Political Life?; Interview With Sen. Peter Welch (D-VT). Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired July 03, 2024 - 13:00   ET



BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: President Biden in a fight for his political life, fighting to save his reelection campaign, not only trying to convince voters that he's fit for the job, but some fellow Democrats as well.

There are critical meetings under way at the White House right now, and we're going to hear from the White House press secretary at the podium just minutes away.

And whether Donald Trump wins the White House or not, a new report today suggests the Justice Department could pursue the cases against him right up until inauguration. What this means for all those legal battles.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: And Hurricane Beryl closing in now on Jamaica, as a potentially lethal heat wave blankets California, a sweltering summer turning dangerous in an era of extreme climate change.

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

SANCHEZ: We begin with breaking news.

CNN is learning that President Biden has privately acknowledged the next stretch of days are critical to deciding whether he can stay in the race. It's a major development after the president's debate performance raised serious concerns about his ability to win reelection and serve out another term.

Just hours from now, the president will meet face-to-face with Democratic governors seeking reassurance. Biden will also speak separately with several congressional leaders.

CNN's M.J. Lee joins us now live from the White House.

M.J., we should point out we're about to hear from Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. What are you hearing about where President Biden stands in all of this now?

M.J. LEE, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Boris, what we have learned is that President Biden has privately acknowledged that he knows the next stretch of days are going to be absolutely critical to whether he can save his candidacy and that he knows what would eventually prompt him potentially to say, it's just not working.

This is according to an ally who spoke directly with the president yesterday. And that ally tells me that he sees the moment and he is clear-eyed and that the president knows that there is a potential set of scenarios, things that could happen in the coming days and weeks where he would acknowledge essentially that this simply cannot be fixed.

And they said that this looks like the polls are plummeting, the fund- raising is drying up and the interviews are going badly. He's not oblivious, is what this ally told me. And this person, interestingly, described the president in this conversation yesterday as having been chastened, that he blamed himself, not his staff, for his poor debate performance last week, and that he said: "I have done too much foreign policy."

There was a reference to the fact that he had traveled to France, traveled to Italy right before that debate. And the exhaustion and the jet lag had just been detrimental to his performance, though we should quickly note the president was back in the states for nearly two weeks before he took that debate stage.

But, Boris, I can't emphasize enough just how much level of scrutiny there is now going to be on President Biden whenever he is doing anything in public. So that includes everything that we are going to see him doing today, including, of course, meeting with and talking to Democratic elected officials, including governors that are going to be coming to the White House.

And then, of course, there is that big ABC interview that the White House has been touting on Friday, not to mention a press conference that he is going to be having with reporters at the NATO summit next week.

So, these are all moments where the president can potentially show that he can turn his campaign around. But I just want to note that implicit in all of this is the acknowledgement that there is the potential of the president getting to a point where, again, he acknowledges: I cannot fix my campaign.

SANCHEZ: And, M.J., President Biden, today, among the leaders that he is speaking with, had lunch with Vice President Kamala Harris.

We are learning that her team is now navigating through this escalating situation, being very publicly supportive of the president. What can you tell us about their lunch?

LEE: Yes, Boris, the vice president is in a really tough spot right now.

She, of course, knows all of the buzz that is out there right now about whether the president should step aside, whether she could be the replacement. And Priscilla Alvarez, our colleague here, has really great reporting on the mandate inside the vice president's team.

[13:05:07] And that is essentially to stay in line and continue promoting the Biden/Harris ticket. The V.P. staff is even received guidance that basically says keep your head down and keep working. We are seeing the vice president herself, I should note, really trying to execute on that in public.

We saw her in that brief remarks to a reporter yesterday where she said: "The president is our nominee. He beat Donald Trump once. We are going to do it again, and I am proud to be his running mate."

This is, of course, as Democrats continue to discuss who could potentially replace President Biden if he does leave the race. And so all of those conversations are going to continue swirling around Vice President Harris, but she is going to continue, apparently, according to this reporting from our colleague, telling her staff, making it clear that they need to keep their heads down.

SANCHEZ: M.J. Lee live for us at the White House.

M.J., thanks so much.

Let's turn now to CNN chief national affairs correspondent Jeff Zeleny.

And, Jeff, you have new reporting that, privately, a growing number of Democrats want Biden to drop out of the race, some as early as this week.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Boris, there has been a really growing swell of sentiment that it is time to move on with this.

We have heard a bit of it publicly from Congressman Lloyd Doggett of Texas, and many others behind the scenes are saying a similar thing, that it is time. Yes, they respect and appreciate the president's record, but it is also time to really see what is going on here.

Now, the president we are told and his campaign, both Jeff Zients, the White House chief of staff, as M.J. was saying, and the campaign manager, they're hosting separate staff calls and trying to urge people to stay focused.

Hard to stay focused, though, of course, on this, when there are these growing calls. The most important meeting of the day, that lunch that is going on right now with the president and the vice president, and that meeting of governors this evening, Democratic governors flying to Washington, virtually all of them, all of the main ones, some of them who could be considered also candidates to meet with the president.

So you get the sense, the feeling, that so much has changed in 24 hours. A, patience is wearing very thin, and time is running out to make something of a move. However, it is still Biden's decision to make.

So, as M.J. was saying, I'm told privately he has said that he does not want to drag down the Democratic ticket, but has not yet reached the point of making a decision.

SANCHEZ: Yes, time is of the essence when making this kind of decision.

There's actually a new poll out today, Jeff, from CBS News, after the debate, that shows a majority of voters think that the president should not run. Walk us through those numbers.

ZELENY: Look, and that is some of the data that they are looking at. Of course, the president and his campaign team are looking closer at battleground data from those seven battleground states.

But look at these national numbers here. Do you think Joe Biden should be running for reelection as president? Sixty-nine percent say no. That's nearly seven in 10 voters; 31 percent say yes. So that certainly is an indication, at a national level, it's hard to imagine battlegrounds would be any different than that.

But, again, this is the president's choice to make. First lady Jill Biden, interestingly, is in Michigan campaigning today. The campaign will go on. Democrats are trying to sort of redirect the focus to the contrast with Donald Trump.

Boris, one interesting thing. The Trump campaign has been silent throughout all of this, certainly watching this campaign. But you also have to wonder, are Democrats going to be sort of worrying what they may get here, an unknown in Kamala Harris or someone else?

This is an unusual dynamic in this race. Friday, it's four months until Election Day.

SANCHEZ: Yes, that's why the primary process is so important and so lengthened, so that this can get worked out. If this happens now, it'd be a very abridged and potentially harmful process to the party.

ZELENY: The Democratic Convention next month, but they have even less time to find someone else, should it reach that point.

SANCHEZ: If we get to that point.

Jeff Zeleny, thank you so much.

ZELENY: You bet.

SANCHEZ: Brianna.

KEILAR: Joining us now is Democratic Senator Peter Welch of Vermont. Senator, thank you for taking the time to be with us this afternoon.

I do want to ask you, in your opinion, is President Biden fit to serve right now as president?

SEN. PETER WELCH (D-VT): Well, that's the question. You know, he's wrestling with that. And he's reading the polls. And he had a terrible debate. And the campaign has candidly acknowledged it. And I'm confident, by the way, that, at the end of the day, the

president is going to make his decision the basis of what's best for the country. That is how he has approached his entire public life. He will put the country first. He knows that the existential challenge is keeping Donald Trump out of the presidency.

So I have confidence that he's going to make a decision and make it on the basis of serving the country.

KEILAR: Is there a sensitivity to not taking a position on that question?

WELCH: Well, yes is the answer.


But there's also an enormous amount of affection and respect in the Democratic Party for who Joe Biden is and what he's done. And, in fact, Vermont, we gave Biden the largest majority in the entire country in that last election.

So, we all saw what we saw. And it's a serious issue. The campaign is clearly taking it seriously. All reports indicate that the president himself is taking it seriously. And he's reading the polls. So my view is that I will let the president make his own decision, out of immense respect for everything he's done for us, keeping Trump out of office and the extraordinary job he's done.

KEILAR: Yes, you mentioned the reports. Biden reportedly told an ally that he would accept his reelection campaign as, quote, "not working" if polls are plummeting, fund-raising is drying up, and interviews are going badly.

Do you think he has enough time to stress-test all of those conditions?

WELCH: Well, time is short.

And the only way for him and the campaign to respond is not by talking to senators or governors, because this is not a tell me situation. It's a show me situation. So he'd have to be out and about in the hurly-burly of a campaign, open-ended press conferences with folks like you, engagements with voters that are unscripted.

And time is marked. The clock is ticking on that. But I do think that the response here would have to involve being very much in the public in an unscripted situations, as opposed to a few interviews or conversations with governors, who he's going to be meeting with today.

KEILAR: As a senator in the majority, you understand what that means and how important that would be if the Democratic ticket is not successful in this election.

At what point would Democrats have to prioritize not losing the Senate over keeping the White House? WELCH: Well, the reality is that the better our presidential

candidate does, the more of a tailwind we have in these tough Senate races.

The good news here is that, in those tough races, like Montana, let's say, our candidates are running ahead of President Biden. But the bottom line here is that somebody like Tester can overcome a gap, but he can't overcome a chasm.

So if we do really poorly at the presidential level, that creates a fierce undertow. And, bottom line, the most important thing is to have Trump out of the office, a Democrat in office, and then, doing that, I think, is the best help that we can give to our Senate candidates, who are doing great, but have a tough challenge.

KEILAR: Vice President Harris and her team are -- of course, they're backing Biden as the nominee at this point, but a post-debate CNN poll shows Harris within striking distance of Trump in a hypothetical matchup.

No clear leader, because of the margin of error, of course. But I have also heard from Democrats who worry that she cannot win in places where it matters, like Wisconsin, Michigan, and other states. What do you think?

WELCH: If it came to an open contest, if the president made that decision, then it would have to be open.

And I think the priority for us -- by the way, we have a tremendous bench, starting, of course, with the vice president. But -- and we also have party unity. Everybody who would be running is running on a continuation of the Biden accomplishments, and that would be Harris and all the others.

So I think we're really in good shape. But the big question for all of us would be, who's the best candidate to win the presidency and defeat Trump? And I don't know the answer to that, but I know we have a lot of really good candidates, including the vice president.

KEILAR: Should we hear the tape of Biden doing his interview with Robert Hur in the Hunter Biden case to dispel concerns that some of what we heard and saw on the debate stage last week is also what was on that tape, considering Hur's description of it in his filing?

WELCH: No. No. No, I don't think so. You know, that getting out there then becomes politically manipulated.

You know, what we saw in real time with that debate, we can't unsee. And the challenge that the president would have is to overcome the impact of that debate. And that's got to be in real time. But I think the justice -- the politicization of these investigations isn't something that should be, I think, used and manipulated, especially with all the AI false information, how things can be manipulated.


So we have got that debate. That tape is plenty of indication of the challenge the president faces going forward.

KEILAR: What are you looking for in his interview with George Stephanopoulos?

WELCH: Well, I think all of us are looking for the capacity to show, by his behavior and his actions, that the deficiencies that we saw on display in the debate aren't there.

And -- but, bottom line here, this is not a one-time deal that's going to resolve this. You sit down, you have an interview, that's great. It's a question of on a sustained basis, is it -- can the president put the -- put at ease the concerns that his campaign has expressed -- they have acknowledged this -- and Democrats have expressed?

This is a -- it's a kind of ironic situation in a way. He has got enormous support. He's created enormous unity. He defeated Trump once. He probably was the only person who could do it. And then he has legislative accomplishments that rival what LBJ did.

But LBJ had a huge majority. The president had to achieve his goals with a crackpot Republican majority in the House and with a threadbare majority in the Senate, so immense gratitude for him, but immense sense of urgency that was then, and this is now. And we have got to look forward and we have got to win.

KEILAR: Senator Peter Welch of Vermont, thank you so much for speaking with us this afternoon. We appreciate it.

WELCH: Thank you.

KEILAR: Still ahead this hour: the first lady's fight. Jill Biden on the trail making the case to voters about why her husband should be reelected. How she could influence the president's decision here in the days ahead.

And Beryl battering Jamaica. We are live as this huge hurricane lashes the island.



SANCHEZ: After President Biden's poor debate performance, first lady Jill Biden has been one of her husband's fiercest defenders.

Today, she's in the battleground state of Michigan, where she will participate in a political event, as her role in keeping her husband's campaign alive is expanding.

Joining me now to discuss is Kate Andersen Brower. She's the author of "First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies."

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

You say that you believe the first lady would be the last person to tell Joe Biden to get out of the race. Why? KATE ANDERSEN BROWER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, to say that they have been in foxholes together before is kind of an understatement.

The two of them have been through family addiction, the loss of a son. They have been through several presidential campaigns and Senate campaigns. I do think that there's a sense inside the White House that she doesn't want to come across like a political adviser, even though, inherently, she really is.

And she is going to back him. They have been married for almost five decades. If he's not visibly sick, if there's not a real reason for him to get out of the race, I don't think that she would ever tell him that she thinks he should.

SANCHEZ: What do you make of reports that, during this family gathering that was previously scheduled for after the debate, the family apparently speculated about whether top staffers needed to be fired and whether the campaign needed to make changes?

ANDERSEN BROWER: I think they're always looking for someone to blame.

I think you saw that a lot with past administrations, where there'd be staff shakeups when something went wrong. Nancy Reagan famously fired Reagan's chief of staff. I think that often this does happen, where the staffers are held to task.

But, obviously, what happened Thursday night was President Biden, his performance, and really any blame should be laid on him. I think that, like, it's very interesting to me to watch Jill Biden in this moment kind of navigate her role as both a presidential spouse, but then at what point does that conflict with your duty and your patriotism to the country?

And I think we have to watch for that in the coming days.

SANCHEZ: Yes, certainly.

To be fair, President Biden, at least in our reporting, has not laid the blame on his staff. He's put it on himself, though, apparently, there is some consternation among staff and some surprise that Hunter Biden, the president's son, has been participating in meetings and calls, something that reports described as unusual.

Could you speak to any tension between the Biden family and his staff at a moment like this?

ANDERSEN BROWER: I think it's not surprising that there's tension there. I know that Hunter is very vocally supportive of his father staying in the race.

And it is unusual to have a son sitting in on top meetings. And it also speaks to, I think, a sense that the family maybe doesn't completely trust what's going on inside the White House, and they want to protect, kind of circle the wagons around the president. So there's inherent tension there, and there always is inside White Houses. SANCHEZ: Do you think that that sort of protective instinct could

actually harm the reelection bid, if the president is listening to family who's eager to, as you put it, circle the wagons around him, rather than staff that could perhaps give him a more critical, a more objective view of things?


ANDERSEN BROWER: I think it's dangerous to have -- rely on your family too much.

And I do think that President Biden does have a close-knit circle of advisers outside the family, like Ted Kaufman, for instance, Mike Donilon, Steve Ricchetti, these people who he's worked with for years and years. I do think he gives them a lot of weight as well.

So I don't think it's as though the family is making this decision single-handedly. But, yes, they always have an outside influence in the White House. And I think, in the past, first ladies have brought in top advisers, people they think who could actually sway the president.

Nancy Reagan did that during Iran-Contra. She brought in Bob Strauss to talk to the president to say, you need to apologize. And that helped save the president's election. So, I mean, there can be moments when first ladies can very shrewdly manipulate and kind of get their husbands to do what they think they should do.

I think, when we see Dr. Biden on the campaign trail, we see somebody who really wants their husband to stay in the race.

SANCHEZ: You kind of answered part of my next question. I was wondering how you would compare the position that the first family is in right now to other first families who have dealt with questions about the president's health.

ANDERSEN BROWER: There haven't been as many families who have dealt with presidential health questions, because there have been lots of scandals. I mean, we saw Hillary Clinton standing by her husband during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

We haven't seen something of this magnitude. It's definitely uncharted territory. I think it's difficult, because a lot of what we saw on Thursday night, you can't unsee. I think someone said that earlier. So the only thing they can do at this point is just have him out there, show that that was an anomaly if it was, and reassure the American people that this is not who he is behind closed doors.

I think what -- we don't have any sort of transparency into how unusual that performance was on Thursday, and they need to make it clear that it was.

SANCHEZ: That is a very good point.

Kate Andersen Brower, thanks so much for the perspective.

ANDERSEN BROWER: Thank you, Boris.

SANCHEZ: Of course.

Coming up: not backing down. The Justice Department says it plans to pursue its cases against Donald Trump even after the election, even if he wins.

And we have got live pictures from Washington as we await today's White House press briefing amid pressing questions about President Biden's campaign for reelection.

We're going to bring that to you live as soon as it begins.