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Interview With Former U.S. Special Representative For Ukraine Kurt Volker; Death Toll From Russian Strike in Ukraine Rises; Interview With Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA); NATO Summit; House Democrats Divided on Biden. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired July 09, 2024 - 13:00   ET



JESSICA DEAN, CNN HOST: Making their case for and against the president, House Democrats huddle as the fate of Joe Biden's political career hangs in the balance. But, so far, few seem to have much appetite for publicly calling on him to step down. We're going to hear from members of House Democratic leadership just one hour from now.

And the next test for President Biden is this week's NATO summit, as world leaders descend on Washington for the 75th anniversary of the alliance, on the agenda, how best to support Ukraine as it fights back against Russia.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: And the manslaughter trial of Alec Baldwin begins with jury selection. If he's convicted, the 66-year-old actor faces up to 18 months in prison.

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

DEAN: Today, President Biden facing make-or-break tests on Capitol Hill and on the world stage.

Soon, Democratic leaders will speak publicly after a high-stakes party meeting over Biden's political future. We're told House Democrats remain divided after that critical discussion. And at the same time, President Biden and NATO leaders will try to show they're united, kicking off a three-day summit in Washington today with a heavy emphasis on shoring up support for Ukraine.

All eyes will be on the president and his remarks to world leaders in just a few hours. And we're covering all angles from the White House to Capitol Hill.

Let's begin with CNN congressional correspondent Lauren Fox.

And, Lauren, this was supposed to be a decisive day on the Hill when it came to Biden's reelection efforts. What are you hearing from that meeting this morning with House Democrats?

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jessica, nearly two hours and no resolution among Democrats as to the best path forward in terms of whether or not to continue backing Joe Biden as their nominee for president against Donald Trump.

What you're hearing from many members is that in this closed-door meeting, members had an opportunity to voice their concerns, had an opportunity to voice their support for Biden. But there wasn't a clear consensus of how to move forward.

A line you're hearing from a lot of Democrats is that they are united against Donald Trump, but they aren't necessarily united when it comes to what to do next. I think one of the complications here is, without Biden deciding to get out of the race on his own, it's unclear exactly what recourse Democrats have in this situation.

Here's just an example of that discord coming out of this meeting.


FOX: Did you make your case? Did you make your case? What was your argument to your members?

REP. LLOYD DOGGETT (D-TX): The same one I have made publicly before, that the debate cannot be unseen. The president has been running behind. We needed a surge. We got a setback. He is a great man who's made a great contribution to the country, but he shouldn't leave a legacy that endangers us that we surrender to a tyrant.

FOX: Do you think he's the best person, though, to guard against what you're talking about?

REP. AYANNA PRESSLEY (D-MA): Joe Biden has already made clear his current intentions, OK, and where he is. He is the nominee. And, yes, as for our vice president, of course, I have incredible confidence in her. As I said, this is not just about the president. It's also about the vice president. It is about this administration.

And given the chaos of the 118th Congress, the GOP leaders have already made a plane that the chaos is their friend. I'm not going to give them more chaos and I'm not going to lose the plot.


FOX: And, Jessica, the mood in the room described by one member was sadness, this feeling that Democrats are finding themselves in this position where they're not excited, they're not motivated about this nominee, and yet this is likely the path that they are now on.

Obviously, we're going to hear from Senate Democrats after their lunch later this afternoon. That will give us yet another indication of whether or not Democratic leaders have a plan going forward -- Jessica.


DEAN: Yes, and we know you and the team will be talking with them after they come out of that lunch and we will hear from House Democratic leadership as well.

Lauren Fox, thanks so much.

Let's bring in senior White House correspondent Kayla Tausche.

And, Kayla, two powerful Democratic bloc, the Congressional Black and Hispanic caucuses respectively, are standing very firm in their support of the president. What more can you tell us about that?

KAYLA TAUSCHE, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Jessica, with support eroding from some corners of the Democratic Party, as you just heard, the White House and the Biden reelection campaign are leaning very heavily on the support that they are receiving from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus, which, of course, represent the votes -- represent voters in those critical blocs of voters.

So you have seen in the last day the president participating in a meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus, where he told them, "I am not going to disappoint you," and where members aired some concerns, but generally backed the president, according to the description of the meeting that we have heard.

And at least one member told CNN that, for him, he understood the concerns that people had following the debate, but that it was really about the policies and how those policies benefited black voters. Here's Congressman Bennie Thompson on CNN last night.


REP. BENNIE THOMPSON (D-MS): You have good days and bad days, but you don't judge a person like that. You look at their policies. From what I have seen, the policies have worked. We have low unemployment. Our children are getting a better education.

They are able -- if they can't afford it, we have created policies to help them. We have alleviated the debt. The Biden administration has been open and aboveboard. And so for all of this, as you know, the Congressional Black Caucus historically has been very supportive of the Democratic nominee.

Joe Biden is no different.


TAUSCHE: Now, some of those takeaways were also echoed by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which released this statement, saying: "We stand with President Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris. President Biden and his administration have worked closely with House Democrats to make historic investments to positively impact communities across the country, including Latinos, such as investments to combat climate change, lower health care costs, expand access to health care for our veterans, and create jobs with the infrastructure bill."

So, certainly, the administration is leaning heavily into those constituencies, even as it's become clear that, as leadership meets with the entirety of the Democratic Party on the Hill, that President Biden's future hangs in the balance, and senior party officials are saying the sniping and the intraparty bickering is not going to stop until leadership makes a decision how to proceed -- Jess.

DEAN: All right, Kayla Tausche at the White House for us, thanks so much for that -- Boris.

SANCHEZ: Let's discuss with Democratic Congressman Jared Huffman of California.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us once more.

I remember, last week, when we spoke, you told me you felt the Democratic Party was not on a winning trajectory and that it needed a reset. Now that you're back on Capitol Hill, have you changed your mind about that at all?

REP. JARED HUFFMAN (D-CA): No, Boris, I think we are having an important conversation.

I think it's important to understand that Democrats are not like Republicans. We actually do critical thinking for ourselves. We have robust debates. We don't just fall in line behind an iron-fisted cult leader. So that's what you're seeing play out in our Democratic Caucus.

And I think we will settle out in a place that reflects our unity of purpose and the values that bring us together as Democrats. Right now, President Biden is surely our nominee, and we can win with that.

But if that changes, I think it's important, and I will continue reminding everyone, that we have got an excellent vice president in Kamala Harris. She's next up. She's ready to go. She's vetted. She's doing amazing work. And we can win that way too.

SANCHEZ: So you did tell me that you didn't know whether President Biden gave your party the best chance to win in November. I'm wondering what changed since then.

HUFFMAN: Well, in this conversation, we all get to have our opinions, and there's a way to constructively contribute to that conversation.

We have to have a little humility as well. I'm one member of Congress. President Biden is going to make this decision. He has said that the lord almighty is the only one that will change his mind. I'm the least religious member of Congress, Boris, so that means I probably don't have a lot of influence in this strategic decision.

But I do know we have got to beat Donald Trump, and I am all in for doing everything I can to make sure we get that right.

SANCHEZ: Am I reading too far into your answer in suggesting that you -- you didn't mention anything about the public appearances that the president made, whether his interview on ABC or his speech or some of the radio interviews that he's done or his time on MSNBC?

[13:10:14] Did any of that assuage your concerns following the disastrous debate performance?

HUFFMAN: Boris, we have been talking about all of that and more.

And I think there is perhaps an emerging acceptance, a reality, if you will, that President Biden is a great American who's lost a step. He himself has said he doesn't debate the way he used to. He doesn't talk the way he used to. He doesn't walk the way he used to.

I would love to have miraculously the President Biden of four years ago, 20 years ago. That's not going to happen, but we have got a great American here who stands for our values, who has integrity, who will defeat and can defeat Donald Trump and keep us from that terrible Project 2025 agenda of his.

And I'm going to keep talking about that as much as possible.

SANCHEZ: I'm curious to get your perspective on the narrative surrounding Biden. And you mentioned that you saw that as being very hard to undo.

Pair that with this new reporting about a Parkinson's specialist visiting the White House repeatedly. Obviously, the White House denies that the president has the illness. They say he's not being treated for it. But with that story swirling, don't you think the White House could end speculation by putting forward the results of a comprehensive medical test?

Is that something you would like to see?

HUFFMAN: Yes, I am not going to get caught up in speculating about the president's exact health details.

I see a president who can do the job. I have never had any question about his ability to be a good president. I think the only question is, how do we make sure we're on the best possible footing to defeat Donald Trump? And the reason we're talking about that as Democrats right now is because Donald Trump is dangerous.

He is a convicted felon, an adjudicated sex predator, a wannabe dictator, and he's got this Project 2025 agenda that tells us exactly what he will do if we don't get this right. So, look, the voters of France a few days ago stared into the abyss and they contemplated an extreme right-wing future for their country. They came together, made a sober decision to do the right thing.

I have every confidence that people of this country can and will do the same.

SANCHEZ: But you don't think it would persuade voters if the White House was perhaps more transparent, and not -- I'm not asking you to speculate about the president's health or any diagnoses, but more so the messaging behind it.

Wouldn't it help ease concerns within your own caucus if they were just completely transparent with those medical records and if the president underwent some kind of testing?

HUFFMAN: I'm not super concerned about that, Boris. I have accepted the fact that this president walks a little slower, talks a little differently, doesn't debate the way he used to. That's OK.

He is a great American and can do this job and we have got to defeat Donald Trump. So I am all in for that.

SANCHEZ: Does it bother you that, in speaking to Republicans, they have relished these developments in the Democratic Party and they want Joe Biden to be the nominee because of it?

HUFFMAN: You know, I don't spend a lot of time wondering what they're thinking.

I do spend a lot of time focusing on Project 2025. I'm leading a task force here in the House of Representatives that is shining a bright light on these extreme attacks that Donald Trump is going to wage against our democracy, our fundamental rights, the rules-based international order if he somehow finds his way back into the White House.

And now he's armed with this absolute immunity protection from the radical Supreme Court. We can't let that happen. That should be our singular focus right now.

SANCHEZ: Congressman Jared Huffman, we appreciate you sharing your perspective. Thanks for being with us.

HUFFMAN: Thanks, Boris.

SANCHEZ: Of course -- Jessica.

DEAN: As uncertainty builds over President Biden's political future, NATO leaders are gathering today here in Washington for a summit to mark the 75th anniversary of the military alliance, and it's a crucial opportunity for President Biden to prove to the world that he's going to be able to serve as commander in chief for four more years.

CNN' senior White House correspondent Kayla Tausche joins us once again.

Kayla, President Biden is going to give a speech later today at the summit. Obviously, there is a lot of focus on him right now. How high are these stakes?

TAUSCHE: The stakes are high, but it is relatively comfortable terrain for President Biden. He will be scripted. He will have a teleprompter that he can rely on. And it's material that he is able to practice in advance with his aides during preparation that the White House has said has been going on in these preceding days.

The stakes are even higher, though, for the press conference that will take place on Thursday, when the president is going to have to be thinking on his feet and demonstrating a certain sense of agility in answering really tough questions from not only the U.S. press corps, but also the global press corps.


To that end, John Kirby, who's the spokesman for the National Security Council, says that President Biden has been reviewing materials with his national security team and reviewing materials specifically for some of the bilateral meetings that he's going to be holding with world leaders, including Ukraine's president, as well as the new prime minister of the United Kingdom.

But Kirby was asked specifically about whether the national security team, in the realm of Biden's age, has been withholding any information in the late hours as it regards to the international geopolitical environment because Biden has been asleep or otherwise unavailable. And here's how Kirby responded to that question.


JOHN KIRBY, NSC COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS: If the national security team needs to get to the president, they get to the president. And it doesn't matter what the hour on the clock says. He's always there, he's always available.

And they have ready access to him. And he also knows that the world doesn't take a breather after a certain time of day.


TAUSCHE: It is safe to say that this is not the backdrop that the U.S. or other European or Western officials had envisioned for this summit as the planning began many months ago.

It was expected to be a victory lap of sorts for Biden, who has hailed the strengthening and expansion of NATO as one of the hallmarks of his four years in office. Instead, President Biden will be on the defensive, trying to prove that he is up to the task. But there's also some consternation against -- for many other member states who themselves are facing a rise of extremism, elections in their own countries.

And so it's not a problem that is seen as relegated to the U.S. It's really a problem for the entire alliance to grapple with.

DEAN: Kayla Tausche at the White House, thank you very much for that reporting.

And ahead of the crucial NATO summit, Russia sending a brazen message as it carries out strikes across Ukraine, including on Kyiv's largest children's hospital. We're going to take you there.

Plus, former President Trump set to hold his first rally since the debate, as speculation now lingering over his potential running mate. Ahead, hear why he's waiting to see what happens with Biden before he makes his final choice.

And millions across the U.S. are under heat alerts, sweltering conditions already turning deadly, with temperatures not expected to drop any time soon.

We have details ahead on CNN NEWS CENTRAL.



SANCHEZ: We're learning new details today about Monday's devastating Russian attacks across Ukraine. One NATO official now says that Russia is likely to conduct further large-scale attacks on Ukraine during the NATO summit here in Washington, D.C.

At least 39 people were killed in widespread attacks on Monday, including two adults at this children's hospital in Kyiv. New images show bloodied children, patients who survived after two floors collapsed in the strike. Kyiv's mayor says more than 600 kids had to be evacuated.

Now Ukraine's prime minister is vowing that this hospital is going to be completely rebuilt.

Let's get the latest from the ground with CNN's Fred Pleitgen, who's live on the scene.

Fred, what are you learning about what happened and what does it look like now?


Well, it's still a pretty fluid situation actually on the ground here in Ukraine. One of the things that came to us just a couple of minutes ago is that the complete death toll for Ukraine has actually now risen from those 39 that you just mentioned to 43 just in the last couple of minutes.

So, clearly, this is something that is not over and where the carnage continues to get worse even after these attacks have ended. But I can show you, I'm actually at the impact site of where this missile hit this children's hospital.

I will get out of your way for a second here, and you can see over there that the building that was hit by this missile was just completely annihilated by the explosion, or at least large parts of it. You can see there that it's a very small-size debris, showing just how devastating the impact of that missile must have been.

And I came a little closer to this area a couple of minutes ago, and you can see that there's also still medical equipment destroyed among that debris as well, so definitely a massive impact of that explosion. I was able to speak to a doctor here earlier, Boris, and she told me that she was in an adjacent building, and it was still a massive explosion and she came running out here.

And she saw those scenes that we just saw on our screens of the folks who work here at this medical center then trying to help. And just to give you an idea about how big this explosion was, this is a huge complex. This is the biggest children's hospital in all of Ukraine. You can see there's a really modern building over there, another hospital building. That's also been badly damaged by this explosion as well.

You can see that most of the windows there have been blown out, the facade also destroyed. And then, if we look in the foreground here right in front of me, these are actually some of the floors of the building that we just showed you before. You can see that they just completely flat-packed down and were destroyed.

And so one of the things, obviously, that President Zelenskyy of Ukraine is saying as he comes to Washington, D.C., for that summit, is that the Ukrainians obviously need more military aid. But one of the most pressing things that Ukrainians say is air defense systems and specifically the U.S.-made Patriots through which they hope they will be able to prevent strikes like the one that destroyed large parts of this children's hospital -- Boris.

SANCHEZ: Quite a stunning scene there.

Fred Pleitgen live from Kyiv, Ukraine.

Thank you so much Fred -- Jessica.

DEAN: The war in Ukraine will be a major focus as NATO leaders come to Washington today for the start of this crucial summit.

And here with us now, CNN national security analyst and former deputy Director of National Intelligence Beth Sanner, also former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker.

Welcome to both of you. Thanks for being here.

Beth, let's start first with you. We just heard Fred's reporting on these Russian strikes, including the one that hit a children's hospital. We also have new reporting that Russia is likely to conduct further large-scale attacks during this NATO summit.


It seems that they want to send a message. What do you think that message is?


And I would add to that that China is doing an exercise this week and into next week, starting yesterday in Belarus, which borders right on Ukraine. And -- but this exercise is right on the Polish/NATO border between Belarus and Poland.

And so both of them together are sending a very strong message today about really standing up to NATO and timing all of this during the summit to make a point, to divide us and to make Ukraine look weak.

DEAN: Right, and it's absolutely no accident, to your point. And, Ambassador, just to help people kind of connect all of the dots

here, help us zoom out for a moment and understand the broader picture as NATO descends here in Washington and they are talking about a huge issue will be, of course, Ukraine. There are other issues as well. And as Beth is laying out, we have China making moves. We have Russia making moves very purposefully at this time.

What's at stake here?


So what they're trying to do is intimidate NATO. They're trying to show that they have power, they have the willingness to use that power, and so NATO had better be careful, trying to deter us from doing more to actually support Ukraine.

I hope that NATO is not cowed into that kind of response. What we have here is an alliance that has lasted 75 years on the basis of the members agreeing to protect each other, and that's great. And I think that commitment to collective defense still stands very strong.

But we now face a situation where we have the largest war in Europe since World War II. NATO was created to try to prevent future war. We are now facing that war, and we run the risk now of Russia defeating Ukraine and then moving on to attacking other countries and putting European security at even greater risk.

So NATO really needs to step up and make a commitment to helping Ukraine succeed, helping them defeat Russian forces, and then ultimately bringing them into NATO so that we can deter future conflict again in the future.

DEAN: And so, Beth, what does that look like practically at the end of this summit? What can NATO do to further protect Ukraine and prevent what Kurt just laid out, which is Russia taking over and perhaps moving on to the next nation?

SANNER: Right.

Well, it doesn't look like a huge (INAUDIBLE). There are two things at play with Ukraine. One is the path to membership, and I think, there, it's about stronger language, maybe an irreversible path to NATO membership. And the other part of it is trying to insulate support for Ukraine from the political headwinds both in the United States and in Europe.

And, there, there have been a lot of strategic agreements over the past year between almost all of the NATO allies to make these pledges. And what Stoltenberg, the outgoing secretary-general, is trying to do is to kind of nail that down. I -- it's not going to feel like enough, but each thing is a step, and this is just a summit, so probably headed in the right direction, but no major huge changes here.

DEAN: And, Ambassador, we have got some new remarks from the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, as he arrived in Washington, D.C. I want to listen to those.


VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): We are fighting for additional security guarantees for Ukraine, including weapons and finances, political support. We are fighting for the needed decisive actions of America and Europe, something that will strengthen our soldiers.


DEAN: There are now 32 NATO allies. And, as Beth just alluded to, there is a draft communique ahead of this summit that says Ukraine's path to join is -- quote -- "irreversible."

Do you see it that way?

VOLKER: I see it is not enough.

We first told Ukraine in 2008, 16 years ago, that one day they can be a member of NATO. And then, every year after that, we repeat the same thing, but we haven't taken any steps toward bringing them in. Last year, at the Vilnius summit, we said the same thing. And we said, when Ukraine is ready and when allies are ready, then we will do it.

This year, it's going to be the same thing. What this tells Vladimir Putin is that we lack the commitment and resolve to actually move right now, and therefore incentivizes him to continue the war. He thinks, if he can keep fighting, he can still win.