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Biden's Approval Fades as Democrats Fail to Rally Around His Agenda; Biden Administration Ramps Up Efforts to Secure U.S. Infrastructure from Russian, Chinese Cyberattacks; Blue Origin to Fly Star Trek's William Shatner to Space Wednesday. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired October 11, 2021 - 10:30   ET



DEVLIN BARRETT, NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Right. I mean, one of the sort of endless challenges for government secrecy is if you train people how to spot others who might be engaging secrets, really, what you're also doing is giving some tips and pointers to people who themselves might want to sell secrets, which the FBI says is what this guy tried to do.

HILL: How close did he get?

BARRETT: Well, it's interesting. His package definitely did get to the foreign country, and so there are a number of indicators in the charging complaint that this may have been an official handover from that foreign government to our FBI saying, look, this guy came in to us, we're giving it to you so you can deal with. And that's a remarkable thing in itself because that doesn't happen a lot, but it can happen sometimes in the course of the mix of spying and diplomacy that goes on. And so he did come close.

HILL: And I guess that, you know, the fact it did happen that way gives you -- may have happened that way gives you a little bit of hope, right, as you point out. There are also some of these details that you just can't ignore that make the story even more fascinating, specifically, that there was this S.D. card hidden in a peanut butter sandwich.

BARRETT: Right. So, he was talked into by the FBI undercover to do a series of what spies call dead drops, meaning leave something in a place where someone else can pick it up. And the way he did that is remarkable in that one data card he left inside a half of a peanut butter sandwich, another one he left inside a band aid wrapper and another one he left inside a chewing gum package.

The problem is when the FBI is on to you, all of this stuff looks a little bit stupid and a little bit silly. You know, spying looks very smart until you're caught and then it doesn't look quite so smart.

HILL: Yes, important observation there. So, what happens now?

BARRETT: So, they have a court date. The navy engineer, Jonathan Toebbe, and his wife, have a court date later this week. He is charged right now just in a criminal complaint, which his sort of the initial legal shot at him, and, you know, there's going to be an indictment down the road almost certainly. And that indictment will probably have more charges in it because this was a years-long investigation.

But, you know, he's facing really serious jail time out of this, so, you know, you always have to look to what degree does someone decide to plead guilty, especially when a spouse is involved to try help and be more lenient on the spouse.

HILL: Devlin Barrett, great reporting, I appreciate you joining us this morning. Thank you.

BARRETT: Thank you.

HILL: Still ahead, Democrats grapple with a growing problem, as the president's agenda and approval rating stall.



HILL: The House is expected to sign a Senate-passed stopgap bill to temporarily extend the debt ceiling tomorrow. But Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has already said it won't happen again when that extension expires in December. And that, of course, could spell trouble for the president and his agenda.

Nine months into his first term, President Biden's agenda has stalled and that has him once again calling on Democrats to come together. As he struggles to gain momentum for his agenda, his polling numbers mixed. Some Democrats are really starting to feel the weight of inaction.


TERRY MCAULIFFE (D), VIRGINIA GOVERNOR CANDIDATE: It's sad dragging me down. My message to everybody in Washington, past this infrastructure bill. We are desperate in the state.

This should not be so difficult.


HILL: CNN White House Correspondent John Harwood is with us from the north lawn. Lauren Fox is on Capitol Hill.

John, let's start with you. As we look at where things are for the White House, for the president this morning, it's not just about this struggle for President Biden to get these bills moving, to get his agenda moving, there's also this fear that inflation is here and that the administration may not be doing enough on that front.

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Erica, the two things that have been the top priority for the Biden White House all year remain the top priority. First is getting the coronavirus pandemic under control pandemic under control. They thought they were in a much better place this summer when the vaccines were rolled out fairly rapidly. But then when they hit that hard resistance and the delta variant hit, things started moving in the wrong direction. That weighed down President Biden's poll the below 50 percent.

Afghanistan, the harrowing images from there were another set of bad news. The coronavirus effect on the economy is that it has created an uneven recover. So, getting that under control is the best thing they can do for the economy and inflation.

And in terms of their long-term economic agenda, they need to get those bills passed. That's something that Terry McAuliffe shares with Joe Manchin and every Democrat in the House of Representatives. They need this as a party to move forward. You're hearing some optimism from the White House and the Hill, I am, that by the end of the month, they will be able to make some sort of deal, around $2 trillion with that reconciliation bill, but they've still got to do it. And that is of urgent priority for the Biden White House.

HILL: Yes. They still have got to do it and it's not just about the numbers, as you point, Lauren. Look, there are the details that really matter to a lot of folks in terms of what is actually in there. And they're looking at the end of this month.

But some close allies of the president, Lauren, are also now conceding. This has, in fact, been a really rough month for the president. Putting all of that together, is it enough momentum to really get this done by the end of the month?


LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Democrats are going to have to decide soon whether or not they are going to ask for perfection or whether they want something. And that is what's facing the party at the moment.

The Senate is on recess this week, but I was talking to some Democratic lawmakers who were leaving the Capitol at the end of last week and they were saying, look, this next week is going to be critical to ensuring that we begin those real hard conversations about what is going to be included in this larger social safety net bill.

If you are going to be cutting this bill, like John talked about, from about $3.5 trillion to somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 trillion, and it's unclear whether or not some moderates are going to be willing to get to that number, there are programs that are going to have to be on the chopping block.

And the party is dealing with this question, do you do fewer programs for a longer period of time and make sure you're doing them well, make sure you're rolling them out correctly, so that voters really look at these things as potentially changing their lives, or do you do, as some progressives want to do, which is include everything you want to include in on the front end but just shorten the length of those programs or the money that's going to each individual program. You can always boost that up later. But that's a tension point, right, because we're not just talking about tension over how much you're spending, you're also talking about tension about people's priorities. And for some Democratic leaders, there are priorities in this legislation that they've been working on their entire careers, whether that's an extension of the child tax credit, whether that is something like shoring up Obamacare, whether that is something large like paid family leave.

Any one of those individual provisions would be altering for the Democratic Party and would really reimagine how this country functions. But they want to get all of those in. And I think the challenge for them is going to be not only what to include but how to message the bill once they make those decisions, because you can't have a bill that's so chock-full of everything that people in America don't actually know what's inside. So, that's the challenge for the Democrats over the next several weeks.

HILL: Yes. And we've seen over the last several weeks the messaging has been an issue. So, it will be interesting to see how that changes moving forward.

Lauren Fox, John Harwood, I appreciate it. Thank you both.

Up next, between cybersecurity threats and mounting tension with Taiwan, how China is becoming one of President Biden's biggest tests.



HILL: The Biden administration facing a broad diplomatic and national security challenge when it comes to China. On the cybersecurity front, today, several key infrastructure hubs and federal contractors face new security mandates. Government officials are concerned about ongoing threats from both China and Russia, all of this, of course, coming at the same time as the U.S. is navigating the tender situation between China and Taiwan.

CNN Senior National Security Correspondent Alex Marquardt is following this for us. So, Alex really is -- Alex -- not you, Alex, China is really becoming one of President Biden's, I would say, biggest tests at this point.

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: It really is, Erica. I mean, this is a highly combustible situation going on between China and Taiwan. It's a real test for the Biden administration, which is having to confront and contain China on a number of different fronts while having to walk a very careful line when it comes to Taiwan.

In the words of the Taiwanese president from this weekend, she said that this is the most complex situation with China in the past 72 years. Biden administration clearly very concerned about the military move that China making around Taiwan, saying that they are destabilizing and undermining regional peace. We are watching unprecedented military moves from both China and Taiwan. Over the past few days, a record number of Chinese warplanes going into the Taiwanese defense zone, Taiwan hosting a military parade with a huge number or a huge amount of military hardware, much of it funded by the United States.

And during that parade, the Taiwanese president saying that she will continue to bolster Taiwan's national defenses, saying that the pathway to China has laid out does not offer freedom and democracy or a path to sovereignty for the Taiwanese people.

China hitting back through a spokesman, criticizing the Taiwanese president's speech, saying that it incites violence, divides history, distorts facts and uses the so-called consensus and unity as a guise to try to kidnap Taiwan's public opinion, cozy up with external forces and provoke claims for independence. Erica, the spokesman went on to call Taiwan the treasure island of the motherland.

Now, while the U.S. recognizes Beijing as the capital of China, it says its commitment, meanwhile, to Taiwan is rock solid. Erica?

HILL: A lot to keep an eye on, that's for sure. Alex Marquardt, I appreciate it. Thank you.

Just ahead, 90-year-old actor turned potential astronaut William Shatner says it's not all terror ahead of this week's Blue Origin space mission, but maybe a little. More of my chat with the Blue Origin crew, next.

And just a reminder, there's a lot going on today. Here's what to watch.



HILL: Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin is slated to send William Shatner, of course, well-known as Captain Kirk on Star Trek, part of the crew that's heading to space on Wednesday.


The trip was delayed a day due to weather conditions.

Ahead of liftoff, though, I had a chance to connect with the four- person crew earlier this morning for more details on the flight ahead.


WILLIAM SHATNER, ACTOR, PORTRAYED CAPTAIN KIRK: It's not all terror, although there's some bubbling elements of that, but also I'm thoroughly versed in the safety of what we're doing. And we've been spending days here in and out of these very difficult chairs. It's a great workout getting in and out of these prone chairs, and we've been lectured and told about the safety procedures. And so that adds an element of surcease from enabling elements of dangers. I feel comfortable but I'm also uncomfortable. I'll be very happy when we go up and we're in weightlessness and we know we're safe because everything else should be all right and we have that moment of inspiration.

GLEN DE VRIES, VICE CHAIR, LIFE SCIENCES AND HEALTHCARE DASSAULT SYSTEMES: I don't think it's fair to call this tourism yet. You know, it's too early in this new public space age for us to call this tourism. There is risks, and I think all of us have made a decision to be part of this flight and to be pioneers to help open the door to space for everyone else. But, you know, this is space exploration.


HILL: Joining me to discuss, retired NASA Astronaut Leroy Chiao. Great to have you with us this morning.

A couple of interesting things I want to pick up on there that we just heard. Chris Boshuizen, who wanted to be an astronaut from the time he was four, he said, this is really a dream come true for him to get that close and have those four minutes of weightlessness up there, but he says, we all sort of calculated the risk here. You heard William Shatner talking about safety. And I'd also asked them if they were concerned at all after this letter came out from 21 current and former employees at Blue Origin who cited safety as a concern. When you look at how quickly all of these things happening, where does your mind go in terms of safety?

LEROY CHIAO, RETIRED NASA ASTRONAUT: In terms of safety, the commercial space industry and commercial space companies are very, very cognizant that if it were to suffer an accident, especially early on in these attempts, that would basically shut them down. So, in a big-picture sense, I don't believe any of these companies are going to be launching individuals to touch space or even into orbit later without being confident in their safety process and their actual rockets and spacecraft and systems.

So, while there's always going to be risk and no matter what you do, especially if you're climbing on board a rocket, you weigh the risk/reward ratio and decide for yourself whether you're willing to take that risk. But at a high level, as I said, I believe these systems and these companies, I believe their systems are safe.

HILL: You actually spoke with William Shatner just a couple of months in his podcast. It didn't have any indication at that point. He was going to be on this Blue Origin flight. What were your thoughts when you heard that he was, in fact, going up?

CHIAO: Yes. I had a great interview with him. I was very impressed that as a 90-year-old person that he was in such great shape and very mentally sharp and alert, asked some funny questions. We had a great time and it really was a surprise to learn that he's about to go fly with Blue Origin and touch space.

And I thought it was fantastic that here's a guy I grew up watching as Captain Kirk helped inspire me to want to be an astronaut myself, finally getting his chance go up into space and get that spectacular experience and view.

HILL: I mean, you can see the excitement and a little bit of terror, as William Shatner pointed out, but, overall, the excitement from everybody who was preparing to go into space. And one of the other members of his crew, Glen de Vries, talked about how -- he is making this million-dollar donation to He wants to raise awareness for the environmental issues, the other issues back home on Planet Earth as part of this trip. There's also been a lot made about the environmental impact of space tourism and these missions. Do you think that's being given enough attention?

CHIAO: The environmental impact of the space tourism, if you will, is fairly minimal. And that's because the fuels that are being used in the rockets are, by and large, kerosene and liquid oxygen or other fairly green type of propellants as opposed to in the past, there had been some nasty chemicals used because of their efficiency, and all countries and companies are going away from those fuels because -- partly because of the environmental concern but also partly because of safety concern. These other propellants are very, very toxic so we're seeing a big shift from everyone towards more, if you will, green propellants.

HILL: I do want to ask you quickly before we let you go, I asked all four of them if they would consider themselves astronauts after this trip. Audrey Powers, who has spent a lot of time at NASA, has quite the background, said she would happily take that title. William Shatner said his would be with a small A, astronaut, S-S, was his answer.


I'm curious, do you consider folk who is make this 11-minute flight astronauts once they're back on Earth?

CHIAO: I have no problem --