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Only Debate Tonight Between Fetterman & Oz In PA Senate Race; A Million Ballots Cast As Georgia Sees Record Early Voter Turnout; Moscow Court Upholds Brittney Griner's Conviction; Rep. Ro Khanna (D- CA) Discusses About The Withdrawal Of Russia Letter To White House. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired October 25, 2022 - 15:00   ET




VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: It's brand new hour of CNN NEWSROOM and it's good to have you with us. I'm Victor Blackwell.

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN HOST: And I'm Bianna Golodryga.

First on CNN, President Biden is steering another $10 million towards Democratic House and Senate campaigns with Election Day now two weeks away. He's also offering candidates another $8 million through fundraising. The money injection a sure sign of just how high the stakes are in this midterm election.

Tonight, they're feeling extra pressure in Pennsylvania.

BLACKWELL: Democrat John Fetterman will debate Republican Mehmet Oz. This is, perhaps, the most anticipated debate of the election season. It's also the only chance for Pennsylvanians to see the candidate side by side. They're debating just this one time. And you know the break down, the Senate is 50-50. And Pennsylvania is crucial in the fight to either keep or gain control. CNN's Jeff Zeleny is in Harrisburg where the debate is happening. Jeff, what should people expect to see tonight?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORREPONDENT: Well, Victor, I think that people can expect, of course, to see fireworks as we've seen in debates across the country. But I think more interestingly, this has a unique element to it and that is because of John Fetterman. Of course, he's the Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania, but he's been recovering from a stroke for the last several months.

So this debate tonight is going to be slightly different. It's going to have a closed captioning system. John Fetterman is still having auditory processing issues. That's what his doctor uses to explain he can't always hear and see things in real time. So he's going to be using closed captions, as many Americans do when they watch their television programs. But those words are going to be on a screen.

The TV viewer at home is going to be able to see all of this, so there are going to be two pretty large monitors on the stage with the two candidates. So all that, of course, sets the backdrop effort to answer this question: Is John Fetterman healthy enough to be a U.S. senator?

His doctors say he is. He said he's just recovering from the stroke. And we've seen progress, of course, in his speech month by month, but Mehmet Oz, of course, has made his fame as a television doctor. That also adds another unique element to this. But I'm told by his advisors that he wants to focus on the difference in issues. Hitting crime has been one of the central themes of his campaign as well as the economy, inflation, other issues we've seen across the country.

But this hour long debate here in Harrisburg, the first time these two candidates have ever come face-to-face with one another certainly is going to shape this race, which as we've seen, is very close. Our new poll, just out yesterday, showed Fetterman with about a six-point edge, but don't necessarily believe the numbers specifically. Both sides believe this race is very, very close going into the final two weeks, I believe.

GOLODRYGA: And we also know that President Biden is heading back to the State, the Commonwealth. This week, this would be his second ...

ZELENY: Right.

GOLODRYGA: ... visit there, campaigning with Fetterman. President Obama will be joining now. Are these visits moving the needle at all?

ZELENY: Well look, I mean, certainly they're moving the needle on the governor's race. So Josh Shapiro, the Attorney General, is running for governor here and he has a strong edge, but this Senate race is very close. But President Biden and Vice President Harris actually are coming this Friday for a Pennsylvania Democratic Party event and then former President Obama and President Biden, we're told, are going to be coming the final weekend of campaigning.

It's one of the few places that President Biden has been invited to on this midterm election campaign trail. Many Democrats simply do not necessarily want to stand with him. His approval rating is in the 40s or so, so not dissimilar from other presidents in power in midterm election races. But he will be coming back to Pennsylvania.

Of course, he was born here in Scranton. He's from neighboring Delaware now, so that's why he keeps coming back here again and again. It's sort of his home base, if you will. But at the end of the day, it is John Fetterman versus Oz. It has more to do with them than the presidents of either party, Victor and Bianna?

BLACKWELL: Jeff Zeleny there in Harrisburg where that debate is going to happen tonight. Thank you, Jeff.

Let's go to Georgia now. More than a million Georgians have already voted. The state is about to break another record for early voter turnout. We're learning this from the Secretary of State today. Now, of course, that tight and contentious race for U.S. senate is a big draw.

GOLODRYGA: Yes. Both Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock and his Republican opponent, Herschel Walker, are holding campaign events today. CNN's Dianne Gallagher just attended one of Walker's events in Dawsonville, Georgia. So Dianne, what's driving so many out early this year?

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It may be the race and also just may be the fact that people are so engaged, according to the Secretary of State's office. Again, that 1 million ballots cast already that's in-person early voting and voting by mail in the second week talking about records. This looks more on par with a presidential cycle than it does a midterm election.


And even the Secretary of State's office talking about just how astounding this year is already compared to 2018.


BRAD RAFFENSPERGER, (R) GEORGIA SECRETARY OF STATE: In fact, as we stand here today, we have crossed the threshold of 1 million voters. To put that into perspective at this point in the last midterm in 2018, we stood at about 400 or 590,000 votes. That is nearly a 70 percent increase comparing apples to apples.


GALLAGHER: Now the Secretary of State also discussing the climate around voting for the past two years, talking about disinformation, warning people to be on the lookout for that and also discussing the ways that the office trying is trying to protect poll workers in the threats that they have dealt with since the 2020 presidential election. The tension, the fear that is there setting up a texting system so they can alert authorities if they are intimidated or threatened in any way.

Now, we should point out, of course, Brad Raffensperger, a Republican running for re election, his opponent, Democrat Bee Nguyen appeared alongside Democratic senator, Raphael Warnock, last night in Atlanta as he begins his bus tour today in his hometown of Savannah. Herschel Walker, the Republican running for Senate on this bus tour across Georgia, again, hitting those two rural communities here in North Georgia today, friendly communities to him.

But Victor, to be honest, something I noticed from the Walker campaign today that I personally had not heard thus far was him asking the voters who attended his rally today, whether or not they had voted early and encouraging them to get out and vote early. That is something we have heard consistently from Sen. Raphael Warnock encouraging people to vote when they can, vote before Election Day just in case something happens, you've got it out of the way, you can get it done now.

It's the first time I have personally heard Raphael Warnock at one of his campaign stops encourage his voters to do - excuse me, Herschel Walker to tell his voters to do the same.

GOLODRYGA: Yes. And turnout has been big as we've been covering. Dianne Gallagher, thank you.

Well, as I mentioned also in Arizona, another issue that is important for voters and that is the potential for voter intimidation. Your ballot box drops as has - ballot box drop - ballots turnout at drop boxes has been reported by the Justice Department (inaudible) ...

BLACKWELL: (Inaudible) ...

GOLODRYGA: ... there, I know. Two groups of Arizona voters are now asking for a temporary restraining order against an organization they say is photographing and following people as they drop off ballots.

BLACKWELL: The sheriff of Maricopa County says that these people with guns that are seen watching the ballot drop box ...

GOLODRYGA: You got it.

BLACKWELL: ... got to go slowly through there - they're not breaking the law. CNN's Maeve Reston joins us now. So Maeve, how is that legal if we know that the AG is saying no voter will be intimidated? Certainly somebody with a gun sitting next to the drop box could be intimidating. What do you know?

MAEVE RESTON, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: Right. Well - but what the sheriff is saying is that there's no illegality here in an open carry state. And while these people are wearing camouflage and masks and looking very intimidating, he said he know that they have a right to be there, unless, of course, they were openly threatening someone.

Now, what you mentioned, though, is that there are obviously these voter intimidation complaints that we're following. And so that process is winding its way through the courts now, these two groups, one, an association of retirees, and another one, voto latina - Voto Latino, are seeking restraining order against these folks saying that they are intimidating voters and this would be a violation of the law.

So what we're waiting to see here are both how that process will play out in court and also, whether the Department of Justice gets involved here. The Secretary of State has referred these complaints to the DOJ and so, basically, officials in Arizona are really trying to bring the temperature down here. And we'll see how this ends up in court and whether the DOJ gets involved.

BLACKWELL: All right. Maeve Reston with reporting, thank you, Maeve.

A senior Department of Homeland Security Official gave a pretty stark warning about potential threats to voting security systems now two weeks away from when the votes will be counted.


SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, DHS ASST. SECRETARY FOR COUNTERTERRORISM AND THREAT PREVENTION: We know that there's a historical basis for violence associated with elections. We are certainly very focused on what we consider to be an incredibly heightened threat environment. (END VIDEO CLIP)

GOLODRYGA: CNN Senior Law Enforcement Analyst and former Deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe joins us now. Andrew, great to have you on. So as we just heard from Sam Vinograd there, what are officials doing to counter that increased threat with Election Day just two weeks away?


ANDREW MCCABE, CNN SENIOR LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Bianna, this is a really tough situation for our friends in law enforcement. As you - as we know, this is kind of the hangover of the big lie, right? The persistent claims by the former president and other people on the right about having had the results of the election stolen from them in 2020. There are many, many people who are convinced, without, of course, any evidence of that claim that that's the case.

And so they bring that same sort of grievance, that same sort of heightened state of potential violence into this election, so what can law enforcement do about it? Well, unlike traditional extremist threats, this is not the sort of situation where you can flood the zone with protective measures and law enforcement officers because, of course, that sort of response can have a chilling impact or intimidating impact on voters as they try to approach polling places.

So local - state and local law enforcement have to be incredibly vigilant. They have to respond to complaints at voting locations and ballot box - drop boxes and places like that. But their hands are somewhat tied in what they can do ahead of time before those complaints start coming in.

BLACKWELL: Specifically on what Vinograd said there, this incredibly heightened threat environment. Would that - from a person in that position - would that be based on published reporting and, of course, the precedent we have from January 6th or would she have to have additional intel that says that justifies this incredibly heightened threat environment, that there's something she knows that she can't or won't say?

MCCABE: Victor, I would expect that assessment is based on the totality of information they have before them right now. Some of that, as you mentioned, is historical what we learned from January 6th. But some of that has got to be based on the - what they're seeing online, what they're seeing in the same sort of chat rooms and social media accounts that had these indicators of violence before January 6th. I would expect that the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI are watching the same sort of online conversations very closely.

These are publicly available. They're not - this is open source material that law enforcement can look at. They need to be taking advantage of that open source intelligence to understand the threat environment that they're dealing with.

GOLODRYGA: And law enforcement successfully thwarted any sort of external outside foreign actors, foreign state actors from interfering in the 2020 election, as we saw Russia do in 2016. Are you concerned at all about the scale of bandwidth, perhaps, that officials now have in making sure that we don't see a repeat of foreign actor interference while also grappling now with the threat domestically?

MCCABE: There's no question that the threat of foreign actors trying to meddle in our democratic systems goes on. This was not a one and done shot. And there are several foreign adversaries that are interested in, of course, influence not just influencing the results of our democratic process, but simply sowing chaos in this union here in the United States.

So that threat persists and to some degree, our own political turmoil and the chaos around our elections provides perfect cover for some of those actors to get into the system to try to influence the way that people perceive the elections and the fairness of the elections or the possibility of malfeasance in elections.

So it's really a perfect storm of both domestic and foreign actors. And the field is wide open right now as we get into the midterm elections.

BLACKWELL: Perfect storm. Andy McCabe, thank you for the assessment. Thank you.

A Russian court upheld American basketball star Brittney Griner nine- year prison sentence. How President Biden is responding, we got that for you.

GOLODRYGA: And after intense backlash, the head of the House Progressive Caucus now withdraws a letter sent to President Biden urging direct diplomacy with Russia to end the war in Ukraine. A member of Congress who signed that controversial letter is with us up next.



BLACKWELL: A Russian court today upheld the conviction of American basketball star Brittney Griner keeping in place nearly all of her nine-year prison sentence on drug smuggling charges.

GOLODRYGA: At an appeal hearing today, at jail Griner said waiting for her day in court has been traumatic for her mental health and for her family.


BRITTNEY GRINER, AMERICAN BASKETBALL JAILED IN RUSSIA: I've been here almost eight months and people with more severe crimes that gotten less than what I was getting. I want to also apologize for this mistake.


GOLODRYGA: CNN National Security Correspondent Kylie Atwood joins us now. So Kylie, what is the state department saying about this? We just heard President Biden address it as well.

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Yes, that's right. So basically, Brittney Griner's hearing today means that she is still guilty of smuggling these drugs into Russia. And there's really not a substantial change to her nine-year prison sentence, maybe a few months that has been taken off of that, but not a substantial change.

And when you talk to Biden administration officials, they weren't really expecting a big change out of this hearing today. But they are going after the Russian judicial system, saying that it is a sham and saying that they are really doubling down as they have been in past months on their efforts through diplomatic efforts to try and get Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan who's another American wrongfully detained in Russia back home.


The National Security Adviser saying today that the Biden ministration is working through essentially all avenues possible with all means available to them to try and secure a way to get Brittney Griner home. And President Biden, as you said, also spoke to this just earlier today about these constant efforts, listen to what he said,


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're in constant contact with Russian authorities to get Brittany and others out. And so far we've been meeting with much positive response, but we're not stopping.


ATWOOD: Now, of course, all of this is happening as Russia continues to wage this war in Ukraine. Those are viewed as very separate issues for the Biden administration. But it doesn't mean that they can be viewed in silos. Of course, the fact that that war is raging on does impact us Russia diplomatic relations. And just in recent days, we have heard Russia alleging that Ukraine is planning to carry out a dirty bomb in their own country, U.S. officials very clearly saying that those are false allegations.

But the question that is now emerging is Russia preparing to carry out its own false flag operation by making these accusations. President Biden was also asked if he believes that they are preparing that false flag operation with these dirty flag operation - comments earlier today. He didn't specifically comment on that, but here's what he said about tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield.


BIDEN: Russia will be making an incredibly serious mistake for the use of tactical nuclear weapons. I'm not guaranteeing you that it's a false flag operation yet, I don't know, but it would be a serious, serious mistake.

(END VIDEO CLIP) ATWOOD: We've also heard from Biden administration officials that

there would be catastrophic consequences for Russia. If they use a nuclear weapon on the battlefield as part of their raging war in Ukraine, though they haven't been explicit about what those consequences would be.

GOLODRYGA: And Russia has been known to use these false flag operations even in the build up before the war, heightened tensions for sure. Kylie Atwood, thank you.

Well, a group of House Democrats is now withdrawing a letter they sent to the White House. That letter had urged the Biden administration to shift his strategy on the Ukraine war and pursue direct negotiations with Russia. But the message angered other Democrats, because they felt that it revealed new divisions within their party just days before the November midterms.

Well, now Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal says, "The letter was drafted several months ago, but unfortunately, it was released by staff without vetting." She went on to say, "As chair of the caucus, I accept responsibility for this." Joining me now is a member of that Progressive Caucus, Congressman Ro Khanna, thank you so much for joining us here on set.

REP. RO KHANNA (D-CA): Thank you.

GOLODRYGA: So this has turned really into a messy own goal on the part of your caucus, what happened?

KHANNA: Well, Bianna, let me just say what my position is, which matters. I have supported every package of giving aid to Ukraine and I plan to support continuing to arm Ukraine. All the letter said is that we at the same time that we stand with Ukraine, need to make sure that we're reducing the risk for nuclear war, that we're engaging in talks with the Russians to make sure that the conflict doesn't escalate. We need to support Ukraine with arms and we need diplomacy. That's common sense.

GOLODRYGA: Well, Congresswoman Jayapal seem to suggest that this letter was a mistake. It was drafted signed several months ago and she's rescinded that. Do you not support that move?

KHANNA: I don't. I think the letter was common sense. I support making sure we arm Ukraine and provide arms to Ukraine and continue to fund it. But I also believe that the President, as he said, we are at a risk of nuclear war. Don't you think our counterparts should be talking to Russia? Of course they should to make sure that it doesn't escalate. And my position is similar to what former Joint chiefs - chief of staff Mullen has said, what other senior military leaders have said. Yes, let's stand with Ukraine, but let's also support diplomacy.

GOLODRYGA: So you still support this letter. It was said to have been drafted and signed early this summer. When did you sign it?

KHANNA: Probably in the summer around June or July, I don't remember the exact date.

GOLODRYGA: Well, the reason that I'm asking is because I looked at the timeline of the war ...

KHANNA: Right.

GOLODRYGA: ... and what was taking place around then. So I just want to read off some of these events. June 27th, Russian missiles target a shopping mall in central Ukraine, killing at least 18 people. On July 17th, President Zelenskyy says Russia has now fired 3,000 cruise missiles against his country. July 20th, in an interview, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia had departed from its original goal of occupying just two eastern regions and now saying Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, in the South, were also important to take.


Subsequently they have illegally annexed all four.

KHANNA: Right.

GOLODRYGA: I'm just wondering what you and your fellow caucus members saw in all of this that gave you a sense that Vladimir Putin was serious about coming to the table and discussing a ceasefire, given all of that was going on at the time?

KHANNA: Well, Bianna, first of all, I've been very clear that the war is brutal, it's unprovoked and the fault is Russia's. And after that I voted for packages to arm Ukrainians precisely for that. But what gave us pause is that there's a talk about nuclear war. What gave us pause is that Vladimir Putin is threatening a nuclear war, even at the height of the Cold War in this country, we had our military talk to the Russian military. We had our leaders talk to the Russians. We have a self-interest in making sure that that war doesn't escalate and that is all that diplomacy says. It doesn't say that we don't stand with the Ukrainians. That's what I vote for every time.

GOLODRYGA: You talk about the Cold War. We're now in a hot war, not the United States, but obviously, this is between Ukraine and Russia. And Vladimir Putin has not only looked for an exit ramp, he's mobilized 200,000 plus soldiers. He is targeting civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. He's shopping ...


GOLODRYGA: ... for weapons in Iran. None of this seems to suggest that he is willing or looking to de escalate, so only - aren't you benefiting him by suggesting because this is going on all through Russian state media that this looks like the U.S., whether it's from McCarthy, suggesting that if Republicans take over that they're going to stop giving out a blank check. And now this from your caucus suggests to Russia perhaps that the U.S. support is not as strong as it was.

KHANNA: That's not true. I mean, our votes are for aid to Ukraine and arming Ukraine. But in this country, we have always had a tradition, which says that you debate and discuss foreign policy. And when you have seen your military leaders, senior joint chiefs of staff saying we shouldn't be risking nuclear war, when you have senior leaders worried about the war escalating and thousands of people being killed as civilians, I wouldn't be doing my job as a United States Congressman if I wasn't also supporting every effort at diplomacy, while standing clearly with Ukraine, while clearly condemning Putin for an unprovoked illegal war.

And I believe actually, that's consistent with what this President has done. I think the President has handled it very strategically and diplomatically.

GOLODRYGA: Some of your caucus members have traveled on CODELs to Ukraine since the start of this war, have you?


GOLODRYGA: No. And Congresswoman Jayapal also has not and what you hear from them, when they come back, is a determined Ukrainian population that despite everything that is coming at them from the Russians, that they are not willing to sit down at the table, the majority with Vladimir Putin right now. Don't you at least owe them a visit to hear that from them before you sign a bill in any sort of document like this suggesting the President to sit with this ...

KHANNA: No, I don't - I hear and I've stood with Ukraine, and I've provided them with support with arms and I admire their courage. And I have said that any decision in negotiation should be the Ukrainian decision. But I think my job is to make sure I'm looking out for America's national interest and for our values.

And let me tell you, it's in our interest to make sure there's not nuclear war. It's in our interest to make sure this war doesn't escalate. And it is in Ukraine's interest and the world's interest to make sure there - that we do everything possible to lessen civilian casualties.

Now, if someone wasn't voting for arms or someone was saying we're not going to vote for new aid packages, that's what Leader McCarthy is saying that he may not vote for new aid. That's a problem. But when someone is voting for aid, when someone's voting for arms, I get attacked all the time from the left, why are you supporting arms and you're saying, well, we should also make sure we're having diplomacy, that we can't have that conversation in this country.

Something is wrong when we have lost the ability to have nuance in America. I mean, President Reagan, who won the Cold War was willing to have negotiations with the Soviet counterparts. Let's have common sense. Let's stand with the Ukrainians but do everything we can to avoid escalation.

GOLODRYGA: The issue is President Biden had no decision on Ukraine without Ukraine and President Zelenskyy ...

KHANNA: I agree with that. GOLODRYGA: ... has been explicit that he is not sitting down with

Vladimir Putin since he's annexed - illegally annexed (inaudible) regions.

KHANNA: Well, I'm not calling for Zelenskyy to sit down with Putin. What I've said is the American military needs to be talking to the Russian counterparts and we should make sure any decision is something that the Ukrainian people want.

GOLODRYGA: Congressman Khanna, thank you so much for coming on the set with us.

KHANNA: Thank you.

GOLODRYGA: We appreciate it.

BLACKWELL: Today, a close ally of former President Trump is beating with the House Select Committee investigating the January 6th attack, details ahead.