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President Biden Considering Whether to Stay in Race?; Interview With Biden Principal Deputy Campaign Manager Quentin Fulks. Aired 11- 11:30a ET

Aired July 03, 2024 - 11:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

ERICA HILL, CNN HOST: Good morning, top of the hour. You are live in the CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Erica Hill in New York, and we do begin this hour with breaking news.

"The New York Times" reporting President Biden has told an ally, a close ally, he is considering whether to stay in the presidential race. This is the first indication Mr. Biden could end his reelection bid as the fallout from his disastrous debate performance continues to be felt.

Joining me now, principal -- principal deputy Biden campaign manager Quentin Fulks.

Quentin, it's good to have you with us.

I do want to get your take, first of all, on this new reporting from Katie Rogers that the president has told a key ally he knows he may not be able to salvage his candidacy if he can't convince the public in the coming days he is up for the job.

What is being discussed in the campaign right now about this?

QUENTIN FULKS, BIDEN PRINCIPAL DEPUTY CAMPAIGN MANAGER: Well, first of all, good morning, Erica. Thank you for having me on the show.

Look, that is false. There are a number of rumors floating out there. The president is in this race to win it. He is the Democratic nominee. And, from our perspective, we're going to continue to do everything we can to make sure that we're building a campaign apparatus to reach voters.

HILL: So, when you say that's false, the president has had zero conversations with anyone saying, I may not be able to continue, I may not be able to win this race?

FULKS: That is correct. The president has been having conversations with a number of Democratic leaders, talking to them. I think, obviously, the president, in his own words, acknowledged a poor debate performance. But, at the same time, I think what we're sensing from people is a

sense of urgency and fear from Donald Trump. And I think that the conversations that the president has been having with Democrats across the country is one to reassure them that he is in this race, that he knows that he needs to reassure the American people and that our campaign is going to continue to build in scale to win in November.

HILL: I want to talk to you about those conversations in just a minute.

But just to continue with a little bit more of the reporting from Katie was that this ally had said that the next few appearances, including this planned sit-down with George Stephanopoulos coming up later this week, that there was an understanding that those appearances have to go well.

I know that is also the point of the campaign. There's a lot riding on those moments. Will these next few events -- these campaign events in the next couple of days and this interview on Friday, how much will those come into play, in addition to polling, which the campaign has said it is waiting on, when it comes to making a potential decision?

FULKS: Look, I don't think that those are going to make a decision.

I think, if we take a step back here and we think about it, obviously, there were 90 minutes of a poor debate performance. But that does not define the record of accomplishments. It does not define the vision that President Biden has.

And these interviews and these things that the president is doing, our campaign stop in Madison, Wisconsin, on Friday, we want everything to go well, from the campaign's perspective, all the time. But if they don't, I do not think that has a bearing on if whether somebody is going to continue running for president of the United States.

But, obviously, we prepare to make sure that everything goes off as smoothly as possible all the time. But I don't think we should put so much stock into, if a slip of the tongue happens or if something happens, then that's the end. This is a choice.

And it has been from the beginning of this election. And we're going to continue to make this a choice between Joe Biden, who wakes up every day thinking about the American people, and Donald Trump, who only cares for himself and is in it to destroy our democracy, quite literally.

HILL: Let's talk about these conversations.

There has been a push. We know the information, of course, reported by our own Jake Tapper about the call with Democratic governors earlier this week. There is now going to be a meeting at the White House with those governors and the president.

But there has been frustration about the lack of communication. That's coming from elected officials. That's coming from donors. The lack of communication from both the president and the campaign. I know that the president did speak with Leader Jeffries and has also spoken, as I understand it, with Leader Schumer just in the last couple of days.

Why hasn't there been, though, more fulsome conversation between the president and these key leaders within the party?

FULKS: Look, I think that the president has spoken to governors. He's spoken to Governor Walz. He's spoken to Governor Hochul. He was with her in New York.

And, also, we continue to see governors be stalwart in our campaign when it comes to defending the president from the outset of this campaign. We have Governor Moore in Michigan -- or Governor Newsom in Michigan, Governor Moore in Wisconsin.


We continue to have governors stand out across this country talking to voters about the stakes of this election. They have been a core part of our campaign, several of them on our national advisory board as key surrogates. They have been out on the airways saying that they are with the president.

And so we will continue to utilize Democratic governors, as they are the best surrogates to talk about the work that the Biden/Harris administration under President Biden's leadership has delivered for the American people.

HILL: Just to be clear though, the word is from folks that they're -- it has taken the president a little while to speak with a number of leaders, including some of those governors.

Why has it taken so long for that to happen?

FULKS: Well, he is the president of the United States. Obviously, everybody wants to talk to the president of the United States.

But that does not mean that the president is not working his way through calls. The president is talking to everyone, as is our team. We have been in contact with all the Democratic governors and their team. And, obviously, there is a meeting today where they're all going to get to talk and communicate with the president.

HILL: There is concern, and I'm sure that you have heard it, from Democrats, some of them beginning to break ranks, about the president's impact on downballot races.

Progressive Congressman Lloyd Doggett says he's been hearing positive comments after he called on the president to step down. Moderate Congressman Jared Golden writing in an op-ed that he thinks Donald Trump is going to win in November. He is not the only one who has said that.

How does the president plan to message? How does he plan to contain what feels like a bit of a revolt starting, right, that seems to be building in Congress against him?

FULKS: Look, first of all, the vision and accomplishments that Democrats are going to be running on have taken place because of Joe Biden's leadership, whether that be from the economic standpoint, whether that be from the domestic standpoint with prescription drugs, capping the cost of things like insulin.

Those are Joe Biden's vision. And the vision for this country for the next four years is also Joe Biden's vision.

But we -- I really do want to -- Erin, if you will allow me to -- Erica, if you will allow me to take a step back, and really just put this in for perspective. People continue to count Joe Biden out. And we continue to see the president perform.

Most people would walk away. Joe Biden, when he was 29 that was just elected senator, lost his wife and his daughter. Most people would have walked away. Joe Biden lost his son. Most people would have walked away. Joe Biden came from retirement because he saw what Donald Trump was doing to this country in Charlottesville because he knew he had to turn it around, and he got to work.

He led us through a pandemic. He has done a massive amount of work to put America back on track. People, if I -- I take us back to 2020. Look at Iowa. Look at New Hampshire, a fourth- and a fifth-place finish. And then, three weeks later, Joe Biden had almost -- almost successfully combined the Democratic Party and wrapped up the nomination.

That is who Joe Biden is. He is a fighter. He is going to keep fighting. He is going to keep talking about the vision that he has.

And, meanwhile, on the other side, Donald Trump is doing none of that. We see him continuing to double down. We see Donald Trump not being out on the trail, not talking about anything. And so, yes, Donald -- or Joe Biden is 81, but Joe Biden is 81, and he's going to stop a national abortion ban.

Joe Biden is 81, and he's going to continue to defect -- to protect climate and the environment. It does not change anything. We are not being Pollyannish about this at all.

HILL: I will...

FULKS: We know that this is a margin-of-error race, and it remains a margin-of-error race.

And we have to continue to do the work from the campaign's perspective to make sure that we're communicating with American voters.

HILL: That is certainly the message we have been hearing from the campaign. It's the message we heard from the first lady, of course, from the president in the wake of that debate, that, when Joe Biden gets knocked down, he gets back up. That has worked for him for decades in politics.

But I will point out, what we are seeing and hearing from the American people in the wake of that debate is not favorable for your candidate. The most recent polling from CNN, three-quarters of voters believe the Democratic Party has a better shot at holding the White House with someone other than Joe Biden.

That same poll does show the vice president doing better in a head-to- head match up with Donald Trump than Joe Biden. You also have a new CBS News poll out that finds seven in 10 think someone besides the president would be a better fit.

How much is the campaign taking into account these reservations from the American people?

FULKS: Well, let's talk about the polls.

I think that we have seen seven or eight public polls, including our own internal polls, that show this race within one point. As I stated before, this is a margin-of-error race. If that was true before the debate, that remains true after the debate.

And our campaign has a very clear understanding about what needs to be done in order to make sure that we are going to be in a position to win this. And so, look, our campaign is looking at those polls.

HILL: Do you...

FULKS: And what those polls are telling us is that this is a margin- of-error race between Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

Joe Biden is the nominee. And that is the choice that American voters are going to have this November.

HILL: So, to your point, our most recent polling shows that there are -- 31 percent of voters are movable, right Their vote is basically up for grabs.


Of those, they are more likely to support an alternative Democratic nominee than they are to support Joe Biden. And I will also point out there are serious concerns, as you know, about the president; 72 percent of respondents said that the president's physical and mental abilities are a reason to vote against him.

Do you believe the campaign and the White House need to be more forthcoming about where the president's health is at this point, considering how many concerns there have been over the last several of months, according to the most recent reporting, concerns that are now becoming more public?

FULKS: I don't think that the campaign and the White House are hiding anything.

We have seen the president out and about. We saw the president at a debate, and, again, acknowledging, the president acknowledging in his own words that it wasn't the best performance.

But, after that, we saw the president get out. The president went to a rally. The president went to North Carolina, greeted supporters at 2:00 a.m. on a tarmac, delivered a speech. We saw the president give a speech about immunity. We have seen the president give a speech and talk about extreme heat and climate, which he's done way more on than Donald Trump.

We have seen the president continue to go out. We have announced that the president is going to do a sit-down interview. We have announced that we have an event in a battleground state of Wisconsin, in Madison, to continue to communicate with voters.

And, meanwhile, I will again point out to you, during that time, where has Donald Trump been? Where is Donald Trump? We are in the middle of a campaign, and the choice is between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, and our campaign continues, and the president continues to show and demonstrate that he's doing it.

He was in New York doing a fund-raiser. The work is being done, and we have to continue to communicate about the stakes of this election. And, yesterday, after a Supreme Court ruling that basically handed Donald Trump the keys to a dictatorship, we have not seen that.

We have not seen Donald Trump. We see him sitting in Mar-a-Lago tweeting about being happy that they have told him that he can continue to rip away freedoms and basically do whatever he wants if he regains the keys to the White House. And that is the fundamental stakes of this election between Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

And we are going to continue to stay on a path to draw that contrast every single day.

HILL: Quentin Fulks, appreciate your time. Thanks for joining us this morning.

FULKS: Thank you.

HILL: Just ahead here: President Biden continues to face these serious -- serious threats, rather, to his reelection campaign. Just ahead, we will speak to someone who knows what it's like to be inside the Biden White House during a crisis.

Plus: Could Donald Trump be prosecuted even if he wins in November? Why January 20, 2025, is taking on new significance potentially for the Justice Department.

And Hurricane Beryl closing in now on Jamaica as a monster Category 4 storm. We are live with an update.



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

HILL: Breaking news: CNN has learned President Biden has privately acknowledged a series of critical tests are ahead in the next stretch of days,those tests essential to determining whether he can stay in the race for the White House.

CNN White House correspondent M.J. Lee joining us now.

M.J., what more do you learning?

M.J. LEE, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Erica, what I am learning -- and this is according to an ally of the president's who spoke with the president directly yesterday -- is that the president has privately acknowledged that the next stretch of days are going to be so critical to the question of whether he can save his reelection campaign.

He, the president, made clear to this ally in this conversation yesterday that he understands what circumstances would prompt him to basically accept it's just not working.

This person who spoke to the president telling me that he sees the moment, he has clear eyes, and they said that the president is very clear on the series of potential events that could come in the coming days that would prompt him again to accept that what he is trying to do, to turn the narrative, turn his campaign around isn't working.

This person said -- quote -- "The polls are plummeting, the fund- raising is drying up, and the interviews are going badly. He's not oblivious."

This is, of course, the person paraphrasing the conversation that they had with the president yesterday. As you know, this is a really significant window into how the president is going to be handling the next important stretch for his campaign. His campaign is in an existential crisis right now, ever since that terrible debate performance last week.

And he is under tremendous amount of pressure right now from Democratic Party leaders, from donors, voters who have said last week really demonstrated that he is not up for running for reelection or even finishing out the term.

Now, interestingly, I'm also told that, in this private conversation yesterday, the president was also chastened and blamed himself, not his staff, for his poor debate performance. He said, "I have done too much foreign policy," according to this ally that I spoke with, and he acknowledged that the back-to-back foreign trips that he had leading up to Thursday night's debate had been a mistake.

We, of course, heard the president saying that at a fund-raiser last night as well. The jet lag and the exhaustion heading into Thursday night just had not been a good idea, the president told this ally.

Of course, all of this is just so crucial and, again, just a really important insight into how the president is trying to fix the situation that may or may not be able to be fixed. And I think the White House is denying "The New York Times"' reporting that the president is acknowledging that he may not be able to salvage his campaign.

I mean, the reporting that we have right here goes right up to the line. If the president is telling an ally in a private conversation that he knows what it will look like if his attempt to save his campaign isn't working, there is a bit of a suggestion there that he knows that there is, of course, a scenario where he isn't able to save his bid for a second term.


So, again, a private conversation that gives us some new insight into how the president is trying to handle the next couple of days and the coming day -- coming weeks. Of course, we know from the White House that they are trying to put a lot more on his schedule to try to show the president in more unscripted settings, like the extended interview that he is going to do on Friday with ABC News.

He is going to be getting out there into the country a little bit more. But the big question for the party and for a lot of nervous Democrats that are watching right now is whether any of those things will be enough.

And, Erica, I also have to just point out the fact that the White House and the campaign are putting so much into these events and these appearances that the president is about to do, I mean, that just means that, if he has a slip-up, if those things do not go well, then they are going to have to acknowledge, and it appears that the president is willing to acknowledge, that at some point too that there is a scenario where all of the efforts that they are making, all of the efforts that they are going to make in the coming days, that, ultimately, they may not be enough to save the president's campaign.

HILL: M.J., it's an important point, and it is such excellent reporting. As always, my friend, really appreciate it. Thank you.

I do want to discuss further now with CNN political commentator former Biden White House communications director Kate Bedingfield and Republican strategist Doug Heye.

Good to see you both.

Kate, I know you just heard the reporting from M.J., as she pointed out, the White House denying "The New York Times"' reporting, the campaign also denying to me just a couple of moments ago that "New York Times" reporting. But I think it's important, as we hear what M.J. is saying here, right., the fact that there is this meeting, there is clearly a discussion going on, despite the fact that the campaign just told me there was no discussion whatsoever.

Kate, how do you read this? What does this tell you about the mind-set of the man who you worked for and the mind-set inside that White House right now?

KATE BEDINGFIELD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think, I mean, look, it is -- we should acknowledge that both the White House and the campaign are flatly denying the reporting.

But even setting that aside, I think there is no question this is a significant stretch of time that the campaign and the White House are entering into here. I think they know that the task ahead of them is to put President Biden out there, for him to demonstrate that he is energetic, that he is capable, that he's vigorous, that this campaign over the next four months is going to be about taking it back to Donald Trump.

I mean, that's -- in addition to assuaging some of the concerns about age and energy, which is an immediate task ahead of him, the other big task for him here is to drive the message of the race back to Trump and back to what is actually at stake here and back to the fact that his opponent is somebody who has said he's going to use the White House as a tool of personal retribution, and that he might not accept the results of the election.

And so there is a real threat here. There's a threat to women's reproductive health. There's a threat to essentially your freedoms. So the task that Biden has now is to drive the race back to that ground. I think he can do that.

But I also think that that is going to be contingent on these next few days and kind of how this all goes for him.

HILL: Doug, you have worked on your share fare of campaigns as well, Doug. But as you look at the way this is playing out, and even the communications that we have seen around it, little bits of information petering out, the campaign initially dismissing concerns, it's tough to forget the bed-wetting brigade fund-raising memo.

When you look at this and you look at these denials of these conversations, what is your read on the campaign and how things are being handled?

DOUG HEYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, I view it completely from that lens of working on Capitol Hill and campaigns as a communication staffer.

And we know, obviously, that no candidate is ever pulling out of a race until the moment that they say that they're going to in a tweet or on stage, whatever that venue may be.

So, Quentin earlier did his job, did it admirably, and did the job you're supposed to do when you're in a communications role like this. And I have enormous sympathy because, quite often, you're doing what you're told. And when people outside say, what the hell are they doing -- and I have been on the receiving end of this -- I know that the communication staffers are doing what they're told, but also the only thing that they're actually able to do.

And the challenge, I think, is not what the Biden campaign says. It's the larger ecosphere around them. And if I'm working for President Biden and his campaign right now, I don't want Jim Clyburn on TV anymore. I don't want Nancy Pelosi going on TV anymore. Stop trying to help. You're not helping the situation.

When Nancy Pelosi says it's a legitimate question, or Clyburn goes back and forth because he's on nine different channels a day, your allies are not helping you. You need your surrogates all on board, or you need them quiet and to drive that message yourself. HILL: So, is that -- but then, Doug -- and, really, this is a

question for the both of you -- is that, though, a signal, right, that you are seeing -- Nancy Pelosi saying we need to know whether this was a one-off or whether this is a sign of a larger problem, that you are seeing cracks from your surrogates, and public calls from your fellow Democrats to step aside, I mean, Doug, isn't that still a crisis of messaging, if they are not getting through to their allies?


HEYE: Oh, absolutely, yes.

And, very clearly, there's not a strong hand here. This is where some of these members should have heard from Joe Biden. Joe Biden should have at least talked to Hakeem Jeffries one-on-one at this point, or Clyburn, given what an ally he is.

But having these people out there thinking out loud does not benefit the president right now at all.

HILL: I do want to point out, our reporting is that he has spoken with Minority Leader Jeffries and also with Leader Schumer.

Kate, when you look at this, there is also a really important conversation to be had about the role of the first lady. And we know how close, obviously, she and the president are. There's an opinion piece in "The Wall Street Journal" basically saying it is time for her to step up.

What is the role of the first lady in this moment?

BEDINGFIELD: Well, she is a confidant of her husband in all things throughout their life. I mean, she's not -- I feel like there's this caricature of her out there right now as some sort of conniving political spouse.

I can tell you, as somebody who worked for Joe Biden for a long time, they have an incredibly close, loving relationship. They lean on each other. And I expect that that is what's happening right now. I mean, ultimately, this is a decision that President Biden and his family and the team around him will make.

But I think what is the immediate task in front of them is for him to get out there, show some energy, show that he has the vigor to take on the rest of this campaign. I think he's certainly capable of doing that.

But I think people rightly want to see it. And I think you have got things on his schedule over the next few days that are going to allow him to showcase that. He's going to be campaigning. He's going to be out in the country. He's obviously going to do this interview on Friday.

So we will have opportunities to see him. But I think, if you look at where the polling stands right now, it has not -- the bottom hasn't fallen out from under him. It hasn't cratered. And so I think a few more days to let this play out, let Joe Biden make his case, I think is the responsible thing to do, because the truth is, there's no magic wand that you can wave to sub Joe Biden out as the nominee that will be seamless and simple.

So I think a few days to let him go out, show what he can do is prudent. And I think that he will live up to it.

HILL: Sorry. I'm stifling a sneeze.


HILL: Right as you ended, Kate, I'm sorry, I was trying not to sneeze.

But this is probably a good moment. We are going to take a quick break here.

Kate, Doug, I do want you to stick around, though. We have much more to discuss on the other side.

Again, the breaking news from our own M.J. Lee, senior White House correspondent, that the president has privately acknowledged how important the next stretch of days and events are for him, that he sees the moment, he is clear-eyed out about where things stand.

What does that mean? Stay with us.