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CNN This Morning

Memorial Day Air Travel Expected to Top Pre-Pandemic Levels; NAACP Issues Travel Advisory: "Florida is Hostile to Black Americans"; President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy Continue Negotiations over Raising U.S. Debt Ceiling; Paul Whelan Gives Interview on His Hopes of being Freed from Russian Prison; South Carolina Republican Senator Tim Scott to Announce Presidential Primary Campaign. Aired 8- 8:30a ET

Aired May 22, 2023 - 08:00   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. Today Senator Tim Scott will officially announce he's running for president, giving Donald Trump yet another GOP challenger. We are also learning a top Republican is going to endorse him.

SARA SIDNER, CNN ANCHOR: And Paul Whelan, the ex-Marine stuck in prison in Russia, calls CNN from a Russian prison camp and gives us an exclusive interview. Coming up, you will hear his own voice and his plea to the U.S. government.

HARLOW: Also, the latest SpaceX mission is about to dock at the International Space Station. It is carrying a decorated former astronaut and three paying customers. We have new details on their weeklong stay in space. This hour of CNN THIS MORNING continues right now.

Overnight, President Biden rushing back to Washington from Japan for these debt limit negotiations. Just hours from now, he is set to meet with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy again -- they'll meet at the White House -- as time runs out to reach a deal on preventing basically economic calamity. There are less than 10 days to go before the government potentially defaults on its debt. Before he left the G-7 summit with world leaders, Biden told reporters that many of the demands from House Republicans have been, quote, unacceptable.


JOE BIDEN, (D) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think there are some MAGA Republicans in the House who know the damage that it would do to the economy, and because I am president, and presidents are responsible for everything, Biden would take the blame. And that's the one way to make sure Biden is not reelected.


HARLOW: Arlette Saenz is live at the White House. Arlette, good morning. Kevin McCarthy did talk about the phone call he had with Biden over the weekend has productive. That was just yesterday as Biden was flying back on Air Force One. Does that bode well for the in-person version today?

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Poppy, we'll see how that in-person meeting plays out. But President Biden as he arrived back here at the White House last night said that his conversation with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy went well. But this meeting here at the White House later this afternoon really offers an opportunity to the two men to try to reset the conversations about how to avert a default after negotiations that played out over the weekend really played out in fits and starts.

Now, the president and McCarthy had that phone call yesterday, which led to negotiators, a meeting for a little over two hours, up on Capitol Hill, to try to lay the groundwork heading into this meeting today. But the two sides do still remain incredibly far apart in their approach to a budget agreement. One of the key issues, sources have said, is around the level of spending that they need to agree on. The White House has proposed freezing spending at the current year's levels, while Republicans want to see spending revert back to fiscal year 2022.

One of the top negotiators for Republicans, Congressman Garret Graves, said that the numbers are the baseline, if they're able to reach an agreement on that, then everything else will cascade into place. But it still remains unclear whether the two sides can come together on that matter. The president, while in Japan, warns that he believes Republicans have adopted extreme positions and said that in order for an agreement to be bipartisan, Republicans also need to be willing to make some concessions.

These are all issues that are likely to be raised during the president's high-stakes sit-down with Kevin McCarthy this afternoon. But really, this meeting comes at an urgent moment. You heard the treasury secretary over the weekend once again reaffirm that she believes that June 1st is a hard deadline for the nation to try to avoid a potential default, which would have catastrophic economic consensuses across the board.

Additionally, also in play at this moment is the fact that it takes time to get legislation passed up on Capitol Hill. The House speaker would need to coral his Republican caucus. They would also need to get Democrats onboard with any type of proposal. So what is clear in this moment is that time is very quickly running out, with a default potentially occurring in as little as 10 days. So this really highlights the urgency of the president's meeting with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy this afternoon and really raises the question whether the two of them will be able to come any type of agreement to avert a default.

HARLOW: Let's hope they can. Arlette, thank you for the reporting.

SIDNER: American Paul Whelan, an ex-Marine, wrongfully detained in Russia for more than four years, speaks to CNN in a rare interview. Whelan called CNN from a remote prison camp about 200 miles outside of Moscow. The last time he spoke with CNN by phone was in December, shortly after the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner. That was the second prisoner swap between the U.S. and Russia that did not include Whelan.

Today, in an exclusive, he told CNN he fears being left behind again if an agreement is made for the release of Wall Street reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was detained two months ago and has been charged with espionage just like Whelan.


Despite his concerns, though, Whelan's tone was actually more optimistic.


PAUL WHELAN, DETAINED IN RUSSIA: I remain positive and confident on a daily basis that the wheels are turning. I just wish that they would turn a little bit more quickly.

I'm more confident now. I feel that my life shouldn't be considered less valuable or important than others who have been previously traded. And I have been told that although Evan's case is a priority, mine is also a priority.


SIDNER: You heard him there, saying he's more confident now. Whelan also says that this is his message for President Biden.


PAUL WHELAN, DETAINED IN RUSSIA: Freedom is not free. It comes at a price. But the loss of freedom is even more costly. And I pay that cost every day Russia holds me. Please follow through with your promises and commitments, truly make my life a priority and get me home.


SIDNER: U.S. officials are scouring the globe for options that could draw Russia to the negotiating table and secure the release of both Whelan and Gershkovich.

HARLOW: The Republican primary field expected to get a little bit more crowded officially today. Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina will announce his presidential bid. He'll join a growing group trying to stop President Biden from a second term. That list includes former President Trump, former U.N. ambassador and former governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and radio talk show host Larry Elder. And Ron DeSantis, about to make his bid official later this week.

Joining us now, CNN political commentator and attorney, Bakari Sellers, and CNN senior political commentator, Scott Jennings. Good morning, guys. BAKARI SELLERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Good morning.


HARLOW: Bakari, let me start with you. Tim Scott has quite a story, quite a life. What do you think it means for the party writ large in this primary?

SELLERS: First of all, I love Tim Scott, I adore Tim Scott. I think he's a man of character. I think he says things he actually believes. We disagree 180 degrees on policy, but I know Tim Scott, and I can actually say that his character is something that this political process needs more of.

Now, with all of that being said, those pleasantries out of the way, I don't think he stands a chance of being the Republican nominee. I think that he will be able to tell a good story. When people hear about his upbringing, where he comes from, I think they will be drawn to that. He's a good orator. He'll have questions about policy depth, et cetera. But I just think this field is Donald Trump's and Donald Trump's alone.

SIDNER: Scott, now to you, I actually am curious what you think of that, because that is the sentiment of a lot of people, that this is Donald Trump's party. And it's not going to be Senator Scott's or Nikki Haley's or anyone else's in the end.

JENNINGS: Well, what Bakari said is certainly what Democrats want, is to run against Donald Trump. And I'm so glad that Tim Scott is running, because I think he's one of the most influential, optimistic conservative voices in the country. His story, as Bakari said, is incredible. And his whole message of personal responsibility versus constant victimhood mentality is a conversation this country needs to have desperately. We need to have it in the Republican Party. We need to have it as a nation.

And when you hear Tim Scott speak, and when you see him do retail politics, you can see how he could catch on. I agree that right now, Donald Trump's in a bit of a dominant position if you just look at the polling. But that's the purpose of campaigns. And I think Tim Scott is going to really stand out in this field. And the reality is, if we nominate a Tim Scott, we probably win the presidential campaign by 15 points next year. If we nominate Ron DeSantis, same thing. If we nominate Trump, it's a much dicier proposition for Republicans. And I think Tim Scott's optimism is going to be infectious in this field, and I'm glad for it.

HARLOW: Scott, I wonder if you think too many people are writing off Tim Scott too quickly as a V.P. contender. They've been doing this before he even officially jumped in. He has got a ton of money. He now has support of the number two Republican in the Senate, John Thune. Mike Rounds last Wednesday told "The Washington Examiner" he would also support Tim Scott. Are we underestimating his ability in a positive message to win the primary?

JENNINGS: I think there are people who just want Donald Trump to have the nomination. They include Donald Trump and his people, all the Democrats, most of the political media. I mean, everybody that has a vested interest in having Donald Trump is trying to say this primary shouldn't even exist. This is the purpose of campaigns, to allow somebody like Tim Scott, who has a got a terrific message and a terrific story, to go out and perform.

Tactically, one thing you said is very important. He brings $22 million from his federal account into this campaign, not to mention an outside super PAC. This guy has got the money to play for quite a while. And I'm telling you, when you get him out in retail settings, it's going to play.


Tim Scott is infectious guy. When you see him in person, people will say, hey, why not this? So I think he's going to have a moment. What's going to happen, I don't know. I bet on horses, not politicians. But Tim Scott is one of my favorite people in this campaign.

HARLOW: They're more predictable.

SIDNER: They are now. That's for sure.

Bakari, now to you. I want to ask you about the fact that Tim Scott and Nikki Haley, both from South Carolina. Both firsts. Tim Scott, the first black Republican senator and Nikki Haley, the first Asian American governor of the state. Just curious if you think that that is a problem, in other words, that they're going to step on each other's toes, that they're going to take each other's, the ability to get the GOP to support them. What happens?

SELLERS: No, they won't step on each other's toes. Like I said earlier, this race is Donald Trump and to a lesser degree Ron DeSantis and everybody else. Even in South Carolina, the race between Nikki Haley and Donald Trump is a battle for third place.

I think the larger message is, one of the things that Scott mentioned about the people who want Donald Trump to be the nominee, he forgot that about 35 to 40 percent of the Republican base also want Donald Trump to be the nominee. What Tim Scott's campaign will do, though, and what Nikki Haley's campaign will do is a larger conversation we're going to have in this country, a larger conversation we'll have throughout the campaign, particularly Tim's campaign, because it's going to go a long way in helping a lot of disgruntled voters absolve themselves of some type of white guilt.

And we're going to have that conversation about race. It's going to be a robust conversation about race. And they're going to say, you black folk, you minorities, go look at Tim, go look at Nikki, you can be them, too. And I think that totally misses the point. We heard about individual responsibility versus victimhood. I think that even Tim Scott will tell you, and Nikki Haley will tell you that in South Carolina, where mothers -- black mothers are three to four times more likely to die during childbirth, the Orangeburg massacre, Charleston massacre. It ain't victimhood. It's actually being who you are and present in this country. And that's going to be a conversation we have. It's not going to be, look at Tim Scott, go be like him. It's a conversation on where we are in this country and how far we have yet to go.

SIDNER: Bakari and Scott, thank you both so much for that.

JENNINGS: Thank you.

HARLOW: It's rare you get a Republican and a Democrat disagreeing on what a good guy -- they both spoke so highly of his character. Differences on policy.

SIDNER: You don't hear that much from both sides of the argument, of the aisle.

HARLOW: All right, Memorial Day air travel expected to be really backed up this year. New warnings that delays are likely, so brace yourself. What you need to know for the summer travel season, ahead.

SIDNER: And later, he's a golf club pro who teaches lessons at a public golf course, and he just nailed the biggest shot of his life at the PGA championship. Michael Block will join us just ahead. And yes, that was a hole in one.

HARLOW: A dunk in one.


HARLOW: That was amazing.



HARLOW: Are you flying this holiday weekend? You might want to give yourself a little extra time.

According to AAA, 3.4 million Americans will fly this holiday weekend. That's an 11 percent increase from a year ago.

Pete Muntean joins us now. I am staying grounded, but are you flying?

SARA SIDNER, CNN ANCHOR: I think I'm going to be flying.

HARLOW: Sara Sidner flies all the time.

SIDNER: I will try not to complain.

HARLOW: You never complain.

SIDNER: I will try.

HARLOW: But a lot of people do. They get very angry. So what should they be prepared for?

PETE MUNTEAN, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: You know, we always show up early, too, right? We're always the ones who are there -- HARLOW: Not me.

SIDNER: Not so much.

MUNTEAN: We never cut it close. I've only been paged at the gate once.

You know, this is going to be a huge weekend for air travel, and it has already been huge, which is so interesting.

The saying is that Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial start of summer travel, but it is really already gotten off at this early start. Look at the numbers from TSA, 2.65 million people screened at airports nationwide yesterday. That's a 12 percent increase over the same day last year, 2.21 million people on Saturday, 2.66 million people Friday. That is a pandemic era air travel record, broke the record we set back on the Sunday after Thanksgiving when everyone came home all at once. So we've not seen a number that high since back in 2019.

Airlines insist that they are right-staffed and right-sized for this huge summer travel season, but the big question now is whether or not the FAA and its air traffic control system can handle this. And we just saw over this weekend on Sunday, there were issues at an air traffic control facility in Denver, which caused the FAA to impose a ground stop for about an hour for flights inbound to Denver.

This is a story we've been covering in a big way. In fact, we have new exclusive reporting that really sheds light on the meltdowns of last summer, a little known FAA facility known as Jacksonville Center handles pretty much every commercial flight coming in and out of Florida were short staffed for 200 shifts over a seven-week period, CNN Documents found out and that caused 4,622 delays.

This is why the airlines are really warning you to show up two hours before a domestic flight, three hours before an international flight, especially now, it is going to be huge at airports.

And we're seeing this problem is not just limited to Florida, not just limited to Denver, even in New York, they're short staffed by about half at a key facility there.


MUNTEAN: Delays could go up by 45 percent. So you may show up early, but you may be stuck waiting at the airport for your flight.

HARLOW: So, can you help us square that circle or whatever the saying is? Wait. Why should we show up early when there aren't enough air traffic controllers?

SIDNER: I can't fly a plane. I know you can, but I can't, last time I checked.

MUNTEAN: It's a great question. It's a good question. You know, I think anyone who shows up early, I cut it close, okay, so I'm a bit of a hypocrite here.

But anyone who shows up really has a lot more flexibility, and at least you know the full picture. The real big thing to do now and it is 2023, mind you, check the app, get the airlines app. That's the way to get the most up-to-date information, and also carry on, don't check a bag especially if you're connecting on a flight because that means if your connection gets canceled, you can easily take your bag off, figure out a different flight, figure out a different alternative, rent a car, something else. Maximum flexibility, that's what it's all about.

SIDNER: Pete Muntean, I'm glad I like you because listening to this may makes me really, really upset.

HARLOW: My carry on is embarrassingly large.

SIDNER: You probably can't fit it and you're like pushing. Yes.


HARLOW: To my husband, it is embarrassing.

SIDNER: I hear you.

All right, coming up, the NAACP issuing the travel advisory for the state of Florida, yes, the whole state, saying the state has, "become hostile to Black Americans." We will speak to the NAACP president about that stance, next.


SIDNER: The NAACP has issued a new advisory about traveling to the state of Florida. It states, Florida is openly hostile towards African-Americans, people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals. Before traveling to Florida, please understand the state of Florida devalues and marginalizes the contributions of and the challenges faced by African-Americans and other communities of color.

During Governor Ron DeSantis' administration, the state has banned the teaching of critical race theory, blocked an AP course on African- American Studies and passed several new restrictions on voting.

CNN has reached out to Governor DeSantis' office as well as Florida's official destination marketing organization called Visit Florida, we have yet to receive a response from them.


DeSantis was asked about the potential of this happening back in March.


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): What a joke. What a joke. Yes, we'll see. We'll see how effective that is.

It's ridiculous, and we're proud to be leading the nation in tourism.

This is part of the reason why, you know, our country -- you know, it goes through all these -- we get involved in these stupid fights. This is a stunt to try to do that. It's a pure stunt.


SIDNER: Joining us now, the president of the NAACP, Derrick Johnson. Thank you so much for coming on the show, Derrick.


SIDNER: You just heard the words of DeSantis himself calling this call by the NAACP a stunt. How do you respond?

JOHNSON: Well, the governor has perfected the art of doing stunts to gain campaign contributions. Unfortunately, this will impact people's lives.

We should not use race or othering as a tool to weaponize against people, and unfortunately, for a large percentage of Floridians, that's what he has done. Therefore, we are advising African-Americans and others, that if you travel to Florida, beware that your life is not valued, that we have a political landscape that could cause harm as we prepare for the 2024 elections to right size, the political landscape in the state of Florida.

SIDNER: I want to ask you what you intended to accomplish with this. What are you hoping happens because of this advisory?

JOHNSON: Well, we have talked to our members in the state of Florida, partner groups, individuals in the large African-American communities, and so for many, they were asking, what should we do?

And we understand that many conventions are going to be held in Florida. So we are advising our members and others that if you go, be cautious of how you operate in the state, that if you have another choice to hold your convention, consider a place outside of Florida.

But also, if you have to go there, let us support the local community as we prepare to change the political landscape.

We didn't end here overnight. It was because of an election. So we have to prepare for the next election so we can get rid of him once and for all.

The othering that we have seen first by Trump, now by him is not only un-American, it is dangerous and we have to right size this landscape.

SIDNER: I want to ask you your comments on this. The Florida Chamber of Commerce sending in a statement about the advisory that the NAACP that you all sent out and here is sort of what it says: "Regarding the national group's notice to certain travelers, we have no comment. However, on the economic diversification front, in just the last few years, Florida has moved into the number one spot in the United States for Black-owned businesses. And number two, for Hispanic. And number two for women owned businesses as well."

When you hear those numbers, what they are saying is, look, African- Americans and Hispanics are doing quite well here when it comes to running their own businesses and being able to make money here and being able to live decent lives. How do you -- how do you address that with this new ban?

JOHNSON: First of all, that is propaganda language. Over the last several years, it wasn't because of anything he did in policy. Florida by geography is an attractive place where people would like to go, but he is fighting the largest company in the state with Disney around tourism. They just pulled out a billion dollars.

He is minimizing the quality of education by taking away the diversity for children to learn. He has sought to cause harm by saying that every citizen could carry gun without permit. Those are not business attractive policies. Those are regressive policies that like going to hit a dead end.

So you can spin whatever language you would like to have, the policies that he has put in place are harmful policies to far too many individuals, and I could tell you, what Disney has been doing what we have this called for, it is a trend that's about to pick up, not slow down.

SIDNER: Yes, he and Disney are in a massive fight over that LGBTQ+ law that was put in place, which critics call the don't say gay bill.

I want to ask you about some numbers, and just your thoughts on this. In 2022, there was an exit poll in Florida that showed that 13 percent of exit polls, Black voters liked DeSantis. And then when it came to Latino voters in Florida, they voted for DeSantis as governor according to CNN's exit poll.

So the Black voters there voted for DeSantis, 13 percent of them. That's not a small number. What do you say to those folks who voted for him?

Now, we have to also, with a caveat say, that this happened before some of these bans came into place like the banning of critical race theory in schools, of DEI in colleges, and the blocking of the AP course on African-American studies.

But curious to your thoughts, 13 percent of the Black population is no small feat for a Republican candidate there in Florida.