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Biden Considers Executive Action to Restrict Asylum at Border; Haley Attempts to Clarify Comments on Alabama IVF Ruling; GOP Impeachment Probe Faces Doubts. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired February 22, 2024 - 06:00   ET




POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Morning, everyone. So glad you're with us. I'm Poppy Harlow with Phil Mattingly in New York.

So President Biden is now considering new executive action that would restrict migrants' ability to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border.

MATTINGLY: And the president using colorful language to describe Vladimir Putin, language that's a bit too colorful for morning TV. Maybe not cable, just mornings. How the Kremlin is now responding.

And the U.S. and China taking a big step to ease tensions. Oh yes, we're talking about panda diplomacy. China planning to send more pandas to the U.S. this year. How this small move could have a big impact on our relationship with Beijing.

CNN THIS MORNING starts right now.

HARLOW: And we do have a lot to get to this morning. But first, we're getting reports of a possible outage impacting cell service across the country. People in various states have been reporting trouble this morning making any kind of call on their phones. It is impacting several carriers, but people with AT&T appear to be having the most trouble.

MATTINGLY: Now, according to, there was a spike in AT&T customers reporting problems with their service in the overnight hours, peaking at around 4:30 this morning on the East Coast. Some reporting no signal at all and unable to receive or answer calls.

People who had been previously impacted are now reporting that service is starting to come back.

CNN has reached out to AT&T and other providers to find out more information. We're going to bring you updates as soon as we get them.

HARLOW: Now to this: President Biden is looking at a possible real crackdown at the Southern border as he tries to tackle one of his biggest political weaknesses heading into this election. Sources tell CNN the president is considering sweeping executive action that would block migrants from seeking asylum if they cross into the United States illegally.

MATTINGLY: Now, this is similar to what Donald Trump did in office. Now, if President Biden decides to go through with the executive action, he'll likely face intense backlash from immigration advocates and progressives.

Immigration, of course, has been a large liability for Biden, with an unprecedented surge of migrants overwhelming the Southern border. In fact politically, a new poll this week found only 26 percent of Americans approve of his handling of immigration.

Arlette Saenz leads us off this morning from the White House. Arlette, this was at the center of legislative negotiations that have since fallen apart. What would this actually entail?

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Phil, the White House is trying to show President Biden is trying to tackle this issue of immigration, as Republicans have tried to turn it into a major liability for him heading into 2024.

Now sources say that the White House is considering using this existing immigration authority to curtail and make it harder for migrants to seek asylum if they are crossing the border unlawfully. It actually mirrors something that former President Donald Trump tried back in 2018 that received fierce backlash and was challenged in the courts.

Now, the sources have said that no final decision has been made, and lawyers are actually reviewing to see whether this would actually withstand legal challenges in the court.

Now the White House yesterday would not comment on the consideration of this executive action, but they did say, quote, "No executive action, no matter how aggressive, can deliver the significant policy reforms and additional resources Congress can provide and that Republicans rejected. We continued to call on Speaker Johnson and House Republicans to pass the bipartisan deal to secure the border."

For months Senate Democrats and Republicans were trying to hammer out a compromise when it comes to border security. They got to that compromise. President Biden made major concessions, but House Republicans scuttled the bill, refusing to consider it over in the House.

And this has been a way that the president has tried to seize on the issue of immigration and the border, which has been a liability for him, and really tried to flip the script on Republicans.

But this consideration of this executive action also speaks to a real evolution for the president as he has been dogged by issues with immigration and the border after he himself had promised a more humane process when he comes into office. HARLOW: Also last night, as Phil always reminds me, the president is

extraordinarily candid at these fundraisers. But Arlette, what he said last night at this fundraiser in San Francisco about Putin just seemed like a whole new level.


SAENZ: Yes. When the cameras are off, we oftentimes hear a more unvarnished President Biden, and that was the case last night at a fundraiser in San Francisco, where he referred to Russian President Vladimir Putin as a "crazy S.O.B."

We have often heard the president speak more candidly about world leaders in these fundraisers. In that instance, last night, you'll remember back when he referred to Chinese President Xi Jinping as a dictator.

But it also comes as the president has really been trying to draw this contrast between himself and former President Donald Trump, who has encouraged Putin to do "whatever the hell he wants" to countries that are not meeting their NATO obligations.

The president has really leaned into this issue of Russia over the course of the past week, arguing that the presidents -- that Putin simply is acting like a thug, pointing to the death of Alexei Navalny as one example.

Now Russia did not respond too kindly to this last night. They say -- they said in a statement that the president's comments were rude and were a huge disgrace to America.

But I think it's unlikely that we will hear the president let up on any of his criticism of Putin. Maybe he won't be using such colorful language or references when he's on camera, though.

HARLOW: Or maybe he will. We'll see. Arlette Saenz at the White House. Thanks very much.

MATTINGLY: Joining us now to discuss, CNN political analyst Natasha Alford; former Obama campaign manager Jim Messina; and CNN political commentator and Republican strategist, Alice Stewart. Guys, thanks so much for joining us.

I thought yesterday was a fascinating capture of kind of the 30,000- foot level of this campaign. You have immigration, which is a huge vulnerability for the Biden campaign.

You also have what's happening in Alabama when it comes to IVF, which is a huge issue that Republicans are grappling with right now. We want to get into all of that.

Natasha, to start with you, on the immigration issue, there's no question. You can look at poll after poll after poll. This is a problem, both substantively, policy-wise, and politically for the Biden administration. This executive order, does it change the political dynamics? NATASHA ALFORD, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it's better than nothing,

right? We're looking at a president who, if he does nothing at this moment, he's going to pay a political cost for this.

He's fighting with a party that, unfortunately, with the exception of those who were working on that bipartisan bill, are willing to let this issue blow up in his face for political wins.

So many stories have the opportunity to basically convert people who are neutral on the issue to be against immigration, right? Having migrants hosted in schools. These are perfect stories for the right to spin against President Biden.

And so, even if an executive order isn't permanent, it is something that he can then point to and say, I tried in the face of incredible headwinds.

HARLOW: But Jim, how does he answer the question then that will inevitably come, which is, Wait, you have this authority?

Now, look, I don't know if it's going to hold up in the courts, by the way, if he does this. But people are going to say, you have this authority? You told us you needed this bipartisan legislation to do it. Why didn't you do this months ago?

JIM MESSINA, FORMER OBAMA CAMPAIGN MANAGER: Well, because he's -- he's going to say two things. First of all, I had a bipartisan deal that the country looked at that was bipartisan. It would do much more than I had the executive authority to do, including funding and other things that you can't do during E.O.'s. And Donald Trump told his party to kill it.

In contrast, I took every single step I could take to secure our border, and that's the difference between me and Donald Trump. That's what he'll say.

HARLOW: And one note: executive orders can be overturned by the next one.

MESSINA: Correct.

HARLOW: Whereas if you get it passed by Congress, it's going to -- it's going to stick for longer.

MESSINA: That's exactly right.

HARLOW: But I do think he's going to face that kind of criticism.

MESSINA: Yes. And I think that's fine, because we'll just say there's a very clear contrast. We did something. We took real action here. And the other side wants to play politics.

MATTINGLY: It is a clear issue that the administration is trying to shift on; rather, shift the narrative on. And the collapse of the bipartisan bill certainly has given them a tool that they didn't have prior to now. Alice, I guess my question is, if you're the Biden ministration,

you're not trying to take this -- turn this issue into a win at this point. You're trying to kind of mitigate the bleeding when it comes to it. Republicans as they look at this, they've been Machiavellian to some degree.

But also, when they look at an executive order that would stem or curtail some of what's happening on the border, why wouldn't they support that?

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I certainly believe that Republicans would support this action.

Look, look what got us into this mess in the first place: when Biden came into office and did away with Trump-era policies that limited immigrants coming into this country. That did help secure the border more, and it limited the inflow of migrants into this country.

The fact that Biden unilaterally took those away led to what it his open border policies and what has led to the crisis we have at the border.

And this is now not just a border state issue. This is an American issue, as we have these migrants in countries [SIC]-- cities across the country.

And we just showed a number of Americans that are opposed to Biden's policies. A Pew poll shows that even Democrats, 73 percent of Democrats say Biden is handling the border very poorly. So he has got a tremendous political liability in his hands.

And look, now that he is saying that he can use these executive actions to go back to Biden -- Trump-era policies, where's he been for the last three years? Why didn't he do this three years ago?

I think this is too little too late on this border issue just because he is in a political year. But something needs to get done, and going back to the Trump-era policies is a good start.

But also, we do need to have members of Congress on both sides of the all get together to have meaningful immigration reform. Again, Republicans and Democrats to have meaningful immigration reform to secure our national border, because this is a national security issue. But going back to Trump -policies is a very good first step.

HARLOW: You look like you want to say something.

MESSINA: They did that, Congress just got together bipartisanly. And Donald Trump told the speaker of the House to kill the bill. And what are we talking about? We just did this.

HARLOW: I also do want to get to the IVF issue. What happened in Alabama and just what it portends for the whole country, because there's -- there is a group in Florida right now that's using this decision by the Alabama Supreme Court, basically ruling that embryos are people in a -- in an abortion case as precedent. So Natasha, can you just talk about the bigger picture here as we

listen to -- let's listen to what Nikki Haley said on CNN last night about this.


NIKKI HALEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I didn't say that I agreed with the Alabama ruling. What the question that I was asked is, do I believe an embryo is a baby?

I do think that, if you look in the definition, an embryo is considered an unborn baby.

this case was based on, and should be based on, the rights of those parents for their embryos and to make sure that they have the responsibility with the doctors on how those are handled. Nothing more than that.


HARLOW: Zoom out if you could, Natasha. Give us the big picture here far beyond, you know, the borders of Alabama, what this means in the debate over abortion in this country heading into the election.

ALFORD: Well, I just want to say, if Nikki Haley didn't agree with the Alabama ruling, she should have said that. Right. This was clearly a question that was meant to be a litmus test of where she stood.

And that is one of Nikki Haley's political shortcomings, is that when she answers these very controversial questions about these controversial issues, she doesn't think two steps ahead in terms of the implications for everyone else.

It is very obvious that this ruling is being used to change the definition to advance a political agenda, which therefore, would have a snowball effect in terms of access to fertility treatments. Being able to define an embryo a certain way affecting how people plan their families.

And this is super risky, right, because this is not a red or a blue issue. This is about people being able to create the families that they've always dreamed of.

If you're, you know, Republican, if you're independent, if you're Democrat, this is something that touches you personally.

So she should follow her -- her own sort of stance, which is that these are personal issues, and reflect that in the answers that she's giving. Because this will touch many people who will be very upset, you know, that this is being used, essentially, to -- to limit their rights and opportunities.

HARLOW: I will say she did talk in another interview about how deeply personal it is for her, having conceived her own son through IVF.

We have a lot more to get to -- ALFORD: Yes. She also --

HARLOW: Go ahead, Natasha.

ALFORD: She also talked about -- she should -- she talked about artificial insemination, which is different than IVF, right? So it almost gives this impression that she doesn't really understand the difference. She's not speaking from a place of expertise on this.

And so she should therefore be careful about the conclusions that she's drawing or the statements that she's making, because obviously, she's a political candidate, and we're trying to understand where she he stands on these issues, because this affects everyday people.

HARLOW: We will get back to that.

STEWART: If I can --

HARLOW: Yes. Of course, Alice.

STEWART: Yes. Just real quickly, respectfully, push back a little bit on what Natasha said.

I think Nikki Haley, of all the Republicans, has done a good job of taking the demonization out of this conversation. And she is saying, let's not demonize women who are in a position of having an abortion. And let's not talk about abortion bans, but rather abortion limits.

So I think she has found a more common ground approach for this conversation. That's not just a matter of a political position, but she understands this is where more Americans are on this issue.

And I think that resonates with some Republican voters, but certainly in a general election.

MATTINGLY: Yes, resonates from a messaging perspective. From a policy perspective, though, there's clear holes in it that I think people have been trying to figure out.


We have a lot more to get to on this issue specifically, and more broadly in politics. Stick with us, guys. We're definitely coming back.

And right now, House Republicans are entering a critical phase in their impeachment inquiry into President Biden. How the next two weeks could determine the fate of that investigation.

HARLOW: Also, this just in: House Speaker Mike Johnson is once again stuck in the middle of a big funding fight. New details ahead.


HARLOW: Welcome back. House Republican efforts to impeach President Biden in jeopardy this morning. Lawmakers grilled the president's brother, James Biden, behind closed doors for more than eight hours yesterday.

He said his older brother, quote, "has never had any involvement or any direct or indirect financial interest," end quote, in his family's business ventures.

This comes after a former FBI informant whose claims were central to the GOP inquiry, was arrested last week for lying about Biden and his son, Hunter, accepting $5 million bribes from Ukrainian energy company Burisma.

Lauren Fox is on Capitol Hill with more.

Everyone probably knows what a 1023 form is now. And that is at the core of all of this: what was true and what was apparently very not true.

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and these latest -- this latest news about Alexander Smirnov really still reverberating through the Republican majority as they grapple with what it means for their impeachment inquiry moving forward.


You have a number of Republicans who were always looking for more direct evidence that would connect Joe Biden directly to his son Hunter or his brother James's business dealings abroad.

And so far, Republicans haven't found that. In fact, one of the foundational pieces of information that they had used has now been discredited.

And I will note that that is not sitting well with a lot of Republicans who wanted to get more information to begin with. Here's one of those members, Ken Buck.


REP. KEN BUCK (R-CO): We were warned at the time that we received the document outlining this witness's testimony, we were warned that the credibility of this statement was -- was not known.

and yet, people, my colleagues went out and talked to the public about how this was credible, and how it was damning, and how it proved President Biden's -- at the time Vice President Biden's -- complicity in receiving bribes.

It appears to absolutely be false and to really undercut the nature of the charges.


FOX: And key chairmen James Comer, Jim Jordan, they are trying to downplay the importance of Smirnov's 1023, arguing essentially, that that was never really that important to their impeachment inquiry.

But we should just point out that, at this point, Republicans are in a really tough position, because they have voted to open this impeachment inquiry. But there were a number of Republicans who had noted at the time that they needed to see more direct evidence before they would be willing to actually vote to impeach Biden.

Right now, it's so unclear how exactly Republican leadership is going to deal with just the reality that right now, it looks like the impeachment probe is starting to really unravel.

MATTINGLY: Fox, you reporting on appropriations at 5 in the morning is like six espresso shot straight to my veins. So you know, I'm going to ask you about it.

The other thing we're unsure about when it comes to Republican leadership is how are they going to fund the government? The deadline is on March 1. They're currently on recess. You and Mel Zanona have a great piece out this morning, kind of walking through the process, what's happening behind the scenes. Do they have a plan?

FOX: Well, if there's a plan, no one that I talked to yesterday knows what it is.

I will say, as I started reporting this story in the morning, I thought one thing, and as the afternoon drug on and I started writing, it was very clear to me that there was no trick up anyone's sleeve; and next week is going to be extremely messy.

The deadline for the first tranche of bills comes Friday. And right now, appropriators are still trying to work through a lot of outstanding issues.

Chief among them, the fact that Republicans are still pushing for controversial policy riders that typically would have no place in these kind of appropriations bills, but are really important to some conservatives who are pushing Johnson to get some kind of win in this process, because he already has agreed to spending levels that they don't like.

That's why Johnson is once again finding himself in the middle. I mean, stop if you've heard me say this before. But you have a newly minted speaker. You have a divided Republican conference. You have a narrow majority. And you have yet another spending deadline coming up in just about a week's time.

And right now, it's just not clear if they're going to be able to move all of this forward and avert a shutdown. I think that it's, you know, pretty dire, given the fact that they're leaving all of this to next week.

And I'll note, House Republicans don't get back to Washington until Wednesday next week.

HARLOW: Didn't -- didn't we just do this?

MATTINGLY: What's the rush?

FOX: Feels like we do this every two months. HARLOW: Thanks, Lauren

MATTINGLY: Thanks, buddy.

Well, back with us, Natasha Alford, Jim Messina, and Alice Stewart.

We'll get to the spending stuff in a second. But Alice, on the impeachment process, there were a number of Republicans who just kind of said OK on voting for a formal inquiry, but weren't totally sold on the actual end game here. I can't fathom they are any more sold now and probably a lot more reticent to move forward.

What's the purpose of this, given what's happened this week?

STEWART: Yes, many are really discouraged about the fact that the FBI informant has come out to be not credible and really undercuts the basis of this inquiry.

But others I'm speaking with say, look, this was central to this impeachment probe, but it was not the only basis for the impeachment probe. And those I've spoken with say there are -- there are WhatsApp messages. There are emails. There's other information that go to support this claim.

And look, they say, while the FBI informant may not be credible, there are still some basic truths that they are working to uncover and following the facts.

That is Hunter Biden serving on the board, being paid a lot of money, having no qualifications, seeking help from prosecutors; as well as Joe Biden's work and involvement and potential conversations there.


And then we heard from James Biden, president's brother, who talked at length, according to those in the room, about protecting the Biden brand, and influence peddling surrounding Joe Biden.

Look, what we have right now makes this probe look very bad. But if they do have other information that corroborates these claims, they need to get them out there fast, because people are starting to not see the light at the end of the tunnel with this probe.

HARLOW: Jim, there -- and to Alice's point, there are a whole lot of maybes, buts, potential caveats around all of this.

Can we just listen to James Comer? Lauren talked about. There's James Comer; there's Jim Jordan. Let's listen to James Comer sort of saying, Well, we still have something here. Here he was.


REP. JAMES COMER (R-KY): He wasn't an important part of this investigation, because I didn't even know who he was. All I knew was there was a 1023 that alleged bribery.

My investigation's about all the money the Bidens have taken from China, from Romania, from --

ERIC BOLLING, HOST, NEWSMAX: For nothing, for no --

COMER: From Kazakhstan.

BOLLING: For nothing in return. For nothing in return.

COMER: For nothing, for nothing. This guy had absolutely nothing to do with it.

BOLLING: It's crazy.

COMER: We got a tip. We investigate. We couldn't figure out who it was.


HARLOW: But this guy is central to that form that he's talking about. I mean, that's the crux of it.

MESSINA: He's the whole case. He's the whole missing link. And they've now looked at this for five years, and now they have absolutely no proof of anything. This whole thing is a sham.

And by the way, we're also burying the lead here. The witness also admitted that he had contact with Russian intelligence who gave him some of this stuff. We are talking about just an unbelievable tale of ridiculousness and woe. And this whole thing is falling apart.

And exactly to Phil's great point, when they should be focused missing on balancing the budget, getting a deal and moving this country forward. And yet, they still refuse to realize this whole thing is nothing; and they should just go on and do the business of the American people.

MATTINGLY: Natasha, as you watch all this, I'm reminded when Republicans took over the House and -- you talk to White House officials, and they said, look, we're going to make their dysfunction center stage. We are going to make clear that they can't run government, that they can't do anything.

And darned if they haven't tried everything in their power in the chamber for House Republicans to prove the White House right about that. And yet, it doesn't feel like it resonates more broadly.

Why is that?

ALFORD: Well, I think you -- that clip that you just showed says a lot. It illustrates the moment that we're in right now. Even in the face of facts, right. As Jim said, Smirnov was really the basis for a lot of the accusations that we saw.

There is always spin. There's always a commitment to this narrative that Biden is somehow corrupt, that Biden deserves to be impeached.

And so you -- when you have 24/7 conservative right-wing media willing to go with whatever the conspiracy of the day is, the facts kind of don't matter, unfortunately.

Now, what the American people will take away from that, we will see. But I do think that there's a frustration when you add what happened with immigration, that people are saying, why can't you get things done? Does this really matter more than what we are dealing with in our everyday lives?

MATTINGLY: It's a very real question voters are going to have to weigh in the months ahead.

Jim Messina, Alice Stewart, thank you. And Natasha Alford. Five days, I think until your book comes out. It's a memoir. It's candid, it's visceral at some level. It's excellent. Congratulations on that, five days ahead of time.


ALFORD: Thank you. Thank you, my morning family. CNN THIS MORNING.

HARLOW: We love you.

All right. This happening overnight: thousand of Americans, maybe you, woke up to your cell phone not working. What we're learning about this nationwide cell service outage.

MATTINGLY: And Alabama Supreme Court has ruled that frozen embryos are children. That ruling already affecting in vitro fertilization patients.

Ahead, CNN speaks to a woman who's currently undergoing IVF treatment in Alabama. Stay with us.