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U.S. Secretary of State Blinken Defends Biden Withdrawal On Day Two Of Testimony; Today: Voters Decide Whether To Keep Or Remove Gov. Newsom; GOP Laying Groundwork To Lie That Election Was Stolen; Rep. AOC's Dress Makes A Statement: "Tax The Rich". Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired September 14, 2021 - 12:30   ET




JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Round two of sometimes tense, often tense testimony for the Secretary of State this morning up on Capitol Hill. Tony Blinken says there are about 100 Americans left in Afghanistan, who still want to leave. Secretary Blinken this morning also deflecting blame for a dramatic messy Afghanistan exit. He argues President Biden was dealt a bad hand by President Trump and Secretary Blinken says no amount of time or money would have changed much.


ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: There's no evidence that staying longer would have made the Afghan security forces or the Afghan government any more resilient or self-sustaining. If 20 years, hundreds of billions of dollars in support, equipment, training did not suffice, why would another year, another five, another 10.


KING: Let's get some insights now from CNN's Kylie Atwood and CNN's Nic Robertson. Kylie, let me start with you at the State Department. Anything new Secretary Blinken was up on the Hill yesterday, some of the testimony was combative. This is on the Senate side on day two, what stood out most to you in terms of significance?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, the Secretary reiterate a lot of what he said yesterday in terms of the defense of the Biden administration and their decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, as you heard him saying that staying longer wouldn't have made the situation any easier and also how that withdrawal was done, saying at certain points that the processing for the SIV process had been sped up when senators asked why there wasn't more done. He talked about that visa processing increasing from a hundred visas a week to 1,000 visas a week. That's for those Afghans who worked alongside U.S. diplomats and U.S. troops in the country.

He also discussed the fact that, you know, the situation on the ground, the U.S. is still in contact with those Americans who are still there, about 100 of them. He said there are thousands of legal permanent residents who are still in Afghanistan that the United States is also in contact with. But this became a very partisan battle. You heard some Democrats saying that this was also a problem with the Trump administration and their policies. You heard from Senator Shaheen pointing to then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, ignoring her questions about getting women at the table -- the negotiating table with the Taliban.

She was clearly frustrated about what the Trump administration had done to get the Biden administration where they are. But she spoke about the need to work together to get the rest of those Afghans out of the country and Secretary Blinken also answered some pretty direct questions about the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda saying that relationship is not yet severed.

KING: So, Nic Robertson, on the ground floor is now in Kabul plus your years of perspective covering this issue, let's start with the Blinken point that another five years or 10 years, there's not going to make any difference. That's an argument that you could probably sell given the history of corruption, the history of incompetence in Afghanistan but there are some, you all know this, who said when you came into office and you realize the Trump administration if you accept the Biden view, didn't leave you a detailed plan. Why didn't you say we need five more months or six more months? Would that have sold to the Taliban or would that have caused chaos?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: It certainly would have thrown the cat among the pigeons with the Taliban. You certainly would have tested their stated intent to start targeting U.S. forces if, you know, if you didn't meet the made deadline or a reset August deadline, that test would have been there. So it could have cost lives.

I think the reset that would have been required to combat the broad scale of corruption here that is fascinating. Every facet of life, everyone I meet here whatever level there have been operating out whether it's a businessman or a politician here talks about the level of corruption. I have couple of examples, you know, 30 percent of proceeds if you're trying to open a mining business here, you know, $300,000 if you want to become a member of parliament. So put that to one side.

So to reset the corruption issue here and to reset the -- in essence a fraud that was going on sort of almost in plain sight within the Afghan National Army, the training, et cetera, the way it was being run to reset, that would have actually taken many years. I don't think there was a quick fix as we heard there.


KING: Nic Robertson in Kabul, Kylie Atwood at the State Department, grateful for reporting and insights. We'll continue to listen to the Secretary's testimony as the day continues.

Up next for us though, the polls are open on this California recall Election Day. It is a yes or no vote on whether the Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom keeps his job and it is a big test of COVID politics.



KING: The polls are open right now in the California recall election. And tonight, we fill in the map, we count the votes. It's a recall. So the fundamental question is yes or no. Yes, you want to recall the Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom. No, you want to keep Newsom. Let him complete the term to which he was first elected back in 2018.

Now at the beginning of this campaign, the polls were tight. In the end, Newsom thinks he has an advantage. One reason is just the history. This is when he won election. California is an overwhelmingly blue state, it would take a shock on top of a shock, on top of a shock for Gavin Newsom to lose if Democrats participate in this recall.

This is the state as it played out, he got 62 percent of the vote. We do know that one of the driving forces for those who said they wanted to recall Newsom, who signed all those petitions to put the recall election on the ballot. Well COVID, his COVID restrictions were part of their effort. They said he was too restrictive, masks mandates and the like.

These are the 10 counties, you see some of them Republican, some of them Democratic in the last gubernatorial election. Those are the 10 counties hardest hit by COVID. Some of the places we'll watch tonight as we count the votes. Newsom though confident in the end because what begins in a recall election as a referendum on him, yes or no, has become more of a campaign against the leading Republican Larry Elder. Gavin Newsom saying if you vote yes and you lose me as Governor, you might get Larry Elder.

Listen to Newsom at the end of the campaign. Elder wants to make it about COVID, he wants to make it about crime. He wants to make it about homelessness. Gavin Newsom says it's about something else.


GOV. GAVIN NEWSOM (D-CA): Issue of diversity, of pluralism, the issue that defines so much of our politics, that's all on the ballot tomorrow night. Racial justice is on the ballot tomorrow night. Economic justice is on the ballot tomorrow night.


KING: Our panel is back with us. This is again, fundamentally a referendum on Gavin Newsom. However, the way the other candidates have emerged especially Larry Elder, be the way Newsom has campaign brought in all his high profile Democrats. What national COVID lessons maybe or Democratic governance lessons maybe might we get out of California?

FRANCESCA CHAMBERS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, MCCLATCHY: Well, we've seen since the rise of the Delta variant that actually the polling to keep Newsom has broken his direction. If you just look now at 5:38, it's nearly 16 points that he is now had and Newsom's advisors, they do say that's because of those restrictions in the Delta variant. Now, that is why it is breaking in his direction, John.

KING: And so, the President of the United States goes out there last night, you wouldn't send the President in and at the end if you think you're going to lose, number one. But number two, it is important because Gavin Newsom says, to your point, look at Texas, look at Florida, look at how the Delta variant has hit harder there. Yes, you're frustrated with me, yes, we're all frustrated by COVID. The President of the United States saying California might send a national message.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The eyes of the nation on California because the decision you're about to make is going to have -- that's going to have a huge impact on California and it's going to reverberate around the nation and quite frankly, not a joke around the world.


KING: We may over read this as you do any single election sometimes. But is it not true that if you're Terry McAuliffe running for Governor in Virginia this November, if you are a Democratic candidate on the ballot in 2022, you might see some clues here, which Democrats are eager to vote? Which Democrats are reluctant to vote? How do we get them to vote?

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. I mean, it's clear that, you know, Newsom has tried to nationalize this and it is going to have some national consequences just in terms of political lessons for the rest of -- for other states. They're very closely watching Latino turnout, right? That was a problem in 2020, a problem that Democrats did not foresee and they should have, that's going to be a big determinant in how wide, if he does win, how wide Newsom's margin is going to be and that's going to be very closely watched.

The COVID issue as well. Do the restrictions turn voters again -- or, you know, they have the potential to turn voters against you particularly if in the case of Governor Newsom, you're seeing yourself as having fun with those restrictions are not paid attention to them yourself or had a double standard. So I think all of those things are going to be factors for Democrats and they're going to look at his margin and, you know, the outcome of this race to try to draw lessons for themselves.

KING: All right, we'll continue the conversation in just a second, looking at the Republican stakes in this recall campaign. The big lie, yes, getting a California sequel even before the votes are counted.



KING: California recall campaign is sadly shaping up as a big lie sequel. Even before the votes are counted tonight, the Republican candidate and talk radio host Larry Elder channeling his inner Trump. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LARRY ELDER (R), CALIFORNIA GOV. CANDIDATE: I am worried about fraud and we have a election integrity project all set up on my website.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Again, whether or not you win or lose, will you accept the results of the election tomorrow?

ELDER: I think we all ought to be looking at election integrity.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is that a commitment to accept the result of the election tomorrow?

ELDER: Let's all do that together. Let's all work together on both sides of the aisle to make sure that the election is a fair election.


KING: The biggest liar is offering an assist here. This is from Donald Trump as the campaign wound down. "Does anybody really believe the California recall election isn't rigged? Millions and millions of mail-in ballots will make this just another giant election scam. No different, but less blatant than the 2020 Presidential Election Scam".

Our panel is back with us. This is now a staple I guess of Trump Republican politics.



KING: Just claim it's rigged which the cancerous effect of that I could go on forever, but I yield the floor.

KNOX: So Donald Trump's top three domestic legacy achievements, a generation of conservative jurists on courts at every level, a very conventional, even orthodox Republican tax cut legislation. And the argument flagrantly wrong that Republicans cannot legitimately lose an election in America at this point in our history. It's really, really important.

This is one of the big legacies you hear it at every level. Even prominent Republicans who after the January 6th insurrection came out and said he bore some responsibility, he was not telling the truth, et cetera. Those voices have, for the most part, faded and instead they've been replaced with voices like Mr. Elder's. The idea that they can't possibly lose legitimately.

You're seeing people trying to rehash the 2020 election, you know, with these so called audits that meet no objective definition of audits. It's -- this is extremely, extremely important and it's obviously very toxic because one of the bedrock principles of our Republic is that opposing parties have to be able to hand over power peacefully. KING: Right. You have to be able to lose with grace, lose with dignity and just accept truth, accept math. And truth and math are the foundation, the pillars of democracy which is why Governor Newsom smartly with the assistance of the President of the United States last night. In the end, they decided look, a recall campaign is yes or no on your Governor but they have made this about Trump, about trumpism, and about the big lie.


NEWSOM: We may have defeated Donald Trump but we have not defeated trumpism. Trumpism is still on the ballot in California.

BIDEN: Last year, I got to run against the real Donald Trump. The lady (ph) Republican running for governor is a closest thing to a Trump clone.


KING: Again, you can make a mistake if you overread the results of one election, but California is a big state. It's a blue state. But will we learn, does that work? Donald Trump will not be on the ballot next year, but there'll be a lot of big life supporters, there'll be a lot of people who believe the insurrection was tourists visiting the Capitol on the ballot next year.

Can Democrats use Trump and trumpism as a turnout mechanism of participation? That is one big test in California.

DAVIS: I think it is a big test in California. I do think there's a risk of over reading what happens because of all the other elements that we've already talked about that are going to be at play in this race. But for sure, both sides have made Donald Trump a significant figure in this election.

And we'll see how Republican turnout is, whether the talk of fraud and election integrity by Larry Elder is going to depress Republican turnout and whether people feel strongly enough in support of Trump and trumpism to come out and vote for the Republican or whether, you know, Democrats feel a greater sense of urgency to come out and support Gavin Newsom because they're so worried about the fact that, you know, this is a force still (ph) in our politics that's been very strong and shows no sign on the Republican side of fading.

KING: And it's a question we ask of the Trump supporters here in Washington all the time. We'll continue to back the big lie. I guess it'll be a test for the Republicans otherwise on the ballot if Larry Elder tomorrow -- assuming Gavin Newsom is not recalled -- if Larry Elder gets up tomorrow and says I'm calling in the lawyers. I guess part of the test is where the other Republicans say.

CHAMBERS: Well, and Democrats see the recall election itself, John, as a test as to whether these tactics can be successful elsewhere and they see the need to prove that they can't beat them.

KING: Join us tonight, we're brewing a lot of espresso around here, promise.

CNN special coverage of the California recall election starts tonight at 10:00 p.m. Eastern. We will be here.

Up next, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez walks the red carpet. Her fashion statement is a political message.



KING: Topping our political radar today, they are members of a very elite group and they're using that status to help Afghan refugees. The former presidents, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush along with their wives, the former First Ladies serving as honorary co- chairs of Welcome U.S. That's a massive new effort to support Afghan refugees as they resettle here in the states.

Voters in Boston going to the polls today and what is already a historic race for mayor. Today's contest will select two finalists for the November election. None of the leading five candidates are white men. City Councilor Michelle Wu is leading recent poll, she's the first woman of color to leave the city council there. The acting Mayor Kim Janey also in contention. Janey is the first black person and the first woman to lead Boston.

The other top candidates, City Councilors Andrea Campbell, Annissa Essaibi George and John Barros who was the city's Chief of Economic Development.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York gives bold new meaning to the idea of a statement dress. You see it right there. AOC turning heads last night at the lavish Met Gala in New York. Her white dress was embroidered with the slogan, Tax the Rich, in very bright red. That fashion choice getting mixed reviews on social media. Some applauded the message while others questioned whether it was appropriate, whether it was at odds, if you will, with that swanky fundraiser.

We hope to see you tonight as part of our California coverage. Ana Cabrera picks up our coverage now, right now.

ANA CABRERA, CNN HOST: Hello, I'm Ana Cabrera in New York. Breaking news, bombshell news out of Washington. We're just learning that America's top military officer was so worried then-President Trump would go rogue in the days after the Capitol insurrection that he called a secret meeting to protect America's nuclear arsenal.