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Key Senators Eye Exits Ahead Of 2022 Midterms; Biden Unveils New Australia, U.K. Partnership To Counter China. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired September 16, 2021 - 12:30   ET



JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Some new reporting for Inside Politics today on the battle for the U.S. Senate. Five key senators, four them Republicans, are still not clear on whether they will seek reelection. With a 50-50 split right now, the fight for Senate control is already a giant 2022 drama. A retirement or retirements among these five more senior senators would reshape the midterm math and could reshape the Senate itself.

Our chief congressional correspondent, Manu Raju, is bringing us this new reporting. And let's just put up on the screen the five that you're talking about in this great new piece.

Senator John Thune of South Dakota, Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Leahy is the only Democrat, all five of these are big players in the United States Senate, four of those Republican -- the four Republicans there would be either chairman or key members of the leadership if the Republicans were to take back power, what are they waiting for?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, look, they're struggling with -- some of them are John Thune, in particular, indicated to me that he was struggling with this. And one of the reasons why is that he said he's been doing this for 25 years. He's been travelling back and forth.

He said, it's a six-year commitment. Can I really go through with this? And he's also struggling with the possibility that if he continues to stay, perhaps when Mitch McConnell stepped aside as leader, he could potentially move and try to compete for that leadership position, he said, that is one factor.

So if he decides to step aside that changes the leadership dynamic. Chuck Grassley, Patrick Leahy, they're the two of the longest serving senators in American history. They have senior leadership positions, respectively in their own caucuses with one of them sets aside that shakes things up. Grassley indicated that he's getting new encouragement to run. He turns 88 tomorrow, John, and he suggested he's going to make a decision sooner than he anticipated sooner than November.

[12:35:03] And then look at the some of the other ones Lisa Murkowski in -- facing a Trump inspire challenger back home has not made a decision whether to run for reelection yet. And Ron Johnson, he's the one who seek could actually flip come 2022 next year in Wisconsin. Leaders in the Republican Party want him to make a decision.

He told me he's -- this is on the back burner for him. He said he made a decision in his first race in 2010. To run in May of that midterm year. Perhaps he can wait longer but Republicans want him to make a decision now.

KING: It's a fascinating dynamic because it's a huge players' on top of what is already, just look at the map, there are 34 Senate seats, a third of the Senate is up every two years, 14 of the Democrat, 20 in the Republican. So you look at that, you see all that red, and you think, oh, the burden is on the Republicans, but a lot of those Republican seats are in pretty safe Republican areas.

But you did mention, Wisconsin as a potential flip, if that would go. Iowa Democrats would say, well, if it's not Chuck Grassley, we will at least make a run at it, if you go there. Normally, in a situation like this when the stakes are so high, the leadership on both sides.

I assume Chuck Schumer is telling Pat Leahy, please because incumbents are known entities. Incumbents can raise a lot of money. Sometimes there's blowback against incumbents, but most times strategists believe the power of that incumbency outweighs it. So why wait, what's the issue?

LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, as Manu said, I mean, these are difficult decisions these people have been like Leahy and Grassley. They've been in the Senate for so long. And clearly, they aren't ready to make the decision yet.

I mean, and again, yes, if Schumer is in Leahy's ear, like, just give us an easy win, don't make us have to worry about this seat. Because again, in a situation in 2022, where it's a 50-50 Senate, you could see Republicans very well, maybe trying to make a run at Leahy seat just to make the scramble the board and make it harder for Democrats to maintain power.

KING: It's a different kind of Republican Party in Vermont. But again, you take a high powered incumbent out, Bernie Sanders is officially an independent, you just throw another wild card into what is already a volatile year.


KING: Right.

KUCINICH: I mean, think about it, the longer someone has been sitting in a seat, the more people have been eyeing that seat for years and years and years and waiting for their chance. And sometimes there's an anointed person that ascends. But particularly in the Republican Party that hasn't worked recently. So we're talking about some potentially nasty competitive primaries, should any of -- should a lot of these folks decide to leave. I think leadership wants to avoid that.

KING: And to that point, if you put the five senators back up there. Donald Trump loves Ron Johnson. He's not a fan of John Thune and he is definitely not a fan of Lisa Murkowski. You see, now we can show you some headlines to back all this up.

Axios from back in December, Trump endorses primary challenger against GOP whip John Thune. Politico, April 2021, Run, Run, Run: Trump prods Johnson to run again. March 21 -- 2021 on CNN, Trump says he'll campaign against Murkowski in Alaska next year. So for the Republicans, as always, there's a Trump factor.

MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: Always, of course, this is huge. I mean, with Ron, John, it might be the one rare instance where Democrats actually want him to run instead of running in an open seat just because they view him as vulnerable. Wisconsin has obviously trended blue in the last election, did not vote for Trump in 2020.

KING: And Johnson, forgive me for interrupting is trended conspiracy theory.

ZANONA: Exactly. And they view that as a major vulnerability for him.

RAJU: And Thune, I asked him specifically about the Trump factor, is this something that is weighing on you? He said, I've moved on. So he's saying it is not going to affect him one way or the other. There's really no viable primary challenge against him. So he feels OK.

Murkowski while she does have a Trump back opponent in that state is ranked choice voting in Alaska, which is a different type of primary system there which could actually benefit her, ultimately. And there's confidence in her camp that even if she does run, she will be back those Trump forces.

But, yes, the question, Melanie is right that if Ron Johnson runs question will be can someone who is aligned themselves so close to a Trump will run in such a pivotal swing state, that's going to be one of the biggest most heavily contested states next --

KING: Murkowski could be fascinating in the sense of her place in American political history, in that when she ran cycles ago, she had a tea party challenger actually beat her in the primary. And then she won election as a right in candidate in the general election, which is just as epic, it's beyond epic.

It's epic, you know, capitals, boldface, underline. So that would be I volunteer. Few inside politics episodes from Alaska, for that race just again, but it gets just gets at you. Her history tells you, you know, ride these movements in and out of these campaign cycles.

KUCINICH: And whether how much they want to fight. I mean, if you do have a contested primary and, you know, in her case, it was a contested issue came the right end. How much do you want -- how much do you want this? And how much do you want to fight for what you're for staying in Washington and in this position. KING: And it was interesting watching Grassley was at this hearing yesterday, the compelling hearing with the U.S. gymnast up there talking about just the horrific conduct of the FBI and the Olympic Committee in the investigation. But he -- as you mentioned, he turns 88 tomorrow, here's what he told you.

I think I keep the same schedule as when I was 65 years old, maybe even 40 years old. He is right now whatever your politics he does the 99 counties of Iowa every year. But 88 years old run for reelection. There's been a lot of talk over time that he was hoping, you know, his son perhaps would come in and replaced him. But all indications are leaning forward.


RAJU: It seems that way. And look, this would be a crowded primary, if he does step aside, even if his son wanted to jump in. But, you know, he does keep a very active schedule. He sleeps early, but he wakes up early, he runs almost every single morning. He's mentioned he goes to all 99 counties in Iowa. And he prides himself in that.

And he says he feels as good as he did 20 years ago, or even 40 years ago. So we'll see what he ultimately says. But in taking away from my interviews with these members, he sounded pretty serious that he may do this again, so we'll just have to see. But what decision he makes will be significant. It will shake up Republican politics, particularly steps aside.

ZANONA: I think one other thing we should point out here is these retirements not only could impact control of Senate next year, but could also reshape the institution.

KING: Right.

RAJU: Yes.

ZANONA: One trend that we're seeing is a lot of institutionalists are hanging up their voting cards and who's vying to replace them, especially the Republican Party, is these Trump loving firebrand like look at Mo Brooks vying replace Shelby, who's in Alabama, who's an appropriator, a chairman, a longtime veteran. And so that's definitely --


RAJU: -- cut that infrastructure deal. The people who are now looking to replace them all opposed that the same.

KING: Yes. I suspect in the end that's why Murkowski runs for reelection because she does not want to see that happen in her seat for her state. But that's why we watch. It's going to be a fascinating cycle headline, Manu, appreciate the new reporting.

Up next for us, the world's biggest security challenge, President Biden makes a big offer to Australia and China delivers an angry response. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


KING: A belligerent response from Beijing today after President Biden unveiled a new partnership to significantly upgrade the Australian Navy. The United States and the United Kingdom will help Australia get nuclear powered submarines.

It is a direct challenge to China, which in recent years has greatly expanded its military activities and its territorial claims in the Indo-Pacific region, the naval partnership just the beginning of an amped up White House focus on China. Next week, Australia's Prime Minister will join his Japanese and Indian counterparts at the White House in another show of regional force.

With us now to discuss, Kylie Atwood, in the State Department and Jeff Zeleny at the White House. Jeff, I want to start at the White House. The China challenge has bedevilled presidents well before Joe Biden, but listen to him yesterday announcing this new alliance in diplomatic language.



JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is about investing in our greatest source of strength, our alliances and updating them to better meet the threats of today and tomorrow. It's about connecting America's existing allies and partners in new ways, and amplifying our ability to collaborate, recognizing there is no reasonable divide, separating the interests of our Atlantic and Pacific partners.


KING: No regional divide perhaps among those allied with the United States. But this is a clear message to China, Australia will have nuclear powered submarines, which can operate on a stealthy basis, which can take virtually unlimited missions, which can patrol and police Chinese activities in the region.

ZELENY: John, without a doubt, this has been one of President Biden's central focus of this foreign policy doctrine, if you will, confronting China. And this is a new way in which he intends to try and do so. And to really point out the significance of this, only the U.K. has had access to the U.S. submarine intelligence program since 1958. Now, Australia will only be the second country in the world to essentially have the keys to the nuclear powered submarine program that the U.S. has. So this is an extraordinary partnership development.

But clearly with the focus on China and a big shift for Australia as well when Prime Minister Scott Morrison took office three years ago, he said Australia doesn't have to choose between China or the West. Well, now that choice indeed has been made. So from that point of view, Australia is casting its slot with the U.S. which certainly is a strong suit for the U.S. here.

But certainly, one of the many examples of how China is at the center of the Biden administration's agenda, and certainly will be front and center next week when he travels to New York to deliver his first speech before the U.N. General Assembly.

KING: And Kylie the choice that Prime Minister Morrison has had to make and the President Biden is making forced officials in those governments would say by provocative, they would say out of bounds Chinese behavior, not just recently, but for several years now in the South China Sea and throughout the region. The reaction from China tells you everything you need to know about this. This is in the Global Times. It's a state run tabloid.

Australian troops are most likely to be the first batch of Western soldiers to waste their lives in the South China Sea. Since Australia has become an anti-China spearhead, the country should prepare for the worst. That's not nuanced. That is not vague. That is quite blunt. China views this as an escalation.

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right. I mean, even though you saw President Biden, you saw administration officials, even the Prime Minister, you know, of the U.K. and the Australian leader all avoid using the word China in their speeches yesterday when they were talking about this new cooperation. The subtext, of course is China. This is all about China, right?


And so I think it's very clear that that's the case even though the White House is saying this isn't about, you know, any one country. I do want to hone in on the fact that these nuclear powered submarines are much more advanced than traditional submarines, right? They can move much more quickly. They can move much more stealthily. They can go for longer missions. They don't have to come up and get traditional fuel that traditional submarines have to get.

So this is a very significant acquiring that the Australians are going to have. Now this cooperation is also a little bit more broad, it'll be focused on military defense, it'll be focused on artificial intelligence, cyber capabilities. So this project is central to this new cooperation, but is only one of what is likely to be many projects between these three countries.

And as you note, Chinese are officially, you know, frustrated about it, the foreign ministry saying that this is a challenge to the regional cooperation in the region. But unofficially in the Chinese state run media, however, they have been very aggressive. What you read there, threatening Australian soldiers, hugely significant. So they are taking this extremely seriously.

KING: They are. And Jeff, back to the other point, I want you to listen out Boris Johnson, look, Chinese have ripped up essentially, it's still in place. But they're trampling on the agreement negotiated with the U.K. about how to handle Hong Kong, how to handle human rights, how to handle Democratic rights in Hong Kong, the Xi government has just decided, forget about that we're going to impose our will. Boris Johnson as part of this alliance, the U.K. as part of this alliance, here's how he explained it to Parliament.


BORIS JOHNSON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: Focus is not intended to be adversarial towards any other power, Mr. Speaker, but it nearly reflects the close relationship that we have with the United States and with Australia.


KING: Again, diplomatic language, everybody is saying this is not an attempt to be adversarial with anyone. But you can translate that Jeff, right, he's saying that, after years of essentially letting China get away with it, this is a step towards saying no more.

ZELENY: It is a step towards saying no more and we will see how successful that step is. But John, again, this will be front and center next week. We're learning that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will be coming here to the White House for a meeting next Tuesday afternoon with President Biden after meeting virtually yesterday and making this announcement simultaneously with the Australian Prime Minister and the British Prime Minister.

So John front and center in this, again, is the confrontation of China. This is just the beginning, though, this conversation for this administration.

KING: Jeff Zeleny at the White House, Kylie Atwood at the State Department. It is the world's number one security challenge. It will be fascinating to watch as a place out. Appreciate the reporting today.

Coming up for us next, how the Trump and his big lie already shaping 2022 races, plus, is Nicki Minaj headed to the White House?



KING: Topping our Political Radar today, no, Nicki Minaj is not going to the White House like the rapper suggested in a tweet. But the White House does tell CNN it offered Minaj call with a doctor to help her better understand the coronavirus vaccines that after Minaj made headlines for openly questioning the efficacy and the safety of the vaccines to her nearly 23 million Twitter followers.

The House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is overseas ahead of a conference with her G7 counterparts and she got some resounding applause when she started talking about Donald Trump.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE SPEAKER: I don't ever talk about him. I mean, I referenced him from time to time with what's his name. If he wants to run again, he'll be the first president who was impeached twice and defeated twice.


KING: In Wyoming Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney's primary challenger is running on the big lie. Harriet Hageman got the Trump endorsement last week and taking a page out of his playbook tell CNN this in a new interview quote, I think there are legitimate questions about what happened during the 2020 election. She then went on to site audits that took place in Arizona and Georgia just to be abundantly, abundantly repeatedly clear there was no widespread fraud in the 2020 election.

Now to Pennsylvania where Republican lawmakers there also touting the big lie using Trump's baseless conspiracy theory to subpoena voters personal information including driver's license numbers and partial social security numbers in their investigation as they call it into the 2020 results in that state. Pennsylvania Democratic Governor Tom Wolf calls the lawmakers actions quote, shameful, and another reckless use of taxpayer money to perpetuate a lie.

Off to Texas now, in there, the new law barring abortions after six weeks of pregnancy will remain in place at least until October 1st. The data federal judge has now set for a hearing to consider the Justice Department's emergency request to block enforcement of that law. The DOJ wanted the judge to move the hearing up to September 21st, that case ultimately likely to land at the Supreme Court.

Michael Bloomberg's gun control group now spending big at Virginia, every town for gun safety is putting nearly $2 million behind Democrats there, including the former Governor Terry McAuliffe, who was running for governor again. That group was one of the biggest outside political players back in 2019 have turned Virginia state's executive and legislative branches blue for the first time in more than two decades.

This quick programming note mass shootings, gun violence, and the NRA's role in U.S. law. What's the cost of the war on gun control? A new CNN film, the price of freedom this Sunday at 9:00 p.m. Eastern.


Grateful for your time today in Inside Politics, hope to see you back here again this time tomorrow. Don't go anywhere. Busy News Day, Ana Cabrera picks up our coverage right now.