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Inside Politics

Oath Keepers Founder Charged With Seditious Conspiracy; Justice Department Oath Keepers Wanted to Interrupt Transfer of Power; Rep. John Katko will not Run for Reelection: Third Republican who Voted to Impeach Trump to Call it Quits; Biden Attempts to Rebound After a Week of Defeats; VP Harris Vows to "Keep Fighting" on Voting Rights Bill. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired January 14, 2022 - 12:00   ET




JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, and welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King in Washington. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

Court appearances today for seditious conspiracy. The Justice Department now indicting the Oath Keepers with the most serious charges yet connected to the attack on the Capitol.

Plus, President Biden looks to end a brutal week on a brighter note. This hour, a speech on how his infrastructure law is making important change in American lives. It follows bruising setbacks in the courts, in Congress, and in the inflation numbers.

And some major cities due near the end of the brutal Omicron search, but the national numbers remain quite grim. Get this, there are now twice as many new COVID-19 cases as new vaccinations each day.

We begin this hour with a game changing January 6th indictment. This afternoon, Stewart Rhodes, the Founder of the Oath Keepers makes his first appearance in federal court. He now stands charged with seditious conspiracy. The government accusing Rhodes and 10 other codefendants of plotting to interrupt America's peaceful transfer of power.

This indictment, based on months and months and months of evidence gathering that includes encrypted messages between Rhodes and other Oath Keepers, discussions of stockpiling supplies and of upcoming Civil War. The charge also, by far the most serious, of the 700 plus filed against defendants connected to the capitol attack. And it marks a big shift for the attorney general who had resisted efforts to levy such this sedition charge.

With me to share the reporting and their insights CNN's Katelyn Polantz; CNN Legal Analyst, Elliot Williams, and CNN's Ryan Nobles. Katelyn, I want to start with you, because what's fascinating about the indictment is it's not just about that day, we have the pictures of Oath Keepers outside of the Capitol, they're in their Military gear, they have their helmets. We know some of them went into the building.

But the indictment makes clear, and you see those pictures, that it's not just about that day. I want to read a bit here. "Rhodes and certain coconspirators planned to stop the lawful transfer of presidential power by January 20, 2021, which included multiple ways to deploy force. They coordinated travel across the country to enter Washington, D.C., equipped themselves with a variety of weapons, planned combat and tactical gear, and were prepared to answer Rhodes' call to take up arms at Rhodes' direction."

So this wasn't just about January 6th, this was even more about January 20th, stopping the transfer.

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: That's right, John. So up until this point, I mean, this case has been living with us for months. We've seen lots of evidence already in court in previous indictments. And all of that was about what was happening before January 6th, and then January 6.

Now, what the prosecutors are putting in this indictment is that these Oath Keepers, then after January 6, regrouped, started stockpiling guns, allegedly, were talking to each other about how do we go back, how do we make sure that we stop a Biden presidency.

So really what this was to go from a conspiracy charge to a seditious conspiracy charge, that's a lot of oomph from the Justice Department. And that change is being made, because now they are able to say with this grand jury indictment that they believe that there was a plot to overthrow the presidency, not just to stop Congress.

KING: Elliot, Katelyn rightly calls a lot more oomph from the Justice Department, let's put that into legal terms. You have been arguing for some time, be patient. That to build these tougher cases that many people are demanding, it takes time and it takes evidence, because the legal threshold to prove seditious conspiracy is a lot higher. Explain.

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Right. Look, so number one, this pours a lot of water on the idea that the Justice Department isn't going after planners or organizers and as merely getting people for trespasses. This is a very, very serious.

Now, in order to convict someone of seditious conspiracy, you have to prove multiple people conspired by force to prevent, hinder or delay the execution of a law, that's actually quite hard. Number one, you have to have the communications between those two or three, or however many people.

And number two, it can't just be violence, it has to be violence, specifically targeted at stopping Congress from doing something. That's actually a very high burden legally. And the Justice Department, the worst thing that could have happened here is if they rushed charges out and have them get thrown away by a judge, which could easily have happened. So the right decision here was to take their time and build a very strong case. KING: And so, Ryan, this is one of the very important tracks of a two track investigation, if you will. The court case is in the federal courts, but also the Committee that your follow so closely upon Capitol Hill, which has been tracking the same players, if you will, and also trying to find out. The Justice Department says seditious conspiracy among the Oath Keepers, we'll see if more comes with that.

One of the things the Committee has been trying to find out is where the Oath Keepers, were others, who were they in touch with inside the Trump White House, Trump allies in the campaign, other organizers of January 6th? How is that building of the case going?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Yes. John, it's so important to point out that this is running along a parallel track with the January 6 investigation. And I think there are two important things about this indictment.

First, the Committee has been saying for quite some time that they believed that what happened here wasn't just an organic outgrowth of a protest gone wrong, but there was pre-planning and this is the hard evidence that proves that there was a pre-planning.


But to your broader point here, how do you connect that beyond just these Far-Right-Wing groups, which we know have been a problem, and we know that prosecutors have had their eyes on, and then tie that back to maybe some of the political players, people connected to the Trump campaign, people connected to the Trump White House, perhaps even Donald Trump himself.

And the Committee has looked at this in three circles. One being the broader Trump aligned forces, the rally organizers, and these Far- Right-Wing groups. And it's all been about connecting those dots between those three circles to see if the conspiracy goes beyond just these Right-Wing groups beyond just the rally organizers. And if you can connect that specifically to Donald Trump and his allies.

We haven't seen that evidence yet, John, but the Committee continues to strongly hint that perhaps there's some there.

KING: And one of the things we see when we see this evidence, whether it's text messages shared by the Committee, or now these encrypted messages that are detailed in this indictment, is that a lot of what these people have said publicly simply turns out to be contradicted by what you see, including Mr. Rhodes.

I want you to listen to here, Katelyn and then to Elliot, here. He was saying just the other day in an interview. We were there. You know, I'm - he has said several times publicly, he's sorry, some of those people went in the building. That he didn't want that. And we were just there to protest. Listen.


STEWART RHODES, OATH KEEPERS FOUNDER (via telephone): If we were trying to overthrow the government, we'd have brought guns. Anybody who was intent on actually taking over Congress would have brought firearms, so that wasn't the intent. I don't think anybody went there with the intent of actually trying to kill anyone, or take over the building.


KING: That's the message constantly in the Trump media echo chamber, if you will. But Katelyn, the indictment with those encrypted text messages tells us something very, very different.

POLANTZ: Indeed, I mean, this indictment is alleging that this group, the Oath Keepers, were planning to have a quick reaction force. That's what they call it a QRF in - a stash of guns in a hotel across the river in Virginia. At one point one of them was discussing, maybe we put them on a boat, and we bring them to the Capitol if we need them. So there were guns.

And there are in this indictment, many, many incidents - instances where prosecutors are citing Rhodes himself, putting down 1000s of dollars - up to $20,000, after January 6 or little under 20,000, to buy guns and equipment, holsters, things like that, ammunition.

So this is really - he will have his time to be able to make his claims in court. He will, if he goes to trial, be able to make his claims before jury. But there's a lot of evidence, apparently that prosecutors have already gathered and are putting in this indictment so far.

KING: And Ryan, back to the Committee. One of the big questions now is can they compel cooperation from the Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, who made clear quite clear yesterday, no. He's relevant for a number of reasons, including his conversations with Donald Trump before on and after January 6th.

He's also would be a compelling witness, because what he says now simply doesn't match up with what he said back then. Our K-File team did an excellent job of going back and scrubbing what some of what McCarthy said right after the attacks, including this where he says Donald Trump conceded, he's somewhat responsible.


REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA) (via telephone): He didn't say, go get the members. What he did - a rally. I say has responsibility. He told me personally, that he does have some responsibility. I think a lot of people do.


KING: A better understanding of why Kevin McCarthy does not want to be in the witness chair now.

NOBLES: Yes. And this is McCarthy contradicting himself, because he quickly walked back comments along these lines or said that he just forgot about it during the time there was reporting that our Melanie Zanona has flushed out even more today, that he had a private Republican conference conversation with members where he sent the same exact thing.

Now we have evidence of him seeing it on two different occasions that the former president did concede that he at least bore some responsibility for what happened on that day. And to your broader point here, John, this is the point that the January 6 Committee is honing in on. That Kevin McCarthy hasn't told the whole story, that there's a lot more that he knows about the events leading up to, the day of, and then what happened after January 6, that they believe is very important to their investigation, despite the fact that he says that he has nothing relevant to offer.

But John, there is still a big question about whether or not there is any authority for them to enforce the idea of him coming before the Committee even if they issue a subpoena. This is still going to be a massive fight for the Committee, and they may try and do it through a public relations war. All evidence shows at this point that Kevin McCarthy is not going to be swayed by that.

KING: There's still a lot more to learn from the Republican leader. Katelyn Polantz, Elliot Williams, thank you. Ryan is going to stand by for us.

Standing by because of this breaking news. Just into CNN, the Republican Congressman John Katko of New York just announced he will not run for reelection. He is one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach the former president, Donald Trump.

Let's get back up to Ryan Nobles, up on Capitol Hill, real quick if we can. He's not just one of 10 Republicans voted to impeach, he was central to this possible idea of a bipartisan commission until the aforementioned Kevin McCarthy blew it up.


NOBLES: Yes, that's right, John. He was the author of the Independent Commission on the Republican side. He negotiated that with Bennie Thompson, who ended up becoming the Chairman of the Select Committee.

He was - he did so with the tacit approval of Kevin McCarthy at the time. And then after the deal was hatched McCarthy backed out of it, encouraged Republicans to vote against it. There were enough Republicans and Democrats that were able to pass it in the House. But then Mitch McConnell, of course, stymied it in the Senate, and it never came to become a reality.

I mean, there's going to be a lot of questions here about this decision by John Katko. He was someone who we weren't tracking as a possible retirement, somebody who has been consistently able to win in what is really more of a "D" leaning district in upstate New York, a Senate around the Syracuse region.

In fact, the Democrat that ran against him on two different occasions had said earlier this year that she wasn't going to challenge him this time around. Republicans were counting on this district. Obviously, New York has not finished their redistricting process, so we don't know what his district is going to end up looking like.

But you'd be hard pressed to find another Republican that can win in that part of upstate New York, especially if it's centered around an urban center like Syracuse. And this is really a blow to Republicans who were counting on this seat and a boon for Democrats that, John, they likely were not expecting.

KING: Ryan Nobles, grateful for bringing up today that breaking news as well. It's a fascinating year and we're only two weeks in.

Up next for us, President Biden's brutal week, big setbacks in Congress, and in the court. So an effort today to celebrate one big success, and yes, to try to turn the page.



KING: President Biden is looking to end a horrible week on a high note. In just a few minutes, the president is scheduled to outline some of the big changes made possible by one of his giant first year accomplishments, the bipartisan infrastructure law.

Wins had been hard to come by in the two months since that infrastructure bill signing. This week, especially bruising for the president. Setbacks in Congress on voting rights, in the courts on COVID vaccine mandates, and in the economy with new reports detailing record high inflation.

Let's get straight to the White House Chief Correspondent, Kaitlan Collins. Kaitlan, it has been a bruising week. The president trying to turn the page a bit here?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's basically been setback after setback, John this week, and the White House did just announce the next Wednesday, one day ahead of his one year mark in office, President Biden will hold a press conference.

Of course, he has a lot of questions to be asked at that press conference based on alone what's happened this week. And yesterday, just within a span of hours, you saw the voting rights legislation that he made his most forceful appeal for yet earlier this week in Atlanta, basically shot down by members of his own party who said they would not want to do an exception to the filibuster in order to get that passed.

You also saw just hours after that the Supreme Court blocking the president centerpiece of his biggest effort yet to get people vaccinated. That was that private employer mandate for companies with 100 or more employees. Now, that's not going to happen after it was dismantled by the Supreme Court.

There's also been a lot of questions for this White House, John, over testing. And we are expecting to hear more from the White House on that plan to distribute half a billion free tests nationwide. But Senate Democrats have sent the White House a stinging letter saying, why didn't you act sooner on this? And why did the administration fail to get testing in place before it came to this situation where we have this shortage?

And of course, you've seen the other headlines this week when it comes to inflation, when it comes to these other questions, Russia and what's happening with Ukraine, as there have been these efforts to get Russia to deescalate made by this White House that so far have not yielded any return. They have not had any Russian troops leaving the Ukrainian borders.

And so it's just been a very challenging week for this White House. And when it comes to the legislative agenda, John, of course, you've seen it's not just voting rights legislation. It's also the president's expansive economic and climate bill that is completely stalled in Congress.

And just now in the briefing a few moments ago after Jen Psaki was talking about that upcoming press conference next week, she also noted the slim majorities that they have and the challenges that that presents. And of course, those aren't majorities, that are changing anytime soon.

KING: There are challenges, certainly without a doubt, as we approach that one year. Kaitlan Collins, we appreciate the live report from 1600, Pennsylvania. Let's join now get some reporting and insights from CNN's Manu Raju; Seung Min Kim of The Washington Post and Tia Mitchell from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Seung Min Kim, let me start with you. Look at it has been - I covered the White House for 10 years. Bill Clinton had some bad weeks, George W. Bush had some bad weeks. I don't remember a week like this where you're taking it from all sides. It's a difficult job. The question is, how do you get up and how do you reset?

Yesterday, after the voting right, he went - Joe Biden goes up to Capitol Hill, trying to convince two Senate Democrats to change their mind on voting rights and changing the filibuster. One of them goes to the floor of the Senate and gives a speech just before the President gets there and says, no.

The President comes out after and says, you know what, when you get knocked down, you got to get up.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I hope we can get this done. But I'm not sure. I don't know that we get it done. But I know one thing, as long as I have a breath in me, as long as I'm in the White House, as long as I'm engaged at all, I'm going to be fighting to change the way these legislatures have moving.


KING: Resilience and stubbornness. You see the picture there of Senator Sinema right before - a couple hours before President Biden. But minutes before he arrived on the Hill, a couple hours before he stepped out there. Seung Min stubborn resilience, optimism, are often Joe Biden's friends. Are there times when they can become his foe if you will?

SEUNG MIN KIM, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Certainly, especially when we kind of all know how the story ends. We're going to have a series of high stakes vote in the Senate early next week on voting rights and debate and votes on rules to try to - or changing rules to try to advance that voting rights legislation. We know how the story is going to end. It's not going to advance. It's going to be primarily on those two senators, Manchin and Sinema.


But the White House, the President and senior Democrats have made the calculation here that at this point, considering the pressure from the base, it's easier - it's a better calculation just kind of go down fighting. Really fight for - really fight for something that the party wants, something that is crucial to a state that helped deliver him the presidency as well as a democratic led Senate.

But at the same time, it just shows you such in stark contrast the limits of the powers of the presidency. Even for someone who was a veteran of the Senate for 36 years, that he does - he does not possess the power to change the minds of at least two senators to advance his - advance a major part of the Democratic Party's priorities.

And this is not the first time that President Biden has gone to the Hill, put that personal muscle in to try to bring the caucus together. We saw those efforts late last year on the on the domestic agenda package where things stumbled out of the gate. And it really just kind of shows you how his persuasion powers are limited here.

KING: And Tia, to that point Seung Min mentioned and you heard the president say fight on, in some ways they have no choice. Which is why this morning from the Vice President, she says yes, we're losing at the moment, but same word, fight. Listen.


KAMALA HARRIS, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, we keep fighting. We are we are committed to seeing this through however long it takes and whatever it takes. And so today, for example, I will be continuing with extensive meetings and discussions about how we can see this through.


KING: No president likes to have a vote on the floor of Congress when he is going to lose. But this president really has no choice, because the base demands the vote, even if it goes down, right?

TIA MITCHELL, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, THE ATLANTA JOURNAL- CONSTITUTION: Yes, I think they have no choice. But they're in a no win situation, because they also run the risk. And this is what we saw in Georgia last week, that the voting rights activists in some of these progressive groups that are a key constituency in the Democratic base are saying, don't use us as a prop, if you can't deliver. Don't just give us words, give us deeds.

And so there's growing frustration and that frustration had already, you know, been something we've been tracking for months as the voting rights legislation has lagged. And their frustration is just building right when those groups need to be ramping up ahead of the midterms.

So there's not a lot the president and vice president can do, because the circumstances with Manchin and Sinema are what they are. But it's just - you know, the optics aren't good on either side.

KING: And so, Manu, the question is, you know, what's the course correction? Can you fix this? Let me ask it in this context, you have been saying since day one, your colleagues have been saying since day one, the smart reports we bring on this program and say since day one, that Joe Manchin and Sinema have been consistent, whether the issue is how big the reconciliation package should be, or whether they're willing to change the rules.

Both of them have said it since day one. So how do we get to a situation where the expectations got built up to the point that Democrats would be able to do these things when the votes were never there?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that was been the problem for President Biden and Chuck Schumer, to give such high, lofty expectations, but not really having a plan or a strategy to actually bring it to fruition.

I mean, this month, the Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer had made clear that they were going to focus exclusively on voting rights. But it was clear for months, that Manchin and Sinema, were just not moving, even though the belief and they're telling their base that they're going to push. And Schumer has said repeatedly failure is not an option, giving them the false hope that they would actually be able to deliver something.

That raised a lot of questions about exactly what they would actually to be delivered. And that's the real threat for them, John, heading into the midterms. Having - not being able to deliver on some of the poor promises here.

And getting - as we get closer to the election, it's just going to get harder to legislate, even if they tried to revive the Build Back Better bill. It have to be pared back substantially, they have to get Manchin on board, to get the Liberals on board. It just hard to see how that happens as we get closer to the midterms.

And, John, before Manchin went to the White House yesterday, he told me there had no discussions with the president or his team on that issue since before Christmas.

KING: Well, we'll pick up that conversation as we wait for the president. We'll pick up right there when we come back with this. Promises simply not kept.

Democrats now debate how to approach this election year if they fail to pass their giant agenda.



KING: What next is a giant conversation among Democrats right now. The prospects for voting rights, as we just discussed, beyond bleak. And there's also little confidence, the big Biden social safety net plan will pass.

So a midterm campaign reboot seems urgent. Some Democrats say take a few small steps, maybe a smaller election package, maybe one or two of the most popular pieces in that big spending plan. But some progressives favor confrontation over more compromise.

The reporters are back with me right now. Tia Mitchell, you just talked about the unhappiness in your state you cover most, Georgia, last week when the President came for voting rights. Listen here. This is Nina Turner. She's a key deputy of Bernie Sanders. She's a prominent progressive in Ohio.

She says, because Senator Sinema and Senator Manchin won't help the President he should do this.


NINA TURNER, (D) FORMER OHIO STATE SENATOR: Now he done wasted a whole bunch of time with these folks, being diplomatic, inviting them out to the White House and to Del, timeout for it. He needs to hold a press conference.