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Biden Says "Strategic Ambiguity" Toward Taiwan Hasn't Changed; High-Stakes Primary Elections In Georgia, Alabama, Texas; Zelenskyy: We're Prepared For Prisoner Exchange With Russia. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired May 24, 2022 - 12:30   ET



KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: But pointing to that meeting that he had today really puts it into sharp relief of what exactly was going on, because all of these conversations that he's having with the Prime Minister of India, with the brand new Prime Minister of Australia, with the Prime Minister of Japan, all are different now, because of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. And those remarks that the President made today saying that this is not just a Europe problem, this is an entire global issue dealing with this Russian invasion of Ukraine.

We're very pointed at Prime Minister Modi, who of course, has refused to condemn this Russian invasion. He's refused even call it an invasion. And he's continued to accelerate those Russian oil imports. And so the White House has been in this position of trying to delicately navigate that relationship and trying to get Modi closer to where the President of the United States is and other world leaders. So far, he has not budged in that direction. And so that is something they are managing.

And you see it on the scale of just how it's changing the summits between world leaders. And also in the context of the President saying that this has a bigger warning sign potentially for what could happen when it comes to China, potentially attacking Taiwan. And you saw the President today tempering his statement that, yes, the United States would get militarily involved in Taiwan if China were to use force and it that had been basically dispensing with this long standing practice of strategic ambiguity, though today, the President insisted that practice is not dead, maybe trying to add a little bit more ambiguity into the situation, John, though it was clear he had gone further than where most presidents had gone. And he said it's because of this Russian invasion of Ukraine. He wants to make sure China is paying attention to the global response.

JOHN KING, CNN HOST: And I suspect they are paying very close attention. Their reaction seems to be that they're following it quite closely. Kaitlan Collins, live for us in Tokyo. Kaitlan, thank you. Have a safe trip home.

Our reporters back here for the conversation. It was an interesting thing, essentially, President Biden saying the quiet part out loud. It's not the first time he has said it. But to Kaitlan's point, he seems to want to go on record. China, if you militarily tried to take Taiwan, you're fighting the United States. You're not just fighting Taiwan, you're fighting the United States. He believes that being frank is the right approach. The question is how the Chinese react?

EDWARD-ISAAC DOVERE, CNN SENIOR REPORTER: Well, they reacted to what he said. And it's funny to watch aides go again to try to clean up what he said as if the Chinese government is going to be more concerned with what some White House aides are telling reporters after the fact, rather than what the President himself said.

President Biden is pretty clear on what he said, even though he himself did a little bit of adding ambiguity back into the --

MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: He also said it multiple times.

DOVERE: Right. And, you know, of course, we're into a different place on this, we'd go back to the transition when Donald Trump was president-elect. And he took a call from the Taiwanese president and then that itself was supposed to be rupturing the relationship. It's a relationship that we dance around a lot in the geopolitics of it, but has survived already some bumps and we'll see what happens with this one.

KING: And so the President's on his way home, he stops in Alaska, I believe, and gets back to Washington tonight as we're counting votes. We're about to turn from May into June. It's really a very smart analysis by the veteran Democratic strategist, Doug Schoen, yesterday. He essentially says go back and look at midterm history where a president is in June is usually where they are in November. And this President in June is around 40 percent approval rating, which means, you know, if by historical standards, the Democrats going to get whacked by their voters in November. So the question is, what can he do about it?

This is a quote from a Tom Friedman column on Sunday, that tries to get at the mindset of the President. And it's depressing and fascinating all at once. Biden didn't say it in so many words, but he didn't have to. I could hear it between the lines. He's worried that while he has reunited the West, he may not be able to reunite America.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. And listen, this was one of the reasons that Biden ran for President, right? It was the incident in Charlottesville, a lot of sort of racial animus are bubbling to the surface around Donald Trump's four years in office post Obama, and here comes Biden with his bipartisan, bonafides. And, you know, coming from a different America, quite frankly, and a different Senate, thinking he could sort of piece America back together again.

A bit naive, I would say. I don't know that America has ever really been that unified necessarily. And now you do have all these real threats to American democracy. We saw that in 2020, there was no peaceful transition of power, as we've come to know in this country. This, you're talking about sort of whether or not he can do this. One of the interesting findings is if you look at his standing, 39 percent, the wrong track numbers are terrible, 70 percent of Americans think that America is on the wrong track.

In 73 percent of Democrats, that's a low number approve of his performance at this point. So he's got a tall task ahead of them not only going into the midterms, but beyond.

KING: And we talked earlier about how so many of these things are complicated. Republican -- you just mentioned Democrats, including the President say our democracy is under attack and they have plenty of evidence to make that argument and then Republicans would say, well, wait a minute, it turnout in these primaries is pretty good. Look at Georgia, Donald Trump says Republicans shouldn't trust early voting. Republicans are early voting in early numbers. So Republicans would say, you guys are exaggerating this. The media is exaggerating this. The Democrats are exaggerating this.


So James Clyburn, the number three in the House of Representatives told this to your newspaper, "The Washington Post" on Friday, the country is in danger of imploding. Democracy is in danger of disintegrating. And I don't know why people feel that this country is insulated from the historical trends. This stuff is dangerous. But maybe autocracy is the future of the country.

What is he getting at here? You do see, look, like I said, we're counting votes tonight. We're 13 states into the primary season. This is democracy in action. And it's wonderful to watch it. Yet, the Democrats are worried about these candidates for Secretary of State, these Republican laws that give state legislatures power to essentially fix the votes. Is that what he's talking about?

MARIANNA MONTEMAYOR, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Yes, I have never heard Clyburn go that far. In any -- he's talked about, you know, how voting rights, how different issues that are of passionate to him, you know, will really affect enthusiasm for the Democratic Party. But I've never heard him, again, go that far. And it's something that it's -- when you're talking to Democrats, they don't know how much to talk about the democracy argument.

Privately they wish they could be hammering that every chance they could because they do feel that exact same way. However, many voters don't want to talk about that right now.

ZANONA: Yes, and I would say, Biden has struggled with this too. He felt very comfortable and confident on the foreign stage, but he has struggled back home to address these threats. He rolled out a disinformation government board only to have that pause. Initially, he wanted to reach across the aisle and then he's recently shifted to sharpening his attacks on Republicans but clearly he has struggled to address those threats.

KING: It will be fascinating. You take a trip like this, a lot of time to think on the flight home, we'll see what he's like to see we're getting into the time for him, change the numbers or not.

Up next for us, is the bush brands still hold sway in the Trump age in Texas?



KING: Let's get more now live from the ground in two of the states with important elections today, Texas and Georgia. With us to share their reporting and their insights in Georgia, Tia Mitchell of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and in Texas, Gromer Jeffers Jr. of the Dallas Morning News, great to have you both on this election primary and runoff day.

Tia, let me start with you. And let me bring up in Georgia the race that most of the country is focused on because of the Trump factor. Trump doesn't like Brian Kemp, David Perdue he recruited to run. From your reporting on the ground, A, is Kemp headed to victory here as the poll suggests and above 50 percent, so there's no runoff?

TIA MITCHELL, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION: That's what it's looking like, you know, and it's looking like Kemp is providing a blueprint for how to win in a swing state without Donald Trump.

KING: That's the fastest way to do it. Tia, let me move to another race just want to come down. We have a whole bunch of things going on here. But in -- just above Atlanta, you have this Democrat on Democrat because they redraw the lines after the census every 10 years, you have Congresswoman Bourdeaux against Congresswoman Bath, a Democratic primary. How much of a fight has this been? And what's the big issue on the ground?

MITCHELL: So this has been a very interesting fight because there are two pretty well-liked incumbents, but you have Carolyn Bourdeaux, who is considered the more moderate candidate, you have Lucy McBath, who is considered the progressive candidate with a big national name recognition and a powerful personal story. But it's Bourdeaux who has represented most of the district thus far. So voters have a clear choice, a clear contrast between two of the main candidates. So we'll see what happens tonight.

KING: Let me sneak one more in because of the governor's race and the Secretary of State's race, the celebrity candidate, if you will, Herschel Walker, running for the Republican Senate nomination in Georgia gets a little less attention. Obviously, we assume he's going to win tonight and not have a run off. But walk us through those dynamics.

MITCHELL: Yes, looks like Herschel Walker is going to win without the need of a runoff. The question now is if he wins out, right, if Governor Kemp wins out right, how do they form a GOP ticket especially because Herschel Walker supports the big lie, he's supported by Donald Trump. Neither of those are true for Governor Kemp.

KING: Neither of those are true for Governor Kemp, well put. Let's move over to Texas now and bring you into the conversation, Gromer. I'm just going to move on the map here and bring up this attorney general Republican runoff. It's not a primary, you already had the primary. So you have the incumbent Ken Paxton, who in the primary got 43 percent, George P. Bush came in a distant second, but now you just have two candidates to get somebody above 50 percent. This is the bush name. His uncle George W. was the governor. His father, of course, was Trump nemesis and then defeated in the 2016 primaries, Jeb Bush. Is George P. Bush going to pull off a surprise here or is the Bush name not have sway anymore?

GROMER JEFFERS JR., POLITICAL REPORTER, THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS: It doesn't. It looks like the Bush name does not have sway anymore. You know, George P. is also the heir of that political dynasty. But he sort of took taken a shift. He he's embraced Trump and Trumpism. But Ken Paxton who's saddled with all kinds of legal problems is the candidate endorsed by Trump, and he's in concert more and fits better with the conservative voters who dominate the runoff, the runoff elections in Texas.

KING: We spend a lot of time on this and these other states. Help us to understand Trump to Texas Republicans means what?

JEFFERS JR.: While Trump to Texas Republicans means just what it does in the rest of the nation. I mean, they're growing increasingly conservative as the cycles goes by. I mean he's dominant. Texas has an independent streak with their political leaders both Republican and Democrat. Trump has been able to step in and sort of knock that out of the way and become the leader of the party. And it comes at a time when the Bush brand of course, and George P. Bush, again, is the heir that has taken a dive. And that started, quite frankly, with the Tea Party movement and accelerated when Trump began to dominate the Republican Party.


KING: So let me bring your attention. We talked a little bit about this race earlier. But again, the prime -- in the primary the incumbent Henry Cuellar, a Democratic congressman, was not able to get above 50 percent. So he has to run again against Jessica Cisneros. Now, you have a progressive versus a moderate here, immigration an issue, abortion an issue. What are you looking at most closely in this race in this district?

JEFFERS JR.: I'm looking at what parts of the district wins out. To San Antonio is more liberal, more progressive leaning, but you have areas in that district. When you get south to Laredo in the Rio Grande Valley, they're more moderate and more conservative, you have Catholic Hispanics. So will the abortion issue and anticipation of Roe v Wade being struck down? Will that be energized Cisneros? Or, quite frankly, will it be more of a help to Cuellar?

But I got to tell you, John, already, if you go south to the Austin area, Greg Kozar, a self-proclaimed Democratic socialist may be headed to Congress if since -- if Cisneros does win, that will be two Texas progressive -- progressives heading to Washington which is remarkable because there is still such a thing as a Texas Democrat, Lloyd Bentsen-type Democrat. KING: It was my first presidential campaign Lloyd Bentsen was the running mate. You're taking me way, way back, Gromer. Gromer Jeffers Jr., Tia Mitchell, way back, way back before I got all this, Grover Jeffers Jr., Tia Mitchell, grateful for the live reporting and important reporting from the States. We will see you again soon. And be sure to join us tonight as we count the votes. It's Election Night in America. Our special live coverage starts at 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

Coming up, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says he's prepared for prisoners change with Russia, live to Kyiv next.



KING: Latest now on the war in Ukraine, the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says he is prepared to make a prisoner exchange with Russia. And we were told, we could see that exchange happen just about any time. Let's go live in Kyiv now with CNN's Melissa Bell. Melissa, what is the latest?

MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, this follows, John, his comments made in Davos today by President Zelenskyy followed the noises that began being coming from the Kremlin yesterday that Moscow was willing to start considering prisoner of war exchanges. Now of course, it comes in the context of those more than 2,500 Azovstal fighters now in Russian hands and of course, Russian prisoners of war.

What was so interesting, though, John, about Zelenskyy's remark, was the defiant tone. He was striking even as those men are in Russian hands, saying, yes, by all means, let's have a prisoner of war exchange. We do not need the Russian prisoners of war that we have. He's speaking of course of those who are neither accused nor convicted of war crimes for the time being. We can organize that very quickly. But let us not cede anything to Moscow.

And I think the reason for that defiant tone despite those Azovstal fighters in their great numbers in Russian hands tonight is really what we've been hearing coming out of Mariupol over the course of the last few days. Remember that it was their evacuation that confirmed that Mariupol was fully in Russian hands. What we're seeing now is a similar fate to what we saw befall Kherson a little while ago in this war, a city locked down. We're hearing from those Ukrainian officials who fled to the other side of the border, saying that it is now possible for Ukrainians to get back into the city but that is essentially a one way ticket.

Those who are inside cannot get out. We've tried to reach out to journalists inside they will not speak on camera. We can't get our own reporters inside. But what those Ukrainian officials are speaking of, John, is a horrific picture of what has come out of a city, you'll remember, that was under siege for several weeks, that was essentially razed to the ground, 200 civilians found in a basement today. And what the Ukrainian officials are speaking of is the possibility that they fear that some 20,000 civilians may have been killed.

KING: That is a sobering number sets you back. Melissa Bell live for us in Kyiv, thank you so much.


Ahead for us, the ultimate Trump world insider, Donald Trump's longtime office gatekeeper has been subpoenaed by the New York Attorney General.


KING: Topping our Political Radar today, more noteworthy primary contest. In Arkansas, Republican incumbent Senator John Boozman faces three primary challengers. One, the former NFL player, Jake Bequette, says Senator Boozman is not conservative enough for Arkansas. In a recent ad, Bequette calls Boozman, Biden's favorite Republican.

And three years after leaving the Trump White House, Sarah Huckabee Sanders appears poised to win the nomination for Arkansas governor, the Republican nomination, the former White House press secretary, remember she's also the daughter of the former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee favored over a Republican opponent Doc Washburn. The current governor Asa Hutchinson is term limited.

Fast approaching deadline in Pennsylvania as in four hours from now, 5:00 p.m. today counties must submit their unofficial vote counts from this, last week's Republican Senate primary. We know there are a small number of votes still to be counted. We don't have an exact number. Dr. Mehmet Oz is holding a very, very thin lead over David McCormick right now. McCormick is separately suing to have undated mail in ballots also counted in that race.

The New York Attorney General's Office has sent a subpoena for the former President Trump's longtime executive assistant, Rhona Graff. They want to question Graff, who worked at Trump's side for decades about the Trump organization's document retention and destruction policies as well as Trump's personal involvement in preparing financial statement. And get this, lawyers for the Attorney General's Office says Graff has agreed to answer questions next Tuesday.


Thanks for joining INSIDE POLITICS today. Hope to see you back here tonight for Election Night in America as we count the votes. Busy day ahead, Ana Cabrera picks up our coverage right now.