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Inside Politics

Sinema Leaves Democratic Party To Become An Independent; Sinema: I'm Not Worried About Criticism From Progressive; Sinema Decision To Defect From Dems Sparks 2024 Questions; DOJ Seeks To Hold Trump In Contempt Over Classified Docs; Trump Team Found 2 Classified Docs At FL Storage Unit; CNN: 1/6 Cmte Weighs Referring At Least 4 Others Besides Trump; Brittney Griner Back In U.S. After Russian Prisoner Swap; WNBA Commissioner: We're "Chipping Away" At Pay Disparity. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired December 09, 2022 - 12:00   ET



JOHN KING, CNN HOST, INSIDE POLITICS: Hello, and welcome to Inside Politics. I'm John King in Washington. Thank you for sharing your day with us. Sinema shockwave, the senator from Arizona says, she is leaving the Democratic Party and is now an independent that scrambles the Senate map. The senator explains why, why now and what's next in a brand-new CNN interview.


SEN. KYRSTEN SINEMA, (I) ARIZONA: I don't think anything will change about how I do my job. Arizonian sent me to the United States Senate to be an independent voice for our states and I'll continue doing that.


KING: Plus, welcome home. WNBA star Brittney Griner stepped off a plane and onto American soil, 295 days after being arrested in Russia. And today, a federal judge answering an unprecedented legal riddle, should Donald Trump the former president be held in contempt for defying a subpoena demanding he turned over all records marked as classified.

Up first for us though, a dramatic decision with immediate and perhaps long-term impact on American politics. The Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema no longer a Democrat. The unorthodox centrist revealing today, she registered as an independent because she says she doesn't find herself a natural fit for either major political party, nothing will change about her values or how she votes, Sinema says. The switch though, is the talk of Washington today.

The Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and the Biden White House insist all his well, both say very little will change about how they work with Senator Sinema. And they note, there are two other Senate independents already work with the Democrats. Sinema is up for reelection in 2024. The switch means she avoids a promised primary challenge from the left and assuming she runs, it would test the viability of a third-party candidate in a crucial battleground state.

Listen here, as the Senator explains her choice. Telling CNN, it has almost nothing to do with Washington, she says just about everything to do with the voters back home.


SEN. SINEMA: I've registered as an Arizona independence. I know some people might be a little bit surprised by this, but actually, I think it makes a lot of sense. You know, a growing number of Arizonans and people like me, just don't feel like we fit neatly into one party's box or the other. And so, like many across the state in the nation, I've decided to leave that partisan process and really just focus on the work that I think matters to Arizona and to our country, which is solving problems and getting things done.


KING: With me to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Dana Bash, Zolan Kanno-Youngs of the New York Times, Politico's Marianne LeVine, and CNN's Lauren Fox. I'm going to start with you. You tracked her on the Hill for many times. People have always said she doesn't fit. And now she says, I don't fit. Senator Schumer says nothing changes. Is that really true?

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, practically, a lot of things don't change for Democrats. This doesn't change the fact that they have a majority on their committees. This doesn't change the fact it's easier to subpoena folks without needing sign off from Republicans. And certainly, it makes it easier for them still to move forward with nominations.

But what does sort of change is how this looks symbolically, right? Kyrsten Sinema stepping out really making it clear that she doesn't fit in the Democratic Party. And I think a lot of her colleagues would probably tell you, she never really fit perfectly in the Democratic Party.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Can I just add something to that? I was on Capitol Hill back in 2001, when then Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords switch from the Democratic, - excuse me from the Republican Party to be an independent, but he did it and promised to caucus with the Democrats.

At the time, the Senate was evenly split. That was a seismic shift in the United States Senate. And it was done with a lot of behind the scenes work in order to do that. This is different for the reason that you said based on your reporting, that the balance of power won't change. But it does, of course, speak to the broader issue that the parties are having in this country, which he talked about in her interview with Jake.

KING: And so, it will be 51 for the Democrats, assuming she is with them on every vote. And if she keeps her committee assignments, one assumes, she has not talked publicly about this. One assumes, she's promised Senator Schumer every now and then when he says I need this one. But he has 51 now, not 49. So, he's got a little bit more leeway, which is why again, this will be tested in the days ahead. This is Senator Amy Klobuchar saying, no big deal.



SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR, (D) MINNESOTA: I don't believe this is going to shake things up quite like everyone thinks. I don't think it's going to greatly change the way the Senate is working right now. If she you were to say no, I'm going over Republican. I am not voting with them anymore. That's a whole different thing. That is nowhere near what she said.


KING: It is not what she said. Chuck Schumer just won reelection. So maybe he doesn't worry about this all that much. And the senators don't tend to care about this as much. But outside progressive groups are going to be poking Chuck Schumer all the time, because they are now even more mad at Sinema.

MARIANNE LEVINE, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, POLITICO: Yes. And we're already seeing progressives like Jamaal Bowman put out a statement, saying that this was a play for pharma and that she was lying about her reasons for her decision. But I think that the really big question that we're going to see is, how do you handle this, particularly Arizona Democrats in 2024?

She hasn't said, if she's going to run for reelection. But I think the question is now, do Democrats coalesce around Sinema, because if they don't, then there's a real likelihood that there's a three-way split and that Republicans have a better chance of taking that Senate seat.

KING: And so, let's listen to part of her conversation with Jake Tapper where she addressed to gets at this point. Now, this has been a constant for her in her life. So, I guess it's no surprise that she says, OK, progressives are going to be mad at me. So what?


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR AND CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: They're going to call you a traitor, they're going to call you in-great, what are you going to say?

SEN. SINEMA: Well, I think I'll do what I always do with, Jake, which is keep doing the work that I know is important for my state. You know, I just not worried about folks who may not like this approach. What I am worried about is continuing to do what's right for my state. And there are folks who certainly don't like my approach, we hear about it a lot.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: She gave Senator Schumer heads up. She gave the present of United States and his team a heads up. So, she handled this right, if you will, in terms of that. Let's assume that Joe Biden means it and he runs for reelection. Let's assume that Arizona is a critical battleground state in 2024, as it will be for the next 25 years of American life.

Are they prepared to handle potentially a three-way race there where they need the state, and you have this almost unprecedented chess game of a Republican nominee for Senate, a Democratic nominee for Senate and Senator Sinema.

ZOLAN KANNO-YOUNGS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: It's a key point because we do know that there. Sinema even before this announcement was already possibly facing a primary challenge if she did choose to run again, right? And now you have a possibility of again, an independent now coming in taking a gamble, hoping that she can pull together enough voters in Arizona, as Republicans continue to put over candidates that some say are too far, right.

And she's gambling, that she can pull together folks that just want policies to be pushed through. She has shown over the past year again, and this is why the legislative outlook may not change too much with this, that she will disagree with the Democratic - with the Democratic Party and the Biden administration, particularly on tax policies, economic policies, maybe not some of the more social policies here.

But I do find it interesting, just how quick and early today the White House was ready to put out their statement, Saying, look, we know this is - at this time, we know this is a surprise, but she did vote for the inflation reduction, she did vote for the legislation that was passed this summer. That being said, it still comes at awkward time.

BASH: I want to get to the premise of your question, which is the primary process, which is, let's be honest, a big reason why she made this decision. Yes, in her heart, she is clearly more independent. We've seen that with how she's approached her work. But facing reelection and facing undoubtedly some form of challenge in the primary system, the primary process, that would mean that she would, in order to win potentially, that they would want to pull her to the left. That's not where she wants to be.

She is not alone in that. So many moderates, whether it's in the Senate, or more acutely in the House, are facing this challenge. It's hard for them to survive, given that our elected officials are their first stop is in a primary. And it means that you have to appeal more to the extremes of your party.

KING: Right. And so, she is making a gamble here, assuming that she runs. She has not said she's running. Assuming she runs for reelection as an independent, she's making a gamble that Republicans will do in Arizona, will do what they just did. Nominate candidates like Blake Masters and Kari Lake, and then there'll be a whole lot of Republican votes or independent votes available to her.

And that she can then tell Democrats don't go that far left, that that's a gap. That is a huge gamble in the state. And to your point, what happens in the meantime. So, she says she's going to be at her committees and nothing. Listen, nothing will change.


SEN. SINEMA: Why I intend to maintain my position on my committees and keep doing the work that I've been doing for Arizona. So, I don't think that things will change in terms of how I operate or the work that I do in the United States Senate. I'm going to still come to work and hopefully serve on the same committees I've been serving on and continue to work well with my colleagues at both political parties.

And I'm not really spending much time worrying about what the mechanics look like for Washington D.C. And to be honest, Jake, I don't think anyone in Arizona is caring about that either. So, I don't think things will change much for me. And I don't think things will change much for Arizonans.



KING: She may well be right about that. Helped me with the timing here. This is being done after she knows we have divided government. So, there are unlikely to be big major legislative accomplishments anyway. We are unlikely to be in a situation like we were the last two years where Sinema and Manchin essentially is the Dem - can the Democrats pass anything? It comes down to them. That's off the table now.

Republicans will control the House. So, does that make it easier for her to establish this identity to take two years to establish this identity? And then to your point, the second question and go around the table, please, will anyone else follow suit here? I've been obsessed with this since Ross Perot got 20 million votes, 90 million votes in 1992.

Would America finally start a third party, with somebody have a 10 year or 15-year plan to do it at the national level? Pro did it 92, 96, it was all about him and his ego. And he took his toys and walked away, took his money, more importantly, and walked away. Is this the beginning of something? Or is this just about Sinema in Arizona?

FOX: Well, I think that you have to remember there are already independent senators that caucus with the Democrats and two of them are Angus King. And you know, I mean, that and Bernie Sanders, they regularly vote with Democrats. Now Sinema is saying that she is going to be independent and act more independently than them. But it's not as if independent. Senators don't exist right now.

And I think that we're just going to have to wait and see how she deals with this. I thought Schumer statement was so interesting, because he was very careful, not to alienate her, not to push her to the sidelines to say we're going to keep working with her. She asked to keep her committees. We're going to let her do that. I think that that is a very important signal that Democrats want to keep her in their tent as much as they possibly can.

KING: That math is fascinating though, in the sense that of the three, Bernie Sanders is a progressive champion. He is liberal calls himself, a socialist Democrat, democratic socialist. Angus King is more of a centrist, but he's left of center, especially on the big cultural issues, and he's been with them on most of the spending issues. Sinema could be a moderate Republican in the George W. Bush Republican Party. So, she is more to the middle and more to the - I don't know where it, I don't even know if those words apply anymore.

BASH: Well, yes. And yes, Bernie Sanders is in a category of his own, because he's Bernie Sanders, and he's in Vermont. Someone like Angus King is maybe a better example. Because if he had to run in a Republican primary or Democratic primary in order to get on the ballot in Maine, it's unclear if he would even survive that.

And so, especially now, and so, because we have a lot of moderates, again, in the House, and even some in the Senate who decided not to run or outright lost in their primaries. It is a question of whether there could be a vehicle for them, and Sinema would just be starting that train.

KANNO-YOUNGS: Broadly here, doesn't it just show as well, though, just how many different factions are in these different parties. And when you're trying to pass legislation with this slim majority, and you have to appeal to all of these different factions. That's going to be a significant challenge going forward.

KING: States are changing, the country is changing, technology is changing, the economy is changing. All the volatility was going to be a volatile two years anyway, all the more fascinating now. Up next for us. The WNBA star Brittney Griner back on American soil, that after 10 months in Russian detention. And yes, her fans excited.


KUMAR BHUSHAN, PHOENIX RESIDENT & BASKETBALL FAN: I think it's awesome days in Phoenix. I think that she should come home later but join because it's legal here, you know, yes, don't go back to Russia. We're not, yes, we're not, we're not big fans of Russia. So, team USA, team Phoenix, Arizona is where it's at.





KING: Today the WNBA star Brittney Griner is back home that after 10 months in Russian custody. In just moments, we'll talk to one of her WNBA colleagues about this return and what comes next. Up first for us though, a high stakes showdown in federal court right now.

The Justice Department argues Donald Trump should be held in contempt for failing to comply with a subpoena to turn over all classified documents. Today's hearing comes amid several Trump losses in the courts. Just yesterday, for example, we learned the former president has decided he will not appeal a ruling that helps the Justice Department by removing the third-party who had been appointed to review the documents the FBI recovered from Mar-a-Lago.

Let's get some reporting and perspective from CNN's Sara Murray, and the former federal prosecutor, Renato Mariotti. Sara explained the stakes of this. The Justice Department could have just said, keep giving us the documents back. We're mad, we don't have our documents back.

This is an aggressive posture to go into court and ask a judge to hold a former president United States in contempt. The Justice Department says, as good case that we wanted these documents a long time ago and they've been trickling back and lo and behold, they just found two more.

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right. If you don't want to Trump's lawyers just showed up at the courthouse, this hearing supposed to get underway this afternoon. I think it gives you an idea of how contentious things have gotten sort of behind the scenes. All of this is playing out in secret court proceedings.

Oh, we know is yes, the Justice Department has not been satisfied. They said, we gave you this subpoena. Then the FBI went to Mar-a-Lago. We found this mess of documents are classified. You guys did your own search. You found more documents that are classified, and he won't designate someone as the point person, as the custodian of records to sign this attestation that says, we've looked, we've handed over everything with classified markings.

Now the Trump team has searched for properties. They just found those two additional documents. I think, you know, their argument is sort of we've done enough, we've done a diligent search. This should be sufficient. Obviously, the Justice Department does not believe so. They have specific questions about how the search was conducted at Bedminster and whether that was sufficient, that's what the judge do.

KING: And so, we're now coming on two questions. That number one, do you find it to be normal, proper, aggressive? What's the right word for the Justice Department saying we want to contempt citation because we've just - we've had enough here. We've been at this for months. And to Sara's other point. This is from her reporting this morning with her and her colleague Gabby Orr.

The Trump team has not named anyone to serve as custodian of records, in part because anyone selected would almost certainly face legal jeopardy, according to a source. Being the idea that you don't want to be the attorney that signs a piece of paper that says, we've returned them all because they keep finding out they haven't returned them all.


RENATO MARIOTTI, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Yes. Look, John, this is not normal. It's very aggressive, but it's very warranted because the DOJ has been lied to before, right? They were told that they had all the documents they needed that, you know, that all of the government documents, they actually, you know, went down to Mar-a-Lago. They were misled by Trump's attorneys. There was a signed certification back then, that they had everything.

Of course, when they went back to Mar-a-Lago, there was a whole slew of classified information that they ended up, seizing that had not been disclosed, despite that certification. So, they're understandably skeptical. We also had this recent reporting that there were some classified documents found in the storage unit just recently, right? So obviously, they're concerned.

You know, why is this not normal house is not normal? Well, look, I represent big companies all the time when they are responding to government inquiries. And they take very seriously their obligations, when the government says you have to produce.

So, you know, such documents, they are very careful performed diligent searches, and the government is used to relying on the people who are being subpoenaed, to be diligent, to be on top of things and to care about telling the truth to the government. So, you know, I do it times, make representations myself on behalf of those clients to the government because I'm not concerned about losing my law license. I know those companies are trying to do the right thing.

Here, of course, any lawyer will be crazy, because they don't want him to sign something on behalf of Trump, because we already have multiple lawyers who have been interviewed by the Justice Department, you know, and potentially have their own liability because they've ultimately made a certification that turned out to be false. And so understandably, attorneys are pretty cautious about doing that here.

KING: Well, to that end, over the weekend, the January 6 committee will meet. They're trying to come up with a final report and be, how many criminal referrals, how specifically they want to be to the Justice Department. Your part of the reporting that says, in addition to possibly and most likely Donald Trump, the former president United States.

Mark Meadows, his former Chief of Staff, John Eastman, one of his lawyers. Back to Renato's point, Jeffrey Clark, a former Department of Justice official, Rudy Giuliani, another one of Trump lawyers. Do we know this is done? Or we know these are the leading candidates as they meet this weekend?

MURRAY: It's not a done deal. We know that these are names that they are considering that also may not be an exhaustive list. They haven't decided how many of these they actually want to do. You know, when I was talking to Bennie Thompson yesterday with some other reporters, they said, we didn't get into this to do criminal referrals.

And in the course of our investigation, we ran into evidence, we ran into facts that we didn't feel like we could just ignore. We didn't feel like we couldn't send this stuff over to the Justice Department. So now, they do have to figure out how specific can they get on this? What is the basis going to be and how wide is the universe of people going to be? So those will be, you know, a top tier list of candidates right now, but doesn't mean they'll be on the final list. And it doesn't mean the final list won't be bigger than that.

KING: It's an important week and we'll be back here Monday to figure it out. Renato Mariotti, I appreciate your time. Sara Murray as well, important perspective. We'll see where we get this weekend up. Next for us, the WNBA star Brittney Griner being checked out by doctors in Texas right now. We'll talk to one of her WNBA colleagues who for months pressed for her release. Next?




KING: Brittney Griner is back on American soil. The WNBA star landing in San Antonio just before 6am this morning. That after being swapped into prisoner exchange with a convicted Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout. Top White House aide John Kirby says, Griner quote, appears to be in good health but that she will undergo a full medical evaluation before joining her family.

Griner getting off the plane, seen wearing a beanie and a red coat. 295 days of course after being detained last February, that looks like the same outfit she was wearing, leaving the Russian penal colony in this video released by Russian TV yesterday.

Let's get some perspective from one of the WNBA colleagues who for months fought every day to keep Griner's plight front and center. Elizabeth Williams plays for the Washington Mystics and is the secretary of the WNBA Players Association. Elizabeth grateful for your time today. First, let me just start with someone who every day thought about this for these past months and months and months. What did it feel to see Brittney Griner get off that plane this morning and you get to exhale finally?

ELIZABETH WILLIAMS, WASHINGTON MYSTICS: Yes. Obviously, a big sigh of relief. All of us throughout the WR absolutely ecstatic to see Brittney home to her family. And we're so grateful for President Biden, the entire administration, the special envoy for hostage affairs and all that they did and getting her home.

KING: So, one of the questions now is what comes next, and obviously all of us care first is, how is Brittney doing from a mental health perspective, from a physical health perspective, and then she'll have time with her family, and she can figure out what's next.

This also put on the table though the big issue of many of your colleagues, playing overseas when the WNBA is not in season, because of the disparity in how much you can make here, playing professional women's basketball in the United States. This is the WNBA commissioner this morning saying, she hopes things are getting better, but not there yet. Listen?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) CATHY ENGELBERT, WNBA COMMISSIONER: We're never going to say they can't play in other leagues in our offseason. But we're focused on driving higher pay for sure, driving opportunities to pay the players and get them better benefits, and but we need the whole sports ecosystem to step up here. We're chipping away at it, you know, Rome wasn't built in a day.


KING: Is that environment getting better in terms of the popularity? The league is certainly getting better. The TV contract is a little better than it was a few years ago. Endorsement deals seem to be getting a little bit better. Or do you still see a lot of pressure? Will some of your colleagues, what happens if the call came to yourself. Would you go play in Russia at this moment?