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Inside Politics

Sinema Shakes Up Senate In Switch From Democrat To Independent; Trump Endures One Of His Roughest Patches Since Entering Politics; Mccarthy Still Searching For 218 Votes For Speaker; Gop Holdouts Threaten Mccarthy's Speaker Bid; Brittney Griner Back Home After 10 Months In Russian Captivity; Supreme Court Hears Case That Could Upend U.S. Election Laws. Aired 8-9a ET

Aired December 11, 2022 - 08:00   ET





ABBY PHILLIP, CNN HOST (voice-over): A gut punch to the Democratic Party.

SEN. KYRSTEN SINEMA (I-AZ): I registered as an Arizonan independent. I know some people might be surprised by this. But, actually, I think it makes a lot of sense.

PHILLIP: How much of an impact will the bombshell move have on the Democrats newly secured Senate majority?

Plus, Donald Trump suffers another week of brutal setbacks.

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Georgia may be remembered as the state that breaks Donald Trump.

PHILLIP: The mounting losses and the growing legal troubles have some in this party asking, is it finally time to move on?

And, Kevin McCarthy vows he'll never leave, even as his road to speaker grows deeper.

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): If we can't find a way to fight speaker, nothing else happens.



An earthquake shook the Democratic Party on Friday. Less than three days after Democrats scored a resounding victory in Georgia, Senator Kyrsten Sinema, that unorthodox centrist from Arizona, abruptly announced that she's leaving the party and registering as an independent.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SINEMA: 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.

What I think is important about this decision in this move I'll be able to show up to work every day as an independent. And I won't be, you know, stuck into one party's demands of following without thinking.


PHILLIP: Sinema's announcement came as a surprise, but the move did not, she has been thinking about quitting the Democratic Party for years, opposing key agenda items, rarely attending caucus meetings and weekly lunches.

But Senate Majority Chuck Schumer assured his party that Sinema would still maintain her committee posts, allowing Democrats to keep their outright majority intact, which led to reactions from her colleagues that were more drugs than gas.


SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN): I don't think it's going to greatly change the way the Senate is working right now. And in any way take away from the victory that Democrats have.

SEN. ALEX PADILLA (D-CA): I'm a little surprised, but I think not shocked because you've seen how she has gone about her work as a senator the last couple of years.

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D-DE): Frankly, I don't think this will change very much.

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D-MD): I do not believe her decision to identify as an independent will change the organizational issues in the next Congress.


PHILLIP: Let's discuss all of this and more with Leigh Ann Caldwell of "The Washington Post", Zolan Kanno-Youngs of "The New York Times", Sarah Longwell of "The Bulwark", and CNN's own Phil Mattingly.

So, Leigh Ann, the 51st vote victory really lasted three days. And then on Friday, this bombshell happened. Sinema really has been kind of asking for this for a long time, were you surprised?

LEIGH ANN CALDWELL, WASHINGTON POST EARLY 202 CO-AUTHOR: You know, it's like surprise but not surprised. I was surprised that I woke up Friday morning to this news that it happened then, I am not surprised at the big picture.

PHILLIP: The timing was a little bit, there are some question marks about that.

CALDWELL: So, Sinema allies say the timing was good. She waited until after the midterms, after the Georgia runoff, she did not try to screw the Democratic Party, she said -- they say she did an indifference to the Democratic Party. She's very close with Raphael Warnock. And so, there is that timing.

There's other people who thought, well, maybe, why doesn't she do this actually closer to when she announces she's going to run for reelection? So, there is that timing component.

I think the Democratic senators are saying, that you played, that it's not going to change a lot in the senate, I think that is true. The biggest change with the 51st senator was in the committee process. And now that they have peer subpoena power, now they're not going to have evenly split committees between Republicans and Democrats, it seems like even with Sinema as an independent, the Democrats are still going to have that.

The biggest question down the road is what is going to happen? Is the Democratic Party going to support her in her primary?

PHILLIP: Yeah. I think, right, that's going to be a big huge question. You made the point that she could have done it closer to one to announce reelection, but it seemed clear to me from the interview that she did with Jake that she didn't want this to be seen as a political move, but when you look at what's been going on in Arizona -- first of all, she's really airy needed her left flank in that state.


But in the exit polls in November, we kind of got a sense of where the Arizona electorate is. And a whopping 40 percent of that electorate identifies is independent. And quite a lot of Republicans in that state feel abandoned. They were maybe McCain Republicans. They're not very aligned with their Arizona Republican Party either.

So, what's the window, Sarah?

SARAH LONGWELL, PUBLISHER OF THE BULWARK: Yeah, because she's alienated some Democrats, she has a narrow path to reelection. She has to put together an independent coalition of centrist left leaning voters, independents, and center-right voters. It's possible, she could do that.

I will say, I've done a lot of focus groups in Arizona because it was a swing state, it was a battleground state this last election. And the thing Republicans say is that they like Sinema. They like her because she is kicking Democrats. They see her as a thorn in the Senate Democrats.

But they don't necessarily see her some other eager to vote for because she still votes with Democrats. So, they still see her as a Democrat. She maybe has a narrow path, but it also could be the sour spot with a lot of voters.

PHILLIP: Yeah, one of the interesting things, Sinema is such an interesting character. I mean, just look at her and how she presents herself on the Hill. She is a colorful figure. But back in the day, this was back in 2003, here's what she said about sort of Blue Dog Joe Lieberman, a Democrat who turned independent later.

She said, he is a shame to Democrats, I don't know why he's running, he seems to want to get Republicans voting for him, what kind of strategy is that? He's just pathetic.

This was Kyrsten Sinema who is now herself kind of pitching herself to Republicans.

PHIL MATITNGLY, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: The evolution of Kyrsten Sinema from what she was and state party politics to what she was in the House, who she was in the House politically what she was in the house to where she is now, it's fascinating. It has been a progression to which there really is a comparison that I could think of in the near term, from very far-left bordering on, you know, Green Party, almost socialist to some degree, now very much at the center of everything.

I do think, the one thing that's interesting, at least talking a White House officials on Friday morning, and I would agree, 6:00 a.m. on a Friday, I had too many kids to deal with that at six a.m. on a Friday, I did not appreciate the timing necessarily. There is a sense of it could've been a lot worse, right?

When you talk about it, you've dealt with here, this includes the president to some degree, she's been Rubik's cube for them over the course of the last two years. They can count on her vote, as you noted, 93 percent attempts to both Joe Biden. She almost always votes for the nominees. They don't think that's going to change. That is a big deal. The committee and where the majority stands, no sense that is in the change as well.

But they have always found her a very difficult kind of thorny individual to try and pin down on specific issues. And yet, she has also been a critical player in some of their biggest bipartisan bills. That relationship will continue up until this point.

The one thing that will matter though, and I think it's going to be something we don't necessarily have a full grasp on yet, there is going to be a lot of feeding to ensure, we allowed you to stand committees, you need to stay with us on this, how does that process work going forward? It's going to take a lot of work.

ZOLAN KANNO-YOUNGS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: You had a key point when it comes to the White House kind of view of this, we have to remember that Sinema has voted and supported much of President Biden's agenda, but also on some of his tax policies, she's been a holdout as well, she has shown already throughout the past two years that she can be somebody to push back against the administration as well.

We have to remember that, yes, the White House is currently celebrating the summer they've had, the Inflation Reduction Act. Some of those proposals when Biden came into office are much larger and more sprawling, partially because of the slim majority and to particular holdout senators, one of those being Senator Sinema.

PHILLIP: Is there no truth to this idea she is implying that the Democratic Party has gone too far to the left? Actually take a listen to Raphael Warnock. He just won that seat.

Leigh Ann, you just said that they are friends, close to some extent, whatever that means in this context. Listen to how he kind of positioned himself on election night on Tuesday.


SEN. RAPHAEL WARNOCK (D-GA): I want all of Georgia to know, whether you voted for me are nine, that every single day I am going to keep working for you. I'm proud of the bipartisan work I've done, I intended more, because I actually believe that at the end of the day were all Americans, I believe in that American covenant.


PHILLIP: Is the rhetoric about the left swaying overblown? He would not have won that series out a pivot to the center.

CALDWELL: And I think progressives really were not the winners in this entire midterm election, the more moderate Democratic candidates won in the primaries. It's proved to be successful in the general election.

Yes, I think that, you know, I think you just have to look at each state.

[08: 10:02]

Arizona is a state where Mark Kelly ran to the center. He ran as a moderate, and he won.

Kyrsten Sinema, though, her problem is that she has upset the base so much because Mark Kelly has those Democrats who are for her. So, if there is a three-way race in Arizona between a Republican, Kyrsten Sinema, and a Democrat, it's going to -- some are worried that she's going to be a spoiler, but it also is going to depend on who the Republican candidate is running against her. Is it someone on the extreme, or more moderate candidate?

PHILLIP: Yeah, I think that is such a huge factor in this midterms. These extreme candidates in Arizona basically handed a governor seat and the Senate seat to the Democrats at the end of the day.

But coming up next for us, just wouldn't seem that things couldn't get worse for former President Trump, they did. That's next.


PHILLIP: This week was undoubtedly one of the worst weeks of Donald Trump's political career.

[08:15:03] And that comes after two very, very bad weeks for the former President Trump.

In just the last 26 days since he launched his bid to return to the White House, a special counsel was appointed. He had dinner with antisemites Kanye West and Nick Fuentes. Multiple associates were ordered to testify about him. He recorded a video for the families of jailed a January 6th rioters. He called for the termination of the Constitution. His company was convicted of tax fraud and other handpicked candidate in Georgia suffered a stinging defeat, and he hosted a prominent QAnon backer and more classified documents were found in a storage unit.

And that is just a partial list. All of this has left his allies questioning whether the former president is finally becoming a liability.

Now, we can roll the Star Wars credits for about ten minutes on that one. The is there any reason to think that this is not going to get worse for the Republican Party dealing with the shenanigans from former President Trump?

MATTINGLY: I think the big question is, is there any reason to think the Republican Party is actually going to break from him to some degree? The reason why I say that is because there is no question that Republicans that we have all been speaking to over the course of the last two weeks have been in a different place than they had been in the six years prior.

And yet over the course of six years, I feel like we've had 50 of these moments where this is going to be the time. The grip finally loosens. And everybody starts to move away from him. And so, it's one of those I will believe it when I see it. Lawmaker quotes will not trigger it.

The reality is that the biggest moment here is in the midterm elections, because when Donald Trump loses his power, it is when Republicans no longer think they can ride him to winds or more importantly when relic and voters in the constituents are no longer saying, step by Trump or we will primary you when you will lose.

LONGWELL: This is the key.

MATTINGLY: That's everything.

LONGWELL: All of Trump's power emanates from the voters. And so, I've done a bunch of focus groups with Trump voters since the midterms. And here's the thing, they are not ready to break with Trump, but they are ready to shop. They are ready to look at some alternatives.

So, you know, we ask people, hey, were you enthusiastic about Donald Trump's announcement? They were like, meh, yeah, a vote for him if he is the nominee, but they were much more interested in seeing people like DeSantis get in the race. They talk about Kristi Noem.

There is a real sense of, I think it's time we turn the page. I think it's time to move on. And it's not -- you know, they're not pundits. They are not like, oh, he's costing us elections.


LONGWELL: It's that they think he has too much baggage. They don't want to go through another four years of the orange man bad, everyone is angry all the time, that polarization. They think they have -- a lot of it for them came down to electability. They want to see someone who they think can win and can beat Joe Biden. They're not sure that's Trump anymore.

PHILLIP: I think people are also just really tired.


PHILLIP: They are tired of the back and forth, the fight over Thanksgiving dinner, all of that. We did this week kind of see a little bit more of an inching towards saying that T-word among some Republicans. They were actually clear about Trump's role in all of this. Take a listen.


GOV. ASA HUTCHINSON (R), ARKANSAS: The Republican Party has to really look deep into our soul. We need to first of all understand that there is a price to be paid whenever you have a Trump endorsement.

SEN. JOHN THUNE (R-SD): The Democrats in many cases were able to kind of turn into a choice election because of Trump's presence out there. So, you know, was he a factor? I don't think there's any question about that.


PHILLIP: Are you seeing a little bit more of that on the Hill? I think Asa Hutchinson is not a huge surprise, but John Thune was clear. To me that, stood out.

CALDWELL: Yeah. So, Senator Thune is the number two senator in the Republican Party. He has been critical of Trump for a couple years, but never explicitly said that he is not going to support him. I sat down with him and talk to him for a 30-minute interview. He still would not say that he would not support him if he was the nominee even though he does not think that Trump should run again. He does not think he should be the standard bearer of the party.

And I flat out asked him, why can't Republicans break from Trump? Because we know it is the voters. It is one thing to hear Republicans say it. He said that. He said that we have to be very careful because Trump still has a lot of support among the Republican base. And that means that you can't win a primary election without Trump but you also can't win a general election with Trump.

So, that's the challenge that Republicans are in right now and they're going to have to make a decision on how to handle this.

KANNO-YOUNGS: It's hard to really believe that Trump might not have a grip on the party. I go back to the weeks after January 6th when you saw some relic in the leaders condemn him, say his name. And then just a couple weeks later, you saw Kevin McCarthy go to Mar-a-Lago as well.


The political factor here, the impact that he had on the midterms is probably going to be the thing which continues to really be a factor moving forward. His handpicked candidate in Georgia lost. That adds to that as well.

PHILLIP: And you hear it from Mitt Romney. The other side of this says that this should not just be that Trump loses. That is the reason that they step away. It should be other things. Take a listen.


SEN. MITT ROMNEY (R-UT): It's going to be hard to knock him off as our nominee. If he became our nominee, I think he loses again.

CALDWELL: Would you support him if he's the nominee?

ROMNEY: Absolutely not. And it's not just because he loses. I mean, that's the reason I offered to other people who are big fans of his, but it's also that he is simply not a person who ought to have the reins of the government of the United States.


PHILLIP: Leigh Ann, great interview that you did with him, but very few Republicans are willing to say that.

CALDWELL: He is an outlier.


LONGWELL: Here is the thing, though. Trump is at his weakest moment right now. And he was week after January 6th. The problem is what Republicans did in that moment is Kevin McCarthy went down to Mar-a- Lago and resurrected him.

Republicans have to do something about Trump. They have to say his name. They have to go on offensive. They don't want him driving down the party. They have got to actually do something about it.

And if they just sit their insults and hope he crumbles under the weight of his own scandal, that's the movie we've all seen before. That's the thing we know doesn't just happened. They're going to have to do something.

MATTINGLY: That's the biggest thing. And it was the thing after, you know, calling for the dissolution of the Constitution, which is the entire animating factor of the Republican Party, allegedly, and that was not enough to get everyone to come out. It is felt like we were doing a rerun.

Sarah's point, though, so critical here. There were like a dozen Republicans who were either weighing presidential bids or thinking about presidential bids, and a great number of them are the epitome of, well, they have the policy that we like, they have the aggressive response is that Trump had but they don't have all the baggage, they don't have the antisemites that they are hanging out with. They're not calling for the dissolution of the Constitution.

There are real alternatives I think for the first time on the national stage. Is that what causes the turn in the voters that leads to the turn in a lawmakers and policymakers? I don't know. But that's the different -- that's the wild card I think.

PHILLIP: I think one of the biggest problems for Republicans is not a lot of them are waiting for this to just sort itself out. I think that to your point, Sarah, that's a great recipe for Donald Trump getting 30 percent of the vote and winning the Republican nomination.

Now, coming up next for us, the math is not mathing for Kevin McCarthy and his bid for the speaker's gavel. How much more will he have to give up in order to get to that 218? Coming up.



PHILLIP: I'll never leave -- those are the three words that are both a promise and a threat from Kevin McCarthy that he's been issuing to his caucus. The Republican leader is making it clear that she will not drop out of the speaker's race even though he is running out of time and leverage.

So, McCarthy's effort to bartering and cajoling and have yet to move the removing holdouts. So, he's adding a new thing to his list of tactics. Listen.


MCCARTHY: What we don't want to happen is that we can't open on January 3rd to see what is happening at Twitter and Facebook and the others. We can't have the investigations. We cannot secure our borders. We cannot repeal 87,000 IRS agents, because that's what will happen if we continue this problem.

PHILLIP: It's kind of like how you negotiated with your kids. You're like, if you don't, just let me do this. We're not going to be able to have candy tomorrow.

It's really -- it's really emblematic of how this has been for him, Zolan. He is running out of time. He is running out of treats to hand out to the freedom caucus.

ZANNO-YOUNG: And it's going to be interesting to see how he continues to provide incentives going forward in these negotiations and how that could dictate the next two months on the Hill as well. Whether or not that means calling Mayorkas down to the Hill, whether it means establishing a subcommittee to compete with China, whether means kicking were Democratic lawmakers off of committees as well, how far is he going to have to go content tend to continue to get these votes?

And what would that mean moving forward both for the legislative outlook for the Biden administration, but also just the shape up of Congress moving forward as well?

PHILLIP: So, right now, where things stand, Leigh Ann, we have a bunch of holdouts, about five of them. He can only really afford to lose one of them. But then there are more who are what we are characterizing as maybes. They've kind of indicated that they would oppose him.

So, what are the whispers on the Hill about how this ends?

CALDWELL: Yeah. So, I mean, you laid that out perfectly. There are the five who have been very vocally opposed. He can't lose that many.

And then there's a lot of talk that there's actually a lot more people who don't support him. They are so vocal about it. They work we are in the scenes, so this is very, very difficult.

This will go to the house floor. There will be a vote. Republicans and Democrats will vote and he, McCarthy, asked to get 218 in order to win. If he doesn't, then he says there is going to be other votes, another vote called. Maybe he can pick up more each time there is a new vote.

PHILLIP: That has not happened in about 100 years since 1923.

CALDWELL: Yeah. It could be an education for all of us. He actually has a challenger, too, Andy Biggs has said he's going to run against him. That makes it more difficult than if it were just McCarthy trying to get 218 votes.

PHILLIP: So, these -- some of these opponents of McCarthy, this is what I have been saying. Matt Rosendale, change in Washington starts with electing the right speaker.

Matt Gaetz said, "McCarthy is not the right leader for the moment."

Andy Biggs, who is putting himself up as an alternative, he's running to replace McCarthy and the house speaker and break the establishment.

But is there any real sense that there's a real alternative that these folks can actually get 218 for?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: No. And I think that's the important -- that's kind of the other side of this. Look we are all watching how Leader McCarthy tries to whip the votes and clearly short at the moment. And obviously this is a very difficult and complex process.

I would note, a lot of people say a lot of things and promptly (INAUDIBLE) a lot until they get to the house floor. Thing cans change pretty fast when that happens.

But tell me who takes it instead. Who else can get 218 votes? I get it, it doesn't have to be in the conference, it could be somebody else who's not going to be. But who else can get 218? It's not Andy Biggs. It's certainly not Matt Gaetz.


MATTINGLY: Right. It's still who comes underneath McCarthy and who's plotting that we don't know about or something like that?

But until an alternative shows itself and it probably wouldn't until you get to the house floor or, you know, 24 hours before it becomes very clear he doesn't have 218 and has no path, that's when an alternative rises. And I think that just underscores the point here. There's so much to play out over the course of the next several weeks that predicting how this is going to go is just kind of a fool's errand.

One thing I would say is like McCarthy's words, three words, "I will never leave" is literally like me at the bar in college at 2:00 a.m. and I end up leaving because you don't have a choice.


MATTINGLY: So it will be very interesting to see how this plays out. Yes, you eventually get kicked out.

PHILLIP: There's also another not dynamic happening where some of the moderates are saying this is ridiculous. We might though partner with the other side. Take a listen.


REP. DON BACON (R-NE): 85 percent of the vote went for Kevin McCarthy. I think it's our obligation to now coalesce and be a team.

I've been public that if a small group refuses to play ball and be part of the team that we'll work across the aisle to find an agreeable Republican but I hope we don't get there.


SARAH LONGWELL, PUBLISHER, THE BULWARK: I love this. I love this idea. I think they should do it.

PHILLIP: How real do you think this is?

LONGWELL: Well, it's like, you know, Aaron Sorkin West Wing fantasy politics.

PHILLIP: That's true.

LONGWELL: Sounded like we're going to band together with the all the Democrats and elected moderate Republican. I am here for that strategy. I think the biggest problem is you could probably get some of the moderate Republicans. I think getting all of the Democrats to vote for a Republican is actually the bigger hurdle here. I wish they would. I think that would be a tremendous moment for our country. But I think that's a (INAUDIBLE).

CALDWELL: And the challenge is even if McCarthy wins he is going to be so weakened from the time he starts and it's going to be a very drama- filled Congress.

PHILLIP: And his right flank is going to -- has already been empowered. They're going to be even more so.

I do want to take a moment just to -- something that happened on the Hill. There was a January 6 medal ceremony in which the awardees basically snubbed the Republicans, both McCarthy and Mitch McConnell.

Zolan, just what do you make of this extraordinary moment? It's a reflection of the distance between Republican, the party of law enforcement and the survivors and the families of January 6 who feel totally abandoned.

ZOLAN KANNO-YOUNGS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, NEW YORK TIMES: And you know, we were talking in the last segment about some of the ramifications of almost the Trumpification of the party in a way, the grip he still holds.

There are still many members of law enforcement as well as relatives of first responders that responded that day that followed in the weeks after when members seemed to choose loyalty to the former president over accountability of the situation at hand.

And we're still seeing that play out there. Those raw emotions that we saw that day and I think it's important to remember that it's been a while since January 6, since January 6 but for those families I mean it's going to last for them forever.

PHILLIP: And Sarah, just a couple seconds left here but it is extraordinary to me how the January 6 thing seems to fly under the radar but that seems to be a big oversight on the Republican Party, moving away from what seems to be a core value of law and order.

LONGWELL: Yes. I think that, you know, I just think that moment there it was brutal for McCarthy. I just think that it was. It was a time of raw emotions and they wanted to send a message. They wanted to send a message to Republicans that you have not been here for us after this brutal attack on January 6.

And I think that was the biggest way to send a message to McCarthy that he was the reason that Donald Trump got resurrected in that moment and I thought that was -- I thought it was powerful.

PHILLIP: Incredibly powerful.

And coming up next for us, the White House celebrates bringing Brittney Griner home but some in Washington now fear that the price may have been too steep.


(COMMERCIAL BREAK) PHILLIP: BG is finally back home. Now take a look at the moment that Russia released WNBA star Brittney Griner in exchange for convicted arms trafficker Viktor Bout. That is Griner there in the red jacket on the left and Bout is the one holding the envelope there in the center.

She flew back to the U.S. after 10 months in Russian captivity and it was all smiles at the White House for President Biden and her wife Cherelle.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's My job as president of the United States to make the hard calls and protect American citizens everywhere in the world, anywhere in the world. And I'm proud that today we have made one more family whole again.

CHERELLE GRINER, WIFE OF BRITTNEY GRINER: The most important emotion that I have right now is just sincere gratitude for President Biden and his entire administration. It's a happy day for me and my family so I'm going to smile right now.



PHILLIP: But that joy was somewhat tempered by the fact that another prisoner former Marine Paul Whelan remains in Russian custody, as well as concerns on Capitol Hill that the deal could ultimately encourage other countries to also detain Americans.


SENATOR CHRIS COONS (D-DE): That's the risk is that the more we engage in such exchanges the more Americans are at risk of being scooped up and held as leverage to try and secure the release of folks who we would rather not have to release.


PHILLIP: That coming from Chris Coons, a close ally of President Biden's. This is hard stuff obviously, right? No easy choices here.

And the Biden administration, to me it's been fascinating to watch how they have really taken this issue up and they said we are going to do this. We are going to free as many Americans as we can.

How did that unfold?

MATTINGLY: There has been an evolution over the course of two years, really over the course of even of the last 10 or 11 months in terms of their willingness to engage both with countries and leaders that hold American citizens but also with the families as well. You know, there's been a different level of engagement, understanding the pain and the lack of information that these families have gotten over the course of several administrations, not just this administration. If you look over the course of the last 10 or 11 months, the number of hostages, U.S. hostages that have been released in Venezuela, not just Brittney Griner but also Trevor Reed in Russia, there have been, I think a half dozen or more.

And in large part that's because there's been a different kind of approach here and a different willingness to engage in negotiations and to release people that are being held here.

And downsides are very real. The risks that have driven the approach prior to now is precisely what Senator Coons was laying out. The calculation made by the president inside an administration where there were very real -- there was very real opposition from the Justice Department, from others in the intelligence community to this (INAUDIBLE), the president deciding that this was a decision to get an American home, even if it left one American over, this was the only deal that was available. He wanted to take it because of the family, because of Brittney Griner, because of the opportunity he was willing to make that decision. Whether or not there are after effects of that. Obviously --


PHILLIP: And also perhaps to take cards of the table for Putin.


PHILLIP: But as we were discussing, it didn't take very long for Republicans to start pouncing on this. Just take a listen to what they have been saying over the last few days.


REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA), MINORITY LEADER: Think about the exchange here. The merchant of death for a WNBA star who was picked up for marijuana. What a victory for Putin.

SEN. TOM COTTON (R-AR): He realized that he could use her as leverage with Joe Biden to get back one of the world's most dangerous man.

SEN. RAND PAUL (R-KY): Having a celebrity being equivalent to a killer or an arms merchant, you know, it's easy to see that this doesn't seem like a fair trade.


PHILLIP: So whatever happened to celebrating an American coming back home from, you know, murderous dictatorship? That just goes out the window.

CALDWELL: Yes, absolutely. I mean the Republican Party is the party of the opposition right now and they are not willing to support much what President Biden does. And you know, there are questions that could be asked why this was made, why not wait for Whelan? You know.

Those are legitimate questions but to attack and dismiss Brittney Griner's release as something that wasn't adequate is a whole new level.

PHILLIP: I just want to for one second show you something because this is also a part of it, too. Here's a tweet from Don Jr. He says, "The Biden administration was apparently worried that their DEI score, that's diversity equity and inclusion score, would go down if they freed an American marine."

And I want you to just take in that and then take also in this from David Whelan who is Paul Whelan's brother. He says, "Former President Trump appears to have mentioned my brother Paul Whelan's wrongful detention more in the last 24 hours than he did in the two years of his presidency in which Paul was held hostage by Russia. Zero. I don't suggest he cares any more than he did then. Zero."

So this is about kind of saying oh Biden did this because it was a black woman but the Whelan family is saying we asked Trump to free my brother, who was by the way, taken under Trump.

KANNO-YOUNGS: Right. I mean it seems it's more politically advantageous to appeal to the white grievances in the country to portray President Biden as well as weak. This is all part of also under the umbrella of attacking him on law and order, attacking him on foreign policy, trying to make him appear weak.

But it seems that's more politically advantageous and as you were saying celebrating an American coming home as well. It's a trend that we have seen as well, you were saying but it's a party of opposition.

But you know, when you look at as well Paul Whelan's family come out and also say and note rightly there were opportunities for this in the past. There were opportunities in the previous administration.

Also worth noting, we reported -- my colleagues reported that the Biden administration as well was pushing for an arrangement to get Paul Whelan. Russia wanted a former assassin currently being held in Germany, not exactly easy to arrange a three-way deal with Germany given he's not in U.S. custody.

PHILLIP: And of course, obviously prisoner swaps are a bipartisan thing, Republican and Democratic presidents have done including Donald Trump.


LONGWELL: Yes. I mean look, you can have sort of a policy difference and a discussion about the way these things are happening and that's fair. The problem is that this maps (ph) on sort of perfectly to the culture war that we are constantly engulfed in and so you're going to see a lot of Republicans instead of saying hey listen, it is always great when an American comes home, instead they're going to talk about LGBT and woke and, you know, use it as a way to say that Biden is weak.

And it's just unfortunate because it used to be that our politics would, before having a strict policy debate, would acknowledge the positives because instead of it being tribal, his versus ours, the tribe would be America and we would all become the same tribe and saying this is a good thing to have an American home.

PHILLIP: Yes. Great point there.

Coming up next for us though, a radical legal theory is now in front of the Supreme Court and could upend the U.S. election system as we know it.



PHILLIP: The most important case for American democracy since its founding. That is how they might alluded a giant in conservative legal circles describe the latest case to go before the Supreme Court. On its surface, Moore versus Harper looks at whether North Carolina's highest court overstepped its authority when it struck down congressional maps drawn by Republican-controlled legislatures in 2021.

But at the heart of the case is a fringe legal theory which boldly claims that state legislatures have basically unchecked power to decide how federal elections are run.

The justices grappled with that theory during hours of tense oral arguments on Wednesday.


JUSTICE BRETT KAVANAUGH, SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES: Your position seems to go further than Chief Justice' Rehnquist's position in Bush V Gore where he seemed to acknowledge that state courts would have a role interpreting state law.

JUSTICE ELENA KAGAN, SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think what might strike a person is that this is a proposal that gets rid of the normal checks and balances on the way big governmental decisions are made in this country at exactly the time when they are needed most.


PHILLIP: And here to put this all into context for us is Joan Biskupic, CNN's legal analyst and Supreme Court biographer. Joan, people might think that this really came out of nowhere. But this has been a kind of sleeper issue for, you know, 20-something years. And you know, I guess we would call it fringe legal corners.

But just to give us a little bit of table setting, this is where it seems like things stand. You've got three liberal justices on one side, deeply skeptical of this theory, but then conservatives -- Alito, Gorsuch and Thomas have expressed a little bit of openness to it, some openness to it. And then the three to watch -- Kavanaugh, Roberts and Amy Coney Barrett. So where do you think things stand?

JOAN BISKUPIC, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, one thing I would say Abby, is those three on the far right, who you referred to -- Justices Thomas, Gorsuch and Alito, they are actually all in on this. And what was striking, I love that you refer to former Judge Michael Luttig, who we all regard as quite a conservative out there, and he's saying this is so radical.

So it tells you to even have this all aired during -- in these three hours of very tense arguments in that courtroom last week is saying something. So this court is -- a majority at least is open to it, the three you mentioned in the middle. They're here entertaining this idea and it's known as the independent state legislature theory which is sort of hard on our audience's ears.

It really goes to the checks and balances as Elena Kagan said about whether state courts interpreting state constitutions are going to be able to ensure protections for voters in the face of legislative restrictions.

I think that we are going to see some ruling that pulls back on the authority of state judges in some way. I don't think that there's a majority to go as far as those on the right want to go to remove state judges from the calculation.

PHILLIP: That would be I think really extraordinary. And to your point, it's not that a bunch of liberals are saying this. Even conservatives are.

You've got Ben Ginsberg who was part of the Bush V Gore decision which is sort of the origin story of it all. This is what he said about what the consequences could be.


BEN GINSBERG, FORMER LAWYER IN BUSH V GORE: State legislature, as the most representative part of our government, would basically have unchecked powers. They would not be subject to gubernatorial vetoes, not to popular referendums. It would give them the ability, not only to perpetuate themselves in power, but also to form all the rules under federal elections not subject to review.


PHILLIP: I think that this is why this is also problematic. I mean I think it also calls into question the power of voters in the system. I do wonder, Joan, you mentioned that maybe they're trying to find a path. Some people have called this a light version of the independent state legislature theory.

But this is a court that has wanted to go pretty far. The Dobbs decision is a good example. Do you really think that they're trying to find a narrow way forward here, and is that even possible?

BISKUPIC: Whatever they do, if they start to diminish the power of state judges, interpreting state constitution that protect all the voters, they're going to open the door to so many more challenges.

This could just be the first step that, you know, three years from now you and I are going to be talking about how this could actually affect the certification of elections, the decisions on, you know -- even into the electoral college counts because this involves the elections clause of the constitution that says that legislatures should prescribe the time, manner and place of elections, and it could go even further.


BISKUPIC: So my point is that, to go light, as some people are referring to it, is to maybe have a compromise now. But even Justice Alito who wants to go further says that would be the worst thing because we would just have litigation after litigation after litigation, but it might be the best-case scenario for this court right now.

PHILLIP: And this is not a theoretical thing. I mean I think what makes this very scary is that this is a time when legislators at the state level have made it clear that they want to be able to tinker with how elections are done in a partisan way, an explicitly partisan way. I think that's one of the reasons why this has been such a prominent and perhaps, you know, concerning case to a lot of people when it comes to democracy.

Joan, thank you so much for joining us this morning.

And thank you for joining us this morning as well. That's it for INSIDE POLITICS SUNDAY. Don't forget, you can also listen to our podcast. Download INSIDE POLITICS wherever you get your podcast and scan the QR code that you see at the bottom of your screen.

But coming up next here on CNN, "STATE OF THE UNION" with Jake Tapper and Dana Bash. And among Dana's guests this morning, Senator Bernie Sanders.

Thank you again for sharing your Sunday morning with us and have a great rest of your day.