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Inside Politics

Jeff Zients To Take Over As WH Chief Of Staff; CNN: WH To Target 18 House Republicans From Districts Biden Won; AZ Sen.: Dem Gallego Running After Sinema Becomes Independent. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired January 23, 2023 - 12:30   ET




JOHN KING, CNN HOST: First major shakeup in the Biden administration. CNN has learned the former Biden White House COVID coordinator Jeff Zients will replace Ron Klain as the White House Chief of Staff. That transition to come over the next several weeks. The President looking to Zients who's been called a master implementer to keep his agenda moving forward, even as he now faces a very aggressive Republican House and heads into a new campaign cycle. CNN's Eva McKend joins us at the table.

Just the fact we'll get to Jeff, the particulars of Jeff Zients in a minute, just the idea that there's been no turnover. I covered the White House for 10 years, normally, especially around the midterms, a couple of cabinet secretaries leave even, you know, just for burnout reasons or time to move back to the private sector reasons. It is remarkable that we're having this conversation now about the first major turnover in the Biden administration.

EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: It is quite remarkable job, because these are really grueling jobs. But look, it is time, apparently, and, you know, it seems as though in this election, they have a real gatekeeper here, someone who has a good relationship with the President, but also isn't afraid to tell him no. That was a real issue during the last presidency under former President Donald Trump. He could have really benefited, I think, from some more firm folks in his inner circle.

KING: And so let's just look at who is Jeff Zients. Many of you, if you're watching, if you go way back to the Obama administration know but if you were here at the beginning of the administration when the president took over from the Trump administration, had the giant COVID issue, the vaccine rollout. He was the White House COVID coordinator. He was the OMB director back in the Obama years, National Economic Council director, important, because of where the economy is right now. He was brought in to help fix during that debacle. He's been a consultant and a businessman.

He is known to this president, but he's not a longtime Biden guy. That does make it somewhat interesting. He's not. If you look at Ron Klain, if you look at Mike Donilon, you look at most, not all, but most of the people in the tight inner circle go back with Biden for a very long time.

MCKEND: That's right. He's not one of these Biden people who's been with the president for decades and goes back to him with the Senate or the vice presidency. I think part of the appeal of someone like Jeff Zients, who we know Ron Klain handpicked for the job and strongly recommended is that he's a government technocrat. He knows how to marshal the government bureaucracy.

You know, one of the tasks they have which doesn't get as much attention, but is going to be very big for them, is actually implementing these huge laws that they passed over the last couple of years. I think one of the interesting things to watch play out is Ron Klain was very politically savvy. He was very in tune with what was happening on Capitol Hill among Democrats. We know he tweeted a lot. That is not Jeff Zients at all. He doesn't have a lot of political experience. He's been in government. But in terms of the actual politics, that's not where his strength is. So it'll be interesting to see how they kind of redefine the role, especially with an expected reelection coming up.

KING: Well, let's give our viewers just a chance, if you don't recall early on, just so you can see him and hear Jeff Zients, because he will now become an incredibly critically important person in the Biden White House. This is during the transition when the president turned to him to help with a giant challenge, COVID.



JEFF ZIENTS, INCOMING WHITE HOUSE COVID COORDINATOR: Mr. President- elect, we've known each other for a long time, and our relationship has been forged under immense pressure. The severity of the Great Recession, the challenge of implementing the Affordable Care Act, and the daily decisions a White House makes that affect the lives of millions of Americans. The work ahead will not be easy, but we know what needs to be done and we will get it done together.


KING: Does this represent a shift in how they do things, which a lot of White Houses have to do? Number one, you have the new House Republican majority. Is Jeff going to be negotiating with Republicans on the Hill? Ron Klain was a bridge to Democrats, especially liberal Democrats, so you have to keep relations there come, you're heading into a reelection cycle where White Houses often take a couple of campaign people and say, you worry about the campaign. We want this guy to worry about the nuts and bolts and the operations of the White House.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I mean, the fact that it isn't a Ron Klain, it isn't not just a Ron Klain, it isn't Ron Klain. He is a singular character and a singular kind of person in Joe Biden's world because they've gone back since he was Joe Biden's staff director on the Judiciary Committee, they go back so long. And because of the experience that he has on the Hill and on campaigns, it is just different. So by, sort of by definition, there is going to be a new approach.

Biden, because he has so many people around him still from the Senate and people like Louisa Terrell, who's his longtime aide, who now is a legislative affairs person, he has people in place who can do the outreach to the Hill, even if it isn't Jeff Zients. Although I'm sure he's going to do a lot of that, he did as COVID coordinator, no question about it.

But the fact that he, that the President is choosing somebody who is part of his comfort zone and he's not thinking outside the box, so to speak, tells you a lot about that. About that he is thinking to the campaign ahead. He wants to have the White House well run so he can focus his other people on the campaign.

MCKEND: Something else that really struck me, too, is how quickly they moved on this. They didn't give anyone else an opportunity to wage a public campaign.

KING: They made their decision and they implemented it. And someone you trust to mind the store when you're out, presumably on the campaign trail.

Up next, squeeze and shame, brand new CNN reporting on a White House strategy to target, you see them right there, House Republicans from districts carried by President Biden.



KING: The debate over raising the nation's debt ceiling is the first big test of a new White House political strategy focused on the men and women you see right there, 18 house Republicans who represent districts carried by President Biden. White House aides described the strategy as a mix of squeeze and shame with the hope at least some of those 18 will feel pressure back home to work with the Democratic president, at least sometimes.

CNN Isaac Dovere joins our panel to share this reporting. It's obviously part of its logic. You have these Republican congressmen and congresswoman in districts Joe Biden carried. So the idea being, OK, they have to worry about getting votes back home. We can work with them. But one of them, new freshmen in your own reporting, Mike Lawler from California, aren't they going to work to get us to lose next November no matter what? They need to understand they need to come to the table as much as we do. So the target is those 18 at the moment there's some tension, though.

Edward-Isaac Dovere, CNN senior reporter: Well, look, as with everything in congressional negotiations and White House Capitol Hill negotiations, it's a game of chicken, right? Everybody's saying, you really want to be with us. You want to give up on your own interests and realize that your interests are actually our interests. For the White House, for Hill Democrats, this is to say those voters in these districts that were that went for Joe Biden in 2020 were looking for moderate politics. We're looking for anti-chaotic politics and to try to paint these Republicans who are supporting the House Republican majority as being completely opposed to that. But for the Republicans, like Lawler, like others that I spoke to who say, we won in these districts, Joe Biden won in 2020, we won in 2022. Let's see the way this goes for 2024.

KING: Eleven, we could show you 11 of the 18 are from California and New York. You might say those are the bluest of the blue states, if you will. So the White House seems to think these are more likely targets, the New Yorkers maybe, especially in the idea that the debt ceiling debate becomes about financial issues, maybe market turmoil.

YASMEEN ABUTALEB, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: I think also they see a really fractured House Republican Conference and one that they believe will bear the blame if there is a big debt ceiling crisis, because they're making very clear right now they're willing to hold it hostage. This is money that's already been spent. It's not money that they're looking to spend and, you know, that they might be able to break off. Some of these Republicans, I think they see this as part of a broader strategy, too, that there are some of these House Republicans that they can negotiate with on these must pass bills, the debt limit, budget bills, later in the year. I think they feel like they can appeal to them, and it's not going to be popular in their districts to take this kind of stance.

BASH: Which is why Kevin McCarthy has done something very interesting with regard to the debt ceiling strategy, which is he's positioning it right now as the White House taking this entrenched stance and holding the economy hostage by saying, I want to negotiate. Let's talk. And the White House has their line in the sand saying, we are not going to talk. We're not going to negotiate on spending cuts. What the debt ceiling is about paying bills that we've already spent. And so for the moment, we have a long way to go until this is finished. But for the moment, he's positioning himself in a way that gives cover to these 18 moderate Republicans. Like, of course you want to negotiate. That's what we came here to do.


KING: All right, so the White House says, increase the debt ceiling, then we'll talk about anything else. Kevin McCarthy says, no, we won't talk about all at once. Even you look at the 18 again, if we could put them back up on the screen. The White House says, we want to target these guys and women because Joe Biden carried their districts, therefore they have to worry back home. Kevin McCarthy looks at those 18 and in there are some of the people he needs to worry about because a lot of them are the same people who are worried he gave too much to the right to get his job.

MCKEND: Yes. They will be needed on both sides for sure. For the White House, this is a tough balancing act. These are maybe the only people that you can really negotiate with, but at the same time, you're really trying to run them out of town. I think the issue for the White House, though, in terms of this squeeze and shame strategy, is that in order to win these seats, you have to have a good amount of political talent, right? So they are used to being able to, I think, command the right voters and being able to strike this balance.

KING: Let me throw one more wild card into it, the conversation you have with Senator Manchin yesterday. He says, I think it would be a mistake not to negotiate. He's on the ballot in 2024. Senator Sinema, we're going to talk about her in a minute. She's a Democrat turned Independent. John Tester, there are a lot of Democrats from Trump states on the ballot in 2024. Is that the off ramp? Did Democrats in the Senate do something and say, sorry, Mr. President?

BASH: Yes. There's almost no expectation that the White House is going to stick with this we're not negotiating stance because they understand the stakes are high, just as the political realities are going to smack them in the face of moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans saying, we need to do this.

KING: They tried squeezing shame with Manchin in the first two years. Didn't have great luck.

DOVERE: We've got different considerations maybe.

KING: It does indeed. It's official, Arizona Democrat Ruben Gallego, now running for the Senate. The Democrat turned independent. Kyrsten Sinema. She holds that seat right now. If she runs for your election, well, things will get more than interesting.



KING: Progressive Congressman Ruben Gallego officially now in the race to be Arizona's next senator, drawing a clear contrast in his first campaign ad with the Democrat turned independent Kyrsten Sinema.


REP. RUBEN GALLEGO (D-AZ): Growing up poor, the only thing I really had was the American dream and opportunity. It's the one thing that we give every American, no matter where they are born in life. If you're more likely to be meeting with the powerful than the powerless, you're doing this job incorrectly. I'm sorry that politicians have let you down, but I'm going to change it. I'm Ruben Gallego. I'm going to be the Senator of Arizona.


KING: Our great reporters back with us. This could be a fascinating race in the sense that you have an incumbent who's made herself an independent. The Republicans will nominate somebody. Someone will win the Democratic primary, perhaps Congressman Gallego. We don't have that that often.

BASH: A purple state, in a real purple state. So this is going to be like you made the excellent point earlier, Eva, about so many of these incumbents, now incumbents are well known personalities and politicians. That could work to her benefit in Arizona. It could work to her detriment, for sure, given how controversial she's been. But this is going to potentially be a three way race in a state where you have Independents, Democrats and Republicans almost equally represented.

KING: And you look at some of the potential candidates. Senator Sinema has not announced she's running for reelection. The expectation was when she switched from Democrat to Independent because she knew she was going to have a primary. She didn't want to deal with that, so she went for independent. Potential Republican candidates, you see some of them on the screen, including Kari Lake, who still hasn't conceded the last race. Arizona is going to be a presidential year on top of it.

MCKEND: Yes. This is going to be a state to watch, for sure. Senator Sinema has long been accused of putting her personal ambition over party loyalty over her constituents. I remember that really high profile moment when immigrant activists, I believe, from Lucia, Arizona, confronted her. They have often characterized basically feeling betrayed because this is not who they voted for, you know, this evolution of her politics to be this moderate is not who many of the grassroots organizers who door knocked and supported her wanted to see in Washington.

KING: The President's, the head of the party. What does he do here?

ABUTALEB: Well, I was going to say it's going to be interesting to see where the White House comes down on this race. And I think, like Dana said, it's going to come down to whether they think Sinema is just how popular she is, whether how well known she is as an asset or a detriment to her in the 2024 race. It's a really hard map for Democrats in 2024. They have 23 seats to defend. So I think the White House is probably going to come down with who looks most likely to win and some of that. Like were saying earlier, we'll come down to who the Republican candidate is.

KING: If the President needs that state for his electoral map and he's the Democratic nominee, and you have to make that's a fascinating choice, fascinating. That's why we cover politics.


When we come back, an update on this man seen in a photo that went viral with his feet on Speaker Nancy Pelosi's desk back on January 6th.


KING: Topping our political radar today guilty on all counts, the man who put his feet up on Nancy Pelosi's desk after invading the Capitol, Richard Barnett, convicted today on eight felony charges. Barnett repeatedly said at trial he regretted his actions. When the actress Aubrey Plaza hosted Saturday Night Live this weekend, she revealed she was voted the most famous person from Delaware. The second most famous person from Delaware says he accepts the will of the people.


AUBREY PLAZA, AMERICAN ACTRESS: I was actually voted the most famous person from Delaware. I beat Joe Biden. That's a fact. And he was pissed. He was livid. Look at this video he sent me.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: All right, the most famous person out of Delaware, and there's no question about that. We're just grateful you made it out of White Lotus alive.


KING: We'll see you tomorrow. Brianna Keilar picks up our coverage right now.