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FBI Receives First Evidence From Chinese Balloon; Now: Officials Briefing Senate On Chinese Surveillance Balloon; Officials: Downed Chinese Balloon Is An Intelligence Gold Mine; Biden To Paint Republicans As Threat To Social Security, Medicare; This hour: Biden Continues Post-State Of The Union Tour In Florida; Biden: GOP's Dream Is To Cut Social Security & Medicare; Biden: Classified Docs In My Home Are "Stray Papers" From 1974; Soon: House GOP's "Weaponization" Of Govt Cmte Holds First Hearing. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired February 09, 2023 - 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 a very, very busy news day with us. Not your average balloon, U.S. officials sharing new information and they say yes, China was spying. Its balloon, part of a surveillance op, and scooping up communications, snooping on geo locations here in the United States.

Plus, the president's dual-purpose roadshow. Watch me, Joe Biden says, when asked if he's too old for a second term, and today in Florida, state Donald Trump won twice. The president will warn seniors Republicans want to cut Social Security and Medicare, Republicans though, say that's a lie. And duct tape and baling wire. Congress gets new behind the scenes evidence of how southwest sputtered, stranding thousands over Christmas, direct from its pilot shooting.

Up first, though, for us a big new download of information today on that Chinese balloon. That courtesy of classified congressional briefings, American defense officials and the FBI, briefers telling lawmakers behind closed doors up on Capitol Hill.

In their view, the American side won this round of spy games with China. They say Beijing gleaned little intelligence from the balloon. And they say the balloon itself stopped transmitting once the United States discovered it floating above American soil, and these briefers telling Congress they believe Washington has now recovered what amounts to an intelligence goldmine.

Briefers say, the way to shoot it down a lot of skepticism in Congress, but they say the wait to shoot it down born out of concern about some dramatic and sudden escalation with China, and that now they are getting clear intelligence dividends. And just moments ago, the FBI delivering an update on its initial investigation into the debris it has recovered from that suspected spy in the sky.

Let's start there with CNN's Evan Perez. Evan, what are we learning? EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, the FBI, I think like the intelligence community is hoping that they're going to get a lot of information from examining the remains of this balloon. At this point, a lot of it remains underwater. This is the first time that the FBI has been able to examine any parts of one of these balloons. Obviously, we've learned in recent days that there have been a number of them that have been detected crossing U.S. territory.

At this point, right now at the Quantico lab, the FBI lab in Virginia, they have the balloon canopy, they have some wiring some small electronics that were floating at the top of the ocean. The rest of it is still underwater, FBI and the Navy, divers are still working to try to get some of that equipment up to the surface and bring it to the lab.

The obvious thing for the FBI, you know, since they learned about this back on February 1, has been to try to figure out what counterintelligence was - what kind of intelligence could be gleaned from this? What would the FBI - what were the Chinese trying to do? Collecting signals intelligence floating over the U.S. territory. So that's going to be the goal of this. We're expecting to see some photographs of that examination that the FBI has been doing, John, in the coming hours, but a lot more work to do from that standpoint.

KING: Lot more work to do with the FBI, beginning - just beginning to share some information. Evan Perez, appreciate you're kicking us off. Let's go live to the Pentagon now, CNS's Natasha Bertrand joins us. Natasha, you have some new reporting to about just what the United States is learning and what happened in those early days?

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Yes, John. So, a really interesting detail that we are told from sources familiar with the House Intelligence Committee briefing by the administration on this. An interesting subject is, you know, the U.S. believes that the order to send the balloon was actually dispatched by a part of the Chinese government without Xi Jinping's knowledge, without the knowledge of the Chinese leader. And that could actually go some way and easing tensions between President Biden and President Xi Jinping, if that is indeed true.

We're also learning that the U.S. is making the argument that they did not move faster to shoot down this balloon because they were concerned that it could cause escalations and tensions with the Chinese. And so, they wanted to wait for as long as possible, not only because it could, of course, provoke some kind of conflict with the Chinese, but also as the argument that we've seen because it could pose a risk to civilians on the ground there.

In addition to this, the U.S. says that they have been able to collect a lot of intelligence about how this balloon actually worked. And that is another reason they say why they wanted to wait until the balloon had kind of transited the U.S. to see what more they could collect on it. Because ultimately, when this thing first entered U.S. airspace, the U.S. did not believe that they had the authority to shoot it down immediately because they did not believe that it posed a military threat. And finally, we are learning that the balloon was conducting signals collection, signals intelligence collection, while it was over the United States or that it was capable of doing so at least but interestingly, we are told that as soon as the U.S. apparently discovered this balloon and the Chinese were aware of that discovery, it's stopped transmitting its intelligence back home to Beijing.


So, the U.S. intelligence community believes that essentially what China was able to gather about U.S. intelligence and sensitive military sites here was pretty limited, John?

KING: And Natasha, helped me with additional reporting you did that, when the balloon crosses in or threatens to cross into U.S. airspace? A report was quickly filed, but it was filed. It wasn't brought to the attention of key people here in Washington. Is that a fair way to put it?

BERTRAND: That's right, John. So, the DIA that the intelligence arm of the Pentagon did send a report across classified channels to government officials. And it said that a foreign object was headed towards U.S. airspace and was potentially going to enter U.S. airspace over Alaska.

However, that report was not deemed particularly urgent because the U.S. had seen these kinds of balloons before and did not think that it was going to pose any kind of threat. However, when it started going south and entered Montana, that is when things started getting a little more serious, John?

KING: Fascinating new details. Natasha Bertrand, appreciate it, Pentagon, Evan Perez as well. Let's bring the conversation in the room. With me to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Dana Bash, CNN's Kasie Hunt, Zolan Kanno-Youngs of The New York Times, and our CNN legal and national security analyst, Carrie Cordero.

Carrie, let me start with you, because you have expertise in this area. So sometimes words we will hear from briefings might have more meaning to you. When you hear the details, we're getting from the FBI. When you hear officials behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, they're trying to say this is an intelligence goldmine. This is a win-win. Is that fair? Or is any of this information raise questions with you about how this was handled?

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL & NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, I think there's a timing question. There's a substance question. So, the substance issue is, look, this balloon is one piece of the vast Chinese intelligence collection architecture. So, from the intelligence community's perspective, they were, I presume, looking at this thing, this is just one little piece. They in the intelligence community are on the receiving end of seeing everything that the Chinese government is constantly trying to steal from the United States, most of it behind the scenes in cyberspace.

So, I think there is a defensive argument for the intelligence community that they were just looking at this as one part of a much bigger puzzle. On the timing, from an intelligence perspective, I think there is value, and I can understand their perspective that they wanted to wait and see where this was going and what it was doing.

The fact that they have gained intelligence information now on the backend is sort of an added benefit. I don't know that that was the goal. But I certainly can see an argument for why they would have wanted to let this play out over a course of time and not immediately tried to neutralize, they didn't think it caused a threat.

KING: Let's accept that argument for the conversation, and Zolan, I want you get - you covered the White House. How do they explain this one? Let show the timeline. January 27, it pops up, the DIA sends an initial report about a foreign object, it gets filed. The spy balloon crosses Alaskan airspace on the 28th. It's not till the 31st. Four days later, the present United States is briefed on this.

After 9/11, and after the insurrection, everybody always says, we got to make sure that important information gets to the right people as soon as possible. Do they think that the White House is totally fine? It was four days before we told the president about this or at least that maybe we should have told them on day one. We don't think it's a big deal, sir. But we should be aware of this.

ZOLAN KANNO-YOUNGS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Yes. The main answer we've been getting from the White House, the main line of messaging they've been having is, look, when I was - with the president's words. When I was briefed, I ordered it to be short down.

The question going forward is well, wait, why weren't you briefed sooner? Were you briefed sooner? How long did you know about this? My colleagues reported that a month ago that U.S. officials told Congress that foreign governments were conducting aerial surveillance, that's a bit broader than what we know now. But there were indications and signs of what we saw this past week.

And what you're seeing is the main criticism now towards the White House, the pressure they're facing is not just the time it took for the actual downing of the balloon, but also the level of transparency with the American people here. And that's going to be a question that that they're going to face going forward.

KING: And so, they have these briefings up on Capitol Hill, Lisa Murkowski, Republican Senator from Alaska. Remember the balloon first came into U.S. airspace over Alaska says, what are we waiting for?


Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK): The fact of the matter is, Alaska is the first line of defense for America. This administration doesn't think that Alaska is any part of the - rest of the country.


KING: You see Jon Tester, Democratic Montana to her right or left watching the screen. It flew over his state, including an air force base with ICBMs. He wants the questions as well. And initially it was we didn't shoot it down because we were worried that debris would hurt people property or people on the ground.

Now it's we wanted to talk to the Chinese before we shut short it down. So, it wasn't a provocation or an escalation. Those things might both be true. But why didn't they say it all at once?


DANA BASH, CNN CO-ANCHOR, STATE OF THE UNION: Because they weren't sure exactly which of the arguments, I think they are both true. I mean, I talked to somebody over at the Pentagon very early on who voiced the concerns about the debris. But I think what the argument that you made, Carrie, the arguments, and the reporting that you're getting are definitely all one big piece of the intelligence part of this.

What was missing in the assessment from the broader Biden administration was just the fact that unlike cyber, unlike other intelligence issues, people can actually see this with their eyes. You can capture it in pictures. You can capture it on video. And it just changes the dynamic and perception is everything. And we know, I mean, look how kids are all over, using Tick Tock on their phone. We know that the Chinese are using that.

And yet, it doesn't have the same kind of outcry. I mean, it has some, but not as seeing a balloon in the sky. And so, that is the big, big difference. If was the failure to understand that that is a perception that would, forgive me take flight.

KING: The president told Judy Woodruff of PBS last night that he does not believe this is a big hit on U.S.-China relations. The secretary of state canceled a trip, the Chinese counterpart apparently won't take phone calls or wouldn't immediately from the defense secretary to find big hit?

KASIE HUNT, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: I think that that does remain to be seen. I mean, there's clearly a lot going on here that is not immediately understandable to those of us who don't, you know, spend all of our time focused on the intelligence aspects of this. And I think that that's, you know, kind of the flip side of what you were talking about, right?

The intelligence people who do spend all their time looking at all of this, clearly have a different understanding. They can't share all of it with us. And they didn't, for whatever reason, seem to think that it was worth sending up enough flares that the president got notified in time to know about it before people are in Montana, started taking pictures of it with their cell phones, right? So, you know, I think that that was the challenge that the administration faces and because China is such a political issue, as it stands, it just blew up.

KING: It blew up. And again, those briefings still ongoing on Capitol Hill. We'll bring you more information as we get it soon, though, the president arrives in Florida, taking his State of the Union message on the road, we will go live to Tampa. Next? (COMMERCIAL BREAK)



KING: This hour President Biden lands in Tampa, Florida for day two of his post State of the Union road-tour. The trip tries to check two boxes. One, the quiet questions about Mr. Biden's age to show he has the stamina system to sustain, a second grueling run for the presidency. The second box to put Republicans on defense about spending priorities. The president casting the GOP as a threat to Social Security and Medicare. Not true Republicans say, but it is a determined effort by the president to shape both the debt ceiling fight this year and the battle for senior voters next year.

Let's start in Tampa, CNN White House reporter Priscilla Alvarez is there live for us. Priscilla, the president's coming there and already his staff proving he's going to keep up the social security Medicare.

PRISCILLA ALVAREZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: That's exactly right. He's driving home his message today that he is protecting Social Security and Medicare. It is an issue that gains the fiercest reaction during the State of the Union this week. And he's doing it in a state where he's trying to draw a sharp contrast with Senator Rick Scott, a Republican of Florida and in a state that is home to two potential GOP challengers in 2024.

Now, as you mentioned, that proposal that would sunset federal legislation, including Social Security and Medicare in five years is the focus today. And it was abundantly clear to the audience how aggressively the White House is leaning into it. And each of those seats behind me. Rick Scott's plan was on there. And also attached to that was Biden's plan. So, we expect to hear quite a bit from this - from President Biden today when he speaks here.

Now, of course, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has dismissed that this plan was ever going to gain traction. Scott, this morning on CNN pushback saying, that he has no intention of cutting Social Security and Medicare. But it is clear, John, that the White House sees this as an opportunity on a key issue as they try to make up ground with seniors in this state. Again, a state that was formerly a swing state that is now Republican leaning, and again home to potentially two of those GOP challengers. John?

KING: Only two, DeSantis Trump, you say Scott and Rubio, I don't know. It could be more than 2 percent. It could be more - could be more. Priscilla Alvarez on the ground floor in Tampa. Thanks so much for that live report. Let's bring the conversation back in the room with our great reporters. In some ways, forgive me, Mr. President, this is a fake argument. This is a fake argument. Because the Republicans today say, we have no plans to cut Social Security and Medicare.

But as Priscilla just noted, Republicans yesterday did. And the Republican - and the White House is spreading other clips of some Republicans. It's a distinct minority. Even the president concedes that, who said this. But yesterday in Wisconsin battleground state, today Florida, most likely not. The president making this point.


JOE BIDEN, 46TH U.S. PRESIDENT: They seem shocked when I raised the plans of some of their members and their caucus to cut Social Security. And Marjorie Taylor Greene and others stood up and say, liar, liar. A lot of Republicans their dream is to cut Social Security and Medicare. Well, let me just say this. It's your dream, but I'm going to my veto pen make it a nightmare.


KING: Again, it would never pass the Democratic Senate. So, what the president saying just doesn't match with the reality. But what he's trying to do is shape public opinion for three or four months down the line when they have to deal with the debt ceiling. Yes. It's a political strategy. It's part of their messaging as you get towards a potential reelection announcement.


Look, with the current shape up of Congress, when you talk to Democrats and White House officials, they privately acknowledged that it's going - you're not going to see the sprawling package of the past two years that have been passed or it's going to be much more difficult, so they say that creates even more of an incentive to draw a contrast between the economic policies of the White House and proposals put forward by Republicans thus far. These trips, it's half halfway bad, but also highlighting the implementation of stuff that he's already past thus far. It really is a political messaging tactic

HUNT: Well, it's just seems like a massive, unforced error on the part of Republicans. I mean, they've just given Biden this enormous opening, and he just, you know - swings that back. It's right through there, exactly. I mean, I actually, you know, I mean, this is one of the more, you know, when I talked to Republican sources, this feud between Scott and McConnell has been one of the more emotional ones over the past couple of months, people are really upset about it. But this is why, I mean, McConnell is like, this is going to lose me seats. What are you doing?

BASH: And NPS, it could have. I mean, there were other reasons, as well, which is the point that I wanted to make, which is that this is not a new tactic. The Democrats and the president was out on the campaign trail all that much before this past midterm election, but when he was he - and even from the White House, like he would talk about the rick Scott plan as much as he could, because he knew that it was had the potential to help Democratic candidates. It's why Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, didn't want it.

But when it comes to the here and now and policy, you're right, most Republicans don't want to cut these entitlement programs. But there is a negotiation that will start very soon, about where to cut spending. And he's trying to make the point, OK, you don't want to cut here, which is the majority of the budget. So, where are you going? KING: And he's also trying to make the point don't believe what they say. That's the president's tried to say. And today, Rick Scott, again, help the president. He's on CNN this morning saying, I didn't do that.


SEN. RICK SCOTT (R-FL): Nobody believes that I want to cut Medicare, Social Security. I've never said it. I don't believe in that. I think we've got to preserve those benefits. I wrote the plan and I've been clear about it. Anybody asked me what I meant? I've been very clear. Nobody believes that I have a goal of reducing. I don't know any Republicans that want to cut Medicare and Social Security benefits.


KING: His plan, all federal legislation, sunsets in five years. So, you don't necessarily cut it, but it sunsets and you have to reauthorize it. So, you're putting on the table, the possibility of it. It's his plan. And he says, he never is for it.

BASH: It wasn't written with clarity, which is a big, big problem when you are putting out a plan. And it's not just this plan. I mean, the other Republicans didn't want to have any specifics. And that was a very big tension point. Because Rick Scott running the group that was trying to get Republicans elected to the Senate, said it was important to show what you're for. I'm sure there's a lot of I told you so going on.

KING: Before we go, let me ask you a completely different subject. But last night, an interview with Judy Woodruff of PBS. The president was asked about the classified documents, his lawyers would prefer he say nothing, but he said this.


PRES. BIDEN: The best of my knowledge, the kinds of things they picked up are things that from 1974, stray papers, there may be something else, I don't know. But one of the things that happened is that what was not done well, is as they packed up my offices to move them. They didn't do the kind of job that should have been done to go thoroughly through every single piece of literature and it's there.


KING: Number one, he's blaming the staff. He's the CEO of the operation. Number two, does he really know they're from the 1970s? Or is he winging it?

KANNO-YOUNGS: Right. That last part of what he said, when you said, when they were cleaning up my offices. My follow-up question to that would be, is that still from when you were senator? Or is that from when you were vice president as well? Also, let's remember, it's not just the classified documents they took, but we also know that they've taken some notes as well, that we still have no details on. BASH: And it's also different from what I've heard that he's saying behind the scenes, which is, I don't know, I haven't been kept in the dark.

KING: Which is why publicly he should just say, sorry, can't answer the question. A new House Committee on the weaponization of the federal government is about to hold its first hearing. What members expect to accomplish? That's next.




KING: Soon the first hearing from a House GOP led panel investigating, what panel members call inside the government efforts to silence and punish conservatives. Let's get up to Capitol Hill. CNN's Sara Murray is there. Sara, how did the committee's Republicans plan to use this first big hearing?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, this has been sort of an obsession for Jim Jordan. He's the committee chairman, the subcommittee chair basically this notion that DOJ and FBI have been very politicized. And so, today they are going to feature Senators Chuck Grassley and Ron Johnson who have looked into this for presentations. They're going to have former Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and ex-Democrat who's also going to be giving some kind of presentation.

And then there's going to be a couple former FBI agents. You know, the issue for Jordan is, he's made a lot of big claims and he's offered scant evidence to back them up. He says, you know, everything he has to say about the politicization of the government is backed up by these anonymous whistleblowers.

Now I think you can expect a lot of push back from the Democrats as we see this subcommittee hearing unfold today. They disagree essentially with the entire premise of this subcommittee.