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Biden Makes Unprecedented Trip to Ukraine War Zone; Biden Visits Ukraine as War nears One-Year Mark; Former President Embraced Modest Post-Presidency in his "Beloved" Plains, GA; Biden Eyes April for Re-Election Kickoff. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired February 20, 2023 - 12:00   ET




ABBY PHILLIP, CNN HOST, INSIDE POLITICS: Hello, and welcome to a special President's Day Edition of "Inside Politics". I'm Abby Philip in for John King in Washington. President Biden surprises the world with a trip to Kyiv.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Russia's aim was to wipe Ukraine off the map. Putin's war conquest is failing.


PHILLIP: Plus, Former President Jimmy Carter is now at home receiving hospice care in a small Georgia town where he spent most of his life. And can Ron DeSantis muzzle the media? The presumptive 2024 candidate makes his case to overturn a decade's old Supreme Court decision and strip away protections for the free press.

But up first, a truly unprecedented trip happening now in Ukraine, just hours ago, the President visited an active war zone. And today, Joe Biden has put solidarity ahead of his own personal safety. He arrived in Kyiv this morning greeted by those air raid sirens; the trip to Ukraine's capital is timed nearly to the one year mark of Russia's invasion. The visit comes with a $500 million promise of more aid and a clear message for both Vladimir Putin and the world.


BIDEN: Freedom is priceless. It's worth fighting for, for as long as it takes. And that's how long we're going to be with you, Mr. President, for as long as it takes.


BIDEN: Thank you.


PHILLIP: CNN is covering the President's visit from across the region. Phil Mattingly is in Warsaw. But first, let's get straight to Kyiv where CNN's Alex Marquardt is. Alex, this is a much anticipated visit perhaps a year in the making. How was it received where you are in Ukraine?

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, Abby with surprise, no one saw this coming. Not those of us in the press, and certainly not the residents of Kyiv. We did have some indication, early this morning that something significant was in the works with security measures that we hadn't really seen before.

And then videos started popping up on social media of that huge security footprint, as it's called, of the President's convoy driving around Kyiv. And then in late morning, we saw the two presidents and you can see that shot right there. They're walking across St. Michael's Square, which is just behind me out in front of St. Michael's Church.

And there, they went inside and they laid wreaths in tribute to the Ukrainian soldiers who have fallen in this conflict. Abby, it's fair to say that this trip was received very positively. Everyone we spoken with, has been very happy to see President Biden here in Kyiv, not just to show the U.S. support of the past year, but as a demonstration, that the U.S. support will continue.

And as one person put it, to me, it is a reminder to the world that Ukraine continues to fight every day against Russia. So a lot of nice words, of course, between the two men who have a lot of respect for each other assurances from the U.S. side that this huge level of U.S. supports almost $30 billion so far, will continue.

But it's clear, Abby, that beyond the symbolism, there was also a lot of substantive discussions as well, of follow-ons, if you will, from their talks when President Zelenskyy visited Washington, back in December, the two men discussed what military aid would look like going forward?

President Zelenskyy calling them negotiations because it is clear that there is still some daylight between the two men about what the U.S. is willing to commit to this fight and what the Ukrainians want in this fight specifically when it comes to long range missiles, as well as fighter jets.

We know that both of those things came up in the conversations between the two men. This is not something that the U.S. has been ready to commit at this what is really a pivotal moment. This is a symbolic week, Abby, but it's also a pivotal moment in this fight with both the Russian and Ukrainian sides expected to mount major offensives in the coming weeks, Abby.

PHILLIP: Yes, there's a lot to read in to the lines here between what the two leaders were saying. Let's go down to CNN's Phil Mattingly who's in Warsaw, Poland for us.


PHILLIP: So Phil, a tremendous amount of secrecy going into this visit. Tell us about what went into making this possible for President Biden on this trip to Poland that was scheduled previously?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes Abby, to give you some sense of the complexity here. Look, there are well documented well practice procedures and protocols for U.S. Presidents traveling into war zones, certainly over 20 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were utilized fairly regularly.

Here's why this is so different. The U.S. does not control the airspace over Ukraine. The U.S. does not have combat forces in Ukraine. This is another country's war and other countries Capitol where the U.S. has limited to no military assets in the country itself.

That's what U.S. officials a small team at the White House, the Pentagon and the Secret Service were grappling with, as they tried to put together this trip over intensive preparations at scale a couple of months that's worth noting, Abby.

The President has made clear almost throughout the course of this war that he was itching to travel to Ukraine. He'd seen European counterparts make the trip. The First Lady made the trip top administration officials had made the trip. But the President had constantly been rebuffed being told, from a security perspective, it simply wasn't something that they could or should put together.

Now those risks certainly haven't changed. We see the fact that there is still artillery attacks and shelling in all parts of Ukraine. But the President made clear to his staff, according to officials that this was something he wanted done and he wanted done for the year to mark the one year since the invasion.

So over the course of those months of preparation, finally, in the last week or so they've really moved towards finalizing the plan the President on Friday night and his Oval Office meeting with his advisors giving the final green light, but the secret seed had to be maintained.

Even on Sunday advisors were still saying that the President was not going to be setting foot in Ukraine at all. The president at that point was already traveling as part of this trip. Now the trip was not something that was publicized, took off about 4:15 am on Sunday morning, flew into Poland and then traveled on to Kyiv.

There still details of this trip that are not known in terms of how it all came together and what the actual process was, as the President is still traveling back from Kyiv. At this moment in time, those details should be coming shortly.

But the entire process, both underscoring the complexity of this trip, the secrecy they felt was necessary in this trip, but also the lengths the President was willing to go to, to have the symbolic moment that Alex was detailing for you.

PHILLIP: Phil Mattingly, thank you for all of that reporting and our thanks to Alex Marquardt, as well over in Kyiv. Let's bring it into the room here. My panel is with me CNN's Jeremy Diamond, CNN's Lauren Fox, Yasmeen Abutaleb of "The Washington Post" and CNN's Military Analyst, Colonel Cedric Leighton.

Colonel Leighton, I want to start with you where Phil just left off, talk to us about how extraordinary this really is to have a sitting United States President going into someone else's war?

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, this is truly extraordinary. The only historical analogy that I can come up with is if FDR had gone to London during the London Blitz at the beginning of World War II before we got involved with Pearl Harbor, and all of that.

That would have been a historic equivalent to this. So my historic perspective, this is incredibly unusual logistics that went into it. There was a lot of over watch from the U.S. Air Force in terms of AWACS planes flying in Europe to make sure the President was safe. These are the kinds of things that they put into place here. And it is clearly of great historic importance.

PHILLIP: Yes. And Phil was saying a lengthy train ride. I mean, that's really extraordinary even to see a president being on that kind of transportation, the only real way to get into Kyiv at this point. I do want to just this moment, we are approaching the one year mark of this war.

And a year ago, President Biden reflected on this, things were so different. Zelenskyy was not even thought to be able to remain in the country within a few days of the war starting. Just take a listen to how President Biden talked about it.


BIDEN: That dark night, one year ago, the world was literally at the time bracing for the fall in Kyiv, one year later, Kyiv stands. And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands the Americans stand with you and the world stands with you.


PHILLIP: It's hard to forget those images of Zelenskyy in an undisclosed location, really hunker down in those first days of the war and now to walk the streets with air raid sirens going off with President Biden?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: President Biden talked about a moment where Zelenskyy told him to rally world leaders in support of Ukraine. I was thinking back to the moments where Zelenskyy was offered a ride out of Kyiv and said I don't need a ride out. I need weapons. And that was just all the more poignant today.

You know, you think about the fact that other world leaders, including the British Prime Minister or the French President had previously visited Kyiv before President Biden, but the significance of Biden going around this one year anniversary provided such a huge symbolic boost.

And one thing that I've learned is that the President was presented with a range of options to visit other parts of Ukraine perhaps but he decided that he wanted to go to the capital to Kyiv.


DIAMOND: And that's because when he looked at the cost benefit analysis and the risk reward here, in particular, of making a trip into this war zone, he felt that the symbolic value of going directly to the capital of Kyiv, which a year ago was at risk of being run over by Russian forces, that he felt that that was worth it, ultimately.

And we also and we can see very clearly just the symbolism of this moment as the President standing with Zelenskyy talking about additional support and how to enter this next phase of the war?

PHILLIP: This symbolism a huge part of this. And just listen; he had a message sent directly to Vladimir Putin.


BIDEN: Putin thought Ukraine was weak and the West was divided. As you know, Mr. President, I said at the beginning, he's counting on us not sticking together. He thought he could outlast us. I don't think he's thinking that right now.


PHILLIP: He didn't come empty handed as well, coming with him a $500 million package of a lot of things that of course, Ukraine needs and administration officials have described as near and medium term needs, but a lot of things not in there. The long range missiles, no promises on the -16s, what do you make of what the U.S. is concretely delivering to Ukraine in this moment?

COL. LEIGHTON: So the U.S. Abby has a bit of a difficult situation on its hands, because what they want to do is they want to give things that the Ukrainians can actually use in the battle right now. If you give them F-16s the pilots need to be trained on flying an F- 16. If you give those tanks that you'd be trained on tanks.

We're doing the tank training right now between the U.S. and the British, the F-16s that hasn't happened yet. High Mars is something they've gotten. They've gotten an extension on that. They're also getting radars, which I noted in this, so they're getting basically radars that can look into the sky and help them from an air defense perspective. And that is a really big thing.

PHILLIP: Yes. As we go forward I mean, obviously, there's a huge question overlooking all of this, will the support remain? Just look at this polling from the AP-NORC 60 percent support back in May of 2020, to January 2023 that is down to 48 percent. And over on Capitol Hill, there's just a lot of noise coming from a pretty small group of people, Republicans, who are, you know, opposed largely to U.S. supporting Ukraine?

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. And perhaps no one is more concerned about the drop in public support than Mitch McConnell, the Republican Leader in the Senate, who has really taken it upon himself to try to educate and help keep support in his Republican conference in his chamber.

And, of course, there's a question mark, what happens in the House of Representatives as they talk about next year's budget as they talk about appropriating this money again, it does get harder. And you know, John Thune, the Republican Whip, told me, he is very aware of the challenge in the upcoming appropriations process to making sure Ukraine continues to get the support they need.

Now, we shouldn't be under any illusion, many of the Republicans and conservatives who are criticizing this effort right now, they are not going to support an appropriations bill, no matter what is in it. This is going to be a Republican and Democratic effort. But it is significant that those cracks are really starting to emerge.

YASMEEN ABUTALEB, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: And the White House is definitely concerned about this. They have - Kyiv is watching this very closely, the noise coming from Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill, particularly in the House, whether that's going to impact the next aid package?

The White House has said they have enough to get through most of this year. But I think there is some anxiety and they've communicated some of this to leaders in Ukraine about what happens when it's tough to negotiate another one.

And they've been urging them to make as many games as possible as they can in the next few months when they have an influx of security assistance coming in these tanks coming in from the U.S. and European allies to try to make the most of it because they're just they will support them. But there are no guarantees at what level they can continue to support Ukraine.

PHILLIP: Yes, I mean, you're having basically congressional leaders saying, listen to us, don't listen to the noise on the ground. But when you have a five seat, majority in the House, every single member starts to matter. But standby for us, Jimmy Carter will spend his final days at home in hospice care surrounded by those closest to him. And coming up, we're going to be in his beloved hometown of Plains, Georgia as well wishers pour in for the Former President.



PHILLIP: Much of the nation's attention is now focused on the tiny town of Plains, Georgia. That's where Former President Jimmy Carter is resting at home choosing to begin hospice care and refuse any further medical treatment in hospitals.

The decision comes four months after Carter celebrated his 98th birthday. He's faced a number of health challenges in recent years including brain cancer back in 2015. CNN's Eva McKend is live for us in his hometown of Plains, Georgia. Eva, first of all, what do we know about how President Carter is doing and what kind of care he might be receiving right now? EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: Well Abby, no major updates on his health. What we know is that he has opted to receive end of life care here in his hometown of Plains. That is what he wants.

When you travel throughout this community every single stretch of it connected to Carter and the Carter Family in some way. We're having breakfast this morning at Benitez Southern Restaurant and the owner there telling us about her connection to that family. This town just a few 100 people he is deeply revered here. People are immensely proud that a former peanut farmer could ascend to the presidency Abby.

PHILLIP: Yes, I mean, they absolutely are. And he is really a small town man through and through. He's so beloved in Plains. Tell us more about his connection to this town, his family's connection there and what his life has been like there as he's, you know, gone well into with old age just living a very simple life?


MCKEND: He has most of his life post presidency has really been defined by his humanitarian work. We are in spitting distance of where he went to high school. We are not far from a train station that actually was also the site of his campaign headquarters in 1976.

And what we've seen as people come by all morning and afternoon, to visit that as they are reflecting on this sad moment here. Take a listen to how he described why he decided to return to Plains after leaving the White House.


JIMMY CARTER, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: Plains is my home. You know, I was born there, my wife was born there. And I knew Rosa when she was first born, I was three years older and still down. And Plains has always been a haven for us. We still grow peanuts, cotton and corn on the farm. And so my roots are there and my closest friends are there and I love to purchase them which is very important to me. So Plains has just been the focal point of our life.


MCKEND: Now something else that we have heard Abby is that he is a man that is of deep faith and that you can't talk about Jimmy Carter or the Carter Family without talking about their faith. This community describes themselves as a community of believers. So it is clear they are leaning on their faith at this time.

I also want to tell you about this man that I met. He's a mail carrier but also a painter, as we were driving in yesterday. And here he was painting this large peanut statue. It is a really a roadside attraction that is pretty famous here.

And it was on the campaign trail with Jimmy Carter in the 1970s. He told me he has been meaning to get out here for weeks to paint that statue, and that it was all the more important to do so in the wake of learning about Mr. Carter being in hospice care, Abby.

PHILLIP: That's a really extraordinary thing and so nice to hear President Carter talking about his wife, Rosalynn, and their long love and marriage. I'll share what you said to me as we were talking earlier. He's a peanut farmer. There are peanuts at your feed right now, right Eva? Just a--

MCKEND: Very, very literally, I'm right by the train tracks and you walk by peanut shells. Just by Mainstreet?

PHILLIP: Yes, thank you Eva McKend in Plains, Georgia. And President Biden is expected to kick off his reelection campaign in the coming months. While there are a number of differences from his last run President Biden could harken back to a 2020 strategy to find success again.



PHILLIP: For Team Biden the Wilmington basement is so 2020. The New York Times reports that his plans for 2024 include taking full advantage of incumbency, a legislative record he can campaign on and the White House as well as Air Force One to campaign in.

While the President says he's not ready to make an announcement yet. His top advisors are eyeing April for reelection kickoff, and that would put Biden's timetable pretty much on track with previous incumbent presidents. Only Donald Trump launched his campaign far earlier.

He made it official on the same day that he was inaugurated. Our panel is back with us. So Yasmeen this is basically the White House or the President's aide saying we know the playbook. We're going to rerun it in 2024 except maybe less time in the basement, which was to be fair due to the COVID-19 pandemic?

ABUTALEB: Absolutely. And you see a lot of their strategy for this year is actually predicated on Biden launching a reelection campaign. He's been traveling to places making sure he gets credit for the various pieces of legislation that they pass. Lots of ribbon cuttings that bridges and tunnels and reminding people that seniors that their insulin costs are kept.

And then of course, you know, they're making no secret that he intends to run. You saw it a little bit at the State of the Union. And they think they had this successful strategy for the 2022 midterms where they outperformed expectations where they said we made it a referendum on Republicans and democracy and threats to democracy. And I think they're going to try to do that again.

PHILLIP: Yes, I mean, you saw this message actually kind of on display at the State of the Union, where they really tried to egg on. The yellers and the scrapers from the balcony and created a moment for him. And they described it in the Times pieces, competent versus crazy. DIAMOND: Yes, there is a through line if you look at the 2020 campaign, and then you look at the 2022, midterms, and all the way down to 2024. It is all about trying to make all of these elections, contrasts and choice elections, the choice being whether it was 2020, between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, but you can broaden that out to being between Joe Biden a more competent, traditional politician.

And what the White House says describes now as the extreme Maga Republicans, right? We saw that message play out in the midterm elections, and at least right now until President Biden has an official Republican nominee to run against.

He's going to use those House Republicans in particular those more extreme House Republicans as foils for his reelection campaign message and to try and point out this stark contrast between what he has been able to accomplish and the calls for more extreme change on the right.


PHILLIP: Are they concerned about that at all? All that they could be falling into basically a trap which is Biden is going to be trying to highlight anybody who kind of deviates from the sort of straight and narrow here?