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Inside Politics

Biden Eyes April For Re-Election Campaign Kickoff; Marianne Williamson Considers 2024 Run; 6.4 Magnitude Aftershock Hits Turkey; W.H.: Biden & Zelenskyy Talk Putin's Looming Spring Offensive; Biden Admin: China Could Send "Lethal Aid" To Boot Russia; DeSantis, Conservatives Take Aim At Key Press Freedom Case; Dominion Voting Suing Fox News For Defamation; North Korea Conducts Two Missile Tests In Three Days, Threatens More; Blinken Meets With Turkish Leaders Amid Earthquake Recovery. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired February 20, 2023 - 12:30   ET



JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: 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.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN HOST: Yes. Are they concerned about that at 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 on the Republican side, whether it's in Congress or outside of Congress in some of these congressional racism Senate races?

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: I think that that is a play, though, that has worked well in the past. You always sort of go to the most extreme voices. I'm thinking of like the Todd Akin Senate candidate where all of a sudden the campaign became for every single Democrat about choice issues because that was what was working.

DIAMOND: And Republicans did it too, right?

FOX: Exactly. Absolutely.


FOX: They always are campaigning against Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. So I definitely think it is a play that can work. But for a sophisticated voter who is listening to both messages and trying to make a decision and really is trying to make up their mind, I think that it doesn't work for independent voters.

PHILLIP: So here's the real elephant in the room. It's what if it's not Trump? And here's what Eris, a Republican pollster saying, "At this point, President Biden just needs to seem like he's very much with it and able to do the job. And at that point his fate is largely out of his hands. He's got to pray the Republicans blow themselves up again." If it's someone else who is younger than Trump and less polarizing than Trump, does that change the calculus for the President?

YASMEEN ABUTALEB, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: I think it does because the top concern for voters for the President is not even so much his record or whether he's done enough, it's his age. Most Democratic voters don't want him to run again because he would be 86 at the end of his second term and they have said that that is a top concern for them. I think it's more than 70 percent of Democratic voters have said they don't want the President to run again. They want the party to nominate someone else.

So if he runs against Ron DeSantis, who's 44, Nikki Haley, who's 51, then his age, I think, becomes much more of a liability, whereas him and Donald Trump are both pretty up there in age.

PHILLIP: And so far we haven't seen a ton of Democrats saying they're going to challenge him. However, Marianne Williamson has said that she will throw her hat into the ring.

DIAMOND: Yes, I don't think the White House is all too concerned about that one at this point. But to be clear, it does give them an opportunity at least to explain why Biden is good not just for the country, but for the Democratic base as well.

And certainly, this is a White House that has a lot of accomplishments that they want to run on in the coming year. And that's also why their hair isn't on fire right now. When you look at some of the polling in terms of the President's approval rating, in terms of these recent numbers, that a lot of Americans don't think Biden has accomplished much, they are going to spend this next year focusing on the implementation of that infrastructure bill, the chips bill, other pieces of legislation, and showing over this coming year what they've accomplished.

PHILLIP: All right, we'll see how that one goes. But stand by for us. We're staying on top of President Biden's surprise visits to Ukraine. And up ahead, how this significant moment could reshape the war on the front line?



PHILLIP: And we are following breaking news out of Turkey right now. A magnitude 6.4 aftershock just hit in the southern part of the country. This comes two weeks after a magnitude 7.8 earthquake devastated parts of Turkey and Syria.

Let's get straight over to CNN's Nada Bashir, who lives in -- who is live, I'm sorry, in Istanbul. Nada, you felt that aftershock. What's happening there on the ground?

NADA BASHIR, CNN REPORTER: Yes, Abby. We are currently in Adana in southeast Turkey, and we certainly did feel that quake, 6.4, according to the emergency management department here in Turkey. And, of course, now the epicenter. We're hearing reports in the area of Daphne, in Hatay, which is still a while away, and we still felt that quake here.

And I have to say, we were sitting inside at this hotel and there was a real sense of urgency, a real sense of fear and uncertainty. Of course, at the time, nobody knew how long this would last, how big the quake would be, but that immediate feeling of the ground shaking caused everyone to evacuate the building immediately. Families pulling their children out of the building, a real sense of fear.

And we are now hearing unconfirmed reports of collapsed buildings in parts of the southeast of the country, in particular in the Hatay province, which was the hardest -- among the hardest hit provinces during last -- the earthquake of two weeks ago. So this is a real sense of concern.

We're already hearing reports that this was felt in northern Syria. Reports there of collapsed buildings already as well. So there is a sense of urgency and a sense of concern around this and the possibility that this may have a terrible impact, of course, on those in the southeast of the country.

And as you can imagine, those who experienced the earthquake two, three weeks ago now they are going through an immense amount of emotional trauma. The fear here is incredible and there is a real sense of urgency. Now, the Turkish government, of course, will be sending an update.

We are still waiting to learn more information about this latest earthquake. But at this stage, reported by the authorities here 6.4 at center in Hatay. Abby?

PHILLIP: Yes, a really devastating situation over there and we continue to hope, Nada, that you and your team remain safe while you are covering this for us. Thank you for that report.

And now back to President Biden's surprise visit to Kyiv in Ukraine, we are told that the Commander in Chief was laser focused on Ukraine's needs and looming Russian attacks when he sat down with President Zelenskyy earlier today.


The White House says that the meeting came at, quote, a critical juncture days before the one year anniversary of Putin's invasion and as Russia prepares for a spring offensive.

So, back with us is Retired Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton. Colonel Leighton, we've been talking so much about this. Soon to be, I guess, offensive by Russia, but Ukraine also wants to execute on some military strategy in the spring as well.

The President and Zelenskyy really had a deep, it sounds like, face to face about the strategy on the ground. What are you expecting?

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: So, Abby, I think the thing that we can expect is that both sides are going to try to move the goalposts, if you will. The Russians are going to try to make a run, at least for the Donbas area. So that's the eastern part of Ukraine.

The other thing that they may do is they may move up from the south, and if they do that, that is going to put some pressure on the Ukrainians, especially around Kherson, which is where they had to actually grab some territory and retaken the town of Kherson.

The other thing we have to watch for is for the Russians to move in from the north, using Belarus as a jumping off point. On the other hand, the Ukrainians are going to look to not only contain what the Russians are doing, but to mount a counter offensive. And that counter offensive could result if they do it right and if they get lucky in the cutting of the land bridge between Crimea and the Donbas area controlled by Russia.

So if the Ukrainians are successful in that, that could be a major shift in the war, and that could then allow them to gain the upper hand strategically and militarily.

PHILLIP: Yes, that's really fascinating. I want to play this little bit of sound here from U.S. officials over the weekend talking about China and their role in all of this.


ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: They're considering providing lethal support, and we've made very clear to them that that would cause a serious problem for us and in our relationship.

LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UNITED NATIONS: That would be a red line. We're not going to advance and announce what we're planning to do, but we made clear to the Chinese that there will be consequences.


PHILLIP: A red line. That language is not used cavalierly by officials like that. What are we talking about when we talk about lethal aid? And is there a prospect that Russia could be getting a boost to try to defend against any kind of potential Ukrainian offensive?

LEIGHTON: Yes, there's certainly that prospect, Abby. And what I think we're seeing is the possibility of the Chinese providing, at the very least, arms in the form of artillery, ammunition more particularly, and perhaps some replenishment of all of the things that they need for aerial activity.

So there might be bombs, there might be drones, I mean, those kinds of things. But I think particularly in the artillery area and in the ammunition areas where we can expect the Chinese to try to support the Russians and they'll try to do so covertly.

PHILLIP: And the U.S. sending a really strong message, do not go there. I think that's incredibly significant. Colonel Leighton, thank you as always for joining us.

LEIGHTON: (INAUDIBLE) PHILLIP: And up next for us, Ron DeSantis is urging the Supreme Court to take up a First Amendment case that could overturn decades of precedent. So is Sullivan the next row? And what could that -- what that could mean for freedom of speech. That's next.



PHILLIP: After the Supreme Court overturned decades of precedent with the Roe versus Wade decision, conservative politicians are now taking aim at another major precedent. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis staged a kind of fake TV newscast to make this point. He and other conservatives believe that the Supreme Court should revisit the landmark case, the New York Times versus Sullivan.

That ruling made it harder for public figures to sue media organizations for defamation, and DeSantis thinks the media needs to be reined in.


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R), FLORIDA: We want to be standing up for little -- the little guy against some of these massive media conglomerates. A guy like me, I have a platform. I'm fine. But there's a lot of other people, I think, who get maligned unfairly and then really don't have the adequate recourse.

You smear somebody, it's false, and you didn't do your homework, you know, you're going to have to be held accountable for that.


PHILLIP: And joining me now is CNN's Senior Supreme Court Analyst Joan Biskupic, and also with us is Samantha Barbas, a University of Buffalo Law Professor. She's also the author of a new book called, "Actual Malice", which covers the New York Times versus Sullivan case.

Samantha, good to have you with us on this. You write about how this decision came into existence in order to allow newspapers to report on the civil rights movement. But given that important history, what do you think is motivating people like DeSantis to now suddenly look at this and say, we want to roll this back?

SAMANTHA BARBAS, AUTHOR, "ACTUAL MALICE": Yes. So I think we've seen in the past five or more years a concerted conservative attack on New York Times versus Sullivan. That really started with Donald Trump when he made a famous statement that he wanted to open up libel laws to make it easier for him and his allies to sue the press for libel and win lots of money in damage awards. So it really seems to that what is going on is there is a kind of politically motivated attack on Sullivan that is unprecedented in the history since 1964.


PHILLIP: And Joan, what is the likelihood in the context here of a Supreme Court that is the most conservative perhaps in history --


PHILLIP: -- that this could actually be overturned?

BISKUPIC: Well, right now we have two justices who are on record saying they want to reconsider New York Times versus Sullivan, Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch. Justice Thomas says that from the beginning, New York Times versus Sullivan was wrong. It was essentially policy masquerading as law and says it has no grounding in the Constitution.

Neil Gorsuch, on the other hand, looks at kind of what's happened to media since 1964 when New York Times versus Sullivan was declared that, look at just about everybody has a microphone these days, and the kind of fact checking and conscious -- anxiousness that might have gone into news reports back in '64.

This is Neil Gorsuch's arguments don't exist today, and it's time for reconsideration. Now, those two justices have made the point in written opinions when the court hasn't taken up a case revisiting New York Times versus Sullivan. No other justices have joined in. But to your opener here, Abby, this is a court that is ready to plow through precedents.


BISKUPIC: We have a supermajority ready to revisit cases where we'll do this 1964 one, we're not sure yet.

PHILLIP: Yes, but it would take four of them just to even take it on.

BISKUPIC: Exactly right.

PHILLIP: And then more to overturn it. Samantha, just, you know, to kind of put this into context here, this is fundamentally about the ability of the press to hold political leaders and people in power accountable. What happens if it goes away?

BARBAS: Well, I think that there's no question that there would be a chilling effect on the press. It would be substantially riskier for journalists to report on public figures and public officials, especially those who are controversial or likely to be litigious. I think there would be more hesitance to report on controversial issues.

And really, we might see a return to the kind of libel warfare that I describe in the book before 1964 when politicians were sort of getting together and suing the press in an attempt to silence it and to shut it down over unpopular political positions.

PHILLIP: Yes, I mean, you talk about the hundreds of millions of dollars in lawsuits that faced companies like The New York Times and others at that time.

Joan, I want to ask you about a recent case, a defamation case that we've been talking a lot about. This is the Dominion Voting Systems against Fox News. This seems to be a perfect opportunity to take a look at some of these libel precedents. Do you think that this case is a clear-cut case of Fox News perhaps intentionally defaming Dominion.

BISKUPIC: Well, until this point, it has been very, very hard for media companies to lose these cases and for public figures to win them because the standard of reckless disregard for the truth is so high. It -- as Neil Gorsuch has argued, it's almost immunity.

But Fox News, we learned last week some of their star anchors and hosts and others actually might not have believed what they were saying. They might have known it was false. And this case might actually be Exhibit A for a media company losing. Now, that still gives a lot of people pause.

This hasn't gone to the jury, so it won't be tested yet. But this is the kind of case that could get to the Supreme Court, and it could undermine New York Times versus Sullivan. But it also could become the kind of case that shows how New York Times versus Sullivan works because the people involved --


BISKUPIC: -- were disregarding in a reckless way the truth.

PHILLIP: Yes. I mean, the evidentiary standard for public figures is rightfully high, but in this case, it could be high.

BISKUPIC: And it could be met.

PHILLIP: And it could be met.

BISKUPIC: Yes, exactly.

PHILLIP: And that would be incredibly significant if that were the case. Thank you to Samantha Barbas for joining us, and her book, again, is called "Actual Malice". And also Joan Bikupic for joining us as well.

Coming up next for us, Nikki Haley is wasting no time hitting the campaign trail as she makes her way to a key battleground state.



PHILLIP: Topping our political radar, Republican Nikki Haley is making her first Iowa swing since launching her presidential bid. She'll kick off her three-day tour today with an event in Des Moines. And it comes as presidential potential rivals, including former Vice President Mike pence and Senator Tim Scott also visited the leadoff presidential caucus state last week.

And North Korea fired two ballistic missiles into waters off of its east coast today after launching an intercontinental ballistic missile over the weekend. Kim Jong-un's sister warns, quote, "The frequency of using the pacific as our firing range depends on U.S. activity in the region." The U.S. and allies have condemned the recent missile tests.

And moments ago, a big aftershock rocking Turkey yet again. That happening just hours after Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with the Turkish President and prime minister to discuss the ongoing relief efforts from that devastating earthquake.

On Sunday, Blinken announced that the U.S. will send an additional $50 million, an emergency funds to both Turkey and Syria. And Blinken also took a moment to participate in a wreath laying ceremony honoring the thousands of lives lost.

And thank you, you again, for joining Inside Politics. My colleague Pamela Brown picks up our coverage right now.