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Biden's New Chips Initiative Includes Push To Expand Childcare; Zelenskyy: Fighting In Bakhmut "More And More Challenging"; Putin Admits "Losses In Our Ranks" In Speech To Security Officials"; Today: Chicago Voters Cast Ballots For City's Next Mayor; Mother At Border Hearing On Fentanyl Deaths: "My Sons Were Taken Away From Me". Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired February 28, 2023 - 12:30   ET




JOHN KING, CNN HOST: President Biden makes a short trip to Southeast Virginia today to press his case that Republicans are a threat to your healthcare. It's an argument central to two Biden priorities right now, a short-term debate over whether to cut federal spending in exchange for votes to raise the nation's borrowing limit and a longer- term framing of the Biden reelection message.

Our great reporters are back with us. And the short-term challenge, Republicans say it's just simply not true. The President makes the case that they want to cut spending as part of raising the debt limit. But what would they cut? And he says they threatened and he points to historical proposals from Republicans to cut Social Security and Medicare. Republicans say that's not true today. The President's argument is what? Don't trust them?

SEUNG MIN KIM, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Don't trust them and also look what they have proposed in terms of what they have put out in writing. And it's been really interesting to see how ferociously Speaker McCarthy and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have tried to push back on what Biden has been saying, you know, with McConnell even going as far as disavow Rick Scott, one of the authors have said proposals and saying that is not our plan, even, you know, talking down his potential reelection chances in Florida.

But this is obviously something that the Biden White House is going to continue on. And I think it's interesting how, you know, in today, he's actually focusing on Affordable Care Act and Medicaid, not just Social Security and Medicare, because they think that's also politically valuable as well.

KING: Right. And he's doing it in the Virginia Beach area, the Commonwealth of Virginia, pretty important to his electoral map. So everything that's done now, I'm not saying administration doesn't want to promote or have policy debates in the short term, but just about everything is also layered into what's important to us come next year. RHONDA COLVIN, SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, THE WASHINGTON POST: Right, that's all part of the calculation of what the White House is doing right now. And with his push on talking about healthcare, I remember when I covered his campaign back in 2020, and I remember before COVID, and talking to voters, I believe it was in New Hampshire, a lot of them said, you know what, he is associated with health care, because he was vice president with Obama, and also his personal stories of dealing with cancer and his family.

So a lot of people and voters associate him with health care. So it's a great idea for the White House to go out right now and use that as something to laud.

KING: Another big thing coming from the White House is the Chips Act, which is was already passed bipartisan proposal to help revive tech manufacturing, specifically around semiconductors. The administration being crystal clear that if you want our money, you want government money to build your factory and to help you get up and going roads and bridges to help you with that factory, you got to give some premium benefits to your employees like child care. The Commerce Secretary says it's the best way to do business.


GINA RAIMONDO, COMMERCE SECRETARY: As President Biden said in the State of the Union, this will create over 100,000 good jobs in these facilities, technicians, engineers, designers. We have to upskill people, including women, which means childcare. We're saying to these companies work in partnership with us so America can lead and win.


KING: This is what part of what I think it's going to be a fascinating debate in 2024, about the role of government. The appropriate use of the levers of government and inappropriate uses in the sense that they want to say -- and there will be free market people who say, wait a minute, but if you want federal money, you have to do these things.

I saw on that other network earlier this morning people aghast about this. How dare the Biden administration want to do this, and yet they applaud Ron DeSantis. For example, when he puts Disney in a box, or uses his government powers to take things off the school curriculum.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Let's talk about what this is, though. This is a national security issue when it comes to semiconductor production. This is an economic issue when it comes to -- I mean, these are the little chips that are in phones and washing machines and cars where a big part of the supply chain bottlenecks that we had coming out of the pandemic.

So there's a rationale here. And yes, it's absolutely industrial policy, even though that was kind of a pejorative term for so many years. But one in which the public sector needs to kind of lead the way in and hopefully crowd and private investment that comes in behind it. 40 plus billion dollars here, there's winds out the door of companies that not only have already committed to tens of billions of dollars of investment inside the United States and places like Ohio and Arizona and New York but that will continue to commit going forward.


And if you're the federal government, you've got that money, you already know these companies want it and you want to leverage it, might as well put your policy tight. So if you don't like it, don't apply for it. And I think they understand the leverage point here and are moving forward with it.

And I think there's a broader industrial policy concept here that's been pursued over the course of the last two years. That is critically important to kind of the vision economically that the administration has probably isn't fully appreciated yet. We'll have wide ranging repercussions not just in the next two years, really in the next 10.

KING: I'm looking forward to the campaign just for that reason. Let's debate what your government should and shouldn't do, and then you actually get to vote.

Up next for us, live to Ukraine for the latest on the heavy fighting in the eastern city of Bakhmut. And President Putin following his war goals will be achieved. But today, Mr. Putin also making a rare public acknowledgement of big Russian losses on the battlefield.



KING: Russian President Vladimir Putin today making it official, he just formally suspended Russia's involvement in its last remaining nuclear arms control treaty with the United States. That move coming after a rare admission from President Putin about losses on the battlefield in Ukraine.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translation): Unfortunately, there are losses in our ranks. The leadership of the FSB must do everything to provide additional support to the families of our fallen comrades.


KING: On that battlefield today, the eastern city of Bakhmut is a flashpoint. President Zelenskyy calling the battle, quote, challenging. Ukrainian soldiers paint a much more dire picture to CNN saying the situation is, quote, 100 percent worse than what's being reported.

CNN's Melissa Bell is live for us on the ground in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. Melissa, what's the latest?

MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, hellish is the way another Ukrainian soldier described it to CNN, John. The picture they paint is really pretty hinderous (ph). What you're talking about is the town's it's been the subject of fighting for so many weeks now. The conditions there have worsened as the ground has thawed, there's flooding in some areas, impossible roads and others.

But there's Ukrainian soldiers that saying, look, we're holding firm despite Russian claims. They say Russian forces, even though they've been sending their most battle hardened regular, but also Wagner mercenaries to try and break through Ukrainian defenses.

The Ukrainian soldiers saying they simply have not encircled us yet, and that there are still two roads through which they continue to get their much needed supplies, even though they're coming under enemy fire. But really a very grim picture being painted about what those Ukrainian forces are facing as they try and hold firm.

Now for several days now, we've been hearing growingly desperate pleas for more allied equipment and help in the shape of F-16s. Now, of course, Washington's ruled those out. But we do know that there is other weaponry coming online fairly quickly.

We've just been hearing from an American official speaking to the Armed Services Committee saying that it is some 4,000 Ukrainian soldiers that have not been trained not just in the United States, but in Europe, across Europe, on the Patriot systems, for instance, on the Leopard tanks. And, of course, those are expected to make a big difference.

The question is just how quickly when they will be usable here in Ukraine. And what happens in the meantime, specifically for the soldiers, who are very bravely trying to hold out against increasing -- did increasingly determined numerous Russian troops. John?

KING: Melissa Bell live for us in Kyiv. Melissa, thank you so much.

Let's get some perspective now from Lieutenant General Mark Hertling. He's served as Commanding General, for U.S. Army, Europe and the Seventh Army. General, grateful for your time, especially on this day. You just heard Melissa explain what we're hearing from soldiers on the ground.

President Zelenskyy himself calls it challenging. If I could ask the controller to put the map back up, when you look at Bakhmut, and where it is in southeastern Ukraine. If you're in the room trying to debate military strategy here, is it smart maybe to give it up and then come back and fight another day or is holding it of some strategic whether its strategic on the battlefield or strategic in terms of public opinion, public morale, to keep it?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, John, all of the above. What we're talking about is an inconsequential city. Before the war, it was a population of about 70,000. It's a small area, small city on the intersection of a couple of roads and near some railroads for resupply.

It is not strategically important, but it has become strategically imperative to hold by the Ukrainians and certainly by the Russians trying to take it. I would equate this somewhat like Bastogne during World War II, the Battle of the Bulge. The city itself was not critical. But holding on to it, the Ukrainian saying we are not going to give this up, we're going to suck a whole lot more Russians into this malaise and cause more problems is important to them, certainly.

And the Russians need a victory that they have not been able to achieve. John, how long have we been talking about the city of Bakhmut? It's been months now. And the Ukrainians continue to hold on to it.

KING: And so, in that context, you're talking about Putin could use a win, you know, even if it's a small one. When you hear -- it's quite obvious that Russia has suffered huge losses on the battlefield over the last year. Now we're into the first month of the second year of this war.

Yet to hear Putin say it so publicly acknowledging, what does that tell you? Who's that aim for, in your view? Is it aimed to trying to keep up military morale saying, I hear it, I understand you're hurting and some of your families have suffered profoundly? Is it about public opinion? All of the above?

HERTLING: Well, it's all of the above also. But here's the context of Putin speech today. Today, he was talking to the FSB, which is the organization that followed on to the KGB, some -- a group that he was once a part of.


So when he was talking about casualties, was just one part of that speech. He was also telling the FSB, increase the supervision and oversight of the Russian population. And he was doing this on a day when Ukrainian drones were flying over Russian cities by my count 12 different cities. A few days after there was a successful Ukrainian- Russian strike against that Russian air wax plane in Belarus.

And the fact of the matter is that he's seen -- Putin is seeing more and more demonstrations against what's happening. And that's going to increase as more and more dead bodies come home to Russian mothers. So what Putin is basically saying today is, yes, we're having problems on the battlefield.

And he's telling the FSB, increase the things you're doing to put down the Russian population, the Russian citizens. So it is not a good sign for Mr. Putin today, in my view, he's having some problems back home.

KING: General Hertling, as always, sir, thank you for your time.

HERTLING: My pleasure.

KING: Up next for us, voters in Chicago casting their ballots for the city's next mayor right now today. Lori Lightfoot selection four years ago was one for the history books, but a second term for the mayor could well be in jeopardy. We're live on the ground in Chicago, next.


KING: Right now, voting underway in the city of Chicago where a crowded field vying to become the city's next mayor. There are nine candidates in all, you see them there. The Democratic incumbent Lori Lightfoot, facing an uphill battle.

The current front runner is the former Chicago Public School CEO Paul Vallas, also a Democrat who has campaigned heavily on a promise to reduce crime. Four years ago, Mayor Lightfoot became the first black woman and the first openly gay person to serve as Chicago's Mayor.

CNN's Omar Jimenez is live on the ground for us in Chicago outside of polling site. Omar, what are you seeing today?

OMAR JIMENEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, I mean, you're seeing signs, of course, as we've seen all this campaign season. We're outside a polling site on the northern side of Chicago right now and this is going to be a fight. I mean, the environment now is different than when it was in 2019. Of course, the last time we had a mayoral election here.

We're on the other side of what Mayor Lori Lightfoot is described as once in a lifetime set of challenges among them a spike in crime like we saw here and in places across the country. And look, at this point, enthusiasm is high. We've already seen coming into election day, more than 240,000 early votes cast, which is incredible when you compare that to 2019, where we saw around 165,000.

And it's a crowded field. We've got nine candidates in total. Four of them are seen as top contenders. As you mentioned before coming to me, Paul Vallas, a former head of schools in Chicago and Philadelphia and New Orleans. He's pulling or he's among the top contenders seen as that. He's been endorsed by the Chicago police union, the Fraternal Order of Police that hosted Ron DeSantis last week.

And some critics, including Lightfoot have jumped on that saying that even in association with a group that's hosting DeSantis shows he's not a Democrat, he says he is. But we've also got Brandon Johnson, a Cook County Commissioner endorsed by the Teachers Union Jesus Chuy Garcia, who ran in 2015, got to the runoff against Rahm Emanuel before losing and is now a U.S. congressman.

And now moving forward because of the number of candidates, no person is expected to get the 50 percent threshold needed to become mayor tonight, essentially. And so, what that means is the top two candidates will go to a runoff. But critically, I talked about those mailing ballots, we still got 100,000 ballots mail-in who were requested, but haven't been returned.

And because we're now at election day, those ballots can't be counted until after Election Day. And 100,000, that's a lot of vote considering it was just over 550,000 votes that came in in 2019. And with margins, this thin between candidates could make a difference in the coming days, potentially weeks after today. And all of it, of course, happens as mayor Lori Lightfoot is fighting for her political life and at risk of being the first mayor in 30 years here in Chicago not to win reelection though 20 of those years were one person.

KING: All right. Important context that is high the stakes here. We may have to wait and count votes for a little bit until we're done. Omar Jimenez, grateful you're on the ground for us in Chicago on a big day.

Up next for us, you don't want to miss this. A mother's impassioned plea after two of her sons died from fentanyl use.



KING: Topping our political radar today, dramatic testimony on Capitol Hill during a hearing on the southern border. A mother who spoke lost two of her sons after they took fentanyl believing they were taking Percocet. She told the House Homeland Security Committee much more needs to be done to stop the flow of deadly drugs.


REBECCA KIESSLING, LOST SONS TO FENTANYL: That means unbelievable. You would think that one death from fentanyl coming across our southern border would be enough to sound the alarm. 100,000 die every year and nothing's being done. Not enough is being done. Numbers are going up, not down. And you talk about children being taken away from their parents. My children were taken away from me.


KING: A 30-day deadline now for every single federal agency to scrub TikTok from government issued phones. Biden White House issuing new guidance Monday directing agencies and contractors, delete the app from all devices. U.S. officials say ByteDance, TikTok's parent company poses an intelligence risk to national security.

And this Navy warship now the USS Robert Smalls renamed to honor a black sailor born into slavery. Smalls was born in South Carolina, forced to serve on the Confederate side of the Civil War. Eventually, he piloted the ship where he was serving out of Charleston Harbor back to the U.S. Navy. He eventually became captain of that chip, a civil rights advocate and a member of Congress.

Thanks for your time today in INSIDE POLITICS. We'll see you tomorrow. Abby Phillip picks up our coverage right now.