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Inside Politics

Attorney General Merrick Garland Grilled; Garland Questioned Over Hunter Biden Investigation; Mayor Lightfoot Falls Short In Race Dominated By Crime & Police; Manchin Says He'll Vote With GOP To Overturn D.C. Crime Code; Biden Weighs Vetoing Congressional Override Of D.C. Crime Law; China Select Cmte Chair: "This Is An Existential Struggle"; House Cmte Voting On Bill That Would Help Ban TikTok; CNN: Trump Having Difficulty Courting House Maga Wing Support. Aired 12- 12:30p ET

Aired March 01, 2023 - 12:00   ET



JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Hello, and welcome to Inside Politics. I'm John King in Washington. Thanks for sharing your day with us. Garland grilled the attorney general, facing a barrage of questioning from the Senate Judiciary Committee. Republicans and Democrats grilling the attorney general on a host of issues including Hunter Biden.

Chicago's mayor is out. Lori Lightfoot falls short in her reelection bid. Crime the number one issue. Is this a warning sign for Democrats? And a Trump slump. New CNN reporting on Donald Trump's allies pressing to get House Republicans to endorse his 2024 bid, and so far, they are not getting what they want.

We begin the hour though with the attorney general on Capitol Hill facing sharp questions on a range of critical issues. Merrick Garland defending the integrity and the independence of his Justice Department. At a time, some Republicans suggested is somehow weaponized against conservatives.

The attorney general agreeing much more can be done including, getting tougher on social media companies to deal with the fentanyl scorch. And he said, he was keeping his promise to stay walled off from the investigation of the president's son Hunter Biden. And he said that Trump holds over U.S. attorney handling that case, at full authority to follow the facts wherever they lead.

CNN's Paula Reid has been tracking this hearing for us and joins us now live. Paula, let's start with the investigation of the president's son Hunter Biden. This came up when Merrick Garland was confirmed as the attorney general, and he said today it's being handled Trump holdover in Delaware. I have nothing to do with it, but he has full authority. Listen?


MERRICK GARLAND, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY GENERAL: I promised to leave the matter of Hunter Biden in the hands of the U.S. attorney for the District of Delaware, who was appointed in the previous administration. I have pledged not to interfere with that investigation. And I have carried through on my pledge.


KING: Senator Grassley, Republican of Iowa was trying to press on the idea that, are you sure. Does this prosecutor really have full authority? If there are facts that take him outside of Delaware to some other states as they have the authority to prosecute? What did we learn?

PAULA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: That's right because Republicans are questioning why special counsel has not been appointed to take over the investigation into Hunter Biden. But as you heard there, the attorney general, the Justice Department, they have consistently said that they believe the right way to handle this case was to allow this Trump appointed U.S. attorney to stay on to continue to oversee this investigation, and that they don't necessarily need a special counsel.

Whereas the other two special counsels that Garland has appointed, they have been handling investigations into the president of the United States. And the former president of the United States who said he is going to run for office again, and their possible his handling of classified documents. So, it doesn't appear that there is any inconsistency. But John, this is unlikely to be the last question that it gets on Hunter Biden during this hours' long hearing.

KING: But as you were speaking, we showed pictures of Republican Josh Hawley of Missouri, Republican Ted Cruz of Texas. There's been some spice back and forth with the attorney general and Republicans, but the Senate is much more polite, if you will, other than the House. So, the tone over there would be quite different.

But one area that I thought was quite interesting was the, seem to be great potential for bipartisanship. The Chairman Dick Durbin, democratic Illinois. The ranking member, Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, and the attorney general of the United States. Listen here, say, fentanyl is a huge issue. And yes, all across government, all across law enforcement, time to do more.


MERRICK GARLAND, ATTORNEY GENERAL: We have more than enough ability now to attack this problem.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): Well, would you agree with me, whatever we have is not working? Whatever we're doing is not working.

GARLAND: I agree with that because of the number of deaths that you pointed out.


KING: The attorney general seemed open to new steps to crack down on social media companies that promote essentially peddle these drugs to kids, said he would take any tools necessary to help with the Mexican cartels. Again, what did we learn? REID: This was a great moment. As you noted, these oversight hearings, particularly on the House side can get as you described, "spicy." But this was an important moment, because as you know, there was what appears to be an opportunity for bipartisan compromise on an issue that is arguably one of the most significant facing Americans.

The attorney general, he's the nation's top law enforcement official. And the senator, they're asking him, are we doing enough? Is this working? Now, it's interesting, the attorney general was quick to remind him that the Justice Department can only work with what Congress gives him, and that includes laws and resources.

But it was sobering that this was really one of the primary issues in the first 45 minutes of this hearing, incredibly important. And they agreed we're not doing enough in what we're doing isn't working. And the attorney general said, he would be glad to receive more resources from lawmakers.


KING: Well, hopefully those conversations continue, and we'll continue to track the hearing if there are any more big developments, we'll bring them to you. Paula Reid, grateful for the help. Thank you.

Moving on now to another very big story. Voters in America's third largest city are firing their mayor and sending a very loud message on crime. The Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, conceding last night after she failed to make the cut for a spring runoff. The city has not ousted the city mayor in 40 years. It's fresh evidence Americans are fed up with violent crime and how their leaders are dealing with it.

The two top vote getters advance now to the runoff. Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas, excuse me, both are Democrats. They agree public safety is the top issue, but there is a big divide.


PAUL VALLAS, (D) CHICAGO MAYORAL CANDIDATE: Public safety is the fundamental right of every American. It is a civil right. We will have a safe Chicago. We will make Chicago the safest city in America.

BRANDON JOHNSON (D) CHICAGO MAYORAL CANDIDATE: Paul Vallas is the author of the Tale of Two Cities. He is backed by the same forces who have done nothing as crime has paralyzed our city.


KING: Tessa Weinberg of WBEZ Chicago joins us now live with the latest. Tessa, grateful for your time. Just there last night as these two candidates essentially taking act one in the runoff election. Paul Vallas is a former Chicago Public School CEO. He's backed by the Chicago police union. That's what Brandon Johnson had in mind. He's a cook county commissioner, and he is backed by the teachers' union. You could see the divide instantly last night. How does this play out particularly on the crime issue going forward? TESSA WEINBERG, GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS REPORTER, WBEZ CHICAGO: Yes. Crime has definitely been the top issue for voters this election, whether that was in surveys or just hearing from, you know, voters on the campaign trail. You know, homicides did decrease last year in 2022 in Chicago, but it follows 2021, which was the most violent year in a quarter century for the city.

And so, voters, I think, you know, rightly want to see it addressed and candidates have talked about ways to, you know, pour more resources into the police to attract more recruits, or a lot of candidates like Brandon Johnson have talked about ways to address the root causes of violence, like poverty, or mental health. And so those been some kind of the - some of the different approaches we've seen.

But, you know, we've also seen whenever it comes to talking about other issues, like the economy or public transit, it seems to continually go back to crime as candidates say, to you know, attract more people back to downtown or fill offices, need to work on our crime problem, or to get ridership back on the CTA that we need to address violent crime. And so, it's definitely been the defining issue so far. And I think we're only going to see that and continue to be the issue that defines the runoff election come April,

KING: And from your eyes on this race. Lori Lightfoot drew national, even international attention when she first won the office, first black woman, first openly gay mayor of the city of Chicago. Voters saying sorry, we want to move on. You say crime was the number one issue. Did these two candidates advanced because they have different specific policy proposals? Or do they advance simply because they're not the incumbent and voters are mad?

WEINBERG: You know, I think it's hard to know what exactly, I think it's probably a mix of those things. You know, it was a tough reelection battle for Mayor Lightfoot. I think that was clear that, you know, a runoff was going to happen. And, you know, it was a question of whether she can make it. She, you know, was the historic mayor when she was elected in 2019, like you said, and, you know, I think she put a lot of emphasis on, you know, investments and things like the south and west sides and equity was, I think, a major driver of her campaign.

But a lot of her opponents, despite those achievements, you know, pointed to failed campaign promises that she didn't act on, or, you know, sometimes just pointed to personal critiques of her tough negotiating style, which I think sometimes lost her allies, for example, on city council. And so, I think, you know, a mix of the, you know, historic levels and intense levels of crime we've seen. Plus, some of those others really were driving voters to want to see something different and want to see some change.

You know, her election night party last night, which I was at, she said she's, you know, still has her head held high and, you know, voters I talked to, were disappointed there to see her go and pointed to the fact that they, you know, the fact that she is the first black woman and openly gay mayor, you know, that wasn't lost on them. And some of them said they felt that you know, played a role in, you know why she wasn't reelected.

KING: We'll circle back as the runoff continues. Tessa Weinberg, appreciate your insights. Big change coming in America's third largest city, a big message as well. Thank you, gain. We'll circle back as the runoff continues. With me now in studio to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Lauren Fox, Franco Ordonez of NPR, and Tia Mitchell the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Eric Adams gets elected mayor of New York City last year. The House Republican majority you could attribute to the flip of all those democratic held seats just in the state of New York where crime was the big issue. Now Chicago voters say, goodbye to their mayor. The question is, how does Washington process the fact that crime is an issue, it's a two by four in the hands of voters right now well.


LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I mean, crime is the issue that they saw in the midterms. They're really resonated. It's why you see Republicans talking about that issue over and over again. It's why you saw some of that bipartisan back and forth on the issue of fentanyl, right?

But it's also something that lawmakers are going to have to confront next week when the Senate has to decide how they are going to vote on this D.C. crime bill rewrite and whether or not they're going to try to overturn it. I mean, it is an issue that is having an impact in this Senate in just a couple of days.

KING: And so, let's bring that up. Again, for people that are watching at home. Remember the District of Columbia, it's not a state. Congress has a lot of power over what the District of Columbia whether it's the mayor or the city council, they can enact things, Congress gets involved as well. And that's the D.C. crime bill would overhaul the criminal code in D.C. The original criminal code was drafted by the Congress back in 1901.

The new policy would eliminate most mandatory minimum sentences. It allows jury trials for most misdemeanors, reduces maximum penalties for burglaries, carjackings and robberies, the law would not take effect for three years. The mayor, the Democratic mayor did not like every provision of this, but the city council went over her head here. The challenge now is especially after Chicago, Republican COA to send a message, what do the Democrats do?

FRANCO ORDONEZ, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, NPR: I mean, they're concerned. I mean, I think that's very clear. I mean, this is an issue. That is as Lauren just talking is front and center in Washington, it's also going to be front and center in the 2024 elections. If this gets to the president's desk, I mean, think about the dilemma that Biden is going to face trying to maneuver around this.

This is something that Biden and the White House has said, they don't want to meddle in the government, the D.C. government's business, but the potential to possibly veto this could be, you know, red meat for Republicans, and is a big concern for Democrats, because of what just happened in Chicago.

But also, as it has been a concern of vulnerability for Biden, and that's why you've seen him trying to distance himself from some of the, you know, some of the progressive moves, you know, distance himself from defund the police. And I think this will be another test for him, a big one.

KING: Bigger. And to that point, Republicans, number one, they think it's bad policy. Number two, they see the political opportunity. This is John Thune, remember the Senate Republican leadership. It's a runner with a lot of the American people. They look at the cities today and they say they're not safe places.

I think it's a problem for Democrats to oppose something that would make some of the larger population centers more safe. Now, you could argue, OK, then call timeout, try to strike a compromise deal. That doesn't work in this town, because they probably can see an opportunity here to score points.

Joe Manchin, democratic West Virginia on the ballot next year, says I'm going to be with the Republicans on this one. A, can the Democrats on Capitol Hill do anything? There's the math just act against them. And Franco raises a great point. What does Joe Biden do? Say, I don't want to mess with the democratic city, or I want to burnish my credentials going into 2024?

TIA MITCHELL, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, THE ATLANTA JOURNAL- CONSTITUTION: Yes. I think the math is starting to look not so great for Democrats being able to stop this Republican proposal of overturning those changes in D.C. It does put President Biden in a tough spot because Democrats have been saying for decades, leave D.C. alone, let themselves govern. We think they should be a state.

But I think Joe Biden, quite frankly, probably, he's not on that progressive side, D.C.'s progressive city council is which decided to go forward with some of these changes to the criminal code. And I think Joe Biden probably isn't completely comfortable with it.

So now he's conflicted between protecting D.C.'s independence versus allowing these changes to go into effect that, a lot of people do have concern about thinking that it sends the wrong message, not so much that the conversation wasn't necessary, but lowering mandatory minimum sentences at a time where D.C. crime is going up, sends the wrong message is what they said.

KING: Now you have a Democratic incumbent mayor, friend of the White House kicked out of her job by the thinking to be done across. Appreciate it. We'll continue the conversation in a minute. Up next for us though, the China challenge gets primetime congressional attention. Rare bipartisanship as a new House committee raises questions from Taiwan to TikTok, and how to deal with China's growing global ambitions.



KING: There are hearings, briefings, interviews from Capitol Hill to the White House new warnings about the threat. China now poses and they are everywhere those warnings. Recent events only driving tensions higher. That's spy balloon of course, shut down last month. Reports China may help arm Russia in its war on Ukraine. Plus, growing tensions over Taiwan, the origins of COVID. And yes, questions about TikTok.

Joining me now to share her insights and expertise, the former Deputy Director of national intelligence Beth Sanner. Beth, thank you for being here today. So there was this first bipartisan committee meeting last night, this new China committee in the House that they had promised to go led by Republicans, they promised to proceed with bipartisanship.

One of the members this morning, Seth Moulton, Democratic Massachusetts talking about how important it is that Congress tried to work together on all of these challenges, whether economic, whether the national security. He says if Congress doesn't get this right, this is the risk.


REP. SETH MOULTON (D-MA): We can't afford to let deterrence fail in the Pacific. I mean, we could wake up one morning Poppy and sea two American aircraft carriers at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, thousands of young Americans under the sea, so we can't let that happen.


KING: Now, he says, he went on to say that's not probable, but it's possible. Are we at that point?

BETH SANNER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: We are at the point where the decisions we make today will have an impact on whether that happens. But there's also the risk that what we're doing now becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And by that, I mean if we go too hard, randomly on everything too hard, then we could actually drive ourselves to a position where that's inevitable. So, this is a tough balancing act that everybody's trying to do right now.


KING: So, I hope I'm wrong, and I truly hope I'm wrong. But we've seen some of these new House Republican investigations begin where they essentially announced the verdict and then begin the trial. Sorry, but that's just the way they're approaching it. This committee seems different.

The new special select committee on the Communist Party of China has a Republican chairman, but he's working closely with his Democratic co- chair. And last night they sound, and they promised, this is day one, they promised we're going to do this in a bipartisan way. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. MIKE GALLAGHER (R-WI): We may call this a strategic competition, but it's not a polite tennis match. This is an existential struggle over what life will look like in a 21st century. And the most fundamental freedoms are at stake.

REP. RAJA KRISHNAMOORTHI (D-IL): We don't want a clash of civilizations, but we seek a durable peace. The CCP is counting on us to be divided. We must rise to the occasion and prove them wrong.


KING: This conversation that in some administration, your pivot, deal with the China challenge. I've recovered the Clinton White House and the George W. Bush White House, they said they were going to deal with it. Here we are, you know, how many years later, a generation later? Does it help at least that they're trying to get off to a bipartisan start? And do you see areas where on a bipartisan basis, the government could do things that send the right signal to China to get it to dial back?

SANNER: Absolutely. I mean, I think that this is great. If just those two opening statements by Gallagher and Krishnamoorthi put us in the exact right place. They're right that China, Russia, Iran, all our adversaries, not only love when we're divided, they try to make us divided. But we do have to take practical steps in every single thing that China does isn't a nail, and we have the hammer, we have to distinguish.

KING: And so, let's make some of the distinctions. One of the things that's on the table right now, the Biden administration. You've seen a bunch of Republican led states do this. So, the Government of Canada do this recently, governments in Europe have done it as well. We can show you the CNN headline House panel to vote on bill empowering Biden to ban TikTok, the administration has taken steps to get it off government phones. Should TikTok be banned?

SANNER: I don't think it's probably possible politically to ban it. I mean, we look at how many people in America use this. And I'm personally for taking the ability of the Chinese government to access the material, all the information about U.S. citizens, that they are hoovering up and making sure that the Chinese government cannot access that by keeping that in America. So, I think that we absolutely have to take that step. And the administration has been kind of slow in moving that forward because it's complicated.

KING: So, give me an example of something that you see that's being treated as a nail, and they want to hit it with a hammer that shouldn't be treated so severely.

SANNER: Well, I think yesterday during the panel, Mr. Paul, from the Manufacturers Association talked about removing most favored nation status for China. And you know, most Americans would say, well, why should we have China as a most favored nation, they're not favored. We hate them. So, but you know, only two other countries are on or off that list, North Korea and Cuba, and we have no trade with them. For China, we have $690 billion of trade, a record last year in both imports and U.S. exports. So, we can't do that and protect U.S. interests and be globally competitive. We have to be more measured than that.

KING: Nuance, we'll see if that can exist. Beth Sanner, appreciate your help. As we start, this can be an interesting conversation throughout the year. Up next, trouble for Trump in a place that has long been a strength. We're reporting on Trump's struggles to win 2024 endorsements from House Republicans.


REP. TIM BURCHETT (R-TN): Our country needs a dynamic leader, and we need somebody that puts forth the point and follows through with it.





KING: Want to bring you some new CNN reporting now that highlights a telling trouble spot for Donald Trump. The former president's allies are privately aggressively courting House Republicans. They want them to step up and endorse the former president's 2024 combat campaign. But those Trump allies are running into resistance.

Let's get straight to Capitol Hill, our chief congressional correspondent Manu Raju there with us. Manu this is Trump's base in Washington. What's the problem?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. That is really the surprising part of this. My colleague Melanie Zanona and I interviewed roughly two dozen or so, a number of hardcore Trump supporters, people who, some of them who are part of the House Freedom Caucus. People who are essentially his staunchest defenders during Donald Trump's four years in office, and many of them simply are just not yet ready to commit.

Some of them are looking at Governor Ron DeSantis. If he runs, which is expected, Senator South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, and even Nikki Haley, the South Carolina governor who has gotten support from at least one House Freedom Caucus member and potentially there could be others.

The overriding concern among Republicans with their voice to you privately, they are concerned about Trump's viability as a candidate, every underperformed in the last three election cycles. They're worried. He could give Joe Biden another four years in the White House. And that's what a number of members said to me, when I put the question to them about whether they support Trump.


RAJU: The fact that he underperformed---

REP. BURCHETT: Yes, that's a concern. A lot of times our later is maybe, their morals aren't where we needed to be, but the leadership skills and putting people in plays are, so that's kind of what everybody's concerned about.