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Inside Politics

Brown Introduces Bipartisan Rail Safety Bill With GOP's Vance; Manchin: Biden Admin Prioritizing "Liberal Policy Agenda"; Defense Wraps Closing Arguments In Murdaugh Murder Trial; Judge Replaces Juror Who Had "Improper Conversations" In Murdaugh Trial; First Lady Jill Biden Opens Up On Giving Advice To The President; DOJ Pushes Back On Sweeping Trump Claims Of Presidential Immunity For Jan. 6 Speech. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired March 02, 2023 - 12:30   ET




JOHN KING, CNN HOST: The first week of March 2023, look at the United States Senate. Rich with November 2024 calculations. To defend their Senate majority next year, Democrats need to hold seats in several states Donald Trump won comfortably, if not overwhelmingly.

West Virginia, Montana and Ohio lead that list. And Democrats Joe Manchin, Jon Tester and Sherrod Brown are each, to varying degrees, looking for ways to separate themselves from the Biden White House.

Our great reporters are back at the table. And just, if we could keep that up there for a second, if you look at it, just in the last week, let's start with Senator Manchin. He has said he's going to have a hearing in his Energy Committee on the COVID pandemic origins, the COVID virus origins. He voted against this retirement rule that Republicans say is wokeism somehow, a Biden retirement rule.

And he's taken some other things you see on the left of your screen there. He's taken some other steps. He's opposed to this D.C. crime law. He wants Congress to repeal a D.C. crime law. Look, Donald Trump won West Virginia by, I think, 39 points. So you could understand why he wants to differentiate himself somewhat.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I don't think Joe Manchin is going to have as much trouble establishing his independence from Joe Biden as perhaps some of the other more endangered Democrats are. I mean, someone like Sherrod Brown, I think he even said that he's not going to -- he thinks Biden has been doing a good job.

He said that -- has said that publicly. That's going to be a harder needle to thread for him than it is for someone like a Manchin. Tester is right there in the middle.

KING: But Tester is, you know, to the Sherrod Brown point, Ohio, Trump carried by eight points. Not 39 points, eight points, but it's still the Republicans viewed as pretty reliably. Red state Democrats won't give you much of an argument, but Sherrod Brown is sort of almost the last Democrat standing, if you will, from a statewide perspective.

And you look at this. He says -- to your point, he says that he thinks the President's been incredibly successful. He says if the President were to come there, he would campaign with him. But he says he's not sure on the D.C. crime bill. He just sponsored this bipartisan piece of legislation to deal with rail safety after the horrific accident in East Palestine. So he's trying to do it more gently. Is that the right word than the others?

LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I would say, yes. Sherrod Brown has a very unique reputation in Ohio. He's someone who, as you've talked about before, John, he really fashions himself as this blue collar, but progressive Democrat, and it's worked for him.

Even -- I was there in 2018 when he ran for reelection there, and it ended up not being as competitive for him. But at the beginning, Republicans were really hopeful that cycle that they were going to be able to oust him. And he still has been able to hold on to a lot of that blue collar base that he's had before. Of course, it's going to be harder now.

Trump won Ohio in 2020 by about -- sorry, not 2020, but Trump -- yes, in 2020, Trump did win Ohio by about eight points. So it still is very much a Republican state right now. And Brown is going to have to try to, on one hand, really explain what he's supporting from the Biden agenda that was passed the prior two years. That's going to be a lot about prescription, you know, drug reform.

It's going to be about the other -- the infrastructure elements that he supported that's going to try to bring manufacturing more back to that state. So that's a way that he can try to balance it with the other issues that he's going to try to hold the President's feet to the fire on.

KING: And it's interesting. I get into some of the more specifics in a minute, but it's interesting in the sense that Democrats are grateful. The President is grateful. Manchin, I don't think, has actually declared his candidacy, but he sure looks like he's running. Democrats want them to run, and the President understands they're going to poke him sometimes, but they think these are the only guys who can win.

That, you know, if we're going to hold those seats, these are the guys who have to do it. So you take the pokes, if you will, to try to hold the seat. In Tester's case in Montana, Trump won that by 16 points, I believe. He was pretty critical of the administration. The spy balloon, Chinese spy balloon flew right over his state and the nuclear facilities there.

He also is against this retirement rule. But again, he's the kind of guy who says, I like the President but, right? It's the question is, can you handle the nuance part?


EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: Right. Well, incumbents are uniquely suited to do this delicate dance because the voters already know Jon Tester in Montana. So he can afford to be careful here. But you don't -- I think the challenge for them is they don't want to do it in a way that's disingenuous.

Everybody knows he's a Democrat. You can only distance yourself from the President, but so much. It seems like he is going to really focus on the accomplishments of the administration and the Democratically controlled Senate and focus on those issues and sort of concede. You might not like Democrats, you might not like the President, but here is what I've been able to do for Montana.

KING: And so let's listen a little bit to how you can do it. You can do it, but you can do it in different ways. Then let's start with Sherrod Brown who, again, a progressive Democrat, keeps winning in a red state, which is to his credit that he can pull that off. It's not a Democrat or Republican statements, to his credit, he can win in a difficult environment.

He sponsored this bipartisan rail safety bill. He's not so much taking issue with the President here, but he's saying essentially, you know, maybe you're a Republican. I work with Republicans. We get good things done.


SEN. SHERROD BROWN (D), OHIO: Senator Vance and I with Senator Rubio and Senator -- the new senator from Missouri and the new senator from Pennsylvania and Bob Casey and I are actually working to solve this bipartisan.

It's a Republican community but they don't care about that. They don't want politicians coming in and disrupting things. They want action. They want solutions.


KING: So there is Sherrod Brown. Essentially, people want pragmatism. They want all of us to work together when we get stuff done. That's how he wants to navigate a difficult environment. And then there's Joe Manchin who is a Democrat. But would you know that -- listen to this.


SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D), WEST VIRGINIA: -- arise today to warn against our administration's unrelenting campaign, to weaken our energy security, our national security and our economic security, to advance truly their environmental and social agenda.

Our administration prioritizes a liberal policy agenda over protecting and growing, protecting and growing the retirement accounts of 150 million Americans that will be in jeopardy.


KING: Is that in a nutshell the difference between Trump won his state, Manchin state by nearly 40 and he only won Ohio by eight. Was that a (INAUDIBLE)? BARRON-LOPEZ: I think -- I mean, that's a huge part of it. And Democrats know that every six years, Senator Joe Manchin is going to be railing against a lot of their policies. But then in those middle years, he does vote for the policies that his presidents put forward that that the other Democrats put forward.

And so that potentially could be one of his weaker elements as he runs for reelection is that they are going to say that over and over again he supported a lot of President Biden's biggest agenda item.

KUCINICH: This is going to be all politics are local. I think you're going to hear people like Brown, Tester and Manchin talking -- trying to not make their races nationalized as much as humanly possible and keep the issues that pertain to their states front and center. Whether or not they'll be successful for that, we'll have to see.

MCKEND: Also --

KING: Right. And as you speak, I just want to put this on the map. Eva, you should jump in. Just here's the challenge. You know, if you look at this map, the, this 2022 map and the Senate map was pretty good for the Democrats.

This one here to hold -- you're up -- yes, they want a seat. So they're at 51-49 right now. But Montana, Ohio, West Virginia, there's the three of them just jumping out of here. There are other very competitive states there as well. But you start with those three and the NRSC, the Senate Republican fundraiser just today put out a fundraiser saying these are our top three targets. It's just a much tougher map.

MCKEND: Yes. All of the Republicans that I've spoken to are feeling really confident about this map. On this environmental issue, though, this hostility towards the environment and environmental issues, I don't think that it's the win Republicans think that it is.

We have seen, I've traveled across the country, that young conservatives are equally or not maybe equally, but often animated by talking about climate and environmental issues as well. So I'm not quite sure who the constituency that Republicans are trying to chase on that specific issue.

If Democrats fight the fight, sometimes Democrats just pull away from the fights if they think somehow motivates the other guy's base. We'll see if that plays up.

Up next for us, closing arguments just wrapping up in the Alex Murdaugh double murder trial. We'll take you live to the courthouse next.



KING: The defense in the Alex Murdaugh double murder trial just wrapping up its closing argument. Earlier today, the judge removing a juror for having, quote, improper conversations with people outside of the trial.

Let's check in with CNN's Dianne Gallagher. She's live for us outside the courthouse. Dianne, walk us through the big developments.

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, John, this is something that we initially thought was only going to take three weeks. We are on week six of this trial. Currently at this very moment, the prosecution has just begun its reply closing. The defense finished its closing argument a few moments ago with Attorney Jim Griffin actually getting choked up, his voice breaking at the end when he talked about his friend Paul.

Of course, that is Paul Murdaugh, the 22-year-old son of Alex Murdaugh, who was killed along with his mother, Maggie Murdaugh, Alex's wife. Alex is charged with their murders. Look, the defense, in their closing argument, essentially made three different arguments. The fact that they say Alex Murdaugh didn't do it, he has maintained his innocence the entire time.

The fact that they say that law enforcement had a terrible investigation. They went through all of the things that investigators did not do, trying to create the third aspect of their argument, reasonable doubt.


And there was intense focus on the idea of reasonable doubt telling jurors you can't just be suspicious of someone and find them guilty of murder, that you have to view them as innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Now, this is something that we also heard the prosecutors discuss in their closing arguments yesterday, focusing hard on the definition of reasonable doubt and circumstantial evidence. And I anticipate that that is what we are going to hear as well in this closing reply here, because this is what this case hinges on.

There was a lot of data, there was a lot of testimony, but they do not have a smoking gun per se. There are no eyewitnesses here. And that is what the defense focused in on in those closing arguments.

Now, as we've had almost every day in this trial, there was a bit of a surprise this morning when one of the jurors was called out and told that they were going to be dismissed and replaced with an alternate juror because they had determined this juror had had a discussion with at least three people about evidence in the case offering some kind of opinion on it.

The judge did say that this had been a very intent juror, focused, a good juror, but in the end, they determined they had to dismiss her because she spoke about the case with other people. John?

KING: Dianne Gallagher with the latest for us. It has been a fascinating case, deliberation soon ahead, it seems. So we will keep in touch. Dianne, thank you --


KING: -- very much.

Coming up for us, CNN sits down with the First Lady, Jill Biden, asking her what advice she gives the President about his job.



KING: Tonight, on CNN Primetime, an exclusive look, exclusive interview with the First Lady of the United States, Jill Biden. She talks about her role, her goals and the advice she gives her husband, including, and you might say especially about 2024 in the reelection campaign year.

CNN's Arlette Saenz conducted this interview during the First Lady's recent trip to Africa. Arlette joins us now live. Arlette, let's focus on 2024. The First Lady, obviously, every time the President gets asked about it, he says, I'll check in with my wife. You got a chance to do that. What'd she say?

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I asked her specifically that question and that framing of it, and she told me that she's all for a run, but she also left an opening for the President should he decide not to run in 2024, saying that they'll support him either way. But we also had the chance to ask her about their relationship, their dynamic and the type of advice and insight that she has to offer him.


SAENZ: I know you said that you are not the President's adviser, you're his spouse, but you do hold a lot of influence. What are the areas you do offer him advice on?

JILL BIDEN, FIRST LADY OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, certainly I tell him stories and of things that I've seen and things that people want and where their challenges are. So it's not that I'm like weighing in, it's like, let me tell you what I saw or what I heard or what people are saying to me. And so it's in that context. Because I'm out every day, I'm in the classroom. I'm out, you know, somewhere in the United States. And so I think it's a good balance, really.

SAENZ: And I think there is a lot of focus on the role and the impacts that you have on him. But how does he help you?

BIDEN: Well, sometimes I don't -- I may not see things from his perspective, let's just put it that way. And so he offers both sides. I'm always a little bit better like this person feels this way. You know, he's very good at that, understanding why people feel the way they do.


SAENZ: So that's a little bit of a window into the way that the two of them work as a couple. Of course, we talked to her about a host of other issues along this trip, including concerns about her husband's age as he possibly runs for reelection. And even that suggestion that by a Republican that politicians take mental competency tests over a certain age. We also talked to her about her relationships with other first ladies.

KING: Whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, I think the First Lady gets credit for understating her role. It is a lot more significant, I believe, and you have the reporting on it, than she publicly admits.

Arlette Saenz, fascinating interview. Looking forward to seeing much more of it. And you can watch the rest of it. Wide ranging interview with the First Lady of the United States, Jill Biden, that's tonight. CNN Primetime, "Jill Biden Abroad," that's 09:00 p.m. Eastern right here only on CNN.

Next for us, the United States making another appeal to Moscow for the release of American detainee Paul Whelan. How his family is responding, that's next.



KING: Some important legal news just in to CNN. The Biden Justice Department arguing in court that former President Donald Trump should not be allowed to claim total presidential immunity in civil cases related to January 6. In a legal brief, the DOJ urging an appeals court today that civil suits could move forward if the president's speech -- the former president speech is found -- have incited violence.

Let's get more from CNN's Evan Perez, he's with us. Evan, walk us through why these matters.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, John, this is a very important position for the Justice Department to take in these civil lawsuits that were brought by members of Congress, Democratic members of Congress, and Capitol Police officers who, of course, were the victims of some of the violence on January 6, 2021.

I'll read you just a part of what the Justice Department says. "No part of a president's official responsibilities includes the incitement of imminent private violence." What this is -- what this means is the Justice Department is telling the appeals court here in Washington that it's considering these cases, that, you know, the President doesn't have absolute immunity against these lawsuits.

And what they're asking is for the court to have a more narrow ruling on these positions that the President is taking, saying, essentially that, you know, he should obviously have some immunity for things having to do with his electoral or political speech. John?

KING: We'll stay on top of that. I appreciate your time today.

Abby Phillip picks us for us right now.