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Inside Politics

Trump's Grip On Republican Base Tested At CPAC; Nikki Haley, Mike Pompeo To Speak At Conservative Gathering; House Ethics Committee Investigating Santos; House Ethics Committee Extends Inquiry Into Rep. Ocasio-Cortez Over Met Gala Gifts. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired March 03, 2023 - 12:30   ET



KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Now, obviously, the Florida governor is not here. He and several other of these major potential 2024 candidates are in Florida at a private donor retreat hosted by Club for Growth, one that, notably former President Trump was not invited to.

But it was interesting to see how people viewed these two candidates here. And again, we are watching to see how the crowd reacts to these other potential 24 hopefuls.

JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Remarkable event. Remarkable event, I guess. Kristen Holmes, thanks for being there for us.

Let's bring the conversation in the room with our great reporters. I'm the older guy at the table. I was not there when Barry Goldwater gave CPAC a big name. But Barry Goldwater was really for smaller government and against the Communists. Ronald Reagan used CPAC as a huge springboard when he was saying we need smaller government and to be against the Soviets.

CPAC today very different, as evidenced by some speakers this morning.


REP. MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE (R-GA): I ended up putting a sign outside my office door that said, there's only two genders, male and female. Trust a science.

REP. MATT GAETZ (R-FL): I think we had to spend four or five days asking the Chinese spy balloon what its pronouns were before we were willing to shoot it down.

REP. JAMES COMER (R-KY): Make no mistake, this is an investigation of Joe Biden and to determine whether or not Joe Biden, first of all, lied to the American people. I think we're going to be all right on that answer. But secondly, is Joe Biden compromised?


KING: It was once a testing ground for conservatives and Republicans. It is now a testing ground for MAGA. That's not necessarily conservative, and some people argue it's not very Republican.

TAMARA KEITH, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, NPR: So CPAC is a business. And CPAC has evolved to be what is good for business. And what is good for business right now is MAGA, whether that be MAGA in the form of Trump or MAGA in the form of Marjorie Taylor Greene or Matt Gaetz.

And so this is a conference that over its years, has sort of followed where the money is, where the excitement of the base is. And absolutely, the Republican Party and what it used to stand for is completely scrambled by Trump and by a lot of other people. Are they pro-defense? Well, not in the way they used to be. Are they pro- business? Not if they can pick a fight with a business for being woke.


KEITH: So it's just a different party, at least in this area. And I think some of the people who aren't there would like it to be the party that they remember. It's not -- I think that the primary will sort of help decide that.

RAJU: And even, you know, elected leadership in the Congress used to attend these events.


RAJU: Used to make speeches in this event. Mitch McConnell is vilified at this event. Yesterday, Rick Scott, who challenged him for the leadership, Scott lost that and after the elections went wrong for the Republicans, but he was touting his challenge to Mitch McConnell. He got a huge round of applause for doing that.

Kevin McCarthy, the Speaker of the House. Now they're the two most powerful Republicans in Congress. Really, the only elected member of leadership on either side is there is Elise Stefanik, who has aligned herself with a MAGA wing of the party.

The question will be whether or not this crowded CPAC really translates to the early voters in the key states Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada. Were they -- will that -- is this where the party, the base, really what they believe? Are these the same people who will come out to vote? Or is it just a small segment of the MAGA base not going to influence the vote in the (INAUDIBLE).

KING: It is a key question. It is Trump's room, to your point about the business part of it is absolutely dead on. Correct. It's Trump's room. The question is, how big is it when you get outside of National Harbor, where they're meeting here near Maryland, get across the country, what percentage of Republican electors they are?

But you do have Secretary of State Pompeo going there today, former Secretary of State, former ambassador, former Governor Nikki Haley, the entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy trying to cut in the Republican field. He's an entrepreneur.

The idea for them is it that, well, you know, Trump right now is formidable. These Republicans always whisper, but will he disappear? Legal trouble, some other issue. Will he disappear? So that sort of, I could be your plan B. Is that their point?

ZOLAN KANNO-YOUNGS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": And can he be the most effective? Can Trump be the most effective? That's still galvanizing around some of these culture war issues that still fall under the umbrella of Trumpism.

You know, it's DeSantis, Pompeo even Nikki Haley, in her campaign speech, you still heard some elements of tapping into some of the issues that Trump has used in recent years to galvanize both many of the people that you're going to see at CPAC and others across the country.

Even when you played that clip early on, we saw that list of issues, whether it be talking about education or who -- which bathroom, you know, when it comes to gender in bathrooms and schools as well, immigration, border crime. You know, the people that -- you're going to see, other potential candidates go there.

And just because there's questions around, really how Trump will fare in the months ahead, you'll still see many people that are trying to compete in this contest appealing to some of those same issues that he has govern (ph).


KING: I think the question is, do you try to present yourself as Trump light --


KING: -- and hope he disappears somehow, or hope voters decide? You heard that woman say he's a warrior. Republicans lost in 2018, 2020, 2022, is that the warrior? you want leading you into the fight? Or as Rich Lowry writes in Politico, if the current situation holds, there's no way around Trump, only through. And that will require making a case against him.

So that's the question for these other Republicans. Will you directly challenge him, or do you just try to somehow out maneuver?

RAJU: And that was the real problem for these candidates in 2016. No one really knew how to run against him. Remember Jeb Bush? He tried to prosecute a case against him. He was considered the front runner. That didn't quite work. But this is different.

He was present for four years. He has a record that can be used against him. Who will do that though?

KING: Who will do that, is the question. First debate scheduled in August.

Up next, it's official. The House Ethics Committee is investigating the embattled Republican Congressman George Santos. And remember this, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her tax the rich dress making headlines again.



KING: Controversial New York Congressman, Republican George Santos, now officially under investigation by the House Ethics Committee. It will look into multiple issues, from his campaign, finances to a sexual misconduct allegation.

Our great reporters are back, and you know, Santos is now infamous for just lying and lying and lying and lying. But the substance of these allegations are quite serious. The committee has acknowledged its investigation. Potential unlawful activity by his 2022 campaign, potential violations of federal conflict of interest laws for work he did for a firm providing fiduciary services.

He may have failed to disclose information on his statements filed with the House, and a sexual misconduct allegation that he made an inappropriate advance towards someone seeking a job in his office. So America knows George Santos is a liar. That's a serious list.

RAJU: Yes, it is a serious list. George Santos' House clearer is hanging by a thread. And it is this, you know, typically the House Ethics Committee, Senate Ethics Committee, they do these investigations. It's a slap on the wrist. They get admonished. No one cares.

This is different because not only is the scope very, very serious, but the Republican leadership Kevin McCarthy has now staked Santos's career on the outcome of this ethics probe. He said that time and again as I've pressed him on this, others have pressed him on this, he's now pointing that ethics probe.

He said if they find any wrongdoing, that's when they could push him out. And how do you push him out? An expulsion resolution in the House requires two thirds majority. Kevin McCarthy gets behind an expulsion resolution of George Santos, he is done. He's not going to be a House member anymore. That's what his --

KING: But the question is, if you go through that serious list, House Ethics Committees -- and I'll get to another one in a minute, these investigations tend to go on forever and ever and ever and ever. So does Kevin McCarthy, you know, does he want to get his wish, but not right away because he needs George Santos's vote?

KEITH: Well, he does continue to need George Santos's vote. It's a math problem. I recently did a story about shamelessness in American politics in this new age --

KING: Long story?

KEITH: And it was a long story.

RAJU: She's no working (inaudible).

KEITH: And I interviewed former Congressman Anthony Weiner, who left in a cloud of shame. KING: Right.

KEITH: One thing he told me that I think is relevant to the Santos situation is it wasn't just the reporters hounding him. It wasn't just his colleagues telling him they didn't want to be seen with him. It was also that he was facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to actually properly defend himself against a House ethics investigation.

So is this another weight on the scale for Santos? Who knows? But I do know that in that case, there was -- the ethics investigation wasn't just that it would take forever, and -- but that it would be expensive to defend.

KING: Especially the New York, the other New York freshmen who came in with him. That's why Kevin McCarthy is Speaker. They flipped all these seats in New York. Michael Lawler, "As I've said before, George Santos conduct is embarrassing and unbecoming. If he had any dignity, he would resign."

Your point is a potential question down the road, does this become too expensive. But at the moment, he seems to think staying is how you raise that money for the legal fees.

KANNO-YOUNGS: That's right. That's right. And even just -- as well, while he stays, even if this report is delayed and the Ethics Committee investigation does go on for a while, we were talking about does that benefit the Republican Party? Does the spotlight move off? Can you maintain his vote?

You're seeing just right there. His fellow colleagues in New York continue to criticize him.

KING: Yes.

KANNO-YOUNGS: Even maybe leadership in the House is trying to balance this out. And -- but his peers in the House, including Republicans, who at times of criticism or crisis, have not always been forthcoming with criticism towards their colleagues, are also starting to heat up the rhetoric as well. It doesn't seem like the scrutiny is going to leave at this point.

KING: Help me understand the case -- the continuing investigation of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. You know, she went to the Met Gala. She wore that dress. She had hair and makeup. It was all provided for her. She says she made the reimbursements for it after the fact. But the Ethics Committee says if not for the opening the review, it appears she may not have paid for several thousand dollars worth of goods and services provided to her.

So they're trying to get a timeline of did you only make the reimbursement when we started questioning you? Is that the issue?

RAJU: Yes, that is. And there's requirements strict rules about how you accept gifts, how you disclose gifts, what you can accept, thresholds for that. The question is, did she violate any of those rules? The committee announced that it's extending its investigation, meaning it is still ongoing.

So it's not going to rise to the level of George Santos offense, where they may push him out of the House at the outcome of the ethics investigation. But she could face them, you know, an admonishment, as we were mentioning earlier from the House Ethics Committee, if she's not acting properly.


KING: Right. Her team says they're confident they can answer the questions and it will go away, but we'll see. We'll stay on top of that one as it plays out.

Up next, liberal Democrats lashing out at President Biden. It's about crime, D.C. statehood, and, yes, it's about 2024.



KING: Liberal Democrats are angry that, may be an understatement, at President Biden for a decision that highlights a big internal party divide over crime. The President telling Senate Democrats yesterday Thursday that he will not use his veto pen if Congress votes to overturn a new Washington, D.C. crime law.

The President's position is now a greenlight for other Senate Democrats and virtually guarantees the city law will be rescinded. Its provisions include reducing mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes. Now, D.C.'s Mayor opposed that, but the City Council had the votes to pass the measure anyway.

Now progressives say Biden, who is on the record as a supporter of D.C. statehood, should stand with the City Council even if he disagrees with its policy decisions.

Our great reporters are back, and this one has progressive saying you betrayed us.

RAJU: I mean, it's not just progressives, John. It's really a widespread sentiment within the House Democratic Caucus that the White House betrayed them, did not communicate this properly, and is undercutting really a core position within the party, which is to push either for D.C. statehood for autonomy. Allow D.C. to make its own laws and rules.

And I just got a statement from the chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus in the House, Pramila Jayapal, who said, "I'm deeply disappointed to see the President announced he will allow Congress to overturn a D.C. law for the first time in decades. This is simple. The District of Columbia must be allowed to govern itself."

Now that is on the policy side. Then the politics. There were more than 170 House Democrats who voted against this Republican effort to repeal this law. And all of a sudden, they learned yesterday Joe Biden is aligning himself with the Republican Party. So now these members, who some of them are in difficult races, difficult districts like Abigail Spanberger from Virginia are seen to the left of Joe Biden, have exposed themselves to Republican attacks of being soft on crime. So to a lot of Democrats I talked to this morning, they see this Politics 101. And one of them said to me, I just can't trust the White House anymore.

KING: So how does the White House answer this in the sense that those Democrats essentially saying the President made a decision to protect himself in 2024 after exposing them?

KANNO-YOUNGS: I mean, they definitely faced questions about it yesterday at the White House.

KING: Here. You were among those asking the question. So let me stop. Let's just listen to (INAUDIBLE) as the press secretary tries to explain this.


KARINE JEAN-PIERRE, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The D.C. council put forward -- was put forward over the mayor's objections. And the President wants to make sure that communities, even in D.C., the Americans in D.C. feel safe. The President still thinks that D.C. should become the 51st state, that is something that he has supported for decades, not just these last couple of years. But there is, he feels as president, he has the obligation as well to keep America cities safe.


KING: So they're trying to say he's not abandoning principle, he's just making a particular issue here. But to Manu's point, he's the leader of the Democratic Party. If he was going to do this, shouldn't he have done it before the House had to vote?

KANNO-YOUNGS: Yes, that's right. I mean, you have these two things clashing here, right? You have, on one hand, the White House saying that the President supports an autonomous government in D.C.'s ability to self-govern.

On the other hand, you also have an awareness in the White House that crime and policing is going to resonate both in the election and it has basically throughout President Biden's time in the White House.

When Karine Jean-Pierre was pressed on this yesterday and pressed on these two things clashing together, she basically said that, look, the President felt that he had to step in to protect residents of D.C. folks followed up and said, well, but D.C. council has pushed this forward. Isn't that there them self-governing, right?

KING: Right.

KANNO-YOUNGS: And look, this theme of anxiety in the White House over Republican attacks, over crime and policing, it really goes back the last two years. It's one of the reasons that you saw multiple speeches of the President going out and talking about making COVID funds available for police departments.

It's also been followed by anger among some progressives that criminal justice reform has been put to the side. Here yesterday, you saw it relevant once again in the briefing room.

KING: Let me pause at a theory. Between the House vote where the President had the Democrats essentially trying to protect D.C., and the President going up to Capitol yesterday, told set of Democrats, I don't want any part of this, Chicago booted its mayor.

And crime was a big issue there as well. So you can look at the New York City mayoral election. You can look at the fact that those House Republicans won in New York State. Crime was the big issue there. You could look at Lori Lightfoot losing, not even making the runoff. Maybe the President saying it's time to reposition?

KEITH: Well, for the President, that isn't a reposition. President Biden, as he was campaigning, President Biden all along has tried to put some distance between himself and some of the most progressive ideas on law enforcement. Now, he has made clear that he supports community policing, that he does not want this broken relationship between the police and those that they are supposed to serve and protect.


But at the same time, he has been very clear that he does not support anything resembling, defunding the police, that his brand is to fund the police and his brand is to not be soft on crime. A reminder, he was the author of the crime bill.

RAJU: And that this was really the first big victory of Republicans, this new majority. This was pushed forward by the House Republican majority. They can do it under the procedures to rescind a rule. And they did this here. So that's one area where they could succeed by putting pressure on the White House.

KING: A little taste. Every day we get closer to 2024, these things will come up.

Appreciate your time today on Inside Politics. Hope you have a fantastic weekend.

Abby Phillip picks up our coverage after a break.