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GOP Field Shapes Up As Trump Vows Return To Past; Trump To MAGA Crowd: "I Am Your Retribution"; DeSantis: "Woke Mind Virus" Infecting The Left; Hogan: Not running In 2024 To Avoid GOP "Pileup"; Sununu: Going To Support GOP Nominee, Won't Be Trump; Russia On Verge Of Seizing Bakhmut Amid Intense Righting; Ukraine Vows To Defend Bakhmut As Russians Try To Encircle City; D.C. Withdraws Controversial Crime Bill; Sources: Senate Will Still Hold Vote To Block D.C. Crime Bill. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired March 06, 2023 - 12:00   ET



JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Hello, and welcome to Inside Politics. I'm John King in Washington. Thank you for sharing your day with us. I am your retribution, Donald Trump's dark view of why Republicans need to give him another chance. A busy weekend. 2024 maneuvering includes a big speech by Trump's biggest early rival and a decision by a prominent Trump critic to bow out of running.

Plus, Russia on the verge of its first battlefield victory in months. Ukrainian squeezed in the battle of Bakhmut. And Pete Buttigieg needs to see it - admits to CNN, he got it wrong on the Ohio train derailment, is response in a CNN exclusive interview.

We begin though with some important and very interesting early maneuvering in the 2024 Republican race. Dueling weekend speeches in very different settings, crystallized the competition at the top of the GOP field. Donald Trump spoke for nearly two hours at CPAC, telling some two dozen lies along the way.

Ron DeSantis telling a crowd at the Reagan Presidential Library that Republicans need a doer, not a talker. And this week opens a critical phase for a Florida Governor now determined to rack up state legislative wins as the national launch pad. Trump and DeSantis own the top tier in early 2024 polling, with a half dozen or so other prospects searching for a path off the undercard.

One of them, the former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan said, Sunday he would not run. Hogan said his biggest worry is too many candidates works in Trump's favor. But let's also be honest. It's pretty hard to envision much of a lane for an anti-Trump moderate, especially in a Republican primary, where the most animated base voters seem to share the former president's grievances.


DONALD TRUMP, 45TH U.S. PRESIDENT: In 2016, I declared I am your voice. Today I add, I am your warrior, I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution. I am your retribution. This is the final battle. They know it. I know it. You know it, everybody knows that this is it. Either they win or we win. And if they win, we no longer have a country.


KING: With me to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Jeff Zeleny, Francesca Chambers of USA Today, and Leigh Ann Caldwell of The Washington Post. Jeff, you are at CPAC for part of the weekend's events. That's a pretty dark speech. And it's interesting. Republicans lost in 2018, 2020 and 2022. Many Republicans would blame that guy, Donald Trump. Yes, he says, I am your retribution. You need me again.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Exactly. And look, most presidential campaigns have bumper sticker messages. So, I guess that fits on one. But boy, if you unpack it a little bit, like you say, he is the cause for a lot of the Republican Party's woes. I mean, so the reality here is to that crowd to that room, they loved it. It was a celebration of Donald Trump in every form. But there was such grievance and so much more backward looking, sort of moods and moments than forward looking.

But what a contrast with Governor DeSantis over the weekend at the Reagan Library, and Ronald Reagan's pictures hanging over CPAC is still - his image is still sort of mentioned a lot, but his conservative policies and ideals are mentioned very little by Donald Trump. So, that's what is fascinating. This week, I think will be sort of seen as a important marker on the road to 2024.

Both of those men over the next week are going to be in Iowa. Governor DeSantis on Friday, Donald Trump on Monday. Why does that matter? Because it shows what the appetite and room is in the Republican primary electorate for someone other than Donald Trump. And Larry Hogan is also interesting in its a component, if others follow his lead and stay out of the race, a narrow field certainly does not help Donald Trump.

KING: And so, you mentioned DeSantis. And if you look at the polling right now, it's early, nobody votes for a year. Iowa caucuses next February sometime, but if you look back at history, the two guys or one guy way up at the top if there's a big gap, it tends to matter.

Ron DeSantis it at the Reagan Library, Donald Trump runs against Reagan, runs against Bush, runs against the past, says he's the new Republican Party. Ron DeSantis trying to make a point there, no doubt who he has in mind. There are talkers, and there are doers.


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R) FLORIDA: You didn't see our administration leaking like a sieve. You didn't see a lot of drama or palace intrigue. What you saw was surgical precision execution, day after day after day. And because we did that, we beat the left day after day after day. The it goes back to this woke mind virus that's infected, the left and all these other institutions.



KING: The very end there is the governor making his case against the left, but the beginning of that was the case again Donald Trump. He didn't mention his name. Now will DeSantis do it that strongly on a debate stage? We will see come August, but that's what he's trying to say there, Trump talks I do.

FRANCESCA CHAMBERS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, USA TODAY: And you're saying these Republicans use March. I think it was Asa Hutchinson who said, yesterday for messaging and perhaps April for some of them is for announcing. If you're going down that road, but that is exactly what they're trying to do, is try and find a lane for themselves that Donald Trump as a Trump Lane are ready. They're all trying to find a lane for themselves right now.

DeSantis chalking out a very clear one for himself. You saw Chris Sununu over the weekend, talking about trying to get independence and getting their support. There's not a lot of support. If you look at that polling outside of Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump currently, so how are they all going to distinguish themselves.

KING: And so, DeSantis has a great advantage. He's a governor with a very Republican state legislature. You know, if you're Joe Biden, hard to get anything new done heading into the campaign. If you're Donald Trump, you can run on your past record, the Trump tax cuts for example, and you can run on your grievances which we heard for almost two hours at CPAC. But he can't do anything new besides propose things.

Ron DeSantis, we have the headline from the Miami Herald here. DeSantis GOP lawmakers ready for culture wars 2.0 as Florida legislature reconvenes. Education proposals, other proposals, DeSantis is trying to have a month of achievement at home as he launches.

LEIGH ANN CALDWELL, EARLY 202 CO-AUTHOR, THE WASHINGTON POST: Yes. This is not only a critical week for DeSantis on the campaign trail. As you mentioned, Jeff, he's headed to Iowa later this week. But this is a critical time for him at home in the state of Florida. He's using the state legislature and the state legislature is happy to do it by pushing these culture issues at home. They're likely to pass. And then, DeSantis could use this on the campaign trail. And it's all of these, you know, woke issues that DeSantis has really made his governorship on. And then you'd look at CPAC.

One thing I want to say with Donald Trump there is, that while there tends to be some support for Donald Trump eroding at the official political level and Congress on Capitol Hill, there definitely is. But every single person I personally talked to acknowledges that Trump just has this solid percentage of the base, whether that's 25 percent or 30 percent, it's going to be hard to tap in and that's what CPAC wants.

KING: And to that point, so that's the big debate in the Republican Party, right? Do you have a crowded field, Governor Sununu of New Hampshire get to him in a minute. That said, you can have a crowded field early on as long as everybody has the courage to realize. OK, after one or two contests, not me, get out, right? So, shrink the field quickly. Larry Hogan deciding, and listen to him here, says no, I'm not going to take that chance. He thinks the more candidates, it benefits Trump, so he's out.


LARRY HOGAN (R) FORMER MARYLAND GOVERNOR: I didn't want to have a pile up of a bunch of people fighting. Right now, you have, you know, Trump and DeSantis at the top of the field, whether you're soaking up all the oxygen, getting all the attention, and then a whole lot of the rest of us in single digits. And the more of them you have, the less chance you have for somebody rising up.


KING: I think that's mathematically true at the beginning. But if you are an anti-Trump or never Trumper, don't you think maybe somebody has to step forward to stand on the debate stage to make the argument you lost, you lost, you lost. If you don't make that argument, how can you convince your appointee has this 25-30 percent? Whatever it is, you have to pull some of them off.

ZELENY: Without question and that is why the person who may be the one who defines Donald Trump the most, that may not be the ultimate winner. And that person may not be in the field yet. You think of a name like Chris Christie or others, who may come in simply with the idea of trying to highlight the differences.

But at the end of the day, it - for right now it's not a two-person race, we should not say it is, but in donors and sort of the mindset of people, it kind of is. But what you said Leigh Ann is so important, the Florida legislature convenes tomorrow, but it's not just in Florida, that has really moved across the country. The Iowa legislature, for example, is trying to do some of the similar things, South Carolina, Nevada.

So, what the governor has done is really seeping out of Florida. And you make the good point about President Biden can't get much done. Donald Trump, of course, does not have a congress or legislature. He can't do anything but talk. That is such a benefit for Governor DeSantis at this point. And for the next two months in Tallahassee, that is one of the most interesting places to keep an eye on because he'll come out of that with a huge calling card for these Republican voters.

KING: So, that's a deep red state. DeSantis has that opportunity in a small purple state. Chris Sununu said something very important over the weekend. He has not declared that he's running but Hogan is out. So, you're looking for anti-Trump or maybe it's soon.


GOV. CHRIS SUNUNU (R) NEW HAMPSHIRE: I'm a lifelong Republican, I'm going to support the Republican nominee. I have no doubt that any solid Republicans would be better then what comes out. As far as a former President Trump, I think he's going to run, obviously he's in the race. He's not going to be the nominee.


KING: Now he says, he's not going to be the nominee, but he says he would support him if he is, which gets you on the debate stage, right? If you're the Republican National Committee, and you're really going to have this pledge. Can Liz Cheney run, if she says, I would never vote for Trump? Or you can run, but she can't get on the debate stage. That's the interesting part for me. If you want to change this Trump DeSantis top tier, somebody comes off the undercard, you have to do it on that debate stage.


CHAMBERS: But they don't think that Trump is going to be the nominee. So, it's easy now to say, I support whoever the nominee is because surely it won't be, be him. That's what they think. But it might boomerang back on them, and they could find themselves and having some difficulty later on down the line, if it does turn out that because of the numbers, as you were saying, they work in his favor if it is him.

CALDWELL: Well, the RNC is trying, I think a couple things. That's a really interesting point about Liz Cheney, are they trying to make sure that Liz Cheney does not make it on the debate stage. And secondly, try to create some part of the party unity, where the biggest challenge of party unity is often Donald Trump.

Sununu said something else that's really interesting recently, and it was that it's not about the number of candidates who enter the race. It's the number of - it's about knowing when to get out and to make sure that perhaps someone like Donald Trump is not the nominee.

KING: This is again, that early weekend it's March but the maneuver is getting interesting. Up next for us, live to Ukraine. Russian troops closing in on Bakhmut from three sides. President Putin wants a battlefield win and appears willing to pay a giant price.




KING: It's an important moment on the battlefield in Ukraine. Russian troops now trying to encircle Ukrainian units in and around the besiege eastern city of Bakhmut. The city's fate remains unclear, but one thing is clear. Bakhmut is in ruins from months of Russian bombs. Ukraine vows, it will not stop defending the city if soldiers are hunkered down in apartment buildings. But the U.S. Defense Secretary today playing down the significance of a Russian victory in Bakhmut.


LLOYD AUSTIN, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: I would not view that as an operational or a strategic setback. I think it's more of a symbolic value than it is strategic and operational value. So, the fall of Bakhmut won't necessarily mean that the Russians have changed the tide of this fight. I mean, I think it will continue to be contested.


KING: Let's check in with CNN's Melissa Bell. She's live for us in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. Melissa, does President Zelenskyy, does the Ukrainian military agree with the U.S. Defense Secretary?

MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, they continue to fight on for the time being, John. In fact, we've been hearing from President Zelenskyy after meeting with his defense ministers and officials today saying, not only were they fighting on but sending in more men to try and defend the town.

But I just like to show you, John, the latest images that we're getting here at CNN that we've managed to geolocate to give us a better idea of what's been happening after many hours and days of street-to-street combat for the center of that town. These images are of Wagner mercenaries that appear to be taking. It is a World War two monument that tank that you see there on the images, planting their flag in place of the Ukrainian one, shooting their guns into their afterwards burning the Ukrainian flag.

That video that appears to have been taken today. And that places them about 500 meters from the main river in Bakhmut. And that is significant, John, because it tells us that they are making progress towards the center of town. This is not what the Ukrainian military was hoping for.

KING: And in that battle, in the battle of the past couple of months in Bakhmut. One of the questions is, how high of a price is Putin willing to pay for a victory?

BELL: But I think that's right. A lot of attention has been paid to the cost of defending this town to the Ukrainians, but their point, their strategy, their tactics, and all this had been much as they were in several vignettes (Ph) can elicit chance if you can cast your mind back to last spring. And that is holding as long as they can, even beseech cities that they're told or lost causes, because all despite all the cost to them, it is the extraordinary attrition rate for the Russians.

What some analysts are saying is that it would be seven to one in the case of Bakhmut, that is seven soldiers to everyone lost on the Ukrainian side. That is an extraordinarily high rate. And even if does above - Bakhmut fall or other when it does because it does seem to be a matter of time at this stage. Back to Defense Secretary Austin's comments there, it won't be so much a measure of Moscow strength, a bit of the weakness that has meant it's taken this long to take it. John?

KING: Remarkable. Melissa Bell, grateful for the live reporting. Thank you. To a new wrinkle now that could signal, could an important shift in U.S. military assistance to Ukraine. Right now, there are two Ukrainian pilots on U.S. soil as the air force is evaluating how long it would take to train them to fly F-16 fighter jets. Let's check it at the Pentagon with CNN's Oren Liebermann. Oren, what are we learning?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: So, this is a fascinating development. As you point out that we've learned about from three sources familiar with the matter and briefed on this matter. There are two Ukrainian pilots in the United States now at a U.S. military base being evaluated assessed for their flying ability. These are Ukrainian pilots who are experienced on their jets, but these are older jets. So now they're in the U.S. according to the sources being assessed for their ability to fly different U.S. jets.

Now this assessment is happening in simulators that can simulate or act as different U.S. aircraft, so not specifically F-16s. But according to the sources briefed with the matter, they are being evaluated on their ability to fly different jets including the F-16s, with the goal of figuring out how long it would take them additionally, in terms of simulators, in terms of training to be able to fly F-16 fighter jets. That is fourth generation fighter jets, which Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has made a big deal about requesting multiple times. We've heard this several times over the course of the past weeks and months.

Crucially, the sources tell CNN that if this program goes well with these two Ukrainian fighter pilots learning or being assessed on their ability to fly U.S. jets, there could be a number of other Ukrainian pilots who also come in to assess their abilities to fly U.S. fighters. All of this is happening as the Pentagon continues to insist. There has been no shift in the U.S. thinking on whether to provide F-16 fighter jets. In fact, it was U.S. head of policy at DOD column, called who laid out a list of reasons why the U.S. would not be looking at the possibility of sending F-16s now. John?


KING: Oren let us know when we learn more about that training. See if you have the change of heart coming from that. Oren Liebermann at the Pentagon, appreciate it very much. Up next for us. This just did a major decision on a controversial D.C. crime bill. The Senate was days away from voting to kill it. Progressives angry with President Biden that he has in the end sided with Republicans without giving them a heads up.




KING: This just into CNN and unprecedented and a somewhat complicated move as the District of Columbia now withdrawing its controversial crime bill. Congress was about to vote on that. Stay tuned. Progressives though were livid. They felt blindsided. Last week, you remember, after President Biden said, he was siding with Republicans who are promising to overturn that D.C. law. Now D.C. lawmakers are trying to take it back. But can they?

Let's begin, CNN's Jeremy Diamond for us live at the White House with the latest. Jeremy, what's happening here?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, effectively the D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, writing a letter to the Senate addressed to Vice President Kamala Harris, who also serves as the president of the Senate. Seeking to withdraw that controversial legislation that would essentially rewrite the D.C. criminal code. That legislation was going to be reversed in the Senate this week. We expect it was already disapproved of in the House and the Senate was now set to vote on this resolution and expected to overturn this D.C. criminal reform effort.

This move though, is without precedent as the city Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, admitted himself saying that there is no precedent for this. But he believed that because he has the authority to transmit these - this piece of legislation under the home relax to Congress for review, that he could also withdraw that request. But that does not appear to the case.

Right now, it seems like aides in the Senate side. I believe that this vote is likely still going to happen. Of course, the context of all of this, John, is the fact that President Biden just days ago said that he would sign into law, this resolution disapproving of this D.C. bill, and that's where how we have ended up in this scenario right now. John?

KING: Scenario, unpredictable scenario. Jeremy Diamond, at the White House. Let's go straight up to Capitol Hill, our chief correspondent Manu Raju. Manu, Chairman Mendelson says with this letter, he has the authority to pull it back. Senate Republicans, like Republicans in the House see this as an opportunity to embarrass Democrats. They're going to say, OK, are they going to go ahead to vote?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, according to Senate leadership aides, that the chairman of the D.C. City Council can't stop this vote, it is still expected to happen. It's expected to happen on Wednesday, it would be actually a vote in the Senate to essentially approve this disapproval resolution that went through the House last month that was to essentially rescind the D.C. criminal code, simply because the chairman of the D.C. City Council does not want this vote to happen and wants to withdraw the legislation, which Mendelson, as Jeremy noted, said was without precedent will not stop the Senate from acting here.

But his move here caught a lot of people by surprise and send leadership aid scrambling because this is something that they've not really heard of before and trying to assert whether or not this has any real implications, but it really does not here, but we are headed to what is expected to be a lopsided vote in the Senate after Biden did come out in support of rescinding this law, despite the White House saying it was opposed to this Republican letter to rescind the law when 173 House Democrats voted for it last month.

But last week, Joe Biden changed his mind said that he would allow this to go forward. And now we expect. Senate Democrats in mass to vote for it. Potentially, John, more than 70 U.S. senators were expected to vote in the affirmative when this comes up this week. So, the D.C. City Council trying to head off this vote. That's very clear, they're not going to be able to do that. John?

KING: Seems pretty clear also seems that in trying to help the Democrats, they might actually draw more attention to the fight. But so, it goes Manu Raju up on Capitol Hill, Jeremy at the White House, thank you. Let's bring the conversation in the room. Am I wrong there? They're trying to - look, they will get to - they feel blindsided, the House voted, and then the president changed his mind.

And so, all these Democrats in the House who stood with the president, stood with D.C. statehood, or like 10, or 12 of us could have used to vote the other way. We're in tough districts, but we sided with the party. So, we have a failure to communicate. The question is, is that all it is or more?

ZELENY: I think it, you know, the bottom line of it is this is actually a long-held position of President Biden. This is not something that he's coming to lately. He of course, authored the 94- crime bill, which was an issue for him in his primary, but actually probably helped him in his general.

If you look at what is going on inside this country, across the country, the mayor's race in Chicago last week, prime example of crime is on the rise, the perceptions of crime being on the rise even more, it is a huge challenge for this party. This president understands that he knows that.

So yes, he is going to go and to make some liberals angry here in the short term, over sort of going over the home rule, the DCS stated issue. But in the long term, he believes that the party is better positioned being on the right side of crime, and he actually believes that, but he didn't do a good job leaning into this. And so, it's more of a staffing issue, then Biden issue.

KING: Well, but he's the CEO of the operation. I get your point. The White House has sometimes failed to communicate, but as Manu noted, 100 plus Democrats just cast this vote. And then after that the president publicly said, well I'm not for this. I'm essentially with the Republicans, with it.