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Inside Politics

US Erased Sensitive Data from Drone Before it Crashed; Cliff- Hanger Senate Vote on Key Biden's Pick to be Next US Ambassador to India; GOP Hawks Criticize Desantis' Ukraine Stance; Michael Cohen Meets with NY Grand Jury Investigating Trump's Role in Hush Money Scheme; FAA Safety Summit Addresses Uptick in Near-Collisions. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired March 15, 2023 - 12:30   ET



JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: You have an asset like this in the sky. It comes under attack or some interference, and the like. And the operators, everyone trying to get it to safety, but number two, prepared to delete any sensitive information, if you can?

CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN'S MILITARY ANALYST AND RETIRED COLONEL: Yes, absolutely. And one of the lessons we learned from 2001 incident with the Chinese when a manned P-3 surveillance platform was actually downed by the Chinese, we didn't zeroize the equipment then, we didn't take care of the software. This was a lesson learned from that and the way they did this was basically textbook. Now, we zeroize these types of things, we erase the software, we make it unusable.

KING: Russia has drones as well. I mean, how -- are we that far more advanced than them that this would be proprietary and urgent to keep out of their hands?

LEIGHTON: It would still be urgent to keep out of their hands. They do have drones that are somewhat compatible to with the MQ-9, but they are not as sophisticated as what the MQ-9 has.

KING: So now, I just want to bring up the map by Admiral Kirby who you know now at the White House says we may not be able to recover it. They are going to try, may not be able to recover it. Here, it happened somewhere over the Black Sea. We don't have exact location, correct as to where it happened. You see the Russian border here. Walk me through the challenge of trying to get some military asset to recover the drone before the Russians find it.

LEIGHTON: So, this drone was probably somewhere about here, where it crashed into the sea. So what this shows, of course, is this is Russian occupied territory. Russian naval activity all throughout this area, very hard for us to get there. Any of our allies or Romanians don't have the capability. The Turks don't have the capability, not do the Bulgarians. It would be almost impossible if you don't have naval assets in there right now to get the drone.

KING: The Russian Ambassador to the United States was summoned to the State Department. He says Russia doesn't like any US Aircraft near its borders. That's what he said. This is the Russian border over here. This is stolen property. Sorry, but that's stolen property. That is part of Ukraine that Russia stole way back in the Obama Administration. Is it likely? Would it have been flying over here, close to Russia? Would the United States have reconnaissance? It's international water by the way. So it could be there, right, legally?

LEIGHTON: Yes, legally absolutely and we have done that before. We have gone across this whole area. But our area of interest right now is this because, number one, the war in Ukraine; number two, the grain transshipments from Odessa that we need to make sure that Ukraine gets to continue to do those. And that's one of the reasons we're watching all of this.

KING: Just very quickly before I let you go, we're focusing on the breaking news, they deleted the software. But the fact that a fighter jet would approach essentially an unarmed or very lightly armed drone, what does that tell you about Russia's mood at the moment?

LEIGHTON: Russia is very combative, John. And what they want to do is they have this very sophisticated jet that they are using to go after a really what amounts to a surveillance drone. And they will do anything they can to not only irritate us, but to destroy our capabilities.

KING: Colonel Leighton, grateful for insights on this important day. When we come back, more drama, high drama up on Capitol Hill. Right now, on the Senate floor, key Biden nomination is in jeopardy. Live to the Hill next.



KING: Right now, giant uncertainty on Capitol Hill. A possible cliff- hanger vote on President Biden's choice to be the next US Ambassador to India. Let's get straight out to our Chief Congressional Correspondent, Manu Raju. Manu, Eric Garcetti is the nominee and his nomination is in trouble.

MANU RAJU, CNN'S CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It is. This is a rare cliff-hanger vote here in the United States senate. We don't know exactly how this will turn out. I just asked senate majority leader if they have the votes. He would not say, he said let's just watch what happens here on the floor. That's exactly what we are doing. There are several senators who are out with absences, various -- a variety of absences, some of them who actually might have supported Garcetti, which means that this is going to be very close. There needs to be a simple majority of senators who are voting in order to break a filibuster and advance this nomination to get to a final confirmation.

But, Garcetti's nomination has been snarled for the last two years over allegations that he did not handle an accusation of sexual harassment against a top aide. He did not handle it appropriately, that he should have known about it and he sort of swept it under the rug. He has forcefully denied all of this and pointed to some probes that have exonerated him. One that did not was a Republican investigation led by Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who said he should have known about all of this. And some Democrats seem to be concerned about this. Including Senator Mark Kelly of Arizona, who told me moments ago he plans to vote against Garcetti. Also Senator Sherrod Brown is expected to vote no. So that's two no votes.

But he did pick up two yes votes in the senate Foreign Relations Committee, which also vetted him and believed that those allegations were in the view of the supporters unfounded and did not have the merit that he knew and should have done something about these harassment allegations. Meantime, India, one of the biggest allies here, particularly to combat the threat of China, has been without an ambassador for the past two years. So a major push, but if Garcetti goes down here, John, India could -- the US could be without an ambassador and a key part of the world for some time to come. So a lot of eyes on this vote right now, John.

KING: High drama, Manu Raju on the Hill. Appreciate your kicking off that conversation. Keep us posted as to what plays out. Number one, as Manu notes, this is an incredibly important posting at this -- especially at this time in the world. Number two, the fact that they are actually having the vote in the -- does that tell you the administration must think it has just enough to squeak through? Or is the president of United States going to be embarrassed in a Democratic senate?

LAUREN FOX, CNN'S CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I feel like if they waited 600 days to advance this nomination or more than 600 days at this point, they must have felt fairly confident going into the vote, but these absences in the senate are a huge wild card.


And it's one of the reasons that like Manu said, this is really not clear right now what's going to happen. It's a rare moment in the senate to have a vote on the floor. We asked Dick Durbin yesterday, the Democratic whip, what he thought was going to happen. He said he hadn't whipped it yet. So, that tells you that this was really uncertain going into today. We'll see what happens, obviously.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN'S CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: It's sort of unbelievable that he's still the nominee, that the White House did not pull him at the end of last year. That's what many people suspected. But he campaign behind the scenes that Eric Garcetti, the former Mayor of Los Angeles, has waged has been just incredible in terms of money. And he's really fought back aggressively on these allegations that he knew about the sexual mis-propriety allegations in LA. But the reality of this is, it raises the point why. This is an important position. We're at beyond halftime of the Biden Administration here. And the senate is controlled by Democrats. So if it doesn't happen today, there's also some in the White House who are eager to move on. But they certainly don't want to be embarrassed, so they must feel somewhat confident. But as Lauren was saying, with so many absences, I don't know, which is why the Vice President is on Capitol Hill, we are told, sort of standing by in case there happens to be a tie.

KING: All right. So if it fails, maybe they have a backup ready, but that still takes months...


KING: ...still takes months for the vetting and process and all. But just the wild-west nature of this, the senate is usually pretty scripted. We usually know what's going to happen.

TIA MITCHELL, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, THE ATLANTA JOURNAL- CONSTITUTION: And usually it's pretty clear, the battle lines. What's interesting here is that there are some Democrats who've indicated they don't support Garcetti and there are a couple of Republicans, we think will support him. So that makes it even less able to clearly say how it's going to go. I think we should also note, there is, just like he's been campaigning behind the scenes to get confirmed, there have been people campaigning behind the scenes to say we done think he's the right person.

There has been a big social media campaign as well to try to call out Garcetti and put him in a more negative light. So I think that's also influencing senators. They don't want to make the wrong choice and be caught later saying you confirmed someone who did some things that weren't the greatest.

KING: That's remarkable, just to show the senate floor and we don't know the outcome. We almost always do. We'll track that vote as it plays out. Up next for us though, the establishment strikes back. Top Republicans here in Washington say the Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is wrong, naive to say supporting Ukraine is not a vital US interest.



KING: The rise of Ron DeSantis in early 2024 Republican polling is leading to sharp attacks on the Florida Governor, including a very revealing airing of the GOP's giant divide over standing up to Russia and Vladimir Putin. Governor Ron DeSantis this week said protecting Ukraine from Putin's aggression is not a vital US national security interest. Donald Trump says DeSantis is flip-flopping to copy him. And a long list of establishment Republicans here in Washington rush to suggest DeSantis is wrong and dangerously so.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R) SOUTH CAROLINA: I just think that's a misunderstanding of the situation. This is not a territorial conflict. This is a war of aggression. I think Governor of Florida has been a great governor, but in my opinion, if you don't get Ukraine right, this is a chance to stop Putin before it gets to be a bigger war, and China is watching.


KING: Our great reporters are still with us. That's Lindsey Graham, who endorsed Donald Trump. Notice he didn't say Trump is also wrong here, curious as to why he didn't say that. But he's one of at least eight, at least eight, we can show you the list of Republican senators who have said DeSantis is wrong, which is interesting. DeSantis is rising as a potential Republican presidential candidate. You have Republicans coming out to say he was wrong, including several today, listen.


SEN. SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO, (R) WEST VIRGINIA: I think this is a much bigger issue than a territorial dispute.

SEN. TODD YOUNG, (R) INDIANA: It is vital and the worst thing we could do right now is to pull back and send a message that we're not resolute in supporting our allies.

SEN. KEVIN CRAMER, (R) NORTH DAKOTA: Ukraine winning this war is a United States interest and a pretty high one.


KING: Is this just about DeSantis, or is this kind of an underhanded way of also saying Trump is wrong, we just don't want to pick a fight with him?

FOX: I think this is about the Republican Party's future.

KING: Sure.

FOX: And these senators, these Republicans feel strongly that the party and its voters in some regard are starting to head in the wrong direction of being an isolationist party. This has been one of the biggest issues that Mitch McConnell has talked about at Mike's (ph) every single Tuesday after lunch because he does view this as his essential role in the party to carry that torch to remind people why this matters. And he has a partner over in the House of Representatives and Kevin McCarthy is saying I support Ukraine. I don't want to give them a blank check. That's kind of the middle- ground position. But I think that this is really about more than just the presidential politics, this is about the whole party's future.

KING: Well, president elections often settle at least the direction a party has to take, meaning if your presidential nominee believes something, most in the party will bite their tongues, even if they profoundly disagree because the president gets to call the shots, the leader of the party. This is how remarkable this is. This is Senator John Cornyn re-tweeting a reporter from The New York Times. So you have the Republican establishment re-tweeting what Republicans would call the establishment media. Jonathan Swan wrote a piece explaining this divide in the party and John Cornyn tweeted, "American leadership matters. Poll tested answers are not leading." That's a shot.

ZELENY: It's a total shot. And what they are also trying to do though is influence a Republican presidential campaign in real-time.


I mean, they're definitely trying to sort of send a message to the Florida Governor. You saw some conservative voices in the Wall Street Journal Editorial Page, I mean elsewhere, saying that this is wrongheaded. But look, the Florida Governor is focus on one person above all, and that is Donald Trump. He is focused on the -- where the Republican primary elected is. So this is not an example of someone leading necessarily, it's an example of someone following.

But there is a sense out in the country here, which is awareness of spending money and also awareness of being involved. I mean, Republicans did not used to isolationists but it is not just Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, I mean there are many voters out there who believe that this is the course. So there probably needs to be a robust debate in the Congress and there has not been one for a long time in the house and senate about the role of America in the world. But for now, there's no doubt that these Republican senators are trying to influence a younger Florida Governor. I'm not sure he cares.

ZELENY: And I think, part of that debate -- you mentioned you are not sure he cares -- part of that debate should be, raise your handle at home if you have never changed your mind. We all change our minds and sometimes we change our minds on big things, but Ron DeSantis today is in a very, very, very different position than Ron DeSantis, the young House Republican who when Barack Obama as President of the United States didn't want to send military arms to Ukraine, especially offensive weapons to Ukraine. Ron DeSantis said that was terrible.


GOV. RON DESANTIS, (R) FLORIDA: If we had a policy which was firm, which armed Ukraine with defensive and offensive weapons, so that they could defend themselves, I think Putin would make different calculations. And so, I think Obama's policy of weakness is actually making a larger conflict more likely. And I think if you had a Reaganesque policy of strength, I think you would see people like Putin not want to mess with us.


KING: Ron DeSantis of the House was happy to call himself a Reagan Republican. Ron DeSantis, the Governor of Florida and presidential candidate wants to be more Trumpy than Reagan, doesn't he?

MITCHELL: Wait and I think it's so interesting that what Ron DeSantis is doing on a lot of topics is aligning himself with the Trump way of thinking but trying to portray himself as a Trump alternative. And of course, that's making Trump very upset, and we are seeing Trump speaking about that. But I think Ron DeSantis thinks that's the winning formula for winning Republican primary in 2024, being Trump or being a younger perhaps perceived as a more disciplined version of Trump.

KING: So if there's Trump, and DeSantis is saying I'm Trump alternative, he likes to think he is a doer and not a talker. You look at the polling, right now, it's a Trump/DeSantis race. It's a national poll and be careful, we picked presidents state by state. But Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis way ahead of everybody else in the field. You see, but the former Vice President Mike Pence says no, stand with Ukraine. Nikki Haley, the former US Ambassador to the United Nations, former Governor of South Carolina says no, stand with Ukraine.

So there is an opportunity here for the other candidates to make this an issue if they so choose, and Nikki Haley does. She says President Trump is right when he says Governor DeSantis is copying him, first in his style, then on entitlement reform, and now on Ukraine. Republicans deserve a choice, not an echo. She says Trump is right to say DeSantis is copying him, but Trump and DeSantis are essentially in the same place on Ukraine. The question is, can the establishment, the Reagan Republicans, the more hawkish republicans, call them what you will, can they get the attention of enough voters?

ZELENY: We'll see. I mean, he didn't last time and they didn't in 2016. But things have not steadied (ph) as much. There is still not the idea that Trump could be the nominee. We also left Mike Pompeo off the list. He is also thinking of running. We have not heard him weigh in on this, which is interesting. But look, we are never sure what campaigns will be about at the end. But for now, this campaign is about who the Republican Party is.

As you were saying, this is a fight for the sort of the ideals of the Republican Party. Liz Cheney also is out there criticizing him. So we have to see how this develops. Would voters actually say and what the conservative voices say. This all started on Tucker Carlson's show because he asked for the opinion of Governor DeSantis. So, see what those opinion leaders, if you will, are saying as well. But this is something that will be a divide inside this presidential campaign, inside this party for months to come.

KING: It would be nice to hear DeSantis explain his transition. It would be nice to have a foreign policy debate among all the Republican candidates...

ZELENY: You will, yeah.

KING: ...when we have the time, just foreign policy. That would be interesting. Coming up for us, the FAA holds an emergency summit, as more than half a dozen close calls on runways across the country rattle the airline industry.



KING: Topping our political radar today, just moments ago, the former Trump fixer attorney Michael Cohen returning to the Manhattan Grand Jury investigating the former president's role in a hush money scheme. This is the panel's second meeting with Cohen this week. Prosecutors have signaled that indictment could soon be coming.

The FAA just wrapping up an emergency safety summit to address an uptick in close calls on airport runways just this year. The Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg calling on the group to help find, what he called, pull up the root causes of this problem.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) PETE BUTTIGIEG (D) UNITED STATES SECRETARY OF TRANSPORTATION: We are particularly concerned because we have seen an uptick in serious close calls that we must address together. We can't wait for the next catastrophic event to seek the warnings signs of today.


KING: Tonight, right here on CNN Primetime, the failure of Silicon Valley Bank, how did it happen and what does it mean for the American banking system at large? CNN's Poppy Harlow asks the experts. CNN Primetime, Bank Bust, What's Next For America's Money? That's tonight, not a coffee stream (ph) right here on CNN. Thanks for your time today. Hope to see you tomorrow.