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CNN: Biden Expressing "No Urgency" To Formally Launch 2024 Bid; Dems Want To Make Abortion Central To 2024 Campaigns; Source: State Department Review Of Afghan Pullout Had More Recommendations Than White House; Biden WH Blames Trump Admin For Chaotic Afghanistan Evacuation; Justice Thomas Responds To Report About Accepting Trips. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired April 07, 2023 - 12:30   ET



JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Another piece, Arlette, you're part of this reporting as well. I just want to read this. "Why not just let the Republicans try to out-crazy each other for a little while?" Asked one former White House official.

Is that part of it, that you have Trump out there? He also happens to be under indictment now. You have DeSantis trying to test himself. He hasn't announced yet. Do you have a couple of other declared candidates and a few others dancing around that they just think, let everybody focus on that right now that benefits us?

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think you've seen that play out over the course of this week, especially when you think about President Trump being in New York and so much of the attention focused on that. For this White House, there is that part of the strategy. And you see that in previous White Houses, too.

They don't necessarily feel the need to immediately announce because Republicans are out there tearing each other apart or Democrats are out there tearing each other apart. But I do think that the White House is able and the President at times is able to use the fights that are going on within the Republican Party to try to advance some of his arguments.

You know, when you think about the economy, he repeatedly will point to extreme MAGA Republicans who can't come to an agreement when it comes to their own budget. So I think that they're very eager to allow those Republican infighting to play out and kind of sit back and just watch it.

KING: A little historical perspective. George W. Bush, May 16, 2003, so about a month from now. Barack Obama, April 4, 2011, so right now. Donald Trump was early, January 20, 2017. So I guess the question, Heather, is how long can Joe Biden dance around it like this?


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My plan is to run for reelection. That's my expectation.

It's much too early to make that kind of decision.

I have not made that formal decision, but it's my intention, my intention to run again.

One of the first and only novelists to win the Pulitzer Prize for back to back works. I'm kind of looking for back to back myself.


KING: I mean, there you get it, right? His intention is that, you know, he's a proud, stubborn, resilient guy. Whether you agree or disagree with his politics, he's a proud, stubborn, resilient guy. He wants to run, but the longer he waits, it does have this -- it does fuel the people thinking, does he have some pause up there somewhere?

HEATHER CAYGLE, MANAGING EDITOR, PUNCHBOWL NEWS: Sure, yes. I do think as long as he plans on running, which we all seem to think he's going to do, he's got a little bit more breathing room. And I will say, if you look at some of the things that he's done recently, he's certainly taking steps towards running, right? Like they rolled out some tougher immigration policies that progressives don't like.

He signed a GOP crime bill that progressives didn't like, moving towards the center on these things. And he's also the White House is attacking Ron DeSantis, who, if it's not Trump, is, you know, the most likely GOP nominee at this point.

KING: Right. That's a key point because he does not face a serious primary challenge right now. There are one candidate declared, Marianne Williamson. One coming, Robert Kennedy Jr. He's blocked the D.C. crime bill. Some liberals, especially in the House, didn't like that, the migrants -- curbing migrants southern border, oil drilling project given the OK in Alaska, eliminating some junk, the last two are more progressive policies trying to live with that.

But so he's trying to strike the balance. Give some things to your base, but also get back to the center some.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Without a doubt. And the only reason he has this luxury of time is because, as you said, he doesn't have a primary challenge. And we don't expect that to change. But the year before, the election year is very important. Many people in the former President Obama's orbit believe he won his reelection in 2011, not in 2012, because they defined Mitt Romney in that year.

So that is the question. Is the apparatus in place to start launching the candidacy? It's largely going to be run out of the White House. Let's be honest about this. The headquarters likely to be in Wilmington, possibly Philadelphia, but are they focused on -- it's a tough job running the country and running a reelection campaign. In many respects, it's a different job.

So can the same people do all of that job? That's why it may matter. This year is important to define your opponents.

KING: Pick the personnel, pick a headquarters, pick a date. That's what we're waiting for.

Up next, it's a related story. What does Karl Rove have to do with the 2024 Democratic playbook? Some new CNN reporting that invokes that old saying about imitation and flattery.



KING: Democrats say they have a plan to win in 2024. It's just not their own plan. CNN's Isaac Dovere reports Democrats are hoping to make abortion a key issue and a turnout driver in 2024 by using an old Republican playbook. The goal is to put abortion rights questions on the ballot in key states. That is a copycat strategy of sorts to what Republican Karl Rove did back in 2004 with ballot initiative designed to block same sex marriage.

Isaac joins us now with his latest reporting. I remember that campaign, George W. Bush running for reelection. It was a close campaign with John Kerry 51 to 49 in Ohio and a lot of Republicans think George W. Bush carried Ohio because of that same sex marriage ballot initiative. Why do Democrats think abortion will help them in 2024?

ISAAC DOVERE, CNN SENIOR REPORTER: Well, look, if they look back to what happened in November in Michigan, where there was a ballot proposition to codify abortion rights in Michigan and helped power a blue wave there, or they just look a couple of days. Ago in Wisconsin, where that state Supreme Court race, which was waged largely on abortion, went not by a small margin to the Democratic backed candidate.

They see this as an issue that continues to energize voters across the spectrum, Democrats, Independents and some Republicans and feel like it could continue to boost and juice turnout all over the place, even in blue states like New York where there is a ballot proposition that's already going to be on the ballot. And there are obviously not a lot of people who think that that'll be super competitive in presidential election.

But there are a bunch of House seats that Democrats are hoping to win. The governor of Illinois, another blue state, J.B. Pritzker saying to me, "We should put the right to choose on every ballot across the country in 2024, not just with the candidates we choose, but with referendum efforts to enshrine reproductive rights in states where right wing politicians are stripping those rights away."


And Pritzker, not only is the governor, he is a billionaire himself, and he has put some money behind those efforts in the past, very open to putting money behind those efforts going forward. KING: Not every state allows ballot questions and initiatives, and the rules and those that do can be different. What is your sense right now? How many states are they thinking about? And I assume they overlap with presidential battlegrounds and then some of those key governor's House and Senate races.

DOVERE: Yes, well, look, this is a sort of patchwork ad hoc effort at the moment. A lot of people saying to me it would be helpful for the Biden campaign to get underway for a number of reasons, like we were talking about in the last segment, but Democrats saying they would like a little bit of direction here, how much of the issue -- how much attention they want on this issue.

A Biden adviser saying to me that they very much see this as a powerful issue going forward for when the campaign does start. But already you see efforts underway in a state like Arizona, which obviously is very close in 2020, expected will be a battleground in 2024 in a state like Montana, where there, again, it's probably not going to be a competitive presidential election, but there is a key Senate race there. There's efforts there to get it going.

Other states looking at it, Colorado, Florida, there's some effort in Missouri, doesn't seem like it's going that far, so far. But this is something that is going to start being talked about in more and more states, it looks like, as we get geared up for this year and next.

KING: Isaac Dovere, I appreciate that important reporting.

Let's bring the conversation back in the room with our reporters. And to Isaac's point, we'll see how it plays out, we'll see how many state ballots they qualify for. But just look at these results in Milwaukee, 2020 exit polls versus 2023 with the Supreme Court election on the ballot. These are three suburban counties. Republicans winning all three of them again.

But look how the margins changed, right, between 2020. And that's the difference in a battleground state. You move from plus 21 to plus 16, from plus 12 to plus four, from plus 38 to plus 32. In key suburban counties, you can flip a battleground state your way.

LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, it's all at those margins there in those battleground states. Another thing, though, is even in states where Democrats may not be able to get a ballot initiative up, there are Republican legislators that are also making this an issue.

You know, even in Florida, where they've introduced the six-week abortion ban, there's a number of other states that are doing similar types of abortion ban, similar types of trying to or going beyond what happened with the fall of Roe by trying to say we're not going to allow, you know, interstate travel or a minor can't travel out of state.

I think that was Idaho just recently, as this week, without some parental consent. All of those things are going to make abortion a big issue in 2024, even if Democrats don't get the initiative. KING: And is there any evidence before us that Republicans see that? You talk to Republican strategists, they see it especially in a battleground state like Wisconsin, which followed the big losses in Michigan to, again, Midwestern states Republicans had hoped were going their way. The vote in Kansas last year. Are there Republicans saying, whoa, whoa, we need to be careful here?

CAYGLE: Definitely pollsters see it. I think moderate Republicans up here in Washington see it. There are 18 House Republicans, for instance, that sit in Biden districts. Democrats only need to split five seats next year to take back the majority. But I think, as Laura said, a lot of these state legislatures are keeping this front of mind.

Nebraska, you mentioned Idaho, Florida, all of these, even though it only at the ballot box, really seems to benefit Democrats. But they're really giving an advantage to Democrats to keep it front of mind in people's, you know, brain when they go to vote.

KING: President Biden has not always been comfortable on this issue.


KING: His vice president has been taking the lead. But do they see that this is a building block for them and especially their turnout model?

SAENZ: Yes, and you definitely see Vice President Harris really putting a lot of her focus and efforts on addressing abortion. I think one thing that could also be a galvanizing force in the coming weeks is whatever happens down in Texas with that judge's ruling when it comes to medication abortion, if that places restrictions nationwide, that could certainly turn up activists turning out to trying to push back on that and that's -- the administration is bracing for that.

They say that they have some options that they can rollout, but so far, what they have been able to do on abortion on the executive level has been pretty limited. Another fascinating thing to keep an eye on as we move forward.

Up next for us, the Biden White House in a new report says the Trump administration decisions made the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan much more difficult. But we have some brand new reporting detailing anger inside the State Department about Biden administration missteps.



KING: Some new CNN reporting now on State Department turmoil that is not documented in a new Biden White House report on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. That new report places most of the blame for the messy operation on Trump administration decisions made before President Biden took office.

But a separate State Department review that is still secret did find missteps by the Biden team. And there was a hastily arranged internal town hall at the department yesterday to deal with frustration within the State Department over how all this is being handled. House Republicans plan hearings in the weeks ahead, and they are already challenging this take from the White House.


JOHN KIRBY, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS: But while it was always the President's intent to end that war, it is also undeniable that decisions made and the lack of planning done by the previous administration significantly limited options available to him.



KING: Joining us to discuss this right now, Boston University Professor Mitch Zuckoff. He's the author of an upcoming book, "The Secret Gate: A True Story of Courage and Sacrifice During the Collapse of Afghanistan." Full disclosure, Mitch is also an old friend and a colleague. It's great to see you, my friend.

I want to get to your book and the important context. It helps us as we look at this new Biden administration report. But you were also privy to this internal town hall yesterday at the State Department, and you told me there's considerable frustration that some people at the department think they're not being honest. Yes, Trump left them a difficult situation, but that the Biden administration had missteps as well.

MITCHELL ZUCKOFF, PROFESSOR, BOSTON UNIVERSITY: That's correct, John. What we saw at this internal meeting at the State Department first was Secretary Blinken and Ambassador John Bass, who led the evacuation on the ground, the non-combatant evacuation in Kabul. First, they made some acknowledgments that were much less defensive. It was much more candid and raw in their self-assessment of what went wrong.

You know, Secretary Blinken for the first time said more urgent planning and preparation was needed to prepare for potential worst case scenarios. And Secretary, pardon me, Ambassador Bass said the department did not have the right mix of structure, resources, and mindset in place to meet the challenge of that scale and complexity.

And so, you know, then the Secretary talked about a lack of clear authority, competing and conflicting guidance from Washington and from my reporting on the ground, talking to people on the ground, that was a huge problem in Kabul in August of 2021 and a lack of clear tracking of Americans. So this non-public event, first of all, gave us a much more candid view of the problems in the State Department.

And then even then, there was a great deal of pushback in this supposedly friendly audience. So there was a counselor official who was on the ground in Kabul, and she spoke up, and it was quite emotional where she talked about the sense of disillusionment on the part of state diplomats who were on the ground during the chaos. And she challenged the Secretary about the refusal to release the After Action Report. This full sort of, you know, if you, you know, if you don't learn from history, you're doomed to repeat it. Well, that's what an After Action Report does, and they're not releasing it.

And so she said, it feels like there's more concern about blowback than interest in being transparent. And so, this was really an extraordinary event yesterday, but again, it was internal at the State Department, not for public consumption. The question is whether all of that's going to be made public.

KING: Well, that question will play out as House Republicans promise to get answers. I want to focus on your book because it helps us with important context. Your reporting is fantastic in this book, you focus on two great individuals. There one, an Afghan refugee, a woman trying to get out, hesitant about getting out.

But one, Sam Aronson, a State Department official, a young guy, essentially, who decides in the end he has to break the rules or tweak the rules to try to help people get out. And you talk about one particular day in the whole Abbey Gate episode.

He says, "The next morning, Sunday, August 22, Sam's supervisor told him he'd be returning to Abbey Gate. Before he left the JOC, the Joint Operations Center, Sam learned at a briefing that his job had grown even harder. The window for freedom for Afghans had narrowed. At risk Afghans, even those in fare of their lives from the Taliban, no longer qualified automatically for evacuation."

You have that reporting spelled out in the book in even more detail, and again, I urge people to read it. This is what the President of the United States said that very same day.


BIDEN: As we do this, we're also working to move our Afghan allies, who stood with us side by side, and other vulnerable Afghans, such as women leaders and journalists, out of the country.


KING: So, at a minimum, inconsistency. Rules on the ground in Afghanistan were nowhere, not even close to what the President of the United States was describing that very day.

ZUCKOFF: That's exactly right, John. The competing and conflicting and confusing guidance that people like Sam Aronson, this young Foreign Service officer, were dealing with, resulted in them standing outside Abbey Gate and having families clutching and clawing at them in fear of their lives and people being separated because their extended family suddenly couldn't be part of their evacuation group.

And then situations where people who had successfully applied for a special immigration visa, a special immigrant visa, these SIBs, but there was a huge backlog. One day we thought they could come, and the next day, they weren't allowed in. KING: Mitch Zuckoff, the book is "The Secret Gate." I'll have you back as this story continues as well. Best reporter I've ever met. I urge all of you pick this up and read it. It's that due out in about 10 days, I believe.

Mitch Zuckoff, appreciate your time today. Good to see you, my friend.

Coming up for us, Clarence Thomas responds to a scathing report revealing the Supreme Court Justice did not disclose luxury trips with a Republican mega-donor.



KING: Topping our political radar, we're just learning the Vice President, Kamala Harris, traveling to Tennessee today. While there, she will meet with those two black Democrats who were expelled over their gun safety protests, expelled from the Tennessee House.

Another news here in Washington, Justice Clarence Thomas now responding to that report that he accepted luxury travel on yachts and jets from a Republican mega-donor, Harlan Crow. Thomas says, quote, "Early in my tenure at the court, I sought guidance from my colleagues and others in the judiciary and was advised that this sort of personal hospitality from close personal friends who did not have business before the court was not reportable."

The justice goes on to say, "These guidelines are now being changed, and it is, of course, my intent to follow this guidance in the future."

Thanks for your time on INSIDE POLITICS today. I hope you have a peaceful weekend. Abby Phillip picks up our coverage right now.