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Inside Politics

Next Hour: Santos In Federal Court In New York: Rep Santos Faces 13-Count Indictment; GOP Lawmaker Calls For Santos To Resign: He's An "Embarrassment"; Trump Dismisses Civil Trial Verdict As "Political Witch Hunt"; Tonight: Trump Town Hall On CNN, After Jury Finds Him Liable For Sexual Abuses; Trump 2024 Rivals Split On Civil Case Against Trump. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired May 10, 2023 - 12:00   ET



JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Hello, and welcome to Inside Politics. I'm John King in Washington. Thank you for sharing an incredibly busy news day with us. 13 counts, the Justice Department on sales and indictment against Republican congressman and serial liar George Santos. Among the accusations that he used campaign cash to buy designer clothes, laundered money, lied to Congress and get this, stole COVID unemployment insurance money at the height of the pandemic.

Plus tonight, Donald Trump gets a primetime audience in New Hampshire, right here on CNN. That happens the day after a New York jury delivered a stunning verdict, finding the former president liable for sexually abusing a woman and then telling malicious lies about her.

And an agreement to meet again. Read yesterday's White House debt ceiling huddle on a curve. And I guess it wasn't a failure. But listen to the principles and everybody still pretty much dug in.


JOE BIDEN, 46TH U.S. PRESIDENT: Made clear during our meeting that default is not an option.

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY, (R-CA): Everybody in this meeting reiterated the positions they were at, I didn't see any new movement.


KING: Back to that a bit later. But we begin with the right now legal headache for Republican congressman and for his party. George Santos right now is in federal custody in the Long Island courthouse. He will stand before a judge in the next hour.

The government this morning unsealing a 13-count indictment, seven counts of wire fraud, three counts of money laundry, two counts of making false statements to the House of Representatives and one count of theft of public funds. Among the accusations, stealing pandemic unemployment money and using campaign donations to buy luxury designer clothes and to pay his personal credit card bills. CNN's Brynn Gingras joins us now from outside the courthouse in New York. Brynn, tell us what's next.

BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I mean, John, listen, the U.S. attorney here in the eastern district saying, Santos used his dishonesty and deception to ascend the halls of Congress. You just laid out those 13 counts that are in this indictment. His arraignment is expected sometime this afternoon, but stunning detail goes into these allegations. Surrounding really the 2020 campaign for the congressional seat, which he did not win.

And then of course, the one he did win in 2022. This indictment details how George Santos allegedly operated a company and used a consultant to essentially get people who were supporting him to give him money, that money would go into this account, which would then go into his personal account. And he would, as you mentioned, buy lavish clothes, paid a car payment, paid off some loans.

And there's also allegations, also as you mentioned, John, that he while having a salary at an investment firm in Florida making $120,000 a year. He was applying for unemployment benefits, getting monthly payments from the state of New York allegedly, totaling about $24,000.

And then there are also charges related to the fact that he lied on financial disclosures to the House of Representatives at times and pleading his salary other times, bringing it down lower than actually it was. So, there's a number of stunning allegations in this.

And again, he is going to go in front of a judge sometime this afternoon on these charges. It's unclear if we were actually hear from him. He turned himself into the FBI this morning and then was brought here to the courthouse. So, we have not seen him. We are fully expecting him to appear though on those front steps. So, we'll be on the lookout for that, John?

KING: Brynn Gingras, outside the courthouse. Remarkable day, sitting member of Congress indicted on these fraud charges. Brynn, thank you for that. Keep us posted in the hour ahead. With me in studio to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Evan Perez, Carl Hulse of the New York Times, and the former federal prosecutor Shan Wu.

Evan, let's just go through with 13 counts. I want to read from one of the counts. This is a wire fraud count that George Santos fraudulently induced members to contribute funds to company number one under the false pretenses that the money would be used to support his candidacy. And then actually spending thousands of dollars of the solicited funds on personal items, like luxury designer clothing, credit card payments.

Walk us through, this has been investigation underway for months into a whole lot, a host of Santos lies in questionable activities. How did this come about?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, if they may seem like, it's been a long time, right? Because this Congressman has been the subject of so many stories, so many media stories, focusing on the various lies that he is told, and there's many. But this is fairly quick for the Justice Department, certainly for the FBI.

And I'm told that this is still an investigation that's ongoing. So, there may still be more at every single one of these entries that he made, could be a potential crime that they could charge. And what you see there is, you know, just the fact that he received this money, said that it was going to bind television ads and instead, according to the Justice Department, he was using it to pay personal bills, he was using it to buy luxury goods, that is a crime.

And so, they're going to make every one of those possible charge. And what this means is that, you know, could be a lot of pressure for the congressman to find a way to cut a deal. They're not done with him yet. These entries are just the beginning.


KING: Evan says, just the beginning, Shan, take the inside of the forum, if you will, your work is of for prosecutor in past among the things they charged him with. And this one I think will sink in most with people at home. As here's a candidate for Congress at the time or someone thinking -- and thinking about running if you wanted to take back to the very beginning of this.

For the period of honor about between March 22, 2020, and April 15, 2021, based on a false application and false weekly certifications to the New York State Department of Labor, the defendant George Anthony Devolder Santos received approximately $24,744 in unemployment insurance benefits.

So, as Brynn said, he was being paid a salary of about $120,000 a year. In the middle of the COVID pandemic, when the country is stressed, when New York is being hit harder than many parts of the country, he applies fraudulently. The government says, it's actually stealing COVID pandemic funds.

SHAN WU, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Yes. I think, you know, to Evan's point about the speed of this, it indicates how easy of investigation has been up until this point. I mean, it's all on paper. I mean, the only thing missing here is where he defrauds the homeless veteran for the dogs and zillions missing.

This is a paper case that's really easy to follow the money and the paper trail, and it's in multiple areas of where he's committed this fraud. So, it's going to be a very strong case, you know, there may be more that they uncover on him, but he is really going to be locked in. There's not going to have any ability to fight these charges one by one, because they're actually also different.

He doesn't have a single unifying theme like, oh, I misunderstood the unemployment benefits. You know, I didn't realize, I couldn't raise money falsely from my campaign. And it's just so diverse and so locked in, very tough situation for him.

KING: That's the legal perspective, so diverse, so locked in. And yet, and yet, even though he's an embarrassment, there are very few Republicans who will sand with George Santos right now. The speaker of the House, who needed his vote to become speaker now says everybody, please be patient, give George Santos his day in court.


REP. MCCARTHY: We walk through like every American, you have your day in court and go through. Just like when another member inside the House. Santos was never put on committee, so he won't serve on committee. He will go through his time in trial and let's find out how the outcome is.


KING: Walk us through that, you know, the speaker, well. He's not on a committee, therefore, this is not that big of a deal.

CARL HULSE, CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Shame and embarrassment is not a big quantity up on Capitol Hill these days. This used to be the kind of thing that folks would go running out the door or be pushed out the door pretty quickly because it makes them look bad. You can to hang on. But I think you now that they need his vote, they have this narrow majority.

If you remember their debt limit plan went with the bare minimum number of votes. So, you know, they're probably going to stick with them, even though that indictment so they didn't know about the indictment. Yesterday the charges were pretty embarrassing, really.

When you think here's a guy on top of everything else was stealing unemployment benefits allegedly, as we say. And also, this weird reporting, under reporting and over reporting is income. You know, George Santos had become sort of a figure on Capitol Hill where, you know, it was almost a joke with him when he would run around and be interviewing. I don't think it's so funny anymore right now to the Republic.

KING: Well, to that point, let's say in the politics for a minute. Speaker, and that was today, we had soften the speaker yesterday. But to your point, to your point, we want to let them read the indictment. Let them read the indictment. Let me see it. Let's be fair to the speaker. He still says, and look, George Santos is innocent till proven guilty as any American is. The question is, politically this is shameful for the Republicans and other members say, sorry, got to go now.



REP. STEVE WOMACK, (R-AR): Oh, absolutely. It's a distraction. And it's a punch line for a lot of commentary regarding the Republican Party that we don't need.

REP. RYAN ZINKE, (R-MT): If the charges have veracity, and they're true, then he should not be a member.

REP. NICK LALOTA, (R-NY): I think he needs to go right away, and I hope that he resigns. I want to concentrate and things like border, China in debt. He's a complete embarrassment.


KING: So, the question is, the speaker needs that one vote. When you hear from other members like that, a diverse-members different parts of the country, different wings of the Republican Party. Do they out? Is it -- does it come to a point where McCarthy realizes, you know, what, I'm going to lose more than one, I still lose the one instead of losing a handful or more.

HULSE: Right. I do think that the pressure could mount as these charges get aired out more. You know, the Republicans are in a tough spot right now. They're in risk of being accused of tanking the economy, if the debt limit doesn't get raised. I don't think they want to bear this extra burden. But they might -- he really does need that vote.

KING: So, first court appearance today. Quickly, each of you, how long does this take to play out if there's no play?

PEREZ: Well, you know, it could take several months. I mean, it depends on that that court can take a while. I mean, one of the things that happens here with this congressman is that the FBI is going to keep investigating. And so, we may yet see additional charges come, so that will increase pressure for him to know how to cut a deal. And perhaps, one way is for him to resign, and DOJ can figure out a way to reduce it.


HULSE: I will say though that, members in the past one, he might need the money to stay in the job and it also helps them, you know, it gives him some more credibility in fighting the charges. He might take that position.

KING: Right now, he says he's running for reelection. We will see how it plays out. Coming up for us, a primetime test for Donald Trump, a little more than 24 hours after New York jury found him liable for sexual abuse and defamation. The ex-president set to take a stage right here on CNN to try to convince Republicans, he despite all that is their best 2024 candidate for the White House.


KING: A jury finds Donald Trump liable for sexual abuse. Now, will his party hold him accountable? Tonight, the country gets a window into the thought bubbles of Republican primary voters, seven years, one term, two impeachments, countless investigations and an insurrection later. Yes, the former president will be back right here on CNN.


The venue you see it there in New Hampshire for a town hall helmed by CNN's Kaitlan Collins. Trump's appearance is no doubt newsworthy. Mr. Trump remains the prohibitive early front runner for the Republican presidential nomination. And his appearance tonight comes without ground rules, meaning anticipate questions about what a jury says is true that Mr. Trump sexually abused E. Jean Carroll and then told malicious lies about that writer. This morning here on CNN, Carroll relive the moment that verdict was read in court.


E. JEAN CARROLL, WRITER: The verdict came in, she squeezed my hands so hard, I always yelped, but it was a great moment.

ROBERTA KAPLAN, E. JEAN CARROLL ATTORNEY: The jury decided that E. Jean was telling the truth.

CARROLL: This verdict is for all women, that last somebody has held him accountable in a courtroom.


KING: Let's go live to CNN's Kristen Holmes. She is right there in the town hall room in New Hampshire. Kristen, let me give you a big understatement. A very big night tonight.

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, John, it absolutely is. When we talk about that verdict, I do want to note that Trump advisors and the former president himself are anticipating questions on that verdict. The thing to be watching is how voters actually interact with that verdict. Is this something that they care about? Or does this fall into the same legal category that we've seen time and time again, where it actually bolsters support for the former president.

Now, in terms of prep. I have talked to a number of advisors who huddled with the former president, they said they went through, what the event was going to look like some possible questions, had conversations, but that there was no real intense prep, because Donald Trump is not somebody that you can actually prep ahead of an event.

But it will be interesting to see how the voters interact with them. We know that this is part of a larger strategy with his Trump advisors in the campaign to really reach voters outside of conservative media, outside of his base. We know he's not only appearing on CNN, but he's also been running ads on CNN as well.

They are trying to talk to voters to connect with them, especially voters who might have once supported Trump, but no longer do, John. So again, all eyes on this here tonight, we will see how he reacts. And I don't mean just response verbally, I mean, physically. Does he have a visceral reaction? How does he handle tough questions, something to look at?

KING: Kristen Holmes, live for us on the ground. Again, a big event tonight. Kristen, thank you for that preview. Let's bring the conversation back in the room and joining our conversation, Laura Barron-Lopez the PBS NewsHour, Tia Mitchell of the Atlanta Journal- Constitution. Shan Wu and Carl Hulse are still with us.

And let's start with that question because this verdict came down yesterday, this big civil case, the jury finding that Donald Trump's actually abused E. Jean Carroll and that he defamed her. Last night on his Truth Social platform, former president said this.


DONALD TRUMP, 45TH U.S. PRESIDENT: What else can you expect from a Trump hating Clinton appointed judge, who went out of his way to make sure that the result of this trial was as negative as it could possibly be. I don't even know who this woman is. I have no idea who she is, where she came from. This is another scam. It's a political witch hunt.


KING: There are pictures of him meeting E. Jean Carroll. He says he doesn't know her or maybe he doesn't recall the event, at least at the party. But the jury said, he was there and sexually abused her. He also says the judge was unfair. The judgment out of his way to be fair, even extending the deadline for the question of whether Donald Trump would testify or not, he decided not to.

My question is this. Is that how you response in a town hall tonight when asked about this, and then you're into the Trump paradox again, which is that may well help him with his core supporters, attack, attack, attack, but it may well hurt him as well with the suburban voters who sent the Republicans packing in 2018, sent Donald Trump packing in 2020 and.

LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, PBS NEWSHOUR & CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think it's fair to assume that he may react that way in tonight's town hall. I think that there's also important context that the former president is a serial liar has demonstrated himself to be a serial liar. And so, you know, our job as reporters is to provide that context that a lot of what he says needs to be scrutinized extremely heavily.

When it comes to the voters that that he needs to actually win in a general election. In regards to this case and in regard to the found that he was found liable for sexual abuse. I just think about a lot of the voters that I've talked to in Arizona in 2020. In his key swing state that he would likely need to win if he was going to win in the general election.

And I spoke to a number of former Republican voters or voters who call themselves still Republican, but we're not going to vote for him because of who he was as a person, because of the fact that he lied, because of the fact that they believe him to not have strong moral values, strong family values, and they didn't vote for him because of that.

KING: And to that point, one of the things that Trump has repeatedly used to his advantage is that the Republican establishment says x, therefore he tells Republican base voters, please do y, because we don't like the Republican establishment. So, listen here, two out of three, one friend of Donald Trump says, you know, I don't trust this, but others say he's an embarrassment, he should not be our nominee. [12:20:00]


SEN. MITT ROMNEY, (R-UT): I hope the jury of the American people reach the same conclusion about Donald Trump. He just is not suited to be president of the United States.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R-SC): I think the New York legal system is off the rails when it comes to Donald Trump.

SEN. KEVIN CRAMER, (R-ND): Of course, it's serious. All that and several other things caused me to question whether he'd be the best nominee for the party.


KING: We won't explain Lindsey Graham's 12 or 15 or 100 conversions on the question of Donald Trump. Butt to Mitt Romney and Senator Cramer there, especially Senator Romney says the American people, first is the Republican primary electorate. That's why I'm fascinated by tonight. The Republican primary voters, even if they love Donald Trump, even if they love his combative style, even if they liked his policies. Do they really think that he's the best candidate?

TIA MITCHELL, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, THE ATLANTA JOURNAL- CONSTITUTION: Well, I think there are a lot of Republican voters who still do, and these are Republican voters who stood beside Trump, even after, you know, the Access Hollywood tape, and many of these allegations' surface before they voted for him in 2016. No, he didn't win in 2020, but he won a lot of Republican voters and conservative voters in 2020.

And I don't think they're necessarily going to leave him behind what Trump is banking on, is that perhaps in spite of what came out in this trial, that he'll still be able to get enough support from the folks at the middle on things like the economy, on things like perhaps President Biden's shortcomings when it comes to immigration.

And they think he still can create a winning message, not with the big margin, with enough margin to win. And that's where things like the town hall tonight might really help illuminate where voters are right now.

KING: And it happens, Carl, in, again, a moment of what I call the Trump paradox. If you have a better word for it, please help me, but just look at the polling as it plays out. If you go back to February, Donald Trump, you know, 43, Ron DeSantis 28, March Donald Trump 54, DeSantis 24, April 53 to 21. You'll see some there're big events along the way in March 30. He was indicted in New York. April 5, he was arraigned. May 9, yesterday was the verdict, the polling off obviously is before yesterday's verdict in the civil case.

But he goes up, when there are things that would take other politicians down. Just a simple fact. And so, the question tonight is, you know, how does -- does he show any contrition? Does he even -- does he at least resist the combat part and say, look, I disagree. I'm appealing, let's move on to issues or does. Or does as he do as he did in the statement last night, attack the judge and attack her?

HULSE: I was -- I'm still laughing about the idea of Trump prep. When she meant on that earlier, there is no such thing. But I was with two former senior Republican members of the Senate yesterday when this news broke, literally broke. And one of them said, his numbers are going to go up from that. And that -- and these are not folks who are favorable about Trump.

So that's the initial reaction. I think what you have -- you just saw the dichotomy on Capitol Hill. And I think the paradox is a great word for it. You have this group that says, this is going to benefit him, and you have the other who say the drumbeat is going to intensify. There is other criminal cases out there that aren't so at what point does the baggage become too much? So far, we've never seen it become too much.

But I think tonight, I think he's you saw when he's going to say, he's going to push back. I didn't know her. This is New York. I can't get a fair shake in my old hometown.

KING: We don't know whether, but we assume at some point he'll be on the stage with his Republican primary rivals. Maybe he won't, maybe his lead will stay so big. He'll never agree to debate. But we are getting a little bit of flavor today. They all have to have this dilemma. I need his voters. So, do I criticize him?


ASA HUTCHINSON, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Republicans should not be dismissing this and saying this is not of any significance. It is in the jury system worked in this case.

MIKE PENCE, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF UNITED STATES: I really can't comment on our judgment in a civil case. I never heard or witnessed behavior of that nature.

NIKKI HALEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm not going to get into that. That's something for Trump to respond to. I mean, I think the focus has to be not to be distracted. That's why we've got to leave the baggage and the negativity behind.


KING: The last part by Governor Ambassador Haley. Again, like not the specifics, but he's baggage. Is that the strongest anyone's going to get here? Asa Hutchinson, more or so (crosstalk)

BARRON-LOPEZ: I think, Asa Hutchinson was the strongest out of the -- ones that we just listened to. And Pence is just so confusing sometimes for Vice President Pence because sometimes he will be very forceful in his attacks on the former president and his former boss, particularly around January 6 in the insurrection.

Although, you know, one of the last times he did that was in a room full of reporters. So, he was maybe speaking to his audience. And then other times he's not and he very much tiptoes around the question.

KING: To that help me on the question that Donald Trump says he's appealing. He has every right to appeal in a civil case like this. How is that process?


WU: Well, he's going to look for issues that they can appeal. I mean, I was kind of laughing when his lawyer said, he has full confidence in the appellate process. I've yet to meet a lawyer who talks about poor confidence for his channel on appeal. I don't think those are very strong issues. One interesting point is with the other women who had been assaulted. In the Cosby case, which was a criminal case that made a huge difference, first time a hung jury. Second time five witnesses got a conviction.

I think here what you see you know, it's really interesting he didn't testify. He likes ideally situation where he's not challenged. And that's perfect that campaign rally town hall, little challenge courtroom, total challenge. Let's avoid it.

KING: We watches that one plays out. Up next for us. President Biden just arriving in New York where he's taking his debt ceiling debate on the road. Comes the day, after a summit with congressional leaders at the White House that accomplished very little.