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Inside Politics

U.K. Promises Ukraine More Missiles, Drones; WAPO: Russia's Chief Mercenary Offered To Share Intel With Ukraine; Trump No-Shows Iowa Rally As DeSantis Draws Crowds, Contrast; Trump: DeSantis Has "No Personality", Will Lose "MAGA Votes Forever"; Conway: Trump Should Consider Miami Mayor For VP pick; N.C Gov Cooper Vetoes Abortion Ban, Faces Override; GOP N.C Lawmakers Poised To Override Veto On Abortion Bill; DHS Chief: Too Early To Say If Surge At Southern Border Has Peaked. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired May 15, 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. Baltimore's Zelenskyy's European tour ends with a British promise of more missiles and more drones. But Ukraine's big ask is still a TBD. Zelenskyy wants fighter jets from a coalition of the hesitant.

Plus, Ron DeSantis puts on an apron. The Florida governor plays the everyman in Iowa, while neither snow nor rain nor heat apparently does not apply when it comes to scheduling a Trump rally. But the former president does find a way to remind us, who he is and what he believes.

And real or not real. The White House suddenly sounds hopeful about avoiding a debt ceiling cliff, and the president abandons a gotcha game of semantics by yes, calling the negotiation, a negotiation. Up first for us though, two please from Ukraine's president to the west. The first for patients and for trust that a big kind of offensive is coming.


PRES. VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINE: We'll be ready, you know, in some time. I want to be very honest with you. I can't share with you. Some days, I just don't want to prepare not for our friends, but there are no secrets from our friends, but there are some secrets from our neighbors.


KING: The second request from President Zelenskyy is for fighter jets to match Moscow in the sky. Today, Zelenskyy rounding out his European tour in the U.K. He's the first head of state to get an audience with the British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at Chequers.

And Zelenskyy extracting important commitments at each stop of his trip missiles and drones from Britain, armored vehicles and tanks from France, air defense systems and weapons adding up to nearly $3 billion of military aid from Germany.

The U.K. also making a notable promise to give Ukraine soldiers fighter pilot training. But the offer to get them combat ready is missing big essential piece. The actual planes Ukraine would use in its fight with Russia.


PRES. ZELENSKYY: Today, we spoke about the jets, a very important topic for us, because we can't control the sky. We want to create these jets coalition. And I'm very positive with it. We spoke about it. And I see that in the closest time, you will hear some, I think very important decisions, but we have to work a little bit more on it.


KING: Let's start in southeastern Ukraine, CNN's Sam Kiley is there live for us. Sam, important diplomacy for President Zelenskyy at a very important time?

SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I mean quite a successful trip, whistlestop tour in which he's been filling his pockets with promises. As you point out in the introduction there, John, for equipment, training, not ultimately the great price of the F-16s. But the British coming in full square behind the appeal for F- 16, of course they don't have them to give.

The Ukrainians have turned down the suggestion of British typhoons. And I think lightly because they are more of a fighter than a bomber. But nonetheless, a very successful trip ahead of what he's anticipating to be a summer offensive. Again, an on off hinting that it may start soon, saying they're not quite ready yet, putting the Russians off balance. That's what a lot of this campaign has been all about, John, keeping the Russians off balance.

And at the same time making sure that the Russians know that Ukrainians are getting more and more state-of-the-art equipment, storm shadow cruise missiles from the United Kingdom, state-of-the-art air defenses, long range killer drones, all of these intended to send a message to the Russian soldier on the front line, something is coming to kill you. And that is very much part of the messaging that the Ukrainian president and Ukrainians on the ground are trying to send out through social media, John?

KING: And Sam, as we wait for the counter offensive, a curious story in the Washington Post report that Russia's chief mercenary, the head of the Wagner Group Yevgeniy Prigozhin, somehow offering to share intel with Kyiv. What do we know about this?

KILEY: Well, he's the head of a mercenary organization. I think more mercenary they suppose than treason or swapping the lives of your own men for the lives of your countrymen. I think this should be seen partly as part of the ongoing maelstrom of nonsense that tends to come out surrounding Prigozhin.

But also, he has rejected of course, any suggestion that he offered to sell out his Russian countrymen on the front line to Ukrainian intelligence. Ukrainian intelligence refusing to comment except for a kind of shrug really. And on top of that, of course, he has been highly critical of the Kremlin and the prosecution of this war in terms of the generals outside of his own mercenary organization up and down the front line.


So ultimately, this man is the head of a murderous organization that is imminently likely to be designated as a terrorist organization, not least by France and the United Kingdom who both have plans so to do. So, in that context, I think this is part potentially of an ongoing disinformation campaign, but it shouldn't surprise anybody that he was prepared to sell his own country down the river. This is, as I say, the head of a mercenary organization. John?

KING: Very definition, I guess. Sam Kiley, grateful you're in the ground for us in Ukraine at this moment. Sam, thank you. Now let's return to domestic politics and a busy weekend in Iowa and what looks like and feels like the true start of the 2024 campaign. And why Ron DeSantis gets so much of Donald Trump's attention.

The former president no showed his Iowa rally, blaming inclement weather. The Florida governor quick to take advantage, making an unscheduled stop just a short drive from the Trump rally that wasn't. DeSantis making no direct mention of Trump who's declare early polling favorite both nationally and in Iowa.

But listen here, he did make sure to mention the beautiful night, the stop understated. The burger apron DeSantis wore earlier in the day wasn't and this while not quite direct. Listen here, the contrast with man from Mar-a-Lago. Governor DeSantis says Republicans need a break from quote, a culture of losing.


GOV. RON DESANTIS, (R) FLORIDA: If we make 2024 election a referendum on Joe Biden and his failures, and if we provide a positive alternative for the future of this country, Republicans will win across the board. If we do not do that, if we get distracted, if we focus the election on the past or on other side issues, then I think the Democrats are going to beat us again.


KING: With me in studio to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Phil Mattingly, Laura Barron-Lopez of The PBS NewsHour, Rhonda Colvin of The Washington Post, and CNN's Kristen Holmes. Starting with Governor DeSantis there, that sounds somewhat like what Nikki Haley says, but he says we'll keep losing. This is always the dangerous territory, the quicksand for Republican candidates with Trump, is he saying, Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, which Donald Trump says he did not.

LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, PBS NEWSHOUR: He's saying that but without really saying that, right? I mean, he's going around being explicit and directly attacking the former president for the same reasons that Nikki Haley is doing that as well and a number of the other candidates, because they want to win that voting base that we've seen continue to coalesce around the former president and sticking with him.

And it's also why you see Trump rising in those polls. I know, we have to treat those polls with a grain of salt because they're so far out from the actual primary, but that's why it's that they want those voters, and they aren't willing to necessarily strike this totally different lane to get them.

KING: The last month or two were supposed to be DeSantis's springboard. The Florida legislature passes a bunch of conservative priorities. He goes on the road and says, I'm MAGA with results without the distraction as he puts it there, been a tough couple of months. Now he's on the ground in Iowa. We expect the announcement in the next 10 days or so that he's formally in the race. Does team DeSantis have a plan to sort of reset after the past few months?

RHONDA COLVIN, SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, THE WASHINGTON POST: It appears so, that they're reassessing and calculating what works, and especially this everyman persona that he's trying to put out there. He's been also in Ohio. He has family from Ohio. He's trying to tell people about his Rust Belt roots. So, it looks like team DeSantis is calculating what's going to work, how can he elevate his national presence outside of what he's been doing in Florida.

KING: And we saw Trump at our CNN townhall, and you've seen just about every day and he's still mocking DeSantis with nicknames. But more importantly, for Trump talking about his lead in the polls, he did give it, he did not show up for his rally. He said the weather was too bad to company. He did give an interview with the messenger where he again goes after DeSantis.

I'm a loyal person. If that happened to me, I would never run against the guy that did that. Meaning, he supported DeSantis for governor, therefore DeSantis should not run against him. He's got plenty of years left. I think if he runs, he's going to lose MAGA voters forever. Ron's not a winner because Ron without me couldn't have won. He's got no personality. I don't think he's got a lot of political skill. There's your trademark Trump, which tells me they're still worried.

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, let's talk about living rent free in someone's mind, even with these poll numbers. His team is very well aware that it is early that DeSantis hasn't yet entered the race and that there is an opening for another candidate and who will that candidate be? There is a reason that Trump is so focused on DeSantis.

One of the things, you know, we talk about a lot with my colleague, Steve Contorno, who covers DeSantis is how so much of them is similar, actually, between DeSantis and Trump. He's talking about that loyalty. He has no loyalty. I mean, that's what people say about Donald Trump. But Trump remains fixated on him. And I will say after this weekend, it was a real loss for his team. They knew that. I had one person telling me when they had to cancel the rally that he felt like he wanted to puke because they knew that they've been trying to outflank DeSantis at every turn of the wheel, and this time DeSantis got the best of him.


KING: When team Biden watches this, they clearly think President Biden would be strongest against Trump again. Do they want the Republican primaries to be a walk? Or do they want it to be bloody and elongated?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I think the latter is certainly preferable for anybody in any political race where they're looking at what their potential competitor would be. I think they have long thought in talking to advisors and folks around Biden's team that DeSantis was a lot weaker than perhaps late last year he appeared to be.

That said, I think they would be more than happy to watch Republicans beat the heck out of each other for several months. And having a very real primary as opposed to former President Trump having a pretty clear lane straight into a general election, both for financial resources, for messengering resources.

If they can see some type of split or fracture within the Republican Party, and I think that's what made this past weekend so interesting. The DeSantis team had such a choreographed and careful plan, leading into this moment, and then they got punched in the face.

And when you leave a vacuum, that vacuum will be filled. And when the candidate you're running against is former president Donald Trump, he will fill it over and over and over and over again. And so, what you saw this weekend is a level of agility, yes.

Going to Des Moines when it wasn't planned, is that some grand kind of demonstration of political talent, but it is something and perhaps that changes the dynamic. And if you're Democrats and if you're the White House, you're looking at that and saying, all right, maybe this is a little bit more of a race than we thought.

KING: And DeSantis has lined up a lot of influential conservative endorsements in Iowa. So, he's had a tough couple of months. But we have months more before anybody votes, he watch, that's the big test, right? Every politician gets knocked down at some point. The question is chance (Ph).

One of the interesting things is that a lot of Republicans, if you went back two months ago, would have said this is a Trump-DeSantis race with a couple of other voices trying. Now the former Texas governor, the former Trump Energy Secretary, Rick Perry, says he's looking at it again, really?


RICK PERRY, (R) FORMER TEXAS GOVERNOR: I think for any of us to sit back and say, I'm for this person or that person is a little early in my process. So, you know, it certainly is something that I haven't taken off the table. But you know, the chances of it happening are probably a little bit slim, but who knows.


KING: Slim, but who knows. When a lot of the Republican establishment and the Republican committee is trying to get if you're going to get in, get in. If you're going to be in the August debate, get in. And then the anti-Trump forces are saying if you get in, and you don't succeed right away, get out. So that, you know, so that you have a one-on-one with Trump. What's that about?

COLVIN: You know, I think it remains to be seen. I know that interview as well. He said that, last time when he ran for election for president, he declared it in August. So, he's saying has all of this time. But of course, you know, we just don't know it's so early. And that is one point that he didn't make that is true, it's very early. You know, he could disrupt there are others who may not have been on the shortlist for the presidential campaign of '24 that we might see come forward, but it's all incredibly early.

KING: Again, into this mix of, let's talk about things now before people vote. Kellyanne Conway over the weekend quoted, in Politico, talking about the mayor of Miami, Francis Suarez. He can be present United States one day. It's up to the voters to decide what day that is.

I have not been shy about telling President Trump that Suarez will be on the shortlist of VP should Trump be the nominee, they would both be Florida residents. So, Trump would have to win a very big I guess, for that to happen. But this is Kellyanne Conway, loyal to Trump, promoting another candidate, saying he should maybe run for president or Trump should pick him as the VP. Why?

BARRON-LOPEZ: If all run for president to then ultimately be picked as vice president, which you have to wonder if that's also the calculation for people like former Governor Perry or Nikki Haley or any of these other candidates that are running, which is also why they aren't necessarily coming out punching Trump in the face because they think that maybe they could end up back in a Trump administration or on the VP list.

KING: OK. Let's see, it's scaring me. It gets complicated before it gets not complicated. That's what makes it interesting. Up next, North Carolina's Democratic Governor vetoes a 12-week abortion ban. Will a new Republican supermajority override the governor and might this debate in North Carolina impact how the state factors in 2024.




KING: North Carolina is a critical new flashpoint in the state-by- state fight over abortion rights. And the issue might also impact how that state factors in the 2024 presidential race. The Democratic Governor Roy Cooper vetoed a 12-week ban on Saturday at a rally you see it there for abortion rights. But Republican supermajority in the legislature could override it. The governor already lobbying for the vote he needs.


GOV. ROY COOPER, (D) NORTH CAROLINA: If just one Republican in either the House or the Senate keeps a campaign promise to protect women's reproductive health, we can stop this man.


KING: Our reporters are back at the table. We're going state by state by state, but this is a fascinating state here in that you do have a Democratic governor, you have a very narrow, just barely legislative Republican supermajority. And you hear the governor essentially asking is, is there a Republican out there who wants to be a national star, join me and block this.

COLVIN: That's right. North Carolina politics are extremely interesting. I did a story back during the midterms about the electorate there and they have a wide margin of people who are independent voters or unaffiliated people who are kind of tired of Republicans and Democrats, but they do want to vote.

So, seeing this play out and sort of the visceral reaction that the crowd gave in favor of this veto, tells you a lot about this issue and how it continues to be something that is galvanizing in this next election and in elections to come.

KING: And it's important just to show the map again after Dobbs, Roe v. Wade is wiped off the books and Dobbs is on the books and you go through the states, and you look at them here. And if you look at the states that are red, that's essentially a full ban on abortion. There are some exceptions. And you look at the states that 15 to 20 weeks Arizona and Florida. In there, Arizona has a six-week law signed by Governor DeSantis just hasn't kicked in yet.


The question when people look at North Carolina, Obama won North Carolina in 2008. The Democrats have tried in every election since and come up short by different margins. But there is a theory now looking how abortion rights helped in the midterms that may be because North Carolina is such a suburban state that maybe the Biden people put all extra money in there and give it a try.

MATTINGLY: Not only did they plan to put a little extra money in there, and it's certainly on their list, it's not one of their prime kind of this is our path to 270 (Ph). But if something goes wrong in one of those other states, this is something that we should consider. They've also built an infrastructure there.

I mean, DNC had operations there throughout in the lead up to the midterm and those operations, just as they were in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania and other swing states were designed to, yes, for the midterms, but more for we're building this for 2024.

And so, I think that's important. And I think why you've seen Biden advisors not be willing to give up on North Carolina, despite the fact that they've continually kind of come up short with the exception of the governor's race is one they know they need some alternatives in case something goes wrong.

But to that, as you're saying the electorate always is a tease for them. They feel like there's a pathway there, given some of the major kind of urban areas spreading out into the suburban areas around the big cities, where there's a possibility. And I think this issue, particularly when you look at what happened in Kansas, Wisconsin and Michigan, they feel like this is the motivational issue that should help them with the suburban voters in particular, to give them a real shot there.

KING: And if you look at the state, it's probably the most 50-50 state in American politics. Right now, the people of Georgia might argue with me, that people in Arizona might argue -- they don't have stake in the argument. But if you look at, you have a large African American population. So, you have a big Democratic base. You have the college campuses, the university college educated voters, suburban voters increasingly moving toward the Democrats abortion issue, which motivates younger voters.

Obama won by less than a point, 0.32 historic African American turnout in 2008 made the difference there. Republicans won by two in 2016. Republicans won up by just short of four but in 2020, it was 1.3 percent. Biden came pretty close. So, to your point, they look at Michigan, they look at Kansas, they look at Wisconsin, they think we can get this.

BARRON-LOPEZ: I know we have to remember that Georgia and Arizona, Biden flipped them for the first time in decades. And I remember heading into the final days there in Arizona when I was covering that state closely. And Trump's team was really being bullish about the fact that they thought that they were going to be able to hold on to Arizona that they were going to keep it and they weren't. And so, I think that to Phil's point, President Biden's team views North Carolina as potentially one of those surprises that could come around in 2024.

KING: And so, as the Republicans watch this, whatever your views on the abortion issue, if you do the math of 2022, you're thinking, OK, you know, can I win the key states about this? Let's listen to governor, former ambassador Nikki Haley here, who says she is anti- abortion, she would sign a state law banning abortion, but she says if she's president, the federal question is very different.


NIKKI HALEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We have to tell the American people the truth. In order to do a national standard, you'd have to have a majority of the House, 60 Senate votes and a president. We haven't had 60 pro-life senators in 100 years. So, the idea that a Republican president could ban all abortions is not being honest with the American people. We need to do this from a humanizing standpoint and not a demonizing standpoint.


KING: So, the last point is key to her on she says tone, we need to be polite and respect people with different opinions. But is that honesty? Or is that almost a dodge in a way where she has promised pro-life groups. And if a 15-week federal ban passed, she would sign it. She's also saying there though, in the moment, she doesn't think it's going to happen because you can't get 60 votes in the Senate.

COLVIN: It is an interesting, John, because she's basically saying it's not me who is for a federal ban or against it, it's just that it won't fly in the Senate. So, she's not saying fully where she stands on it. But how will that argument that she just gave play out in states who are uncomfortable with their state legislature is restricting access?

You know, it's one thing to say, talk about a federal ban and how it doesn't have any play in the Senate. But when you go and you campaign to these states, they are going to need to talk to in the primary raises this argument going to play there.

KING: That's why it gets interesting. Campaigning in a primary while trying to think about a general election. That's the season we're about to head into. Next for us. What's behind the dramatic drop in migrant encounters. We'll go live to the southern border. That's next.




KING: Biden administration officials somewhat upbeat today about the border reiterating. The border crossing numbers are down that after a pandemic health error policy that made it easier to deport migrants ended just last week. The Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas telling CNN, it's too soon to say if the surge is over, but he says something's working.


ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: The numbers that we have experienced over the past two days are markedly down over what they were prior to the end of Title 42 because we have communicated very clearly a vitally important message to the individuals who are thinking of arriving at our southern border. There is a lawful, safe and orderly way to arrive.


KING: CNN's Rosa Flores is live for us in Brownsville, Texas, right near the border. Rosa, is the administration policy working or are we still not quite sure?

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, it appears that that tough talk is actually making a difference and that migrants on the Mexican side of the border are getting that message. Let me tell you about a while, I show you around. I'm at the bus station in Brownsville, Texas where immigration authorities drop off migrants, you can see some of them around me.

But here's what I'm hearing from officials and also community leaders on the Mexican side, they say that those tweets.