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Sen. Tim Scott Enters Presidential Race; VP Harris Calls Out GOP: They Don't Actually Want To Lower U.S. Debt; Rep. McCaul Puts 2021 Afghan Cable Subpoena On Hold; McCaul Accepts State Dept. Invitation To View Dissent Cable. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired May 19, 2023 - 12:30   ET



JOHN KING, CNN HOST: The 2024 Republican race is getting more crowded. South Carolina GOP Senator Tim Scott filed his paperwork today, launching his fundraising effort. He'll make the official campaign announcement at home in South Carolina on Monday. And as noted, we are told the Florida Governor Ron DeSantis will officially file his paperwork midweek next week.

Here you see the leading names already in, about to get in, and several others who promise decisions relatively soon.

Our great reporters are back at the table with me. Let's start with Senator Scott. Everyone else. You have Trump, you have well behind him in the national polls, DeSantis. And then you have everybody else way, way back, and they're trying to find their piece of it.;

The New York Times saying this about Senator Scott this morning, "There is little evidence, so far, that Mr. Scott's message strikes a chord with the populist base of the modern GOP, which for the last several years has been led by a former TV star who likes to fight."

Again, back to the same conversation we're having about getting at DeSantis and Pence's idea about limited conservative. That's the challenge for these candidates. Which Republican party are you competing in?


KING: Right.

KANNO-YOUNGS: And can you effectively try to actually galvanize some of the Trump base while going with a different message? And to be clear, Tim Scott's message is quite different here. I would say even more than -- or not even more, but also it's different than DeSantis as well.

While, you know, as my colleagues wrote us, while Trump is talking about, you know, needing to reform law enforcement agencies, he's attacking law enforcement agencies at time with his rhetoric and sowing sort of distrust as well. Tim Scott's message is much more kind of sunny language, Ronald Reagan esque, in a way.

So is that also going to appeal to a base that has actually been engaged by Trump's language, which I don't think anyone would describe as sunny.

KING: Right. And he launched a $6 million ad buy in Ireland, New Hampshire today, which is $6 million. That's a lot of money, right, if people listen at home. However, Trump has $100 million plus. DeSantis has $100 million plus. That's the challenge is to prove what? To prove that you can start at least inching up to keep the money coming?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: For sure. And I think also introducing himself. And that's one thing that Senator Scott absolutely needs to do. He has a lot of goodwill. I was out with him in Iowa a couple of weeks ago when he was doing an exploratory committee. He's one who's getting about four bites out of the apple here. He announced he's running for president.

And Republicans there were very eager to hear his message, so intrigued by his biography. My question for Senator Scott, though, is biography enough of a message, or does he need something a little bit more than that? And he does have a hopeful, optimistic view. I don't see a lot of demand for that necessarily.

But without a doubt, he is going to do this. And I think he's going to have -- you know, he's the only senator running, so he'll have some other support from senators as well. So, you know, Monday at start.

KING: I think that's a key point. Trump is a grievance party. Can you pull it back to either a policy, an ideological, or an optimistic party? That's one of the challenges. Just look at the polling right now. It's Trump at 43, DeSantis at 20, then Pence, Haley, Christie, Asa Hutchinson, and Tim Scott.

These are national polls. You can change these numbers by winning Iowa, or surprising in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina. Scott from South Carolina. Nikki Haley, also from South Carolina, the former governor, the former U.N. ambassador. So let's listen to a little bit here.

She got into the race. She says, I'm the alternative to Trump. You don't want to go back. She's trying to figure out her place, especially with DeSantis getting so much attention. This is about January 6. Donald Trump calls it a beautiful day. Nikki Haley says, no.


NIKKI HALEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What I will say about January 6, I will continue to say it was a terrible day. It was not a beautiful day. It was a terrible day. And we don't ever want that to happen again. You break the law, you pay the price.


KING: And on the question, she has come under some heat on the question of abortion rights. She says she's pro-life. She says as a state governor. She would sign restrictions on abortion. She says it's dishonest to talk now about whether it's a 12-week or a 15-week or a 20-week federal ban, because she says the votes in the Senate simply aren't there. And she says she's glad the Supreme Court overturned Roe, sent this back to the state.

Now she says, get the judges out of it.


HALEY: He never should have had unelected justices deciding something that personal, because the idea of life and abortion is personal for everyone, not just women. Now the unelected justices have gone back and ruled, and I think right at wrong and put it back in the states close to the people, where the people can decide what they want.


KING: She says she hopes states pass restrictions, but if they don't, that's up to the people there, and she can accept that. The question is, what lane is that? Is there such a lane in the Republican Party where she's trying to sound like, is it -- I don't know what to call it. Is it more centrist? Is it more reasonable? Is it more open minded? I don't know what it is, but does it exist?

MARIANNA SOTOMAYOR, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Right. To go back to what we've all kind of been saying here is, how is the party going to define itself? And that really has been the question since Trump, right? Because even -- you know, when I talk to people on Capitol Hill privately, Republicans are obsessed with Tim Scott.

They really think he could bring the Republican Party back to what it was on principle, but also be able to have these bigger conversations on different subject matters.


But I think that someone like Scott, someone like Haley, I don't know what that path is because it's not middle ground. They won't say they're moderate. They won't say they're pragmatic.

They're trying to really find a lane here at a time when the party doesn't even want to really talk about abortion. They don't want to talk about those different, you know, when should abortion bans be happening? Those kinds of things. They don't want to have that debate right now. When do they have it? I'm not entirely sure.

KING: And most of the primaries are closed, meaning only Republican voters. Not all, but most of them are closed, meaning only Republican voters. And the Republican Party has become more Trumpy and less, I would say, you know, more of a grievance party than a smile party, like a Tim Scott, if you will.

Up next, we switch parties. How about that one? Campaign asset or campaign liability? Vice President Harris raises her profile, and that raises a big 2024 question.



KING: Vice President Harris is not directly involved in the debt ceiling negotiations with Congress, as her boss was back when he was Barack Obama's vice president. But VP Harris is an important part of the White House outreach to key constituencies, as these big Washington policy debates, like the debt limit, shape early conversations about the 2024 campaign.


KAMALA HARRIS, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Let's be clear, for Republicans in Congress, this issue is not really about lowering our nation's debt, because if they really cared about lowering our debt, they would not, they would not also fight to protect trillions of dollars in Trump tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and the biggest corporations.


KING: Our great reporters back at the table, you can tell there she obviously has a cold or some sort of a respiratory issue. Their voice is a little different. The White House is asking her to be more active, reaching out to key constituencies, pieces of the Biden coalition, to keep them informed about policy debates in hopes that they turn out next year.

KANNO-YOUNGS: And more broadly, this is something Harris's allies have also been asking for. Not just to have a portfolio that had somewhat intractable issues such as the border voting rights, given the current state of Congress, but also when you have an issue that is right in front of the White House to also bring her to the table and have her involved.

I have been reporting on the VP for the past, you know, since they came into office now, and I do know that talking to people close to the White House, her allies as well, there does seem to be a bit of a shift, especially after the Roe decision. She's similar to this, had been very outspoken on Roe.

Even when officials in the White House were deciding whether to curtail his trip, which they have done, there was discussion about potentially sending the vice president or the secretary of state in his place. That has not happened yet. But you're seeing the conversations about bringing her to the table.

KING: And there's always a debate about the vice president's role, maybe all the more so because you have a woman of color who's the vice president now. They think they get treated unfairly sometimes in her office. But every vice president goes through this one place where Democrats say they think, number one, she's performing better, and number two, they think she can be a great asset, as you mentioned, is on the abortion issue. Democrats think it's a big turnout issue. They think it appeals to the right people in the right states, if you will. The swing states. And she has taken a lead role there in spreading the White House message.


HARRIS: These extremists dare, dare to posture that these laws will protect mothers and babies. So to them I say, don't come talking to us about the health of women and babies when you have not treated maternal mortality as the crisis it is. How dare you?


KING: Again, a constant debate about her, and I would say about any vice president, is asset or liability going forward. Democrats do think that is a great place for her.

SOTOMAYOR: Yes. And you can even tell in that clip she's natural, she's passionate, she understands the subject matter and just how she's known for those zingers. That's something that on Capitol Hill, many people were like, wow, she can really deliver and land a message which is really important.

And I think you did see her start to do this a lot more during the midterm. She went out with a number of House Democratic candidates to try and talk about abortion, have these roundtables in more swingier districts. So it's interesting that they're finally kind of in some ways putting her out there more on messaging that she seems to feel more comfortable with, not immigration, border, all these other bigger things.

KANNO-YOUNGS: That being said, absolutely, there were some around the White House that also wanted to see this. I mean, I would often hear they wanted the vice president when the cameras are off behind closed doors, the one that's direct and often almost cross examines her aides to go out and show that.

But there were some that thought oftentimes there was a certain cautious approach as well. I do know that talking to some of her allies, at least in the first two years, that there was a concern of being sort of pigeonholed into issues based off of her gender or her glass ceiling kind of breaking role. This one isn't just that, though. This also involves legal expertise.

And when you listen to her talk about the abortion -- about abortion, about Roe, she's not just talking about it just like that, but also talking about the legal precedent and what it could set moving forward.

KING: And so here's your question. Having been through a few campaigns, you and I, though, the more gray people at the table, me, more gray than you, you know, they always talk about the vice president. In the end, the polls always show you the vice president doesn't matter. People vote for a president.

However, because of Joe Biden's age, Republicans think they can make her an issue. That they think that somehow -- and this is the statement just after she did debt call the other day. "While Joe Biden has left the country, border czar Kamala Harris is now involved in debt ceiling negotiations despite presiding over the worst border crisis." They go on it.


You know, you can agree or disagree with the statement, but they routine -- they think they can actually make her matter. Are they right? Do we know?

ZELENY: We'll see. But she will become a central part of the 2024 campaign in ways she, you know, certainly was not in 2020 and not necessarily in a good way. Republicans want to, and they're already planning the seeds of this argument that you're really voting for Vice President Harris. She would fill out his term.

But look, one thing has changed dramatically since the beginning, and that was the Dobb's decision. They could not have anticipated that necessarily. So this gives her a huge space, and as you said, she is natural on that. So there was a reason that Donald Trump, way back in the day, was concerned about her candidacy.

She didn't take off in 2020, but she has some raw talent there, and sure intellect, of course, but she's a wild card in this general election. No doubt.

KING: All right, one of the fascinating things to watch as we head in still early in 2024, but we're getting there.

Next, House Republicans hit pause on a threat to hold the Secretary of State in contempt of Congress. But they also demand new information from the Pentagon about a key moment in the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.



KING: House Republicans are hitting pause on a big fight with the Biden State Department over access to information about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. At the same time, though, there's a new Republican demand for sensitive information from the Pentagon.

On hold for now is a House Republican threat to hold the Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, in contempt of Congress. That's because the State Department, after months of saying no, will now allow the Republican chairman and the lead Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee to view what's called a dissent cable. That cable containing internal State Department debate and, yes, disagreements about how the withdrawal played out.

This is video from August 2021. You'll all remember the attack at the Kabul International Airport left 13 U.S. service members dead, along with 170 Afghan civilians. Let's get some insights on this standoff now from Mitchell Zuckoff. He's a professor at Boston University and author of a great book, "The Secret Gate", a detailed account of the final days of the U.S. Mission in Afghanistan.

Mitch, let's start with the dissent cable. A, what is in it, based on what you know and why is it important and groundbreaking in away, that these lawmakers get to see it?

MITCHELL ZUCKOFF, PROFESSOR, BOSTON UNIVERSITY: Well, John, the shorthand, the tabloid headline for this story has become, as you know, blink and blinked by making this accommodation with the House Republicans. But it's more complicated than that.

So the dissent cable and the dissent channel at the State Department, it's described by diplomats as an almost sacred vehicle for speaking truth to power. So our far flung diplomats around the world have a way to know that when they face a significant concern, their concerns will be heard and read by the 7th floor, by the secretary's office, and they will be responded to.

And so these are fairly rare, only about 120 of them since 1971. And so the secretary was trying to preserve the integrity of this dissent channel by not just releasing this dissent cable from what happened in Afghanistan. But to answer your question, what's likely in it? It's not going to be some kind of smoking gun, we don't think. It's not a who, you know, who, what and when situation.

More likely, what we're going to see is a cable or if we see it because it is classified, that says the 23 signatories. These -- the American diplomats understood that what was happening in Afghanistan, what was happening in Kabul, things were worse than people realized that the Kabul government and the Afghanistan military was going to collapse sooner than people expected when this was sent in July of 2021.

And so the other thing it probably almost certainly says is that a nonmilitary evacuation should have started sooner. Now, I spoke last night to a government official, current government official, who said, you know, that's all well and good, but that really wouldn't have made a difference even if the contents of this cable had been followed. Because the catastrophe of August of 2021 simply would have been the catastrophe of March 2021.

The difference would have been the airport would have been cold instead of hot. But the real meaning here and the real thing we have -- sorry.

KING: Go ahead.

ZUCKOFF: What we have to understand here is there is a legitimate role for Congress to play given the scale of the humanitarian crisis, given the speed at which the afghan government fell and given the severity of the suicide bombing that you mentioned earlier.

KING: Right. And so a possible compromise with access to the state department information, we'll see if it plays out. Chairman McCaul says he'd like all the members to see it, not just he and the ranking member, but we'll see how this plays out.

But a new letter to the Defense Department, the committee has testimony from a Marine sniper who says he thought they had identified the bomber, the suicide bomber at the Kabul airport. But there was confusion. Couldn't get chain of command issues to whether or not they could take that bomber out.

A letter to the pentagon demanding information about that from the House Republicans saying, yes, there's fog of war. Yes, we understand there may have been some confusion, but we want all the documents and all the details. So potentially another confrontation here.

ZUCKOFF: That's correct. So, and really the history of this is in February of 2022, the U.S. Central Command issued a report about Abbey Gate and said that military leaders were appropriately engaged in force protection measures. That's the key phrase.

They were -- they took every precaution necessary. But then on March 8th, we saw the testimony, this searing testimony from this Marine sniper Tyler Vargas-Andrews, who said that his sniper team ID'd the bomber, but they couldn't eliminate the threat because the leadership was uncertain about who had authority to authorize engagement.


And so now the committee is saying, well, we have to reconcile these two things, which is true. So by June 2, we expect a full account of all the requests that were made and all the responses to the sniper team asking to engage this killer.

KING: As we see how that document request unfolds, Mitchell Zuckoff, we'll bring you back for more again. The book is "The Secret Gate". I highly recommend it. It's just a fascinating first-hand account of those final days.

Mitch, thanks for being here today.

And thank you for your time on Inside Politics. We will see you on Monday. Have a great weekend. CNN News Central starts after a quick break.