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Inside Politics

DeSantis Plots Campaign Kickoff Tour After Glitchy Launch; DeSantis 2024 Debut Plagued By Twitter Technical Difficulties; DeSantis: I Would Fire FBI Director Chris Wray "On Day One"; DeSantis Previews Plans To Test Guardrails In Oval Office; Now: Oath Keepers Founder Speaks At Sentencing Hearing; House Leaving For Weekend With Time Running Out For Debt Deal; 7 Days Left To Reach Debt Deal Before Possible Default; Dem Rep: GOP "Very Disciplined" In Debt Messaging; Trump, DeSantis Spar Over Policy. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired May 25, 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. Digital breakdown, Ron DeSantis starts his 2024 campaign with embarrassing technical dysfunction. When we could hear him, he sees abortion and spending as clear contrast with Donald Trump, and says, he will not be timid in using presidential power to get what he wants and to punish those he doesn't like.

Plus, right now, a sentencing hearing underway here in Washington. A federal judge deciding how long couponers (Ph) Oath Keepers convicted of January 6 related crimes will spend behind bars. And your Congress not at work. The government could default on its bills as soon as one week from today. But the House speaker sends lawmakers home because negotiations are moving so slowly.

Up first for us though, a day too riddled for Governor Ron DeSantis. How to prove to voters, to donors and well, maybe to everyone that he's ready for primetime. The governor now plotting a campaign kickoff tour through the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

That a traditional early state blitz and one his team hopes, hopes a race is some of the basic competence questions raised by his error 404 riddled unconventional campaign debut. DeSantis bet on Elon Musk, and he bet on Twitter and its spaces platform and that turned out to be a very bad bet.

Many people who wanted to listen last night couldn't or had to join in progress because it took so long to decipher just where and just how to tune in. The glitchy from the go launch was followed by interviews and more familiar haunts Fox and conservative talk radio.

In those, we did get a very clear sense of how DeSantis plans to differentiate himself from the front runner Donald Trump. And we heard an unapologetic test the guardrails DeSantis take on the use of executive power.

Let's begin in Miami with CNN's Steve Contorno. Steve, day two trying to get back on track.

STEVE CONTORNO, CNN REPORTER: That's right, John. And when I talk to people around his campaign, they're saying look, you know, obviously last night did not go well. But they remain very bullish on Governor DeSantis. And they have a lot of reasons to be, he has a ton of money.

He's here in Miami today or he's going to be here in Miami today, raising even more money. They're being told it's time to start dialing for dollars. And they expect to bring in. They've already brought in $1 million, they say, and they expect that amount to continue to grow in the days ahead. And they believe they have a compelling message that they are -- have a candidate who has shown that he can get things done.

He has pushed through a very conservative agenda in Florida, a six- week abortion ban, getting rid of concealed carry permits in Florida, forcing to get more restrictions on how transgender people can get healthcare. All of these things they feel like are, they bring -- they can bring to this fight and really start illogical race and make this about issues that are animating Republican voters right now.

Now, of course, Donald Trump has spent the last 24 hours gloating online about DeSantis's performance, but DeSantis is ready to sort of move ahead. You've heard him, take some -- make some very sharp contrasts with the former presidents in this blitz of conservative media that he's going through.

He had appearances last night with Trey Gowdy and Mark Levin, where he talked a lot about the spending under President Obama, and saying, that he would be a more fiscally conservative president if he were reelected. So, we're starting to see DeSantis come out of his box a little bit, sharpen his attacks against President Trump. And we'll see if he continues that next week on the campaign trail as well.

KING: That will be very interesting to see if he does it in the presence of Republican voters in those early states. Steve Contorno for us in Miami. Steve, thank you. With me in studio to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Kristen Holmes, Seung Min Kim of the Associated Press, Toluse Olorunnipa of The Washington Post.

He is also the author of the now Pulitzer Prize winning book, His Name is George Floyd. Congratulations. We'll get to the book. It's an important day, three years ago today, George Floyd was murdered. We'll get to that a bit later.

But let's start with Governor DeSantis. And well, let's start with the glitch. I don't want to overdo this, but I don't think you under do it either. Because people are watching you on day one, right? He has tried to make the case to Republicans. I'm the guy who can beat Trump. If you want to get rid of Trump and then I'm the guy who can beat Biden.

The headlines often you see disagreement in these fractured media these days, but look, conservative publications, mainstream publications. Awkward silence, Ron DeSantis bold Twitter gambit just flopped. Ron DeSantis gamble that Elon Musk went bust. No safe spaces, Twitter launch debacle for DeSantis, national review it didn't work. The question is, does it matter?


KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I actually don't think that it does in the long term. I mean, I think that last night was an unmitigated disaster. I think that, you know, there was moments of silence, there was an echo, it was uncomfortable for people who are listening. And you really didn't get much out of the announcement. And even afterwards, with the conversation between Elon Musk, there was no real substance. It seemed at some points Musk was talking about himself for a very long period of time in Twitter.

But I do think that down the road, it doesn't actually matter to voters. One of the things that we have realized from 2016 and from Donald Trump is that all of the things that we once thought were so important, really aren't to the American people. And I believe that one of them is this presidential announcement. Sure, it didn't go the same exact way people want it to go, DeSantis wanted it to go, but doesn't really matter. I'm just not sure it does.

KING: It gave other people a chance to have fun with it, including the incumbent Democratic president United States, who put out a fundraising tweet, and he says this link works, meaning, you know, the LinkedIn. So that's fun. I think the way you said that those important. Governor DeSantis did not get anything maybe out of last night, but did he lose anything?

SEUNG MIN KIM, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right, right. I think it's more of a missed opportunity than anything else. I think what is, a lot of politics and especially campaigning for the presidency is about optics, is about image. So, he really -- Governor DeSantis really missed that chance to have that first image of being introduced to the American people, as a presidential candidate to have the big rally with the people behind him and the American flag, sort of like what we saw with Senator Tim Scott earlier this week.

We just kind of, we didn't even see anything. We kind of heard this glitchy audio just sounded like a an out of station, radio station or whatnot. But ultimately, at the end of the day, I mean, what I'm watching right now is first of all, they touted after the Twitter's faces event that they've at least raised a million dollars in the first hour.

So, I'm watching the fundraising numbers. For comparison, Tim Scott raised about 2 million in the first 24 hours. So, it doesn't really matter on substance at the end of the day, but again, I think, if anything was a missed opportunity.

KING: Right. So, it says a plan. So, one thing we did hear, number one, Governor DeSantis thinks, and we'll see if this plays out. We don't know the answer to this question that he can campaign mostly, go to the traditional states and do your events and spend most of your media time in the conservative media silo.

He mocks mainstream media all the time. He says, we're not objective and all that. We'll see if that can play out. But we did learn a lot last night about who he is. We'll get a bit later in the program to some contrast, direct contrast with Trump and others in the Republican race, but about who he is.

And listen to him here. Republicans like to say that the Justice Department, the FBI are weaponized against them. Chris Wray, Trump appointed FBI director, you get a 10-year term, Ron DeSantis has made me president, he's gone.


GOV. RON DESANTIS, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: No, I would not keep Chris raised Director of the FBI. There'll be a new one on day one. I think the DOJ and FBI have lost their way. I think that they've been weaponized against Americans who think like me and you. Republican presidents have accepted the canard that the DOJ and FBI are "independent." They are not independent agencies. They are part of the executive branch. They answer to the elected president of the United States.


KING: They do. But the idea of a 10-year term for the FBI director was to try to take politics out of it as much as possible. Ron DeSantis says not, that's not the way I would play.

TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA, WHITE HOUSE BUREAU CHIEF, THE WASHINGTON POST: Yes. He's saying that he is going to use his executive authority if he gets into office and use it to the fullest extent possible, maybe even beyond what we've seen in the past. We've seen Ron DeSantis down in Florida working with state legislators because he has a supermajority. So, he's been able to get things through the legislative process.

If he gets to the presidency, he's not going to have a supermajority. And so, we're already starting to see him talk about, using executive authority to fire the FBI director, to tell the DOJ that it's a new day and the president is going to tell you how to operate as the ones independent Department of Justice and use other executive authority.

That's one of the things he's saying that he's going to be different than Trump in terms of being able to use the levers of power, as president to be able to push forward a number of different things in advance in agenda without using Congress because we know how dysfunctional Congress can be at times.

KING: And there'll be another of the interesting, again, we'll get to spending, we'll get to abortion a little bit later. But here on presidential power, there'll be another interesting test because you're in Florida, he has used it against Disney, for example, against a company he says is too woke, a company who objected to one of his education policies, and he decided then to go back at them.

Listen to him here. This is what Mark Levin talking about Article Two of the Constitution with outlines presidential powers, commander in chief, presidential power to negotiate treaties and the like. Ron DeSantis says, past presidents including it seems to be implying Donald Trump here too timid. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. DESANTIS (voiceover): You also have to be willing to assert the true scope of Article Two powers. And I think a lot of our presidents have not been willing to do that, for example, vis-a-vis the administrative state. The founding fathers would have never accepted the idea that you could get elected president and yet the executive agencies could do whatever the hell they wanted to do. That is not the way this works.



KING: Again, it is a -- Republican voters first, but other voters will watch as well as this process plays out. This is a governor now would be president to has a very aggressive idea about the use of executive power to get what he wants.

HOLMES: Well, that's interesting because Trump also had a very aggressive idea of using executive power to get what he wanted. And he came to Washington and realize that he actually couldn't get everything that he wanted as much as he tried to use those executive powers to do so. So, it'll be interesting to see.

And as we know, DeSantis hasn't done this on this more national level other than being in Congress, but he wasn't doing this as the executive branch at the president. But I think that is going to be something that you see the Trump folks push back on as well, saying that he doesn't understand what the government looks like, which again, interesting given that Trump when he came, had no idea how this is going to work.

KING: I just think looking ahead to debates. Governor Asa Hutchinson, Governor Nikki Haley, Senator Tim Scott, potentially governor, vice president, Congressman Mike Pence, a combination of all of the above. This conversation about executive power will be interesting as it goes forward. We'll come back to that presidential race and Governor DeSantis a bit later.

Next, though, we just have some very important news out of federal court right here in Washington. A judge finding the leader of the Oath Keepers' actions on January 6 amounted to domestic terrorism. Stewart Rhodes about to be sentenced. We'll go live with the latest in just a moment.




KING: Right now, Stewart Rhodes, who you might remember as the founder of the Oath Keepers is speaking in federal court. Today, the judge in that courtroom deciding how long he and other January 6 criminals will spend in prison. Already that judge making a key decision that Rhodes insurrection crimes amount to domestic terrorism.

CNN's Katelyn Polantz has a details for us. She is live outside the courthouse. So, Stewart Rhodes is making his case. Is there any remorse? And what is the significance of the domestic terrorism finding?

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, John, right now, we may be minutes away from a decision by the judge on how long Stewart Rhodes will be spending in prison. And we did just have this very significant moment where Judge Amit Mehta, essentially found that Stewart Rhodes is guilty of the type of crime that qualifies as domestic terrorism.

So that is a significant finding by the judge. And it means that Rhodes can face a longer sentence than the crimes he's convicted of on their face. They can be given a harsher penalty. So seditious conspiracy is that main conviction that he has there. And we've already heard some harsh words about what Rhodes is did on January 6 and in the planning.

Before that, he was just saying in court, that Rhodes was calculating. He was planning. There was a specific purpose. And he was targeting an institution of American democracy at its most important moment. Some of the things that Rhodes was saying, he was talking about bloody revolution and civil war, that those are the sorts of words that led the judge to find that he could be qualified as someone who was committing domestic terrorism on January 6.

And you're right, he has not said any remorse. The judge noted that he has not had a single message of her regret in many, many messages he has sent and that the Justice Department has documented in this case since January 6.

And just now as we speak, Stewart Rhodes appears to be still addressing the court and what he started with saying, the first thing he said when he stood up there, my colleague, Hannah Rabinowitz just captured it. He said, he's a political prisoner.

And like Donald Trump, the only crime he has committed is destroying, opposing people who were destroying the country. He continues to speak. But when he has done that is when we expect judge made it to deliver the sentence to him. John?

KING: An important moment. Katelyn, we'll come back to when we get the sentencing details in that case. Appreciate the update there, a very significant finding by the judge. We'll come back to Katelyn in a bit.

Let's move on to another story brewing right here in Washington, still no debt deal and because of that the House is going home. That even as the top credit agency warns, the U.S. credit rating could soon be downgraded. Lawmakers so had been told they can leave for the holiday weekend. Now we are today just one week before the treasury department says, the United States is due for a potentially catastrophic default.

Behind closed doors, Republican sources do tell CNN they cannot envision getting a deal and then all the necessary steps needed to pass it completed by June 1. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy though, did sound upbeat this morning.


REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY, (R-CA): I don't know if we have a deal today. We worked well past midnight last night. We did make progress yesterday, but we still have a number of items that need to get through. It gets a benefit to be underestimated. But I'll tell you, our greatest strength is our conference and our conference is very united in this process.


KING: He says, he still has his troops with him. The big sticking point has been spending cuts or spending freeze, and then everything else sort of flows from that. But he does sound more upbeat. Is that real? Or is that just for public consumption important, public consumption that we're trying as hard as we can?

KIM: Well, that upbeat demeanor may start to turn a little bit as his members get more and more details about what is emerging out of these closed doors. Now, we have to caution that there is no final agreement yet, the White House and House Republicans continue to negotiate.

But there was -- there are a lot, and we don't quite know how big the group of House Republicans are, who are not going to like this deal, any deal that kind of veers from what House Republicans passed as part of their debt limit increase bill earlier this month.

And I think you've started to hear some consternation from conservative House Republicans as they left on earlier this day that it doesn't go far enough on spending that, that it doesn't, you know, free spending levels for 10 years, which is the White House was never going to agree to in the first place.

So, and if you go by kind of by long standing theory of these bipartisan deals, if everybody hates, it'll probably pass at the end of the day. But McCarthy will have a lot of work to do to get enough Republican votes at the end of the day that it would pass the House.


KING: And so, let's just put up the key sticking point, spending cuts, work requirements for some federal programs. Both sides say they want to expediting environmental reviews for energy projects, but Republicans want to do it just for fossil fuels. The Democrats want some green energy projects in there as well, removing barriers to large-scale transmission lines feed electric grid.

The question here is to Seung Min's point, Kristen is, a normally you kind of deal. And people vote against it on either side and it's the kind of the wink nod is, you know, I need to vote against this. I'm glad you cut the deal. What's different about this is Kevin McCarthy's tenuous hold on the speakership. And President Trump saying at the CNN townhall, default, I don't really care. I'm not president go for it.

Does that complicate McCarthy's efforts to get a deal that there are these external forces on the hardliners who will never be -- might never be happy with what he negotiates?

HOLMES: Yes, absolutely. And I think that's going to be something that we've already seen with McCarthy, and almost anything that he's negotiated, and obviously even just getting his speakership. And we're seeing it right now, as well.

I do want to say one thing, you talked about that optimism, you heard, I have heard such a different tone from last night, than I heard just moments ago, before we sat down here, which was I heard a lot of optimism last night, and I don't know exactly what happened.

Or maybe it's a realization, as you were saying that they're not going to get, or they might not be getting what they are asking for. But the tone to me dramatically shifted in the last several hours to seem a lot less on the optimistic side that things were going the way they wanted. And with Democrats too who were concerned.

KING: What matters in the long term is what the end deal, assuming there is a deal it looks like or whether we go off the cliff and have a default and turmoil in both U.S. and global financial markets. But at the moment, you're starting to hear Democratic complaints. You saw Speaker McCarthy on TV this morning. He was on TV yesterday. Several times a day, he is speaking. You wrote a piece, the headline I saw on your price, look who's talking.

The speaker has been out there talking a lot. And one of the things, if you look at public opinion polling, 60 percent of American people in our CNN poll, say there should be spending cuts as part of this deal, which annoys Democrats. And so, listen. Here's a couple of Democrats saying, we hope we win the package, the substance, but in terms of the communication during the process, the other guy's winning.


REP. ELISSA SLOTKIN, (D-MI): So, Republicans are always very disciplined in their messaging and they continue to be.

REP. DAN KILDEE, (D-MI): The speaker has decided to make this really a public relations effort, and really turning it into a political process. And so, do we sacrifice something in the short term as a result? We do.


KING: Are they just sacrificing messaging points right now? Or is the idea that, you know, again, if you look at that polling, and if you hear out of the White House, you know, spending freeze, maybe modest spending cuts, progressives aren't going to like that either way?

OLORUNNIPA: Yes. We'll have to wait and see to find out what exactly is in the deal. But the Republicans are talking about this already. They're talking about what they're giving up. They're talking about the fact that they're at the negotiating table is a sign that they're actually working to try to do things in a positive way on this. We just haven't heard the same thing from the president or his negotiators. They have ducked out of these meetings. They've taken a more old-fashioned approach, which is essentially, let's get behind the closed door, don't have everyone negotiating in public. And let's actually work on getting something done.

But this is a 21st century negotiation with social media and with discussions happening and narratives being built, and the White House has not played a central role in building the narrative and they're paying the price for that.

KING: And so, you have the questions about McCarthy's right flank, but you also do have questions, you know, that some of the progressive Democrats say, Mr. President invoked the 14th Amendment, don't negotiate. Pramila Jayapal calling them hostage takers. President is going to keep negotiating, right?

KIM: Right, right. And I talked to several White House officials yesterday for to talk about -- to talk about their communications approach. And they have now acknowledged that we are in a phase of -- in their view, we are in a phase of negotiations where communications and messaging and that kind of PR effort has to take a step back because they feel they are close to landing something on this debt limit deal.

But again, when you're in this 24-hour news cycle, and House Dems don't have a lot of visibility into what's going on. They do get a little nervous and which is what you're seeing right now.

KING: 24-minute news cycle, you might to (crosstalk) in the way the world works now. Up next for us, how Ron DeSantis plans to break Donald Trump's very strong grip on the GOP.




KING: Ron DeSantis enters as a declare number two in the Republican presidential race. Now his plan to eclipse Donald Trump will test, whether primary voters put conservative policies ahead of their personal affinity for the former president. The Florida governor for example says, he will make the case that Trump is not a committed conservative.

The Washington examiner reporting DeSantis said this about Trump, the Republican frontrunner. "He added almost $8 trillion to the debt in a four-year period of time." DeSantis went on to say, he also attacked me from voting against an amnesty bill that he had endorsed, two million person amnesty bill.

Our great reporters are back at the table with us. In 2016, nine or 10 other Republican candidates tried to make the case that Donald Trump was not a conservative, that Donald Trump was not a committed conservative on spending issues, on abortion and other issues, and they failed and failed miserably.

The question is, does Ron DeSantis learned the secret sauce? And now that Trump has been president and he's not the outsider, can he do that?

HOLMES: It's very difficult to do that. And we have seen that time and time again because the conversation with Trump inevitably moves away from policy. We have seen Trump in the last nine months have put out almost weekly a policy video of what he will do if he wins the White House. That is not what people focus on when they focus on Donald Trump because inevitably, he gets in the way, and his personality gets in the way and his legal troubles get in the way.