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Inside Politics

Trump, DeSantis Friction Points Include Abortion & Spending; DeSantis: Do Not Want U.S. Troops "Enmeshed" In Ukraine War; Biden Calls On Congress To Pass Police Reform Three Years After George Floyd Killed By Police; Poll: 49 Percent Of Black Americans Don't Feel Biden Has Helped Improve Their Lives; Now: Sentencing Hearing For Oath Keepers Founder. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired May 25, 2023 - 12:30   ET



KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We have seen Trump in the last nine months, 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.

So if DeSantis is able to do that, OK, but it has not been done before. And I will say the one difference that DeSantis has is this idea of running on Trumpism without Trump because he has actually enacted a lot of Trump's policies. But again, if you're going to make it just about policy, it's unclear whether or not he's figured out how to do that.

JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Right. And so he says, Trump, without the drama, critics say, we have a Donald Trump in the race trying to run just like Trump. Can you make a differential? We'll find out. That's what Republican voters will decide.

But here's one today in an interview in New Hampshire, DeSantis straws. Another contrast with Trump on something that we know is important to Republican base voters.


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He did great for three years, but when he turned the country over to Fauci in March of 2020, that destroyed millions of people's lives. And in Florida, we were one of the few that stood up, cut against the grain, took incoming fire from media, bureaucracy, the left, even a lot of Republicans.


KING: Can it work?

SEUNG MIN KIM, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think, it's been very clear for actually months that, in terms of one of the -- in terms of the issues where DeSantis was going to try to run to the right on when it came to Donald Trump was going to be COVID and the Trump administration handling of the pandemic in 2020, which is why you see the focus on Fauci.

But I think again, stepping back, it's hard at the end of the day to kind of separate the policy from the personality when it comes to Donald Trump. I do think that you can probably make a clear contrast on abortion, especially because that has been such a salient issue in several elections now, even just since, the Supreme Court overturned Roe versus Wade.

But it's, again, it's hard to -- DeSantis will try to make this an issue of substance, because you don't really want to argue on just personality and kind of that nature. I just -- it's again, hard to -- it'll be interesting to see how that happens.

KING: Right? And so he's going to lay out his differences on abortion again. Governor DeSantis signed a six-week ban that will take effect in Florida. There's social legal challenges to that. He says he's more aggressive than Trump in taking on big business. The populism in the Republican Party is interesting.

China, Ukraine and NATO, his team says, will be contrast spending trade in the Fed. Crime and punishment. Let's dwell on the Ukraine thing. Ukraine is interesting to watch among all these Republican candidates because a lot of the base of the party, it's not Ronald Reagan's party anymore. It's not Liz Cheney's party or even Marco Rubio's party.

A lot of the party does not want to be interventionist. They don't even want to support the Ukrainians, right? So Governor DeSantis was asked by his former colleague in the House, Trey Gowdy, who's now a host on Fox. He was asked a question last night. He said, what will Ukraine look like? What will you do about Ukraine on day one if you're elected president?


DESANTIS: I'd like to see a settlement of this. I do not want to see a wider war. I think it's completely unknowable what it will look like in January of 2025. But I would not want to see the United States with our troops, get a meshed in a war in Russia or in Ukraine.


KING: He's right. It's completely unknowable to know what the situation will look like. But it's interesting. And you know this question is coming. It's interesting you don't hear out of the right, out of the gate. You know, I hope it's over by that. And I hope Ukraine has won in. Vladimir Putin has learned a lesson. You don't hear that.

TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA, WHITE HOUSE BUREAU CHIEF, THE WASHINGTON POST: Right. And you have seen among the Republican base a lot of skepticism over how much money, how much arms, how much support the U.S. has sent over to Ukraine. And, Trump has not been, very clear on his goal for exactly how this would be resolved. He said, oh, we'd get everyone in a room and, you know, we'd resolve it in 24 hours. But he hasn't said exactly what he would do. He wouldn't -- he hasn't said whether he would continue giving arms. And so, DeSantis is, in this position, where he could take a stronger position and be more clear about what he wants to do and differentiate himself from Trump.

But it's hard to do that in practices. It's hard to take up a -- take a stand and stand up against a position that is, the president's -- the former president's position. And so what we see is like a lot of -- lack of clarity from both Trump and DeSantis.

KING: Another one, and when you say lack of clarity is he's hoping Republicans think, OK, Donald Trump lost in 2020. We didn't do as well. We thought we were going to do in 2022. We lost in 2018 because of Donald Trump. DeSantis comes at that more gently.


DESANTIS: What I will do is help restore normalcy to our communities. We need to win again as Republicans. We got to dispense with this culture of losing.


KING: Missing from that is Donald Trump's culture of losing or we need to move past him because he -- will he get there?

KIM: It's -- you saw Republicans get the most visibly angry and frustrated at Trump when they did lose, particularly after the November 2022 midterms. It's not his legal troubles. It's not the crazy things that comes out of his mouth. It's the fact that with him, they have been losers.


So that's why DeSantis is trying to capitalize on that. But again, every time, you know, Trump goes on a little dip, there is something else that happens that allows him to coalesce much of the Republican base. So whether that lasts is yet to be seen.

KING: Well, that's why it gets interesting to see them out there debating and campaigning, and maybe they get on a debate stage. Right now, Trump says he's reluctant to do that early on. We'll see if that changes.

Up next for us, a very somber anniversary three years now since the murder of George Floyd. President Biden today renewing his call for police reforms amid clear signs many black voters believe the President is falling short of their hopes.



KING: President Biden today marking the third anniversary of George Floyd's murder by renewing his call on Congress to take up police reform. This comes as a New Washington Post/Ipsos poll, you see the numbers there just 49 percent, 49 percent, nearly half of Black American surveyed say the President's policies have made no difference in their lives.

Our great reporters are back to discussed, including Tolu Olorunnipa who just won a Pulitzer Prize for his book. You see the cover right there, "His Name is George Floyd." Tolu, in the Post today, you have an article, you see it there three years after Floyd's death, a reckoning for Biden's agenda on race.

It is stunning, when you look, number one, if you think about the President in his personal history. And number two, the importance of black voters in the Democratic Coalition. 34 percent say his policies have helped, 14 percent say hurt, 49 percent say no difference. If you're a president running for reelection. that's a problem.

OLORUNNIPA: It is a problem, especially when it deals with one of your most loyal constituencies, one of the groups that has given you the biggest margins and actually saved your campaign during the primaries back in 2020. And so, he has some work to do with black voters. And I will point out that that same poll does say that about two-thirds of black voters approve of his job.

So it's a high -- higher number than he gets from the general public. But it's not as high as it used to be. And it's not as high as it needs to be for him to get those same margins that he got four years ago. And so, police reform has been a big part of the -- this -- the debate in the black community about what Biden should be doing.

And if you look at the progression of the anniversaries that we've seen of George Floyd's death in 2021, Biden said, let's pass the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act. Let's sign it on the anniversary. That didn't happen. In 2022, he was forced to sign an executive order to try to implement this at the federal level.

Now, this year, the third anniversary, he is doing even less, in terms of what he's able to do. And so, that progression is part of the reason those numbers say that a lot of people believe that he has not done enough for the black community and that he should be doubling down on some of these various policies and pushing Congress to do more.

KING: The question is how. You say pushing Congress to do more. But on the third anniversary, the reality for the President is you have a Republican House of Representative, something you didn't have on the second anniversary.

So this is the President's statement. "We know that implementing real and lasting change at the state and local levels requires Congress to act. I urge Congress to enact meaningful police reform and send it to my desk. I will sign it. I will continue to do everything in my power to fight for police accountability in Congress, and I remain willing to work with Republicans and Democrats alike on genuine solutions."

Nothing to argue with in that statement. If you believe, you know, there should be a conversation about police reforms. The question is political reality with the Republican House. Even if there were some policy things they agreed on, every hour we get closer to an election year. Again, I know it sounds silly to people at home, but that's how this town works.

There's not going to be much -- if they get a debt ceiling deal, it'll be a huge agreement. They're not going to get to police reform.

KIM: Right. And so much of the President's sort of racial equity and racial justice agenda depends on Congress, unfortunately, for the President. And it's even when he had a democratically controlled Capitol Hill that he couldn't get a policing reform done, particularly because of the 60-vote threshold in the Senate.

And we recall that on voting rights, it was a major issue. Early on in 2022, again, there were two -- or two Democratic senators who were unwilling to get rid of the filibuster on voting rights, which is why that legislation failed in that chamber. Even after Biden himself, you know, along the Senate, institutional said he would actually support getting rid of the filibuster just on that issue.

So President Biden has been pretty sort of defeated a lot of times, especially on other issues saying that I've kind of gone as far as I can on executive orders. It really has -- Congress really has to act there. But again, we have the realities right now of a Republican-led House, Democratic Senate, where the Congress is really just kind of struggling to do the basic tasks of governing.

KING: And so the math here gets fascinating if you look -- if you try to project forward to the next election, we don't know who the Republican candidate's going to be. We don't know whether inflation in the economy will be in better shape. That's part of that disappointment, for every American, black Americans, white Americans, all Americans.

But if you look, you have a very smart quote from Terrance Woodbury, a Democratic pollster in your piece. "A red wave for Republicans doesn't require a wave of black voters voting Republican, it just requires a splintering of our coalition. 10,000 votes here or 20,000 votes there. That is a very important point.

When you look at 2016 or you look at 2020, if black turnout is down, look at Obama 2008 to Obama 2012, a much closer race in 2012. Black turnout came down from historic levels, but if you think about 2024, if black turnout is down a little bit because people stay home because they're disillusioned, that could be Wisconsin, that could be Georgia, that could be Pennsylvania, that could be more.

HOLMES: That's absolutely right. And I think when we look back at 2016, and part of that realization that Hillary Clinton had in the final days of her campaign and that her staff had, was that they had taken advantage of the black vote and that they were hearing from people across the country who were saying, they felt disconnected from Hillary Clinton.

They didn't feel like she had done any outreach and it was a voter block that she had taken for granted. And I think we've heard Democrat strategists say that they believe that was true at this point.


So it is a huge, you know, issue here particularly when you're looking at 2024. If people do not show up to vote, then you are looking at a potential to actually change the outcome of the election.

OLORUNNIPA: And I'll just add that the White House says that, you know, we have record low unemployment among black Americans. We have a black woman on the Supreme Court, a black. woman vice president, and they are pointing to a number of things that they have done, but it's not quite enough to get the numbers up.

KING: Yet. Anyway --


KING: -- we'll see. That's why -- why we have campaigns. We'll watch it play out.

Any moment now, the leader of the Oath Keepers will learn his fate or his role. Now a judge says it's domestic terrorism in the capital insurrection.



KING: Right now, a federal judge speaking inside a Washington, D.C. courtroom. That judge about to deliver a historic sentence for the founder of the Oath Keeper Stewart Rhodes. That punishment will be for Rhodes and the other Oath Keepers role in January 6th related crimes including seditious conspiracies.

CNN's Katelyn Polantz has been following this story for us. She's outside the courthouse here in D.C. and our CNN Legal Analyst, Former Federal Prosecutor Jennifer Rodgers, is also with us. And Katelyn, where are we right now in this sentencing proceeding?

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, John, Judge Amit Mehta is speaking from the bench right now. He is about to deliver what he has decided Stewart Rhodes's sentence to be. The Justice Department is asking for 25 years in prison for Rhodes. And the judge already has indicated that he does want to give Stewart Rhodes a fairly harsh sentence here.

He does believe that the crime of seditious cons, conspiracy and the planning, the crime that Stewart Rhodes engaged in on January 6th does amount to a crime of domestic terrorism. A pretty significant finding from the judge. I don't have a number just yet to tell you, but right now, Judge Mehta is reacting to Stewart Rhodes, who just spoke in the courtroom.

At times, Rhodes was yelling about the Constitution, but he really was revealing, that as he has been awaiting trial, awaiting the sentencing from prison, he has been stewing in the same level of extremism that he had at the time of the 2020 election when he was leader of the Oath Keepers and bringing many of those people to the Capitol building, and watching them go inside the building.

He attacked leftist groups. He called the KKK Democratic, and he continued to say that he believes the election is illegal. One of the last things he said was that however long he spends in prison, my goal, is to expose the criminality of this regime, and then compared himself to a Soviet dissident.

And so Judge Mehta now is speaking directly to him saying, you are not a political prisoner Stewart Rhodes. it was because of, it's not because of his beliefs that he is on trial and convicted at this time. It is not because Joe Biden is president. It is because he engaged in these crimes that a jury found him guilty of, and that seditious conspiracy, one of those crimes is one of the most significant things an American can commit.

That is what the judge is saying. And so I'm going to go back and hopefully see whether we're at a sentence yet. It doesn't look like we have a number yet from the judge. He just continues to speak to Stewart Rhodes and how he's arriving at his decision today.

KING: Great. Raise your hand if I'm in a conversation with Jennifer and Katelyn when that number comes in. Jennifer Rodgers, help us with the context here. More than 1,000 people have been arrested for January 6 crimes, but some defendants are, I would argue, more important than others because of their leadership roles. And Stewart Rhodes might be exhibit A, or at least one of the top three or four people you would think about in that.

So, a, how important is what the number is here in the sentence turning down? Then, how remarkable is it that Stewart Rhodes gives this defiant speech? I'm a political prisoner, you know, continuing with the fantasy, that somehow Joe Biden stole the election and then that the judge decides, OK, fine. You're going to get a tongue lashing back before you get your sentence.

JENNIFER RODGERS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, it is extraordinary. Most defendants ask for leniency, they express at least some remorse, not Stewart Rhodes. You know, he's all in on this. He's clearly recognized that his only hope now of not spending almost all, if not all the rest of his life in prison, is a pardon from a newly elected President Trump. So he's just all in here.

I mean, the context is interesting 25 years if that's what the judge gives. That's in the middle of the guidelines range that the government wanted and that the judge adopted would be a much longer sentence than any that have been imposed to date.

But those were all, as the judge pointed out, individual crimes. Those are individuals going assaulting police officers. Stewart Rhodes is the head of an organized group that planned for months to overturn the peaceful transfer of power heater, culminating in what happened on January 6th. So he did a good job, I think, Judge Mehta, of explaining why this is different. Why a heftier sentence is warranted. The guidelines call for it. You know, he found the upward departure on the terrorism enhancement. So, you know, I think that while it will be a much longer sentence than we've seen so far, he's done a good job of justifying it. I don't think it'll be problematic on appeal.

KING: And Katelyn Polantz, we're talking about Stewart Rhodes because he's the leader. There are four other Oath Keepers who will be sentenced as part of this. But it seems to me, please correct me if I'm wrong, you see the names of the other Oath Keepers there, members and senior members and leaders of the organization.

But Stewart Rhodes is the leader. and it sounds, from what we're hearing from the judge, that he understands the stakes here and he very much wants to make a statement, not just with his words, but what we're about to get the sentence.


POLANTZ: Yes. One of the things that the judge was saying just a few minutes ago before he took a break and came back to deliver this sentence, which we still don't have yet, John, he basically acknowledged that the Oath Keepers would not have been in Washington, D.C. on January 6th, were it not for Stewart Rhodes calling them and taking part in this plan, whether or not he wanted to have them go inside the Capitol building.

Today, Rhode's team argued that he didn't want them to do that, but the judge did not buy that. Stewart Rhodes was the person that gathered them around the Capitol. And then after January 6th, had no intention of backing down on what his position was.

KING: Again, we're waiting for that sentencing to play out.

Katelyn Polantz, Jennifer Rodgers, appreciate your time. Stay with us. We'll have a word of that sentencing for you on CNN News Central, which starts right after the break.