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Inside Politics

Feinstein Age 89, Battles Health Issues & Calls To Retire; Dem Reps Line Up To Succeed Feinstein As CA Senator; Russia Launches Huge Wave Of Missiles & Drones Against Kyiv; Ukraine Promises "Swift Retaliation" After Latest Missile Attacks; Analysis: GOP Worried About "Trump Drag" On 2024 House Races; Biden Honors Fallen Heroes At Arlington National Cemetery. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired May 29, 2023 - 12:30   ET




MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Retire or not retire? That is the question still swarming around Senator Dianne Feinstein. The 89-year-old California Democrat is vowing to stay in office through her term despite being combined to a wheelchair as she recovers from a series of health issues.

Now The New York Times reporting, "Since returning to Washington, Feinstein has missed six votes and has not participated in any committee hearings or caucus lunches". And The Washington Post speaking to divided California Democratic delegates over the weekend.

This is from one, from Rosemarie Willimann, "She's just following orders as best she can at this point. She's not herself". Marsha Conant, on the other hand, said, "It's extraordinary, her career, and I think that's getting minimized, and that makes me angry".

Now, Feinstein's issues have been happening for some time. She just suffered shingles and related issues with it after she came back. She didn't deny she had broader health complications, and then she did have broader health complications, as we reported on May 9th.

But she also had memory issues that she suffered for some time. She was pushed aside as the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. She passed up being the president pro tem, which is for the most senior member of the majority party. Patty Murray now has that. So these are issues that have been -- that she's been dealing with for some time. Can she sustain this?

TIA MITCHELL, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION: So I think there are two things at play, and unfortunately, the politics is one of them and we can't ignore that. We can't ignore that she has -- even though, she's no longer the top Democrat on Judiciary, she's a crucial deciding vote on that very important committee, especially in this divided government, where so much of what Democrats can accomplish is focused on confirming judges and other Biden appointees. So I think Democrats need Feinstein, and there will create a lot of headaches if she were to step down. Governor Newsom doesn't want the headache that would be --

RAJU: Yes.

MITCHELL: -- created if she steps down. And it also seems pretty clear that whether you agree or not, she has decided she does not want to step down.

RAJU: Yes.

MITCHELL: But I think the other thing that a lot of people have brought up, there's been some criticism that just from a health standpoint, from a wellness standpoint, should the best thing for Senator Feinstein be to serve out -- to not serve out her term and to just kind of be able to go home and rest --

RAJU: Yes.

MITCHELL: -- and not have the stress of being in the U.S. Senate.

RAJU: And it's been a staff ordeal, as The New York Times reports. They say that "Ms. Feinstein's staff has made sure she is never alone and is heavily protected. The Capitol Police and the Senate sergeant- at-arms have gone to great lengths to keep Ms. Feinstein shielded from photographers and reporters, helping to create a bubble around her as aides run interference on her behalf".

I mean, I have personally experienced that, too. I've tried to been in positions where we tried to get video of her. They've said that these are places you're not allowed to get video of her. They've tried intentionally trying to avoid press scrutiny. Obviously, this is unusual given the access we typically have on the Hill.

MARIANNA SOTOMAYOR, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Absolutely. That is extremely rare. And it really does show how cognizant staff, I'm sure her family, those around her, are about just general press coverage and how people are seeing her. I mean, it was a shock to so many people when they opened the car door, as you see right there, and she arrived to the Senate for the first time after months. She just looked so frail.

The thing about the Senate, though -- and you have a really good point about, you know, the votes and just needing to have someone there. Tapping someone new would possibly make it a little difficult in terms of timing of votes and, you know, having all those people there. But we've seen this time and time again with a number of senators.

RAJU: Yes.

SOTOMAYOR: You know, this is not that rare, that many of them wish to be there --

RAJU: Yes.

SOTOMAYOR: -- unfortunately, until the day -- yes.

RAJU: Perfect segue, because this is indeed not an age old, this is an age old issue. Look at just a few headlines from the past. 2001 report about the 100-year-old Strom Thurmond in the office. 2009 from someone named Manu Raju at Politico. Pre-byrd illness shows fragile majority, shows my age as well. And then also our industrious reporter Ted Barrett on Capitol Hill in October 2017 about that Cochran who ultimately resigned from office.

Robert Byrd was 92 after serving 51 years. Nancy Pelosi says it's sexism to go after Feinstein, but this is really an issue that's been happening for so many years.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: It definitely has. As long as we've been covering the Hill, the Strom Thurmond wants, you know, most particularly. He, you know, could barely exist. He was living at Walter Reed, if I recall, and still serving the Senate.


Look, the difference here is the narrow majority --

RAJU: Yes.

ZELENY: -- and the fact that she serves on an important committee, the Judiciary Committee, as he was saying. So I think that is what's at issue here. If she was simply on other committees or if it was another senator whose vote wasn't as critical, or if Democrats had more breathing room, we wouldn't be talking about this.

RAJU: And it is the --

ZELENY: (INAUDIBLE) what is different there.

RAJU: And the politics in California are so fascinating because --

ZELENY: Right.

RAJU: -- you have already have a race to replace her. And if Newsom were to just pick her replacement, he has promised to pick a black woman. Well, there is a black woman in the race, Barbara Lee. And perhaps if he gave her the replacement, could give a leg up against Adam Schiff, who Nancy Pelosi supports, other supports. Katie Porter could give a leg up against her. Who knows if he picked Barbara Lee. But still, there are politics at play here too.

MITCHELL: Right. Because regardless, he said he'll pick a black woman, which even if it's not Barbara Lee, and quite frankly, it would be hard for him to pick Barbara Lee, given the fact that Adam Schiff and Katie Porter are also in the race and nobody wants to have that perception as putting their thumb on the scale of such an important Senate seat for Democrats.

But then if it's not Barbara Lee, then it becomes, well, who is it? And then that creates a whole another discussion in California. So again, I think Governor Newsom would rather not have that on his plate. But that means that Senator Feinstein remains in office --

RAJU: Yes.

MITCHELL: -- through 2024.

RAJU: Yes, we'll see. The Senate comes back this week. We'll see what happens then.

Putin's loyal ally, Belarus, makes a controversial offer to any nation to join their alliance. The reaction live on the ground, next.



RAJU: CNN teams on the ground in Ukraine heard multiple loud explosions in Kyiv overnight. And we're learning, Ukraine's military says its forces shot down nearly 70 air targets launched against Kyiv. It could be Russia's largest drone attack yet on the capital city. You can see the moment missile debris falls out of the sky and onto oncoming traffic.

And this as Belarusian President Lukashenko claims he's offering nuclear weapons to nations willing to join the union state of Russia and Belarus. But it's not clear how wide his invitation is, and he did not offer any specifics.

So let's get to CNN's Sam Kiley who is live for us in eastern Ukraine. So, Sam, explain to us, does Lukashenko even have nuclear weapons to offer?

SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No, he doesn't, which gives a kind of absurd extra dimension to this offer. Lukashenko is prone to these sorts of statements as indeed autocrats of the world over. But this is an attempt. I think the non-humorous interpretation is that with a bit of a nudge from the Kremlin, from Vladimir Putin, who does have nuclear weapons, who has got permission of the Belarusians to move tactical nuclear weapons into Belarus to threaten Ukraine and the rest of the world as they come under increasing pressure here.

Particularly ahead of a potential counter offensive being launched this summer by Ukraine, that the Belarusian president is trying -- is hinting to the international community that the arms control, treaties and energies that followed the collapse of the union could be put into reverse with the proliferation of nuclear weapons into those former Soviet countries where Russia still has influence. Manu?

RAJU: And Sam, let's just get back a little bit the latest from what you're seeing on the ground. What are you witnessing about how Ukraine is still vowing to keep up the fight?

KILEY: Well, Manu, they are continuing with probing attacks across the border. We've saw that over the last week with Russian citizens in the Ukrainian army conducting kind of reconnaissance by force into Russian territory. The first overt move there. We've seen increasing numbers of Ukrainian attacks, particularly using Storm Shadow, the stealth cruise missile supplied by the United Kingdom again against Russian targets deep inside occupied Ukrainian territory. There's a growing level of social media campaigning, aimed at rattling Russian troops on the ground.

And, of course, the Russians are countering, though, with efforts to attack Ukraine's capacity to generate aircraft, for example, to fight back against them. The Russians claiming, without any kind of evidence at all, that they struck a number of airfields overnight, for example, Manu.

RAJU: Sam Kiley, from Eastern Ukraine, thank you for your reporting. Stay safe out there. Grateful for what you're doing on the ground.

And now, up next for us, vulnerable Republican candidates gearing up for 2024 seats that are competitive in the House. They're looking to distance themselves from Donald Trump and hang on to that very slim majority. How who's at the top of the ticket could make a big difference? Next.



RAJU: Now, the GOP presidential primary will not be the only brutal political fight in 2024. Republicans also want to expand their narrowly won House majority. But there's fear of a Trump drag for Republicans down ticket.

Cook Political Report Editor-in-Chief Amy Walter writes, "In 2022, Democrats effectively branded the GOP as a party of MAGA and Trump, helping them to pick up a seat -- a Senate seat and hold down their losses in the House. This is why many Republicans are correctly worried that Trump on the top of the ticket could risk their majority"

Now our panel is back. This -- the Trump drag is real. It is a real concern that we hear oftentimes. And there are a lot of vulnerable Republican freshmen who won seats despite Trump losing in those districts. Just look at some of them.


You see Congressman George Santos being one of them. So he won his seat by seven and a half points. Obviously, he's got much different issues now. He's been indicted and may face an ethics -- he is facing an ethics investigation. But there are others, too.

Other New York Republicans who barely won their races. Someone from New Jersey like Tom Kean Jr. and others from the coast in Oregon, California, and also of Virginia district. Jen Kiggans. This is a real concern.

In a 222 seat -- Republicans have 222 seats, 213 Democrats. It could -- Trump could just drag down enough of these members to flip the House. SOTOMAYOR: Absolutely. The number that House Democrats are looking for is five. They just need five seats. You could easily just get that from New York itself. The one thing, just looking at all of those members that you put up, I don't think any of them had top ticket Senate or governors who were problematic.

If you talk to the NRCC, who is in charge of protecting this Republican majority in their campaigns, they all point to that. A number of seats that were winnable, that they really thought that they were going to get, they had issues because of whoever the governor choice was or the top Republican senator was, all of whom were more or less Trump endorsed candidates.

So, what -- Richard Hudson, who is the chairman of the NRCC, is really reminding members is, keep it local. Try as much as possible not to talk about the national, you know, get into whatever presidential nominees might be trying to spin and spit at each other on a current day. Focus on what we've been able to get done, keeping the economy at bay, fighting against inflation, cutting spending. That's what they're hoping.

RAJU: And ignore all the noise.

SOTOMAYOR: Ignore the noise. It is very hard.

ZELENY: Easier said than done in a midterm election --

RAJU: Yes.

ZELENY: -- than a presidential race. The reality here is, I mean, I'm on one side. The Trump supporters will come out if he's on the top of the ticket. This is not going to be a midterm like 2018 or 2022. Republicans will come out, those Trump supporters.

But to also look at the president's approval rating, not so hot either. So I think a fair and balanced look at this --

RAJU: Yes.

ZELENY: -- would say that some Democrats aren't necessarily thrilled with what President Biden is going to do for their ticket. So it's just going to be ugly if it's a rematch, but we do not know if it will be a rematch. Donald Trump is the leading candidate, not the presumptive nominee. So we just have to sort of be patient and be -- and go through this.

But look at --

RAJU: Yes.

ZELENY: -- where those people are from as you were saying.

RAJU: Yes.

ZELENY: New Jersey, New York, et cetera. So the seats are there.

RAJU: Yes, absolutely.

MITCHELL: And I just want to add. You know, one of the x factors with Trump, if he's at the top of the ticket is we don't know what he's going to say about the mechanics of elections themselves. We saw that happen in Georgia --

RAJU: Right.

MITCHELL: -- where he actually was telling people, your vote is not going to count. I don't trust the system. And that further depressed turnout. Now, even with his name on the ballot, he's already saying similar things. He's still trying to relitigate 2020. How will that affect turnout? How will that possibly energize those who might not want to support Trump and Republicans on the ballot?

So a lot will also just to me depend on kind of the atmosphere around the election, whether that's Trump or even another nominee who might be just as conservative, the Ron DeSantis of the world, talking about wokism and book bands that might not play as well in a state like New York.

RAJU: Look, there are lots of issues at play in races. The presidential race will have a huge impact on this. But there's also other issues like redistricting. In North Carolina, that's gone Republicans favor, that could help them pick up some more seats. That could change the dynamics as well.

But the trend is real. I mean, look at Trump at the top of the ticket in 2016. Republican candidates who won in districts that Trump lost, 23 of them won in 2016. Nine, just nine in 2020. It's an issue for the Senate races, too, places that there are Trump states that are key here, but there are also some purple states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, that Michigan, where Trump on the ballot could hurt their Senate candidates too.

SOTOMAYOR: Absolutely. And those are those states that we saw in the midterms, that we saw were very swingy, where voters were, you know, no longer Republican or if they were Republican, they just didn't like Trump. They liked Trumpism, a number of those principles, but they didn't like him.

And that really did influence how they voted on some of those governors and Republican senators saying, you know what? This is too much for me. Let's try and go back to stability. And Biden has been making that argument for a very long time.

RAJU: Yes.

SOTOMAYOR: Of course, he has a presidential record now, which he didn't have before, but he always says, you know, do not compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative. And you're going to just see Democrats continue to say that's the difference.

RAJU: Yes.

SOTOMAYOR: It's MAGA Republicans or this Democratic -- RAJU: But you're also hearing that from Republicans too, concerned

about Trump. Yes, he could do well in the primary, but how can he do in a general election? Senator John Cornyn have been one of those who has spoken out against that. Others may as well. That'll also be an argument in the primary campaign.

Now a quick programming note, seven day night live from Iowa. Jake Tapper moderates the CNN Republican Presidential Town Hall with former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. The evening kicks off Sunday at 08:00 p.m. Eastern, only on CNN.


Next, President Biden and the country mark Memorial Day. A time to honor and remember those who have fallen in service to the nation.


RAJU: Today, President Biden honoring our fallen heroes. The Commander-in-Chief taking part in Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery. You see him there laying a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier.

Vice President Kamala Harris and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin were also participating. The President later paying tribute to Gold Star families, calling on the memory of his late son Beau, who served in the military before dying of cancer. Tomorrow marks the anniversary of his death.

Thanks for joining in INSIDE POLITICS. "CNN NEWS CENTRAL" starts right now.