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Inside Politics

Haley Swipes At GOP Front-Runners Trump, DeSantis; Sources: Ukraine Has "Sabotage Cells" In Russia; Sources: Ukraine Has Cultivated Sabotage Agents Inside Russia, Giving Them Drones To Stage Attacks; Biden Hails "Big Win" On Bipartisan Debt Ceiling Deal; Polls Shows Biden's Age Still Concerns Voters; FBI Shares Internal Document About Then VP Biden With House Oversight Cmte Leaders; Elon Musk Hosting Town Hall With Democratic Presidential Candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired June 05, 2023 - 12:30   ET




JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Nikki Haley using her spotlight in the CNN Town Hall in Iowa last night to draw contrast with her Republican rivals. The South Carolina Republican rarely named names, but she outlined where she's clearly different from Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, saying January 6th was a terrible day.

Dictators Haley says should not be emboldened, and she said it is critical the United States to stand with Ukraine and for Ukraine to win.


NIKKI HALEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You can't be trustful of a regime that goes in and tries to take away people's freedoms. What we need to understand is that Ukraine has the ability to win. For them to sit there and say that this is a territorial dispute, that's just not the case.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Were you uncomfortable with how Mr. Trump dealt with and how his attitude was towards Kim Jong-un while you worked at the U.N.?

HALEY: I mean, Kim Jong-un is a thug. I don't think we ever should congratulate dictators.


KING: Governor Haley also distinguishing herself on some key policy issues. She stood against so-called Red Flag Gun Safety Laws, and she said, if Congress, if Congress could ever reach consensus on a federal abortion ban, she would sign it.

Our great reporters are back at the table. You were in the room last night as this played out. Again, if you look at the polling, it's Trump, then it's DeSantis, and then it's Pence and Haley, way down below, but seven months until people vote. What happened in that room?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: It's all about introducing herself and showing that she can sort of thrive in that format. And as I was talking to voters afterward and I was watching them during it, I talked to a couple Republicans who walked in intrigued by her.

But not knowing that much about her, and they walked out very impressed, which is often what happens in something like this. It's a presidential-like format.

But she was impressive, in one sense, she's been doing a lot of these, and I think that showed last night. She's been doing a ton of these all across Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. The television cameras haven't been there, but they were last night, so she seemed practiced at it.

I was sort of struck by how she pulled her punches a little bit on Trump, but she saved them for Ron DeSantis going after him directly on Disney, calling him hypocritical, going after both of them on Social Security entitlement reforms. Obviously, her path to the nomination or ever having a one-on-one confrontation with Donald Trump or Narrow Field is through Ron DeSantis.

So that was clear there. But I think her humor was interesting in the room. So, overall, I think she did herself a lot of good. But, you know, she'll have to keep doing that, of course. And the debate stage in August is of course the most important.

KING: Right. So you mentioned to get to Trump, you got to go through DeSantis, if you're anyone else in the race right now, because he's in a commanding second. A national poll, still well behind Trump, but a commanding second. So let's listen to that point where she says Governor DeSantis, frankly, he flipped on Disney, she says, for a reason.


HALEY: It's the hypocrisy of the whole thing. He went and basically gave the highest corporate subsidies in Florida history to Disney. But because they went and criticized him, now he's going to spend taxpayer dollars on a lawsuit. It's just like all this vendetta stuff. We've been down that road again. We can't go down that.


KING: Some of that's personal, but a lot of it is about the role of government, right? And conservatives don't use the power of government to punish a free market company. That's the old Republican Party, yes. But is it today's Republican Party?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: That's right. And listen, you've had some Republicans criticized DeSantis for the Disney feud saying that he's going too far, saying that this isn't the Republican way.

Donald Trump has sort of been on both sides of it, it seems like. I think more recently he said, why didn't he get -- you know, he's not strong enough to get Disney to comply.

You know, I think the question is, do voters care enough about that part of DeSantis' record for Haley to be able to pull voters away from him on this issue? You know, I think she knows that a lot of Republican voters see her as a moderate. So on some issue, she's going to really, I think, sort of overcompensate, for instance, on the gun law saying that she doesn't want a red flag lawsuit. Something that I think most Republicans are kind of fine with.

And even on the transgender issue, I thought she was, you know, pretty far out there demonizing trans kids, particularly trans girls saying that trans girls which represent a very small part of the youth population, suggesting that they pose some sort of threat to girls in a locker room or to girls sports and women's rights more broadly.

So, you know, I think the problem is she tries to sort of beat everything to all people and ends up in sort of nowhere particular, not a real lane.

KING: Trying to find a lane. I think it's the challenge --


KING: -- for anybody, not Trump, but DeSantis. One, she tried and Iowa is an older state. We know that in terms of the demographics of the electorate.


She says that Trump and DeSantis, both of them, she says they're essentially lying to the American people when it comes to Medicare and Social Security.


HALEY: And I know that Trump and DeSantis have both said, we're not going to deal with entitlement reform. Well, all you're doing is leaving it for the next president, and that's leaving a lot of Americans in trouble.

I think it's important to be honest with the American people. We are in this situation. I'm always going to tell the truth. Is it going to hurt? Yes, but for our kids, they know they're not going to get it anyway.


KING: There has been in the past a role, sort of a John McCain straight shooter, tell it like it is. Look, we have to deal with these programs. I just don't understand the -- what is the Republican electorate today? Is this a policy fight? Or are people so -- are they organizing around the personalities of Trump and DeSantis and you can't break through with policy? I don't know the answer.

DAN BALZ, CHIEF CORRESPONDENT, THE WASHINGTON POST: I suspect that we're in a personality debate and not a policy debate. It's never been the case that taking on entitlements has been a successful path to winning the nomination. But I think one thing to remember about Nikki Haley is that, she has built her career going after people at the top.

She took on powerful people when she ran for office in South Carolina. She has a self-confidence about her ability to kind of weather the storm. And I think what we're seeing is, you know, bit by bit, week by week her trying to do that. And we, you know, by going after DeSantis and by going after Trump, by saying some unpopular things, I think she's trying to do that.

But I think to your point that in some cases last night, she went way out. And I thought on the transgender issue, and particularly women in sports, and then linking it to the idea that a significant percentage of young women have considered suicide, I don't know where that link --


BALZ: -- actually exists. And so I think on those issues, she's pushing almost too hard to try to distinguish herself in ways that may or may not be helpful.

KING: I think that's evidence to pressure anybody not Trump or DeSantis feel to try to find some way to get some traction, but we'll watch it as it plays out.

Up next for us, more exclusive CNN reporting. Sabotage agents inside Russia now helping Ukraine.



KING: I want to share now some exclusive CNN reporting at a critical time in Russia's war on Ukraine. Sources say, "Ukraine has cultivated a network of agents and sympathizers inside Russia working to carry out acts of sabotage against Russian targets and has begun providing them with drones to stage attacks".

U.S. officials telling CNN these so-called sabotage cells inside Russia are a mix of pro-Ukrainian sympathizers, along with some trained operatives. Those agents allegedly carrying out that drone attack on the Kremlin last month, launching the drones from within Russia. It is unclear how these Ukrainian made drones are getting into enemy territory. Some sources, though, telling CNN well practiced smuggling roots.

All right, play here. CNN's Natasha Bertrand is part of the team that broke this reporting. She joins us live from the Pentagon. So Natasha, take us inside these sabotage cells. We have seen recently just carry the news every day, an uptick in attacks, drone attacks inside on Russia's side of the border. Is that what this is all about? NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Yes, John. So it's unclear whether this spate of recent drone attacks inside Russia can all be attributed to these pro-Russian -- or pro-Ukrainian sympathizers and agents inside Russia working on Ukraine's behalf. But U.S. officials do believe that at least one attack for sure was attributed to these pro-Ukrainian operatives operating inside Russian.

That was the drone attack on the Kremlin Senate Palace building on May 3rd, and that was really one of the more brazen attacks that these groups have carried out, we are told, over the last several months. But Ukraine has been building and cultivating this network of sabotage agents and pro-Ukrainian sympathizers for months. And they are really just now reaching the pinnacle of that operation, we are told.

They have established a lot of the infrastructure inside Russia to be able to do this. Recruiting people, and as you mentioned, getting them drones. We are told that the Ukrainians have, in fact, been providing these agents inside Russia with drones.

The Ukrainians do have a pretty sophisticated and well-honed drone manufacturing industry inside Ukraine that they have really ramped up since the war began. And so, all of this combined really has allowed Ukraine to take the war directly to Russia in a way that they hope will divert some Russian resources and attention away from the Ukrainian counteroffensive that is set to begin soon, as well as really strike fear into the heart of everyday Russians who will no longer feel safe anywhere inside Russia, John.

So how do people at the White House, the National Security Council, or right where you are at the Pentagon, if you walk the halls, U.S. officials think good idea, bad idea?

BERTRAND: Well, publicly, U.S. officials say they don't want the war to expand. They don't want Ukraine to be doing these kinds of strikes inside Russia. But privately, U.S. and Western officials tell us that it's actually a pretty good military strategy. It has distracted Russia, it has left them off balance and it has forced them to divert resources towards protecting their own territory.

And as I mentioned earlier, it also makes Russians really feel in a way that they haven't before, the real impacts of the war that the Kremlin launched on Ukraine over a year ago. And so U.S. officials privately, they say, look, this is an inevitability of war. It is -- it was always likely that Ukraine was going to be launching these cross-border attacks, and it is a sound military strategy as they're ramping up for this major counteroffensive, John.


KING: That's fascinating reporting. Natasha Bertrand, appreciate you sharing it with us. We'll watch this as it plays out. Again, you mentioned the counteroffensive, lot of buzz that that's about to begin.

Natasha, thank you.

Up next, President Biden's bipartisan moment. He sells the debt deal as proof he gets results even with divided government.



KING: Do your day job and do it well as a big part of President Biden's strategy as the 2024 Republican campaign gets louder and more crowded. Today, that means for the President a big meeting with Denmark's Prime Minister. Ukraine is the biggest topic there, including working on the new international effort to train Ukrainian pilots to fly U.S. made F-16 fighter jets.

Friday we saw the first Oval Office address of the Biden presidency. The celebrated debt ceiling deal, the President says, headed off an economic catastrophe.

Our great political reporters back at the table. It's interesting that you're an incumbent president, you don't have a primary challenges. The other side is beating you up every day and it's getting louder. But the White House team seems to think, you know, the Republicans are actually fighting about stuff we like. Just do your day job, do it well, including selling bipartisanship.

BALZ: Yes, it is a bit of an odd sell in a time like this, and yet, it is part of who he is and people have been skeptical about it. People have been critical of him as, though, he's somebody from a bygone era trying to bring back something that can't be done. And yet, over, you know, the time he's been in office, he's been able to deliver a number of significant bipartisan packages and sign them into law. And they're now working their way into communities around the country.

Look, the death ceiling had to get done and it ultimately had to get done in a bipartisan way because you have a divided Congress. And I think that he played this pretty smartly, which was he held a line in some ways to try to put in everybody's mind that it was Republicans who were responsible for creating the potential for calamity.

And yet at the time the negotiations got serious, he acted unruffled. Whenever things seemed to break apart or break breakdown, he was relatively optimistic. And in his Oval Office talk the other night, he was able to kind of do two things. One was to kind of congratulate himself and others on --


BALZ: -- bipartisanship. But on the other hand, to draw a line with the Republicans and to continue to put pressure on them for being the problem that has to be dealt with.

KING: And if the White House team picked up the Sunday New York Times, they cooperated on this story so they knew it was coming. You have this headline here, "Inside the Complicated Reality of Being America's Oldest President." President Biden asking voters to keep in the White House until age 86 are renewing attention to an issue that polls show troubles most Americans. Here's a piece of the story. "The portrait that emerges for months of interviews with dozens of current and former officials and others who have spent time with him lies somewhere between the partisan cartoon of an adult and easily manipulated fogy promoted by Republicans and the image spread by his staff of a president in aviator shades commanding the world stage and governing with vigor."

It's an interesting take because this is, you know, sometimes the team Biden pushes back, but this is an issue front and center with some voters.

HENDERSON: Oh, I mean, with all voters really. I mean, if you talk to them, they are a little worried about Biden's age. You talk to Democrats, I was talking to a House Democrat a couple of weeks ago, asked her what she thought the number one issue was, that she was most worried about when thinking about Biden's reelection, it was age.

And you have Biden out there, I think, in some ways hanging a lantern on the problem, talking about it, joking about it at the White House Correspondent Center saying, listen, I'm, you know, you think I'm ancient, you know, I'm actually wise. And he talks about his experience.

I think the problem they could have with this, if voters start to perceive that his age actually affects his job, right, that somehow he is diminished in being president and can't get stuff done because of his job. And that's why he's out there saying, look, I can get this job done.

ZELENY: It's a high wire act.


ZELENY: No doubt about it. As we saw in the trip last week which, you know, was not a big deal for any other president, but it will be for him. So symbolically it is. But, look, it's a -- Democrats have gone down this path here, so I thought the time story was very skillfully written in terms of the juxtaposition of this.

So some days he's very sharp, other moments he's not. But Democratic voters, ones who like Joe Biden are very concerned about this. So, look, we do not know how this story is going to end of this campaign. At this moment, he is the only leading Democratic candidate. You know, we'll see if that changes.

KING: Right. And they say we'll begin to start seeing him soon, see him out on the road more, which I think that's part of it too. He believes if he campaigns at a vigorous pace, it'll answer. But we'll see. We'll watch.

When we come back, the FBI bringing an internal document to the Hill today. Republicans say it's important evidence. They say there's a criminal scheme involving then-Vice President Joe Biden. The White House says, this is all just a stunt.


KING: Topping our political radar today, the House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer, the Ranking Democrat, Jamie Raskin in a secure room on Capitol Hill. They are reviewing a document containing allegations from a confidential FBI informant about then-Vice President Joe Biden. Republicans claim the document sheds light on a criminal scheme and a $5 million bribe from a foreign national. The White House says there's no proof of that, and it's all a political stunt.

Elon Musk will host a long-shot presidential candidate, Democrat Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on Twitter spaces this afternoon. RFK Jr. and Musk expected to talk about how free speech can be promoted and the role of Twitter. Last month you'll remember the Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced his candidacy on Twitter spaces. That event though plague with technical glitches.

The Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi loosening up her throwing arm. Tomorrow, Pelosi will throw out the first pitch at the Nationals game for its annual pride night. The Speaker, former Speaker, a special guest of Team D.C., an LGBTQ nonprofit group.

Thanks for your time today in Inside Politics. Hope to see you back here tomorrow. CNN News Central starts right now.