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Trump Allies Wage Indictment Counteroffensive; New Charges Against Trump Put Biden in Tricky Spot; Biden Put Protecting Democracy at Center of Campaign; History, Law & Politics Caught in Trump's Web. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired August 02, 2023 - 12:30   ET




DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT AND ANCHOR OF 'INSIDE POLITICS': Donald Trump is coordinating with allies in Congress, the 2024 Republican frontrunner held a strategy session with the House Republican Conference Chair. Sources tell CNN GOP members have been quietly preparing a messaging counteroffensive for weeks. Let's get more on that from CNN's Manu Raju, who is in a very empty Capitol right now.


You're still working your (ph) sources though, Manu, what are you hearing?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, that's right. This is empty Capitol, so the ones who have decided to rush Donald Trump's defense are the ones who have in large part been coordinating with him behind the scenes, trying to make the case in their view that the Justice Department was biased for going after Trump in this time of the campaign season, and in their argument, these Republicans saying an attempt to distract from the House GOP investigations into the Bidens. That is the message from Speaker McCarthy himself, who said everyone in America could see what was going to come next. DOJ's attempt to distract from the news and attack the frontrunner for the nomination, President Trump.

Now, there have been few Republicans who have been alarmed by all the contents in this indictment. One of them was Senator Lisa Murkowski. She is one of the seven Republican senators who voted to convict Donald Trump at the second impeachment trial. She said in a statement yesterday, she said that additional evidence presented since then, since the second impeachment, including by the January 6th Commission has only reinforced that the former president played a key role in instigating the riots, resulting in physical violence and desegregation of the Capitol on January 6th. And of course, Dana, silence still from Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who has said very little about Donald Trump since after saying that he was practically and morally responsible for the violence that day.

BASH: Manu, thank you so much for that reporting. Appreciate it. And let's discuss with the Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and former January 6th Committee member Pete Aguilar. Congressman, thank you so much for joining me. As a member of the January 6th Committee, you know the facts of this case better than most. Was there anything in this indictment that surprised you or that wasn't in the indictment that surprised you?

REP. PETE AGUILAR, (D-CA) FORMER MEMBER OF JANUARY 6TH COMMITTEE and CHAIR OF THE HOUSE DEMOCRATIC CAUCUS: Well, I would encourage the American public to read the indictment. It's incredibly powerful. But from my perspective, it read a lot like the January 6th Report that we put out, over 800 pages of documents in our final product and I thought the facts laid out in the indictment were closely aligned with the work that we did. I paid particular attention in the indictment to the Mike Pence portion because I Chaired that panel. But just the pressure campaign that Mike Pence was under, January 1st, Christmas Day phone call that the president put pressure on him, New Year's day phone call, January 2nd, January 3rd, January 4th, either directly the president pressuring Pence or his advisers and co-conspirators pressuring the Chief of Staff to Mike Pence.


Just an incredibly orchestrated campaign that clearly the president was the central figure in.

BASH: I want to play some of what Jack Smith, the Special Counsel said in his statement yesterday.


JACK SMITH, SPECIAL COUNSEL: The attack on our nation's Capitol on January 6, 2021 was an unprecedented assault on the seat of American democracy. It's described in the indictment, it was fuelled by lies. Lies by the defendant, targeted at obstructing a bedrock function of the U.S. Government.


BASH: So he talked about the former president's -- then president's role in the attack, but doesn't charge him for inciting violence. Your committee didn't seem to find evidence that Donald Trump intend for this violence to happen. So we see here the Special Counsel didn't either. What do you make of that?

AGUILAR: Well, I think the facts are very clear. From November and December, the former president tried to stay in power. That's the central element of what we laid out and the facts that we found, and then once they gravitated to the rally, once they gravitated to the fake elector strategy, they decided to have that event, a culmination of all of their work, where the president knew he was going to out there and speak. He knew he was going to whip up the crowd and point to the Capitol and to say that he was going to march with them. That was the central point of that day, was his effort to point to the Capitol and to tell them -- tell the crowd of rioters that they needed to give some spine to the Republicans. BASH: But there was nothing that explicitly charges the former president with coordinating with members of the "Proud Boys and Oath Keepers."

AGUILAR: I think -- oh, absolutely. And I think if you read the report as well as the indictment, his role is in the central point of this is incredibly clear. And I think these charges are very, very serious. So even though others would like more charges or different charges, I think that these are incredibly important. The Justice Department laid out the facts here, just like our committee work did. And now, we will trust the process.

BASH: So, you were a member of this committee, as I said. You are also a politician. You are very aware of the court of public opinion in a lot of these matters. This trial will be held where I am, in Washington, D.C. 92 percent of the residents here in Washington voted for Joe Biden in 2020. The judge is an Obama appointee. You might have just heard Ron DeSantis making the argument that they would potentially indict -- not only indict but convict a ham sandwich because of those realities here in Washington. How do you convince persuadable voters that all of that is not relevant?

AGUILAR: Well, this is the justice system. There will be a process. The defendant has rights. The former president is a defendant. He is entitled to the presumption of innocence. He's not entitled however to his own version of facts. And so, it's going to be up to his defense attorneys, as well as prosecutors, to simply lay out the facts and to ensure that this is a jury of our peers. That's how the justice department -- that's how the justice system works and to ensure fundamentally that there aren't two sets of justices. And that's what was so important about our work to chase the facts, to make sure that we laid out the evidence, and to ensure that ultimately accountability is held.

Mitch McConnell had talked about accountability. Now, it's the Justice Department's job to ensure that that happens.

BASH: Congressman Pete Aguilar, who was again a member of the January 6th Committee, now the House Democratic Caucus Chair, appreciate your time.

AGUILAR: Thank you, Dana.

BASH: And this isn't Donald Trump's first indictment, but it's the first one that directly impacts President Biden, his election to office, his presidency and his re-election. We'll talk about that next.



BASH: Today, a collision between the White House's no comment strategy and the president's never again promise. Joe Biden puts protecting democracy at the heart of his political identity. Now, the newest Trump indictment, charging the 45th president with trying to keep Joe Biden from taking the office he legitimately won will test the 46th president's ability to remain quiet on an issue central to his re- election case. It's something Biden talked about with donors just last week, saying "If you just take what he said on the record, some would say it's just flat seditious."

Our panel is back around the table. And this is really a vexing problem for the current president because part of his entire campaign in 2020 was I'm going to leave the Justice Department to do what they do. I'm not going to do what Donald Trump did, which is get involved in ways that he deemed very inappropriate. And yet, arguing that Donald Trump has no place back in the White House because of actions laid out in the indictment should be a central campaign theme.


MARGARET TALEV, SENIOR CONTRIBUTOR, AXIOS: Right. But I think like, what did the president do last night? Dinner and a movie with his wife. He -- out and about this morning, reporters shouting questions at him. What about the indictment? Not commenting. At this point, his posture is to let others make that case, to let the prosecutors make the case, to let other Democrats to make the case, and he has been hands off. I think he is trying to figure out that messaging, but for now, if Trump's argument to the center or to the few radical persuadables is that the Biden Administration is trying to censor rivals, it makes no sense for the president to take the bait.

EVA MCKEND, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. This is a Republican problem, right? Let the Republicans answer for Trump's growing indictments. And then, also President Biden has enough problems. He has to worry about consolidating the Democratic base, about making sure that progressives turn out. What is the value in him weighing in on this when you have Republicans consistently arguing this is the Biden-DOJ weaponizing their power against Republicans?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: One thing that Biden advisers are sort of looking at, I was talking to one this morning, as a roadmap is that speech that the president gave last fall in Philadelphia. He went to the seat of democracy and talked about the democracy in a big picture way. So that's the needle they are going to try to thread. We'll see how successful they are in doing it, talking about the need for norms and democracy, and trying to stay away from the specifics of this case. But the reality is, the legal case is this presidential campaign.

BASH: Yeah.

ZELENY: So, it will be very difficult for him to be not drawn into it. Complicated of course by Hunter Biden, which of course is also going to be an issue for him.

BASH: Yeah. So you mentioned the fact that democracy of course is, as the President likes to say, on the ballot. The Former President Donald Trump is now facing three indictments. That is 78 criminal charges. We're going to take a step back and try to put that eye-popping reality into some perspective, after a quick break. Stay with us.



BASH: Well, what happens to Donald Trump dictate, what happens to America as we know it? The indictment chronicles the persistent and repeated attempts to tell Mr. Trump he lost. His Vice President, his Attorney General, his Director of National Intelligence, his top cybersecurity official, his senior White House attorneys, his senior campaign staffers, state legislators, the court, they all tried to communicate the truth. Mr. Trump, the Special Counsel says, knew what happened, knew the truth, that there was no election theft. So he tried to be the thief allegedly and turn the power afforded to him by the constitution into hammer to break it.

Mr. Trump now hopes the constitution he wanted to throw away will save him. His lawyers claim it is the constitution that allowed their client to lie without care or consequence. A verdict of four more years may spare Mr. Trump from a prison, but such a verdict may sentence democracy to a far less-fortunate fate. And that is an important conversation to have because we understandably talk about every single new development, the new nuggets in the indictment. But, we wanted to kind of take a step back and look at what this all means in totality, when you have this kind of indictment by a man who is trying to be president again.

ZELENY: And it is one of the reasons he jumped in so early last year, so he would be a candidate when all of this was unfolding. This was clear it was potentially going this way. I think it is critical to look at these indictments separately. There could be indictment fatigue, if you will, because it sounds like there is so much. I was in Michigan yesterday, talking to voters and a Michigan State Republican Senator who endorsed Donald Trump the first time around, was really dismayed by this. And he said, "Yes, it is empowering the former president," but he urged caution because he was talking about what's in this indictment versus the other. So he believes the democracy portion of this, the January 6th portion of this is different than the others.

But more than that, it is about the office. This is not just about Donald Trump. As I was flying back to Washington this morning, looking over Mount Vernon, George Washington left the White House, left the presidency after two terms. That was the plan, the model. So it is about more than Donald Trump.

MCKEND: Yeah. I mean it invites questions about who we are as a nation. I think that the Republican Party very much is trying to figure out who it is, who they are. Often you hear Republicans talk about a deep fidelity or a deep allegiance to originalism. This is a former president, as Peter Baker outlined in his piece, called for eliminating the constitution, so it would benefit him. That's in deep conflict with the philosophy that Republicans have espoused for decades. And so, these are the larger questions that we have to grapple with as a country.

TALEV: Dana, I think this is ultimately to some extent, a test of the First Amendment and how far does political speech protect you and what you can do wrapped in the cloak of political speech. But another really important piece of this that we will be talking about and studying for decades is the role of the media, long called the "Fourth Estate."


But, in this case, we know and we have known for years, but it has become crystal clear over the last couple of years that the media that people choose and consume not only gives them comfort in the views that they already hold, but helps solidify and guide those views. And when you look at that "New York Times/Siena Poll" from just a couple of days before yesterday's indictments, you see eight out of ten Fox News watchers saying that Donald Trump was exercising his right to contest the election and that's all he was doing. You see only 5 percent of those news watchers saying they believe that the former president committed serious crimes.

Part of the legal question is going to be decided by a jury, but the political question, you know, can actually be a Trump card -- pardon the pun. Even if Donald Trump were to be convicted, he could still be re-elected by people who don't believe that what he has done is criminal. And that is the ultimate test and the media plays an important role.

BASH: Yeah, no, I mean, listen, all of your points are so excellent. You mentioned George Washington teaching him how to say good bye. John Adams lost and he also taught everybody, when you lose, you go quietly. Really fundamental questions, thank you all so much. Appreciate it. And thank you for joining "Inside Politics." "CNN News Central" starts after a quick break.