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Dems Fret Hunter Will Cloud Dad's Campaign; GOP Angry After Getting Special Counsel They Demanded; Democrats Take Aim At Vulnerable NY Republicans; New CNN Reporting On DeSantis Versus Newsom Debate. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired August 14, 2023 - 12:30   ET



ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And that is certainly to continue now as he did not just have a Republicans up on Hill, talking about investigations. But the appointment of a special counsel has really entered some new territory, ensuring that Hunter Biden will remain front and center in the campaign.

Now so far, advisers here at the White House and at the campaign have really adopted this stay silent strategy. They're not weighing in. They don't want to give any perception of weighing in on a Justice Department's ongoing investigation and they're basically carrying on with business as usual.

Tomorrow, President Biden is traveling to Wisconsin to tout the benefits of his Inflation Reduction Act, including some of those clean energy provisions and job creating provisions included in that. And what the goal is there is really to focus on issues that they believe will ultimately resonate with voters.

They're hoping that this Hunter Biden issue will not be something that is going to impact them long term. But we have seen Republicans really eager to try to make this a focal point of the campaign. You've heard Republicans up on Capitol Hill talk about the possibility of launching impeachment inquiries into President Biden.

So this does mark while it's a new phase in the legal investigation, it's also a new phase politically for President Biden as how he is now facing the possibility that there could be an ongoing trial into his son Hunter Biden as the 2024 campaign ramps up. Hunter Biden's attorneys have said they don't think atrial is inevitable, but it's unclear whether that is something the special counsel will ultimately agree with.

JESSICA DEAN, CNN HOST: All right, time's going to tell on that. All right, Arlette Saenz for us at the White House. Thanks so much.

And we've got our great reporters back here around the table to talk about this with us. Zolan, it seems like this is a topic that the campaign is coming around to. Accepting is going to be very much a presence during this campaign cycle.

ZOLAN KANNO-YOUNGS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Definitely accepting that. But I would expect too, at least in the immediate next couple of weeks, that you're going to see this collective silence when it comes to commenting on it from the White House or the campaign.

Look, you don't need a trial in order for this to be a distraction. All you need is any update when it comes to the special counsel review, news that he might issue a report, that he's questioning anybody else, that it expands to a different state in terms of the review.

And that does present a real challenge to the White House, because right now, they are focused on getting out into the country and trying to convince a base that is still skeptical about the economy and is still, at least for some voters, unclear on what's in things like the Inflation Reduction Act, which the President is celebrating this week, in which he traveled talking about last week, only to have this news at the end of the week.

And that's the trend that from conversations I've had last week over the weekend, it's not as much any polling data that indicates voters are deeply concerned about this topic of Hunter Biden, specifically. It's the fact that it could serve as a distraction to convincing voters and trying to message to them about other parts of the Biden agenda at this point.

DEAN: And Jeff, like we're starting to see in 2024 for Trump not to say apples to apples here, but there are legal problems and then there are the political implications of those legal problems. What does this mean politically for Biden?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: I think politically, it removes some of the moral high ground that he might have against, you know, all the Trump accusations. And among Democrats, it probably doesn't matter. But among independent voters who are like, you know, just -- this is why we don't like government, they all just smell a little crooked here.

I think that could be an issue. And also, perhaps most important, how it directly impacts the President's thinking in his head. He is so defensive of Hunter Biden. And I think that this has the potential of really agitating him. And, you know, I just think it's a bad look, but we don't know how long this is going out.

But Zolan is right, a trial does not have to be unfolding here. No one wants a special counsel. And this is the second special counsel that is looking into the Biden family, if you will. I mean, the other one is still looking into the President's handling of classified documents. So you don't want a special counsel because it opens a box and a door to who knows what right.

DEAN: Right. And I want to play a clip from Dean Phillips, the Democratic Congressman from over the weekend. He's been advocating for Biden to step aside. Let's listen to him. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. DEAN PHILLIPS (D). MINNESOTA: I don't think the President is corrupt. I think the investigation will show that. But -- and this is the important part -- it's the image, it's what the news will do. We know what era we live in in partisanship. It is the attachment to the President.


DEAN: Leigh Anne, does that sentiment and that idea have legs with other Democrats?

LEIGH ANN CALDWELL, EARLY 202, CO-AUTHOR, THE WASHINGTON POST: Democrats don't want to talk about Hunter Biden publicly. They are refusing to say, when I ask them if Hunter Biden is a liability for the President. They're unwilling to give any validity to that claim. But it does make them very uncomfortable.

They know that this race, this presidential race, is going to be much closer than they think that it should be, even if Donald Trump is the Republican nominee. But I will say, Republicans are intent on pursuing this. And there is a concern among some Republicans that there will be some overreach, especially if they open an impeachment inquiry. Because once you open an impeachment inquiry, you can't walk that back.


The next step is an impeachment. And Republicans know that the day after Donald Trump's first impeachment, that Republicans would have won the election because most people thought that Democrats overreached. And so there is a lot of 3D chess gaming here and it's very complicated and we don't know how this is going to play out yet.

DEAN: Yes, and let's talk about Republicans on the Hill for a second, because they had called for a special counsel in this case repeatedly and now they have one and they're not happy about it. Here's Senator Ted Cruz. We can listen to him.


TED CRUZ (R-TX), SENATE FOREIGN RELATIONS CMTE: This appointment is camouflage and it's cover up. I think it's disgraceful. We should have a special counsel to investigate Merrick Garland for whether he lied under oath to Congress in response to questioning from me, number one, and whether he committed obstruction of justice.


DEAN: And just for the record, Cruz was one of a number of Republican senators who signed a letter back in September of 2022 requesting exactly what they got, a special counsel in the Hunter Biden case. Is this a case of them just continuing to move the goalpost?

CALDWELL: Absolutely. That was -- you know, when they started complaining about a special counsel, that's exactly what I did. I went back and looked and said, weren't they wanting a special counsel in this entire case? So I'm so glad you made that point. And absolutely, they're the oppositional party and they're going to oppose whatever is happening.

They have lost a lot of trust in David Weiss, who was appointed the special counsel, who was the attorney, who oversaw the case, who is a Trump political appointee, though, right?

DEAN: All right, well, we will leave it there. Thanks to all of you. Great to see you.

As 2024 Republican contenders sell themselves to Iowa voters, what exactly is it that prospective caucus goers are looking to buy? We're going to ask Iowa's Republican Party Chairman. That's next.



DEAN: The fight for control of Congress is on. Republicans hold a 10- seat advantage. But Democrats only need to flip six seats in 2024 to reclaim the House majority. And one critical battleground is New York with vulnerable Republicans walking a tight political tightrope.

CNN's Manu Raju left the halls of Congress and made his way to a blue district just outside New York City.


REP. MIKE LAWLER (R), NEW YORK: Truly remarkable.

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was a stunner last year, giving the GOP a razor thin House majority. Six Republicans winning in the blue New York suburbs. Now, they're the most endangered. So when President Biden recently called vulnerable freshman Mike Lawler.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Kind of Republican I was used to dealing with, but he's not one of these MAGA Republicans.

RAJU (voice-over): Democrats like Mondaire Jones, seeking to unseat Lawler, were furious.

REP. MONDAIRE JONES (D), NEW YORK: People were horrified when they heard what Joe Biden had to say.

RAJU (on-camera): So did Biden get it wrong?

JONES: Biden not only got it wrong, but I think it was just factually, like, absurd.

RAJU (voice-over): Lawler is one of 18 Republicans in districts Biden carried in 2020 whose fates will determine the next majority.

LAWLER: I ran to represent this district. RAJU (voice-over): Lawler says he's appealing to moderates.

LAWLER: I don't look at it as a vulnerability. I've won twice in two to one Democratic districts. When the President came to Westchester and he said on stage, I'm the type of Republican he could work with.

RAJU (voice-over): But Lawler's opponents are seizing on his votes in the conservative dominated House, like when the New York freshman voted to rescind a Pentagon policy reimbursing personnel traveling for abortions.

LIZ GEREGHTY (D), NEW YORK CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: So he's totally fine with women in the military fighting for his freedom, but he won't even protect their rights.

RAJU (voice-over): Lawler defends his vote.

LAWLER: Using taxpayer funds to pay for travel related to abortion services. We don't do that.

RAJU (voice-over): Lawler could soon be in another difficult spot if the House tries to begin an impeachment inquiry into Biden.

LAWLER: I think for me, with respect to impeachment, we're not there yet.

RAJU (voice-over): Another complication the prospect that Donald Trump could be atop the ticket as he faces criminal charges.

JONES: Mike Lawler cannot run away from Donald Trump, and this is a district that hates Donald Trump.

RAJU (voice-over): Do you think that Trump deserves to be in jail?

JONES: I think Trump deserves to be in prison. But you know what? Let's leave that up to the juries to decide.

RAJU (voice-over): Lawler is critical of Trump's actions after he lost in 2020.

LAWLER: I think Donald Trump's conduct post-election was wrong. It was wrong.

RAJU (voice-over): But not saying, if he backed Trump as a nominee.

(on-camera): Would you support Trump if he's the nominee?

LAWLER: Look, at the end of the day, the Republican primary voters are going to choose who the nominee is. I want the party to move in a different direction.

RAJU (voice-over): Though, he has his limits.

LAWLER: If he's convicted, he should not be running for public office, period.

RAJU (voice-over): Lawler says Jones, who used to represent a more liberal New York district, is out of step.

LAWLER: You're not a pragmatist. You're a political hack.

RAJU (voice-over): Jones's primary opponent, Liz Gereghty, says this.

GEREGHTY: He's taken positions that I think are going to cause him problems in a general election.

Of course, we need to en masse incarceration and --

RAJU (voice-over): Among them, discussing defunding the police in 2020, something he is now walking back.

JONES: I understood those words, which are very, in retrospect, poor choices of words.

RAJU (voice-over): Many voters here are still up for grabs.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nobody's won my vote yet, you know.


RAJU: Now it is sign of just how important look in a district like this one is for the fight for control of the House.


Speaker Kevin McCarthy's Super PAC released a memo just this week detailing what it is calling the blue state project, saying the House will be won or lost in democratic strongholds like this one. And McCarthy himself plans to travel to New York later this month.

Manu Raju, CNN, Piermont, New York.

DEAN: All right. Our thanks to Manu for all of that.

Our new Sunday Inside Politics host announced today. We're going to have more news for you when we come back.



DEAN: It's a fight some people want to see, but no one can explain why. Maybe it's happening. Governor Ron DeSantis and Governor Gavin Newsom have agreed to debate one another live on national television. New CNN reporting goes behind the scenes and in inside each team's thinking.

For DeSantis it's an undercard debate that guarantees him a debate stage moment without having to rely on Donald Trump. For Newsom, his team views the matchup as a win-win that at a minimum assures the California governor will keep raking in money and fundraising.

Our panel is still here. You guys have stayed with us. Just general thoughts, everyone, when we mentioned this topic had a thought, let's start with you.

KANNO-YOUNGS: Yes. I mean, look, I think it's important to remember that these two have a history of this sort of tit for tat kind of talking about their states and going at each other as vocal members of their respective parties. This debate would be on sort of be a friendly environment for Governor DeSantis.

But we were just discussing, I mean, you're not running for governor of California. This isn't -- right now, you have another opponent and it's just fascinating that right now while you still have Trump sort of leading the contest that one might assume you'd be focusing on and having these various indictments that he's facing that there's still a hesitancy to talk about those. But at the same time, you're going to go forth with this debate which is probably an attempt to continue to play to the right of Trump and try to galvanize some of his base.

DEAN: Yes. There's even a poster, I'm told, that I think we have -- yes, there it is. That the DeSantis campaign put out. So you can see they seem very into this.

CALDWELL: Great. But I don't know how this is going to help Ron DeSantis win the presidency and win the Republican primary nomination. It's not exactly killing it in the polls right now in that race. So it seems to me if I was his campaign strategist, a big waste of time and, you know, a distraction from what he needs to do, but hey, I'm not his campaign manager.

DEAN: Is it punching down, do you think, Jeff?

ZELENY: I think it could certainly be seen as punching down because he is running to be president. He's already governor. But I think one other thing that's clear, it is a sign of a bit of the reality that he needs to be out to as many Republican voters as he can. So it's a free hour on Fox.


ZELENY: I mean they've spent and burned through so much money. The campaign made a lot of money and they spend a ton of money. So this is basically a free hour -- you know and not every Iowa Republican caucus goer or New Hampshire primary voter is watching but a lot of them are. So I think it's just simply, you know, a free way to get on Fox.

But it's not as serious as a presidential candidate could be. And I think it could be risky. You know, by November, is he going to be defending Donald Trump against certain things? So --

DEAN: Right.

ZELENY: Because Newsom will probably ask the --


DEAN: Of course, he's going to go right at that, right?

KANNO-YOUNGS: Right. ZELENY: And it says the approval of the White House. The White House is approving this. So, I mean, this is basically, you know, the way for Democrats to play in the Republican primary, which they love to do here. So I think it's, you know, it's win-win for Gavin Newsom of course.

DEAN: I want to read a clip from Isaac Dovere's piece. He wrote, 'For Newsom, the whole point of the debate proposal is the asymmetric warfare. He isn't running for president. He doesn't have to worry about how this comes off to voters in Iowa or New Hampshire or anywhere else.

He's catering to a Democratic base and social media ecosystem that throws money and adds followers whenever a punch is thrown. And so, the Newsom of all of this is, you know, this is a guy that's a governor of California who probably has an eye on potentially running for president down the road and needs to stay in the conversation.

KANNO-YOUNGS: And look often, especially when I talk to voter, younger voters, not just younger voters, one criticism that you'll hear of the Democratic Party is that members don't go on the offensive enough as well against some of the primary leaders of the Republican Party. And I think the Newsom camp knows that.

It factors into why they've attacked DeSantis or picked this sort of fight for the past year now. One thing I'll be watching, though, too, is whether or not this debate has a crowd, right? And it is an audience. It is on Fox News too. So it'll be interesting to watch how that impacts.

DEAN: And I think they're trying to sort through that right now.

ZELENY: Right. I mean, the reality is, though, he also has another debate that is coming up next week.

DEAN: Yes.

ZELENY: Milwaukee, the Republican presidential debate. So how he performs at that is going to say really everything about the DeSantis presidential campaign. You don't have to be incredibly strong at your first debate. We all remember the -- or at least I remember the Barack Obama, a first debate in '07, but it was in April of that year.


He was terrible. He was a terrible debater.


ZELENY: John Edwards cleaned the floor with him, Hillary Clinton did. But he got better over the years. Now we are in almost the end of August. It's a shorter runway here. So how he does next week in the debate is going to be a much more interesting issue. The Newsom debate is interesting to talk about, but it has very little to do with his political future.

DEAN: Right.

CALDWELL: Yes. But also think about a debate. He's going to have to spend time prepping for that. It takes a lot of time if he's going to take it seriously. If he wants to appeal to those voters, Republican voters, he's going to have to respond to Newsom attacks. This is scheduled for around a month before the Iowa caucuses.

DEAN: And you're going to need a lot of attention there in Iowa.


DEAN: That's right. All right, my thanks to all of you. Good to see you.

And thank you for joining Inside Politics. CNN News Central starts right after this break.