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Hunter Biden Special Counsel Creates West Wing Angst; Tim Scott Campaign Announces $8M Ad Buy; Pro-DeSantis PAC Shifts Messaging To Highlight Candidate's Military Experience; Appeals Court Paves Way To Limiting Access To Abortion Drug. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired August 17, 2023 - 12:30   ET




PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN HOST: You call it "problem non grata." New CNN reporting out this hour appears into the President's orbit, President Biden's orbit, finds a deep-rooted reluctance to mention the President's son and his legal woes in front of dad.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny is live in Washington.

Jeff, you and Kevin Liptak, I think Arlette Saenz as well put together this story. Your sources say that there's worry inside the Biden campaign right now about the President's somewhat blind approach to Hunter Biden, what did you learn?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORREPONDENT: Look, Phil, this is a chapter that President Biden and, certainly, First Lady Jill Biden had hoped would be closed. They thought that the investigation to their son, Hunter Biden, would be closed and they would move on before the campaign. We now, of course, understand after the special counsel announcement last Friday, that's not happening.

In talking to a variety of advisors and allies and supporters of the President, they do not believe and research will show that voters do not necessarily mind this unless there is a link that is tied to the President and as of now, there is not. But they do wonder if there will be a blind spot about this, because it is simply not mentioned or discussed on the campaign.

And one senior advisor put it like this to us, really succinctly summed it up. The advisor said this. Hunter Biden is not a topic of discussion in campaign meetings, it's just not addressed. That, of course, is because the President does not like to talk about this, this is a deeply personal family matter.

However, we know that the Republicans from the House committees to the Republican presidential campaign trail talk about this considerably. So there are some quiet rumblings, is there a blind spot here for this Biden campaign if this deepens. We are going to see likely a trial of the President's son unfold at the same time as a presidential campaign. This, of course, is unprecedented. So while the - there certainly is not an equivalence between what

we're seeing in former President Donald Trump and this, Republicans will try and make it so, starting perhaps next week on the debate stage in Milwaukee.

So while the President does not want to speak about this, some of his advisors are keeping a close eye on the fallout from all of this as it unfolds over the next year and perhaps even longer, Phil?

MATTINGLY: Yes. A problem they didn't think they'd be dealing with ...

ZELENY: Right.

MATTINGLY: ... because of the plea deal and that is now gone (inaudible) special counsel.

Jeff Zeleny, great reporting. Thanks so much. Our great reporters and analysts are back at the table with us right now.

Just - I've covered the White House for a bit.


MATTINGLY: I have seen all of the polling that makes very clear that the President's son - investigations into the President's son are nowhere near at the level of the economy, of health care, of any of the top line issues that we see in poll after poll after poll Americans care about. I also know that they are furious about the idea that this is apples to apples with what the former president is facing.

You can put those out there and make very clear that's the case. The question becomes right now, a special counsel to Jeff's point, you don't know where it's going to head.


MATTINGLY: How real is that concern if you're a Democrat right now?

DEAN: Right. Because we have seen time and time again that special counsel sometimes stumble upon things that they weren't even looking for when they're going through these investigations, so that could happen.

And look, Jeff is exactly right. What I hear from Republicans on the trail, when you're on the Hill listening, especially to House Republicans, but even some Senate Republicans, you hear Hunter Biden's name again and again and again. They are talking about it all the time. That's all they want to talk about.

And they are, look, you have to be fair, they are using that because they don't want to be talking about Donald Trump. There's no question about it. Like they don't want to answer questions about that, but - yes.


AVLON: Also, that they've had a difficult time demonizing Joe Biden. So doing ...

DEAN: Right.

AVLON: ... a proxy with Hunter also creates sort of some sense of moral equivalence with the Trump family's challenges. But you know this from covering the White House.

There's deep reluctance, as this reporting shows, to raise this with President Biden because, the - he is stuck by his sole surviving son and he will, in part. But also, I've heard reports that he's very obsessed with the negative coverage of Hunter. He's concerned about it. It's an irritant and that's understandable. But not one that the allies around him are going to want to raise, because it will derail a conversation into some place dark.

MATTINGLY: Yes, it is complicated.


DEAN: Yes.

MATTINGLY: Senior member of the Biden team with their family and President Biden and how he is with his family, this son ...


MATTINGLY: ... a lot of the President's concern has been tied to the fact that his son is in recovery and what ...


MATTINGLY: ... might do for that. I understand all of that.

DEAN: Complicated things, right? Yes.

AVLON: (Inaudible) ...

MATTINGLY: And I think, Shane, you look at polling Hunter Biden on a Fox News poll just a week ago in terms of if he did something illegal in February, 37 percent, in April, 44 percent, now 50 percent. Like the message is clearly getting out. I think ...


MATTINGLY: ... obviously, the plea deal and how it fell apart was very public and people are seeing that as well.

GOLDMACHER: He was ready to plead guilty, right?


GOLDMACHER: It really not a question he did something illegal. MATTINGLY: So - quite literally.


MATTINGLY: But I think the question is, is this something that, to the White House's point, actually penetrates for - if you're a suburban mom. We talk constantly about the primary.


DEAN: Yes.

MATTINGLY: What about the general election, the coalition that pushed Biden over the top in 2020, suburban moms, his - the people that moved his way ...


MATTINGLY: Trump voters who moved his way, does it matter?

GOLDMACHER: I don't think this is an issue that people would answer a poll question saying they care about, right? They care about the healthcare and the economy and all these other issues.

But between Trump's indictments, which also Joe Biden doesn't want his team in the DNC talking about, and his son's investigation, he's now basically issuing an order for the top person in the Democratic Party not to talk about the - two of the most talked about issues in the country politically.


GOLDMACHER: And that's a tough place to be on both of those counts, right? It's hard to never answer questions about his son's investigations. It's hard to never talk about the former president and the frontrunner to be your rival's criminal charges. And so it makes them not active participants in two of the biggest storylines in the country.

MATTINGLY: In the debate.

AVLON: And to your point about the general election, though, I think the place where it could transfer over to independent voters, to swing voters, is if there were to be some connection between Hunter Biden's monetization of his relationships or names or claims and President Biden. So far, we need to keep saying that has not occurred. That's - but that's, I think, the way that that becomes a bridge general election issue.

DEAN: Right. And we keep saying it has not occurred. But the Internet, Facebook, where a lot of these people are getting their news, not from news sources, it's about 10 - they keep that straight and keep the truth out there and not get Joe Biden, the President, swirled in with any sort of illegal things that may have happened.

MATTINGLY: Can I ask, though, Jess, you've covered Capitol Hill for a number of years. Republicans for months, if not longer, were calling for a special counsel ...

DEAN: Right.

MATTINGLY: ... related to Hunter Biden. They got the special counsel and this has been the response from some. Take a listen.


SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX): You should be pissed off. You should be pissed off because this appointment is illegal. It is contrary to the Department of Justice regulations and it is designed to cover up wrongdoing from Hunter Biden, from Joe Biden and from Merrick Garland.

REP. JAMES COMER (R-KY): I believe that's why you saw Merrick Garland appoint a special counsel when he said he wasn't going to, because we have built a case that will win in court.

REP. TIM BURCHETT (R-TN): I'm tired. We need to take the gloves off. This is ridiculous.

What we need to do is bring this forward, bring in Hunter Biden, bring in Joe Biden.


DEAN: Can I just tell you that Sen. Ted Cruz was one of a number of Senate Republicans who signed a letter last year asking for a special counsel in this case. They wanted that, to your point. They've asked for it. They have hammered it. Why don't we have one? This is bad. This is a cover up. Now they do have one and it's not good enough, it's also a cover up.


AVLON: Look, it's a catch 22. It's a double blind. You should be pissed off at the hypocrisy here. Remember, the person who is acting as special counsel is a former Trump appointee, Weiss.


AVLON: And according to Attorney General, when he said he wanted special counsel status, he got it. So you can't criticize what you asked for.

MATTINGLY: Yes. I understand the questions because of the IRS whistleblowers and what they said.

AVLON: Sure. And that's - that's fine.

MATTINGLY: But now he has the authority that they wanted him to have ...

AVLON: Absolutely.

MATTINGLY: ... okay.


DEAN: You get the point.

MATTINGLY: Yes. I think there's a lot more to dive into in all of this, we're certainly going to do that.

But coming up, one 2024 GOP hopeful is betting a huge new ad buy will put him on the path to success. Who is it? We'll tell you after the break.



MATTINGLY: South Carolina senator, Tim Scott, is betting that big spending on the airways will pay off in a big number at the ballot box. His campaign is placing a new $8 million ad buy. That's in addition to the more than $6.5 million that's already spent by the time the first presidential primary contests roll around. Voters could see $65M worth of pro-Scott ads.

It's - when you add the entire constellation of spending groups together outside spending, he has a ton of money, guys. My panel is back with me right now.

Shane, you're one of the best money reporters in the games in terms of understanding how things are working. My question right now, if you look at top line numbers, is - that's a ton of money. He's great at raising money. Do we feel like - do you see an impact here?

GOLDMACHER: We haven't really seen an impact of the ads yet, right? He's still in the single digits in Iowa or his ads have been in pretty heavy rotation.


MATTINGLY: Right. Well, hang on. I actually want to pull up the Iowa numbers to demonstrate what you're talking about here. The 2024 ad spending in Iowa right now, you have the pro-DeSantis Super PAC of $5.1 million; Scott Campaign, $3.8M; Anti-Trump PAC, $3.3M. You add the Pro-Scott PAC to it as well, that's why we get to $6.6M. That's a ton of money in Iowa.

GOLDMACHER: Yes. And it's making a difference and that people increasingly know him. I was just out there for a few days and he's a little bit under discussion, but he hasn't broken through, right? He's still at the single digits.

But look, that $65 million is a big number and this eight is actually a big number from the campaign, because in this sort of wonky world of television ads, the campaign money goes much farther than PAC money. It might be equivalent as much as $30 million from, say, the Pro- DeSantis Super PAC. Because the money just buys more television ads. But it hasn't connected for him so far, but in the next bit, it's a lot of money from him. MATTINGLY: Yes. And it's interesting, there was a - I can't remember

who - one of our reporters was on the ground. I was reading through their file that they send us after every campaign event and he had a call and response with an Iowa crowd.

DEAN: He's going to bring this up.


DEAN: Yes.

MATTINGLY: And I thought it was fascinating like he's basically saying we don't - we can put - go off the air here, because my ads have worked.

DEAN: Right. And he's - and then he has this call and response and he's saying what I say and he - and they respond back to him and he kind of laughs and says, oh, I'm glad that my money is going - that I'm sending and it's working on TV ads.

MATTINGLY: It's just very candid like - yes.

DEAN: But that's - that is what you start to get and that does take some time to build that up. But certainly for that group, it had broken through.

AVLON: And look, for Iowa grass top leaders who are looking for an alternative to Trump trying to figure out who they can coalesce behind ...


AVLON: ... I mean, Tim Scott's core message and his core appeal, which is an optimistic vision of America, someone whose story is deeply rooted in faith, that's something that's very appealing. And so I think the ads keep them top of mind, particularly in this critically early in the states.

MATTINGLY: What's also been interesting is the shift in kind of the DeSantis message.


MATTINGLY: And Iowa was a place where they thought they're going to do very well. They still believe that they've got a ground operation that can allow that to happen. Take a listen to this piece of a DeSantis PAC ad.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Freedom isn't given, it's earned and that's exactly what Ron DeSantis did. After working his way through Yale and Harvard Law, he volunteered and deployed to Iraq. A lieutenant, he earned a bronze star and assisted Navy SEALs. Service to country is Ron DeSantis' story. That's the American story.


MATTINGLY: Go ahead.

DEAN: It reminds you that Ron DeSantis for all his notoriety and us talking about him and him being the Florida governor, he's still introducing himself to a lot of voters out there. And sometimes when we'll go into some of these smaller events, he'll say - well, in Florida, I did X, Y and Z. And in Florida - and I've seen people turn to one another and go, truly, like, did you know that, I didn't know that.

So I do think that there is an element of this where he is still introducing himself. I think it is interesting that this is all about biography. It's all about service. This is not anti-wokeism. This is not Disney. This is about a man who has served his country.

MATTINGLY: Yes. And if there's a moment where they look back and put together, if something went wrong, if it doesn't end up going his way, the fact he's doing that at this point, as opposed to in the first $20-, $30 million might be something they point at. All right.

DEAN: Right.

MATTINGLY: Guys, appreciate it, as always, for the insights and the reporting.

Ahead, an appeals court rules in favor of limiting access to the abortion pill, mifepristone, setting the case on track for a Supreme Court showdown. Stay with us.



MATTINGLY: The legality of abortion appears to be headed right back to the doorstep of the Supreme Court. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals handed down its decision on its use of mifepristone, ruling in favor of limiting access to the abortion medication. Vice President Kamala Harris blasted the decision in a statement warning that "this lawsuit is a threat to a woman's freedom to make decisions about her own body and another step towards the ultimate goal of a nationwide abortion ban." The medication abortion makes up the majority of abortions obtained in the United States. This is in the center of a fierce political battle right now.

CNN Senior Supreme Court Analyst, Joan Biskupic, joins me now.

Joan, what - Joan, what does this ruling actually do?


This is the most important abortion case in federal litigation right now since the Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade last session. And you're absolutely right, it's barreling toward the Supreme Court right now. At issue is the authority of the Food and Drug Administration to

review drugs for their safety and effectiveness. And in this case, the federal appeals court that ruled yesterday said that a lower court judge was wrong to say that the core year 2000 approval for mifepristone was flawed, so that stays. So the drug would stay on the market for some use.

But what the appeals court did yesterday was to roll back, potentially roll back, various protocols that increased women's access to the drugs. Here are some of the provisions. It would no longer make the drug available to women up to about 10 weeks into their pregnancy. It would go back to about seven weeks. And it would no longer be available to be prescribed by non-physicians and there would be no option to obtain the drug by mail after consultation with physicians or other medical personnel.

So it would really limit the availability of the drug, which is why the Department of Justice immediately said that it would appeal to the Supreme Court, not just to make sure that the drug was available to women who needed to end a pregnancy, but also because of the FDA's approval authority that's at issue here.


And Phil, that would extend not only to mifepristone, but all drugs for cancer, diabetes, epilepsy, multiple conditions that rely on the Food and Drug Administration's expertise. So this is all going to be teed up soon, with the Supreme Court likely resolving this case by next summer, 2024, Phil.

MATTINGLY: Right in the middle of an election year.

BISKUPIC: That's right.

MATTINGLY: Joan Biskupic, great reporting as always. I appreciate it.

And a quick programming note, "The Whole Story," breaks down the details of the criminal indictment of Donald Trump in Georgia. "The Whole Story with Anderson Cooper" airs Sunday at 8 PM Eastern on CNN.

Thanks for joining INSIDE POLITICS. "CNN NEWS CENTRAL" starts right after the break.