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Inside Politics

Trump Enters Not Guilty Plea In Georgia; Giuliani Found Liable For Lies About Election Workers; Trump: No Choice But To Lock Up His Opponents; McConnell Freezes Again During Press Conference; McConnell Seeks To Reassure Allies After Health Scare; McConnell Freezes On Camera, Weeks After Similar Episode. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired August 31, 2023 - 12:00   ET



DANA BASH, CNN HOST: Today on Inside Politics, not guilty, Donald Trump tells the Georgia court that he's innocent, and that he did not lead a criminal enterprise that he is accused of, which the accusation is that he was trying to steal the 2020 election.

Plus, it happened again. Mitch McConnell freezes on camera and stop speaking mid-sentence. New CNN reporting spotlights a behind the scenes frenzy to reassure Republicans that the leader is OK, and he can still do his job. And Clarence Thomas fesses up to what we already knew that he lived like the rich and famous and on the dime of actual billionaires who had business before the court.

I'm Dana Bash, let's go behind the headlines at Inside Politics.

We start with that breaking news out of Fulton County, Georgia. Donald Trump formally entered a plea of not guilty. That happens just happened minutes ago. He did it in a new court filing. And it means, we won't see him inside an actual courtroom next week on September 6, when some of Mr. Trump's co-defendants are expected to be arraigned.

Let's go to CNN's Zack Cohen. So, Zack, what exactly did the former president file?

ZACHARY COHEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY & JUSTICE REPORTER: Yes, Dana. Donald Trump pleading not guilty in this case. And it takes some perspective here. This is the fourth time Donald Trump has now entered a not guilty plea in response to criminal charges since he's left office just a couple years ago. And that's a pretty remarkable uncharted territory right now.

But, you know, this is the most recent case that went to Georgia, where he is charged with, you know, allegedly trying to overturn the presidential election results there. It remains to be seen how this might impact a trial. There's a lot of moving pieces still that could determine timing. But look, the Fulton County D.A. Fani Willis stands by her position that she wants to try Donald Trump and the 18 other co-defendants in this case all together.

Trump is really just one of a handful of defendants who have entered a not guilty plea so far, but we do expect there will be more to come. And you know, it remains to be seen if Fani Willis will be able to try all 19 including Trump together at some point.

BASH: OK. Thank you so much for that reporting. Appreciate it, Zach. Joining our conversation, CNN's Sara Murray, CNN's Katelyn Polantz, and former Georgia prosecutor Chris Timmons. I'll start with you. Mr. Timmons, you are down in Georgia. What is your take on why the former president chose this route this time?

CHRIS TIMMONS, FORMER GEORGIA PROSECUTOR: Sure. So, there are two ways that an arraignment can happen. And waivers the most traditional way that an arraignment is going to go, people are going to waive, no one needs to come to court, you're not going to waste an attorney's time.

The alternative to that is what's referred to as formal arraignment, and I thought that former President Trump might try to do formal arraignment. And that's the situation where the judge or the assistant district attorney reads the entire indictment into the record. And at the end of it and the defendant enters their plea, generally says, not guilty.

So here, what benefit the former president might have had for a formal arraignment is that he could have come in, had the indictment read and then made a very dramatic statement of not guilty, perhaps leaning forward like he did in his mugshot. However, this is a 90 what, 96, 98-page long indictment.

So, the former president would have had to sit there for approximately an hour and a half to two hours before he could have that dramatic moment. And of course, you know, probably all the cameras are turned away. So, I think that's why there's waiver. There's no dramatic moment here unless you're hanging out for about two hours, listening to somebody read.

BASH: That might be true. Sara Murray, you have covered Donald Trump for many years now. And it's the drama, the word drama that Chris used. It's a bit surprising that he is foregoing that drama. Yes, he has to sit in the courtroom for an hour and a half.

But he understands the spectacle that he creates because he's done it now twice in the four cases that he's had to deal with. And it's a bit surprising that he's not taking advantage of it since he believes it's helping him in the short term politically.

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I do think he's realized it's not all that fun to go to court. So, he already got this sort of drama of showing up in Georgia to participate in his arrest, to get the mugshot that he of course, has repurposed in a number of ways to make money off of.

He's also been complaining very loudly that all the time he has to spend in the courtroom takes away from his ability to campaign and to hold the kinds of events that he really wants to hold, which are these big rallies where all his supporters have gathered to cheer his name.

So, you know, given the opportunity to perhaps be on the road and hold another rally versus sitting in a courtroom for the better part of the day, you know, with a number of his other co-defendants. I think Donald Trump decided to skip it this time.

BASH: That sounds very logical.

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Yes. I mean, in this usually in federal court, this is a state court case. So, it's a little different. They bundle it all together. And the scintillating part is actually the bond agreement and the discussion of the release conditions and the arrest that already happened.


That's what we saw last week happened in Georgia at the jail. Sara was over at the jail. I was at the courthouse. We saw all of this play out day-by-day. And so, the not guilty part that is essentially a formality at this point, which is why it's being done on paper.

But the thing that this does now that does make court exciting is that now that everybody gets their initial pleadings of not guilty locked in, this is when people start making choices. Do they plead guilty? I mean, we keep talking about this case, as having 19 defendants. All of these people are not going to go in the same direction, and maybe they do all go to trial. But the likelihood of that, that's just not how the criminal justice system functions.

BASH: OK. There's something else that we want to talk about, and that is that Rudy Giuliani is now joining the likes of Alex Jones. And in the eyes of the law, they are both liars who defamed innocent people. Judge Beryl Howell said that the former New York City mayor should have known better when he tried to take a shortcut around his legal obligations and around the truth and it may cost him millions.


MICHAEL GOTTLIEB, ATTORNEY FOR GEORGIA ELECTION WORKERS: Our expectation is that we'll be able to prove tens of millions of dollars in compensatory damages.


GOTTLIEB: Yes, you heard me correctly.


BASH: Giuliani made the choice to not comply with discovery demands and a lawsuit filed by two Georgia election workers. And now he finds himself sanctioned libel for those lies. How the judge wrote off Giuliani's legal excuses as having more holes than Swiss cheese. And that's 50 years in litigation should, at least that's what he did when he was practicing as an attorney. It should have taught him that lip service will never satisfy a court of law.

Former federal prosecutor Shan Wu joins the table as well. Shan, what do you make of this decision by the judge when it comes to, this is a civil case right now going on in Georgia for these two women who were very much defamed, and their lives were turned upside down to describe it in real detail when they were testifying before the January 6 committee?

SHAN WU, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Yes. It's not too surprising that the judge saw through his defenses here. He really made sort of an odd legal move. He submitted this pleading, he called it really a nolo contemporary pleading, which usually means is no contest. And he basically admitted that what he said was false. But he still wanted to say he had a right to say it under the First Amendment.

So, that's sort of a textbook case of defamation. That you know you're saying something false. And yet you strongly assert you have the right to say it. It's not like it was by accident or something like that. So, I think that's really going to hurt him on the damages issue.

Compensatory tens of millions will be little bit hard to figure out how they get to that that's usually your out-of-pocket damages. You had an injury, you got treatment, maybe mental distress counseling. But on the punitive, so I think he's looking at a world of hurt there, because the judge is going to be pissed off at him.

BASH: Chris Tim, yes. I mean clearly already he is. Chris Timmons, you're down in Georgia, where all of this occurred. What's your take on what the judge said to Giuliani yesterday?

TIMMONS: Sure. So, the funny thing is, I'm a former prosecutor, but I'm a current civil litigator here in Georgia, you know. And so, what the judge basically said is, if you fail to obey the discovery rules, at some point, there's going to be a sanction. And that means that your answer is going to be struck. And so, what happens at that point, once your answers strike, we're down to one issue, no longer liability, but rather how damaged were these poll workers.

And so, he's still entitled to a little bit of a trial at this point, or at least the damages hearing the opposite to figure out what those amounts are. But that's a pretty serious sanction. That's the highest sanction you can get in a civil litigation when you're a defendant is to have your answer struck. So, it's a very big deal.

BASH: I want to turn to something that Donald Trump said on the Glenn Beck radio show, maybe it was a podcast. He talked to Glenn Beck. And he was talking about the notion of when or if he becomes president, again, how he will deal with his political opponents.


GLENN BECK, HOST, THE GLENN BECK PROGRAM (voiceover): You said in 2016, you know, lock her up. And then when you became president, you said, we don't do that in America. That's just not the right thing to do. That's what they're doing. Do you regret not locking her up? And if you're president again, will you lock people up?

DONALD TRUMP, 45TH U.S. PRESIDENT (voiceover): Well, I'll give you an example. The answer is you have no choice because they're doing it to us.

(END VIDEO CLIP) MURRAY: I think this is not surprising, right, coming from Donald Trump. He felt like even when he was the president, that the attorney general should essentially be his personal attorney that the Justice Department should basically act on whatever whim he wanted them to. And we've seen Trump's lawyers in a number of these cases, go to court and say this is Joe Biden, his political opponent coming after Donald Trump.


Even though the prosecutors in this case our special counsels who are appointed separately or our local prosecutors who, you know, are not reporting up to Joe Biden. So, I think in some ways while it's alarming rhetoric, it's also kind of the same stuff he was saying last time.

POLANTZ: Yes. And also, as they're all saying, weaponization of the justice system, they're all complaining about this. Remember, there's different parts of the justice system. There's the Justice Department and the prosecutors that charged cases.

But then there's the court system. It's separate. It's separate from the presidency, the executive branch, the justice system, and so all of these cases have to go through judges. That's a really important part of the essential.

BASH: Such an important point. Thank you so much for the basics on checks and balances. Appreciate it. Coming up, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell freezes, again while speaking to reporters we have some new reporting on that. Next?



BASH: Allies of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell are doing damage control today, racing to reassure his colleagues that he can still do his job. For the state second time in two months, the 81- year-old froze in front of reporters while answering questions. Aid say he was lightheaded and dehydrated. Here is the entire exchange from yesterday and coming to Kentucky.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): What are my thoughts about what?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Running for reelection in 2026?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did you hear the question, Senator, running for reelection in 2026?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All right. I'm sorry, y'all. We're going to need a minute.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Somebody else have a question. Please speak up.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What efforts does Daniel Cameron going to have to make on the campaign trail to win Kentuckians over in November?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Senator Daniel Cameron, do you have a comment on Daniel Cameron?

MCCONNELL: Well, I think the governor's race is going to be very close. Far and away, the best candidate we could have nominated. Our state has become increasingly Republican, in fact the governor's the only Democrat left in Frankfort, so I'm optimistic that Daniel will be our next governor.


BASH: CNN's Manu Raju joins us now from Capitol Hill. Manu, I know you've been working your sources. What are you hearing from the senators fellow Republicans?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, he has been on the phone with those Republican allies since this episode yesterday. Senator McConnell calling up Senator John Thune. The number two, Republican also speaking with Senator John Cornyn. Two of them could be as part of a leadership race to potentially succeed Senator McConnell.

Both of them indicating through their offices that Senator McConnell sounded fine. He sounded like his usual self. McConnell also calling other members of his leadership team as he headed off to a fundraiser in the afternoon with Congressman Jim Banks who's running for the Senate. And all accounts from that -- that meeting was that that went normal. Nothing seemed to amiss.

And Senator McConnell did not address the underlying cause of that moment where he froze up for a second time in as many months. There are still questions about what that underlying cause is his office said that he had consulted a doctor before that Bank's event, but no word on what the diagnosis from the physician was from that visit.

It all comes, Dana, as questions continue to persist by McConnell's own political future. He has indicated that he will continue to serve as leader as he has for the past 16 years through the end of next year. But the question is what will happen at the end of this current congress? Will he continue to serve as leader in the new Congress.

And talking to Republicans, there's a growing doubt that Senator McConnell will continue to stay as leader in the after this coming Congress, which could open up the first contest of leadership fight for this very important position, the first time since 2007. So, a lot of questions here, Dana. And one big question is, what was the reason for this freeze up? McConnell, his office not yet saying why that happened.

BASH: Very, very key question. That is, as you said, on answered. Thank you so much for that reporting, Manu. Let's bring in our panels, Zolan Kanno-Youngs from the New York Times, CNN's Melanie Zanona, and Jonah Goldberg from The Dispatch. Jonah, what are your thoughts on this?

JONAH GOLDBERG, CO-FOUNDER & EDITOR IN CHIEF, THE DISPATCH: I don't see how this is sustainable beyond the medium-term. Short-term, I don't think anyone is coming for him or anything like that. As a conservative, I worry about losing Mitch McConnell in the Senate because he's like, one of the last institutionalists, one of the last grownups. You can disagree with him about all sorts of things, but he had never wanted to be president. He wanted to have the job he has.

And at the same time, you know, what I keep thinking about as I'm one of these people have been saying that Joe Biden is too old to run. We've seen with all sorts of things, like knee to sexual harassment things where a standard that applies to one politician becomes a problem for the other party because they don't realize it can blow back on them.

And a lot of people locked into positions about Dianne Feinstein being too old or about Joe Biden being too old. And now Mitch McConnell gets included. And you could see this metastasizing into a general argument about age limits, about finding a replacement for Joe Biden. If Mitch McConnell's problems came from having a fall as most people inside say, joins one fall away from having similar problems. And I don't mean to be bullish about it and just that's how I see it.


BASH: All very interesting points, particularly the notion that we still don't know what happened and that could be just because he's 81, but it also could be because he fell and suffered a concussion. And Scott Jennings, who is our colleague here at CNN, very, very close with Mitch McConnell. He was on CNN earlier today. And I think was one of the first people I heard talk about how these moments are likely related to his concussion.


SCOTT JENNINGS, LONGTIME FRIEND AND ADVISER TO SEN. MCCONNELL: Since he had his concussion, there have been some moments where obviously his hearing has not been quite as good as it used to be. I can personally attest at the at the Bank's event, he had no trouble hearing, no trouble speaking and no trouble telling everybody how focused he is on winning back the Senate majority. So, there was -- I mean, it was like nothing had happened.


BASH: Melanie, you're up there on Capitol Hill when they're in session, and you're interacting with Senator McConnell as much as he interacts with reporters. He definitely is having more trouble hearing, but this obviously was more than that? MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: Yes. It is noticeable. In recent months, we have noticed him just, you know, walking a little bit slower. He's been hard of hearing. He's had trouble hearing questions from reporters. So, it has been something that we have noticed.

Obviously, these freezing episodes are very, very alarming. They're playing out in front of cameras. And it makes you wonder how often is this happening behind the cameras. And his aides, when they come to aside seem to not be totally fazed by it as if it might have happened before.

I think politically, Jonah, you're absolutely right, that in the short-term, he is fine. No, Republicans are calling for him to step down. But it's a different question when his term is leader is up, whether he's going to want to run and whether he would have the support to do so.

And health challenges aside. He also is facing the ire of Trump world. That's another factor he did face in this last leadership election, his most serious challenge to date. So, I think there are a lot of questions about what he wants to do.

ZOLAN KANNO-YOUNGS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: A lot of questions and the transparency issue is something that's come up in the past with other members and dealing with health issues as well. I remember we discussed that with Senator Fetterman as well, during the campaign. We discussed it with Feinstein as well.

The question around just what is happening behind the scenes and how is the Sanders status when we don't see him is something that's going to be a question moving forward. And I think your point, as well as just what this means broadly, politically. You know, members of the public, we already see that they are concerned about the president's age.

They are concerned that their elected officials don't represent them based on various demographics. So, when they see clips like this, it's hard to think that this really builds trust when it comes to the voter base, knowing that their elected officials represent them and are in full down (Ph)

BASH: Let's put some data underneath what you just said. The latest AP poll said the question was, should there be maximum age limit to run for Congress? 68 percent said, yes, that's two thirds.

GOLDBERG: Yes. I think age limits probably have a lot more political power than term limits do. And you can see -- you can see the case for it. And the only way to do it is it has to be something that gores the oxes on both sides in a certain way. So, it doesn't seem like you're going after one candidate or another candidate.

The other problem with the messaging on this stuff, and I think it's a problem for Biden, it's a problem or McConnell, it was obviously a problem for five senators. Is that there are lots of political issues that normal voters are not experts on and don't think they're experts on. Almost everybody has a member of their own family, where they recognize these things.

Bernie Sanders doesn't seem to have lost a step. And they can see that. They can see in other politicians when they have, and they don't need to be told or spawn about this stuff because they know when they see it.

BASH: And it's not necessarily just younger people who have family members. There are people who are about the same age, who are looking at them saying, do I vote for them? Do I support them? And knowing what is going on in their own lives in their own bodies?

ZANONA: Right. And it's not just about age, right? It's about health and whether you're fit to serve. And for McConnell, he has been working behind the scenes, as Manu was saying, to reassure everyone that he is fit to serve. And I think that Scott Jennings coming out and saying that he was totally sharpened fine after this incident was another way to try to reassure people that he is capable of doing his job.

BASH: Yes. And look, he went to an event afterwards, after he consulted with the physician. He wanted to make clear, I mean, even in that clip, you could see his very stubborn, very determined mo come out, because he didn't -- as opposed to the last time when members of his leadership team moved him away from the microphones on the Capitol -- in the Capitol. This time, he said no, I'm going to stay. And he wanted to make clear that he understood the question and he could answer it, even though it was obviously quite difficult.

KANNO-YOUNGS: That's right. He did have an intention to stay. But again, this makes it even more of an important question of, we don't know exactly what happened here. We don't know the full extent of the ramifications of his concussion. We learned only after the fact my colleagues reported that there were multiple other falls that occurred after that as well, behind the scenes that we didn't see. So, this is a game where the transparency issue is very important. When there's a void of information, people will fill it with their own assumptions.


BASH: There was a headline on the op-ed page in his hometown newspaper, the Lexington Herald-Leader. And in it the columnist Linda Blackford said, after another freeze, Mitch McConnell needs to come clean about his health.

GOLDBERG: There are going to be more calls about that -- for that kind of thing. And again, it's one of these things where how many more instances do you need before the zeitgeist just gels in a bad direction? Look, I hope nothing but the best for Mitch McConnell, obviously, but it is so dependent on something that you can't plan or schedule, it's dependent upon whether this happens again in public.

And again, I think it's a cautionary tale for Joe Biden as well. I mean, if you saw this latest polls, you know, something like two thirds of Democrats think he's too old and shouldn't run again. And all you need is one event to change people's minds in optics and this is a small lesson in that. BASH: Yes. And we do all wish him well. I mean, that sort of should go without saying. Thank you so much. And standby, because we're going to talk next about Justice Clarence Thomas. He did disclose new trips paid for by a billionaire donor. So, how many private jets did he fly on for free? We're going to talk more about that ahead.