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Justice Clarence Thomas Officially Discloses Private Jet Trips, Vacation Paid For By GOP Megadonor; Tudor Dixon Says Donald Trump Told Her To Pivot On Abortion Views; HHS Wants To Reclassify Marijuana As Lower Risk Drug. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired August 31, 2023 - 12:30   ET




DANA BASH, CNN HOST: Ethics questions are once again swirling around the Supreme Court. A new financial disclosure this morning reveals another round of billionaire backed expenses for Justice Clarence Thomas. In addition to the previously undisclosed travel reported by ProPublica earlier this year, the new document shows Republican megadonor Harlan Crow also paid for Justice Thomas's private flights and a luxury vacation in 2022.

CNN's Joan Biskupic joins the panel. Joan, what are we learning?

JOAN BISKUPIC, CNN SENIOR SUPREME COURT ANALYST: Well, this is the first time that Clarence Thomas himself has disclosed anything about these trips. They were in news reports earlier by ProPublica, but this is Clarence Thomas saying that, yes, Harlan Crow paid for two trips -- two sets of trips to Dallas, and then also to his summer trip to his very opulent resort in upstate New York.

Clarence Thomas is now acknowledging that, and he's going backwards to 2014 and saying that, yes, he had a financial relationship with a property deal with Harlan Crow for property that had been owned by Thomas's family that he wanted to put on record that he hadn't before.

BASH: So this disclosure --


BASH: -- is against the backdrop of a statement that the justice put out on April 7, where he said, "Early in my tenure at the court, I sought guidance from my colleagues and others in the judiciary and was advised that this sort of personal hospitality from close personal friends who did not have business before the court was not reportable".

Now he's doing something different.


BISKUPIC: Well, can I just put --

BASH: Yes, please.

BISKUPIC: Yes, because there has been a rule change. There was a rule change in terms of some personal hospitality. But arguably, any kind of trips on a private jet or personal yacht that Clarence Thomas went on should have already been recorded.

But I want to just mention what Thomas's lawyer said today in a statement that came with the filing was any errors had been inadvertent. And to just reflect the atmosphere that we're all dealing in, he called it political blood sport to go after Thomas relative to his financial disclosure filings.

So, you know, we know what this charged atmosphere is, and I just wanted to mention kind of how they're trying to counter it, despite the reality that other justices had actually been reporting these kinds of personal hospitality, travel, and lodging that the justice hadn't.

KANNO-YOUNGS: I thought that last aspect was fascinating, too. The defense in there and these disclosure forms, it just really shows just how polarized the highest court in this country has become at this point. This is already after a year of some pretty pivotal Supreme Court decisions that definitely stoke divisions in the country.

When you think of Roe, when you think of other decisions as well, also multiple controversies surrounding different justices as well, just the fact that you would have Clarence Thomas, who is not exactly known for speaking publicly on these issues, include that defense in these disclosures kind of shows the climate around the court right now.

MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: And I think he's not only battling this erosion of public trust in the Supreme Court in general is, but they're also battling an attempt from Congress to try to reform their ethics code and try to mandate a binding ethics code.

Two of the things that Senate Democrats put forward in their bill would be recusal. As of right now, Joan, I believe, they are not required to recuse themselves, right? It's up to themselves?

BISKUPIC: They're supposed to recuse if there's a potential conflict of interest or it looks that way, but they don't have to give the reason --

ZANONA: That's right.

BISKUPIC: -- and the Congress in this bill, actually Senate Democrats, I should say, to clarify, have wanted that as one of the more --


BISKUPIC: -- stronger elements to counter the lack of trans that we're seeing.

BASH: And we just --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Go ahead. BASH: We have -- I just want to add to that. We have a tweet this morning from Sheldon Whitehouse, who is Democratic Senator on Senate Judiciary, one of the people who was trying to put this legislation forward. He said, "This late-come effort at Clean-up on Aisle Three won't deter us from fully investigating the massive, secret, right- wing billionaire influence in which this court is admired".


JONAH GOLDBERG, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: OK, so I'm going to be off the reservation on this. I will confess my conflicts here. I know Harlan Crow. He's a good friend of mine. He's one of the most honorable people I know. I don't believe for a moment that he tried to bribe or unduly influence Clarence Thomas.

I completely understand the appearance of ethical problems that Clarence Thomas got himself into, particularly with the real estate thing, which I think was legitimately problematic. All that said, the fact that Clarence Thomas's lawyers said that this is about -- this is a political blood sport doesn't mean it's not true.

And to quote Sheldon Whitehouse, who, if extending the metaphor of political blood sport is covered in partisan blood, he is not exactly a straight shooter or an honest broker in these kinds of things. And there is a concerted double standard since the Supreme Court has moved into -- as a conservative majority to cover this stuff, to question the legitimacy of the court because it is conservative that we did not see before and that if it had been done in previous eras or if this was a liberal majority, we would hear also how dare you delegitimize the court?

We hear that about almost every other institution from the right, and it's a criticism of the right. But when it happens from the left, when it happens from ProPublica, and there have been an enormous number of really terrible journalistic hit jobs on Clarence Chalmers that don't get the attention because there is political blood sport here, doesn't mean that there aren't some that are legitimate. But this idea that all of the verities and all the equities go against Clarence Thomas and against the court, I just don't think is fair or right.

BASH: Well, let's go to -- let's again put a little data on this is a poll from July about trust in Supreme Court justices. 43 percent said a great deal or fair amount. 50 percent said little or none. This is what you've been covering, or this court you've been covering for a while.

BISKUPIC: Yes. I think there's a broader problem here that we should not lose sight of. The court does have transparency issues. The court has wanted to keep back information. I mean, even today, getting these forms, you know, both Justices Clarence Thomas and Sam Alito, had every right to ask for a 90-day extension here.

But things tend to come late. They tend to come with skimpy information. So as much as I can appreciate your defense of Harlan Crow and Clarence Thomas, I think what we shouldn't lose sight of is the power of the Supreme Court, whether it's moving to the left or to the right. And right now it really is lunging to the right. And that's why there's so much more public concern about the justice's off bench behavior.

BASH: Really interesting discussion. Thank you, guys.

Stand by. Donald Trump had some advice for one-time Michigan Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon. What he told her about talking about abortion on the campaign trail, it is very illuminating. We'll discuss that next.



BASH: Talk differently. That's the advice from former President Donald Trump on one-time Michigan Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon's podcast earlier this week. Dixon revealed that Trump told her to soften her message on abortion during her 2022 campaign. But she admitted her campaign just couldn't and didn't pivot fast enough.


TUDOR DIXON, FORMER GOP MICHIGAN GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE: You came to me and you said you got to talk differently about abortion and we could not pivot, we could not pivot in time. And it really -- you were absolutely right, sir, and I hope that you are able to navigate that issue in '24 and that we can win those women back because they are already putting out attack ads and it is not a fair issue for them to attack on".

DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Yes, that's what happened to you and that's what happened to a lot of other people and didn't happen to me because, you know, there is a way of talking about it.


BASH: My panel is back with me. Wow, there's so much to unpack here. Let's just start with the most important, which is what Donald Trump said about the way he talks about it. We know --


BASH: -- that he is resisting at every turn the conservative -- socially conservative groups trying to pressure him to embrace stricter restrictions, even a national ban on abortion.

ZANONA: It's really fascinating to hear Trump talking about this, giving someone else advice, because it gives such a good window into his thinking, especially as he's thinking about the '24 campaign. He has not promised a national abortion ban in contrast to some of his GOP rivals, like a Mike Pence or a Ron DeSantis.

And we know from reporting that he has privately complained about the anti-abortion movement and impacts that it had on the midterms. He didn't like that he was getting blamed for the poor GOP showing in the midterms last cycle. But no doubt the Republicans have struggled with their abortion message. I mean, in many cases, they just tried to run away from the issue entirely and that didn't work.

BASH: Yes, or in the case of Tudor Dixon. I went to Michigan and I did a story on that gubernatorial race. The Democrats, not just the sitting governor who won reelection, Gretchen Whitmer, but the outside groups really defined Tudor Dixon and her position on abortion before she got a chance to do it. And then she added to the skepticism, particularly among women who she lost in the election, by saying things like this.



DIXON: I've been very clear about my position, I am -- I do not approve of. I am pro-life with exceptions for life of the mother. I've talked to those people who were the child of a rape victim and the bond that those two people made and the fact that out of that tragedy there was healing through that baby.


BASH: So now she's saying she couldn't pivot fast enough. But that sounds like her position, her policy position. It's not a political strategy.

KANNO-YOUNGS: That's right. And you were right also that Democrats at the time were intent on seizing on moments exactly like that. Talking to White House and DNC right now, folks around there, they intend on doing the same thing moving forward, which is also interesting given the current president has also openly said that he's uncomfortable speaking about abortion rights and what have you, and we'll see what that means for the strategy moving forward.

But this is an issue that has Democrats thinking that they could potentially make gains in a state like North Carolina as well, and other states that have proposed these kind of restrictions as well. So I think it will once again resonate and be relevant (INAUDIBLE).

GOLDBERG: Yes, I just -- I mean, I agree with all that. The thing that strikes me about this podcast interview is this sort of implied air of Donald Trump's strategic brilliance to tell her, look, you shouldn't talk about forcing rape victims to carry the child of the rapist, right?

You can be pro-life, and this is not exactly like, oh, special oracular insight into the minds of voters, right? I mean, this is like really basic stuff. And it's not Donald Trump's a genius on this, is that she got way out there living in a bubble and thought that this was the kind of thing that was going to work in a general election in Michigan and it was idiotic.

BASH: OK, that's true. But it doesn't change the fact that this debate is still going on right now --

GOLDBERG: For sure.

BASH: -- within the Republican Party as they vie for -- not just the presidential nomination, but all of these down ballot races. And you have the Susan B. Anthony group and others like it. Well, I'll just read you part of the statement that they put out after a referendum special election in Ohio.

"Everyone must take this threat seriously and recognize progressives will win if their opponents are scared into submission by the pro- abortion left. So long as the Republicans and their supporters take the ostrich strategy and bury their heads in the sand, they will lose again and again."

So that is the pressure. This is rhetorically. This is campaign messaging, frankly, even as much as or more than the underlying policy.

GOLDBERG: No, no, I agree with that. Look, the right spent 50 years trying to get rid of Roe where you could say you were either anti-Roe or pro-life, and there was no contradiction. After Dobbs, all of a sudden, you have a federal -- a certain kind of federal society position which says, no, this is a state issue, which is what a lot of us said.

And then you have other people saying, as they did in the Republican debate, no, no, no, the logic of this says it has to be a national thing. And it turns out that very few people on the right thought, like, how to drive once they caught the car, right. It was like, we're going to do this, and then we'll be ready on day one.

And so you saw all these state legislators getting way out ahead without really thinking through what the politics were going to be. And the right hasn't figured this out.

BASH: And we didn't say this, but it goes -- it's important to say the person who caught the car was Donald Trump because he's the one who put the justices on the bench in the Supreme Court that allowed for Roe to be overturned, and now he doesn't want to talk about it.

All right, that was such an interesting discussion. As you can tell, I'm a little bit obsessed with this political issue.

It's being hailed as the first step to easing marijuana restrictions. A new announcement out of the White House next.



BASH: Now to a letter of recommendation with the potential to make federal law go up in smoke. CNN's Arlette Saenz is at the White House. Arlette, walk us through what the Health and Human Services Department is asking for.

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Dana, this is a significant recommendation when it comes to how marijuana is classified, with the Health and Human Services suggesting to the Drug Enforcement Administration that they lower it to a lower risk category.

Now, currently, marijuana is a Schedule One substance. That is a substance that has a likelihood of high abuse. It has no medical use. It's on par right now with heroin and LSD. But what HHS has recommended is they move it to Schedule Three, which can have some medical use and has a less likely chance of abuse.

Things that you can think about on the Schedule Three level are Tylenol with codeine and also with ketamine. Now, this falls short of completely declassifying marijuana, which would have made it legal on a federal level, that's something that some activists have pushed for as about currently, less than half of the states in the U.S. allow adult recreational use of marijuana.

But if this policy were to go forward, it's something that the DEA still has to fully decide on. It would go through a rulemaking process as well, but it could have significant implications when it comes to the economics around weed.


Think about those cannabis businesses across the country, this would potentially lower their federal taxes and also make it easier for them to bank as well. This could also be a potent political issue heading into the 2024 election as marijuana has more frequently become common as you've seen, these states, at least on the state level, allow it to occur, the use there.

BASH: Yes, I mean, no question, Arlette. There's clearly a disconnect particularly over the last couple of years between what we're seeing on the state level and the federal level. And of course, this is an evolution for the President himself on this issue.

Arlette, thank you so much for that reporting. Appreciate it. Nice to see you.

SAENZ: Thanks.

BASH: And thank you for joining INSIDE POLITICS. "CNN NEWS CENTRAL" starts after a quick break.