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Inside Politics

Menendez Defies Calls To Quit, Says He Will Beat Indictment; Menendez Denies Wrongdoing After Stunning Federal Indictment; McCarthy Calls For Funding To Keep Government Open; GOP Holdouts Remain Opposed To Stopgap Funding; Trump Encourages Government Shutdown; McCarthy Won't Commit To Vote On Stopgap Funding Bill. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired September 25, 2023 - 12:00   ET



MANU RAJU, CNN HOST: Today on Inside Politics, defined Bob Menendez vows to beat a federal indictment and that when all of a sudden done. He says, he will still be the senior senator from New Jersey. On the clock, Congress confronts a deadline and is shrinking six-day window to stop a shutdown. And guess what, Donald Trump just made the House speakers job a whole lot harder.

Plus, a picket line gamble. Tomorrow Joe Biden heads to Detroit in hopes to make headway in bridging the big gap between what labor wants and what automakers say they can afford.

I'm Manu Raju in for Dana Bash. Let's go behind the headlines at Inside Politics.

Up first, Bob Menendez's big fight and one he vows to win. Minutes ago, the New Jersey Democrat responded directly to a federal indictment.


SEN. BOB MENENDEZ, (D-NJ): The allegations leveled against me are just that, allegations. When all the facts are presented, not only will I be exonerated, but I still will be the New Jersey's senior senator.


RAJU: Menendez said the microphone national intention to flatly deny he did anything wrong. To list out all the ways he has stood up to Egypt over decades of service and to make what sounded like a case for reelection.

We'll start in New Jersey with CNN's Kara Scannell who was in the room. So, Kara, tell us more about what Menendez said and why he had all that cash that federal investigators seized?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Manu. As you say, he's really standing up here saying that he is not going to back down. He's saying that he's done nothing wrong in this investigation that he believes he will be exonerated when it's all said and done. He also asked for people to pause and not rush to judgment, saying that sometimes prosecutors get it wrong. A nod to his indictment in 2015, where he emerged from that unscathed, both criminally and politically.

Now at issue some of these allegations that he's facing in this indictment, prosecutors alleged that they found hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash stuffed in envelopes at his home and they executed a search warrant last year. And those envelopes were even in pockets of a jacket that bore his name. Well, Menendez spoke directly to that point, just a few moments ago. Take a listen?


SEN. MENENDEZ: For 30 years, I have withdrawn thousands of dollars in cash from my personal savings account, which I have kept for emergencies. And because of the history of my family facing confiscation in Cuba. Now this may seem old fashioned. But these were monies drawn from my personal savings account based on the income that I have lawfully derived over those 30 years.


SCANNELL: Now, he did not answer questions about why he had gold bars and why his wife had received a Mercedes-Benz convertible, those are also payments that prosecutors allege were part of this bribery scheme. He was also charged with taking a number of steps that benefited Egypt.

But he went on the offensive here saying that he has a record of being tough on Egypt ascending up on human rights abuses. But so, he's clearly trying to delineate from his public actions for what prosecutors allege was happening behind closed doors.

Now, he also slightly addressed these calls to resign, saying that he has not lost the confidence of New Jerseyans. And he said there were a number of people in the room here supporting him some constituents that were here, and he spoke a lot about what he's done for this state in this community.

I mean, this press conference is at a community college in Union City, New Jersey where Menendez grew up and where he started his political career. Today taking a strong stance that he is not stepping down. He'll be in federal court on Wednesday to face these charges. Manu?

RAJU: OK. Not saying that whether or not he will run for reelection, a big question here in Washington where Democrats and Republicans are interested in like. Kara Scannell in New Jersey, thanks for that. And here with us to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Jeff Zeleny, Margaret Talev, the senior contributor at Axios, Tia Mitchell from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and former federal prosecutor Elliot Williams.

So just to get remind viewers about what Menendez is facing near these very, very serious charges. Conspiracy to commit bribery, conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, conspiracy to commit extortion. This indictment of disclose alleges that Menendez disclose non-public information that businessmen about U.S. military aid and provide that information to employees in the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.


And the indictment really goes on to talk about these cash bribes that Menendez allegedly had. The Mercedes-Benz C-class car that was the Kara reference just a moment ago, nearly $500,000 seized in his home, $80,000 from a safe deposit box, 13 gold bars.

So, Elliot, you heard what Menendez had to say. He started to begin to lay out his defense. Take us through what he has plans to argue and how hard will that be for prosecutors to peers?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Right. I think as a politician, and I think as a member of Congress or the Senate, his argument is going to be that you are criminalizing the work of politicians. You're criminalizing the kinds of communications with constituents or even possibly foreign governments, that maybe might be suspect to people, but, you know, are still permissible and within the bounds of the law.

I think his big problem, are those gold bricks, right? And even his argument, as Kara pointed out that, well, I withdraw money, you know, and keep it in imagine, OK, fine. People do that. And that's a plausible explanation. You have to explain those gold bricks.

And this is why, if I were an attorney, I would advise them not to talk there, because it opens up the question of even assuming people believe this idea about the cash, those gold bricks with the DNA and fingerprints of one of the other associates or defendants is just potentially devastating.

RAJU: So, you heard his defense by speaking up there (Ph)?

WILLIAMS: I think he did -- don't -- it's fine for a politician to think he can talk his way out of it. It's a human impulse and it makes sense. But the doors you open are far -- there are far more doors, opening the doors you close for prosecution when you open your mouth as a defendant.

RAJU: Yes. And look, that's the legal fallout. There's also, of course, the political fallout. And we started to hear some Democrats over the weekend, particularly in the New Jersey delegation. One after the other calling in the House side, calling for him to step aside to resign, including the governor of New Jersey.

But the senior senator or the junior senator from New Jersey Cory Booker has been silent on this so far. And Democratic leaders have been grappling with this as well. You heard senators, people who are like Dick Durbin, the number two Democrat, kind of align himself with where Chuck Schumer was, stopping short of calling on him to resign.


SEN. DICK DURBIN, (D-IL): Terms of resignation, that's the decision we made by Senator Menendez and the people of New Jersey.

SEN. MARK KELLY, (D-AZ): I think, Senator Menendez is going to have to think long and hard about the cloud that's going to hang over his service in the United States Senate.

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ, (D-NJ): I do believe that it is in the best interests for Senator Menendez to resign in this moment. While, you know, as a Latina, there are absolutely ways in which there is systemic bias. But I think what is here in this indictment is quite clear.


RAJU: And that last point was in reference to Menendez. This paper statement from over the weekend where he said that he's being targeted here because he has a Latino.

TIA MITCHELL, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, THE ATLANTA JOURNAL- CONSTITUTION: Yes. I agree with Elliot, that it's interesting that I think he thinks he can, you know, as a politician talk his way through it. We saw him appealing to his constituents, speaking in Spanish at the news conference, but a lot of what was laid out in the indictment looks troubling.

And I think that people like me who already -- I'm relatively new to Capitol Hill, I already felt like he was perceived as kind of someone who most Democrats on Capitol Hill kept at arm's length. He had seniority. They needed his vote, obviously, in the Senate on a lot of things. But he wasn't necessarily the most prominent senator. And what we've seen as people continue to distance themselves from him over the weekend.

RAJU: Jeff, why don't you think that Democratic leaders are trying to push them out in the Senate side? And look, they don't want him to run. They may not be saying that publicly. But if he runs that could endanger a seat that they absolutely cannot be fighting. They have so many other problems, the map to keep the Senate next year. But you know, why they're not -- Chuck Schumer is not strong arming him at this moment?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Look, it's just sort of the ethos of the Senate. The Senate is, really, in every scandal that I can think of regardless of parties, usually at the very beginning, the leaders do not push them out. They give them space to make a decision. So, I think that is what is happening here.

But Senator Cory Booker, I remember at the time he attended the trial virtually every day. The first time, he has a tough decision to make here, what to say, because the governor of New Jersey, a Democrat, other members of Congress were pretty forceful, as does the White House.

So, so much more is at play here than simply Bob Menendez. I mean, I can't recall a time when the rule of law and the integrity of the justice system has been so entwined in our political conversation, as it is right now at the moment with the indictment of the former president.

So, if Democrats want to have any moral high ground here at all, which they claim that they do, then they will be forced to say something. So that is why I think this is different than other moments that we've seen. So, we'll see what President Biden has to say about this as well.


RAJU: With that a whole lot so far. And look, there's also the issue of him running for reelection and facing this this terrible press about the these really sorted allegations here. This is what was written in his home state papers in New Jersey Star-Ledger over the weekend and an editorial.

It says, you need to cast an eye to the torture chambers run by Egypt's military dictatorship or security goons rape women to pressure their husbands in the next cell where they clamp metal grips to men's genitals and shock them into submission, where they hang teens by their arms, tied behind their back, and leave them until their shoulders dislocate. That's the dictatorship that Menendez has been helping since 2018.

Again, this is about the allegations in this indictment about he may have been assisting the government in some way.

MARGARET TALEV, SENIOR CONTRIBUTOR, AXIOS: There are a lot of real democracy and kind of who are you working for questions here that I think are going to come out in the legal case. I think politically, this is much -- the questions are much more domestic focused over voter in New Jersey. You're probably more likely to be drawn to the story about the gold bars than about what the government does in Egypt and Senator Menendez culpability for that.

Think for the Democratic Party, to Jeff's point. If you want to be able to say that the Democratic Party is stands in contrast to what Donald Trump is doing, or to what George Santos is doing. You need to be able to draw a much clearer ethical line about your old members, your own members.

I think for Senator Menendez, one of the challenges is that he had $480,000 in cash for him about the gold bars and Mercedes, and all that other stuff. $480 grand in cash and various like pockets and envelopes. The average American at the time they retire has $250,000.



ZELENY: Look at the salary of senators, it just doesn't matter.

RAJU: Yes, exactly. So, I'm curious, he wants to run for reelection. Can this case go to trial before November 2024? Oh, just kind of hang over his head through the next campaign?

WILLIAMS: This could actually go to trial before November 2024. Because I think, you know, what's behind your question is all the other ones related to President Trump's top-secret documents and all kinds of things that might take a long time to get to trial. This is a relatively straightforward bribery case. And I think in a matter of months, you really could bring this to trial barring something major interesting.

RAJU: We'll see if that's the way it plays out. OK. With just five days to go until the government shuts down. Is Kevin McCarthy any closer to getting the hardliners to bet? We go live to Capitol Hill for all the latest details.




RAJU: Speaker Kevin McCarthy back at the Capitol today with less than a week until the government shuts down. And he again called on hardliners in his own party to help keep the government open. CNN's Melanie Zanona is live with me on Capitol Hill with McCarthy's latest strategy. So, I guess McCarthy's strategy, Mel, can be sort of summed up as if at first you don't succeed, try, try, again.

MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: Try, try again, and even than it might not work. Because as of right now, they still do not have a clear plan to avoid a shutdown. As of right now, Speaker Kevin McCarthy's goal is to pass as many individual long-term spending bills as possible this week, that has been a demand of the far right.

And the hope is that that will get enough conservative hardliners on board with a short-term bill that it will sort of build some goodwill with them and convince them that they just need a little bit more time to pass the rest of their long-term spending bills.

But there are a lot of problems with each of those steps. First of all, still not clear that Republicans have the support to pass either short-term or long-term funding bills. And second of all, even if they did those bills are dead on arrival in the Senate. And meanwhile, it doesn't help that.

Now we have former President Donald Trump openly calling for Republicans to shut down the government if they don't get everything they want. So, this morning, we heard Kevin McCarthy with his own message, trying to really ramp up pressure on his own members to fall in line. Take a listen?


REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY, (R-CA): Well, you have to keep the government open. I mean, if people want to close the government, only makes a weaker. Why would they want to stop paying the troops or stop paying the border agents or the coast guard. I don't understand how that makes you stronger. I don't understand what point you're trying to make.


ZANONA: Of course, one way out of this mess is for Kevin McCarthy to work with Democrats and work with the Senate. And across the Capitol, they have taken steps in the Senate to start advancing their own short-term funding bill, which could include things like disaster aid and Ukraine money. Unclear how McCarthy would handle that. He has not yet committed to putting a bill like that on the floor.

But if he did, Manu, you know is better than anyone that would almost immediately trigger a right-wing rebellion and trigger a vote to remove him as speaker. So ultimately, it may come down to Kevin McCarthy choosing between keeping the government open or keeping his speaker's gavel.

RAJU: And let's see if he's able to do either. Melanie Zanona, thanks for that. And my panel is back. But I want to start off talking about the big challenge for McCarthy, then as Melanie said. How do they get hardliners onboard with keeping the government open?

I talked to Garret Graves, he's one of Kevin McCarthy's closest allies. I've been talking to him all weekend. He told me over the weekend that this small faction of holdouts essentially could lead them to getting a worse solution and getting jammed by the Senate.


REP. GARRET GRAVES (R-LA): It's a huge concern that I have and it's not just something today, it's something we've been concerned about for several weeks now. Because there have been people that have been resisting or pushing back on efforts to move the appropriations bill, dating back to May of this year that have sort of caused this situation that we're in. And so, they've sort of created this quandary that we're in right now. And it's something that we have been trying to avoid now for months.


RAJU: And by day, he's talking about those conservative hardliner holdouts. McCarthy has a math problem. He needs, going to lose four votes. They're at least seven, maybe up to 10, who said they were not going to vote for a short-term spending bill, no matter what yet he is continuing to try to pressure these folks who are showing no signs of giving it.

MITCHELL: Yes. And not just the math problem as far as the numbers, but a lot of them want different things. So, once he appeases a few on, for example, Ukraine, and he loses some on Ukraine. And then he appeases some on border security or passing these individual appropriations bills, and he just hasn't been able to please enough people at the same time.


One thing I've been hearing from members is, why didn't they work on these things during the recess? They went home for a long time like five or six weeks -- --

RAJU Six weeks in the House.

MITCHELL: Yes. And they came back pretty much in the same position they left in with very little time to figure it out. And now we're less than a week to a possible shutdown. As Melanie said, there is no clear plan to avoid it.

RAJU: Yes. Because even if they pass something out of the House this week, which seems unlikely, but they did. It goes nowhere in the Senate, because McCarthy is trying to include provisions that that senators won't accept on both sides of the aisle, spending cause, border security measures, other issues. The Senate is going to move on its own plan. That's going to take almost a week to get just something out of the Senate because Rand Paul says he'll slow it down, if it includes Ukraine aid, which it will, which is why the real fears are, there is going to be shutdown. The question for a lot of people I thought do is, how long not that if, but how long the shutdown would be?

TALEV: Does anyone disagree? There is going to be a shutdown, right? And the question is how long, and I think I would add one more element to this conversation, which is the theme of the strike. Because if you look at the rioters' strike, what's been going on in Hollywood that took quite a long time.

You look at what's going on now in Michigan and with the auto workers, UAW strike. You look at what's happening this week in politics, where you're going to have Biden and Donald Trump, both in Michigan, both trying to show striking auto workers, how much they care about them.

I think Trump's messaging to Congress, to the hardliners, to all of Congress, to voters is sort of to treat the showdown like a strike. It's like a bad analogy, because you can't -- like the federal government is not a strike and you can't solve the demands of the hardliners through the normal legislative process. There is not the votes for what they want, but he's saying basically, shut it down.

RAJU: Yes. I want to show viewers exactly what Donald Trump said because he is talking to the people who are holding out. He said this in his post over just yesterday, the Republicans lost big on debt ceiling got nothing, and now are worried that they will be blamed for the budget showdown. Wrong, he said. Whoever is president will be blamed in this case, crooked as hell, Joe Biden. Unless you get everything shut it down.

And remember, Kevin McCarthy is the one who cut that debt ceiling deal, and they were touting that as huge victories here. But what Donald Trump saying is not helpful for Kevin McCarthy right now.

ZELENY: Not helpful at all. And look, Kevin McCarthy, the speakers in a vise, he's in a vise of his own making. He has been underestimated throughout the year through a variety of deals. This is a whole another matter entirely. So, look, there is no exit ramp.

Essentially, I sat here a week ago, expressing some optimism, thinking Washington always, you know, kind of finds a solution. I think that's impossible. That's impossible because people don't want it. Yes. I mean, they're marching toward a shutdown, some with glee. And so, the question is, how long would it go? The former president hasn't said that yet. How long should they shut it down.

But again, Newt Gingrich, the former speaker and others, some older elders in the party are very concerned about this, about the politics of this. So, this could be the best thing that President Biden has at least politically, Republicans shutting down the government. But the actual problem after it shuts down, is how do you get it back open? I don't know what the answer --


RAJU: That's always the hardest part.

MITCHELL: There's a big problem here. And this is going to be if there's a shutdown, which looks likely it will be fuller than what we've experienced in the past. We're talking about members of the armed forces not getting paid this time possibly. And the White House is already messaging on perhaps, you know, what it could mean as far as programs, the safety net programs for families and low-income people.

And so, there may be more pain than even the more recent shutdowns that we've seen, which again, will put the pressure we already know, Kevin McCarthy has said it. The Republicans are going to get the blame here. Contrary to what Donald Trump says, usually, it's Republicans who get the blame.

RAJU: Yes. Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell actually agree on that. They both say that they believe their own party could get the blame here. He's talking about the White House. The White House is actually sending out different cabinet secretaries each day of the week to talk about those the impacts that it could have Tom Vilsack that is going out there today, talking about add programs in the like over the weekend, people to judge also discuss the impact as well.


PETE BUTTIGIEG, TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY: The American people don't want to shut down from what I can tell the Senate is ready to go, the administration is ready to go. House Republicans need to come to their senses and keep the government running.


RAJU: So, look, the challenge here is if McCarthy does not move forward on something that would cut down the support with Democrats. There's a way around them. There's something they could actually, they can sign on to what's known on Capitol Hill as a discharge petition. 218 votes could actually -- signatures can actually force a vote on the House floor.


That takes time. That's un -- can be a long shot. May that's the only way out here. But if McCarthy were to side with those democratic efforts, then the real threat of him losing the speakership comes forward because those members say, if he does that he's out of a job.

TALEV: Yes. Because you're in a moment now, where there's so much polarization between the two parties and such a cardinal rule of both parties, but especially of the House Republican caucus right now. Isn't anyone who sort of crosses the line and team up with Democrats is what a Matt Gaetz say they're treasonous, or something like, there are huge political stakes.

And so, if leadership is the art of compromise, and compromise is the death knell inside your own party, you have a problem. It's felled the last few House speakers, the problem for Kevin McCarthy is sticking with those hardliners could also be not just his undoing, but the undoing of their majority just asked Newt Gingrich. That was his lesson from the mid-90s.

RAJU: And this is the reason why Kevin McCarthy and his team spent huge in the last midterms, trying to get a big majority because they didn't want to have to be in a situation -- -

TALEV: Exactly where they are.

RAJU: Exactly where they are right now. Our speakership is on the line, the government could shut down and cutting a deal with Democrats could mean the end of the speakership wants to go through for the speaker the days ahead. Coming up. President Biden and former President Trump's square off in Michigan this week, as automakers continue their strike. Look at their dueling trips to this key battleground state.