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Inside Politics

Six Weeks Until GOP Iowa Caucuses; Ron DeSantis: I'm "Going To Win Iowa"; Trump Remains Frontrunner Six Weeks Out From Iowa Caucuses; CNN Confirms Israeli Forces Are Operating In Southern Gaza; Israeli Military Says Objective In Northern Gaza "Nearly Completed"; WH Warns U.S. Aid Delay Will "Kneecap Ukraine" On Battlefield; Trump Says Biden Is The True Threat To Democracy; Biden Campaign: Trump Would Use Government As "Personal Weapon". Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired December 04, 2023 - 12:00   ET



DANA BASH, CNN HOST, INSIDE POLITICS: Today on Inside Politics, countdown to Iowa. The first test of the 2024 presidential election is just six weeks away. Will the crucial caucuses propel a Trump challenger towards the nomination or push the former president closer to a second term?

Plus, a wider war. Israeli forces are expanding their fight against Hamas across all of Gaza. As we are learning even more of the gruesome terrifying details of the way Hamas terrorists savagely raped women on October 7, before killing them.

And destroyer of American democracy. That's what Donald Trump is calling Joe Biden. The president's campaign calls the attack a distraction when the American people will see right through.

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

I want to start in Iowa where just a month and a half from now Republicans will be gathering across the Hawkeye State to select the first winner in the Republican contest. Let's go first to Jeff Zeleny who is in Iowa in Cedar Rapids. How's it feeling there? Besides I'm guessing pretty cold.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well Dana, there's a bit of snow on the ground and it's Christmas shopping season. So, it's also time for the Iowa caucuses to enter a new phase and talking to voters here throughout the weekend. It's clear that the ones who at least are inclined to participate in the Iowa Republican caucuses are paying a new level of attention. It's hard not to.

There are so many television ads from all of the candidates about Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis were in Iowa over the weekend making their individual pitches. There's no question that the former president still looms large in this race in every way. He still holds a commanding lead in all of the polls, although there haven't been many recent polls.

So, one strategist I talked to this morning said, it feels like we're "flying blind." They're not sure if opinions are changing. But when you talk to voters, the set of Republicans who are interested in moving on from the former president about half the party or so, they are beginning to focus more intently.

We talked to a Nikki Haley voter this morning. He has made up his mind, Ron DeSantis supporter yesterday, others are still considering a Vivek Ramaswamy. We did get news this morning that North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum is suspending his campaign. Of course, not a big factor in the race.

But what it shows is the race is consolidating. The race is definitely getting smaller before the voting begins and that could have an impact. But Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, of course, is putting all of his eggs into the Iowa basket. He needs to win here. He knows that. He made this point yesterday while campaigning in Eastern Iowa.


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): So, I'll be able to lead because it's not going to be about my issues. It's going to be about your issues. I think that's very clear. That's clear with the media. They're agitating for it because -- and they're not doing anything right now. They're waiting and they want to get through the primary and appease that you're going to see them open this up. And it is going to be blistering and unfortunately it will work. So why would we want to nominate who the Democrats want us to nominate? Why would we want us to nominate who the media wants us to nominate?


ZELENY: So, the Florida governor there is trying to make his pitch to Iowa voters to think independently and not necessarily follow the polls that show that the former president is in the lead, but he has had his own drama here, Dana. There is no doubt. He's outsourced much of his campaign to a Super PAC called never back down. It's gone through a massive leadership, a turmoil, a couple different leaders in a couple different weeks resignations, firings.

The question is, is that organization going to be enough to help pull him over the finish line? Or is a for rising support from Nikki Haley going to really make a difference here? So as there is one more debate this week in Iowa -- or in Alabama on Wednesday, the fourth Republican debate. Most Iowans are watching that to see how their decisions go. But Dana, I can say six weeks before the Iowa caucuses. Yes, Donald Trump is still his race to lose. A bigger question is who is in second place? And that race still is a very tight one.

BASH: And sure, Jeff, thank you for all that reporting. Got a lot in there. And we're going to talk more about what Jeff just talked about with our political panel. CNN's Kristen Holmes, Carl Hulse of the New York Times, and the National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru. Thank you so much. Happy Monday to all of you.


Kristen Holmes, you spend all of your time -- your professional time covering Donald Trump and the broader field but mostly the Trump campaign. So, the question is whether or not based on your reporting and being out on the field, the argument that we just heard from DeSantis in Jeff's report is going to fly. Meaning, the whole idea is that Donald Trump is not -- he can't win against Joe Biden.

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, a couple of things. So one, when I talk to Republicans, they actually don't believe that argument as much as they used to. I mean, if it was back in 2022, that was definitely the argument that DeSantis was leaning on as well as many other Republicans saying, that Trump cannot win a general election.

When you talk to Republicans now out in the field in these early voting states, many of them are so dissatisfied with Joe Biden, and they also consume so much conservative media that is reiterating that idea that they think that there is no possible way that Joe Biden could win another election. So, this electability argument isn't really there anymore.

But one thing I do want to point out, you know, I was there with him in Cedar Rapids this weekend. And one thing I found to be the most striking talk about where the voters stand is before he even took the stage, somebody asked how many people here is there going to be their first time caucusing this year or in January, and half the room raise their hand. And I just think that's a really important note because we talk about how Donald Trump has this sticky bass. These are not people who have been in his base. These are new voters that he's getting.

BASH: So, let's go back to DeSantis. And how high the stakes are for him in Iowa. We didn't mention or maybe Jeff did that. He just completed the full Grassley. He has visited now all 99 counties in Iowa, which is not that easy. And he has certainly been touting that. Listen to what he said on Meet the Press yesterday about the importance of Iowa.


DESANTIS: We're going to win Iowa. I think it's going to help propel us to the nomination. But I think we'll have a lot of work that we'll have to do beyond that. I don't think you'd take anything for granted. And I do recognize that there have been people that have wanted who have not gone on to win the nomination. I think this year is a little bit different.


RAMESH PONNURU, EDITOR, NATIONAL REVIEW: Well, there's no question that he is pursuing an Iowa first strategy that if he doesn't win Iowa, especially now that he said that he's going to win Iowa. I don't think that there's any future for the campaign. He alluded to the fact that several people have won the Iowa caucuses and then lost the nomination.

What I think differentiates him from some of those previous losers is that he's got a stronger campaign. He's got more of a campaign organization. He's got more campaign money, more supporters who are high profile in the various states but none of that's going to matter at all if he doesn't win Iowa.

BASH: Well, let's pull up some of that history, Carl. Let's look at it. 2016 Ted Cruz won was not the nominee, Santorum same, Mike Huckabee same. In fact, since 1980, the only Republicans who have won the Iowa caucuses and then ended up as the nominee, George W. Bush in 2000 and Bob Dole in '96.

CARL HULSE, CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: So not a great predictor. Obviously, I don't think there was much risk in him saying, I'm going to win Iowa because he has to win Iowa. And if he doesn't, it won't matter what he said. You know, the Iowa voters are pretty notoriously independent in their own ways, and they make some decisions that we don't expect.

It's interesting. Jeff said, there's no new polling out there. So, it's hard to tell what's going on. The thing that caught me about DeSantis and I think you caught -- you too, was him saying the media wants Trump and there's no reporting on Trump. And like, well, he's not reading a lot of the stuff we're reading. There's a lot of reporting on Trump in his second term.

I guess he just sees that as a good argument. But, you know, this is it for DeSantis. And he started out in this position, and he was the guy, right. Obviously, I think we all sat around to go. Well, he's the logical alternative to Trump. And it's just not playing out that way. And turmoil at the top in a campaign is never a good indicator of things going.

BASH: Exactly. Turmoil at the top in a campaign. But also, the other layer to this is that it's not even his actual campaign, it's the Super PAC. And after this -- well even before this is done. Right now, there's a lot of looking at the way that DeSantis decided to structure his path to victory and relying so much on a Super PAC where he doesn't really have -- he's not supposed to have control. It is very interesting.

You mentioned that you are with Trump in Cedar Rapids, Iowa over the weekend. He likes to pontificate about his opponents, and he did so about DeSantis. Let's listen?


DONALD TRUMP, 45TH U.S. PRESIDENT: And we hit him very hard, and he's been falling out of the air like a very seriously wounded bird right, to the ground. And it's a very pleasant thing to see. Now it looks like he's Gonzo, but we never want to say that we got to get this thing finished.



HOLMES: I think that Donald Trump is going to continue to hit Ron DeSantis until he is no longer breathing at all, which is essentially what his advisers have told me. I mean, when you look at where the poll numbers have gone, it seems actually strange that Donald Trump would still be focused on Ron DeSantis, especially given Nikki Haley's surge and she seems to be climbing in multiple states.

But yet, he has remained fixated on Ron DeSantis part of that likely because of the disloyalty factor that he feels that he thought that he should have never run and if he did run, you should have called him first to talk to him. Clearly for Donald Trump, things are personal, and he wants to see him lose.

BASH: I think you're wearing Taylor Swift bracelets if I'm -- if you're not, correct me if I'm wrong. But the reason I said that is because I want to read this quote that really caught the attention of our team, about -- from the Des Moines Register about Taylor Swift and as it relates to this campaign.

Just minutes before Trump set foot on the stage, Melton was somebody they were talking, 54, told the register she can't even envision anyone other than Trump as the nominee. Teens have rock stars that they follow like Taylor Swift. Grown-ups have Trump, said Melton, whose red hoodie carried a portrait of the former president, the word legend stamped underneath. It really is such a snapshot.

And I didn't mean to suggest that you were anything other than a Swifty by the way. It really is a snapshot of the cult like figure that Donald Trump continues to be across the -- well it's not across the political spectrum, but sort of in the political world. It very much transcends politics.

PONNURU: Yes. Although, one might quibble with how grown-up this behavior is as applied to a political figure to have that same degree of devotion and fandom to a political figure. I think is not the way -- it is not a helpful attitude for citizens in a democracy to have things. The thing is, though, with Trump, it's not just that he's got that hardcore base of support that will be with him, regardless of what he does.

It's the other Republicans who think he was a successful president who think favorably of him, who have not been necessarily totally sold on him. But right now, they're with him. And those are the voters that DeSantis and Haley have to get from him.

BASH: Yeah, such a good point. OK, everybody standby. Up next, a wider war. Israel expands operations in Gaza following the collapse of the short-term truce last week. We're live in Israel after a quick break.




BASH: Just into CNN, Israeli ground forces are now operating inside southern Gaza. CNN has geo located video confirming their three miles from the southern city of Khan Yunis, an area where many displaced civilians have fled. This comes just a day after Israel announced, it's expanding the fight against Hamas terrorists across the entirety of the Gaza Strip.

CNN's Ben Wedeman is in Jerusalem. Ben, what's the latest at this hour?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we've just heard from the head of Israel's Armored Corps that he says that they've almost completed achieving their objectives in the north of the Gaza Strip. And certainly, over the weekend, we saw a series of punishing strikes on for instance, the Jabalia refugee camp just north of Gaza City and the Shujaiya district just to the east of it.

And so, now it does appear that the focus is going to be on the south. As you said, the Israelis now have armor on the Salahuddin Street, which is the main north south highway linking the north with the south. That was the route through which people had been advised to move from the north to the south. But now of course, the problem is that there are hundreds of thousands of people crammed into the south the area where they had been advised to go to be in a safer area.

And what we have now is a mounting humanitarian crisis. In much of southern Gaza, where the schools that have been turned into shelters are full of people. We're hearing from the U.N. that in some instances, there are as many as 400 people to a single toilet and that's if a toilet is actually functioning as well in the town of Deir al-Balah, which is to the southern part of the Gaza Strip. The only functioning bakery was hit overnight. As a result there was looting there. What we heard from people there is that the situation is desperate, and it is increasingly chaotic. Dana?

BASH: Ben, thank you so much for that report. I want to come back here to the U.S. and talk about an alarming warning from the White House about the war in Ukraine. The White House budget director says there's no money left for the U.S. to support the fight. And unless Congress acts fast that will "kneecap Ukraine" on the battlefield.

CNN's Arlette Saenz is at the White House. It sounds like a very dire situation, an award that is still raging in Ukraine, thanks to Russia attacking it almost two years ago.

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yeah Dana, and the White House is really trying to build pressure on lawmakers to pass this funding for Ukraine. And OMB director essentially saying this is a do or die moment and time is running out. Now the lawmakers have had the supplemental funding requests since October but there has not been action yet to pass this bill $106 billion in funding for Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and border security.


And in her letter to congressional leaders today, OMB Director Shalanda Young laid out the stakes saying, "I want to be clear without congressional action by the end of the year, we will run out of resources to procure more weapons and equipment for Ukraine and to provide equipment from U.S. military stocks. There is no magical pot of funding available to meet this moment. We are out of money and nearly out of time.

Now, House Speaker Mike Johnson quickly responded to this letter in a post on social media arguing that the administration has yet to provide a clear strategy for the future in Ukraine and how this funding would be used. And also once again, insisting that this includes any national security supplemental funding include major changes to border security policy.

So, it remains unclear at this moment whether lawmakers will be able to clear these hurdles, as the administration is issuing these very dire warnings about the state of this funding for Ukraine and what it could mean on the battlefield as they're still fighting against Russia,

BASH: Arlette, I spoke to Lindsey Graham yesterday, Republican of South Carolina, who was a huge supporter of U.S. funding for Ukraine who said point blank, they're not going to get any money. Neither will Israel unless Congress also agrees on border security and other immigration reforms. So there really does seem to be a stalemate. Thank you so much for that reporting. Appreciate it. And coming up, Donald Trump is calling President Biden the destroyer of democracy, but the Biden camp is unfazed, calling the jab a distraction.




BASH: Former President Donald Trump offered his most forceful rebuttal to President Biden's argument that a second Trump term would threaten American democracy. Over the weekend, Trump did what Trump does. He took a weakness and tried to paint it as a problem for his adversary saying, it's actually Biden who threatens democracy.


TRUMP: Joe Biden is the destroyer of American democracy. It's him and his people. So, if Joe Biden wants to make this race a question of which candidate will defend our democracy and protect our freedoms, and I say to crooked Joe, and he was crooked, the most corrupt president we've ever had. We will win that fight and we're going to win it very big.


BASH: Biden's campaign is responding today, calling the comments a desperate attempt at distraction, adding "Donald Trump's America in 2025 is one where the government is his personal weapon to lock up his political enemies. You don't have to take our word for it. Trump has admitted to it himself."

Let's talk more about this with our panel. They're not wrong. Trump has said almost verbatim. I'm going to use the Justice Department to go after my political enemies and more.

PONNURU: Right. And what Trump says is that Biden has opened the door for him to do that because for all of these prosecutions of Trump himself. Now, of course, there are some differences here. One of them is that, you know, certainly the case against Trump on document retention seems to be very, very, very solid and these charges sort of had to be brought to vindicate the rule of law. But you do get in this difficult position where one of the major presidential candidates is, in fact, at risk of going to jail. And he's going to make that his basic campaign argument in 2024.

BASH: Kristen, this is vantage Trump?

HOLMES: Yeah. I mean, look, first of all, his entire argument for why Biden is the threat to democracy is because of these four indictments that he's facing, saying that it is Biden who was weaponizing, the Justice Department against his political enemy being Donald Trump. Again, Trump himself has said that he would weaponize the Justice Department to retaliate against his critics and enemies.

The other part of this is that Trump has also said that he would get rid of anyone who works in the government who would stand in his way essentially, any civil servant by removing, you know, in talking about Schedule F. Also, he has talked about moving the executive branch, taking it out of being an independent entity and operating independently and moving it underneath the executive so that he could control it so that it would work in his favor.

BASH: Let's continue on this looking ahead to the alarm bells that a lot of Republicans are ringing about a potential second Trump term. The biggest ringer, one who's selling a book is Liz Cheney. Let's listen to what she said yesterday.


LIZ CHENEY, FORMER UNITED STATES REPRESENTATIVE: He's told us what he will do. It's very easy to see the steps that he will take. People who say, well, if he's elected, it's not that dangerous because we have all of these checks and balances. Don't fully understand the extent to which the Republicans in Congress today have been co-opted. One of the things that we see happening today is a sort of a sleepwalking into dictatorship in the United States.


HULSE: Wow, pretty powerful. I mean, I think that what alarms people is that Donald Trump was president for four years, and he learned that he didn't want to be surrounded by people who were going to restrain him. So, looking forward, people are -- he's going to bring in people who will help him.

And to the checks and balances comment. One reason the checks and balances work is because previously people in the different branches weren't intent on overriding them, right? So, some of that was restraint on people who held these offices were doing a lot of reporting on what a second Trump administration would look like. It's a tricky thing though for Trump.