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Zelenskyy, Speaker Johnson Finish Meeting On Ukraine Aid; Zelenskyy In Washington To Plead For More Aid From Congress; Russia Launches Heavy Attacks In Kherson Region; This Afternoon: Biden Meets With Zelenskyy At The White House; New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu Poised To Endorse Nikki Haley; Trump Still Holds Big Lead In Recent New Hampshire Polls. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired December 12, 2023 - 12:00   ET



DANA BASH, CNN HOST, INSIDE POLITICS: Today on Inside Politics, a last-ditch plea. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy just left Capitol Hill after meeting with House Speaker Mike Johnson and the entire United States Senate. Zelenskyy is trying desperately to secure the critical funding his country needs to defend itself against Russia. But time is running out. Just moments ago, House Speaker Johnson spoke to reporters right after his meeting with Zelenskyy ended.


REP. MIKE JOHNSON (R-LA): The Senate has been MIA on this. The House passed H.R.2 six months ago -- more than six months ago. It's been sitting and collecting dust on Chuck Schumer's desk. I have told him personally.

I've told the national security adviser, the secretary of state, and the secretary of defense that these are our conditions because these are the conditions of the American people. And we are resolute on that. It is not the House's issue right now. The issue is with the White House in the Senate. And I implore them to do their job because the time is urgent. And we do want to do the right thing here.


BASH: As you just heard Republicans are insisting, they will not back more funding for Ukraine unless Democrats agreed to major border policy changes in the United States. We're covering this story from all angles. Let's start with CNN's Manu Raju on Capitol Hill, Nick Paton Walsh is in eastern Ukraine. Nick will get to you in a second. Manu?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah. Despite these urgent pleas, Dana, nothing really has changed in terms of the dynamics on Capitol Hill. You heard Speaker Johnson right there. And that's been echoed down the line by Republicans saying that there needs to be a deal on immigration policy first to deal with the surge of migrants across the U.S. border with Mexico before they will allow more aid to Ukraine to move forward. But their proposals to clamp down on border security provide deal with issues about asylum policy, parole policy, things that Democrats say they simply will not accept, which is why we are seeing a round of finger pointing. Despite the efforts by Zelenskyy to try to unite the two parties behind the Ukrainian cause, a division within Congress about how to exactly go about approving that critical aid.

Now you heard from Zelenskyy there -- sorry, Johnson there. But in talking to senators as well, people who left that meeting that they had with Zelenskyy, it is clear that that divide over immigration still persists with no clarity about how they will get resolved.


SEN. DICK DURBIN (D-IL): I'm angry and I'm disappointed. Angry that we would consider walking away from Ukraine at this moment in their history. For almost two years, they have fought off the most powerful military in the world and given their lives to do it. And we said we stand by your side.

SEN. MARKWAYNE MULLIN (R-OK): There is zero chance that an aid package to Ukraine and to Israel will pass the House without real meaningful -- a real meaningful border security.


RAJU: So yeah, as you heard from Senator Markwayne Mullin there, Israel aid also caught up in the stalemate. But Dana, there is an expectation on Capitol Hill that lawmakers may actually leave for the Christmas holiday and not come back into the new year. Punting this issue even further into the new year.

Even as Zelenskyy made that push for money immediately saying is needed for air missile, defenses and systems and warning about the possibility of Ukraine unable to beat back Russia if that money does not come. He did tell lawmakers I'm told that he is still counting on U.S.A to come through. But as you can hear right, they're unclear how that will happen. Or if this will continue to drag on as Ukraine struggles in his fight against Russia.

BASH: I mean, what a big, big deal, Manu, for a wartime leader to come to the United States, walk the halls of the United States Capitol, meet with his leadership and it looks like he is going to leave in the short-term empty handed, really, really stunning. Especially, thank you, Manu.

When you think about what was happening a year ago, at this time last year, Volodymyr Zelenskyy received the hero's welcome, a standing ovation before a joint session of Congress, which he addressed. CNN's Nick Paton Walsh is live on the ground in eastern Ukraine. Nick, what is the view look like from there?


NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, big to be honest. And I think many Ukrainians confused as to what this bartering over U.S. border security. A problem that's been going for decades has to do (audio gap). What necessarily has changed in U.S. perception, I think there's a recognition that the counter offensive didn't go the way that NATO or the way the Ukraine had hoped, didn't have the glowing success that could have justified the billions spent.

But requests from those on the Hill for a kind of ultimate price tag, I think misunderstand the nature of the war here. It's essentially about giving Russia an adequate setback that potentially Ukraine can be happy with imposing terms of peace. But every day here it is absolutely clear. Russia will continue to push forward.

We're seeing that in the eastern around a town called (Inaudible) where there is heavy fighting at the moment across Ukraine. Right now, clearly there has been some sort of cyberattack which is damaging cellphone access. Ukraine security services pointing the finger -- clearly Russia for that as well.

It means they're here in Zaporizhzhia. The streetlights are going to be turned out manually tonight because cell phones are out. It means in some areas too. The S.O insistent (Ph) that comes up on your phone isn't going to work, a feeling of infrastructure, again being attacked by Russia here to make this already miserable winter, yet more grim for Ukrainians.

And the frontline too hear -- you know, we saw ourselves down in Kherson, a city liberated pretty much a year ago now. But bombarded daily intensely by Russia from just across the other side of the river in Russian occupied territory. It's kind of a symbol for why Ukraine doesn't want to talk about a sort of hot piece to accepting diplomatically, its current frontlines with Russia in occupied territory as being a new border for them.

Kherson is pounded relentlessly. Russia won't let them be. And so many Ukrainians are worried that they're essentially going to have to live with that sort of aggressive neighbor trying to take more ground off them again and again as Moscow refits re-equips in potentially the months ahead. So, the conversations happening now between Zelenskyy and congressmen, senators, utterly a matter of life and death here for the frontline soldiers.

We've been talking to. They're angry, they're steadfast and they're going to have to fight forwards because they have no choice. But they're very aware that U.S. aid is essentially the reason and European aid too and that unity is the reason why more of Ukraine is not currently under Russian occupation. This is an existential question, frankly, for European security. And it's Ukraine, holding Russia back at the moment. Dana?

BASH: Pretty remarkable that we are at this point right now. Nick Paton Walsh, thank you so much for your excellent reporting. Appreciate it. And let's bring in our panel of political reporters to talk about why we are where we are. Paul Kane of The Washington Post, Laura Barron-Lopez of the PBS NewsHour, Jeff Mason of Reuters, and CNN's Eva McKend.

Jeff, I want to start with you. You've covered the White House for a few years. How frustrated are they inside the White House that they cannot convince the Congress, even Republicans who are the most supportive of Ukraine, of course, Republicans are divided on even defining Ukraine at all. But there are some who say, yes, they should, but not before dealing with U.S. immigration policy.

JEFF MASON, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, REUTERS: For sure, deeply frustrated. And it's not just their concern about Ukraine itself in this conflict, which of course is at the core of why they want to get funding to Ukraine, and they want to protect Europe, and they want to protect democracy. But there's also a legitimate political risk to President Biden if this doesn't go through.

One of his main foreign policy, sort of victories that he likes to talk about is having coalesced NATO, coalesce the West and to stand up against Russian aggression. If they're not able to put money where their mouth is, which right now, it looks like he won't be able to do. That makes him look weaker going into the 2024 election.

BASH: And let's listen to what John Kirby, the national security council spokesman said about what the President plans to talk about with President Zelenskyy, which is going to happen this afternoon.


JOHN KIRBY, STRATEGIC COMMUNICATION COORDINATOR AT THE NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: So, he's going to make it clear to President Zelenskyy, that he's not giving up on this and that he really wants to get that supplemental funding passed. He and our team are going to be working with Senate Democrats to see if there's some sort of compromise that can be had. So, I think to get that supplemental funding supported. And, of course, to work with the other side on border security issues. The president believes that's important too.


BASH: Laura?

LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yeah. I think on the border security thing, it's interesting that Republicans are saying that all they want is border security. President Biden put in his supplemental request. Money for the border, specifically on giving more money for officers, for patrol, for any resources that border patrol might need to man the border. That was what he was willing to give on.


What Republicans are asking now is to severely restrict asylum parole systems that the president has actually used since he's been in office to allow in Afghan people, to allow in Ukrainians because of the humanitarian crises that they're facing in their country. And these proposals would severely restrict that.

It would also potentially grant the president -- any president new authority to completely shut down the border. So, a lot of these are pretty much no goes for a majority of Democrats. And so, President Biden is feeling a lot of pressure from his left as well to not concede on these border policies, that would be a lot of things that Republicans could throw to their base.

And Paul, you have covered the Hill for a long time. And you know the rhythms of Congress and the political pressures that Laura was just talking about, better than anybody. Let's just look for a minute at what we're talking about -- the specifics of what President Biden is requesting, of course, it's 61.4 billion for Ukraine, money for Israel, also Taiwan, and there is money there for border security. But the point that Laura was making is it's not about the money. It's about the policy changes that Republicans are demanding as part of this package.

PAUL KANE, SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT, THE WASHINGTON POST & CNN NATIONAL POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: Yeah. And it's very important to understand and break this down to, who is blocking this. It's not the Senate. It's not the House Democrats. It's not Senate Republicans. It is entirely House Republicans. It is one of the four caucuses and basically the whole about 80 to 100 of them have on their speaker.

What you saw today in the highlight clip was Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate Leader and Chuck Schumer. The Democratic Senate Leader walking with Zelenskyy. There is public footage of Hakeem Jeffries, the Democratic minority leader walking with Zelenskyy. There is no footage of speaker Mike Johnson walking with him. He would not be seen in public with Zelenskyy. It was the same way the last time he visited and Kevin McCarthy then the speaker hid from public and would not be seen with Zelenskyy.

Senate Republican Markwayne Mullin, when he told Manu was, there is a zero chance that it will pass the House. So, the Senate Republicans are doing all of this really, because they know that the House Republicans cannot support Ukraine because of their fear of Donald Trump, and their fear of what their primary voters will do. This is a small subset of American voters -- voters in Republican primaries who have scared the bejesus out of House Republicans, and it is going to have a massive global impact.

BASH: Yeah. That's such an important way to break it down. And Eva, you covered Mitch McConnell for a long time, covering the Kentucky delegation. It is noteworthy to see the imagery of McConnell walking with Schumer, walking was Zelenskyy. And as Paul was saying, the difference -- I mean, certainly that's a show of support and a show of unity, but not like being invited -- the president of Ukraine being invited to speak to a joint session last year.

EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: Well, for Mitch McConnell, he's just being consistent because this has always been his view. He sees this as a national security priority. But Dana, frankly, as time goes on, this was always going to be politically challenging to sustain this level of support for Ukraine. I think the immigration policy that Republicans are throwing at this now is a bit of a red herring because they know that most Democrats are not going to support severely draconian policies at the border.

And it is to mask that so many House Republicans don't support Ukraine, sort of no matter what. I will say this, we don't see Democrats outspoken on this issue in the House. But I think that they are glad for Republicans to sort of take the fire for this. But also, some of these democrats find it challenging to go back to their districts and explain at a time when many Americans are suffering. Why this sustained level of economic support is necessary?

BASH: Yeah. I mean, that's so interesting because you're right, we're not hearing a ton. We're hearing some from House Democrats. We're hearing from you, right. We're hearing from Senate Democrats. Let's listen to Chris Murphy of Connecticut.


SEN. CHRIS MURPHY (D-CT): Well, I don't think that Vladimir Putin should be given a green light to invade and conquer Ukraine and Europe simply because for 40 years, we've had a tough time coming to a conclusion on immigration policy. But listen, probably we're going to work at this. I'm at the table. I hear what Republicans have been saying. We're going to try to come to a conclusion and I'm sitting down with Senator Lankford and others in good faith this week.


BASH: Not giving up.


MASON: He's not giving up and Biden's not giving up either. You'll see him with President Zelenskyy this afternoon, giving a press conference together which is pretty rare at the White House. A show of support that will continue but he needs someone to stand and write a check.

BASH: OK. Everybody standby. Before we had to a break this just into CNN, House Republicans took another step toward impeaching President Biden. The powerful rules committee just approved a bill to officially launch an impeachment inquiry. That means the full House could vote on it as soon as tomorrow before leaving town for the holidays.

Now, it is likely to pass after several skeptical moderate Republicans have come out in favor of it, that they say it doesn't mean that they're ready to actually impeach the president that it is just the beginning of a formal inquiry. Up next, one of the most sought-after endorsements, the presidential primary season is expected tonight.



BASH: A political news out of New Hampshire today. Sources confirmed to CNN that Governor Chris Sununu plans to endorse Nikki Haley at a rally tonight in Manchester. He's all in. One Republican close to Sununu told CNN, there's no doubt it is a boost for Nikki Haley. But the question of course is, will it be enough to matter? When you look at the big picture. CNN poll last month in the Granite State had Donald Trump up by more than 20 points. So, Haley is a strong second.

Our political panel is back with us. Eva, you've spent a good amount of time with Nikki Haley on the campaign trail. What's your sense? MCKEND: Well, I think the Sununu endorsement further reinforces her as the pragmatic choice in this Republican primary. She has been honing in on this electability argument. In a general matchup, I would be a better person to go up against President Biden than Donald Trump. But it could also serve as a liability, right?

Some of these Republican primary voters don't want the pragmatic choice. They want someone who is going to throw them more red meat and someone that is closer -- if not Trump closer to Trump, which would be Governor DeSantis. So, we'll see how much this helps her. Certainly, it could help with fundraising though, as she continues to get more and more momentum.

BASH: Yeah. And one of the -- Laura one of the key factors in New Hampshire that I don't think we could forget, is that New Hampshire is a primary process in which independents can vote, Democrats can participate if they want to. They can change, particularly since there's no Democratic primary, that is a real viable possibility. And that could change the dynamic when it comes to how the primary will look.

BARRON-LOPEZ: Yeah. And it could very well help her because this endorsement could -- with those independents that you mentioned. Because New Hampshire, I think more than Iowa and some of the other early states has a contingent of, you know, right leaning independents or Republicans that aren't exactly in favor of Trump. We've seen where candidates like Chris Christie and Nikki Haley seem to be getting a bit more attention in a state like New Hampshire because there are more independent minded Republican voters there.

That being said in the grander scheme of things, do I think that this endorsement helps Haley surpass Trump? No. I mean, right now, Republican voters -- the Republican base, in poll after poll has demonstrated that they're not necessarily interested in the type of policy forward campaign she may be trying to run. They're interested in the emotions and the revenge and the retribution of Donald Trump.

BASH: Paul, I want you to listen to what Nikki Haley said yesterday about Donald Trump.


NIKKI HALEY (R), 2024 GOP PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's not about fitness. I think he's fit to be president. It's should he be president? I don't think he should be president. You know, I thought he was the right president at the right time. I agree with a lot of his policies. The problem is, you see our country is in disarray. Our world is on fire. And you can't defeat Democrat chaos with the Republican chaos. And Donald Trump brings us chaos.


BASH: He's fit to be president, but he shouldn't be president.

KANE: She's trying to thread that needle. Because look, in New Hampshire, you had that poll up there. Trump is at 42 percent. BASH: We can put it back up.

KANE: That's basically where he has been for almost six months now. Almost every poll shows him at 42, 43, 41. So, there's a large pocket of New Hampshire voters that don't want Trump. She is trying to corral all of them. Christie is getting 14 percent. Those are voters that most likely would go to her if he were to bow out and endorse her. She's trying to corral as many of them as possible, but then still sort of appeal to Trump voters as, I don't hate him. I just don't think he can win.

BASH: On the Christie factor. I was in Alabama last week and talk to the former New Jersey governor after the debate where he really came to Nikki Haley's defense and asked about that dynamic. Listen to this.


BASH: It seemed as though you were forming a bit of an alliance with her.

CHRIS CHRISTIE (R) 2024 GOP PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: No, it's not me. You know, forming an alliance with Nikki Haley, wait, you see what's going to happen over the next seven weeks.

BASH: What's going to happened?

CHRISTIE: We're going to be competing against each other hard to try to win New Hampshire, I suspect.


BASH: 14 percent is not nothing.

MASON: No, it's not nothing. And New Hampshire is the place to take down Donald Trump if they're going to take -- take him down. Iowa, New Hampshire, those early states, the only chance Republican candidates have of changing the trajectory in this race is to do it early. So, the Sununu endorsement helps because it gives her a little bit of momentum. But Christie staying in and fighting her doesn't help what I think is probably a joint cause, even if they are still running against each other. They both want to bring down the former president.

BASH: Yeah, but in a very different way. He answers the question to whether or not Donald Trump is fit to be president by saying no, he's not. And she says ---



BASH: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. OK. Everybody standby. Up next, we're going to talk about what this news out of New Hampshire means for Governor Ron DeSantis. His campaign manager will be here to answer my questions when we return.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BASH: With fewer than five weeks to go until the Iowa caucuses, Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis is in the Hawkeye State where he will join CNN for a town hall tonight with my colleague Jake Tapper. Here with me now is Ron DeSantis's campaign manager James Uthmeier. Thank you so much for being here. I appreciate it.