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Inside Politics

U.S. Strikes Back; Border Chaos; Lashing Out. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired December 26, 2023 - 12:00   ET




PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN ANCHOR: Today on INSIDE POLITICS, there are growing fears of a widening war in the Middle East after President Biden orders retaliatory airstrikes on an Iranian backed group in Iraq. Plus chaos at the border. America's top diplomat is heading to Mexico, where thousands of migrants are making the trek to an already overwhelmed U.S. border.

Local law enforcement are begging for help to deal with the ongoing surge. And lashing out. Donald Trump spent Christmas Day attacking his self-proclaimed enemies including President Biden, Special Counsel Jack Smith, his Christmas message to them and others, "Rot in hell." I'm Phil Mattingly in today for Dana Bash. Let's go behind the headlines in INSIDE POLITICS.

And we start today with the 2024 race where Republican candidates are gearing up for their final campaign push in Iowa, just 20 days, less than three weeks until the caucuses. Trump's rivals will be crisscrossing the state, trying to chip away at his front runner status. CNN's Kristen Holmes is covering all the latest developments. Kristen, who can we expect to see back in Iowa this week? How are they going to make a difference to what has been a race that Trump has led by far and away over the course of the last several months?

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Phil, that's the question that all of them have been trying to answer since they got into the race. How do you get rid of Donald Trump or how do you at least chip away at that large margin. Now as for who's on the campaign trail, today it is dark. Tomorrow, Vivek Ramaswamy will be back in Iowa and then later in the week, we will see Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis.

Donald Trump, the front runner is not expected to be back in the state until the fifth of January, so a week from Friday. And it's not that surprising. He has been outpaced by all of his rivals and his lead is so large right now, he doesn't feel the need to have to compete every single day.

Now what I am told by Trump advisors, the biggest thing they're focusing on now is how wide they can make that margin at the end when he takes, if he takes Iowa, essentially wanting to set the tone for the rest of the primary caucus season. But if you looked at Donald Trump's social media over Christmas,

Christmas Eve, you wouldn't know that things are going so well for him in Iowa on the campaign trail. Most of what he did was spend his time ranting away. Usually what we see from world leaders is messages of peace, particularly in a time of war, but not from Donald Trump.

Instead, we saw him lashing out at Jack Smith, going after Joe Biden, talking about how these cases are election interference and purely political. He even went after the Supreme Court in Colorado about that decision to take him off of the ballot because of the 14th amendment. A lot of this here, really showing what the next year is likely to look like.

We're entering an even more divisive time in politics. If Donald Trump is the nominee should look forward or not look forward is the right term, but be expecting to see more of these kinds of personal attacks. It's how Donald Trump campaigns and particularly Phil, when it comes to the primaries and caucuses, he's not getting any real political pressure to stop this kind of rhetoric. In fact, he's seeing his polls rise in various areas. So right now, you're not going to see him back away from any of this rhetoric.

MATTINGLY: Yeah, a very -- if it's not broke, don't try and fix it. Kristen Holmes, thanks so much for your reporting. We want to bring in our great political panel on this fine Tuesday afternoon CNN's Eva McKend, The Washington Post's Isaac Arnsdorf and CNN Political Commentator, S.E. Cupp.

S.E., I want to share with you because when you go through the social media posts on Truth Social, it's like a Mad Libs of, you know, things -- grievances and people that the former president doesn't like.

And it's a really interesting contrast of 'may they rot in hell' but again, 'Merry Christmas,' which is not how I ended most of my holiday cards. I think my question is, I think Kristen like nails the key point here, which is there are no repercussions for this if you're the former president running in a primary. Does that change in a general?

S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right. That's the key. That's the key part, Phil. In a primary, this is boosting him right? Keeping his base rabid, angry on his behalf, playing the victim. This is all really useful for him. And it's -- it's been helpful in his primary. When we switch to a general, however, you have to wonder if the appetite for that kind of rhetoric and division is as big or tolerant as it was in 2016.

We know it had waned in 2020. I think Trump is hoping to replay the 2016 playbook but we're hearing from a lot of congressional Republicans, especially the vulnerable ones going home to districts that Biden won. and they're hearing from their constituents that they're over this.


That they really are past this and they want to move on. So I think it's a bit of a double edged sword and we'll have to see if you can make that turn. It would be -- it would be a hard one.

MATTINGLY: Yeah, it's so striking the number of Republicans you can talk to both on Capitol Hill but also on the campaign trail, who say, look, love Trump policies, really don't want to do the chaos thing all over again. And Lindsey Graham, who is his ardent supporter as you're going to get of the former president saying this. Take a listen.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): He's not the first politician to claim to have been denied a fair election. But here's what I would say. I accept the election results for 2020. I'm worried about 2024. If President Trump puts a vision out, improving security and prosperity for Americans, he will win. If he looks back, I think he will lose.


MATTINGLY: Do you think that resonates inside the campaign at all Eva?

EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: I think it does, to some degree. What I'm curious to see this week, as we see these candidates really get back on the campaign trail in the closing weeks before Iowa, is if we see sharper attacks from Governor Haley, from Governor DeSantis. We saw a little bit of this from Governor DeSantis.

He's now telling voters in Iowa, in New Hampshire that Trump would really be a high risk choice. When I was with Nikki Haley in Iowa a few weeks ago, she got a question from a voter about Trump. And she kind of sidestepped it and she said that she didn't really want to get into a personal tit for tat with him. But I'm wondering if those attacks become sharper, because that is really his greatest vulnerability, the chaos that he inspires.

And you hear that time and time again, from voters that they like his policies, but some of them at least, some of them I speak to are ready for a new chapter.

MATTINGLY: As Eva makes a really great point. It's going to be fascinating to watch is this kind of like three week final sprint to the caucuses, and no one is going to have the spotlight shining brighter on them than Ron DeSantis, who has made very clear his campaign, his Super PAC, his whole operation that Iowa was kind of their ballgame, and that hasn't worked out great.

In fact, The New York Times had a pretty devastating, I don't want to call it a post-mortem, I guess premortem story in which they quote one longtime pollster and close adviser saying at this point there, they need to, "make the patient comfortable." That's the part of the campaign that they're in right now. That advisor then denied ever saying that, but in terms of where things stand for the DeSantis campaign, at this critical moment, in the lead up to Iowa. What's your read on things?

ISAAC ARNSDORF, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Yeah, an absolutely devastating quote, and just, you know, by any objective measure, just not the situation that you want to find your campaign to be in with staff leaving, clear signs that they're -- that money is a big concern. And having -- having staked it all on Iowa, and the polls just constantly going in the wrong direction.

It's hard to see unless DeSantis really pulls a rabbit out of his hat and some -- somehow not just has a strong second, but really pulls something incredible off. It's hard to see where the campaign goes from there.

MATTINGLY: S.E., to that point, as people try and think through this, you know, you think if you're not necessarily paying super close attention right now, look, if you don't win, then it doesn't necessarily matter, but that's not the Nikki Haley pathway. Right? Nikki Haley's looking for a stronger than expected performance in Iowa to kind of boomerang her into New Hampshire where she does way better than anybody initially expected a couple of months ago, and then ride that momentum into South Carolina.

What is a Nikki Haley looking for an Iowa now that she's got the Americans for Prosperity endorsement, she's got their ground operation. She's going up with ads, they're going up with ads. What does she need in Iowa?

CUPP: It's all the M words. She needs the momentum. And she's really been the only candidate other than Trump to have a forward moving momentum over the past few months, as you mentioned, gaining really important endorsements and -- and more -- more campaign money, fundraising, surrogate staff. She's been moving in the right direction. She wants to keep that up.

She doesn't have to -- obviously she doesn't have to win in Iowa. But moving toward New Hampshire and South Carolina, she has to have that forward momentum continuing. Unlike Ron DeSantis, she is not staked it all on Iowa. So I think she can survive with a good finish. But she really wants to keep -- keep moving forward. She wants those good headlines.

Ron DeSantis has bad headlines right now. And no other candidate is really making headlines. So she wants to keep those good headlines going as she moves through the caucuses in first primaries.

MATTINGLY: Eva, I love S.E.'s point about you know, momentum is so important. I think it's so central to kind of the Haley theory of the case here. What is the plan after New Hampshire say things go well in Iowa, things go perfectly in New Hampshire then what for the Haley campaign?


MCKEND: Well, it sounds like they're going to continue to hone in on this electability argument, that she is uniquely positioned to bring in people that otherwise would not engage with Republicans. And she's able to do that, while remaining firmly conservative. That's what I hear from her on the campaign trail.

I don't know how successful that argument will be, especially in some of these more ruby red states. But that certainly seems to be the plan for now.

MATTINGLY: Isaac, when you kind of watch how the DeSantis campaign has operated, and I say campaign, and I mean, the kind of constellation operations there a little bit, I think Frankenstein was the word that was used in a couple of the stories in terms of how they've all been put together. Is there a world in which you see them continuing on into New Hampshire -- New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, or is it the sense of things right now that Iowa is probably going to be about it?

ARNSDORF: Well, it's the old saying that campaigns don't end, they run out of money. And if you're a donor, looking at the DeSantis campaign, you know, this campaign, if you -- if you look at the campaign and the Super PAC and the outside groups, it's like $200 million, that have been lit on fire to see his poll numbers collapse.

So why are you thinking of throwing good money after bad? That's the challenge that the DeSantis campaign has to make, to go back to anyone to ask for more money to keep going. So again, you know, unless he really pulls out something amazing, that shows that that money -- that money bought something, you know, what's the -- what's the point of spending more to just limp along in state after state.

Now, Haley, on the other hand, you know, you've got that momentum, you've got a different investment case, the challenge that she has after New Hampshire is Nevada. There's a caucus and a primary. The caucus is the one that counts, and she's not competing. And then you've got South Carolina, her home state, which in some ways is Trump's strongest state out of all the early nominating contests, and everyone knows the risk of losing your own home state.

MATTINGLY: Right. Yeah, it's going to -- it's a fascinating couple of weeks ahead. Eva, I don't think you've gotten a break in the last six months. You're definitely not going to get one in the next eleven. Isaac, great work in the Washington Post. S.E., I deeply, deeply appreciate whenever you kind of walk through what you're thinking guys, thanks so much. We really appreciate it.

ARNSDORF: Thank you.

MATTINGLY: And coming up, escalation in the Middle East. The U.S. launching airstrikes on an Iranian backed militant group in Iraq that injured three U.S. troops. We're going to go live to the Pentagon for details. Stay with us.




MATTINGLY: Welcome back to INSIDE POLITICS. We turn now to the Middle East in fears of a widening war that's already drawing in the U.S. military. President Biden ordered airstrikes yesterday against the Iranian backed militant group in Iraq, hours after they took credit for a drone attack that wounded U.S. troops. CNN's Oren Liebermann is live for us at the Pentagon. Oren, starting with these strikes, what are you hearing about how they came to be what they're supposed to accomplish here?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Phil, this begins early Monday morning when a drone attack, a one way drone or a suicide drone hit U.S. forces in Erbil, Iraq, injuring three U.S. service members, including one critically.

President Joe Biden was briefed on the attack on U.S. service members and was then given options on how to respond. Kataeb Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy in Iraq claimed responsibility for the attack. And that is where the U.S. focused and targeted its response hitting, according to U.S. Central Command, three facilities used for drones for Kataeb Hezbollah.

U.S. Central Command says there were no civilians affected in the strikes, according to a preliminary assessment. But likely a number of Kataeb Hezbollah militants were killed in the strike. The U.S. said and this comes from the National Security Council, the president places no higher priority than the protection of American personnel serving in harm's way.

The United States will act at a time and in a manner of our choosing, should these attacks continue. To this point, we have seen about 100 attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria over the course of the past two months or so. But when the U.S. has chosen to respond, many of those responses have been in Syria. Last month, they did respond in Iraq. But it is quite rare that they target Iraq.

The U.S. forces are in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government. And to put it mildly, the Iraqi government was not happy about the U.S. acting there, calling it a hostile act that infringes upon Iraq's sovereignty. So the U.S. having to draw a very fine line here, obviously trying to protect its own forces, and trying to make sure this doesn't escalate while also trying not to escalate or not to anger the host country here, Phil.

MATTINGLY: Yeah. Oren, I want to pull it some video right now. We're seeing some of the aftermath. Just getting in video, the aftermath of the strikes that the U.S. conducted in Iraq. And as you know, this is a very complex situation, not only because they're kind of in the back and forth of proportionality we've seen over the course of the last several weeks, but also fears of undercutting the Iraqi government.

We've already heard from them and their concern and rage to some degree about these strikes as they took place. I'm also struck Oren, and this is not connecting the two necessarily, but from a bigger picture perspective, this coming on the heels of what is believed to be an Israeli strike in Syria, that took out a very high ranking IRGC commander, what do we know about that?

LIEBERMANN: Correct. The U.S. has tried to draw a line between the ongoing war in Gaza and the rest of that Middle East but everything we're talking about right now is an indication that the U.S. has been unsuccessful in trying to separate all these regional conflicts and areas. [12:20:00]

Just in the in the course of the past 24 or 48 hours, a strike attributed to Israel in Syria killed a senior commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Sayyed Razi Mousavi. Iran responding very forcefully effectively saying that Tel Aviv will have to wait for a tough countdown and can expect a response here.

So Iran vowing a response for the killing of one of their senior IRGC commanders. It's worth noting here, Phil, that when it comes to Iran's perspective on the Middle East, they don't really see much of a difference between Israel and U.S. forces there. So even if they promise a response against Israel, it may very well be that that response comes either through proxies in Yemen or elsewhere against U.S. forces there simply because of the link that Iran sees there between the U.S. and Israel.

MATTINGLY: All right, Oren Liebermann live for us at the Pentagon. Thank you very much. I want to turn now to New York Times National Security Reporter, David Sanger. David, I want to start where Oren and I left off because it's striking, if you look at the photos that we were showing, of the Iranian commander that was killed, you see a picture of him sitting with Qasem Soleimani, who was killed by a U.S. drone strike back in 2020 from the Trump Administration.

We were talking about this, this morning. This is not a rank and file individual here. This is a high ranking officer within the IRGC, the what happens next, I think is the biggest question on everybody's mind. What are you hearing?

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL & NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well Soleimani, as you point out, who was killed in in January of 2020, ran the Quds force, which is the most elite subsection of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard force. And Mousavi was -- was one of his deputies, and from the best that we can tell was running some of the proxy forces that were operating in Syria. So as you say, this was not just your ordinary commander.

There's a common thread here, Phil across what's happening in Syria, what we're seeing happened with this attack on the American forces in Erbil in Iraq, which led to those three injuries, one of them apparently pretty critical and what you're seeing happening in the Red Sea. And that is, there is some degree of Iranian inspiration or coordination in each of these cases.

Now, the Biden Administration has made public a little bit of their intelligence on this. They've been a little bit slow on some of the other. But it raises a very hard question for President Biden, who as you know, he's trying to avoid escalation with Iran that would open up another front at a moment that Israel is so wrapped up in Gaza.

MATTINGLY: You make that point, it's very interesting. I want to bring the video back up that we just got in of the results of the U.S. strike in Iraq. We're seeing some of these pictures right now. And it has been all about proportionality. And it's been a back and forth kind of through that lens, and has not included attacking Houthi rebels in Yemen.

It has mostly been limited to proxy groups in Syria, and Iraq. What triggers the U.S. to go further, in your reporting, David?

SANGER: So the main thing seems to be Phil, U.S. injuries you know, and as you heard from Oren, there have been about 100 attacks. But the one yesterday was the first one where we saw serious injuries, as some of President Biden's critics, mostly Republicans have been making this case for a number of weeks, say he isn't acting tough enough. He isn't creating deterrence here and so forth.

But they don't have to weigh the escalation costs and the escalation cost is a very difficult thing to understand. We just don't know how much the Iranians would push it. It's -- it's really a very hard calculus, because when this administration came in, they tried to separate out their primary problem with Iran, which was the nuclear program with what seemed like a secondary problem with Iran, which is, of course, they're supporting these proxy groups, Hamas and Hezbollah included.

Now both of those are running pretty full steam ahead. There's a new report circulating inside the International Atomic Energy Agency that suggests that the Iranians after a slowing down on their nuclear enrichment are speeding up again. Obviously they're -- they are encouraging if not coordinating some of these attacks. So this is going to be a bigger and bigger problem for President Biden to handle in the New Year.


MATTINGLY: Yeah, the convergence of seemingly disparate or loosely connected variables all into one at this moment in time creates a very complex problem. At the same time, obviously, U.S. working with its ally. In Israel, Ron Dermer is expected to meet with top administration officials today on that front. We'll keep you posted on that as it moves forward. David Sanger, always appreciate your time sir. Thank you.

SANGER: Great to be with you, Phil.

MATTINGLY: And coming up border chaos. Nearly 10,000 migrants are illegally crossing the southern border every single day and law enforcement officials say they just don't have the manpower to respond. What happens next? Stay with us.


MATTINGLY: Welcome back to INSIDE POLITICS. Today, a caravan made up of thousands of migrants is headed north to the U.S.-Mexico border. Authorities at the southern border are already struggling to deal with an unprecedented surge of migrants and CNN is just now learning more than 11,000 people are waiting in shelters on the Mexican side of the border, hoping to get into the U.S. That's according to community leaders.