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Inside Politics

Trump Amps Up Divisive Rhetoric Before First Contests; Biden Campaign Memo Shows Focus on Democracy and Freedom; Democratic Congressman Torres Says Assault, Assassination Are A Question of When, Not if. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired December 27, 2023 - 12:30   ET



NEIL NEWHOUSE, REPUBLICAN POLLSTER: Well, first of all, it's a two-way race. I mean, Trump versus -- I mean it looks like -- I mean, let's assume for a second for argument sake that Trump is the nominee and Biden is the nominee on the Democratic side. You -- what matters in the Trump point of view is establishing that he is going to go back and do it -- and re-establish a strong economy, address immigration, address the crime issue. He's going to hit hard on the issues he feels strongly about.

It's a two-way race and you've got -- the last three elections, you've had some of the most unpopular presidential candidates in the history of political polling -- Hillary and Trump, Trump and Biden, now Trump and Biden potentially again -- and it's the lesser of two evils. And so, you've got a very weak president that is running against the same guy that he ran against before.

But if you look at where the numbers are right now, a year after (ph) the election, if the election were held today, Trump would win. But I did -- as you may know, I did Mitt Romney's polling a year after (ph) election, Mitt Romney would have been president. But as you said in the beginning, it's a long ways away from Election Day and there's a lot of -- a lot that's going to go on. The economy could turn around some. It's a toss-up election right now. But it's anybody's game. It's going to be a hard-fought campaign.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And to that point, and I want to build on kind of the bigger picture, longer term in a second. But on the -- Neil makes a very good point in the sense that a lot of people just tune out the Trump tweets or truths, whatever we're calling them now, his kind of playing footsie with Sean Hannity on the idea of being a dictator. But it does feed directly into kind of a central thesis of the Biden team, which is the democracy is on the ballot, right?

It worked in 2022, more so than any of the talking heads appreciated in the lead up to it. And in a most recent Biden campaign memo, it said every single day Donald Trump and the extreme MAGA Republican Party are telling us the quiet part out loud. If they take power, they will do everything they can to dismantle American democracy and continue stripping Americans of their hard-fought and fundamental freedoms. (Inaudible) this is a contrast that they are happy to have in this campaign. Do you think that's effective?

ANNA GREENBERG, DEMOCRATIC POLLSTER: I do. I sort of disagree with Neil that people discount what Trump says. What we actually see is that when Trump is in the news, not just on Fox or on Truth Social, but actually in the mainstream news and getting a lot of attention from the cable networks around things that he does, his numbers get worse.

So for example, in 2022 and -- 2021 and 2022, when we had all of the issues of the documents in Mar-a-Lago, you saw not just Trump do worse in the polls, but Republicans around the country do worse. And then when that recedes, things kind of get back to a little bit of a -- more of an equilibrium if you will. Trump simply is not the -- even though we think about him every day, of I do and Neil does than you do, for most people, they are not thinking about him.

And when he's back in the mainstream, when he's on TV, when he is in people's faces, they are reminded not just of the fundamental threats to democracy, but chaos, vulgarity, aggressiveness, hostility, meanness. This is not something that people actually want. Furthermore, I think where he has gone which is a different place (inaudible), whether it's talking about upending the civil service or being a dictator on day one, so he have a (inaudible) world, we know in 2022, as you mentioned, that democracy was on the ballot.

There was not a lot of advertising about it. In fact, people were critical of Joe Biden when he gave a speech about democracy right before the 2022 election. Well, it turned out when you ask people who voted Democratic in 2022, why they did, the two top issues were abortion and democracy, and those things are also intertwined. I see no reason why that's not going to be a part of what this conversation is about next November, just like it was in 2022.

MATTINGLY: Anna, can I ask you about polling as in the science because I've always -- we're all trying to figure out what everything means now. And there's a million different polls around and we are trying to recross (ph) tabs to see what's different, what's consistent, what the trend lines are. But also, President Biden weighs in on polls every once in awhile. He might be a little biased given how some of them haven't been great for him over the course of the last several months, but he made a point at a fundraiser a couple weeks ago.

He said it doesn't mean a lot right now, in my view, either way on polls. Those of you who know the business, it's awful hard. You have to call -- you got to make about 20 calls to get one person to answer the cell phone, seriously. He said something akin to this several times. From a pure, like, how this works in practice for you, Ann? What do you trust when you're looking at numbers?

GREENBERG: Sure. I mean, first of all, he's not wrong. But I would say to my clients, if you're arguing about polling, you're probably losing. So, I never -- I always advise my clients (ph) not to talk about polls. If you're fighting with the polls and pundits, you're not focusing on talking to voters and getting votes. And I think that the public polling, there's wide variation in quality. There's wide variation in how data are collected. [12:35:00]

GREENBERG: Some public polls are done through traditional phone research, some are done online, some are done on cells (ph), some are done on landline. And so there's -- some use the voter files, some don't. And so, there's wide variation in the quality and data collection, and they are not terribly predictive a year out, as Neil pointed out. But in part, because what really matters is what's in the state (ph) congressional district level, those polls are actually what matter.

And so, a lot of the public polling at the state and local level, at the congressional level, are even poorer quality than national polls. So I tend to not pay a lot of attention to public polling and a lot more attention to the polling that are done for campaigns, which are sort of rigorous gold standard. They have actually been, notwithstanding some hiccups in 2020, pretty accurate over the last six years.

Yeah, it's a very good point. There's only a million more polls to go before we actually start counting the votes in November. Neil and --

NEWHOUSE: (Inaudible)

MATTINGLY: Yep, I'm told we got to go. Neil, we will definitely be paying attention to Neil's polls because they are always very good. We appreciate you guys very much.


MATTINGLY: Well, coming up, as the curtain comes down on 2023, we'll look back at the biggest political stories of the year, including this one.


GEORGE SANTOS, (R-NY) EXPELLED FORMER CONGRESSMAN: I was not a drag queen in Brazil guys. I was young and I had fun at a festival. Sue me for having a life.




MATTINGLY: Well, 2024 may have the presidential election. 2023 didn't really fall short of political drama at all, from corruption allegations to an almost never-ending fight for the Speaker's gavel to a lawmaker caught in so many lies. CNN's Eva McKend takes a look back at the top-10 political stories of the year.


EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: When it comes to the top-10 political stories of 2023, this was another big year with unprecedented chaos in Washington, courtroom spectacles, and accusations of brazen corruption. At number ten, Senator Bob Menendez faces corruption-related charges.

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: But you are being accused of aiding a foreign government. Why is that appropriate for you to go to a classified briefing?

SEN. BOB MENENDEZ, (D) NEW JERSEY: Bottom line is I'm a United States Senator. I have my security credentials. And an accusation is just that, it's not proof of anything.

MCKEND: Menendez and his wife are accused of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, including gold bars, cash and a luxury vehicle in exchange for the Senator's influence. The indictment led Menendez to step aside as Chair of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee. But the New Jersey Democrat and his wife maintain their innocence and have pleaded not guilty. He has pledged to remain in his seat despite calls from many lawmakers to resign, including from some of his fellow Senate Democrats.

At number nine, a moving tribute to Rosalynn Carter, the former first lady, humanitarian, and mental health advocate. Former President Jimmy Carter emerges from hospice care to attend a public memorial service, paying tribute to his late wife, which also brought together the First Ladies Club. The Carters became internationally known for their humanitarian work, after Carter's stinging presidential defeat in 1980. They have the longest marriage in presidential history at 77 years.

Number eight, Hunter Biden's high-stakes plea agreement with federal prosecutors falls apart.

ABBE LOWELL, HUNTER BIDEN'S ATTORNEY: The prosecutors who came forward to us and were the ones to say can there be a resolution short of a prosecution.

MCKEND: Now, he's facing three federal firearms charges and nine new tax charges. The case could pose another challenge to President Joe Biden's re-election bid with House Republicans also investigating the president's son and pursuing an impeachment inquiry into the Democratic incumbent. So far, the GOP led probe has struggled to uncover wrongdoing by the president.

HUNTER BIDEN, SON OF PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I'm here today to make sure that the House Committee's illegitimate investigations of my family do not proceed on distortions, manipulated evidence, and lies.

MCKEND: Number seven, foreign wars create political fractures at home the, from the halls of Congress to college campuses. President Biden calling on Americans to unite behind Israel and Ukraine in their respective conflicts.

JOE BIDEN, (D) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: American leadership is what holds the world together. American alliances are what keep us, America safe. MCKEND: But the president facing skepticism from Republicans on providing more aid to Ukraine.

SEN. J.D. VANCE, (R) OHIO: Republicans disagree amongst themselves about exactly how we should respond to the Ukraine question.

MCKEND: And pressure from some in the progressive wing of Biden's own party over Israel.

REP. RASHIDA TLAIB, (D) MICHIGAN: President Biden, not all Americans are with you on this one. And you need to wake up and understand that.

MCKEND: Number six, the Republican race for the White House takes shape.


MCKEND: Donald Trump closes out the year as the commanding frontrunner for the GOP nomination as his rivals battle to emerge as the leading alternative to the former president. After entering the race as the top threat to Trump, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis' rise was slowed amid a shaky campaign launch and a series of campaign resets.

GOV. RON DESANTIS, (R-FL) 2024 PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We are going to have this debate in Iowa before the caucus. I will be there. Donald Trump should be there.

MCKEND: Meanwhile, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley gained momentum late in the year after several strong debate performances.



MCKEND: Amid Trump's dominance, several GOP hopefuls dropped out before the calendar turned to 2024, including Former Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum.


MCKEND: Number five, the potency of abortion rights in a post-Roe America. More than a year after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, abortion rights prove to be a galvanizing issue for Democrats.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We want to protect abortion access.

MCKEND: Helping deliver victories for Democratic candidates in off- year elections in Virginia and deep-red Kentucky, and voters in Ohio passing a ballot measure to enshrine abortion rights in the State Constitution.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We did it. MCKEND: Number four, President Joe Biden announces his re-election bid facing significant political headwinds and setting up a potential rematch with Donald Trump.

J. BIDEN: It's time to finish the job -- finish the job.


MCKEND: Biden's bid for a second term is imperiled by stubbornly low approval ratings and persistent questions about his age. His campaign leaning on his legislative record and drawing a contrast with his 2020 rival.

J. BIDEN: It's an extremist movement and does not share the basic beliefs in our democracy, the MAGA movement.

MCKEND: Despite weariness from some Democrats, Biden is expected to face little resistance in winning the party's nomination in 2024. Drawing long-shot challenges from Minnesota Congressman Dean Phillips and Author Marianne Williamson, several third-party candidates have also announced, including Robert Kennedy, Jr., and Progressive Scholar Cornel West, who could turn into wildcards in the general election.

Number three, embattled Congressman George Santos expelled.

SANTOS: I don't care.

MCKEND: The U.S. House voted to expel the New York Republican after a scathing ethics report and a year-long swirl of controversy about Santos' litany of lies. Santos becomes just the sixth member in history to be expelled from Congress and the third since the Civil War.

SANTOS: Why would I want to stay here? To hell with this place.

MCKEND: After winning a battleground House district, major pieces of Santos' biography fell apart, including his claims around his education, professional experience, and family background. Santos was later indicted on federal charges, including wire fraud and money laundering, but pleaded not guilty and has denied the allegations.

SANTOS: (Inaudible) I'm not really commenting on the ongoing investigation.

MCKEND: Santos re-emerged soon after being removed from office on the celebrity video message site Cameo.

SANTOS: Happy, happy birthday!

MCKEND: Number two, Kevin McCarthy becomes the first House Speaker removed from the post. McCarthy's ouster came ten months after he claimed the gavel. Following a floor fight that went five days and took 15 rounds of voting that divided the GOP and saw the California Republican bend to a series of concessions to hard-line conservatives. In the end, eight House Republicans joined with Democrats to depose McCarthy. REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY, (R) FORMER SPEAKER OF THE UNITED STATES HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES: It's frustrating because it's just a few -- these eight working with all the Democrats to ruin the reputation of the Republicans.

MCKEND: The move sparked weeks of chaos and infighting among House Republicans as they struggled to coalesce around a successor before ultimately voting to elevate little-known Louisiana Congressman Mike Johnson as the new Speaker.

REP. MIKE JOHNSON, (R) SPEAKER OF THE UNITED STATES HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES: I want to thank you all for the trust that you have instilled in me.

MCKEND: Number one, the country's 45th president and leading Republican presidential candidate becomes the first former president to face criminal charges.

TRUMP: I won't be able to go to Iowa today. I won't be able to go to New Hampshire today because I'm sitting in a courtroom.

MCKEND: Trump is facing 91 criminal counts, ranging from conspiracy to obstruction of justice, to racketeering across four separate jurisdictions in New York, Washington, D.C., Georgia and Florida. Trump denying all those accusations.

JACK SMITH, SPECIAL COUNSEL PROSECUTING DONALD TRUMP: An indictment was unsealed, charging Donald J. Trump with conspiring to defraud the United States, conspiring to disenfranchise voters, and conspiring and attempting to obstruct an official proceeding.

FANI WILLIS, FULTON COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY: The defendants engaged in a criminal racketeering enterprise to overturn Georgia's presidential election result.

MCKEND: The Fulton County, Georgia indictment resulting in this historic image, the first mug shot of a former U.S. president. The former president regularly turning his courtroom appearances into campaign-style events.


TRUMP: (Inaudible) likes of which, probably nobody has ever seen.

MCKEND: In a preview of 2024 when the political and legal calendars are set to collide.

Eva McKend, CNN, Washington.


MATTINGLY: Up next, new worries about safety for members of Congress and lawmakers warning a violent assault or assassination isn't a question of if, but when.


MATTINGLY: Political rhetoric in the country seems more charged than ever at this point, an essential target for many -- for the anger that many Americans feel are members of Congress. We have seen protests over the Israel-Gaza war broke violent on Capitol Hill, vandalism at lawmakers' offices, incidents of swatting at their homes. Democratic Congressman Ritchie Torres joined Laura Coates last night and had this stark warning.


REP. RITCHIE TORRES, (D) NEW YORK: I do worry that intimidation and incitement of hate could easily escalate into violence. And most members of Congress like myself have no security. We are soft targets. And I do worry that a violent assault or even an assassination of a member of Congress is not a question of if, it is a question of when.



TORRES: And I want to be crystal clear.

COATES: You really think so, Congressman?

TORRES: I mean, given the fact that most -- I mean members of Congress have no security.


MATTINGLY: Every year, the U.S. Capitol Police investigate thousands of threats, which grew sharply after the January 6th insurrection in 2021. They looked into 7,501 cases in 2022 -- that's the last year for which data is available -- down from 2021, but still historically high. Now, Congressman Torres says he is unfazed, although he cautioned, he and his fellow members of Congress "cannot take their safety for granted."

Thanks for joining INSIDE POLITICS. CNN NEWS CENTRAL starts right after the break.