Return to Transcripts main page

Inside Politics

Biden Taking Big Political, Military Risks With Yemen Strikes; U.S. Strikes In Yemen Add To Biden's Political Problems; Trump's Support In Iowa Remains Strong Ahead Of Caucuses; Sununu: I Will Support Trump If He's The Nominee; How The Republican Iowa Caucuses Work. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired January 12, 2024 - 12:30   ET



DANA BASH, CNN HOST: He wrote, quote, "While Biden's would be opponents have the luxury of lacking official responsibilities, a president must consider the geo-strategic and humanitarian implications of their actions. Sometimes, that means acting in the national interest in a way that may harm their political interests."

Very cogently put there by Stephen. Our great panel of reporters are back here with us. Let me just give an example of what he's alluding to. A few examples of what progressives are saying about these strikes. Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the Progressive Caucus, an unacceptable violation of the constitution.

Rashida Tlaib, violating Article I of the Constitution. Ro Khanna needs to come to Congress before launching a strike. Barbara Lee, violence only begets more violence. Those are some of the most powerful progressive voices in the House of Representatives.

ZOLAN KANNO-YOUNGS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I mean, this is kind of what comes with being an incumbent president during an election year. You have the responsibility of not only going out and hitting the trail and the politics of the job, but also of governing. There has been concern throughout the White House as well as the administration of a wider war in the region.

That is something they've talked about for a while. But I do feel like this has been a theme throughout the Biden presidency of really a focus on foreign policy and sort of a juggling act of balancing the domestic concerns, really the polling numbers, frustration among voters with also frequent trips overseas and a focus, including many speeches of conflicts overseas.

I will also be watching. If you look at the original foreign policy plan laid out by the administration, there was a focus on avoiding long term conflicts and more so having precision on a competition with things like China, with nations like China.

So moving forward now, where you have sort of multiple incidents, multiple conflicts like this, will be interesting to see just how the administration balances this.

BASH: You covered the White House for us every day, MJ, what are you hearing from Biden officials? I mean, obviously, they have political antenna. They understand what you were talking about the way that we framed the beginning of this discussion, but there's not much they could do.

MJ LEE, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. And I think the criticism, which would have been anticipated by the White House, is why they're going to go to great lengths to sort of lay out for the public why we are in the place that we are and why the strikes that we saw overnight was the action that the U.S. ultimately decided they had to take.

I mean, we had a senior administration official telling reporters last night, look, the strikes, the attacks from the Houthis were such that had we not intervened and had we not set up this coalition in the Red Sea, the U.S. and its allies, we would have seen ships being sunk. There was even an incident over the last month where a ship carrying jet fuel may have been hit.

So I think they're just trying to sort of paint a vivid as -- vivid a picture as possible of what could have been, not to mention just the economic ramifications, right? I mean, we're talking about a moment in time where, you know, prices are finally coming back down. The global supply chain issues have more or less been resolved relative --

BASH: This is a major corridor.

LEE: Yes, it is. And they don't want that sort of spillover effect hitting the U.S. for right now, the White House is saying, not quite yet.

BASH: And let's talk about the Trump, if at all, the former president, candidate for president again put the following on his social media platform. "So let me get this straight. We're dropping bombs all over the Middle East, again, where I defeated ISIS." Let's put a pin in that and come back to that in a second. "And our Secretary of Defense, who just went missing for five days, is running the war from his laptop in a hospital room."

The second part of that is an area where the President has a legitimate problem which is the whole -- where did Lloyd Austin go and the fact that he was ill and everybody wishes him well, but this disconnect in terms of communication. The first part about it is just such a reminder that it used to be that if a Democratic president did something that was sort of hawkish or even in the national security interest, he would have the back of Republicans because that's where they were, not with Donald Trump in the race or in the leadership of the Republican Party.

ALEX BURNS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. And you hear, I think sort of joining together the criticism from the left and the criticism from Trump, this notion of doing so much military stuff all over the world is not particularly articulate criticism coming from Trump that way. We're not dropping bombs all over the Middle East, but, you know, the American people have seen the Ukraine war now for almost two years.

They have seen the Israel-Hamas war at a very high level of intensity for several months. The administration is asking for a lot of money for both those conflicts, a lot of weapons for both of those conflicts, and now you've got this. And the country, you see this in polling in a way that would not have been the case, you know, 10 or 15 years ago. The country is more skeptical of this kind of activity than they would have been.


Zolan's point earlier about the administration wanting to avoid protracted entanglements.

BASH: Yes.

BURNS: It sounds good. It's not necessarily what the average voter is perceiving is happening right now. And it is the test of this policy, these strikes that we just saw. Does this avoid a protracted entanglement, or are we going to see this happening every two weeks for the rest of the year?

BASH: Let me just quickly take that pin out of the ISIS remark. Everybody wishes that they defeated ISIS, but we just saw, we were talking about General Soleimani in Iran, and the fact that he was assassinated when we saw that bombing earlier this month in Iran, ISIS claimed credit for it. So ISIS is alive and well.

Let's turn to your new reporting, MJ. You can find it on We'll just give you a little bit of it here. You say about the Biden campaign and kind of how they're seeing the Republican race. They're kind of ready for it to be over so that they can actually make clear, according to reporting, that to their Democratic voters that this is a real thing.

"Biden campaign officials say they expect that a switch will turn on for many of these voters who are not yet convinced that Trump will be on the ballot in the fall. As one senior official put it, a realization will hit, "Oh, blank, it is an election between that guy and that guy.""

LEE: Yes, you know, I think as with most people, the Biden campaign does expect that Donald Trump is likely to be the Republican nominee that President Biden runs against in November. But what their internal campaign research is still showing is that these undecided voters that they are going after that will determine everything in November, the majority of them still do not believe that it is likely to be Donald Trump.

And they say, you know, the biggest reason is just simply that they're not tuned in yet. They're not tuned in in the way that we are. They're certainly not following the ins and outs of the Republican campaign. And that moment, that oh shoot moment, is coming. They just don't know exactly when that's going to be.

Is that going to be after Iowa? Is that going to be after more Republican candidates drop out? And so until then, that is why we are seeing such a ramping up of the Biden campaign going after Trump explicitly on all the issues that we have seen them talk about, whether January 6th, the democracy issues, the economic issues.

They're doing the framing of, this is what you would get if it were Trump and not Biden sort of preemptively. And just really trying to remind voters, yes, this is what the Trump White House looked like for the first four years.

BASH: Yes.

LEE: This is what the Trump White House could look like if there were an additional four years.

BASH: Such great reporting. Everybody check it out on The Biden campaign trying to persuade those persuadable voters that this is likely to happen.

Thank you all. Appreciate it.

Up next, we're going to go back to Iowa where polls show more than 50 percent of Republicans are backing Donald Trump. So do his rivals still have a chance to change their minds? We're going to hear from some voters themselves.



BASH: It's the final countdown. In three days, Iowa Republicans will be gathering inside 1,657 separate caucus sites. We're talking about schools, libraries, community centers, and they're going to cast the very first votes of the 2024 cycle. Donald Trump has, of course, dominated the polls there, and many of his 2016 and 2020 supporters are eager to vote for him again.

In a new focus group for the Focus Group podcast, two-time Trump voters in Iowa said their minds are made up.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is there anything that could change your mind at this point?




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's the best man for the job. He's already proved it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Or anything extreme, like he dies --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: -- convicted of murder or something like that.


BASH: Joining me now is Republican strategist and host of that Focus Group, the Focus Group Podcast, Sarah Longwell. It's so good to have you here.


BASH: I mean, pretty strong support. Obviously in 2020, there wasn't like really a contest because he was president, but they supported him in the general election in 2020. What does this tell you and how does this compare to what you've been hearing in your other focus groups?

LONGWELL: Well, it tells me he's going to win Iowa and I think that no matter how bad the weather is, the level of commitment from Trump supporters, just how deep their relationship is with him, leads me to believe that they will be the ones to brave the cold weather and make sure that they turn out for Donald Trump.

You know, back -- at the end of 2022 and beginning of 2023, there was this opening for another candidate. There was a lot of kind of move on from Trump voters. And those people tended to be DeSantis curious voters. But as DeSantis just kind of -- he lost his luster with these voters as Trump attacked him, as they saw more of him just in person, unfortunately. I watched Iowa voters just all move back to a place where Trump was really the only guy they thought could get it done.

BASH: Let's hear a little bit more from this focus group, specifically on what they think of both DeSantis and Haley.


ROY N., IOWA VOTER: He was America's governor and I -- and Ron DeSantis was an excellent governor, and if he would have just bided his time, you know, 2028 would have been his time to get in.


ASHLEY K. IOWA VOTER: I don't not like her. You know, that's kind of like my best way to say it, is that I don't not like her. I have heard her speak, I don't hate it. I don't feel like, is she maybe as strong though to lead our country? No. If she was interviewing for a position at my company, would I hire her? Yes.


BASH: I mean, that's a pretty incredible and very telling moment, well, from both of those voters that we just played, but particularly from the woman there about Nikki Haley, a lot of double negatives. I don't not like her.

Again, the big question would be, what if our debate the other night was like, you know, really represented reality and Donald Trump was not in this race, then it would be completely different, but he is, and it's not.

LONGWELL: That's right. And it is funny. That woman who said, well, I don't hate her, I don't not like her, that is what we hear about Nikki Haley all the time. Nobody sort of talks about how they affirmatively really like her. It's that they don't find her repellent and that's not a huge endorsement.

And with Ron DeSantis, though, one of the things that's been interesting about voters is how they've decided that he went from somebody that they thought was a really great governor and they were really interested to see that they're just like, you know, he's not ready for prime time yet. Like, their estimation of him has really dropped.

I hear that all the time about DeSantis. He should have waited. It's not his time. And so, I think, you know, when you have that debate, that you guys had, I was thinking about how all these two candidates are doing are driving up each other's negatives with these voters, right?

They're just making voters sort of like them less. And the only person that that helps is Donald Trump. And that's basically the whole story of this primary. They didn't attack Trump, they're attacking each other. Trump gets stronger and they get lower.

BASH: One of Nikki Haley's most vocal supporters now, the sitting governor of New Hampshire, Chris Sununu, was on with Kaitlan Collins the other night. And here's what he said about what he would do in a general election if Donald Trump were the nominee.


GOV. CHRIS SUNUNU (R-NH): I'm going to support the Republican nominee, absolutely. Yes, that shouldn't shock anybody. That shouldn't be surprised to anybody that the Republican governor and most actually of America is going to end up going against Biden because they need to see a change in this country.


BASH: He said that to me in interviews and others as well, like, why are you surprised that a Republican elected official says, I'll support the Republican nominee, even if it's Donald Trump. And he's been very critical of Donald Trump.

LONGWELL: He has. But this -- I'm not sure there's anything that upsets me more than this kind of talk. And it is because what it does, is it normalizes Trump. I mean, the reason that one asks the question is because you're -- what you're asking is, will you support somebody who's under 91 indictments? Will you support someone who refused to engage in the peaceful transfer of power who had people attack the Capitol?

Because when you put it like that, it seems like, well, maybe, no, maybe you wouldn't support it. And that seems like a totally natural thing to do. And what he's doing that is so pernicious is building a permission structure for other moderate sort of normie GOP voters who don't really love Trump but don't consider themselves Democrats to go ahead and vote for Trump again despite the fact that it would be radically extraordinary for America to decide that a person who didn't engage in the peaceful transfer of power is our affirmative choice to lead the country again.

That is crazy. And for people like Sununu to make it sound like it is the fait accompli normal choice, that, to me, sounds crazy.

BASH: So good to have you on. Appreciate it. I'm sure he's going to be have something to say. And you know what? Maybe we'll have you guys on together.

LONGWELL: That would be great.

BASH: I'm sure he would love that. Really appreciate you bringing your focus group and your information here, Sarah.

LONGWELL: Thanks for having me.

BASH: We've been talking a lot about it, but what is a caucus? Iowa kicks off Republicans presidential contest on Monday? We're going to break it down and explain how it's going to work, next.



BASH: It's almost go time. The GOP primary field whittled to just a few remaining serious candidates. But how does that process actually work?

I want to bring back CNN's Jeff Zeleny in Des Moines, who started covering these as a cub reporter for the Des Moines Register. I can't believe this back in 2000. Not just a cub reporter what were you in, like, second grade, Jeff? The last caucuses we covered, of course, together.

We were there in 2020. Very, very different for several reasons, first and foremost, because they were a mess, but also, they were Democratic caucuses which are intended to work differently than what we're going to see on Monday.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Without a question, they are very different. But the caucuses on Monday are going to go something like this, Dana. And a caucus is simply a neighborhood meeting, a precinct meeting that are held around the state at the same time Monday night at 7:00 p.m.

There are 1,657 different locations. Some are in churches, some are in libraries, public schools, community centers, even one living room in the southwest corner of Iowa where the longtime mayor of the town has been holding a caucuses in her living room. But essentially, it's just a meeting for people of like minds to come and express their preference for who they're going to support in the presidential campaign. But keep in mind on the Republican side, it is a secret ballot. They will hear speeches from supporters from each of the candidates and then they will just simply register their straw poll of ballot, and then it will be counted. All the results are tabulated and sent back here to Des Moines, the state capital. So it is that simple.


The reason has -- the reason the Iowa caucuses are different than the New Hampshire primary is because of the history. The first in the nation primary in New Hampshire is part of the state law. So Iowa, about 50 years or so ago, decided to have caucuses that, you know, certainly launched Jimmy Carter to the White House, and then it was history after that.

So all of the candidates have come here to make their cases, and the voters are going to go out in these individual meetings. So it's different than a primary campaign, where you can vote all day long. You have to show up at the same time and cast your vote. That's why organization is so important in these caucuses that are coming on Monday night.

Snow or no snow, we know it'll be cold though, Dana.

BASH: Very, very cold. I don't -- I can't tell if you're making me want to get on that plane or not want to get out of the plane, but I'm getting on that plane.

ZELENY: Come on out. Come on out.

BASH: I'll be there. I'll be there. I'll see you soon, Jeff. Thank you so much.

Thank you for joining Inside Politics. I will see you from Iowa on Monday. CNN News Central starts after the break.