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Biden Says He Has Decided How To Respond To Attack In Jordan; Blinken: Mideast Hasn't Been This Dangerous In At Least 50 Years; Biden: U.S. Doesn't Want A Wider War With Iran; GOP Senator Obama- Biden Policies To Blame For Attacks On Soldiers; GOP Rep. Struggles To Explain Similar Attacks On U.S. Forces Under Trump; Sources: DOJ Investigating Dem Rep. Cori Bush For Misuse Of Funds; Trump Campaign Mocks Haley, Says She Has No Path To Nomination; Xi Promised Biden China Won't Meddle In 2024 Election. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired January 30, 2024 - 12:00   ET



DANA BASH, CNN HOST: Today on Inside Politics, a fateful choice. President Biden just announced, he's decided how the U.S. will respond to a deadly attack on American troops in Jordan. As fears grow that retaliating against Iranian forces could further ignite a region already on fire.

Plus, China's promise. Xi Jinping gave Joe Biden his word that China will not meddle in the 2024 election. We're going to bring you exclusive new reporting on their high stakes' conversation.

And we can't shake it off. Everyone loves to weigh in on Taylor Swift's relationship with Travis Kelce. Rather, but now a far-right media and even former presidential candidates' conspiracy. They're all pushing an absurd theory that the most famous woman on the planet is plotting with the NFL to get Joe Biden reelected. Talk about that blood.

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

We do start with the breaking news. Here's President Biden speaking to reporters at the White House just moments ago.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Have you made a decision how you'll respond to the attack?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. President do you hold Iran responsible for the deaths of those three Americans?

BIDEN: I do hold responsible in the sense of supplying the weapons to the people who did it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Directly responsible?

BIDEN: We will have that discussion.


BASH: This could be one of the most consequential decisions of Joe Biden's presidency so far. I want to go straight to Arlette Saenz at the White House. Arlette, you were one of the reporters there talking to the president, asking him questions. What else did he say?

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Dana. President Biden and his national security team, I've really spent the past two days drilling down on the options available to him to respond to this attack, which left three U.S. service members dead. And he told me just a short while ago that he has, in fact made that decision.

Of course, officials say that the president really has been balancing two things when trying to find a way to respond. That includes crafting a forceful response that would deter future attacks, but also preventing a wider regional conflict from erupting. That is something that the president has made clear in his conversations, as he is trying to figure out the way to respond.

Now the White House has yet to telegraph how and when the president and the United States will respond to these attacks. You have heard Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying that he expects it could be multi-leveled. It could go through phases and take a quite a period of time to have these responses.

But one thing that officials have made clear is that they do believe that any response would be more powerful than the retaliatory strikes the U.S. has been taking in the past against those Iranian backed groups in Syria and Iraq.

So far, the actions that the U.S. has taken have not deterred these attacks from being conducted. That is something I asked the president whether this time will be different. And he said, we'll see. Now some of the options available to the president is potentially striking those groups. Again, Iraq and Syria trying to target a leadership, also potentially launching an offensive cyberattack.

But one thing that officials have suggested is that it's unlikely the president will strike directly in Iran, which is something some of his Republican lawmakers up on Capitol Hill have been calling for it. But it's clear that the president is facing a very fraught and challenging decision as he's trying to have this U.S. show of force, while also preventing a wider conflict from erupting in the region.

BASH: Arlette, such an important reporting and really the key question and the answer you got from the president that he has decided how he's going to respond. Thank you so much for that. Now, let's go to CNN's Nic Robertson, who is in the region. He's in Tel Aviv. Nic, you have covered the Middle East for many years.

Can you just put in context what is happening? What is about to happen? Of course, we're not just talking about where you are Israel versus Hamas, but this broader situation and the potential for it to get even broader if and when the U.S. response? [12:05:00]

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Well, Iran is backing so many different proxies in the region and depending on how the United States strikes and definitely there was pressure from many places in this region for the United States and President Biden to understand that the language that Iran will really understand best is a strong robust military response.

Iran's proxies are in Lebanon. They are in Syria. They are in Iraq. They are in Yemen. And they've all been militarily active. And they've all been military active against the United States and its allies, Israel included in the region. And I think the stakes are incredibly high.

Whatever option the president goes for, absolutely, there will be a response to threat comes direct back from the military in Iran, the IRGC, who just a couple of weeks ago, we saw fired ballistic missiles into Syria, into Iraq and a day later into Pakistan as well.

They've shown that they're willing to flex their muscles or whether the response comes from those proxies that are even more powerful in Iraq at the moment. They're those Iran backed proxies in Iraq that a very powerful inside Iraq are pressuring the government in Iraq to through U.S. forces out of there.

This is -- I would say whatever the president does, it is the beginning. It won't be the end. And it is in essence, an escalation of a sequence of tit for tat. This will likely be big, however.

BASH: Yeah. I want you to listen and our viewers to listen to how the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken assess the situation.


ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: This is an incredibly volatile time in the Middle East. I would argue that we've not seen a situation as dangerous as the one we're facing now across the region since -- at least 1973, and arguably, even before that,


BASH: As any secretary of state does, he really chooses his words quite carefully. He wanted to not only send a message to people in the region, maybe even people back home. What is your assessment of that very, very strong direct statement from Antony Blinken.

ROBERTSON: Again, it's something that's shared in this region here as well that everything is slowly escalating the anger in the region about what people see happening in Gaza has escalated tensions. There the effort for a ceasefire is underway.

But the northern border here in Israel, Hezbollah and the IDF on that border have increasing strikes at each other. The tension is there. Israel has announced on unclaimed strikes into Syria. The potential for a very big escalation, it really exists. And it would come down to a misinterpretation or an overstep by any one of Iran's proxies.

BASH: Nic, thank you so much. It's so important to have you there to give you -- give us your reporting, but also your historical context. Thank you, Nic. I want to bring in my great panel to talk about all of these challenges that President Biden is facing in the Middle East and elsewhere. CNN's Jeff Zeleny, Seung Min Kim from the Associated Press, and Aaron Blake from the Washington Post.

I've been saying this morning. I've been sort of tweaking that famous Donald Rumsfeld line that you go to an election with the world that you have when you are president, not the world that you want. And this is not the world that. Any president wants, but particularly one in the middle of an election year.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Without question. And look, I think, as you said, this is going to be a decision that is remembered without a doubt. I mean, look, if you look at the sort of the arc of Joe Biden's policy view, I mean, he has long been very skeptical about the U.S. involvement in Iraq and in the Middle East, much more so than a few of his predecessors actually.

But look, now this is what he has dealt. So, he said, I don't think we need a wider war in the Middle East. That's not what I'm looking for. It's not what he's looking for. But he also can't control what is about to happen.

And someone asked a question in the briefing yesterday that really touched off John Kirby who said, he's not doing this because of polling. I think that's likely true, because the political fallout of this is very dangerous for President Biden among his Democratic coalition, which is really fraying in some regards to what's happened in the Middle East. So, this is why the power of incumbency is strong and beneficial in some respects. In other respects, it's not.

BASH: Let's dig into the pressure points that he is feeling, not just politically, but also obviously militarily. And you're right, John Kirby was very intent on saying that we're going to focus on what's important geopolitically and not what's happening here and his reelection.


Mikie Sherrill, she's a Democrat from New Jersey. She was a navy helicopter pilot. She graduated from Annapolis. Listen to what she said on CNN this morning.


REP MIKIE SHERRILL (D-NJ): You know, sure, it feels good. It feels macho to say that we are going to destroy our enemies. But at this time, what the United States often does best is not simply go in half- cocked. What we are trying to do here is to prevent a full-scale war. We are trying to deter this aggression.

(END VIDEO CLIP) SEUNG MIN KIM, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, ASSOCIATED PRESS: Right. That's the -- that's sort of the message that the White House is trying to send. But when you were talking about just the pressures that are on President Biden right now in an election year with this growing conflict in the Middle East.

I'm just struck by where all the different political pressure points are coming from because you do have a very vocal contingent of Republicans saying, you have to strike Iran, hit them hard. Lindsey Graham being one of them. And obviously, his likely general election opponent Donald Trump, already deriving him as we got Iran.

But then you have a growing number of his progressive base who are really upset and protesting him everywhere he goes about -- because of the war in Gaza. And this is what they warned of over and over that we don't want a broader conflict in the Middle East.

And then you have another group, you know, who would otherwise could be supportive of the president's actions, but they're really worried and increasingly concerned about the unilateral actions that he's taking. He's saying that he needs congressional authorizations for the moves that he's taking. So, he has all of these pressure points coming from every which direction, which is why, as our reporters have pointed out several times is a really fraught moment for the president right now.

BASH: And then you have the hawks inside the GOP who are not even the hawks, but really -- almost all the Republicans who are saying this is -- this is Joe Biden's fault. This is even Barack Obama's fault. Let's listen to what Tom Cotton of Arkansas said about that.


SEN. TOM COTTON (R-AR): What's irresponsible is 11 years of the Obama- Biden foreign policy towards Iran of trying to appease, cuddle and conciliator. I have told us who still chant to this day death to America and death to Israel. That's why we have all these attacks on Americans.


BASH: Now, there was an administration in between Obama and Biden. His name was Donald Trump. And, you know, the argument in fairness to Senator Cotton that he makes and others is that, that they argue that Trump was tougher on Iran, you know, we can have that debate separately.

But the other thing that I really want to point out, our colleague Brianna Keilar had a really fascinating interview with Congressman Mike Waltz, Republican of Florida. On this whole question of, would Donald Trump really be handling it differently and reminding him of the history of what did happen with Iran and U.S. troops. And even just more broadly in the region and U.S. troops when Donald Trump was president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REP. MIKE WALTZ (R-FL): The Trump administration hit both the proxies and then eventually Soleimani himself ---

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CO-ANCHOR: In Jan 2020 and in March of 2020, American service members were killed.

WALTZ: And beyond there, we had -- we had no more attacks, and we certainly didn't have the hundreds of attacks that we have now.

KEILAR: That's not true.

WALTZ: We didn't have the attacks.



BASH: Aside from Brianna being really good at her job. What are your thoughts on that?

AARON BLAKE, SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: I mean, to some extent this is going to be compared to what happened in the Trump administration with the strike on Qasem Soleimani. Whatever Biden does that is coming up short of that is going to be not good enough for the very hawkish Republicans, especially in the Senate.

I think what you see from the White House and from Democratic allies is really an attempt to get ahead of that to some degree. And so, you see Antony Blinken talking about the most dangerous situation in the Middle East since 1973 or before. You see President Biden saying over and over again that he does not want to lead to a broader war in the Middle East.

They're basically saying, look, even if this doesn't look like as much as people want it to be, there is a very different situation than we had four years ago when Soleimani was killed. There is a much more fraught powder keg that's occurring in the Middle East right now. And going too far can lead to much different places than it might have even four years ago.

BASH: Yeah. And the powder keg is all intentional. You heard Nic talking about Iran being behind -- at least the funding behind so much of what is happening, starting with the most recent, you know, huge explosion, the horrible attack on October 7 by Hamas, funded by Iran. So, it is very much all connected, intended to instigate.


ZELENY: Absolutely. And so, the burden will be on President Biden to calibrate this, and he knows this. And you can just see it in his words. And he's been at this a very long time, but still he will be judged by his on base and he will be judged by his rivals and critics as well.

And there's not much a space in between but there's no issue that I can really think of that has so many sorts of weird geopolitical lines here. He's not going to be hawkish enough for some Republicans. But his Republican rival, actually, Donald Trump has been pretty silent on this, which is also unusual for now.

BASH: And that's a whole another conversation, which I hope to have soon about this, because he ----

ZELENY: I think we'll have a time -- one topic that will be with us. And you never know what a presidential election will be about, you were saying, but were -- this this will be part of it.

BASH: Yeah. I love you said that the other morning that, you know, how it starts, but you never know how it's going to end. So, thanks one and all. Appreciate it. Coming up more breaking news. The Justice Department is investigating Democratic Congresswoman Cori Bush. We're going to bring you new details about that next.



BASH: Just in sources tell CNN that the Justice Department is investigating Democratic Congresswoman Cori Bush for misuse of funds. CNN's Whitney wild joins us with more. Whitney, what are you learning?

WHITNEY WILD, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT CORRESPONDENT: Well, there's very few details at this point, Dana. But this all started to sort of bubble up yesterday when the House clerk announced on the floor, reading into the record that they had received a subpoena from the Department of Justice. So, you know, everyone at CNN working their sources and what we've learned from multiple sources here as that this probe is involving Missouri representative Cori Bush.

Again, it involves the misuse of funds. According to a source, familiar with the matter. It involves the misuse of funds surrounding security. But again, Dana, the details here are very vague. We've reached out to the Department of Justice who declined to comment, and we have also reached out to Representative Bush's office who has not yet returned our request for comment, Dana?

BASH: Yeah. I understand it is very early. And we all saw that moment on the House floor with the clerk reading that information and nobody knew what it was about. So, the fact that we have certainly with your reporting in our other colleagues focused it in on Cori Bush is fascinating and we will learn more as the DOJ continues their investigation. Thank you so much for those details. Appreciate it, Whitney.

Now back to the 2024 campaign trail. GOP hopeful Nikki Haley is kicking off a weeklong fundraising blitz. Tonight, she's going to be in New York at an event hosted by some of the wealthiest and most powerful people on Wall Street. But Donald Trump says, she's just wasting her time. And escaping member of the Trump campaign mocks the former president's only remaining rival and argues, she's setting herself up for an embarrassing loss next month in South Carolina.

It reads in part. This humiliation at home, the fourth straight trouncing she will have received, occurs in a place where she served in elected office for 12 years. It goes on to say, if losing four times in a row is a momentum builder, now might be the best time to buy plots of land on Mars.

CNN's Kristen Holmes joins me. And now Kristen, I don't think there's really meant -- you have to read between the lines to read that memo and what they're trying to do. It doesn't sound like at least in the short term, Nikki Haley is buying what they're selling.

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Dana. I mean, look, a lot of this is aimed at those donors that she is about to meet with. They are trying to send the message that there is no clear path for Nikki Haley. So, it's not worth backing her campaign.

I do want to point to some new reporting that I have just out moments ago. This is coming at the same time that Donald Trump himself is really ramping up his effort with MAGA donors and actually doing his own personal research.

I reach out. I am told that he had Steve Wynn at his event, the casino magnate in New Hampshire. The night of his win and during that primary that when he was in Las Vegas last weekend, he talked to two billionaires. Two of whom went with him in his motorcade to his event and got shout outs at that event.

I am told that he has been making calls really round the clock, trying to solicit these donations that he has gotten a lot of financial commitments. Now, whether or not we're going to actually see those on these -- on this upcoming federal election commission report that's coming out, remains to be seen. But it is coming at the same time that you're starting to see Donald Trump himself trying to bring in that big donor money.

BASH: Yeah, interesting. Especially, since you reported on the show yesterday that it hasn't happened in the way that they had hoped. He does tout the small donor money that he does continue to get. Before I let you go, I have to show you the meme that Nikki Haley and her team are fighting back with. It's a Mean Girls meme.

Some people on our staff who are younger thought that maybe they could have updated it to the most recent. Mean Girls, I personally appreciate the classic. But all jokes aside, at her campaign isn't bowing to his tactics.

HOLMES: No, they're not. And actually, we know that both campaign manager Susie Wiles for Trump's team, and on Nikki Haley said her campaign manager as well are going to be in front of top conservative donors today in Palm Beach, giving presentations on where their campaign is. And as far as we are told, there is no reasoning or no -- we don't -- no belief that Nikki Haley is going to drop out anytime soon.

Now, I will tell you when you look at how Donald Trump's team is going into South Carolina, they are not treating this as though she is a threat. They don't have any television ad buys. They still say repeatedly that their internal polling shows him up by 30 points but we'll see if that changes.

Again, I think much of this memo was really aimed at the donor class trying to bring those people in trying to get that money backing for Donald Trump as we head into this -- further into this primary.

BASH: Yeah. I totally agree with that. That's a very excellent point. Thanks Kristen, appreciate it. Now to some exclusive new CNN reporting, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised President Biden that China would not interfere in the 2024 presidential election. The previously unreported conversation between the two leaders took place when they met in November.


CNN cybersecurity reporter Sean Lyngaas is joining me now here with details. This is fascinating.


BASH: What are you learning?

LYNGAAS: Yes. You know, we saw when Xi and Biden met last year. There was an hour's long conversation about everything from fentanyl to resuming military -- to military communications, a really high stakes meeting. But what we're learning now with my colleague, MJ Lee, is that -- in the course of that conversation, Joe Biden brought up the subject of election interference.

Because, you know -- as you know Dana, since 2016, it's -- you know, top concern for U.S. national security officials after what Russia did in 2016. And so, Biden wanted -- according to our reporting, some assurances that would not happen with China in 2024 and Xi obliged.

And in a follow-up conversation with Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser over this past weekend, he was again given that same assurance by the Chinese foreign minister. So, it's a recurring theme in their discussions.

Dana, it shows how fraught -- actually U.S.-China relations have become in the last several months over issues like Taiwan and fentanyl. And it's something that is going to be keep coming up, we think as the election approaches.

BASH: Yeah. I mean, the fact that this conversation happened at the highest levels in these two governments and there are a lot of priorities that the U.S. has -- that President Biden has with China that that was one of them is really interesting. The obvious question is, how much wait do U.S. officials, even the president himself put in a promise from the Chinese leader?

LYNGAAS: Right. That's an excellent question, Dana. And certainly, there is value to looking someone in the eye and saying, it's not going to happen. However, sources tell us in the U.S. government that because of incidents like the spy balloon where they had this huge surveillance balloon floating over the U.S. last year. That the U.S. government accused Beijing of backing. According to Biden himself, Xi wasn't even aware of that particular operation. So, one source I spoke to told me that that is an example of the huge grain of salt that U.S. officials take this with. How much visibility does Xi have over the vast security apparatus in Beijing? So, they're going to be watching that very closely as we approached November.

BASH: So, you mentioned Russia. And we know it's been well documented that Russia is just tries to sow chaos in American democracy, particularly elections. China has been part of it. But how concerned when it comes to the cyber threats? Are U.S. officials about China? Or are they still more concerned about Russia? Or are they concerned about all of it?

LYNGAAS: They're concerned about all of it. The thing that we've seen in the last couple of years, Dana, according to declassified U.S. intelligence reports is that China has -- according to U.S. intelligence officials, more of a tolerance for stirring the pot a little bit, you know, amplifying discord on social media, engaging in what might be called a little bit of Russian style tactics.

U.S. officials still think Russia is more unpredictable. It's been described in the cyber threat realm. Russia is like a hurricane. China is like climate change. So slow. Look, the long game and very capable. But it really depends on the threshold that China has for risk entering this election season.

BASH: I mean, what I really want to ask you about and we can talk about another time is TikTok. Because as I asked that question, that's all I'm thinking about is what people are saying on TikTok, which is not necessarily, always accurate.

LYNGAAS: U.S. officials are very concerned about (Inaudible)

BASH: Yes. They are. Sean, thanks. Thanks to you and MJ for this great report and come back soon. Just into CNN today, President Biden spoke with the families of three Americans killed in that drone attack in Jordan over the weekend. We're told the president got their blessing to attend a dignified transfer ceremony at Dover Air Force Base on Friday, and he promised that their loved one service and sacrifice will be honored.

Up next. House Republicans are moving closer to something we haven't seen in 150 years, impeaching a cabinet secretary. There's a move afoot happening as we speak. We're going to go to Capitol Hill to check in on it after a quick break.