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Inside Politics

Hours Away From Critical Election To Replace George Santos; Biden Jokes About Memory After Scathing Special Counsel Report; Source: Jill Biden Criticizing Special Counsel Report Was The 2nd Best Performing Email Since Biden Campaign Launch; One-On-One With Rep. Veronica Escobar; Stefanik, Vance Cozy Up To Trump In Bid For VP. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired February 12, 2024 - 12:30   ET




TOM SUOZZI (D), NEW YORK CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: And I built a lot of relationships, certainly with the Democrats, but also with a lot of Republicans.

DANA BASH, CNN HOST: I don't know if you've noticed, but since you've left --

SUOZZI: It's not my fault.

BASH: No, but even working across party lines --

SUOZZI: It's tough.

BASH: -- it doesn't get you anywhere.

SUOZZI: It's tough.

BASH: What could happen with the immigration bill?

SUOZZI: It's -- that is -- to me, that is the most heartbreaking thing, in my race, specifically. My opponent says that she's concerned about the border. We're all concerned about the border, but she's not solving the border problem because she won't support the bipartisan border deal.

And as a result, the border's going to stay open and more migrants are going to be coming to New York. She says she's committed to Israel, but she's endangering Israel because she's not supporting the bipartisan funding of Israel. So -- and with Putin, you know, we're empowering Putin. So these are real-life issues that affect real people, life-and-death issues. And the same old extremism and partisan politics is not going to get us anywhere. It's not working.

BASH: Joe Biden won what is now this district by 8 percentage points. Why is this close?

SUOZZI: Well, right now the Democrats are underwater here in this area for a long time.

BASH: To your party.

SUOZZI: Yes, underwater. Three years we've been losing everything on Long Island and Northeast Queens. The president's underwater. Trump is underwater. People are just upset that they're not seeing anything get done to address the things that affect their lives.

They're concerned about affordability, they're concerned about immigration and they feel like Washington is not really listening to them.

BASH: How much does George Santos and what happened there hang over this special election?

SUOZZI: I think people are fed up with the whole George Santos thing. It's over, it's yesterday's news, but for the fact that my opponent has not been transparent at all. She hasn't done debates except she did one debate just today, for the first time, five days before the election.

She hasn't done any town hall meetings. She hasn't taken any votes from -- any questions from any voters. She hasn't done any civic hall meetings. She's rejected four televised debates and about five civic community group meetings. So --

BASH: Are you saying she's not transparent a la George Santos?

SUOZZI: Exactly the same. It's Santos 2.0. She's -- I would've not said this, but for her --

BASH: That's a pretty big charge.

SUOZZI: Well, it's --

BASH: I mean, he's a --

SUOZZI: If you're following the race at all --

BASH: He's been indicted.

SUOZZI: Yes, but we don't know anything about her. We don't know any -- look at the Daily News editorial that wrote about her, that said that the Nassau County Republican Party are doing the exact same thing they did with Santos by putting up a candidate and an idea as opposed to any specifics.

She's got no specific positions on issues. She's not meeting with the public. She's not taking questions from the public. It's the same thing.


BASH: Republican candidate Mazi Pilip did take some questions from me when I met up with her at Nassau County GOP headquarters. I should say that the county executive there told me he rejects the notion that Pilip is Santos 2.0. He even called Suozzi a liar for saying that.

As for Pilip, she does break the mold for Long Island Republicans in many ways. She's originally from Africa.


BASH: You were born in Ethiopia, moved to Israel when you were 12 and then came here.

MAZI PILIP (R), NEW YORK CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: Yes. Yes. That's the beautiful things about my journey. Even though I was born in Ethiopia in small village, at the age of 12, I emigrated to Israel. I finished school there. I joined the IDF right after I earned my degrees and bachelor degree in Tel Aviv -- High University Master degree in Tel Aviv University. Then I came to this country about 17 years ago.

My husband also emigrated from Ukraine to this country. We all work very hard. Our start point was very difficult, you know, as an immigrant. However, this beautiful country gave me the chance to grow, and the Republican Party also gave me the opportunity to grow and learn about leadership.

BASH: You're an observant Jew.


BASH: How does that frame the way you approach your politics?

PILIP: I don't -- you know, I work every day. I mean, from Sunday to Fridays. Friday before Shabbat starts, I take off. I close my phone. And then Saturday, I don't touch anything. I spend time with my family. I will go to synagogue, you know, to just meet people. But typically, this is a day I spend time with my family, my children, more relaxed.

BASH: It's been remarkable to talk to voters here. Immigration is by far the top issue that they talk about what we saw in Washington with the bipartisan immigration bill. Why wasn't that the kind of solution that you think would at least be a first step, maybe not all of it, but a first step?

PILIP: As you know, the bill didn't even come to the floor. It wasn't answering the issue of the border crisis. And you're right, the people of the Third Congressional district resident very much worry about the migrant, illegal migrants coming to our country.

BASH: So how --

PILIP: And not because we don't want --


BASH: What's the solution then?

PILIP: The solution is we need to come up with plan in place how we going to bring people legally to our country. The way I came to this country, the way my husband came to this country to see that's a beautiful country, became legally. And look at us, my husband is a cardiologist. I, you know, I build myself.

You know, I'm running for Congress. This is the country that can give you that opportunity, but you have to come the right way. Right now, the way things going, that's not right.


BASH: CNN will have live special coverage as the New York results come in tomorrow night. I'll be here along with Jake Tapper and the rest of our amazing political reporters.

Coming up, President Biden is poking some fun at himself this morning about his age and his memory. Stay with us. We'll tell you what he said.



BASH: Moments ago, President Biden used an age-old political weapon, humor about his memory after that scathing special counsel report that labeled him a sympathetic well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory. Here's what he said to a group of local government officials who came here from across the country.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And I've been around -- I know I don't look like it, but I've been around a while. I do remember that.


BASH: CNN's Arlette Saenz is at the White House. Pretty sustained applause there from the audience. Arlette, this is just one of several moves that the Biden campaign has been making in the last few days to try to beat back on what was in that report.

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Dana. And the president has often turned to humor as he discusses his age, which has been front and center in this presidential campaign. Now, the president's allies over the weekend spent time attacking the special counsel, calling that his inclusion of questions about the president's age and memory gratuitous and inappropriate.

And First Lady Jill Biden was also personally frustrated by this report. A source close to the first lady telling me that she felt that the attack on Beau was beyond the -- or relating to Beau was beyond the pale, and that the age attacks were flat inaccurate. That is part of what prompted First Lady Jill Biden to write this response that was sent out to supporters over the weekend where she called the special counsel's report, quote, "inaccurate and personal political attacks against Joe." She also went on to defend her husband's age, saying, "Joe is 81, that's true. But he's 81 doing more in an hour than most people do in a day. Joe has wisdom, empathy, and vision. He has delivered on so many of his promises as president, precisely because he learned a lot in those 81 years."

Now, I'm told that this email that was sent to supporters was actually the second best performing email that they sent to grassroot donors since the launch of the president's campaign. And what's especially noteworthy here is that the first lady made no explicit ask for people to donate money.

There was a button at the very bottom where people could turn to the campaign website to give money, but it highlights how they're trying to use this to try to galvanize grassroots supporters, at least. Of course, the Biden campaign has a long road ahead of them. They will have much to do to convince voters in the coming months that the president is up for a second term at a time when many have expressed skepticism that that's actually the case.

BASH: It's really interesting. Arlette, thank you so much for that reporting.

And joining me now is Democratic Congresswoman Veronica Escobar of Texas. She's the Deputy Whip of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and also National Co-Chair of President Biden's reelection campaign. So good to see you. Thank you so much for being here.

Let's pick off where Arlette left off talking about the president's age and the political effort over the past few days to push back on it. I want you to look at a poll that came out over the weekend from ABC News, asking about how people feel about the age of both of these candidates, by these candidates, of course, I mean, Biden and Trump.

59 percent say that they're both too old. So that's six in 10. That's pretty high. But for only Biden, 27 percent. How concerning is that to you? And more importantly, as somebody who is advising his campaign, what more do you want to see from him?

REP. VERONICA ESCOBAR, BIDEN CAMPAIGN CO-CHAIR: I'll tell you, Dana, I loved that humorous bit and I think every time the president leans into what is a perceived vulnerability, he does so well. And that's the Joe Biden that people love seeing and they enjoy the self- deprecating humor and him sort of bringing to light what, you know, people alleged to be concerned about.

I will tell you, when I talk to voters, they are far more concerned about a number of issues, including some of the incredibly unhinged comments by Donald Trump on Friday. And we need to make sure that voters see this as a very stark difference between an experienced compassionate leader with a proven track record who is a great president and someone who wants to unravel the global world order post-World War II, someone who wants to create encampments for immigrants as he tries to execute mass deportations and someone who wants to undo NATO. So the, you know, I think while -- I understand the media is focused on this issue of age. I think American voters truly are far more concerned if you dig deeper in conversation on other major issues.


BASH: Let me just follow-up on what you just said about former President Trump. One question that I have had is whether or not all of what you just said about him is baked in. People are not surprised by what he said about NATO by what he has done at this point. I mean, they are very well aware of that. So how do you run a campaign knowing that this is, not new to any voter in America?

ESCOBAR: I think what's going to be really critical is that we remind the American people, believe him when he says it. So when he makes these outrageous claims that some politicians -- I'm very disappointed with Senator Marco Rubio, not surprised, that he didn't push back on what Donald Trump was saying.

But, you know, I think we have to make sure that the American people know, believe him when he says it. And that we talk about the consequences to what he's saying. And you're right, Dana, there are people in the base, the MAGA base, true to Donald Trump's words, he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and they'd still support him.

BASH: But it's not just the base.

ESCOBAR: It's not just the base, but I will tell you, when you look at the exit polls in some, during some of the primaries, there were independents and other Republicans who said that they could not vote for Donald Trump if he is the nominee.

BASH: You represent a border state, the state of Texas, and I was just in New York, which is very much not a border state, on Long Island, where their special election is going to be tomorrow. And I was really struck by talking to voter after voter after voter open-ended question, what matters the most almost to a person, immigration and the border.

How important is it for the president to continue to reframe that issue? And as a progressive, how concerned are you that it's like sort of whack a mole that you reframe it and sound more conservative, but then you alienate the progressives who might think you're going too hard?

ESCOBAR: Yes, this is I think the most challenging domestic issue that we face as a country. We're seeing the results of a Western Hemispheric refugee crisis unfolding before our eyes. It's not just impacting the United States, it's impacting countries to our south.

And at every turn, as President Biden has tried to institute a new policy or a new plan, he gets criticized from all sides and then he gets sued by states like my own as they seek to prevent the president from successfully addressing this challenge. And then you look at Congress. I will tell you everything happening on the border, all roads lead to Congress, to our failure to adequately fund the president's budget and his supplemental request our inability to legislate on this issue, it is tough. And what Greg Abbott has done is he's made it a local issue for New York, for Chicago --

BASH: He's been very politically successful.

ESCOBAR: -- or -- yes, for Denver. He's been politically successful. But when you look at the billions, the tens of billions of dollars that Texas has spent, he's proven that even he can't control what's happening on the border. So I think the president has demonstrated he wanted Congress to act and it was the Republican Party that chose the issue over a solution.

BASH: Thank you so much for coming. I hope you come back. Appreciate it.

ESCOBAR: Thank you. Appreciate you.

BASH: Thank you.

Up next, who wants to be vice president? The Republican veepstakes, it's all playing out on Capitol Hill with a number of Republicans competing for Donald Trump's favor. New CNN reporting on this coming up.



BASH: There's a quiet contest happening on Capitol Hill. Well quiet- ish. And that question in that contest is, who can do the most to win Donald Trump's favor and with it perhaps win a slot on his ticket? CNN's Annie Grayer and Melanie Zanona have new reporting about the lawmakers vying for the likely GOP nominee's attention.

Annie is here. Hi, Annie. So there's one senator, one congresswoman, in particular, who seemed quite interested in the job.

ANNIE GRAYER, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: That's right, Dana. While the Republican primary for president is still underway, some of Donald Trump's biggest allies on Capitol Hill are already vying to be considered to be Trump's VP, and that's Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, who's the number three Republican in the House, and Republican Senator J.D. Vance.

And what we're seeing, that part of this campaign has been about trying to rewrite the narrative about January 6th and embrace some of Donald Trump's biggest false claims about that day. They both have signed on to a resolution that would essentially absolve Donald Trump of any wrongdoing on January 6th.

And more recently, they both said that if they were vice president on that day, they would not have certified the election like Mike Pence did. Take a listen to what they had to say. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. J.D. VANCE (R), OHIO: If I had been vice president, I would've told the states like Pennsylvania, Georgia, and so many others that we needed to have multiple slates of electors, and I think the U.S. Congress should have fought over it from there.


REP. ELISE STEFANIK (R), NEW YORK: I would not have done what Mike Pence did. I don't think that was the right approach. I think it's very important that we continue to. stand up for the Constitution and have legal and secure elections, which we did not have in 2020.


GRAYER: Now, the motivations behind those comments are obvious to even some of their own Republican colleagues. One Republican lawmaker that Melanie and I spoke to on the condition of anonymity said, quote, "They just can't kiss his butt enough," end quote. Quote, "It's obvious."

But, Dana, for Trump's part, we're told that no serious conversations have started about who would be his running mate, and sources say he's just enjoying throwing names out there and watching his allies on Capitol Hill.

BASH: He certainly seems to be enjoying it, and those soundbites really are quite telling. Dan Crenshaw was on on Friday saying, point blank, this is a Republican, that that is not, in fact, what the Constitution says. So I know you understand that as well, and thank you so much for that great reporting from you and Melanie, Annie. Good to see you.

Thank you so much for watching Inside Politics. CNN News Central starts after a break.