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Inside Politics

Trump Hits The Trail In Michigan Following Busy Legal Week; Fulton County D.A. Fani Willis: "I'm Not On Trial"; Competing Views Of U.S. Role As World Leader Becomes More Clear; White House Reassures Allies On Commitment To NATO; Navalny's Death Brings New Urgency Over How To Counter Russia; All Eyes On Harris Amid Concerns About Biden's Age; Lawmakers Skip Town Without Taking Care Of Business. Aired 11a- 12p ET

Aired February 18, 2024 - 11:00   ET



FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: Increasingly, they are dazzled by the clean and orderly ways of dictatorships, populist authoritarian, and absolute monarchies.

After all, say what you will about Putin. He makes the subways run on time.

Go to for a link to my Washington Post column this week.

And thanks to all of you for being part of my program this week. I will see you next week.


LETITIA JAMES, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF NEW YORK: Today, justice has been served.

CORNISH: Trump is ordered to pay up.

DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES If I weren't running, none of this stuff would have ever happened.

CORNISH: New details of his plans for a second term, as this unprecedented race takes shape.

FANI WILLIS, DISTRICT ATTORNEY OF FULTON COUNTY: Do you think I'm on trial? These people are on trial for trying to steal an election in 2020.

CORNISH: Plus, world disorder.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Putin is responsible for Navalny's death.

CORNISH: Trump and Republicans threaten to upend alliances.

SEN. JD VANCE (R-OH): You guys have to step up. CORNISH: And the stakes couldn't be higher.

KAMALA HARRIS, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: That worldview is dangerous, destabilizing, and indeed short-sighted.

CORNISH: And reality check.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's baptism by fire.

CORNISH: After a week of missteps for the GOP, lawmakers leave town.

BIDEN: What are they thinking? My God.

CORNISH: With a shutdown looming, what comes next?

Inside politics, the best reporting from inside the corridors of power starts now.

Good morning and welcome to INSIDE POLITICS SUNDAY. I'm Audie Cornish in for Manu Raju.

Now, it was a roller coaster week for former president Trump. The Republican frontrunner once again campaigning outside courthouse. And it's just a taste of what's to come this general election season. But from the campaign trail, you hear the reality of what a second Trump term could look like.

At a rally in Michigan last night, he spent his energy on promise retribution, directing raw anger at the judge who ordered him to pay $355 million in his New York civil fraud case.


TRUMP: The judges and prosecutors that were dealing with me are essentially all the same, different wrappings, tone, manner, but always the same coordinated and overly nasty result. They are nasty. These are Democrats that definitely hate me. They hate you too.

I will direct a completely overhaul DOJ to investigate every radical out of control, prosecutor in America for their illegal, racist and reverse enforcement of the law.


CORNISH: But one thing Trump failed to mention, the death of Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny.


LIZ CHENEY, FORMER UNITED STATES REPRESENTATIVES: When you think about Donald Trump, for example, pledging retribution, what Vladimir Putin did to Navalny is what retribution looks like in a country where the leader is not subject to the rule of law.

And I think that we have to take Donald Trump very seriously. We have to take seriously the extent to which you've now got a Putin wing in the Republican Party.


CORNISH: All right. I want to talk about this more with our panel today. First, we have the Washington Post, Leigh Ann Caldwell, Astead Herndon from the New York Times, and Bloomberg's Nancy Cook. Welcome you guys.

So, tonally a little weird going back and forth, right? One very focused on kind of personal problems, your domestic trouble, and then Liz Cheney, this morning, really sounding quite a somber alarm.

I also want to point out one more voice, House Intelligence Chair Mike Turner, this morning, because he was talking about not just the fact that, you know, no mention of Navalny, but also Trump's comments about NATO this week.


REP. MIKE TURNER (R-OH): But I think he is very, very strong in his support for NATO.

Donald Trump's political rallies don't really translate into Donald Trump's actual policies.


CORNISH: OK. Astead, I want to start with you because this idea that somehow what's said in the rallies is different from what he might actually be like, that being part of his defensive swords. What are we looking at when someone like Mike Turner says that?

ASTEAD HERNDON, NEW YORK TIMES NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: Yes. I mean, it's the very like take him figuratively, not literally thing we heard a lot in 2016.

CORNISH: So lessons learned from that.

HERNDON: I think that's a bad like strategy. Donald Trump is a very like transparent person. And those political rallies often do translate straight into violence. He's been remarkably consistent on the question of like Russia and NATO and his like outlierness and to the rest of the GOP and to the rest of the kind of political system.

This is a person who has consistently touted the line of Putin. He's a concern who's consistently not decided to be tougher on him, and has been criticized for that and has not decided to change that.

CORNISH: Right. And Nancy kind of brought the party in line with him.

HERNDON: Exactly.


NANCY COOK, BLOOMBERG SENIOR NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, 100 percent. We have seen, in the last week, as Trump marches toward securing the GOP nomination. We have really seen the Republican Party fall in line with him on a number of things.


You know, his stance towards Russia, his stance towards NATO, his stance towards Ukraine aid. He is making the Republican National Committee in his image, which we can talk more about later.

You know, he just has a lot fewer checks on his, you know, power at this point than he did in 2016 when I covered him in 2020, when I covered his White House.

And, you know, he's not even back in power yet, but Republicans are really falling in line. And I think that what we -- what we -- what he says in rallies, we should take very seriously. I think that this is a case of his allies and campaign aides trying to walk back dramatic statements that he says --


COOK: -- before he clinches the nomination to make sure that he gets it.

CORNISH: All right. So I want to stay with the rallies for a minute because also in Michigan, Trump was talking about immigrants and the -- and migration problem, blaming Biden for what he calls crime waves, tying those things together. And I want to give you a sense of how he was talking about this.


TRUMP: It's a new category of crime where they go and they beat up police officers. You've seen that. They go and they stab people, hurt people, shoot people because Joe Biden allowed this to happen. We will call it from now on Biden migrant crime. OK. It's by Bigrant crime.

What are we going to do about it? We're going to have the largest deportation effort in the history of our country. We have no choice.


CORNISH: Leigh Ann, I think I heard the phrase, Bigrant crime.

But coming off of the New York special election, where if there was ever a district where like a crime, the story about what happened in Times Square with police officers should resonate and somehow did not put that candidate over the top.

So how does the Biden White House counter Bigrant crime?

LEIGH ANN CALDWELL, WASHINGTON POST POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, now you could see very clearly why Donald Trump exploded and the bipartisan border deal that was reached in the Senate. Something that would address the challenges at the border. This is something that Donald Trump wants to run on. He wants to tie it to President Biden. And it's become very before and now very clear on this. This is number one issue. And just getting back very quickly to what's different between the president's, perhaps, first term and perhaps what would be his second term, Donald Trump's anyway, is he has said, look, I didn't know how important it was in my first term on who I appointed.

I had people who tried to undercut me. Now, I know I need people who will -- who will pledge complete fealty to me to implement --


CALDWELL: -- his attention.

CORNISH: And we know there are people who are working hard to make sure there is a pipeline of names, right? For all of these positions.

One more public versus private Trump. And this is on the issue of abortion, because there's been some reporting from the New York Times, right, that in private, he is in favor of a federal 16-week abortion ban.

I just want to say that very clearly. But has been holding off on publicizing it until the primary is over to capitalize on it. So help us again --


CORNISH: -- make sense of this what we're saying in public versus kind of what we're planning in private.

HERNDON: I mean, this has been an open discussion among Republicans about where they should actually land on the abortion question, the kind of pro-life.

CORNISH: And they've struggled.

HERNDON: They struggled. The pro-life activists who have been really pushing them. They call it the ostrich strategy. They say Republicans have had their head in the sand and they need to have an affirmative position.

Now, Donald Trump has been different than other Republicans in his unwillingness to embrace something like a six-week ban or other things.

CORNISH: And telling them that it's unwise.

HERNDON: And telling them that it's --


HERNDON: -- unwise and that they would have -- it's a bad political position to have. There's reporting in that piece that says that even when he thinks about vice presidential options, he asks firstly, what is their position on abortion because he understands the political importance of the issue? Now, that being said, a 16-week abortion ban is still something that Democrats would want to run against. You saw the Biden campaign really blast out this statement and try to say that, you know, this --

CORNISH: All roads are leading to a federal ban.

HERNDON: All roads are leading to a federal ban.


HERNDON: And that the enactment of a federal ban would inevitably lead to shorter and -- like, shorter and shorter timelines on those restrictions. But Republican response is that they can't not have a position on the federal front.

And for Donald Trump to embrace the national ban on the federal level is partially because the activist push is so real that he could get the distance from that in the primary. But come the general election, he wants those evangelicals. He wants those kind of pro-lifers on his side. And this is kind of a compromise.

CORNISH: Or at least not to alienate them.

HERNDON: At least not to alienate them. This is a compromise position for him to find this.

CORNISH: So all this is happening as you were talking, Nancy, about consolidating power with the RNC with Rona -- what is her name at this point?

COOK: Ronna McDaniel.

CORNISH: McDaniel. On the way out. The issue of money is what's behind this, right? Who's fundraising? How are they doing it? Are they doing it well?

But at the same time, you have Trump having this $35 -- $350 million penalty out of New York. So I don't know. This is a jump ball.


At what point are you raising money for this person to pay for their problems or this person to end up president?

COOK: Well, it's something that Nikki Haley who is still on the campaign trail running against Donald Trump and the primary has brought up. The fact that he spent $50 million last year on his legal fees alone from his campaign contributions.

The RNC is broke.

CORNISH: Just underscore that from his -- say that again.

CALDWELL: From his campaign contributions. The RNC is broke, but the RNC has also paid some of his legal fees in the past and he wants, reporting says, the RNC to continue to do that. And so by perhaps putting in people that he personally wants in there, including perhaps his daughter-in-law that could maybe give him another pot of money to help him with his legal job produced.

CORNISH: But it's not just that they're having trouble fundraising, right? I mean, he sucks up all the oxygen when it comes to fundraising.

HERNDON: Absolutely.

CORNISH: Like people give the money to him rather than the party.

HERNDON: And the party has suffered because of that. I mean, Ronna McDaniel has been put in a tough position over the last several years because of her kind of contentious relationship with Donald Trump.

It's required her to have that level of fealty that he requires, but at the same time, the donors, the kind of apparatus of the Republican Party has recognized what you're saying that they haven't been raising money individually, that they haven't had a kind of top to bottom party hell.

Things like vote by mail, things like the kind of -- like the structures of voting that the RNC should be focused on has been completely distracted by Donald Trump. His move to kind of install his daughter-in-law in that position is just a further imprint of his image on the Republican Party.

And this is someone who has already taken it over from top.

CORNISH: And it sounds like a very inside the weeds question, but like that's voter money, right?

HERNDON: That is voter money. Yes.

CORNISH: That's your money out there.

One more thing, because Tuesday, we're going to be talking about the next -- or this week, we're going to be talking about the next primary in South Carolina. I'll ask you the question people ask every single week.

Nikki Haley, what are you doing? How long are you going to do it? And will it make a difference? Sort of how are you thinking of this race at this point with her while he has all this legal stuff bearing down on him?

COOK: So I'm heading to South Carolina on Wednesday, so I'm glad that you asked. I view her candidacy, at this point, as -- I do think she'll stay in the race through early March. I think that she has become increasing the critical of him. She has been able to raise money. She spent a lot of time this past week fundraising in Texas and elsewhere.

CORNISH: So there are donors who are saying, keep going now.

COOK: There are donors that are saying --


COOK: -- keep going because they don't want Trump. I think that her play at this point, because she is expected to lose South Carolina, we're just waiting to see by how large of a margin it is next Saturday.

CORNISH: And her home state. (CROSSTALK)

COOK: Where she was governor.


COOK: I think that her play at this point is, one, if there's some sort of health scare or some sort of legal reason where Trump has to drop out, she will be the last Republican standing.

And then secondly, she's young. She's in her early 50s. And I think if it doesn't work out for her this time, she is very well positioned to make a run again in 2028.

CORNISH: Yes. You guys, thanks so much.

Coming up, disqualified or just discredited? The testimony that could cause Trump's Georgia election fraud case to crumble. We'll hear from a journalist linked to it all from the start.




WILLIS: You're confused. You think I'm on trial. These people are on trial for trying to steal an election in 2020. I'm not on trial, no matter how hard you try to put me on trial.


CORNISH: An all-day hearing with star witnesses and a kind of quotable testimony that can dominate a news cycle or possibly break the internet. It's certainly not the reason Fulton County, Georgia, District Attorney, Fani Willis, wants to be making headlines from a courtroom, but she's facing questions about the romantic relationship with a member of her team prosecuting that massive election subversion case against former president Trump and his allies.

And whether they're vacations, et cetera, posed a financial conflict of interest. Now, the decision could result in her office's removal from the case entirely. Either way, her reputation is now on the line.

My next guest here to untangle this legal batch of what-ifs, CNN's legal analyst, Elliot Williams, welcome. And George Chidi from The Guardian, who's been more involved than most reporters in this particular case. George, I'm going to start with you, because just about every time we've talked, you have been in the courtroom at one point or another, in part, because you helped uncover the fake electors' scheme, right? Just give us a sense of how you encountered the case.

GEORGE CHIDI, POLITICS AND DEMOCRACY REPORTER, THE GUARDIAN: Sure thing. In 2020, in December, when the electors are casting their formal ballots, I was at the Georgia Capitol. And I was expecting weird things to happen. It turns out I was, like, correct, but also early.

One of the Republican electors, somebody who would have been an elector if the Republicans had won Georgia, and an old friend of mine walked by me in the hall and didn't make eye contact. I thought that was weird. So I followed him into a room, and it turns out that's where the fake electors were having their meeting. And they didn't want anybody to know about it. So they threw me out.

CORNISH: Mm-hmm.

CHIDI: And one thing leads to another, and I'm subpoenaed by Fani Willis in the case.

CORNISH: Given what you've encountered, right, as you've been through this process, what surprised you about how Fani Willis approached testifying? A, was a surprise she was going to testify, right? So just to put that aside. But once she started in, what were you seeing that either shocked you or made sense?

CHIDI: So I think part of it is that Fani Willis has got two audiences to speak to, three, including us,but we don't actually count. There are only two folks who really count. One is the judge, and the legal question about whether or not all of the allegations are sufficient to knock her off the case.

And then there are the voters of Fulton County. She's up for re- election this year. And she has to wonder whether or not all of these questions about her romantic relationship relative to the Trump case or enough for somebody to knock her out that way.


So she's talking to the Fulton County. When she -- the emotion, the presentation, was about making a point to voters that she was still in a place where she thinks she could fight.

CORNISH: Mm-hmm. And to underscore here, if this case is taken away from her, her and also her office. And I want to turn to you, Elliot, about this. What does that mean in terms of who picks it up next, right?

So let's say they take it away. It's got to go to someone else, or at the end of the year, if she were to not be reelected, it goes to someone else. So what does that mean for the future of this?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Nobody knows, and that's the thing, Audie. If in fact she is removed from the case now, as you'd said, the whole team is regarded as being off the case. There's a board in the state of Georgia that would decide which reassignment it would go to, whether it would be Cobb County or another county in Georgia.

Now the difference is, most of the -- many other prosecutors in the state of Georgia may not be as inclined to pursue the case.

CORNISH: Oh, they don't want to jump in on this?

WILLIAMS: They may not want to. And, frankly, if she were to lose election and have someone else come in, they may have a different vision, they may want different charges and all.

CORNISH: They may drop it.

WILLIAMS: They may drop it all the above. And so it remains unclear what happens. Other than the fact it's not happening soon, if in fact she's removed.

CORNISH: Georgia, you've been paying attention also to how people in Georgia have been reacting to this. You know, for a time it seemed like this was almost kind of, not a source of pride, but people thought that she was handling the case very competently. So are people still behind her in the state?

CHIDI: I think so. And I think you saw some of that in the courtroom on Friday. The mayor of Atlanta, Andre Dickens was there, the former mayor, Shirley Franklin was there. I saw a civil rights attorney that's extremely prominent.

Joe Griggs (PH) was there. There's a -- there is an increasing show of support for Fani Willis that's coming from the political establishment of Atlanta and Fulton County in Georgia. And I don't think that's going away. I think there's been a lot of rallying around Willis in the office right now.

CORNISH: We've been talking a lot about Fani Willis. But Elli, I just want to bring it to another prosecutor who's doing pretty well, right, which DA James.

Can you talk about the case this week and the win for that department?

WILLIAMS: Well, it's a lot of money that the former president will have to pay. And --

CORNISH: And this is the civil fraud case doing business in New York.

WILLIAMS: And you have to specify that because it's so dizzying. This is the state attorney general of New York has filed a private suit against former president Trump for falsification of business records and beefing up the values of some of his properties.

Now, it's a profound settlement, you know, along the lines of hundreds of millions of dollars. Now, the question is, how does he pay it and when? Does he get a bond secured against a lot of his assets in order to pay it?

And a lot of those questions are still very open. Now, also, what the future of the Trump organization even is, is an open question. He himself is barred from a period of several years of running an organization in the state of New York.

What do you do? And it's just -- they're all open questions still.

CORNISH: George, I know that you cover democracy for The Guardian as well. Can you talk about how this whole discussion, all these various cases, what's at stake for the voters? Because obviously, it's very sexy for us in making memes out of her testimony, et cetera.

But what do you see as the sort of larger issue?

CHIDI: So, I mean, there's a fundamental question about whether or not people who hold high office can -- will be accountable to the public for their actions. There's a -- like a fear in American society right now that if you're powerful enough, you're untouchable. That nothing bad ever happens to you, especially in comparison to the sorts of things that regular folks have to go through when they make a misstep.

This is -- this place is democracy on trial. Like if you can't hold Donald Trump accountable in a fair court, in a -- like with a just outcome, then who can you hold?

Like it's -- if it's not him and if it's not these people, like you just start to ask questions about whether or not you just need to be powerful enough to get away with things.

CORNISH: That's George Chidi from The Guardian. Also, Elliot Williams, thank you so much.

Coming up, Ukraine's on the retreat, and a key Putin critic is dead. With the stakes higher than ever, Trump, Biden, and the Congress battle over America's role on the world stage. Our panel will return, next.



CORNISH: Donald Trump sent shutters throughout Europe this week as he doubled down on his pledge to go after NATO allies if they don't spend more on defense. And Republicans increasingly rallied around as isolationist rhetoric as they continued to blockade for Ukraine and Israel.

And all that came amid the news that Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny had died in prison. It's becoming clearer than ever. There are competing visions for the U.S. role in the world. And Trump doubled down on his NATO remarks during a rally this week.


TRUMP: One of the heads of the country stood up and said, does that mean that if we don't pay the bills that you're not going to protect us? I said, that's exactly what it means. Exactly. I'm not going to protect you.

VANCE: The best way to help Ukraine, I think from a European perspective, is for Europe to become more self-sufficient.

If Vladimir Putin is an existential threat to Europe, it doesn't seem like the Europeans are acting like that. And I think the Americans are simply saying to our European friends, you guys have to step up.


CORNISH: Now, President Biden has forcefully pushed back dispatching Vice President Harris to the Munich Security Conference with a clear message to allies. America's commitments remain ironclad.


HARRIS: They suggest it is in the best interest of the American people to isolate ourselves from the world, to flout common understandings among nations, to embrace dictators and adopt the repressive tactics. Let me be clear, that worldview is dangerous, destabilizing and indeed shortsighted.



CORNISH: Now, bringing back our panel to talk about this. This is one of those things where it sounds sort of sleepy like, hey, there's a conference somewhere, but there's a lot at stake, both domestically and internationally. So first, this idea of different worldviews.

Nancy, how do you see the Biden administration trying to parse this, trying to establish themselves differently?

COOK: Well, I think the Biden administration, one of their accomplishments, which they probably don't get enough credit for, is really holding NATO together when the war in Ukraine broke out and Russia invaded. And --

CORNISH: But the first race was kind of like we're going to make things back to normal.

COOK: Right.

CORNISH: We're going to reestablish ties. We're just going to reset.

COOK: Right.

CORNISH: Now, your argument is -- is what?

COOK: Their argument, I think, is that we will maintain ties and that through sort of alliances with Europe and these NATO countries and investing in NATO, that the world will be more secure because there will be -- there will be more open conversations with allies, you know, sort of less doubling down on, you know, threatening rhetoric, and that having those open lines of communication will make the world more safe.

Trump is making a totally different argument, whereas he has always disliked NATO, he has always fought with NATO, and I think, as Leigh Ann said earlier, we should pay attention to what he's saying because I think that he is much more prepared for a second term and will take action much more quickly.

He also has always really cozied up and liked authoritarian leaders and dictators, he loves Putin. And so I think that, you know, those are the two world views that we have at this point.

CORNISH: Which brings us to the other issue because the whole conversation around NATO is really a conversation about Russia, right? And I would play some tape about Trump on Russia, but there isn't any, because he didn't talk about what Putin did. So I want to have a moment to play a little sound of Navalny's wife after this terrible week.


YULIYA NAVALNAYA, ALEXEI NAVALNY'S WIFE (through translator): I want them to know that they will be punished for what they have done with our country, with my family and with my husband. They will be brought to justice and this day will come soon.


CORNISH: She rarely speaks publicly. So for her to get up in that moment and say this was striking and to talk about it as a moment of their will one day be accountability. So now let's look at our politics. Is anybody in Congress, et cetera, interested in talking like that?

CALDWELL: There are some people who are -- who want to make sure that Russia is punished mostly through helping Ukraine, right? And this is this huge divide that's happening in Congress right now and within the Republican Party where you have a Speaker of the House who is very worried about losing his job as Speaker of the House.

And so he was bowing to the far-right factions of his party. And at this point, unwilling to put $60 billion of Ukraine aid on the House floor even for a vote.

CORNISH: Not just unwilling, let's play a clip of President Biden talking about urging them to try and pass this bill.


JOE BIDEN, (D) U.S. PRESIDENT: The idea of transatlantic alliance and not overwhelming in our interest is bizarre, can only be -- I just -- I don't understand. I don't understand the complete lack knowledge of history or the lack of responsibility.

(END VIDEO CLIP) CORNISH: And also this week, we heard him saying, and they went home. Also, right, they didn't even stick around and make an effort on this.

CALDWELL: Right, exactly. They're home for the next -- more than a week. There's been a faction of the -- the Republican Party was very isolationist, right, before World War II as well. And so now we are seeing this again. There's still elements of the Republican Party led by, you know, Mitch McConnell, no longer Lindsey Graham, who used to be one of the loudest voices in this, really pushing for saying that this is a critical moment in world alliance and global alliances. And if the United States falters, then there's going to be big challenges ahead.

HERNDON: Yeah, the problem is that the public's kind of opinion on this stuff has changed. Like over the last year, I was at the Munich Security Conference last year, and there was a kind of sense in the air that they needed to keep their kind of voting populations along, like with them, so that they would continue.

And I think in the over the last year, particularly because of the war in Israel and Gaza, I think there's been a big public shift against those type of things that's actually imperiled the Democrats' ability to really rally around this issue.

And so even last year, I remember Vice President Harris at the Security Conference saying that she was having difficult -- you know, having a more difficult time pitching this to lower income communities or some parts of the Democratic coalition that were saying, why aren't we getting more? Well, you know, why is the American First Message resonates across different sectors?


HERNDON: And so I think there are --

CORNISH: Even just from the argument of what are we doing this, like the take away from the sort of post-9/11 era.



CORNISH: -- was, wait a second, what is this? The explicit.

HERNDON: Right. And so I think that that's the kind of thing you hear that is actually troubling the administration is that there is not the same level of public support for aid to Ukraine and for kind of foreign aid and for the worldview of the administration.

I do think that to your point, is the kind of preeminent worldview of kind of foreign policy establishment, that they have done a good job kind of keeping these alliances together, right? Like they need a public push for NATO that is not there at the moment.

CORNISH: I think it's interesting that Kamala Harris is doing this push, right? Essentially, there's not a lot of room for error for her. There's more focus on what could happen if there was some need for her to step into the role. And of course, as people talk loudly about Biden's age, this becomes more important.

You know, the new reporting from CNN, we actually kind of looked at her ability to basically break through into the inner circle and have a stronger role. Sources telling or Isaac Devere that the VP has been busy making phone calls, meeting behind the scenes, gathering information, push for changes in strategy. Do we see this as a moment where she comes into her own on this campaign?

COOK: Well, I think that she has been coming into her own a little bit quietly. You know, abortion rights has been something that she has been very vocal on. And she's --

CORNISH: But the voters want loud, right?

COOK: Right, so.

CORNISH: People aren't really in it anymore for your sort of quiet energy.

COOK: Right.

CORNISH: It's like they want a fighter, as it said.

COOK: Yeah, I think that she -- you know, she has a certain style. I've traveled with her a bunch when I covered the Biden White House. you know, I think that having been the recipient of a lot of criticism for being a black woman, either she has a lot of walls up sometimes and, you know, doesn't always come across as a fighter. I don't think that that means that she's not, but I think that her public demeanor is one that's fairly restrained.

But the administration for the last several years has really been positioning her at the forefront on abortion rights and on foreign policy. And I think that you'll continue to see her carry those messages. And also, she is a former prosecutor. She does have a good argument against Trump and is fairly good at critiquing him.

CORNISH: Yeah, that's not retail politics. So Astead, to your point, you talk to voters who's the constituency that's excited to see Kamala breakthrough?

HERNDON: It's hard to isolate that right now. But I do think that's the challenge of this year. I mean, this is a rubber meets the road moment for the administration on this thing. I mean, to your point about people's concerns about Biden's age and people's sense that Harris is the kind of unanswered elephant in the room question around that, she has to really respond to that over this year. And so whether it's abortion rights, whether it's gun safety, whether it's being the kind of a base motivator that maybe Biden can't be, I do think the onus is on the administration to position her as someone who are versus that kind of public image problem that she's had over the last several years.

And I want to say that, like she -- it's not a matter of the work, right? Like, she's actually doing the job. The question is the job is kind of a squishy job, right? Like you can do Munich Security Conference, you can support the President, but the real perception thing of that role is, will you be president yourself?

CORNISH: But if you're not at any of those places, that's a problem.

HERNDON: Exactly.

CALDWELL: But what's really fascinating is the tenor of this conversation that we're having right now about Kamala Harris compared to a year ago. Remember how the members of the Biden administration were undercutting her? There was huge concerns about Kamala Harris should something happen to Biden. And you're not hearing that as much anymore, which shows perhaps that she is growing into the role and that the Biden administration or Biden team is much more comfortable with her as voters. And even I talked to a lot of members of Congress are also becoming more comfortable with her.

CORNISH: OK, stay with us then. The clock is ticking because Congress hasn't reached a deal, as we said, on foreign aid.

Plus, there's a government shutdown looming. Get this, lawmakers are still taking a break. So will we.


BIDEN: Two weeks walking away, two weeks. What are they thinking? My God, this is bizarre.




CORNISH: Members of Congress have left town and aren't due to return until just days before a potential partial government shutdown. That's supposed to happen March 1st. That's not all. They also have other crucial matters to figure out, like how to move forward an international aid package for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan.

And it's not like things are going smoothly, especially for Republicans in the House who have suffered from several missteps this past week.

I want to bring our panel back to talk more, because interestingly this morning, we heard Liz Cheney direct a sort of line of comments at Speaker Johnson about this Ukraine package. And I thought it was very pointed and interesting. Here she is.


LIZ CHENEY, (R) FORMER U.S. REPRESENTATIVE: Mike Johnson ought to search deep in his conscience, understanding exactly what's happening, the slaughter that's happening in Ukraine today, the extent to which the Ukrainians are on the front lines in this battle for freedom. And history will look back at this moment and ask, what did Mike Johnson do?


CORNISH: If we had played that longer, you would have heard her say his name several more times. And I thought it was interesting because Trump's not in office, right? Like, it's one thing for us to be like, what would Trump do? What would Biden do? She was saying, look, there's a person here right now responsible for this conversation, Leigh Ann, for you like where is Johnson on these kinds of issues?

CALDWELL: So Johnson, we don't really know where Johnson is because none of his members know, they are asking for someone to lead, to make decisions, and that leadership is not there. He --

CORNISH: Which is literally the job, right? It's --


CALDWELL: Which literally the job.

CORNISH: It's not just they vaguely agree with his ideologies. It's like your job is to be like, hey, this is what we're doing.

CALDWELL: Yes. And in meetings with members, his own conference, he never says what he's going to do. He listens and listens and takes notes and never makes a decision. And which is becoming a huge problem. His decision so far is to do nothing when it comes to this issue of Ukraine, even though it is widely known that if he were to put it on the floor, it would very likely pass with the support of a majority of Democrats and a near majority probably, of Republicans. But he's refusing to make that decision.

CORNISH: Is that part of the problem, that it might pass?

HERNDON: Yeah, I think so. Because the problem is he's not thinking about majority of Republicans or Democrats. He's thinking about Donald Trump, right? And so, like because Trump is the looming figure here, it's complicated the very basic job of policy making that Speaker Johnson and the Republican conference have not been willing to do over the last year and a half. I mean, I think the context here of how he even came to this role is important, right? We have the McCarthy blow up. We have the kind of Republican conference --

CORNISH: Which people probably only remember as like a clown car of votes, right? Just like vote after vote after vote.

HERNDON: I think that's the important thing to remember. It's been a clown car from the jump. I mean --


HERNDON: That is what is looming over this thing. This is not a kind of group of people who's been interested in governance from the jump. And I think that that is where the Democrats argument is. So when you look at the landscape of '24, for Democrats, the House is the most winnable prospect. And partially their argument is going to be the dysfunction that you are seeing here is a thing that can be reversed.

CORNISH: Let me jump in, because it's not just Democrats. We were hearing from Pennsylvania Republican Brian Fitzpatrick, who is also looking at these couple of weeks talking about immigration, the Mayorkas impeachment, and the votes for this Ukraine bill. And had this to say about what's going on.


MANU RAJU, CNN ANCHOR: The rejection of the bipartisan border deal, the rejection of the bipartisan foreign aid bill, the inability of getting a lot of the agenda through and coming back three days before a possible shutdown. How do you think this all reflects on the House right now?

REP. BRIAN FITZPATRICK (R-PA): Well, I think it's fine to criticize somebody else's work product as long as you have a better alternative. It's not OK to criticize someone's work and offer no alternative, particularly on existential time sensitive matters like we're dealing with right now. Things have not been functioning well at all and that needs to change.


CORNISH: Cry for help, I don't know. What do you see when you hear that?

COOK: Well, Republicans that I talk to, and I'm doing more national politics on the "Hill," but they do -- they are very worried about Republicans losing the House in 2024 simply because what people are seeing, what Americans see when they tune in is dysfunctional.

CORNISH: And their majority is so slim really right now.

COOK: So slim, and there's just an inability to pass bills. I have had sources tell me, you know, Mike Johnson is basically like, you know, a medical school resident who was asked to do brain surgery. Do you know what I mean? He's just like not there. And what he is spending his time on is really wooing Trump. You know, I think he is in close contact with Trump. He calls Trump all the time. He is looking for approval and guidance, you know, while Trump is in Mar-a-Lago. I think Trump doesn't totally take him seriously. But I think Mike Johnson's audience is an audience of one Donald Trump.

CORNISH: OK. One other thing that would please that audience would be the impeachment of Joe Biden, probably. And then this happened this week. The Special Counsel who is looking into whether the Biden family benefited from Hunter Biden's business dealings, one of the key witnesses there was charged with lying about it all. So these are allegations right now. But where does the Republican impeachment effort go from here?

CALDWELL: So the reason they impeached Mayorkas this week, remember that happened, is because they switched gears because the Biden impeachment was in trouble to begin with. So the Mayorkas impeachment was enough for the red meat for the base right now. Now, with this news with President Biden and the whole impeach --

we'll see where it goes.

CORNISH: This witness' comments have gone everywhere. This is the basis for so much of the chatter.

CALDWELL: This is the central component of their entire case against President Biden, which completely fell apart. So, you know, even before this happened. I asked Tom Emmer, the number three Republican in the House, if they're going to impeach Biden next. And he completely dismissed me. So I think that the Republicans are really going to have to figure out what they're going to do with this.

HERNDON: I mean, impeachment before evidence, right, that's where they have been.

CORNISH: All right, you're getting ahead of yourself there, Herndon. OK, settle down.

Coming up, I spoke with the kingmaker of democratic politics, Congressman Jim Clyburn. He shares his secret for his approach to power.



CORNISH: And one more thing, a change in leadership on Capitol Hill this week. Congressman Jim Clyburn, a longtime Democratic lawmaker from South Carolina, announced he's stepping down from his position in House Democratic leadership.

Now, the 83-year-old Clyburn has long been called a kingmaker in Democratic politics. His powerful endorsement of Joe Biden in 2020 is seen as the moment that helped Biden clinch the nomination.

So I actually spoke with Representative Clyburn on my podcast, "The Assignment," because he has this very quiet approach to power, and I wanted to understand how he managed to get things done in Washington.


REP. JAMES CLYBURN (D-SC): There's a time and a place for everything under the sun. And there's a time and a place to be in your face. I don't object to that at the proper time in the right place. You have to tell whether or not you want to make a headline tomorrow morning or headway tomorrow evening.


If you want to make headway, sometimes you got to pass up the headline. And if you want to make a headline, you got to be prepared not to make a headway.

(END VIDEO CLIP) CORNISH: You can hear my full conversation with Jim Clyburn on my podcast, "The Assignment." Scan the QR code on your screen or follow us wherever you get your podcasts.

That's it for "Inside Politics Sunday." You can follow us on X, formerly known as Twitter, @insidepolitics. And if you ever miss an episode, you can catch up wherever you get your podcasts and search for Inside Politics.

Now, up next, State of the Union with Jake Tapper and Dana Bash. Jake's guests include former Congresswoman Liz Cheney and Senator Tim Scott.

Thanks again for sharing your Sunday morning with us.