Return to Transcripts main page

Inside Politics

Biden Blames House GOP For Ukraine's Battlefield Loss; Europe Directs Anger At House Republicans After Ukrainian City Falls; No Mention Of Putin In Trump's First Comments On Navalny; Trump, Haley Face Off In South Carolina Primary In 5 Days; Trump Launches Sneaker Line After Losing $355M Judgement; Haley: Trump Is "Weak In The Knees" For Putin; Will South Carolina Primary By Haley's Last Stand. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired February 19, 2024 - 12:00   ET



JESSICA DEAN, CNN HOST: Today on Inside Politics, a crisis across the water's edge, disrupts the campaign here at home. President Biden pinning the blame on Republicans for the fall of Ukrainian city, while Donald Trump tries to make himself a martyr after the suspicious death of a Kremlin critic.

Plus, with friends like these, Joe Biden facing a new call to step aside, as a prominent columnist says he's a great president, but he shouldn't run again. And this is not my house. Brand new CNN reporting on why so many top Republicans are asking how do they get here and deciding not to run again.

I'm Jessica Dean in for Dana Bash today. Let's go behind the headlines at Inside Politics.

First off, today a battlefield loss abroad triggers a blame game on American soil. Joe Biden saying House Republicans are responsible for the fall of a critical city in eastern Ukraine to a staggering Russian advance.

Also, today pressure on Vladimir Putin to release Alexei Navalny's body, so the world can assess what caused his death inside a Russian jail. Already, the American president saying he has no doubt, Putin and his thugs are behind the Kremlin critic's death.

We start our coverage with CNN's Arlette Saenz who's at the White House. And Arlette, we just heard from the president a short time ago. What's he saying this morning?

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jess, President Biden once again express disbelief that House Republicans have yet to pass additional aid for Ukraine at a critical time in their battle against Russia. This took on heightened civic significance last week after the death of Alexei Navalny in a Russian prison, something President Biden specifically says Vladimir Putin is responsible for.

But this all comes as the president and Democrats are trying to use this moment to pressure Republicans to pass this additional assistance for Ukraine. The president last week expressed frustration that the House went on a two-week break. And earlier today in an exchange with our colleague, MJ Lee. He said it's shocking that Republicans have yet to act. Take a listen.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. President, would you go as far as to say that Alexei Navalny's blood is on the hands of House Republicans right now.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: We're making a big mistake not responding. Look, the way they're walking away from the threat of Russia, the way they're walking away from NATO, the way they're walking away from meeting our obligations. It's just shocking.


SAENZ: Now in that moment with reporters, the president said he's also considering additional sanctions against Russia in the wake of Navalny's death. But he also didn't project any confidence that Navalny's death would nudge along those House Republicans who are skeptical about aid for Ukraine.

This all comes as the administration for months now has warned that Ukraine would be significantly hampered on the battlefield if they were not to get this additional funding. And President Biden over the weekend held a phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. And the White House says that in that phone call, he says specifically cited the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from that key town in Ukraine as evidence that they need this additional assistance.

The president said that he wasn't fully confident that more towns wouldn't fall, since they are facing these ammunition shortages. But the president even as he is pushing these Republicans to get on board with this aid, he's running up against the political reality that there is a small group of House Republicans who do not want to bring this up for a vote.

The president was asked whether he would be willing to meet with House Speaker Mike Johnson. He said he would if Johnson would be willing to talk about anything. But it really remains unclear what this fate of Ukraine aid will look like with the House so far not bringing it up for a vote, even as President Biden is consistently pushing for Republicans to do so.

DEAN: All right, Arlette Saenz for us at the White House. Thanks so much for that reporting. Also, internationally today, anger and disbelief directed toward the United States and Republicans in Congress who have blocked that new aid to Ukraine so far.

CNN's Nick Paton Walsh is in southern Ukraine. And Nick, very few European leaders are really holding back and assigning blame to Republican refusal to fund Ukraine's war of survival here.


NICK PATON WALSH, CNN, SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, absolutely. And that full of Avdiivka has a by a local commander at the least, speaking today being blamed entirely on the lack of shells, essentially a lack of that $60 billion that can pay for that ammunition, and also a lack of individuals to have troops. That's a separate issue Ukraine is facing partly financial, but really down to the extraordinary casualties it has slowly been facing, and its desire to slow down mobilizing further parts of its population.

But the full of Avdiivka be in no mistake, Jessica, is an exceptionally key moment, not just because it's been fought over for a decade since Russia first invaded in 2014. And more ferociously in the past months, yet another town that Russia is willing to throw thousands, it seems of troops out and lose them in the fighting.

In order to gain something of a minor strategic advantage. I should remind you that President Zelenskyy of Ukraine said that for every Russian -- Ukrainian died -- seven Russians died, but because it possibly in the minds of many Ukrainians heralds the beginning of the difficulties they're going to face because of a lack of ammunition, because of that $60 billion being held up in Congress.

Just a side note here, we're in Kherson and the lights are off every night pretty much to the fear of drones and Russian shelling. That's why it's pretty dark behind me. But that's a stark reminder that it's far away from those political games in Washington. It's very much a life and death situation here. And the Ukrainians now deeply concerned about where it may fall next.

Avdiivka this weekend, Zelenskyy himself from (Inaudible) further north near Kharkiv, trying to shore up troops there. They fear they may be next for resurgent Russia indications in the south near Liubotyn (Ph). That's a tiny village. That was one of the main games, tiny as it was at the southern counter offensive in the summer. That's under Russian pressure too.

Service in villages near Bakhmut. The list, frankly, goes on. And it may well be that in the weeks ahead. I'm again speaking to you about the fall of another town hard fought over. Russia seems to have the wind in its sails at this point. And it may be because they've seen how clearly the western aid is just not coming. That's damaging morale. But more importantly, it's practically damaging Ukraine on the frontlines here, Jessica.

DEAN: Right. We're seeing it unfold in real time. All right. Thanks so much. Nick Paton Walsh for us in Ukraine. Let's bring in our panel on this. We have CNN's MJ Lee, CNN's Jeff Zeleny, and CNN's Kylie Atwood. Great to have you all on this President's Day.

And MJ, I want to start with you on the president. We heard you there. Arlette reporting from the White House your question to the president earlier today about does he have? Or do Republicans have blood on their hands with this -- with stalling on funding to Ukraine. And he stopped short of saying that.

MJ LEE, CNN, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Stopped short of saying that but did say that it was a big mistake that House Republicans were making by not approving and moving forward with this national security package that would give tens of billions of dollars in additional aid to Ukraine?

You know, I think the president didn't really sound optimistic at all. When I asked him in a second question, do you think Navalny's death will end up making a difference, essentially, and prompting House Republicans to take action. He said, I hope so. But he just wasn't sure that anything was going to change. And that is just the stubborn reality that the president is grappling with right now.

The fact that House Speaker Johnson and a small group of House Republicans are not willing to go there. And obviously, what House Speaker Johnson is dealing with is his own political future. He knows how tricky it is to bring up something that doesn't include border security. And that's why we've been stuck in the same place for really months now.

DEAN: And may continue to be stuck. I want to listen to what Senator J.D. Vance said over the weekend. And then Jeff, I want to ask you about the Republican Party when it comes to national security. Let's listen to that first.


SEN. JD VANCE (R-OH): His death is a tragedy. I don't think that he should have been imprisoned. I don't think that he should have been killed in prison. And I condemn Putin for doing it. But here's the problem. It doesn't teach us anything new about Putin. We mean -- I've never once argued that Putin is a kind and friendly person. We don't have to agree with him. We don't have to, we can contest him, and we often will contest him. But the fact that he's a bad guy does not mean we can't engage in basic diplomacy.

DEAN: So again, Jeff, releasing a member of the Republican Party downplaying Navalny's death downplaying the role that Vladimir Putin might have played within it. And it speaks to a broader schism that we've seen unfold right before our very eyes within the Republican Party, which used to be so well known for national security issues.

That was one of the things they really hung their hat on, Democrats had to convince people that they were the ones that could, you know, keep America safe abroad. Are you surprised to see this playing out? And do you think this will continue to really be more pervasive within the Republican Party?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN, CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: In the Trump era, it's not surprising. I mean, a decade ago, absolutely hit surprising. The Bush administration would have been surprising. I didn't cover ones before that, but certainly it would have been surprising in the Reagan administration.


But look, even Senator Vance there, downplaying and underscoring and has said much more than Donald Trump. He has not said anything about that this was Vladimir Putin doing this. So, I think it is just a remarkable transition really. And it's coming after America's longest wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There was dramatic fatigue in that respect. And Donald Trump tapped into that and has really kept it going. But it is raising so many questions about what comes next.

It's hard to imagine that this would have happened, you know, even a four or five years ago -- during the Obama administration, for example, you know, some Democrats also raised some questions about some of this funding, that they would have been excreted by the Republican Party. So, it just really shows you, it is changed the lineup of these parties.

But when the president did not say the blood in his hands' thing. I thought that was so striking. To me, it sounded like he still wanted to make a deal. He still wanted to get House Republicans on board with this sort of a legislative mindset there. You have to wonder if he thinks that, but he certainly didn't say it, but such a good question.

DEAN: A great question and trying to hold out hope maybe that that they can still get there. You brought up Donald Trump and how he fits into all of this. Let's read what he said. This is his first mention of Navalny. And it still doesn't quite directly get it anything riding on Truth Social, the sudden death of Alexei Navalny has made me more and more aware of what is happening in our country.

It is a slow, steady progression with crooked radical left politicians, prosecutors and judges leading us down a path to destruction. He went on to say we are a nation in decline a failing nation. Kylie, this is again -- the first thing he said about Navalny days after the fact, you know, how is he trying to use this politically as he runs for another term?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN, NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: It's really just bizarre to watch. He's making comments about it. He also made, you know, a completely unfounded comment that in some way, compared him seeing political persecution here in the United States to Navalny, seeing political persecution in Russia, which, you know, is a comparison that has no actual reality to it.

But it's also not altogether surprising if we saw the way that Trump acted. When he was president, you know, he had a relationship with President Putin. There were always concerns about that relationship. And so that's really starting to come back to the fore now. And I think the one person that has benefited from this is Nikki Haley.

You see the Republicans on the Hill, kind of contorting themselves in different positions, trying to stay on the side of Trump but also trying to be, you know, backers of NATO, and then you see Nikki Haley, just really batting it out of the ballpark in such that she's not only saying that Trump has to answer if Putin is to blame for Navalny's death.

But also saying, Trump has to answer if it's OK for Putin to be killing his critics if, you know, there's just saying that there's a lot more there. And I think reminding the American public of the challenges that Trump has faced when it comes to his relationship with Russia.

DEAN: All right, you mentioned Nikki Haley. We're going to talk about her. We're going to take a quick break first. What's red golden blue all over. Donald Trump hocking $400 high tops, as Nikki Haley fights for survival in South Carolina. We'll talk about it next.




DEAN: In the final days before South Carolina's make or break primary. Donald Trump is on the trail, trying to spend a whopping $355 million civil fraud ruling against him. Meanwhile, his opponent Nikki Haley wasting no time. Slamming the former president, saying she doesn't think Trump can win a general election due to his legal troubles.

CNN's Kristen Holmes joining us now. Kristen, of course you have been covering the president. Just more of the same, trying to spin all of this into something positive as he heads into this primary.

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN, NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, we're just days away. And just one thing to note is that Donald Trump has been in South Carolina exactly one time since the New Hampshire primary which might go to show you how confident he feels in that state. We've talked about Nikki Haley, talking about a general election, whether or not Trump is actually able to run in a general election. She's going to have to get through South Carolina first.

And right now, despite the fact that Donald Trump has only been in the state once since New Hampshire, despite the fact that he has mounting legal problems and fees now -- legal fees that are more than $400 million. He still appears to be leading in the polls by double digits and some polls showing him with a 30-point lead. And she's been campaigning almost daily. They're holding multiple events a day.

Now she is lashing out at the former president saying that America can do better than both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. Take a listen.


NIKKI HALEY (R) 2024 GOP PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: When it comes down to it, you have a choice. Do we want more of the same? Or do we want to go in a new direction? More of the same is not just Joe Biden, more of the same as Donald Trump. And if you look at where we are, do we really need to say the best we can do or two 80-year-old candidates? Because we need someone who can serve eight years fully discipline, no drama, no vendettas, just results and getting work done for the American people.


HOLMES: So, we talked about Donald Trump and his messaging. He was in Michigan over the weekend and trying to spin again his legal problems as election interference. But he was also in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania launching a new money-making venture. He was launching a new series of golden sneakers called Never Surrender sneakers.

Now, I do want to be clear here. These $400 a pair are still exorbitantly expensive. However, you know, we're hearing a lot of comparisons. Oh, he's doing this to raise money for his legal bills. He owes over $400 million in fines. That is a lot of pairs of sneakers that he is going to have to sell if he wants to even chip away at that number.


That's something he says he's wanted to do for a long-time, but it really goes to show you Donald Trump is good at using his name as a brand to make money. But also, as we've seen he is also good at losing money as well.

DEAN: That's right. All Right, Kristen Holmes for us. We're going to talk about sneakers more in just a second. Thanks so much. Meantime our excellent reporters are back with me. Before we get to that, Kylie, you have been on the trail with Nikki Haley. We're now just five days away from that primary and her home state of South Carolina so much on the line for her. Set the scene for everyone what you're hearing from your sources as we head into this final stretch?

ATWOOD: Well, I think one interesting thing to look at from Nikki Haley is the expectations that she set for herself in South Carolina. After New Hampshire, she told folks that she needed to do better in South Carolina than she did New Hampshire. She was 11 points behind Trump there.

Then, in weeks following that she was a little bit less committed to doing that well in South Carolina, just saying that she needed to show momentum. And then just this morning, she said on Fox and Friends that she expects it to be close, she expects it to be competitive in South Carolina.

So, I think there's probably a reason that she's saying that this morning. Typically, if you're a candidate, you don't get out there and say you think it's closed unless you're seeing internal polls that suggest that. But really, the stakes couldn't be higher for her. Because if she does lose to him by 30 plus points, and that's where she is in most of the recent polls. There will be real questions about the capability for her campaign to have a future beyond this.

DEAN: To continue on and then we head into Super Tuesday, of course, which are so many states that are just primed for Trump to do really, really well. We've also heard her going even more directly at the former president. Let's listen to a few of those clips.


HALEY: It's amazing to me how weak in the knees he is, when it comes to Putin. I think Trump is mentally diminished. Donald Trump cannot win a general election. How many more times do we have to lose before we finally figured out that he's the problem.


DEAN: So, Jeff, we started covering this primary where everyone was very careful to not criticize. And that's been a big talking point amongst a lot of people in D.C., right? They just need to go right after him. It'll make a huge difference. Is it enough at this point, what she's saying now that she is more -- going much more directly at him?

ZELENY: Let me we'll find out. It's really been a crescendo starting at as you said, barely anything at all, to now it's pretty loud. But one of the challenges throughout all of this, the loudest voices against former President Donald Trump didn't do so well. Exhibit A Chris Christie, Mike Pence, we can go on. Ron DeSantis at the end, as you know, logging so many miles on the road with him.

But look, I think she still has a limited sort of segment of the Republican Party that's available to her. She's going after moderates and other things. One thing that may be a little bit unusual about South Carolina, there's not party registration by party. So, they're hoping that there are enough of the new moderates who have moved into the Charleston area, the seacoast area. There's been a dramatic population shift. It's actually the fastest growing state, the census estimated last year.

So, a lot of people were not there when she was governor that can sort of work both ways. A lot of people moved down to South Carolina during COVID. But that's where they're kind of holding out hope for. But the bigger question is, how long does she stay in this race? Does she want to be a thorn in his side, a backup plan and insurance policy for the Republican Party or perhaps all of the above. We'll find out this week.

DEAN: The resources to do it. And then you start to look at her opponent. Kristen mentioned the sneakers, MJ, The Golden Sneakers, The Never Surrender and high-top sneakers as he now needs to pay $355 million in that ruling. It really strikes -- struck me though, when Kristen was talking about just how he operates his brand. Putting his name on things, the shiny gold, all of it. Just such a contrast to Joe Biden, right. And yet, so many people are tired of kind of hearing about both of them, frankly, in this 2.0 race we have.

LEE: Yeah. And I think what you said is totally right. But this is completely on brand for Donald Trump. The fixation on his own name, seeing his name on something and also monetizing his own name. We don't know yet exactly where the proceeds from the sneaker sales will go. But certainly, we do know that his legal bills have been significant, and he does need to make up for that.

And yeah, that contrast between former President Trump and current President Joe Biden, they have been just so stark and very much on display, no matter sort of what the issue is. We were talking in the last blog about the reaction to Alexei Navalny's death.

I mean, that in and of itself has been so sort of key in drawing those highlights between the two general election candidates, seeing their responses like, yeah, it couldn't be more clear that you have a Democrat who operates one way, and then a Republican and really a unique candidate that operates in a totally, totally different way.

[12:25:00] DEAN: And as Kylie was saying in the break. Who knows how many people be wandering around in those sneakers, you know, how those will play.

ATWOOD: Does not rows (Ph) of his rallies. I'm sure ---

DEAN: I'm sure we'll be sparkling with them.

ZELENY: Send people who drink Trump vodka.


DEAN: Yeah. You can have all of that. Sorry about that. We also heard from the former Attorney General Bill Barr, who of course didn't -- was unsparing in a lot of his criticism about Donald Trump, especially after January 6. You'll remember in his testimony to the committee, he called his fraud lies crazy, amateurish, total nonsense -- nonsense.

But he also said on the 16th, voting for Trump is playing Russian roulette with the country. Voting for Biden is outright national suicide. And Jeff, it's just further proof that the Republican Party continues. We see this on the Hill in the Senate -- already on the House, but even more than just to continue to rally around the former president, knowing everything.

ZELENY: For sure. I mean, the reality is the vast majority of voters will put their jerseys on. And if they vote at all, which is another separate question. But they'll put their jerseys on and vote Republican, whether they like Trump or not. Mitch McConnell is Exhibit A of this.

I mean, he is someone who obviously has many differences with the former president, but during the Trump administration, huge strides in terms of appointing conservative justices looking at the Supreme Court. So that's what people sort of see as the greater good about his potential election. But again, I think the bigger point is that slice of voters right in the middle of what will they do, some will not vote. There's a third-party option. That's why this election is so uncertain.

DEAN: That's right. We'll talk more about that. Just a little bit. Stay with us. Ahead, a New York Times columnist says it's time for Democrats to thank Joe Biden for his service and urged him to make a graceful exit to party leaders in Washington agree.