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No Clear Front-Runner In Battle To Succeed McConnell; McConnell To Step Down As GOP Leader In November; Setting Up A High-Stakes Race For Successor. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired February 29, 2024 - 12:30   ET



DANA BASH, CNN ANCHOR: Really interesting.

Great reporting, Jeremy. Thank you.

The White House says President Biden spoke this morning with leaders of Egypt and Qatar, and a short time ago, he was asked about the state of ceasefire negotiations.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I was going to terminal. I was on the telephone with the people in the region, I'm still, probably not by Monday, but I'm hopeful.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did you know what happened in Gaza City, more than 100 civilians were killed.

BIDEN: I'm just -- we're checking that out right now. There's two competing versions of what happened. I don't have an answer yet.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you worried that that will complicate those negotiations?

BIDEN: I know it will.


BASH: I want to get straight to CNN's Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward. Clarissa, I was listening to our colleague, Alex Marquardt, this morning. He put it really well and in a concise way. He said this incident could either propel these ceasefire talks quickly or derail them quickly. What are you hearing?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think that's exactly right. I mean, we are hearing from a senior Hamas official that these -- the incident this morning, the horrifying incident this morning, really does have the potential to complicate or possibly derail these talks altogether.

You just played that cryptic clip of President Biden saying he also acknowledges the very real possibility that this will complicate those efforts. At the same time, given the horrifying nature of this incident, and given the fact that aid organizations have been warning and shouting from the rooftops about the capacity and potential for an incident like this because of the desperation that you heard Jeremy Diamond describing there, I think there is also some optimism, potentially, or hope that perhaps this could be a watershed moment.

That perhaps the White House is publicly now beginning to acknowledge that this policy of publicly supporting Israel while privately trying to apply as much pressure as possible has not been entirely effective in reducing the number of civilian casualties and in preventing an all-out humanitarian catastrophe.

And again, as you heard, Jeremy said, we are now one step away, according from the U.N. from an actual famine. The implications of that, both politically for President Biden going into the election, but also geopolitically on the global stage.

This is becoming a huge stain for America to continue to support this without trying to implement sufficient rigor to stop events like this from taking place to ensure the unfettered and free access of aid workers to this area.

And every aid worker I have spoken to, Dana, says the same thing, which is, it is just not possible to do that unless you have some type of a ceasefire that really would allow that aid to get to the places where it needs to the most, because not only is not enough aid getting in.

The aid that is getting in is stuck in the south. It's very hard to get to the north. The situation is so desperate there. And then you have this lawlessness and looting and things of this nature, Dana.

BASH: Clarissa, thank you so much. It's great to have you on to give your reporting and your insights. Appreciate it.

Back here in Washington, the race to succeed Mitch McConnell is already in full swing. We'll talk to some of McConnell's confidants who are here. They're also hosts of the popular podcast, "Ruthless."

You don't want to miss this. Stay with us.



BASH: Senator John Cornyn of Texas is wasting no time in his bid to succeed Republican leader Mitch McConnell. He made it official this morning saying he thinks the Senate is broken and he, quote, "intends to play a major role in fixing it." Cornyn is one of three clear frontrunners for the job, all of them, interestingly, named John.

But some of the newer and younger senators in the Republican Party there say that they're eager for a break from the past. Listen to Josh Hawley with Manu Raju this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: How much do you want to see a break from Mitch McConnell?

REP. JOSH HAWLEY (R), MISSOURI: Total break. Yes, but --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What does that mean?

HAWLEY: Well, it means an end to the machine politics that have dominated the Senate in his tenure. It means an end to the corporate money that he has turned on like a geyser that has flowed into the Senate, flowed into, frankly, the Republican Party.


BASH: Joining me now to talk about all of this and much more, four fellas, who know a thing or two about Republican politics, especially Mitch McConnell, the hosts of the "Ruthless" Podcast, Josh Holmes, John Ashbrook, Michael Duncan, and the man you will see here with his sunglasses on known as Comfortably Smug, we're going to get to that whole situation in a second.

Josh, I want to start with you. I know you were eager to respond to Josh Hawley, and I should sort of set the table by saying all of you, most of you are very close with Mitch McConnell, have worked for Mitch McConnell. You especially, Josh.

JOSH HOLMES, CO-HOST, "RUTHLESS" PODCAST: Correct. No, I have. I thought it was a sort of a classless response in many ways. Look, Josh Hawley is one of the many members of the United States Senate that basically wouldn't be there without the efforts of Mitch McConnell.

I find it particularly interesting. Smug and I were talking about this earlier today where --


'COMFORTABLY SMUG', CO-HOST, "RUTHLESS" PODCAST: Well, the largest spender in Hawley's previous election was SLF with McConnell. Super PAC, which spent $21 million to elect Josh Hawley. So --

HOLMES: Yes. So that machine politics worked pretty well for him evidently, but now it's problematic. But, you know, it is what it is.

BASH: Let's just talk for a second about Senator McConnell and his speech happened at this time, as we're talking right now, yesterday. And it was pretty, pretty remarkable. The kinds of things that he was saying, one of the many wonderful lines that he gave that were very Mitch McConnell was this. Let's listen.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MINORITY LEADER: Believe me, I know the politics within my party at this particular moment in time. I have many faults. Misunderstanding politics is not one of them.

(END VIDEO CLIP) MICHAEL DUNCAN, CO-HOST, "RUTHLESS" PODCAST: I mean, the difficult thing about working for a guy like Mitch McConnell is when you work on his campaign, he's the chief strategist. This is a man who has studied politics from a very young age. If you ever read his book, he talks about his old race for student council.

HOLMES: Right.

DUNCAN: And holding grudges with a guy for 30 years because he voted against him. So, no, I mean, I don't think anybody's confused about whether Mitch McConnell understands politics.

BASH: Well, and the point he was trying to make -- and you guys, please correct me if I'm wrong -- is that, if you look at the big issues that he's working on now or has worked on just this Congress, right now, he's pushing for Ukraine aid.

He helped to get through the bipartisan infrastructure bill. He tried and failed to get an immigration bill done. That's not where the base of his party is. And so is that part of him saying, I'm out of here, or, I mean, I know that there are a lot of factors, but that's kind of the point he was trying to make there.

JOSH ASHBROOK, CO-HOST, "RUTHLESS" PODCAST: I don't know, Dana, you worked up there for a really long time, so you know as well as anybody that the idea that there's actually a leader in the Senate is a little bit of a misnomer. I think this is one of the things that is really the secret to his success is he understands the place better than anybody else.

You have a hundred people who look in the mirror and see a president looking back at them. And one of the jokes that McConnell always made is that he felt like he was the caretaker, the groundskeeper at a graveyard, that everybody was under him, but nobody was listening.

And I think there's a lot of truth in that statement. And I think that his understanding of the chamber and his understanding of the members and what they want is really the key to his longevity.

HOLMES: Yes, if I could add, Dana.

BASH: Yes, please.

HOLMES: So what he was talking about very specifically in that was a reflection of how he came about during the Reagan Revolution and this idea that the inextricable link to America being the leader of the free world was something that he still deeply believes in.

And so when he was talking about the politics, he was very specifically talking about that national security aid package that he'd worked so hard to try to get across the finish line, despite some in his party having grave reservations about Ukraine and everything else. And so I think it's very specifically --

BASH: Say, to the world's stage.

HOLMES: To the world's stage.

BASH: To America's role in the world. OK, that's good to know.

SMUG: Well, I mean, I think also just tying all of this together is, this is a very long legacy. He's been doing a tremendous amount of work for a very long time. I saw a journalist tweet the other day that if Chuck Schumer had confirmed three Supreme Court justices, they named the island of Manhattan after him.

And I think so much of our politics now is just -- in the second, in the moment that folks forget how many Republicans we're cheering when we got three Supreme Court justices in four years. That was a tremendous accomplishment.

BASH: What about this whole idea of a magnified Senate that Josh Hawley, he might have gotten the help of Mitch McConnell. He did get the help of Mitch McConnell and Mitch McConnell's allies to get elected, but people like him are very much in line with and eager to please Donald Trump and his base.

And that wasn't the case not that long ago in the Senate. That was the House. The Senate was different. Not anymore.

HOLMES: Yes, you know, I find that leadership elections -- if you're trying to figure out who's winning and who's losing, you don't listen to the people who are talking all the time. What you do is find the rest of them that are not, because the truth is there's about nine in the Senate currently that have had a lot to say about direction of leadership, direction of the Senate, where the Senate is.

And then there's, you know, 40 others that are sitting around, you know, thinking about this meeting with the John Cornyns and Barrassos and Thunes and trying to figure out what's best for this conference going forward. And so, look, I think it's going to play out over a period of time. There's no question that the president has influence within the party.

I mean, he's going to be the nominee of the party. But I think in terms of how you actually elect a Republican leader of the Senate, a little bit more inside baseball than that.

BASH: What do you guys think? Who's got the upper hand? Which of the Johns?

DUNCAN: Oh, gosh. Well, we have a John ourselves maybe --

BASH: Yes.

ASHBROOK: I think it's --

BASH: I think unlike the speaker, you actually have to be a senator.


ASHBROOK: Yes, right. It's way too early to know. I mean, it's way to -- and there's also talk about maybe another person emerging -- BASH: Oh yes.

ASHBROOK: -- later on in the game that, you know, player to be named later. So it is just so early to know. Cornyn is the only guy who's officially announced --

BASH: Yes.

ASHBROOK: -- at this point. But you know that these games are played out on the inside level. And here's the other thing. Republicans have not had this sort of situation for a long time. You remember --

BASH: 17 years.

ASHBROOK: Yes. You remember 2007. And it was a little bit more chaotic than it is today, and I think that we're sort of edging into a brand new time for a lot of people who weren't there, and those seven.

BASH: I think it's chaotic now.

ASHBROOK: I just -- you hadn't seen nothing.

BASH: Fantastic. We have much more with the four hosts of the "Ruthless" podcast up next. It turns out, their name, "Ruthless," came from watching this very show. We're going to explain it after a break.



BASH: We're back with my guests, the co-hosts of the "Ruthless" podcast. "Ruthless", the name "Ruthless", there are a lot of theories about where it came from, but we have the facts right here on INSIDE POLITICS.

It came from this show, John King was the host, he was talking to a man we all know and Revere Carl Hulse with the New York Times. I should mention again, you are all either, well, former Mitch McConnell staffers, all advisers. Listen to what happened on that show. This is July, 2019.


CARL HULSE, CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Mitch McConnell and his people are ruthless. McConnell --

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: They're not just ruthless, they're sarcastically funny, ruthless.


BASH: And thus, a podcast is born, sarcastically, sarcastically, ruthless. I mean --

HOLMES: Yes. Well, we thought there was a real hole in the marketplace in terms of just lighter content and consuming very serious issues, obviously --

BASH: Yes.

HOLMES: -- but doing it with a sense of humor. And, you know, obviously we come at things from the right side, so we're unapologetic about having a conservative bent, but we like to have fun with things. And if you can't laugh along with what's happening in American politics, like, you'll start crying pretty quickly, and so that's kind of how it all came together.

BASH: So just going back to something in the last block that you said about the courts. I think that it's important to sort of underline this, because I mentioned this when we were in the breaking news this time yesterday. You guys, correct me if I'm wrong, I don't think that there is a legacy that Mitch McConnell cares more about than what he did to pack the courts.

And that is, despite him working with Democrats on a lot of things, what makes Democrats the most mad, not just the federal, the district and the circuit courts, but the Supreme Court. And the biggest thing he did, which was taking harpoon after harpoon from really angry Democrats about not giving Merrick Garland, Barack Obama's nominee, a hearing. And that helped shape the course of history that led us to three Trump nominees.

ASHBROOK: Yes, I mean, it really did. 200 judges, that's a lot of judges. And what he did with Merrick Garland was, I mean, historic, and what he did was something that I don't think a lot of other Republican leaders, if they were in his position, would have been able to do.

BASH: He got a lot of criticism. Was there -- OK, you guys have an inside --

ASHBROOK: Here's --

BASH: Did he care?

ASHBROOK: Here's the inside scoop.

BASH: Yes.

ASHBROOK: Is that if you criticize Mitch McConnell, he prints it off and he puts it on his wall.

BASH: Wow.

ASHBROOK: That is --

HOLMES: Quite literally.

BASH: I mean, that's the definition of ruthless.


HOLMES: Yes, quite literally. DUNCAN: Yes.

HOLMES: Puts it on his wall.

DUNCAN: No, I mean, this is a guy with a spine of steel. You don't have that job for as long as he had it leading a conference that can be as, you know --

HOLMES: Right.

DUNCAN: -- difficult as it can be at times, unless you've got that spine of steel.

SMUG: Yes. Well, also, I think it's clear to say he didn't pack the court. They were confirmed duly, stayed at the number nine --


SMUG: -- which is important --

BASH: He made it a priority to get those nominees.

SMUG: Absolutely. And there's a movement that's happening currently to try and pack the court, and I think that would be absolutely disastrous.

DUNCAN: Smug, that's a really good point that you're making there. Because the one thing that we were talking earlier about what happens after Mitch McConnell in the United States Senate, I do worry about one thing, and that is less, you know, people in charge who care about the institution itself and primarily the filibuster, right?

You know, the Democrats won a huge Senate race in Arizona with Kyrsten Sinema. They ran her out of the party because she wouldn't --

BASH: Yes.

DUNCAN: -- have returned the filibuster.

BASH: Yes. Well, and other things too, but yes.

DUNCAN: Yes. Well, yes.

BASH: I have to -- we're almost out of time, I have to get to immigration. Former president, current president heading down to the border today. We were talking about this in a break. Could you imagine during my time covering the Senate, you were all working in the Senate, where there was a bipartisan bill that was as tough on immigration, tough on the border, as -- that Democrats approved as the one that was negotiating -- negotiated, and then was killed by Donald Trump and his allies?

HOLMES: Yes. Well, look, I think immigration is one of those issues, as you well know. I mean, I remember doing it in 05, and 07, and 12, and, I mean, it comes up all the time. It's one of those issues to Republicans, like entitlements are to Democrats. Where whatever solution that you've come to, it's never going to be good enough. And the problem is, it's a very thorny issue. But it used to always be that any sort of border security you were able to obtain, the price of admission was some sort of an amnesty component to that.

BASH: Yes.

HOLMES: Correct?

BASH: Exactly.

HOLMES: That's now moved. And, you know, Democrats have come, I think, out of political necessity because, look, I mean, I'm of the belief that Biden could do most of this on his own if he wanted to. But a political necessity, they've come way towards Republicans on it.


BASH: Real quick, McConnell unmoored? You said he's now going to be unmoored. What does that look like?

ASHBROOK: I think it's going to be a lot of fun to find out.

BASH: Wow. I mean, OK. We're buckling up for that. I should also say, a little inside scoop, that speech that he gave, I know you worked on it, you wrote it, it was a really fascinating speech.

HOLMES: Yes, I already take credit, just basically translating a man's thoughts and his authentic message that he wanted to deliver.

BASH: OK. Please come back.

HOLMES: of course.

BASH: Great conversation. We have so much more to talk about. Also, Smug?

SMUG: Yes.

BASH: That's your -- I'm guessing your parents didn't give you that name?

SMUG: That's what I'm known as --


SMUG: And it makes me --

BASH: And you have to come back because we're running out of time to get a discussion about the sunglasses.

SMUG: Absolutely.

BASH: OK. Thank you so much for coming.

Thank you so much for joining INSIDE POLITICS. "CNN NEWS CENTRAL" starts after the break.