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State of the Race with Kasie Hunt

Biden Visits South Carolina Amid Concerns About Campaign; President Biden To Visit Historic Black Church, Site Of 2015 Mass Shooting; Trump Seeks Dismissal Of Georgia Election Subversion Case. Aired 11a-12p ET

Aired January 08, 2024 - 11:00   ET




JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST, STATE OF THE RACE: Joe Biden is set to land in South Carolina in just minutes. The president is scheduled to give the second

major speech of his reelection campaign, this one in Charleston, with a chilling message about extremism and political violence. The Iowa caucuses

are just one week away, and Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis are campaigning hard, hoping for something, anything that can dent Donald Trump's massive

and remaining lead in the polls.

Plus, the U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin remains at Walter Reed Medical Center today. Austin is under intense pressure to explain why he

failed to inform the White House and his own deputy of his hospitalization there a week ago.

Good day, everyone. Jim Sciutto, in today for Kasie Hunt, to our viewers watching in the United States and around the world. It is 11 a.m. here in

Washington, Monday, January 8. There are just seven days until the Iowa caucuses, 15 days until the New Hampshire primaries, only 301 days until

Election Day. This is today's State of the Race.

Amid weak poll numbers and support that is slipping among black voters, President Joe Biden is making the second major stop on his reelection

campaign in a state that quite frankly may have saved him in 2020. At any moment, Air Force One will be landing in Charleston, South Carolina. In a

stark reminder of the dangers of extremism, the president is expected to visit Mother Emanuel AME Church where he'll meet with survivors and the

family members of nine Black parishioners who were murdered by a white supremacist there in 2015. Democrat Jim Clyburn, whose endorsement helped

Biden win the state four years ago, paved the way for the nomination, says there is reason to worry about the president's messaging so far.


REP. JIM CLYBURN (D-SC): I'm very concerned and I have sat down with President Biden. My problem is we have not been able to break through that

MAGA wall in order to get to people exactly what this President has done.


SCIUTTO: CNN White House Reporter Priscilla Alvarez is in Charleston following the president. Priscilla, you hear Clyburn in there not able to

break through. He is not an outlier. Without analysis, what message do we expect from the president today, and what's his plan in effect for breaking


PRISCILLA ALVAREZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, we expect the president to make his pitch to black voters again. Of course, this is a key

constituency that buoyed his 2020 campaign. And so, the president is hoping to recharge, re-energize that campaign in a state that he has credited for

propelling his 2020 bid. Now, there is two arguments being made here. On the one hand, he is talking about the threats that former President Donald

Trump poses to democracy and personal freedoms and the perils of hate. Like you mentioned there, Jim, this is the site, Mother Emanuel AME Church,

where in 2015 nine Black parishioners were killed by a white supremacist.

So, the president is going to reach into that difficult and painful history in his remarks here. But, the other part of the argument too is reminding

black voters how the administration has delivered on issues concerning -- that concern them. For example, a drop in unemployment of black Americans

as well as the cost of insulin being driven down through the Inflation Reduction Act. So, all of these are parts of what he is going to touch on

his remarks.

But, of course, what you heard there from Congressman Clyburn, he is a key ally, an important voice for the campaign. Now, I followed up with him and

spoke to him about what he expects from the president today. He said that what the president does best is that he engages with voters and they feel

him. They feel that he is behind them. That's what he has to accomplish today and reminding them that he is there to deliver on the issues that

they care most about, especially when they're disenchanted and disengaged in the political process so far. Biden advisors know that these are the

reminders that they'll have to pitch so that they can get them to the polls and mobilize them.

And while the primary this time round is not going to be competitive, it will be the first major test, Jim, about how the president is faring with

black voters.

SCIUTTO: Priscilla Alvarez, thanks so much.


Let's dive into all this with today's panel, Karen Finney, a CNN Political Commentator. She was the Senior Advisor, Senior Spokesperson for Hillary

Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign; Alice Stewart, Political Commentator, Republican Strategist, and Farnoush Amiri, Congressional Reporter for The

Associated Press. Good to have you all here.

It's January 2024, Karen Finney.


SCIUTTO: President Biden, the Democratic incumbent President, feels the need to make a pitch to black voters, his core constituency --


SCIUTTO: -- on the same weekend when Donald Trump in effect rewrites the history of the Civil War --


SCIUTTO: -- about what was behind it. It could be negotiated. If we have that sound and you missed it over the weekend, let's play it briefly right



DONALD TRUMP, 45TH U.S. PRESIDENT: Civil War was so fascinating. So horrible. It was so horrible. But, so fascinating. It was, I don't know, it

was just different. I just find it. I'm so attracted to seeing it. See, there was something I think could have been negotiated, to be honest with

you. I think you could have negotiated that. They could have been negotiated and they wouldn't have had that problem. But, it was a -- it was

a hell of a time.


SCIUTTO: Yeah, negotiating the owning of people. That's the actual --


SCIUTTO: -- history here. But, here is a Democratic President who is --


SCIUTTO: -- losing support among black Americans.


SCIUTTO: That is a sign of true danger for Biden.

FINNEY: Well, I think there is two things happening here. Number one, increasingly, black voters have been saying, don't take us for granted, and

make sure that you're talking to us where we are about the issues that we care about, particularly for young black voters. And one of that -- some of

the work I've done over the last several cycles, things like racism, which is actually also an economic issue for a lot of African Americans, as well

as -- a top issue actually has not always been economy, so to speak, but fear of white supremacist violence is actually -- particularly in the MAGA


So, I think it's important that the president is going to speak directly to something that is a top issue concern for African Americans because we

don't really talk about it much in political discourse.


FINNEY: Obviously, Donald Trump, on the other side, I mean, that was actually the mildest of some of the comments he has made --


FINNEY: -- about the Civil War, or some of this Lost Cause mythology. You had Ron DeSantis talking about waving the bloody shirt, which is another

Reconstruction era reference. So, clearly, on the Republican side, there is a lot going on that is helping to drive this contrast with the president

talking about divisiveness and hate and violence that we're seeing the extremism. But, sure, the other thing they need to do, I'll just say, with

African American voters, I don't think on our side we've done a good enough job of dealing with misinformation and disinformation that is coming

through on our devices. That is where a lot of people -- as we know, particularly young people, they're on TikTok. That's where --


FINNEY: -- they're getting their information. They're on social media. I'm actually working on a project where we're trying to do that. So, when Jim

Clyburn talks about breaking through that wall, giving speeches is great. Showing up is really important. But, we've got to show up in other places

where people are.

SCIUTTO: Listen, clearly, the disinformation is working, right --


SCIUTTO: -- because on January 6, for instance, you have a big portion of this country who is beginning at least to doubt the facts as we know them,

by the way, facts of January 6 that were proven in a court of law hundreds of times over with criminal convictions, and yet, you have this language,

Trump used it this weekend, January 6 hostages, Alice Stewart. Elise Stefanik used it this weekend, January 6 hostages. How is this working in

the Republican Party?


SCIUTTO: And what breaks it?

STEWART: Yeah. It's certainly working with Trump's base because he has not lost support along those lines. And even with more legal issues, he has

actually gained support, and we're seeing him ahead in the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina. But, look, I think from a democratic

concern standpoint, Congressman Clyburn's comments and concerns are not isolated. Former President Barack Obama --


STEWART: -- has expressed the same concerns to President Biden that he is losing support, not just amongst African Americans, but Latino voters who

have been critical to his election and will be critical in his reelection. And it's not lost on many people that he is going to South Carolina and

talking about political violence and extremism that he -- on Friday, talked about Donald Trump and his threats to democracy, which are real and valid.

But, what many people perceive as his focus on that is his failure to focus on what he has not accomplished as President. And that is on the economy,

on inflation, on crisis at the border, on security, and that is --

FINNEY: The strongest U.S. economy and some time job creation, inflation going down. We didn't have a recession doing that.

STEWART: Well. I hear what you're saying, and I hear what the administration says. But, that's not what people feel. That is not the

perception of voters. When you look at the polls, Biden is underwater on confidence with these very key variables. So, I understand trying to

communicate that message, but that's not the perception that many voters are feeling.


SCIUTTO: Farnoush, to the point of where this race stands, let's look at the choice for nominee in Iowa, this based on a CBS/YouGov poll, most

recent polling here, Trump's lead is just far and ahead, 58 percent, DeSantis 22 percent, Haley 13 percent. I mean, that makes it a race for

second place, but a very distant second place. Is this still a credible race to challenge Trump for the Republican nomination?

FARNOUSH AMIRI, U.S. CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS: I mean, it's the Republican Party trying to rewrite what they see as the Republican

Party, right? Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis don't see Donald Trump as the leader or at least are saying vocally that they do not see Donald Trump as

the leader of the Republican Party. They should be the leader of the Republican Party. And I think their efforts to show a different side of

what the GOP is today is interesting. Whether voters are going to buy it, whether the Iowa caucusers are going to buy it, it's going to be another


SCIUTTO: So, Alice, you and I've talked about this. I periodically check in with you --


SCIUTTO: -- on the GOP primary, and I asked you a few weeks ago. You thought Haley had a chance then to break through if the things worked out,

if the stars aligned. You don't believe that anymore.

STEWART: She is certainly breaking through in terms of the non-Trump alternatives, and that is appearing to be the case more and more as we get

closer to the caucus and the primaries. And you just showed the numbers in Iowa. Donald Trump is ahead by 30 points in Iowa. If you look at the next

contest in New Hampshire, moving ahead, Donald Trump is up by almost 20 points there. And then you look ahead to South Carolina, he is back up by

30 points. So, the goal for Haley is to try and bridge that gap with Donald Trump because she certainly has the momentum going into New Hampshire and

South Carolina. We have to look past Iowa right now, because Trump has a tremendous ground game. He has really strong support with like commit to

caucus operation even in the faith community.

So, I think if she can come out of Iowa with some momentum, she is in a good spot in New Hampshire. But, the numbers are just so overwhelming for

anyone outside of Trump to really make some headway. I think she is doing much better than people gave her credit for weeks and months ago. But, the

numbers to overcome, to catch up to Trump are really going to be difficult.

SCIUTTO: Beyond the point about January 6, Elise Stefanik, Republican from New York, large Trump supporter, although we should note going back two

years ago, she was not she is today. Asked about 2024, this was a remarkable and concerning answer about potential challenges to the next

election given what we saw in 2020. Let's have a listen. I want to get your reaction.


KRISTEN WELKER, HOST, "MEET THE PRESS": What about 2024, Congresswoman?

REP. ELISE STEFANIK (R-NY): We will see if this is a legal and valid election. What we're seeing so far is that Democrats are so desperate,

they're trying to remove President Trump from the ballot.


SCIUTTO: Let's be clear. There is a distinction there. You can make an argument as to whether that's justified constitutionally or legally.

FINNEY: Right.

SCIUTTO: They're doing so through a court process, which could be overturned. There were appeals, not through the many attempts we saw Trump

with 2020.

FINNEY: Right.

SCIUTTO: But, are we set up for 2020-like election challenges being a new normal in this country, given that answer?

FINNEY: Absolutely. And the thing we don't know right now, given what we're learning about what's happening in 2020, a lot of the shenanigans that were

going on, very serious, I should say, may be happening as we speak. I mean, Trump is actually working the refs a little bit behind the scenes with the

GOP State Committee Chair. So, we don't -- there is a lot we don't know --

SCIUTTO: Such as --

FINNEY: -- about what's already happened.

SCIUTTO: Give me an example.

FINNEY: California changing the rules so that rather than proportional win in counties --


FINNEY: -- it is winner take all, for example. So, sure -- and look, that kind of language starts to clear up -- clearly set up the argument. One

thing I want to point out, though, she meant -- she did not say, which is Republicans actually were part of those lawsuits in Maine and Colorado.

It's not just Democrats.


FINNEY: Politically, I wish we'd been dealing with this conversation a couple of years ago. I don't like the fact that we're having to deal with

it right on the heels of the election. But, the --

SCIUTTO: The fact.

FINNEY: -- Supreme Court will weigh in.

SCIUTTO: At least we should note, in 2020, there were Republicans who stood up to President Trump's attempts to overturn the election, whether you're

talking about Georgia or elsewhere.

When we look at this race, Farnoush, in the near term, there has been this open question about splitting the non-Trump vote among Republicans with

Haley and DeSantis, but also questions about Chris Christie specifically in New Hampshire there. Is there any discussion of one dropping out prior to

prevent that splitting, or are we full steam ahead?

AMIRI: I think there is obviously the public persona and there is what's happening behind the campaigns. I think there is this idea with what you

mentioned about Nikki Haley in this recent momentum that she believes and her campaign obviously believes that she has the upper hand in this

situation so far. If anyone were to drop out, it would be Ron DeSantis.



AMIRI: But, whether that happens --

SCIUTTO: I always believe the other one should drop out.

AMIRI: Yes. Of course. Yes. But, whether that happens, I think we'll really know after New Hampshire. I think Iowa, like you said, is just going to be

all Trump all day. So, to be able to decide who is going to be first or second in that place, but also who is going to be willing to let go. At

that point, I think we'll be able to know in the next month.

SCIUTTO: OK. Well, let the voters vote and then we can discuss again. Please stand by. Much more to discuss.

Still ahead, Donald Trump hopes to deliver a knockout punch one week from today, as we said, but his Republican rivals are at least fighting for a

strong second place finish.


SCIUTTO: Seven days and counting, time is running out for Republican presidential hopefuls to earn votes ahead of those critical Iowa caucuses.

Donald Trump maintains his dominating lead in the polls, as you see there. But, of course, the only numbers that really matter will come from actual

votes cast on that day. Trump's rivals are canvassing the state, pushing hard for a second place finish. Ron DeSantis counting on his Iowa ground

game to deliver, while Nikki Haley is riding a wave of momentum, leading Trump to unleash his sharpest attacks on her. Yeah. Listen to what he said

over the weekend about Haley's failure to mention slavery as a cause of the Civil War.


TRUMP: She didn't use the word slavery, which is interesting. I don't know that it's going to have an impact. But, I'd say slavery is sort of the

obvious answer as opposed to about three paragraphs of both (BEEP). Nikki would sell you out just like she sold me out. I mean, I'll never run

against (inaudible) President. Why would I run? Ladies and gentlemen, I've decided to run. Nikki Haley and the rest of -- never will -- they are never

going to be in to securing the border because they're globalist.


SCIUTTO: One big factor in Iowa, of course, could be the weather. Winter storm is already affecting today's campaign events as CNN's Kylie Atwood

reports from Sioux City.



KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, we're already seeing the unavoidable impact of weather here in the state of Iowa. Nikki

Haley's event this morning canceled because of the snowstorm outside. She wasn't able to make it here to Sioux City from Des Moines. And it has been

a flurry of activity, however. Over the weekend, we saw all of the presidential candidates here in the state.

And former President Trump, for his part, really focusing his critiques, his attacks on Nikki Haley, of course, clearly trying to blunt any momentum

that she could have if she does well here in the Hawkeye State, and saying to voters that they should act like he is up by just one percent, not up by

35 percent, trying to rally them, to actually caucus for him, but saying that he remains confident that they're going to support him on one week

from today, that Monday, caucus day. Listen to what he said to voters.


TRUMP: You know, backstage, they say to me something. Sir, don't tell them that they're going to vote for you. That sounds so demeaning. I said I got

them $28 billion for their farmers. Of course, they're going to vote. We're going to win Iowa so big. I got them $28 billion. Of course I'm going to



ATWOOD: Now, DeSantis for his part telling Iowans that he is in it for the long haul, effectively saying he is not going to drop out if he doesn't do

well in this state. And Nikki Haley saying that she has heard folks say that she should hit Trump harder, but saying that she is not going to do

that right now. She will be critical of him when he goes after her. But, she has avoided going after him when it comes to questions about defending

democracy or questions about the criminal court cases that he is now facing. And for her part, she has two new ads up in Iowa starting over the

weekend, one focusing on her electability, saying she has not a name of the past, the other focusing on her pro-life stance, which of course is very

important for evangelical voters here in Iowa. Jim.


SCIUTTO: Thanks so much, Kylie.

Back to the panel now. Listen, I wonder, when you look at this big picture, is the most likely outcome that we're already in the general election here,

even as we're -- I don't want to game out exactly how they're going to -- how the votes are going to be counted in Iowa and New Hampshire. But, is

that the most likely outcome?

STEWART: If you look at the numbers, all indications are the general election would be Trump and Biden. But, the question is, why is Donald

Trump continuing to attack Nikki Haley? He has put a lot of ads and his emphasis on his campaign trail. He clearly sees her as a threat. So, it

could possibly be he is just trying to eliminate her completely. But, he clearly sees her as a threat.

What I think will be interesting is when the big CNN debate that's coming up this week, watch how much Haley and DeSantis go after each other, or

they go after Donald Trump. And my guess is they're going to try to do a little bit of both without being too forceful on Donald Trump as to

alienate his voters. But, if this was a clean sweep, Donald Trump would be putting all of his attention on Joe Biden, and he is not doing it.

FINNEY: Yeah. The one thing I would say, though, Trump is so vindictive against people. He keeps mentioning this issue that she said she wouldn't

campaign. She wouldn't run against me. Right? Clearly, that is stuck in his crock because he brings it up all the time. So, there is that piece in

addition to the sort of tactical piece. Look, Times has reported, others have reported, the goal of the Trump team is to lock up the nomination by

March. So, they're looking for a big win in Iowa, decisive, another big win in New Hampshire. And if Nikki Haley can't get enough of momentum coming

out of New Hampshire and then loses in --


FINNEY: -- her own state, then I think it really could be over unless something comes out in one of these legal cases that changes the dynamics

we all know.

SCIUTTO: But, the thing is in front of us, to that point, is the March go - - listen, any candidate would like to lock up a nomination by March, I'm sure, but that timing is notable because at least on the current schedule

that could be the earliest trial date for Donald Trump. Is that part of the calculation here?

AMIRI: I mean, it is. But, as we've noted and everyone has noted, that is not negatively impacted him at all. It continues to benefit him. I am

really interested in what the split screen would look like. One day, he is campaigning. The next day, he is in court. What that looks like to a voter?

But, at the same time, I mean, we've seen that this man is inevitably indestructible to the eyes of his base. So, I don't know how much of an

impact it will have.

SCIUTTO: So, let's talk about and show a little bit, because you mentioned this about how DeSantis and Haley are commenting on Trump now, and it's not

dissimilar for what we've seen for some time, some sort of middle ground to some degree. First, here is DeSantis on Trump.


RON DESANTIS, U.S. REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The Republicans, we have a great shot to win if we frame the issues about the problems facing

the country, the failures of the Biden administration, and how we have a great set of ideas to turn the country around. I think if we're re

litigating the past elections, if it's about Donald Trump or his legal issues or criminal trials or all that stuff, I think it's going to be a

really nasty election. I don't think that puts Republicans in a good position to win.



SCIUTTO: He'll say we shouldn't re-litigate. He won't say those claims were false --

FINNEY: Right.

SCIUTTO: -- or that it was an illegal attempt to overturn an election, or that his legal issues have substance. That's a similar tack we've seen

before, which is, I don't want to alienate. But, I also want to say this is not the best path forward. Is there any evidence that that middle ground


STEWART: Well, clearly, it's not, because they're not picking up any support --


STEWART: -- in that area. And look, you have to understand, having been in a campaign against Donald Trump, the more you're too forceful against him,

it just takes a little bit of pushback from him, and you're off the track. I completely understand why they're hesitant to do so. I completely

understand why the media wants them to go the extra mile because it's great for coverage. But, look, I think --

SCIUTTO: Well, it's also a legitimate question.

STEWART: It absolutely is.

SCIUTTO: Is it wrong to attempt to overturn a legal election? I mean, it's not immediate narrative.


SCIUTTO: It's a fair question.

STEWART: And it's an easy answer.

FINNEY: Right.

STEWART: The answer is, we had free and fair election. There was not widespread voter fraud. Joe Biden is a duly elected President, and I am

running to unseat Joe Biden. But, they have not done so. I think DeSantis and Haley have been consistent and strong in their clear message that it's

time to get away from chaos and confusion and division. Let's find someone who is electable in a general election. Nikki Haley has strong numbers,

directly head-to-head against Joe Biden. But, the biggest thing for Donald Trump is the fact that Biden is falling in the polls, and Biden's --


STEWART: -- support is like -- and the more he falls down the greater head- to-head matchup that is for Donald Trump.

SCIUTTO: So, Karen Finney --


SCIUTTO: -- a tough question for you.


SCIUTTO: Is -- we talk a lot about whether Trump is the right general election candidate for the Republican Party. Is Biden the strongest general

election candidate for the Democratic Party, given his poll numbers, given -- we talk about flagging support among a key constituency --


SCIUTTO: -- of black voters? Why is he?

FINNEY: He -- I believe that he is, a couple of reasons. Number one, to what Alice was saying, his record is very strong, and maybe they haven't

done a good enough job of getting people behind that record, but he has a solid record to run on. And I do think he is right. And I say this as a

mixed race person in this country who sees all of this very personally. This is a question about the soul of the country. This is a question about

who we are in this moment as a nation. Do we go forward? Do we go back? Those big lofty issues are at stake. I mean, just over the weekend, Donald

Trump refused to sign an Illinois McCarthy-era pledge to not engage in insurrection against the United States of America, a pledge he signed in

2016 and 2020.


FINNEY: So, I think when that -- when we're fully facing that kind of competition in a general election, seeing that split screen is going to

mean something very different for general election moderate Republican voters and independents than it does right now in the Republican primary.

SCIUTTO: The trouble is we talk about the economic message not getting through. The fact is, Farnoush, before we go, is that the facts of this

country's recent history aren't getting through because there are large portions, particularly the Republican voting base who seem to buy Trump's

lies about the election, and Trump's downplaying of the violence on January 6. That's a real phenomenon.

AMIRI: Yeah, and I think more than that. And when you when you see someone like Clyburn saying --


AMIRI: -- Clyburn is not a progressive.


AMIRI: He -- when you see someone like him saying you're not breaking through the MAGA wall, that means that calling Trump an insurrectionist is

not going to be the way you get through those people. Right? You got to give them reasons how you're going to make their daily lives better. They

don't care that -- the Republican base does not care that --


AMIRI: -- Donald Trump committed all the crimes that he is accused of. So, I think the point that Democrats are trying to make with Clyburn and even

progressives is you got to get to the issues that are at the core of what's going on now, which is the border, which is what's happening between Israel

and Gaza. I mean, we -- one thing we didn't talk about today is the Muslim vote. Michigan is such an important state for him, and what's happening in

Gaza is going to be crucial to them.

SCIUTTO: True. Although we should note again, Trump is the man, who as President, instituted the Muslim ban and promised to reinstitute it. Facts



SCIUTTO: Farnoush, Alice, Karen Finney, thanks so much. Do mark your calendar, Wednesday at 9 p.m. Eastern, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash moderate

CNN's Republican presidential debate live in Iowa.

And America's immigration debate is taking on new urgency lately. I'm going to sit down with one of the House Republicans leading the push for stricter

immigration laws. Congressman Pete Sessions is next.




SCIUTTO: Welcome back to State of the Race. I'm Jim Sciutto live in Washington. Senate Republicans' top negotiator on immigration sounding

optimistic about reaching a deal at least on the Senate side this week. Between both chambers of Congress and the White House, common ground is

hard to come by. But, Senator James Lankford says they are trying to get text out this week.


SEN. JAMES LANKFORD (R-OK): To make law, we've got to have a Democrat Senate, a Democrat White House, and a Republican House to be able to go

through this. So, this agreement has to work. Everyone is counting on this, actually working. But, it's going to have to be agreement that a White

House, that is a Democrat White House and a Democrat Senate can also line up with a Republican House, and we're working to thread that needle for

things that actually work.


SCIUTTO: Congressman Pete Sessions represents Texas's 17th district. He joined the tour that House Republicans took to the southern border last

week. He joins us now here in Washington. Congressman, we appreciate you taking the time.

REP. PETE SESSIONS (R-TX): Jim, thank you.

SCIUTTO: First, I want to get to your visit on the border. But, to the Senator Lankford's comments there, do you have confidence that a deal

negotiated in the Senate can pass with House Republicans' support?

SESSIONS: I have huge agreement with, Jim, James Lankford that we've got to solve the problem. And it is a lingering problem not just for Republicans -



SESSIONS: -- or Democrats. It's cities. It's governors. It is across the country. And for us to be incapable of effectively finding some sort of

better solution, if not solution, would be silly. So, yes, of course, I do believe it's possible.

SCIUTTO: Do you see yourself, and again, I'm not going to hold you to it because you haven't seen the text yet, but do you hold open the possibility

of voting yes for something that is short of H.R.2?

SESSIONS: I have been on the border for 25 years as a member of Congress. My dad was a federal judge in El Paso. I have been the entire border during

my career. I have seen the importance of us coming together with a national policy. I'd like to vote yes. If it's just short of the -- everything that

the House wants, it can still pass.


SESSIONS: But, the whole point is it's got to be an agreement that we stick to, because cities are -- and anybody involved in national security

understands it.



SESSIONS: We've got a problem.

SCIUTTO: Listen, I've heard support for changes from Republicans and Democrats on the air and in private as well. Let me talk about what you saw

at the border down there because dozens of Republicans went to visit firsthand. What stood out to you?

SESSIONS: Well, three things stood out. Number one, there have been thousands and thousands of people coming across the Eagle Pass. Four weeks

before, we show up 65 members of the Republican Conference show up and there are less than 50 people seeking to come across the border that day.

This told me that the drug cartels are in full control.


SESSIONS: That is not the narrative that they wanted. Second, is very obvious to me that they see this happening day in and day out. They see the

carnage. They see the problems. They see -- they watch TV also. And they said if you continue to fund the centers that are up and down the border,

if you continue to fund them, it is a magnet for the next million (ph). And third, the sheriffs were pretty straightforward, and they said

increasingly, when they're in a room of five or 10 people, somebody that is in that room is with the cartels, either through threat or through money,

and it is undermining the southern border all the way up to at least Dallas, Texas, that I know of.

SCIUTTO: I want to talk about a specific provision in H.R.2, which is to end parole programs that allow people to enter the U.S. lawfully with a

sponsor. As you know, those parole programs were instituted for countries, including Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans, Venezuelans as well. Border

encounters for those nationalities fell off a cliff, dropping as much as 95 percent. But, H.R.2 would close that, why, when it has had an effect in

doing exactly what is one of your main goals, which is reducing that influx at the border.

SESSIONS: Well, we do want to stop people from coming here. It is an entire process when you do have someone that will sponsor someone, which I am for,

I am for us getting workers. I am for us knowing who is coming here, and for a plan and a process, we've got to get to that. And if we can get

there, that's where the deal lies.

SCIUTTO: There is -- there are specific nationalities that would be affected by this. And I want to bring up Afghans in particular, because you

know since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Afghans who served alongside the U.S. Military there are very much targets of the Taliban, and

tens of thousands of Afghans who have entered this country safely because of this parole provision there. If H.R.2 passes, as it stands, that pathway

would be blocked. They'd have to go home, and even the ones who got here after a year, potentially back to danger there. Why? Why would that be a

good outcome?

SESSIONS: Well, perhaps that's -- correct. I would agree with you. There are still many people over in Europe that are being vetted at this time. I

think we've got to get to an understanding of a balance. And certainly, the Afghan people who've helped us should be a priority as opposed to someone

else that shows up on our border.

SCIUTTO: So, it sounds like you're willing to make exceptions, I should say, for certain categories, like there are for Cubans in H.R.2.

SESSIONS: I think that there should be, but it's got to be a balanced opportunity of a deal, and that's what the sentence is doing. Then we'll

take a look at it.

SCIUTTO: I want to ask about Ukraine aid as well, because that, of course, has been tied up in this. I personally have spent a lot of time in Ukraine,

going back to 2014 and seeing the effects of the war. Do you support Ukraine -- the U.S. continuing military aid to Ukraine? And are you willing

to let it die in effect if you don't get what you want on immigration reform?

SESSIONS: Good question. The answer is, Russia is a pack of thugs. And it is in America's best interest that we have Ukraine get our resources, get

our frontline opportunities, whether it be F-16s. I didn't say American pilots, but that we use our intelligence and that we dipped -- or send

Russia home if we don't defeat them. But, would I actually vote against the full package, that's in February, if we do not get something on the border?

That answer is, yes.

SCIUTTO: So, the price of Ukraine aid for you remains.

SESSIONS: I don't know that it's Ukraine. I think it's, are you going to be able to deal with our southern border?


I don't mind. And this has been within the Republican conference, Israel, Ukraine and the southern border. The southern border, no one appeared to be

ready to support what we want there. Maybe it's too hot to handle. I doubt it. It's a national security issue at our doorstep, and we ought to. So, I

would. I would place my -- all my bag of marbles on our border, but I will support the Ukraine and the Israeli funding.

SCIUTTO: OK. Congressman Sessions, we do appreciate your time. Hope we could keep up the conversation.

SESSIONS: Thank you very much, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Well, the Secretary of Defense remains hospitalized after complications from surgery. Still ahead, we're going to take a look at the

criticism over how the president -- when the president was informed.


SCIUTTO: Welcome back to the State of the Race. New scrutiny today over Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin's hospitalization, as the White House

says it will review processes and procedures, but says it has no plans to fire him. Secretary Austin was hospitalized on New Year's Day. The Pentagon

says he was experiencing severe pain that day, more than a week after going an elective medical procedure. However, top officials, including President

Biden, did not know about the hospitalization until January 4, several days later. Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks assumed some of Austin's

duties, but was on vacation, and did not immediately know that Austin had been hospitalized.

Let's go to CNN Pentagon Correspondent Oren Liebermann. Oren, I wonder how Pentagon officials are explaining that oversight today.

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, the Pentagon is essentially saying, look, there was always a command chain in place should

decisions needed to be made. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made some of those decisions from the hospital himself after he was hospitalized on New

Year's Day.


And if not, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks, who was on vacation in Puerto Rico, was also able and did pick up some of those

responsibilities starting on January 2, even though she wasn't aware why she needed to pick up those responsibilities. It was another two days

before she was told that Austin had been hospitalized. Let's take this timeline back to the beginning on December 22. That is when Austin went to

the hospital for an overnight stay for what we only know now as an elective medical surgery. He then returned to the hospital on New Year's Day after

experiencing severe pain. It's worth noting here that he was taken in an ambulance. Austin himself has essentially a car and a driver. That's how he

gets to the Pentagon.

So, the fact that it was deemed necessary to take him in ambulance speaks to how critical the situation was. He was taken into the intensive care

unit there. And from that point, this is on New Year's Day now, there were only, as far as we can tell, two people senior in the Pentagon who are

notified. One is Kath Hicks, and the other is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General CQ Brown. He too was told on January 2 by the front office staff

for the Secretary of Defense, although it's not clear exactly who.

So, there are serious questions here over the next couple of days as many other seniors in the administration, including President Joe Biden himself,

didn't know that Austin himself was hospitalized, until one day before there was a public notification on Friday evening, just as the week was

ending, some were given a heads up a few hours before in the administration, then the public notification then went out. That's when the

press found out. And that is when we began to ask questions about, hey, what on earth happened here that this was kept so private, something so

critical, not only that something the public should have known, but something that clearly has national security implications, Jim.

SCIUTTO: So, Oren, the chain of command issue explains one thing that there was a chain of command. If he was incapacitated, there would be someone

there to make the decisions. It does not explain the delay in informing others, including the president. What's the explanation for that?

LIEBERMANN: So, part of the explanation we're being given here is that the first person that falls on to share that information is Austin's Chief of

Staff named Kelly Magsamen. But, the explanation we're getting here, and frankly, it feels like an excuse, is that she was sick with the flu during

this time and wasn't able to put out the proper notification, except Austin has much bigger than a staff of one here, and there are others in this --

in essentially under him, both civilian and military, who could have and very likely should have sent that notification out wider.

There is also a statutory requirement here for notification here. When we asked the Pentagon, does Austin feel he met this requirement? They

effectively said, look, the General Counsel is still looking at this question if we met the statutory requirements, if they followed the law for

notification of something like this, Jim, and that in and of itself tells you quite a bit.

SCIUTTO: Yeah. Oren Liebermann, still a lot of questions. Thanks so much.

Joining us now, CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen for more insight on this. Peter, good to have you here. This was a delay in notification at

a time of war, we should note, the U.S. itself not at war, but its allies, certainly in Ukraine, Israel, the U.S. highly involved. Concerning that

that message didn't get from the Secretary of Defense to the Commander in Chief?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yeah, and I think highly unusual. And part of it, Jim, I think is Lloyd Austin is not a Washington

insider like Robert Gates, the former Secretary of Defense. He is not a professional politician like William Cohen, who worked for Bill Clinton as

Secretary of Defense, or Leon Panetta. He is not -- he is also by nature an introspective guy. He keeps a very low profile. But clearly, this was a

huge mistake. It's not just that we -- the incidents you've mentioned.

I mean, also on Thursday, the United States killed the leader of an Iranian militia in Iraq. That strike had been approved before Lloyd Austin went

into hospital. On Wednesday, 13 countries, including the United States, said that they would take some kind of unspecified action against the

Houthis if attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea continued. So, I mean, this is -- like, you couldn't think of a less opportune moment to be

out of commission if you're the Secretary of Defense.

SCIUTTO: Is there an argument that he didn't want to draw additional attention to his hospitalization? I mean, that might explain the public

messaging. It certainly doesn't explain the internal private messaging.

BERGEN: Well, Jim, as you know, he has released a statement apologizing that he didn't inform the public. I don't think that's really the point. He

didn't inform his colleagues. That's the point. And his private medical conditions is -- it is his right to keep that information private and share

it with anybody he feels -- deems appropriate.

On the other hand, it doesn't take anything to say, look, I'm going to be out of commission because I'm having some kind of procedure or I'm going to

be in hospital. It doesn't -- you don't have to specify what the reason is. And he clearly did not do that. And it seems like the White House Situation

Room works 24/7, as you know.


Why didn't somebody on his team just call him say, hey, this is what's happening with the Secretary?


BERGEN: It's mystifying.

SCIUTTO: It seems basic. OK. Let's talk about an issue you and I have discussed many times, and that is, of course, the continuing war, Israel

and Gaza, in Gaza, Israel and Hamas. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, he is in Saudi Arabia now, part of his fourth trip, I believe, to the region

since October 7. I wonder, hanging in the balance here beyond the war was this putative agreement, normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia

and Israel, which seemed to be getting close prior to October 7. And I've heard that it's still alive here. Is it possible that that survives this?

And what role can Saudi Arabia play in the current war in Gaza?

BERGEN: The de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Salman, I think, would love to have this deal with Israel. In fact, Israeli cabinet

ministers were visiting -- an Israeli cabinet minister actually was visiting Saudi Arabia just before the Hamas attack. So, it was close, as

you say. However, he does have to respond somewhat to public opinion in Saudi Arabia, and clearly, public opinion in the Arab world is very opposed

to Israel right now. So, I think the prospects for that kind of normalization happening anytime soon is pretty remote, not that it couldn't

happen years down the road.

But, clearly also, the United States would like the Saudi -- the Gulf states to kind of pony up for the reconstruction of Gaza. There seems to be

absolutely no appetite amongst the Arabs to be part of a multinational security force which would need -- you're going to need some kind of

security in Gaza. So, for the moment, I think it's quite remote that the Saudis and Israelis would have some kind of normalization.

SCIUTTO: Another goal of his visit is to keep a lid on this war, to keep it from expanding further. And we've seen increased hostilities along the

Israeli-Lebanon border between Israeli forces and Hezbollah. I've heard from the beginning that it's the U.S. read of this, that in reality,

Hezbollah, even Iran don't want to expand this war any more than the pressure they're putting on right now. Do you think that still holds or is

there a danger?

BERGEN: Well, I think, in 2006, as you know, Hezbollah invaded Lebanon, and it turned out to be something of a withdrawal, but it was very destructive

for Lebanon. And Lebanon right now has a failing economy in multiple different ways. There is no appetite on the Lebanese side of the border to

have a massive war with Israel. That said, there is increasing appetite it seems on the Israeli side of the border to go after Hezbollah. You are up

in northern Israel reporting for CNN. Jim, you know that tens of thousands of Israelis have been moved back from the border. There is a real concern

that Hezbollah could come across the border amongst Israelis, whether that's a kind of a legitimate concern or not.

And it does seem to be a growing call in Israel to particularly now they are drawing down to some degree in Gaza to take out Hezbollah, which would

be politically useful. So, for Netanyahu, he is facing his own domestic problems at home.

SCIUTTO: No question. I heard a lot of support for that, frankly, from Israelis in northern Israel to evacuate. Peter Bergen, thanks so much.

BERGEN: Thanks, Jim.

SCIUTTO: It is time for a quick break. Please do stay with us. My panel will be back with one more thing.


SCIUTTO: Welcome back to State of the Race. My panel rejoins me. And before we go, I want to ask for one more thing. What is one thing on the campaign

trail or in Washington that you're watching for in the coming days? Your thoughts. 30 seconds each. Farnoush, you first.

AMIRI: Well, I cover Capitol Hill, and today and tomorrow, Anthony Fauci, the former head of pandemic diseases and the face of the pandemic, is going

to be appearing before Republicans in seven hours, each day, transcribed interview. It's the first time since the pandemic that he is appearing

before the House, and he is going to be receiving excruciating hour-long testimony. So, it'll be interesting what comes from that.

SCIUTTO: Alice Stewart.


STEWART: Everyone is keeping an eye on the political forecasts in the next seven days. I'm watching the weather forecast because it is going to be

snowing this week. Many events have already been canceled on caucus day. It is single digits. It could be windy. It could be blowing snow. And I

guarantee you, I've been in snowy conditions on the campaign trail, you really have to energize and motivate your voters to get out in those kinds

of conditions. Look, Iowans are tough. New Hampshirans are tough. But, you have to really, really like someone if the weather is really bad on caucus

day to get them out there. So, that's the challenge is to really motivate voters.

SCIUTTO: Karen Finney.

FINNEY: So, we kind of have a budget deal. It sounds like there is a deal in the works. But, can they actually get it written? Get it done? Get it

passed by the deadlines? Mike Johnson has said that he is not going to extend the deadline any further. And it seems that the Republicans are

actually understanding it's critical to actually show voters that you can lead and you can get something done, so you don't have a repeat of 2022.

Let's see what happens.

SCIUTTO: You will see the border and Ukraine aid questions end up in that as well.

Thanks so much, everyone. I'm Jim Sciutto. That is State of the Race today, Monday, January 8. Stay with CNN. One World is up next.