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Second Round of Biden-Putin Talks Now Underway; Harris to Meet with Texas Lawmakers Who Blocked Restrictive Voting Bill; Israeli Military Airstrikes Hit Gaza in Response to Incendiary Balloons. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired June 16, 2021 - 10:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. Happening right now, of course, President Biden and several members of an expanded delegation are meeting for the second part of talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. These are arguably the most significant talks of Biden's long political career.

We are live, Jim is live in Geneva covering all the breaking details from the summit. We'll get back there in just a moment.

But there's a lot going on in the United States as well. In less than an hour, Vice President Harris is set to meet with Texas Democratic state senators and representatives who blocked the state's controversial voting bill. A group of Democratic lawmakers, remember, walked off the statehouse floor last month, that prevented the passage of the legislation that it would have made it more difficult for someone to vote.

This meeting comes just weeks after President Biden tapped Harris to lead efforts to preserve voting rights in this country.

John Harwood has the latest from the White House. John, I think , the big, outstanding question here is what can Harris do long-term because Republicans in the statehouse in Texas have been very clear that they think that they can clearly get this done in the special session.

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Poppy. It's not clear what Harris and Democrats can do in Texas. It's not clear what they can do, Democrats and Harris can do in Washington. This is another one of those very difficult assignments along with stopping the root causes of border migration that Vice President Harris has been given.

But what happened in Texas was a bit of hope for Democrats. They saw those legislators walk off the floor, temporarily delay that bill. This is a bill, that like bills in many red states around the country, that are trying to restrict early voting, absentee voting, curbside voting, place curbs on the efforts that were made during the pandemic to make voting easier. Now, Democrats have a response to that, two big responses. One is the We the People Act with various ways of having federal safeguards on voting as well as the John Lewis Voting Rights Act to restore some of the protections that lapsed as a result of a Supreme Court decision a few years ago from the old Voting Rights Act.

So it's a very difficult assignment for Harris, not a problem in the House, but, of course, a problem with the Senate, where you only have 50 Democratic votes and you have a Republican filibuster, unless people like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are willing to set aside the filibuster, those pieces of legislation are not going to pass and there's no evidence that they are yet. Harris is trying to rally the troops today.

HARLOW: Yes, for sure. Okay, John Harwood at the White House, thank you very much for that.

Meantime, Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania are now pushing new voting restrictions, advancing a major election overhaul bill in the statehouse. Yesterday, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf called the bill extreme and says it creates barriers for people to vote.

Our National Correspondent Dianne Gallagher, who has been following the right to vote, literally, all across the country, knows a lot about what's going on in Pennsylvania. What do we know about this direct appeal from the governor and what it may or may not be able to prevent there?

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. And so, Poppy, look, this is the first of what will likely be many steps for this legislation. It cleared the house committee yesterday, but it is quite apparent that Republicans in Pennsylvania would like to fast track this. It was only introduced last week. This, like other bills that we've seen across the country, completely would overhaul the election system in the state of Pennsylvania and add a whole slew of new restrictions, like to signature verification and voter I.D. It also would reduce deadlines for things like registration and mail-in voting.

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But, like other election overhaul bills we have seen, with those restrictions, also comes some expansions. That tends to be what the sponsors like to harp on when they're promoting their bill. In Pennsylvania, we're talking about the addition of early in-person voting there, but not until 2025, so, of course, after the 2022 senate and governor race.

It also would address some of the issues from 2020 in Pennsylvania by allowing those election workers to process and start counting ballots before Election Day. But, look, the governor said this is too extreme. It makes it harder for people to vote. And he has said that he will veto anything that includes new voter I.D. measures.

The sponsor of the bill though just a few moments ago sent a letter to the governor. We've obtained a copy of it. And in part, I just want to read you a simple line from it. He said, I am requesting a meeting with you so we can finalize legislation that can become law. To put it plainly, Governor Wolf, how do you know what we are willing to change or compromise on this bill if you will not come to the table?

Poppy, I should add that there are many Republicans in Pennsylvania who feel that this bill is not extreme enough. So it's not exactly smooth sailing within the Republican-controlled legislature there either.

HARLOW: That's a good point. Dianne Gallagher, thank you for explaining all of it to us very much.

Meantime, on Capitol Hill, bipartisan negotiations on police reform legislations seem to be stuck on this key issue of prosecuting officers, so what you've probably heard a lot, which is qualified immunity.

Lauren Fox joins us now. Lauren, Tim Scott, Cory Booker, Karen Bass have been optimistic in the last few weeks. Has that changed?

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Look, Poppy, they have set really a June deadline for themselves, hoping that they could wrap these negotiations which have gone on for months now in the next couple of weeks. But they are stuck on a key question of whether or not to change the standards in which you can charge a police officer with a crime. And what they're arguing about here is known as section 242.

And it's important because a lot of Republicans argue they thought that Democrats and Republicans in these negotiations had decided to set this issue aside in hopes that they might be able to work through other issues like qualified immunity, which basically means that you cannot currently charge a police officer in civil court. There had been kind of an agreement that was introduced by Senator Tim Scott that what you might be able to do is charge the police department for that civil crime. And, obviously, that would be something that might be a middle ground.

But this issue of whether or not you're going to change the standard of when a police officer can be charged with a federal crime, I think that is something that lawmakers are really trying to find a way through right now. And Democrats are arguing that this is something they want to keep talking about. Meanwhile, Republicans are arguing this is off the table for them. Tim Scott told us yesterday, it's time to move on. Poppy?

HARLOW: Okay. Lauren Fox following the negotiations with Tim Scott and the others very closely, Lauren, thank you very much.

Much more to come here in Geneva where Jim is. He is monitoring the developments coming out of this critical summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden.

Stay with us. CNN's special live coverage continues next.

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JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: President Joe Biden, Russian President Vladimir Putin continue to meet at the historic Villa La Grange in Geneva. Earlier today, the two shook hands, they exchanged words as the press watched with some stony faces. Biden noting that it is though, quote, always better to meet face-to-face. Putin said he hopes the talks will be, in his words, productive.

CNN's Fareed Zakaria joins us to talk about all of this. Fareed, good to have you on this morning. The operative words in this summit are stability, predictability. That's what you hear consistently from the U.S. side. There's no discussion of a reset, a rejuvenation of this relationship, more realistic. But I wonder if that speaks to the urgency with which both sides see the current crisis in that relationship. Is that the right way to read this?

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: I think very much so, Jim. If you listen to the Russian side, they also pointed out that they were trying very hard to get to some stability and predictability, because from their point of view, I suppose, they look at the United States enacting more and more sanctions on Russia, talking about Putin -- the president called him a killer. So they're also looking for something better out of this.

But it's going to be very hard because this is a central issue that you talked about in your book, The Shadow Wars. So much of what is going on with Russia's behavior is happening in the shadows, by which I mean in cyberspace. That really has become the central theme of Russian interference right now. Ukraine is in the past in the sense that Crimea is annexed, even though they continue to do activities in Eastern Ukraine. Syria has also died down. So, the central issue now is this shadow war, as you described it, in cyberspace in which I don't know that you're going to be able to make that much progress.

SCIUTTO: It's notable, Fareed, you mentioned that. I noted that among those in the room with President Putin as he meets Joe Biden today is the chief of the general staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Valery Gerasimov, the architect of this Gerasimov doctrine of kind of total war, shadow war just under the threshold of a shooting war.

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You, Fareed, and, by the way, we're showing as I speak to you, an image from inside this expanded bilateral meeting. You can see in there President Biden on the left, President Putin, as well as a number of advisers, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, this round two, in effect, of the ongoing summit. Fareed, you have the unusual honor, privilege, of having met Putin, sat across from him. And you describe him as very penetrating, intelligent. Describe to the best degree you can the man that Biden is sitting across from right now.

ZAKARIA: So Putin comes across as very intelligent, very well briefed, somebody deeply steeped in Russian history, particularly recent Russian history. He is able to very quickly go through -- recite you the sequence of events that took place from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the present day in which he never fails to omit even a single western mistake, slight. He's got an accumulated -- he's got a bunch of chips on his shoulder.

He's very, I wouldn't say cold, because he can certainly make jokes and say things that are lighthearted, but penetrating is the word that I often come back to. Very cold eyes looking at you, very focused, very disciplined.

I'll give you one example that I think is far back enough that I think it's fine and I can characterize generally. I was in a green room with him once for about an hour with the Italian prime minister and the president of Kazakhstan. And in many of these situations that I've been in, the politicians will make small talk. They're good at that. They're people people. Putin was all business. He was trying to navigate and negotiate something with the Italian prime minister, and he just got right to it.

SCIUTTO: The former KGB agent, of course, showing that experience, perhaps. But before we go, for a domestic U.S. audience, tell us the significance of Biden's approach to Russia and Putin versus Trump's far more deferential approach, frankly, to Putin and to Russia.

I mean, Fiona Hill's comments during that Helsinki summit that she contemplated faking a medical episode because that press conference was such a disaster, just remarkable to hear from the woman who was senior adviser to Trump on Russia. How important is that difference between Biden's approach and Trump's approach?

ZAKARIA: This is a very important issue, and I'm so glad you asked it, Jim. Because, fundamentally, what Biden understands is that the world is stable because the United States and its allies have put in place a series of institutions, rules, norms, procedures that kind of regulate, regularize, stabilize. This is why we have had enormous change in the world over the last 70 years and yet we have not had a major war.

So, for the United States to continue to play that historic role as stabilizer-in-chief, it needs to be clear, it needs to be predictable. It needs to be deterring bad stuff. It needs to be encouraging good behavior. Trump was doing almost the opposite in that sense. He was the disrupter-in-chief. So, what Biden is returns the United States to is that core position of stabilizing the world, which has helped us all get peace and prosperity over the last 70 years.

SCIUTTO: We'll be watching closely if he's able to accomplish that. Fareed Zakaria, thanks so much, as always.

There is much more to come here in Geneva. Special live coverage continues as Putin and Biden continue to meet face-to-face right there at the Villa La Grange here in Geneva. Please stay with us.

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[10:50:00] HARLOW: Welcome back. Happening right now, President Biden taking part in arguably the most significant talks yet of his long political career as he comes face-to-face right now with Russian President Vladimir Putin. CNN is continuing our live coverage in Geneva with all the breaking details on the key summit. We'll get back to that in just a moment.

Here though, we are following other stories as well. Developing this morning, the Israeli military launching airstrikes in Gaza, the first since a cease-fire went into effect nearly a month ago. The military says those strikes were in response to helium-filled balloons attached to incendiary devices being launched, they say, from Gaza. It sparked multiple fires in Southern Israel.

Hadas Gold joins us this morning in Jerusalem. Hadas, good morning. I mean, obviously, this is the first sort of escalation we've seen since the ceasefire. This also comes right after the new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, has taken over. Is there real concern on the ground of how much this may escalate?

HADAS GOLD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, definitely, Poppy. It feels like the situation is erringring, has not reach quite like the boil that we saw, boiling over we saw last month during that 11-day conflict. But we could be approaching that point.

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These incendiary balloons, it sounds simple, but they are essentially balloons that you'd see at a birthday party, attached to explosive devices or other items that are already lit on fire. The militants often launch them from Gaza, using the wind from the Mediterranean Sea to launch them into Southern Israel, where yesterday, Israeli officials say, they caused at least 20 fires.

The Israeli military responding with airstrikes overnight. They say that they targeted Hamas military complexes and meeting places.

Now, Palestinian media saying that there was no casualties, just structural damage. But this is a harsher response to these balloons that have been going on for years, the militants have been launching them from Gaza into Israel. But it's a much harsher response from the Israeli military, from the Israeli government than we have seen in the past. And that's something that my sources and Israeli officials said, that after last month's operation, they were no longer going to tolerate these types of actions any longer. Poppy?

HARLOW: Hadas Gold on the ground in Jerusalem, thank you very much.

And thanks to all of you for joining us today. I'm Poppy Harlow.

SCIUTTO: And I'm Jim Sciutto in Geneva. Our live coverage continues.

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