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Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees

Secretary Of State Warns Russia Plans To Manufacture Justifications For War; Judge Rules Trump And His Children Must Testify In New York A.G.'s Civil Probe Into Trump Organization; California Gov. Promises End Of School Mask Mandate To Be Announced On Feb.28; Canadian PM: Biden To Hold Conference Call With Allies Tomorrow; Five South Carolina Deaths With A Connection To Disgraced Attorney Under Investigation. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired February 17, 2022 - 20:00   ET


ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: Thanks so much for joining us. You can always find the latest episode of our show and our podcasts, you just have to go to or your favorite podcast app and search for Erin Burnett "OUTFRONT."

Thanks for watching. AC 360 starts now.


JOHN BERMAN, CNN HOST: President Biden says there is now every indication that Russia is ready to attack Ukraine.

John Berman here in for Anderson. What's more and far darker even in that is this. His word suggests the administration now considers war a matter of when, not if.


QUESTION: Do you think he is going to go through with it, sir? Is it your sense that this is going to happen?

JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Yes. My sense is it will happen within the next several days.


BERMAN: The U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken addressing the U.N. Security Council was no less blunt and remarkably specific about how he would start.


ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: First, Russia plans to manufacture a pretext for its attack.

Second, in response to this manufactured provocation, the highest levels of the Russian government may theatrically convene emergency meetings to address the so-called crisis.

Next, the attack is planned to begin. We've been warning the Ukrainian government of all that is coming. And

here today, we are laying it out in great detail with the hope that by sharing what we know with the world, we can influence Russia to abandon the path of war and choose a different path while there is still time.


BERMAN: Secretary Blinken went on to say his case is validated by what has been unfolding in plain sight for months, and we certainly saw more of it today specifically in the eastern region that Ukraine's President Zelensky just visited. Outside observers there reporting a sharp escalation in ceasefire violations along the front lines dividing Ukrainian and Russian-backed separatist forces. This is precisely where many fear a Russian provocation could take place.

For its part, in a document sent to Washington today, Moscow deny that Russia was planning to invade, but warned it would be forced to take quote, "military technical measures," if its demands on rolling back NATO expansion are not met. So there is that. There is Moscow's expulsion of the American Chief of Mission. There's the bridge that was there yesterday, but is gone today, a big security conference gearing up in Munich and much more.

So as only CNN can, we've got live coverage across the board. CNN's Kaitlan Collins at the White House, Clarissa ward in Kyiv, and CNN contributor, Jill Dougherty in Moscow. First, I want to show you this from Clarissa, who is just back from what could be a flashpoint from a wider conflict.


CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): The Ukrainian military has brought us nearly 400 miles towards the frontlines in the east of the country. It's already dark by the time we land. We'll only have a short time on the ground, but they are determined to show us the aftermath of heavy shelling earlier in the day.

(on camera): This kindergarten is less than three miles from the so- called line of contact, the frontline, and witnesses in this area said that around eight or nine o'clock this morning they started to hear shelling. It was loud enough that they could hear the whistle of the shells going by and two of them landed here at this kindergarten.

Let's take a look.

(voice over): At the end of the hallway, this is what remains of the playroom. The military says the first shell hit at 845. Mercifully, the children were eating breakfast in another part of the building.

Teacher Yulia Seminyenko (ph) tells me, she immediately rushed them into the hallway, away from the windows.

(on camera): So, she is saying in that moment, she was only really afraid for the children. (voice over): I asked her how they reacted to the situation.

"Most of our youngest children thought it was all a game at first, and we just let them pretend," she tells us. "Our older children understood what was happening and they were afraid."

A video released by Ukrainian Police shows the kids being hastily evacuated from the building.

(on camera): Obviously, it's very dark here. I'm not sure if you can see, but this is actually a children's playground and if you just turn over here, you can see this is a crater and the local authorities are telling us that this is where the other shell hit.

(voice over): Our time on the ground is restricted. Fighting usually begins after dark here. As we finish up a live shot, our Ukrainian minders grow nervous.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you hear the sound?

WARD (on camera): Yes, I hear.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's go to the bus now.

WARD: John, please excuse me, but our Ukrainian military minders are asking us to move because of that shelling, so we will check in with you as soon as we can. Thank you.


WARD: Let's go.


WARD (voice over): On an average day, there might be three or four major ceasefire violations around here. Today, the military says there have been more than 30.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Okay, let's go, guys.

WARD (on camera): They're telling us we have to go now. There is a steady stream of artillery that we can hear in the distance. So we're getting onto the bus to leave.

(voice over): In the hours after we leave, another shell hits a house in the same town as this frontline continues to heat up at a time when calm is desperately needed.


BERMAN: So Clarissa, first of all, glad you're safe. Startling images from the Donbas region. This area has seen violence from Russian- backed separatists for over eight years now. Are the Ukrainian authorities viewing these new attacks as an escalation ahead of a possible invasion or just more of the same?

WARD: There is no question this is an escalation, John. I mean, if you look at a graph of what the ceasefire incidents would look like -- violations, I should say -- it would go like this, and then like that with today.

I mean, there was a massive uptick in the number of major ceasefire violations and you said, this war has been going on for eight years, but those frontlines have largely been frozen. And other than a few violations here and there, for the most part, it's been relatively quiet.

To see a kindergarten, where roughly 20 children were there. They happened not to be in that room, but they were there in the building, and it was by the grace of God, that the shell hit in a different area. That is absolutely a significant escalation here.

No one here is pretending that this isn't significant, and I think you could feel a sense of angst and nervousness talking to people on the ground there that it did feel somehow different, that it did feel somehow ominous.

BERMAN: What a dangerous, precarious moment.

Kaitlan, at the White House, you know, we heard President Biden not mincing words when asked if he expected Russia to invade. Did he talk about why he believes an invasion is imminent?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, we've talked to officials and they say that they are watching what Russia is doing. They're watching what Russian state media is saying, and they are also paying attention to what the Russians are not doing and that is pulling those troops back from the border.

As you heard multiple officials say today, they are only adding to them. Of course, we learned that 7,000 figure last night with some of them arriving as recently, as yesterday, and you also heard the Defense Secretary today talking about the other steps they are taking, shoring up blood supplies, bolstering their support in the sea. They're talking about the aircraft that they're adding, talking about all of these steps that they're taking, that they're saying is only adding to their capacity to carry out an invasion.

And so President Biden today putting a timeline on it saying that he believes that this could happen within days. And we should also note that for President Biden, he has been having these nearly daily conversations with other world leaders. Of course, on Saturday, he had two big ones with Zelensky and President Putin as well.

Since then, he has had daily conversations. Today, it was the Italian Prime Minister. And now John, the Canadian Prime Minister's Office is saying that tomorrow, he is hosting a call with the same set of allies once again, to talk about this ongoing crisis. And of course, to talk about what their plan is to try to deter an invasion from happening.

BERMAN: So Jill, to you in Moscow, what is the Russian reaction in the media, especially to these shellings in Eastern Ukraine, and to President Biden's comments?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, they're not really -- excuse me -- specific reactions. But overall, you know, there's a lot of saying that actually, you know, the Ukrainians are attacking, as opposed to the Russians are attacking, and a lot of concern about sorry, a little dry here -- the civilians who were in that area, and I think, you know, the most significant thing today was really that answer from the Russians to the Americans.

It seems like kind of a tennis match sometimes, but this diplomatic negotiation-discussion that's going on, I think that was probably the more significant thing, although it didn't seem to really go anywhere.

BERMAN: No, except open the door to military technical measures, which seems to be intentionally vague.

Clarissa, if the logic, for lack of a better word, is that any military response from the Ukrainians to the shelling could be used by the Russian government as a pretense to begin an invasion, how then does Ukraine respond if at all?

WARD: Well, this is the conundrum that Ukraine finds itself and on the one hand, huge uptick in shelling, a kindergarten is hit. On the other hand, they know that they have to be so incredibly careful in terms of how they respond because there is a strong belief that this is a deliberate sort of provocation, which is not to say necessarily, that whoever launched those shells was deliberately targeting the kindergarten itself. We don't know that at all.

But to say that when you see that kind of an uptick in activity, the fear is that it's designed to generate a response and that once you have that kind of heavy artillery flying back and forth, you could moments away from a very serious escalation because President Putin has said over and over again and not just in this conflict, but in other conflicts before in 2008 in Georgia, he has said that he will always protect Russian people, Russian speakers, ethnic Russians.


He has been handing out passports like candy in those Russian-backed separatists regions, 600,000, and so it will be very easy for him to use something like this, if it did escalate further, or if there was a strike that hit on the other side of the border. And as Jill said, the Russians were saying that there were strikes going both ways today, that he could use that as some kind of a pretext for launching some kind of an incursion, and this is something that U.S. Intelligence Services have been predicting for a while, some kind of a false flag, all of which is to say that anxiety is definitely a significant notch higher today, I would say, having been here for much of the last five weeks than we felt it before.

Usually, over the last month, it seemed like people on the streets were relatively calm going about their daily life, I would say today, and of course, we were right by the frontline, so it's a different situation than being here in Kyiv, but I definitely felt a more palpable sense of anxiety, of shock, and a little bit of a sense of foreboding about what the future might bring.

BERMAN: I listen to how you talk very carefully, Clarissa, and this is decidedly a different moment, at least based on what you saw today.

Kaitlan, you know, we heard Secretary of State Antony Blinken being very explicit, very explicit about the steps the U.S. thought Russia would take ahead of an invasion. What's the strategy here being so open with the intelligence?

COLLINS: It almost felt as if you were reading an Intelligence report, listening to those comments that he made, which we should note, were initially not on his schedule. He was supposed to just fly straight to Germany and instead went to New York to make this appeal, of course, in front of all these other representatives while he was there, and he was talking about what it would look like when they try to justify an invasion and what an actual invasion, the beginning of that would look like.

And he went into very stark detail when it came to the attempt to justify one. You know, he talked about a staged mass grave, a staged bombing, a fake drone strike, a fake chemical weapons attack, a real chemical weapons attack, potentially kind of laying out every scenario not saying that that's exactly what the Russians are going to do. But saying, this is what it could potentially look like. You're going to see Russian state media talk about it. They've already seen them talking about it, including the shelling that happened today.

And so I think that's been a little bit of a warning for the White House, and also talking about the beginning of an attack, what that would look like and going into detail, just making clear, I think, to the Russians that they know what they are potentially planning and what they could potentially carry out within a matter of days according to the President.

BERMAN: Kaitlan Collins, Clarissa Ward, Jill Dougherty, a deeply informative, deeply unsettling, but extremely informative discussion. Thank you all very much for your reporting tonight.

And as it has been every night, for all we can see and report on ourselves, so much more is either hidden from you or only discernible to a trained military and Intelligence expert. Fortunately, we have one of those, retired Army Major General and CNN military analyst, James "Spider" Marks.

Spider, you hear the reporting from Kaitlan, Clarissa, and Jill, you know, Clarissa explicitly saying it feels different tonight. Does it look different tonight to your trained eye?

MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, what we're seeing clearly is additional build up for what I think is an inevitable incursion, I think, a limited incursion. But your question is a good one: What do we see?

Now, there are limits to what we can see. Clearly, information is publicly available, but there is a host, tons of classified intelligence that our Intelligence Community can gather and Intelligence that we're getting from partners and allies with whom we have sharing arrangements. That's what's critical.

I can guarantee, our President of the United States and our Secretary of State are seeing very deep, classified special category type intelligence that we will never see, we will certainly see them after they're unclassified or if the President certainly wants to declassify that stuff, and put it out there.

But clearly, they're looking at things that we're not seeing and that has to be with, clearly with signals intelligence, which gets into communications intelligence. Hi, John, this is Spider, Spider, this is John. Different types of comms like that. Electronic intelligence, which is radars, how do they light up? What are they looking for? Where are they located?

And then you have human intelligence, which is quite phenomenal. And clearly we have sources probably in Russia. Clearly, we do and we may even have sources inside different ministries in Russia, where we're getting some pretty good insights and clearly within Ukraine and in the Donbas region. We have sources in there and we have a pretty good sense of that.

But you and I are not going to, you know, the guys who don't have those clearances are not going to get that stuff.

BERMAN: Now people need to know that. We're seeing pictures -- you see pictures of artillery set up here and there, that only scratches the surface of what is available to the people making these decisions now and maybe they're beginning to at least hint at what is in there.

Spider, do you think there's still an off ramp to de-escalate at this point for Vladimir Putin?


MARKS: Well, there's always an off ramp, right? It's just, what is the cost of that off ramp? I'm not saying I know what that is. And I don't know, I would hope that our State Department and our Department of Defense are working on what those potential off ramps might look like.

But I don't know what NATO is going to be prepared to do. That would give Putin a win. But NATO has got to win. Our President has to win. Putin has got to win. What does that look like?

So Putin can say Ukraine is never going to join NATO. And again, NATO is not asking for Ukraine to join right now. I mean, that's not on the table. But that seems to be the discourse here.

But if Putin could get a declaration from Ukraine and NATO that says we're not going to be expansive, and when you look at a map of NATO as it exists, as it existed back in the 1980s, and then with this acceleration post, 1999 and 2004, Russia is all those former buffer countries buffer zone that Russia had with the Soviet Union, they all belong to NATO, other than Belarus and Ukraine. That's why he wants to kind of lock up Ukraine and Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe. It is monstrous and he would love to have that underbelly. That avenue of approach into Russia that every enemy he has had used. He'd love to have that as a vassal state listening to him.

BERMAN: General James Spider Marks, always a pleasure to speak to you, thanks so much for being with us.

MARKS: Thank you, John.

BERMAN: Next, just days after their accounting firm fired them, a Judge in New York delivers another blow telling them to start talking under oath in the investigation that could turn the family business inside out.

Later, Dr. Anthony Fauci on why he thinks lifting school mask mandates is still risky.



BERMAN: So when a Judge says the centerpiece of your argument, quote, "completely misses the mark," it is more than a hit your case won't end well, and it turns out it did for the former President, Ivanka, and Donald Trump, Jr. They were trying to get out of answering questions under oath in New York State's civil inquiry into their allegedly shady business practices.

The Judge did not buy their claim that doing so would undermine their constitutional rights. He ordered them to sit for depositions within 21 days and gave the former President 14 days to comply with demands for certain documents and records.

Now Trump attorneys have said they will likely file on appeal.

Perspective now from CNN senior legal analyst, Preet Bharara and ABC News Chief Washington correspondent, Jonathan Karl, author of "Betrayal: The Final Act of the Trump Show."

Preet, the Trump lawyers have said they will appeal, that's their indication. Do you think they have a good chance of getting this ruling overturned?

PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: No, they don't. They have a right to appeal. It'll go to the first department, which is the Appellate Level Division in the New York State Court System. But this is a garden variety civil investigation, and there is no reason to suppose that, I think the very well-crafted opinion, strong opinion by the Trial Court Judge in this case will be overturned. So I don't think that it is going to make a difference because the reasoning is sound.

BERMAN: How long will it take, do you think though?

BHARARA: That could take a little bit of time. It depends on what the Appellate Court's docket is. But importantly, what really matters is whether or not the Appellate Court will issue a stay because otherwise the default position is, you've got to appear for your deposition. So it's not just the issue of whether or not, you know, the Appellate

Court decides that the subpoena can be quashed, and they don't have to comply, but also whether or not in the interim, they stay what the Lower Court said that they had to do, which was comply with the subpoena.

I think that's very unlikely, and if you don't get to stay, then Trump and his kids, two of his kids at least have to appear shortly.

BERMAN: So Jon, Eric Trump already sat down for a deposition in this investigation. Back in 2020, and he pleaded the fifth more than 500 times. I just want to remind people what the former President said about pleading the fifth. This was back in 2016.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So there are five people taking the Fifth Amendment, like you see on the mob, right. You see the mob takes the fifth. If you're innocent, why are taking the Fifth Amendment?


BERMAN: So with your keen political judgment and sense, Jon, do you do you think the former President may change his tune on that?

JONATHAN KARL, AUTHOR, "BETRAYAL: THE FINAL ACT OF THE TRUMP SHOW": Well, look, first of all, it was an interesting new bit of information that came out from the Judge that first of all, that it was a full two years ago that Eric Trump had given his deposition. We knew that he had given a sworn deposition, didn't know when, and that it was 500 times that he had taken the Fifth Amendment.

Look, I don't think that the legal strategies is going to change. It's hard for me to imagine that suddenly, Ivanka, Don Jr., and Donald Trump himself decide they're going to answer all the questions. You know, the path here is set. They took the Fifth Amendment, which is entirely in their constitutional rights.

But I imagine that Trump's view of those constitutional rights will probably change a little bit should this deposition go forward.

BERMAN: So Preet, you talked about, you know, the likelihood of appeal failing. You also said that maybe there won't even be an injunction granted here. What happens then if the Trump's still do not comply? What if they still just refuse to be deposed?

BHARARA: Oh, I mean, if there's outright defiance, unlike the situations we've seen with defiance of congressional subpoenas that's controversial, and there's not a lot of enforcement mechanism in State Courts and Federal Courts if you defy a subpoena outright, and you don't obey the order of a Judge, you can be held in criminal contempt and contempt of Court and then you go to prison for a period of time. We've seen that happen in cases large and small.

[20:25:09] Large cases get a lot of attention, but it happens in cases from time

to time. I don't think that's going to be the end result here. I think as Jonathan points out, Donald Trump and his kids' view of the Fifth Amendment and the propriety of invoking it is likely to change. But you know, that has consequences, too.

In a criminal case, the fact that you invoke your Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination can't be used against you. No lawyer can make an argument about it. No jury can make an inference about it. That's not true in civil cases. In civil cases, if you say, I'm invoking my Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, the civil lawyers who are trying to find you liable for some violation of law can say that the jury should, you know, make an adverse inference based on the fact that you invoked your Fifth Amendment right.

So, you know, a much bigger deal in the civil case, in some ways than it is in a criminal case.

BERMAN: And 500 times, if that's what it is, you know, what it was for Eric, does a heck of an adverse inference right there.

Jonathan, you wrote in your book, which is terrific, "Betrayal," everyone should go read it, that during the 2016 election, "... Trump proudly embraced an image that he was anything but a regular guy. He was a guy who always wins. He's the guy who was richer than anybody. He's a guy who never loses."

So how central is that ethos to this whole saga that the former President thinks he is above the law and immune to any legal ramifications?

KARL: I think it's central, and I actually think that the more legal jeopardy he is in and let's remember, now, you have a Manhattan DA case. You've got the New York Attorney General, you have the Fulton County DA case in Georgia. You have the New York -- you have the D.C. Attorney General. You have the January 6th Committee, who knows it'll be anything coming from the Justice Department.

I think that the bigger legal jeopardy Donald Trump is in may actually push him more towards running for that very reason. He feels that he has the power if he is running. He can portray himself as a victim, a victim of politically motivated prosecutions. And of course, all along the way, as he is a political figure, the R.N.C. is paying much of his legal bills.

BERMAN: Right. It's a discount for him. Very quickly, Preet, on the merits of the case here. What do the kids, if they testify, there's no parent-kid privilege, like attorney-client privilege here. What's the jeopardy for them when they go in?

BHARARA: Well, it's the same jeopardy that Donald Trump is in. Is there evidence that this is not only a civil violation, but a criminal violation? Was there intentional fraud committed here?

Look, the thing that the Attorney General's Office wants to learn is who knew what, when, what was their intent? They clearly already have considerable amount of evidence that the Judge himself pointed out that there was an inflation of assets on certain occasions and a deflation of assets in other occasions when it suited the Trump Organization.

The accountants have stepped back, as you already reported. The question is, whose fault is it? And so if you get testimony from people and they don't take the Fifth Amendment, and they make admissions about having knowledge and the intention to defraud, that exposes them to criminal liability, not to civil liability.

BERMAN: Preet Bharara, Jonathan Karl, great to see both of you. Thank you so much.

BHARARA: Thank you.

KARL: Good to see you, John.

BERMAN: Just ahead, more announcements today about school mask mandates that are about to end including for the country's most populous state. Dr. Anthony Fauci, however calls ending these mandates right now risky.

He joins us next to discuss.



BERMAN: Breaking news about school mask mandates, a short time ago California Governor Gavin Newsom outlined his state's plan to return to normalcy, he promised a date for the end of school mask mandates would be announced at the end of this month, quote, the masks will come off he said. The news follows similar announcements today by the governors of North Carolina, Washington, New Mexico and yesterday Michigan, all Democrats by the way, and all calling for an end to mask mandates in schools.

On Wednesday, our next guest Dr. Anthony Fauci said the move to lift school mask mandates was quote, risky. And Dr. Fauci joins us now.

So nice to see you, Dr. Fauci. Why do you think unmasking children in schools right now is risky? What do you think could happen?

ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NIAID: Well, John, if you look at the CDC that tracks the metrics, in this case, the metrics being cases, although they are coming down rather sharply, which is really very, very good news, both hospitalizations, and cases are going down in a rather sharp decline. They have the coating of either substantial a high degree of viral activity. And well over 90% of the country is in that area, where it's recommended by the CDC to keep going on with the masks, we would hope that if that trajectory goes down, and the projection at the local level of lifting masks mandates, after a period of time, I don't know if different states have different projections of when they want to do it. Hopefully that will coincide with the level being so low that the actual metrics of the CDC will coincide with pulling back. But right now, what is going on with over 90%, 95, more and more than 97% of the country is within that zone that the CDC recommends to keep the mask on and it is risky. If you take it off right now. What we're all hoping for John, and I believe there's a reasonably good chance we're going to see that, that over the next few weeks if that trajectory keeps coming down at that short -- sharp angle. And we don't have a flattening off at a level that's above the level of, you know, really being a problem that we could be in reasonably good shape.

But again, we've always got to be careful that we've been to this, this show before, where things came down, you pull back a little and it bounces back. Not only the current variant doing that, but we've always got to be prepared to address it and re-address it again, if we get a different variant. Hopefully we're not going to see that. But we've got to be prepared for that scenario.

But right now I'm looking at that chart, and it's coming down really nicely. So hopefully new metrics will help guide the people at the local level of what to do.


BERMAN: Look at it's great that the cases are going down. Phenomenal, I'm thrilled. I guess my question is, are you concerned that that taking off masks and schools will cause that number to go back up again?

FAUCI: Well, I have said it before John, and there's no reason for me to change that now. It is risky, it is risky, you may get away with it very well, it's possible, you're going to get away with it. But you do have a risk when you pull back, if you have a certain dynamic of infection, that you'll have a rebound. And hopefully the states that are doing that have a plan if in fact, we do see a rebound up, they'll be able to reinstitute the mitigation methods that they're now pulling back on.

You know, when you want to pull back and say we're done, well, you know, the virus may not be done with us. So it going down maybe the right thing, keep going down pulling back, but you have to be prepared to re-mitigate again, if you see a rebound coming up.

BERMAN: So the fact of the matter is, what you're telling me is a recommendation with the CDC issues its recommendations. I think that word has been manipulated by some over the last two years to be sure. But if state after state and city after city is ignoring or going around the CDC recommendation, has the CDC lost some of its relevancy?

FAUCI: No, I don't think so. I don't think so at all, the CDC is very relevant, John, they look at the scientific data, they analyze the data and they make recommendations. It has always been the case that at the local level, the local health authorities working with their administrative leaders, be they governor's or mayor's, or leaders at the local level, will make their decision they could utilize or not, we -- I think it's the wrong thing to say that the CDC is irrelevant. They are the scientific organization that accumulates the data and makes recommendations on the basis of the science. It's up to the local people how they're going to use that.

BERMAN: Dr. Anthony Fauci, want to leave it at that. But I want to leave people with a positive message you saying cases are headed where right now?

FAUCI: They're going way down, John. I mean, what I like is the steepness of the slope down. It went way up really high. And literally every seven day evaluation of the average we now yesterday had 126,000 cases. Remember it wasn't too long ago, when we had close to a million cases a day.

BERMAN: I now believe me. Dr. Anthony Fauci, thank you so much for your time tonight. Appreciate it.

FAUCI: Good to be with you. Thank you very much.

BERMAN: Still to come, more on our breaking news on Ukraine and how President Biden is managing a major geopolitical crisis that could affect America's influence abroad, will also try to keep his domestic agenda afloat. Former Obama White House senior adviser David Axelrod joins us ahead.



BERMAN: More on our breaking news this evening, as reporter moments ago President Biden will host a call with world leaders tomorrow about the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. That's according to the Canadian Prime Minister's Office. The White House has yet to confirm. Also scheduled to be on the line the leaders of France, Germany, the United Kingdom, NATO and more.

I'm joined now by David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to President Obama, he's also a CNN senior political commentator.

David, what's it like to be in the White House juggling a crisis -- like a serious geopolitical crisis like this one that the American people may not be as concerned about, though, as they are about other things, like inflation, like their daily lives here? How, you know, what are the conversations in the Oval Office?

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, look, you can't ignore a crisis like this. This is a frontal assault on the, you know, the global order and on the sovereignty of nations. So you can't ignore that. But you do that knowing that you're focusing on this and attention is focused on this, and probably not on what people are talking about around their kitchen table. The President did go forward today, and have an event out in the country on infrastructure. So they're trying to keep a normal schedule for him. But the focus in the White House is very much on this. And it has to be.

BERMAN: You wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times about how you think President Biden needs to start framing things as he heads into the State of the Union show some humility, you wrote, in part, the State of the Union is stressed to claim otherwise, to highlight the progress we have made without fully acknowledging the hard road we have traveled and the distance we need to go would seem off key and out of touch. You simply cannot jawbone Americans into believing that things are better than they feel, end quote.


BERMAN: What do you mean?

AXELROD: Yes, no, I think that's important. I think you have to link up to the lived experience of people and there is an impulse. And look, we felt it in the Obama White House during the Great Recession. There's an impulse to report on the all the good things that you've done, and all the efforts you've made in the progress that it's produced.

But if you do that, too energetically, without regard to what people are feeling, without regard to the fact that we've gone through an epic national trauma from which people are still recovering, then you're not going to be heard. And Joe Biden is well equipped to do that, he is a guy who has pre-natural empathy. He is middle class, Joe from Scranton. And that's the guy who needs to show up as the President of the United States on March 1st, when he speaks to the nation in the Congress.

BERMAN: Has he been trying to jawbone people? I guess what made you write this? Did you see maybe that he was slipping into something that wasn't going to do well for him?

AXELROD: Well, I watched his press conference on the anniversary of his inauguration, on the eve of the anniversary of his inauguration. And he very energetically wanted to report on all the things that he done. He treated it like report card day, and I thought it was a little off key. And then when he was asked whether what he had learned from the last year, he said, well, I'm going to get out into the country more. And I thought that's a great answer. But then he said, because I want people to know what I have what we have done, you know, for them, and that's not what really why he needs to get out into the country, why any president does. There's some of that, yes. But you also want to hear from people and you want them to know you want to hear from them.

So I just thought that the State of the Union would be better if it takes just a slightly different tack and we'll see what happens.


BERMAN: Very quickly obviously there's this trend around the country to lift mask mandates. How does the President deal with this clear desire that's popping up around the country?

AXELROD: Yes, very tough. I mean, a lot of Democrat governors are out in front of him. And I think one of the reasons, John that they scheduled this speech so late is that his hope is by March 1st, this -- he'll be able to align himself with people who want to who want to stop wearing masks.

BERMAN: David Axelrod great to see you tonight. Thank you so much.

AXELROD: Always good, John. Thank you.

BERMAN: Coming up, disgrace South Carolina Attorney Alex Murdaugh and new questions about the mysterious death of a 19-year-old man named Stephen Smith. Why authorities are reopening the cold case?


BERMAN: South Carolina five deaths appear to have connections to Alex Murdaugh, the ones prominent attorney now facing more than 70 charges including insurance fraud and a botched fake suicide attempt. Those fatalities in question include the death of a young woman killed in a boating accident involving Murdaugh's son Paul, also the double homicide in which that son and Murdaugh's wife were brutally murdered, plus the death of Murdaugh's longtime housekeeper. There's also the death of a 19-year-old man which for years had been unresolved but has now been reopened based on evidence discovered by South Carolina Law Enforcement in the Murdaugh double homicide case.


Our Randi Kaye is in South Carolina tracking the evidence.


RANDI KAYE, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (on-camera): Almost seven years with no answers for you, in terms of what happened to your son, what does that feel like?

SANDY SMITH, STEPHEN SMITH'S MOTHER: Heartbreaking. No, he was a human. And he deserves justice.

KAYE (voice-over): Sandy Smith is talking about her son, a bright blue eyed 19-year-old with dreams of becoming a doctor Stephen Smith was killed July 8, 2015, a passerby on Sandy Run Road in Hampton County called 911 about 4:00 a.m.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is he in the road or on the side of the road?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's in the roadway. He's laying in the road. Somebody going to hit him and it's dark.

KAYE (on-camera): Stephen Smith body was found in the middle of this road, a pathologist said it appeared to be a hit and run. But the Highway Patrol's incident report noted they didn't find any vehicle debris, skid marks or injuries on Stephens's body consistent with someone being struck by a vehicle.

(voice-over): According to the case notes Stephen died from blunt force trauma to the head. He had a dislocated shoulder but there were no visible injuries on him other than a gaping head wound and a small amount of road rash on both arms, no broken bones, no injuries on his torso or lower extremities. Sandy has never accepted her son was the victim of a hit and run.

(on-camera): What do you believe happened to your son?

SMITH: I believe he was beaten to death.

KAYE (on-camera): And then dropped in the road?

SMITH: And then laid in that road, hoping somebody was going to run over him.

KAYE (voice-over): For Sandy, much about her son's death doesn't add up. She says her son would have been too afraid to walk alone on that road in the middle of the night. Also, if Stephen had car trouble, his car was located a couple miles from the scene with the gas cap off. Sandy says he would have used his cell phone which was found on his body to call for help.

MIKE HEMLEPP, SANDY SMITH'S LAWYER: He was literally left on the side of the road, like a piece of trash.

KAYE (voice-over): Mike Hemlepp is Sandy Smith's lawyer. He too believes her son was murdered. And here's why.

HEMLEPP: Being hit by a car is a brutal and violent act and you will have lots of injuries all over your body. I've never seen it hit and run with shoes laying on the feet.

KAYE (voice-over): Evidence from the scene shows Stephens loosely tied shoes were still on his feet. And it's not just Stephens's family who has doubts, audio included in the case file shows even the lead investigator at the time didn't believe this was just a hit and run. South Carolina State Trooper ,Todd Proctor.

TODD PROCTOR, STATE TROOPER, SOUTH CAROLINA HIGHWAY PATROL: Typically you don't see the Highway Patrol working a murder. And that's why there's no doubt we're not classifying this as anything other than a murder.

KAYE (voice-over): Yet Stephen's case went cold and might have remained so had it not been for the double homicide of the wife and son of disgraced South Carolina Attorney Alex Murdaugh. They were found shot to death last June. Just days after that South Carolina Law Enforcement known as SLED suddenly announced it was opening an investigation into the death of Stephen Smith, based upon information gathered during the course of the double murder investigation of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh.

SMITH: You know where he was put on the shelf for so long. Now he's back out there.

KAYE (voice-over): SLED has not said what was found or what if anything, Stephen Smith's relationship was with the Murdaugh family. During interviews in the case file, the Murdaugh name is mentioned dozens of times by both witnesses and investigators.

(on-camera): Did your son know the Murdaugh family?

SMITH: He went to school with Buster. Yes. And they played like literally ball together.

KAYE (voice-over): Buster Murdaugh, Alex Murdaugh surviving son is mentioned during witness interviews. During one audio interview in the case file released by highway patrol to CNN, the investigators state trooper Todd Proctor says this.

PROCTOR: Buster was on our radar. The Murdaughs know that.

KAYE (voice-over): Why exactly he was on their radar is still unclear. Our attempts to reach Buster and Proctor were unsuccessful.

Sandy Smith also says Randy Murdaugh, Alex's brother and a personal injury lawyer tried to insert himself into the case by calling Stephen's dad before his parents had even seen Stephen's body.

SMITH: He said, well that was strange. Randy's want to take Stephen's case, investigate Stephen's case pro bono.

KAYE (voice-over): Sandy described Randy Murdaugh constantly calling asking them to give him Stephen's electronics including his iPad and cell phone.


HEMLEPP: The thing that's most surprising to me is how quickly he called, because the family had just found out.

KAYE: We reached out to Randy Murdaugh to ask about this, but he didn't respond.

HEMLEPP: There are people in Hampton who know what happened without question. And for whatever reason they haven't come forward. Perhaps that's fear.

KAYE (voice-over): Sandy Smith hasn't given up hope her son's case will be solved, no matter who may be involved.

(on-camera): Or what does justice look like for you?

SMITH: Somebody go to prison and stay there for a long time.


KAYE: And John, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division tells me that they are making progress on this investigation. It is active and ongoing even though they haven't made any arrests. But to be very clear, John, this is a murder investigation. You heard the investigator in our story say that he believes that the scene was staged, that the body was placed in that road and now after all these years, John, still so many questions, and so few answers for that family.

BERMAN: What a tangled web. Randi Kaye, thank you so much for that.

We'll be right back.



BERMAN: The news continues. So let's hand it over to Laura Coates in "CNN TONIGHT." Laura.