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Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees

Trump Attorneys Haven't Found Classified Document Former President Referred to on Tape Following Subpoena; Trump, DeSantis Feud Escalating Quickly; Biden Praises McCarthy on Debt Deal; President Biden Stresses Bipartisanship, Unity and Averting Debt Crisis in First Oval Office Address; More Drone Strikes Inside Russia. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired June 02, 2023 - 20:00   ET



JEAN CASAREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I want the $250,000.00. I want a cash down payment. Representative of the family went there, showed him where the remains were in the foundation.

Later, he told the family, I lied to you. Thus, extortion and fraud. He will be represented by an attorney in the United States, innocent until proven guilty.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: Right, of course, but hugely significant that this is actually happening, extradite here after so many years.

All right, Jean, thank you very much.

And thanks to all of you for being with us.

AC 360 starts now.


Tonight on 360: Where is the document? Exclusive new CNN reporting that the former president's attorneys were unable to find or produce the classified document he is reportedly on tape telling people he had.

We also have new reporting about what sparked investigators to go after it in the first place.

Also, tonight, President Biden speaking to the nation, spreading the credit for the budget deal, praising both Republicans and Democrats for coming together to get things done.

And later, we take you inside Ukraine's effort to build and acquire 200,000 drones this year and what kind of impact they may have on the fight against Russia.

We begin tonight with new CNN exclusive reporting on the classified document the former president claimed to have. Prosecutors issued a subpoena related to it, but his lawyers told authorities they were unable to find the actual documents. CNN's Evan Perez joins us now with the latest. So, what's going on here? They can't -- they literally cannot find this thing.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: They literally cannot find this thing, Anderson, and the question is, does the president have the documents somewhere? Did he lose it? Did he even have it during that July 2021 meeting that CNN reported earlier this week, where he was waving it around?

This was in a meeting where he was meeting -- he was having a meeting with some biographers working on a book for Mark Meadows, and he was said to be talking about this a battle plan, this plan to attack Iran and what --

The issue is that the prosecutors that are handling this investigation, Jack Smith's prosecutors have sent a subpoena asking for any and all documents related to Iran, related to this possible meeting from July of 2021.

They of course did this after bringing in one of his closest aides, a communications aide, Margo Martin, who was inside that meeting. She was brought before the grand jury. She was played a recording from that meeting, and that's when prosecutors then issued a subpoena to the Trump team asking for all of these documents, any of these documents to be brought in.

According to the Trump legal team, they don't know whether this document exists and they also don't know whether during that July meeting, Anderson, whether the President was just making it up, or whether it's somewhere else right now.

COOPER: And is that the Trump legal team's position right now that they still don't know? What's been the response to all of it?

PEREZ: Well, you know, they respond, as you've seen a variety of their responses over the course of this investigation, including calling this obviously a political witch hunt. The former president in a townhall with Fox News said that he has no knowledge of this July meeting and they say that they still don't know obviously where this document is that prosecutors are so interested in.

The thing is, Anderson, the bottom line here is that prosecutors throughout months have insisted that they believe Trump continues to possess classified documents that must be returned. And so they've gone to court trying to force the president to be found in contempt.

And so far, they still believe documents have yet to be returned. The former president says that he doesn't have anything left in his possession -- Anderson.

COOPER: Evan Perez, appreciate it.

Conservative lawyer, George Conway joins us now. He is also a contributing columnist at "The Washington Post" and joining us as well is former Maine Republican senator, William Cohen who served as Defense secretary during the Clinton administration. So George, we are talking about a document containing information about a potential attack on Iran. We obviously have not seen this document. We don't know exactly the nature of it. How concerning is it though, that these attorneys say they're unable to find it?

GEORGE CONWAY, COLUMNIST, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, it is concerning that the document was apparently flying around from Washington to Mar-a-Lago, perhaps and then to Bedminster. But I think at the end of the day, in terms of a potential prosecution, it's not going to matter. What matters is the fact that he is said to have acknowledged, President Trump, on this tape that he possessed classified documents, and that he knew he possessed classified documents.

And in fact, that was his state of mind when he was requested to give the documents back later in the next year, and then refused to give them back and then gave some of them back and then lied about giving them all back and so on and so forth. I mean, it's just another smoking gun in a smoking arsenal.

COOPER: Secretary Cohen, again, we don't know what this exact document was. Would there be other copies of it that prosecutors would have access to or would they be able to reach out to somebody in The Pentagon to find got exactly what this document may have been?


WILLIAM COHEN, FORMER US DEFENSE SECRETARY: Well, if the document did exist, and certainly The Pentagon would have access to it. If the former president is quoting something about Chairman Milley, then Chairman Milley obviously would be a source to go to, to say, what was involved?

But rather than look at the legal side of it, George can certainly do that, I'd like to talk a little bit about the implications for our national security.

We spend billions -- tens of billions of dollars collecting intelligence in order to protect the American people. The notion that we are so cavalier -- our elected leaders, the president of the United States is so cavalier about those documents, puts our men and women in grave danger.

And just today, in "The Washington Post," there was an article, a lead article talking about Iran planning to help kill American soldiers in Syria at the behest of the Russians. So this is what's involved in saying, why are we making a big deal about this? Because lives really are at stake. Our men and women serving are at stake and the American people's security is compromised when this kind of information gets out.

COOPER: George, the former president was asked about the document and this recording of him acknowledging he had classified documents. Here's what he told Fox.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't know anything about it. All I know is this. Everything I did was right. We have the Presidential Records Act, which I abided by a hundred percent.


COOPER: I mean, obviously, it's a ludicrous answer, just saying he doesn't know anything about it. There's allegedly a recording of his voice on this. He can easily look at his or ask somebody about it if he wanted to answer that question.

How does all of this complicate the former president's defense as it relates to the special counsel's investigation?

CONWAY: Well, he doesn't have a defense. So I guess he can say whatever he wants. I mean, everything he does say though will be used against him, but the fact of the matter is, there is just no dispute.

I mean, even at the time of the search warrant execution back last August, I mean, we saw the search warrant affidavit used by the FBI to get the search warrant. I mean, there was just a -- it was virtually an open and shut case then.

I mean, he had the documents, he refused to give them back. He lied about giving them back, and then they went and they executed the search warrant and they found all of these documents.

So I don't know that it makes -- you know, statements like that make it any worse for him. They don't certainly don't make it better.

COOPER: Secretary Cohen, I mean, obviously, the US works with, relies on allies in its intelligence gathering. How does not being able to locate a document like this or even the notion that a foreign president would be waving around a document like this, how does that impact other nations' willingness to work with and share intelligence with the US?

COHEN: Well, it really erodes and corrodes our credibility. For example, the former president following the firing of the FBI director, the very next day, released information to the Russian foreign minister and Russian ambassador that may have compromised the intelligence from Israel, compromising one of their assets.

So every time one of these take place, the other countries have to say is the information we're giving to the United States going to be protected? Because we have people at risk on the frontlines, our ambassadors, our military, they're all at risk.

And so when we turn information over to the United States, we expect it to be really handled with the greatest of care, and that clearly is not the case here, the president has demonstrated time and time again.

COOPER: George, what does this signal to you about the timeline? Or does it -- I mean, I don't know if it signals anything, but what do you think about the timeline of the special counsel's investigation? CONWAY: Well, I think the timeline generally, I think, is just suggested by the fact that we know so much now about the investigation, because what happens in these investigations is that there are lots of witnesses and the witnesses, one by one going and they're interviewed by the Justice Department or the FBI and they're sending to the grand jury.

And now you're getting to the point where there are so many people who know, and the lawyers all share information to make sure that their client is not saying anything that's being contradicted by some other lawyer's client. They're sharing all this information. It means lots and lots of people know a lot about this investigation, which is why we're seeing this flood of information comes out.

COOPER: That's interesting.

CONWAY: Which tells me that this investigation is nearly done, and when you think about it, you look at the calendar. I mean, you want to get -- I mean, if you were Jack Smith, I mean, you're not rushing it for political purposes, but you're rushing to avoid the political implications of having this -- having an indictment issued during an election season, and of having a trial too late next year.

If you want to have a trial next summer, or earlier next year, you've got to bring this case sooner rather than later and you want to bring these charges before the campaign really gets underway because that way you insulate yourself from the charge that you're doing it for political purposes.

But I think when this indictment comes out it's going to be a blockbuster because given what we know, it is an open and shut case many times over and I'm sure it's going to be a very, very interesting indictment.


COOPER: George Conway, William Cohen, appreciate it. Thank you both.

Coming up next, you would think the Republican primaries are just days away by how the former president and Ron DeSantis had been going at each other, the latest on the war of words and what it says about the race ahead.

Plus, President Biden addressing the nation tonight with the debt deal done and better than expected job numbers, but can he translate that into better approval numbers as he gears up his campaign. We will talk to David Axelrod ahead.


COOPER: During a rally today in South Carolina, Governor Ron DeSantis was asked by an attendee about the former president's election denialism and whether it was time to move on from the "2020 stuff." His response was that success means looking forward, not backward, and I'm quoting from DeSantis now, he said, "I think that candidates that focus on the past have not done well." Clearly referencing the former president.

As you may know, the back and forth between each candidate has escalated in the last few days.


REPORTER: Governor, how come you're not taking questions from voters?

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: People are coming up to me, talking to me. What are you talking about? I'm out here talking with people. Are you blind?


DESANTIS: Are you blind?

DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He had a very bad day today. He got very angry at the press. You're not allowed to get angry at the press.

DESANTIS: I think it's a project that will begin on day one, and it will require a daily grind for not just one term, but I think for two full presidential terms.

TRUMP: Eight years. We need eight years. You don't need eight years, you need six months. We can turn this thing around so quickly.

DESANTIS: Why didn't he do it in his first four years?

TRUMP: You don't change your name in the middle of an election. Changed his name in the middle of the election, you don't do that.


DESANTIS: That's ridiculous. These stupid things. Listen, the way to pronounce my last name, winner.


COOPER: I'm joined now by CNN senior political commentator, Adam Kinzinger, a former Republican congressman from Illinois and a member of the January 6 committee; also CNN correspondent, Audie Cornish, host of "The Assignment" podcast.

So Congressman, the last time we spoke was right before DeSantis announced his candidacy. You said that he is not really the best campaigner. Do you think his recent back and forth with the former president is working for him? Too soon to tell?

ADAM KINZINGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I don't -- look, I think it's important that he goes at the former president to an extent, he is still kind of keeping his powder dry. I mean, he doesn't mention Trump by name. He speaks kind of in generic terms, and says candidates need to look forward, not backwards.

He doesn't talk about Donald Trump, and I mean, there is still this, somehow this belief that some magical pony is going to come into this race and sweep Ron DeSantis in by default.

Well, the truth is, you have to go after Donald Trump and you can't out-Trump Trump, and that's what I think Ron DeSantis is trying to do.

So I think all you've got to do, frankly, Anderson is take a peek at Twitter and watch the DeSantis and Trump camps right now. They're absolutely destroying each other. So, I think this is really anybody's game, including neither of those two possibly being the nominee.

COOPER: Audie, do you think what's happening on Twitter between the campaigns, that's going to eventually start happening from the mouth of Ron DeSantis.

AUDIE CORNISH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think this is the challenge for anybody who really wants to kind of come at the former president. If you can't out-Trump Trump, if you can't be a smaller version of him, what is the actual lane that you occupy? And once you occupy that lane, does it actually have a constituency?

This is a real struggle for the party right now is figuring out what that lane is and drawing a sizable constituency to it. But in the meantime, DeSantis has to not get kind of metaphorically punched in the face.

Whenever you draw the attention of Trump, and he goes back and forth, this means he is taking you seriously. And watching DeSantis kind of bob and weave, for example, on the name thing, making sure that he is not robbed of his name or that no big nickname sticks, this is a reflection of what people have learned about trying to parry with him.

COOPER: Congressman, you talked about, you know, people waiting for a magic pony to somehow deal with Trump. Are people -- do you think some of these candidates are expecting an indictment to somehow -- or prosecutors to somehow take care of the problem of this man in the race that they don't know how to run against?

KINZINGER: Yes. I certainly think that's a hope that none of them will ever speak out loud. They shall say nothing about Donald Trump in public.

I think it's that. I think it's also maybe somebody will come in and actually do the dirty work for them and take out Donald Trump. I think that's why some people are excited about Chris Christie coming in, even though I remind people that he actually took out Marco Rubio and was one of the first to endorse Donald Trump in 2016.

And so I think it's a lot of -- and look, it's not a bad play. If you're Ron DeSantis and you've decided not to try to be a better person than Donald Trump, but to just try to out-Trump Trump, it is actually an okay strategy, if you know that Donald Trump is not going to make it to the primary election day.

And I think that's what he is banking on because if for some reason Donald Trump gets indicted and he goes down, Ron DeSantis, at this moment, today is probably there to pick up the slack. But the way these guys are fighting with each other, and their camps are fighting with each other, I don't think there's going to be much friendship left between any of them.

COOPER: Yes, Audie, because I mean, everyone does look to what happened to Marco Rubio, who decided to try to out-Trump Trump and talked about his small hands, et cetera, and just kind of annihilated himself.

CORNISH: That's true. At the same time, if you look at the long list of people who had thoughts about Trump, who suddenly thought he was great, like a Ted Cruz or a Chris Christie, you know that Trump sees this all part of strategy and game and I think in some ways his voters see it as that, too.

That part of the campaign is "taking punches," right. It's a very sort of aggressive way of going about the process, and people kind of don't take it as seriously as they could because they've also got evidence from the last few years that Republicans will come around, you know, to him if he is in power.

COOPER: Congressman, what about the field? I mean, it's already crowded. It is going to get more crowded. Obviously, the comparisons to 2015-2016 that the more crowded it gets, the better that helps the former president. Do you see -- how does somebody decide to drop out?

I mean, because a lot of these candidates won't even come close to him in the polling and everyone wants the other candidate to drop out, thinking oh, if only they can stay in and everyone else drops out.

KINZINGER: Yes, I mean, this is an exact repeat of 2015. Everybody is running, literally everybody that ever thought about running is running or thinking about running right now and it's exactly what happened in 2015 and the problem is, right now, you know, having a lot of candidates in the race, technically, I guess, it is fine, because there's still a lot of time before the first primary. People can drop out after the first primary.


But the problem is, is narratively, this is allowing Donald Trump to be in the lead forever, and over and over. If he's getting 30 percent and the next candidates getting five or six, and that is emblazoned in the people's minds for the next six to 10 months, he is going to be the Republican nominee.

So look, everybody has a right to run, obviously, but I wish some of these candidates would just say, look, I'm not going to win, so I'm going to stay out because Donald Trump, Anderson, will get 35 percent at least of the Republican base. Anybody splitting up the rest of that just makes him the nominee.

COOPER: Adam Kinzinger, Audie Cornish, thanks so much. Appreciate it. Have a great weekend.

Coming up next, what the president said to Americans tonight and a surprise among some about who he praised and also a report from the White House and a conversation with David Axelrod, ahead.


COOPER: In his speech to the nation tonight on the passage of legislation to avert a government default, President Biden didn't hide who he is or what he believes nor did he shy away from criticizing a number of Republican policy priorities. That said, he was also quick to praise both sides involved in the budget talks and the compromise they reached.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want to commend Speaker McCarthy. You know, he and I, we -- and our teams -- we were able to get along to get things done. We were straightforward with one another, completely honest with one another, and respectful with one another. Both sides operated in good faith, both sides kept their word.


And I also want to commend other congressional leaders, House Minority Leader, Jeffries; Senate Majority Leader Schumer; Senate Minority Leader McConnell, they acted responsibly and put the good of the country ahead of politics.


COOPER: In a moment, David Axelrod, who witnessed many important moments in the Obama-Biden White House, but first more on the speech itself, and what the White House hoped to achieve from CNN's Phil Mattingly who joins us now.

So what else did the president say tonight?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Anderson, the focus of the president's remarks tonight were I think, several pronged to some degree. He wanted to make clear to the public just how near they were to potential disasters. These negotiations worked in fits and starts over the course of the last several weeks, eventually reaching a resolution and he wanted to explain what was actually in the deal, and why a lot of the things that were kept out of the deal by White House negotiators were just as critical as the actual final outcome itself.

But he also wanted to highlight, as you noted, the bipartisanship aspect, and it is very much what he believes, it is very much who he has been, something he very much campaigned on in 2020. He wanted to make clear that there have been results on that front. Take a listen.


BIDEN: I know bipartisanship is hard, and unity is hard, but we can never stop trying. Because in moments like this one, the one we just faced, where the American economy and the world economy is at risk of collapsing, there is no other way. No matter how tough our politics gets, we need to see each other not as adversaries, but as fellow Americans.


MATTINGLY: So as the president made clear, there were very real policy disputes and that was when a lot of the battles at the end of the negotiations were over, but that outcome was important. So too, I think was the contrast of tonight, this moment, the president's first ever Oval Office address in primetime, when compared to what he had been doing over the course of the last several weeks, very intentionally quiet, not talking about what was being negotiated, not talking about priorities.

That was something White House officials said was part of his process. He didn't want to unsettle anything in the ongoing negotiations, a very different approach than you saw from Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his top deputies.

Tonight was an opportunity with that backdrop to have the last word -- Anderson.

COOPER: I mean, obviously, also, with the re-election looming, the campaign beginning it was also about that.

MATTINGLY: There is no question about it. The entire time, I think the entire 13 minutes that I listened to those remarks, you realize how inextricably linked in the eyes of the president, in the minds of his top advisers, this moment was the ability to achieve an outcome at this moment and his campaign message which is fairly unchanged since 2020. It has been kind of his theory of the case throughout and the ability to lay that out, and I think in a very detailed and coherent manner, lay out the fact that this has been his message throughout.

And he believes based on his legislative accomplishments of the first two years, many of which were bipartisan, like this agreement here, that he has delivered results. And I think the jobs number today underscored that they feel like there's real strength in the economy. I think the big question, which has long been the case, can they connect that reality in their minds to where voters are?

The president's approval ratings are no secret. His views of the economy, the direction of the country aren't either. This could be a moment, given the fact this has been hanging over the administration for the better part of six months. Will they see a pivot point, an opportunity to really deliver that message where they feel like they've gotten results? Critical moment to do so given the fact the general election is about a year away.

Whether or not that will actually happen, though, an open question. Certainly, a first start tonight -- Anderson.

COOPER: Phil Mattingly, appreciate it from the White House -- very much.

Reaction now from CNN senior political commentator, David Axelrod, who served as senior adviser to President Obama and worked alongside then- Vice President Biden.

So David, how important do you think this moment is for President Biden? I mean, can he turn this debt ceiling compromise, these better than expected jobs numbers into some kind of a rallying cry for his campaign?

DAVID AXELROD, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, look, this was a big moment, but largely because of the disaster that it averted, and I think what he is trying to sell here is steady, mature stewardship of the economy in the midst of all this political chaos around him, and sort of an island of experience and wisdom and so on.

And I think that there is some value to that. Whether that has some durable value, I think remains to be seen. There is an eternity, Anderson between now and when people vote next November, and I think there will be many intervening events that will probably supplant whatever he achieved here.

COOPER: I mean, we've also seen other successes for the administration, bipartisan infrastructure deal that -- you know, 2021, the Inflation Reduction Act, 2022. But both of those, you know, he got those passed, but without any substantial change in his approval ratings.

I mean, why do you think the administration has such a difficult time when it comes to public opinion?

AXELROD: Well, first of all, I think we live in a time of deep polarization, when it is very hard to move numbers. We have a red team and a blue team and most voters fall into one column or the other and it's very hard to move numbers.


We have a red team and a blue team, and most voters fall into one column or the other, and it's very hard to move numbers. Secondly, I think there is a hangover from the recession, I mean, from the pandemic that has left people unsettled.

I mean, objectively, in many ways, the economy is extraordinarily strong compared to when the President took office. But there is this sense of unease, and a lot of it being driven by inflation. And so his economic approval numbers are actually quite bad, especially relative to what he's achieved.

I think the hope is by underlining what happened today and what happened overnight, that he can jolt those numbers a little bit. But again, we are sitting here in June of 2023, and we're talking about an election that's going to happen in November of 2024. So, you know, I think subsequent events will determine whether, in fact, he can move those numbers.

COOPER: Well, also, even just events like what happened yesterday, the fall at the Air Force Academy, there's, you know, rightly or wrongly, a lot of attention on it. If you were advising President Biden right now, how do you think he should approach the upcoming race? AXELROD: Well, look, I think that you can't change your age. And so those kinds of incidents are going to get outsized attention. I thought it was really interesting that the day that he tripped over a sandbag and fell, he kept the American economy from falling into a great big and disastrous hole, which seems more important to me, but the fact is that age is going to continue to be an issue for him.

And so he tells people, watch me. And I think the reason he's speaking to the nation tonight is he wants people to focus on the substantive things that he's doing and not on things like the trip at the Air Force Academy.

COOPER: How much faith do you put in polls that show relatively close race between President Biden and former President Trump, again, this far out from the presidential election? As you said, there are so many things that can happen between now and then.

AXELROD: Yes, I don't put all that much stock in those polls other than to say that there is sort of a floor beyond which both candidates will not fall. And so you're going to have a close race. One interesting number for -- to watch is, you know, Trump was hovering around the 45 percent level in these polls and in the last election. Can he get higher than that? Because I think that's going to be important. And how high can Biden go in these polls?

But I think for a while now, it's going to be stable. I don't think you're going to see a whole lot of movement in the direction of one candidate or another. The DeSantis numbers are quite the same, basically a tie, and it's been that way for some months. I expect it's going to stay that way until late in this campaign.

COOPER: Yes. David Axelrod, I appreciate it. Thanks.

AXELROD: All right. Good to see you.

COOPER: Coming up, a look at a Ukrainian company building combat drones that, according to the company's owner, could reach Moscow, which saw its first drone attack earlier this week. Our Fred Pleitgen is in Ukraine, joins us next.



COOPER: Ukrainian Air Defense says they were able to destroy dozens of Russian missiles and drones that took part in an early morning attack. Authorities say that two Ukrainians, including an 11-year-old child, were injured by falling debris.

Also today, more attacks inside Russia, according to officials there. They say Ukrainian shelling in the border region of Belgorod killed two people. And an official in western Russia says two drones struck fuel facilities.

Now, earlier this week, a drone attack on Moscow left at least two people injured and several buildings damaged. There was a significant turn in a war that until recently had left Russia largely untouched.

Today, Vladimir Putin appeared to acknowledge these strikes on his country, calling them attempts to destabilize, and quote, stir up the situation within the Russian Federation.

Our Fred Pleitgen joins us now from Ukraine with a look inside the drone war. Fred, can you just talk about how things have changed for Ukrainians with this now constant threat of drone strikes?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL: Well, it's certainly changed a great deal, and I think for a lot of people it's really unnerving, especially here in the capital, Kyiv, Anderson. I can tell you, there's a lot of nights where people here just simply don't get any sleep because they live in fear the entire time.

And the way that these drone attacks work is they usually have swarms of those Shahed drones, those Iranian-made drones, coming towards the Ukrainian capital. You hear the engines hover above you and you hear the Ukrainians trying to take them down.

But, of course, what's happening now is that the Ukrainians are fighting back. They've launched their own massive drone program. It's a huge priority for the Ukrainians, with which they can now project power deep not only into Russian held territory, but into Russian territory as well. Here's what we're learning.


PLEITGEN (on-camera): Can this fly into Russia?


PLEITGEN (voice-over): Valeriy Borovyk's company makes combat drones for Ukrainian frontline troops, and they allowed us to film test flights at a secret location. And he says, reaching Moscow is not a problem.

BOROVYK: We have a bigger drone for 700 kilometer with war had 20 kilograms.

PLEITGEN (on-camera): That could fly almost all the way to Moscow.


PLEITGEN (voice-over): While Ukraine denies direct involvement in the recent Moscow drone attack, Kyiv has drastically expanded its use of drones for everything from surveillance to directly bombing Russian ground troops. Cheap, easy to use, and lethal, UAVs, once considered toys, are now vital to Kyiv's war efforts.

(on-camera): Ukrainians say for them, drones are the big equalizer in this war. They say the Russians have more tanks, more artillery, and more planes. But the Ukrainians have the creativity of their population.

(voice-over): This is a drone competition organized by Ukraine's government with simulated attacks on ground targets, chasing fixed wing drones, and even drone dogfights.


We were granted exclusive access on the condition we don't reveal the location. It's like a startup fare for FPV or first-person view drones. Small UAVs that can drop mortars and grenades flown by pilots wearing VR goggles from a makeshift trench to simulate the battlefield.

DENIS SEGA, DRONE OPERATOR (through translator): Our drones are very easy to use, especially if the pilot has flown similar drones. I think they will intuitively understand how they work.

PLEITGEN (voice-over): The stakes are immense. A general involved in drone procurement for Ukraine's military tells me --

BRIGADIER GEN. YURIY SHCHYHOL, HEAD OF UKRAINE STATE SERVICE OF SPECIAL COMMUNICATION (through translator): About 30 companies in Ukraine are already mass producing these drones and our goal is to purchase up to 200,000 by the end of the year. Their backs up against the wall when Russia's massive army invaded last year, the Ukrainians quickly realized cheap air power could help keep them in the fight.

First using modified consumer drones, now with more sophisticated UAVs developed in Ukraine what the government here calls the Army of Drones Project, spearheaded by the Minister of Digital Transformation.

MYKHAILO FEDOROV, UKRAINIAN DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER & MINISTER OF DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION (through translator): This is a technological war and it's very important to understand how technology is developing and what we as a state can do to increase the number of drones. A certain revolution is also taking place regarding production scaling.

PLEITGEN (voice-over): And while the Ukrainians still won't admit direct involvement, the Russians do admit they are concerned they might soon see more armed drones flying towards Moscow.


COOPER: It's incredible to see up close like that. Fred, is there any indication when we could see these drones Ukraine is purchasing, you know, above the battlefield in the fight?

PLEITGEN: Well I think it could be very soon. You know, some of the drones that we saw there at that drone competition, they've already been on the battlefield but in small quantities. And I think one of the things, Anderson, that we all need to understand is that on every battlefield here in Ukraine, whether it's Bakhmut or whether it's in the south, in the rear echelon of those battlefields, you always have a small, little shop that's developing new drones and that's trying to improve some of the drones that are already there.

For instance, to make it impossible for the Russians to geolocate the person who's operating the drone or to make it impossible to hack into those drones. So that's already happening all the time. What the government here tells me is they want to make it as quick as possible, that they find a startup, identify that that startup could help them and then scale up production as fast as possible. So you could see some of these drones on the battlefield very soon, Anderson.

COOPER: It's incredible. Fred Pleitgen, appreciate it.

Perspective now from CNN Military Analyst, and Retired Army Lieutenant General Mark Hertling. I mean, the use of drones is so interesting not only in this war but in all future conflicts. But what do you make of how drones are being used right now in the war in Ukraine?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, the insertion of these private sector operators is very good, Anderson. You know, these are not that new. Drones have been around for a while. I had back in 2008, when I was in Iraq, all of our units had small, what we called Raven drones, which were literally hand launched, would give infantry units the opportunity to see ahead of them in the battle, to even look inside buildings at times.

So, Ukraine has actually taken this to a new level. The drones in the past, the unmanned aerial systems, as we like to call them, are something that is an advancement on the battlefield today. But I got to tell you, what we've seen in terms of using drones in Ukraine beyond reconnaissance, but to actually drop munitions to counter electronic warfare, these are some new opportunities, I think, in warfare, and it's certainly going to change the scene. We're learning a lot from Ukraine and their use of drones.

COOPER: So do you think that the U.S. military would -- is looking at that as something they may want to incorporate or figure out how to incorporate or explore more?

HERTLING: We've been looking at it for a longtime, Anderson. In fact, at their training centers five or six years ago, they actually introduced drone swarms. We saw those kind of things in the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan just a few years ago when there were opportunities to destroy tanks with drones.

And in the battle in Nagorno-Karabakh, it was an area where surprised a lot of people. Iranians have been using them for a very long time. But again, the publication and the social media aspect of what's been happening in Ukraine, I think it's surprised a lot of people who don't know that drone warfare is now a part of the modern battlefield. But this has been going on for quite some time. But a great report by Frederik Pleitgen just now.

COOPER: Yes, to see the private sector component is fascinating. Russia's Defense Ministry said today a group of Chechen Special Forces had begun an offensive in eastern Ukraine.


Obviously, we've heard a lot about the Wagner forces. There were probably Chechens involved in that as well. But there were Chechens involved early on in the attempt to decapitate the leadership in Kyiv in the first days of this war. We haven't heard much about them over the last year or so. Do you think that's -- I mean, is that significant that they're announcing that there's Chechens now?

HERTLING: Yes, I don't believe it is, Anderson. What we've seen, excuse me, is Mr. Putin attempting to get a variety of groups to do his fighting for him.

COOPER: Right.

HERTLING: And part of the reason for that is there are people who are selling him on these groups being capable of conducting operations when they're really not. They're used to certain kinds of battlefields destroying things, like they did in Chechnya, in Syria, excuse me, and they don't take the place of good, well-trained soldiers who are well led on the battlefield under NCO supervision. They're just a bunch of thugs and private military corporations.

COOPER: Part of it seems to be also psychological, you know, that, as you said, that there's lots of people in the fight, but also that Chechens have a reputation of just being thugs and brutal and, yes, just horrific.

HERTLING: Yes. And I'm not sure how to compare them to the Wagner group. And I'm not sure you can get more thuggish than the kind of prisoners that Mr. Prigozhin recruited in the last phase of the battle of Bakhmut. But again, it's just trying to throw a bunch of free floating electrons onto the battlefield that aren't in very large groups or don't have any operational savvy. They're just flat out killers.

COOPER: Right.

HERTLING: But when you don't have the capability to conduct operations, either offenses or defenses, and you're just throwing yourself into the fight with a weapon, things don't end up too well.


HERTLING: And we've seen that with the Wagner group.

COOPER: General Hertling, appreciate as always. Thanks. Have a good weekend.

Coming up, some much needed lighter news on this Friday night. He is just 14 years old and the best student speller in the country. His winning moment at this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee. We'll see if you can spell the word. I couldn't. And our Senior Data Reporter Harry Enten puts me to the test next.



COOPER: An 8th grader from Largo, Florida has won the 2023 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Dev Shah topped more than 200 elementary, and middle school students from all 50 states and even a few students from Puerto Rico, Guam and other locations around the world. He was one of 11 finalists and became the champion in the 14th round with this winning word.






COOPER: That's incredible. Shah took home the first prize of $50,000. His secret to winning, he says, is focusing on the roots of words.

Our Senior Data Reporter Harry Enten joins me now with more in the competition. And to test apparently my spelling knowledge, which is abysmal.

HARRY ENTEN, CNN SENIOR DATA REPORTER: My spelling is abysmal too. In fact, that is the thing I want to admit on national TV, is my spelling is abysmal.

COOPER: OK. I understand you have some actual words from your spell.

ENTEN: Yes, we do have some actual words. But first I want to just note --


ENTEN: -- that there are a lot of Americans who think their spelling is above average. It turns out that about 40 -- a little bit over 40 percent of Americans believe that their spelling skills are above average.

COOPER: Is that right, really?

ENTEN: Yes, which is bizarre to me. And then another about a little bit more than 40 percent believe their spelling skills are about average. Only about 10 percent believe that they're --

COOPER: Is that true, really?

ENTEN: -- are below average. And --


ENTEN: -- I mean, I just go, wait a minute, wait a minute, shouldn't it be like a third, a third, a third?

COOPER: Yes, yes, yes. My dad had terrible spelling skills and used to talk about all the time and I think I inherited some of that.

ENTEN: Yes, I think that that is one of the things that I might have inherited from maybe a grandparent, because my father actually spelled quite well. He was good at English. I, on the other hand, barely speaking, of course, as the only language that I was --

COOPER: Is it he was good at English, or he was well at English?

ENTEN: I think it's good.

COOPER: I'm kidding, of course --

ENTEN: I think it's good.

COOPER: Yes, of course.

ENTEN: Yes. So, as you mentioned --


ENTEN: -- I have a little bit of a test for your quiz.

COOPER: OK. I'm ready.

ENTEN: There are two -- there were two words that were in the -- near towards the end of the competition last night.

COOPER: OK, well, I'm not going to get them.

ENTEN: Right. And I want to note that you can't actually see them, though, our audience at home can see that.

COOPER: OK. Yes. You turned off the monitors that I would normally be able to see it.

ENTEN: That's exactly right. We don't want any cheating. No cheating in my classroom, Anderson.


ENTEN: All right, so the first word is daviely, daviely. It's an adverb, I believe. I believe it means listlessly.

COOPER: Daviely.

ENTEN: I think there's a D in there.

COOPER: Well, yes, but the obvious one, I mean, it sounds like it should be daviely, like D-E-V-I-L-E-Y but it's obviously not, so I would say daviely.

ENTEN: Daviely. So you went with D-E?

COOPER: No. Yes, I'll go for D-E-V-A-L-Y.

ENTEN: It's D-A-V-I-E-L-Y.

COOPER: Wait. D-A, what?

ENTEN: D-A-V-I-L-E -- D-A-V-I-E-L-Y.

COOPER: I think you pronounced it wrong and you misled me.

ENTEN: I listened to some tapes beforehand. I want to note this.


ENTEN: I'm not a perfect pronouncer.

COOPER: What's the other one?

ENTEN: OK. The other one is keleb. It's a noun. It's a Central American ant.

COOPER: Keleb?

ENTEN: Keleb. Kelep, kelep.

COOPER: Now you're just --

ENTEN: Now, I'm just mixing it up. It's kelep. It's with a P, not a B.

COOPER: Well, you just told me it's with a P, not a B. Well, you're not supposed to tell me --

ENTEN: Kelep.

COOPER: -- any of the letters.

ENTEN: Yes. Well, I don't think you're going to get it anyway, so guess.

COOPER: Kelep.

ENTEN: Kelep.

COOPER: I don't know if you're saying keleb or kelep.

ENTEN: Kelep. Kelep.


ENTEN: Read -- listen through my New York accent.

COOPER: Kelep. I don't know, K-E-L-E-P, because that's --

ENTEN: Say that again.


ENTEN: Yes, that's actually right.

COOPER: Really? OK.

ENTEN: Unbelievable.

COOPER: All right. Yes. So what are some of the top words that people rely on? ENTEN: Right. So if you go to Google, right, what are the words that people like? OK, how do you spell blank?

COOPER: Yes, which I do all the time.


ENTEN: Right, which is what I do all the time. So --

COOPER: I've written a book, and I can't tell you how many times I went to Google, like, how do I spell this?

ENTEN: So maybe you were one of the people that couldn't spell --

COOPER: Yes, probably.

ENTEN: -- restaurant?

COOPER: Well, I think I know how to spell restaurant.

ENTEN: How about pneumonia?

COOPER: P-N-E-U -- I mean, pneumo --

ENTEN: It's impossible for me anyway.

COOPER: Wait, pneumonia, P-N-E-You, pneu, M-O, mo, N-I-A.

ENTEN: Yes, I think that's close. We're going to give it to you. Where do you give it to?

COOPER: You'd think that's close.

ENTEN: What about appreciate?

COOPER: I'm told that's -- they're telling me that is correct.

ENTEN: That is correct. That was correct. Oh, so you got it.

COOPER: The restaurant, that's easy. That's one of the most Googled words.


COOPER: People figure out, that's interesting. How many people tune into the spelling bee?

ENTEN: This, to me, is amazing, right? Because we've had our own spelling bee here and it turns out it can be quite entertaining. But it turns out that when it comes to the overall spelling bee, last year, 3.7 million people tuned into it.


ENTEN: 3.7 million.

COOPER: That's amazing.

ENTEN: And what's amazing about that was game two of the Stanley Cup, which I know you definitely will --

COOPER: Sure, well, game two, yes, yes.

ENTEN: Yes, of course. Also had 3.7 million. So it's like on the same sparring, you know, on the same level as some sports events.

COOPER: Right. And I'm proud that I know Stanley Cup is Hockey.

ENTEN: Way to go, buddy.

COOPER: Yes, I know. I'm proud of them.

ENTEN: Congratulations.

COOPER: Thank you.

ENTEN: We did it. We did it, guys. We did it.

COOPER: All right. Harry Enten, thanks. We'll be right back with more.

ENTEN: Thanks.



COOPER: Quick programming note, don't miss the CNN Republican Presidential Town Hall with former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. Jake Tapper host the live gathering from Iowa, Sunday night, 08:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN.

That's it for us. Have great weekend. The news continues. CNN Primetime with Abby Phillips starts now.