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Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees
Russia Confirms Failed Rebellion Leader Yevgeny Prigozhin On Plane That Crashed, Wagner-Linked Social Media Says He Is Dead; Giuliani, Powell, Ellis Surrender In Georgia Election Case, One Day Ahead Of Trump's Expected Surrender; Biden Suggests Putin May Be Behind Prigozhin-Lined Plane Crash; Eight Candidates Qualify For First 2024 Republican Presidential Debate. Aired 8-9p ET
Aired August 23, 2023 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Trump's team says he will then head back to his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. But no events are expected there.
So far, nine of Trumps co-defendants have surrendered to authorities in Fulton County. They have had their mug shots taken and have since been released.
We are now waiting for the remaining co-defendants, including Trump to surrender.
Thank you so much for joining us tonight. AC 360 starts right now.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Tonight on 360: Two big breaking stories. The former president's so-called legal Dream Team booked in Georgia, mugshots and all.
And the mercenary leader who dared challenge Vladimir Putin, Yevgeny Prigozhin apparently dead in a highly suspicious plane crash.
Good evening. Thanks for joining us.
We begin with all we've learned in the last few hours about that crash of a private jet in Russia. Russian authorities are saying, Yevgeny Prigozhin and a number of his top lieutenants were on board. The social media channel linked to Prigozhin's Wagner Group is saying that he is dead.
The plane's final moments were caught on camera. This is some of the footage showing it spiraling toward the ground. From the looks of it, with possibly only one wing falling at nearly 8,000 feet a minute toward the end.
The circumstance is highly suspicious. President Biden saying he wasn't surprised and that not much happens in Russia that Vladimir Putin isn't behind.
CNN's Matthew Chance has done extensive reporting on Prigozhin and his attempted rebellion some two months ago. He also lived and has reported from Moscow for years. He joins us now.
So, what's the latest that we know about this crash?
MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we don't have a lot of information, Anderson. There is an investigation underway by the Russian authorities, and you see the aftermath, the flames that engulfed that entire area.
It is about 60 miles or so outside of the Russian capital of Moscow, so it is not far. The plane had just taken off from Moscow, and was traveling at an altitude of, I think, 26,000 feet when they lost radio and radar contact with it, then you can see that video there of the plane spiraling to Earth before it crashed into that into that fiery, you know, kind of fireball at the bottom of it.
Look, I mean, there's all sorts of narratives that are coming out on social media. As I say, there is an investigation underway. But, you know, the main suspicion certainly from kind of observers outside of Russia is that this is connected with the state in some way.
Remember, Yevgeny Prigozhin is the man who headed that attempted coup against Moscow in June. He's the person who challenged Vladimir Putin's rule to the greatest extent in the past 23 years and Vladimir Putin called that coup attempt a stab in the back and was absolutely furious.
And so you know, was this coincidental? Well, I mean, that's something that we may never find the reality about, but certainly, there is a lot of suspicion, as you mentioned, President Biden amongst them, that the Kremlin may have in some way been involved.
COOPER: Wasn't the head of the Russian Air Force, who previously had been in charge of the fighting in Ukraine who had been linked with Prigozhin, wasn't he just fired within the last 24 hours?
CHANCE: Yes, Sergey Surovikin, you remember this, General Surovikin, and he was somebody who was very close to the Wagner group. In fact, we reported that he was actually a secret member of the Wagner Group at the time when the attempted coup took place.
He made a very nervous appeal during that coup attempt for Wagner to back down, but after that, he had simply disappeared from view., and he hasn't been seen in public since.
He was once the commander of Russian forces in Ukraine. He was, you know, of course, the commander of Russia's Air Force. It was announced today that he was no longer in that role. We still haven't seen him in public.
And so it seems that this is a sort of clearing of house of all these people that may have been connected that with that uprising. It wasn't just Yevgeny Prigozhin, of course, on board this plane. It was the top leadership essentially of Wagner, it was his chief of security. It was Dmitry Utkin, who was one of the founding members of the Wagner Group as well. There were seven out of the 10 people on board, three crew members and seven others, all of them -- all of them were killed, obviously, in this fireball.
COOPER: So it's a real decapitation of sort of the top ranks of the top leadership of Wagner.
CHANCE: Yes. It seems to be that way. I mean, obviously, there are still Wagner commanders sort of on the ground in the field in Ukraine, in Belarus as far as we understand. Of course, in African countries where Wagner has played such an important role in propping up sort of dictatorial regimes there.
But look, I mean, the top leadership of this organization has now been completely decapitated as you say, and it is shocking, but it is not altogether surprising.
I mean, one of the more surprising things about the events of the past couple of months is that Prigozhin lived for so long after staging this huge uprising, this massive challenge to Vladimir Putin's power, that was what people in Russia were most surprised about, I think.
COOPER: Yes, what took so long.
Matthew Chance, we're going to come back to you shortly. We're going to return to this story.
Also, we'll be joined by CNN chief international correspondent; Clarissa Ward; aviation expert, Miles O'Brien; and Steve Hall, former CIA chief of Russia operations.
Right now though, take a look: This is the man once known as America's mayor and "Time" Magazine's Person of the Year.
Well, tonight, he is Fulton County inmate number PO1135780, White male, 5'11", two hundred thirty pounds, hair described as gray or partially gray, eyes, brown. He, Sidney Powell, and Jenna Ellis all booked today in Atlanta.
These are the attorneys who represented the former president through 61 failed challenges to the election that he lost. They are the ones who made countless false public statements and unfounded claims on his behalf, pushing groundless conspiracy theories and allegedly counseled him on actions that would have been legally or constitutionally dubious. Three members of the bar.
Mr. Giuliani spoke with reporters shortly after his booking and release on $150,000.00 bond.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RUDY GIULIANI, FORMER DONALD TRUMP ATTORNEY: I am very, very honored to be involved in this case, because this case is a fight for our way of life. This indictment is a travesty.
If this can happen to me who is probably the most prolific prosecutor, maybe in American history, and the most effective mayor for sure, it can happen to you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: He was asked whether he still believes the 2020 election was rigged, but either did not hear or chose not to answer the question, nor did he say who paid for his flight on a private jet to Atlanta. Giuliani, you'll recall told a New York Court last week that he is effectively out of cash.
Meantime, two co-defendants, Jeffrey Clark and former White House chief-of-staff -- and the former White House chief-of-staff found out that they are out of luck when it comes to delaying their surrender or arrest. A federal judge late today denying their request to freeze Fulton County criminal proceedings until their motion to move the trial to federal court is decided.
Now, Clark, you may remember tried to justify it in part by claiming it would help him avoid making rush travel arrangements.
CNN's Paula Reid joins us now from Atlanta with more. So what more have you learned about Giuliani's surrender?
PAULA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson that mug shot is a reminder that even being a very successful top prosecutor in this country does not give you immunity from becoming a criminal defendant.
Now, Giuliani surrendered at the Fulton County Sheriff's Office earlier today and he was processed in under an hour, which is pretty quick for defendants in this case. But the sheriff's office tells CNN that he was handled just like any other defendant.
In addition to that $150,000.00 bond, he will have to post a portion of that in cash, there are also some restrictions that he needs to abide by if he wants to continue to be a free man.
Among the restrictions though, he cannot talk about the case with any of his co-defendants. Former President Trump is of course one of his co-defendants. Trump will be hosting a fundraiser to help Giuliani raise money for his legal fees in just a few weeks.
Now, Giuliani had some words for the district attorney earlier today. Let's take a listen to what he said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GIULIANI: Fani Willis will go down in American history as having conducted one of the worst attacks on the American Constitution when this case is dismissed.
She has violated people's First Amendment right to advocate, the government to petition the government for grievances like an election they believe was poorly conducted or falsely conducted. People have a right to believe that in America.
(END VIDEO CLIP) REID: It will be up to a jury to decide if he was just advocating on behalf of a client or if he really was engaging in a conspiracy to undermine the election.
As you noted, he flew in here on a private jet, unclear how he afforded that, because he has been telling the court that he's out of money. But he was able to get a Georgia lawyer, Brian Tevis, to help him with the bond agreement. He needed a Georgia licensed attorney to sign that.
But when I asked Mr. Tevis if he'll be representing Giuliani throughout this case, he said that remains to be seen; asked if he was getting paid, he did not answer -- Anderson.
COOPER: And a federal judge, as we mentioned has denied Mark Meadows and also Jeffrey Clark, former DOJ official, request to delay their surrenders. Willis had responded to those motions earlier today. What did she say?
REID: Yes, Anderson, both men are trying to get their Fulton County case moved to federal court. Meadows believes if he can get his case moved to federal court, he can get it dismissed because there are federal protections for some government employees. They are protected from state level prosecutions.
Both men asked the judge to delay any surrender requirement at the state level until after that federal question is answered. Meadows actually has a hearing on that case on Monday, but the judge denied that request.
So both men still have to surrender by noon on Friday and Anderson, actually, just a few minutes ago, the district attorney, Fani Willis weighed in on this Meadows pursuit of getting this moved to federal court, dismissing any suggestion that what he was doing was protected and part of his job as chief-of-staff, she said, no, what he was doing in this alleged conspiracy was political activity.
COOPER: Paula Reid, thanks so much.
With me here CNN senior legal analyst, Elie Hoenig; former Georgia, US attorney, Michael Moore; and two senior political commentators, former Trump White House communications director, Alyssa Farah Griffin; and former Obama senior adviser, David Axelrod.
David, it is fascinating to hear Rudy Giuliani talking about how Fani Willis is going to go down in history. You look at that mugshot -- and let's put it up -- of Giuliani. I mean, how far this guy has fallen from? I mean, you know, once on the cover of "Time" Magazine.
DAVID AXELROD, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It's extraordinary.
You know, I was working the mayoral race in 2001. He was leaving office when 9/11 happened. And he, you know, I remember how exalted he was for the leadership that he provided then, such that he was the frontrunner for president of the United States in 2008. And so yeah, this is, it is an extraordinary fall.
But it's also, you know, so cynical, to be engaged in a plot or an alleged plot, I guess, I should say, to undermine the presidential election in ways that were, you know, clearly, clearly wrong, and then accuse others of undermining democracy.
AXELROD: It is Orwellian, really.
COOPER: I mean, that was what he was saying about Fani Willis, he says that she is attacking the Constitution. I mean, he was there on January 6th rallying the crowds to go forth on the --
ALYSSA FARAH GRIFFIN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right. And we all remember that just crazy RNC press conference that Jenna Ellis, Sidney Powell, and Rudy Giuliani just espoused any level of conspiracy theories. I think they tied it to Hugo Chavez, who wasn't even alive at the time.
What stood out to me in this, because we'll likely see Mark Meadows, arraigned in the next couple of days. I never wanted to see him get a mug shot, but is the fact that for shortly after the election was called for Joe Biden, Meadows was actually trying to keep some of these individuals away from the president.
There was a period when he was talking to Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy and saying, we're going to get Trump around to it, we're going to keep kind of the crazy car away from him. But at some point that flipped and now he's going to be remembered in history in a RICO case with these people that he recognized at the time were giving terrible advice to the former president.
COOPER: And Elie, I mean you know his reputation clearly as a federal prosecutor in Manhattan to see him like this. It's --
ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, when we first saw that mug shot and I happened to be on air, it was jarring for me, because it brought me back. If you're inside the Southern District of New York building, there is a wall that has portraits of every US attorney going back to the 1800s, and there, '83 to '89 is Rudy, and it is actually framed similarly to this mug shot here.
But the circumstances couldn't be more different. He is younger, of course, but he's got the flag behind him and he is sort of smiling proudly, because the truth of the matter is, he was a remarkable and really historically significant prosecutor.
And now, here he is. He is an indicted defendant in one case; he is a co-conspirator in a federal case. He has had his law license temporarily revoked for lying to the court in two jurisdictions. He is being sued for defamation by various parties.
It's a tragic Shakespearean fall, but let's be clear, it's his own doing. Nobody picked it on him for reasons of amusement or politics. He has done this all to himself. COOPER: I want to ask you both about, and start with Michael, about this move by Ken Chesebro, which has not gotten a lot of attention, but he has -- his attorneys have filed papers essentially demanding a speedy trial. Talk about the significance of this.
MICHAEL MOORE, FORMER ATTORNEY FOR GEORGIA'S MIDDLE DISTRICT: Yes, Georgia has a statute that it's called the Speedy Trial Act, and it is a little different than we think about in the federal court, but what it essentially says is that a defendant can come in during the time they're indicted and ask the court to immediately try their case. And it gives the district attorney just a few months, and in this case, it would be really through October to put the case on trial.
So if they don't do that, if they don't try the case within the time that the law says, then the charges are dismissed. So it is a clever move, I think by the defense attorneys here. I think you're going to see likely some motions to sever other defendants because they're going to claim we're not ready this quick. You know, we don't want to do it and it puts the DA frankly, in a unique position. Because she is essentially going to have to decide what does she do with Chesebro, and is she going to try to give the other side a trial run and let them take a look at what she wants to put forward with her case?
Or is she going to try to -- does she think that some of these will be moved to federal court? We just don't know. But it was a good move. It's a -- you know, it is sort of taking the fight to the prosecutor, if you're a defense attorney. They've indicted you, they've taken your picture, they've put you in jail for a few hours, and you know, let's go ahead and tee it up and that is essentially what his lawyer is doing.
COOPER: Chesebro is accused of being the kind of the brains behind the or the creator of the fake collector scheme to begin with, but -- so would -- could he just go to trial and anybody else who says they want a speedy trial to go along with him and then others, to your point, would be severed -- the rest would be severed?
HONIG: I think that's the most likely scenario. Those who want the speedy trial are legally entitled to it, and here's why it's so important strategically. It will give the people in the later group, which surely will include Donald Trump, a free look at the evidence. You always want to avoid this as a prosecutor.
But Mike was right, they called the bluff here because what's going to happen is there's going to be a first batch, and Donald Trump is going to get to see all the government's witnesses, how they are cross examined, what points resonated, what points missed? You're going to get to see the playbook in advance. So there's a real tactical advantage there.
COOPER: How much of an advantage do you think that really is?
MOORE: I think it's probably invaluable if you're a defense attorney, especially if you're representing one of the top tier folks waiting to see what happens in the case.
I mean, you know, the indictment tells a story of RICO, but being able to watch it firsthand and hear it out of the witness' mouth and have a dry run at it, that's something that you can't put a price on. And that's why frankly, I think it was a clever move by his lawyers to do it.
COOPER: So tomorrow, obviously, the former president is going to be booked yet again. Are Republicans paying less and less attention to this, do you think or is it --
GRIFFIN: I mean, I think so. We've seen in primary polls, his numbers have only gone up. Other candidates behind him have gone down with the indictments. But I would point out that some of the latest general election polling has him lagging behind Joe Biden the most that he has in about the last six-plus months.
So I think that there is this moment where the public, the general public is, frankly, sick of the indictments and the noise, and that is where the party -- I mean, we're going to see a Republican debate later tonight -- needs to realize he is too weak a general election candidate, even if he may be sweeping in the primary polls, and then try to unite behind someone else.
AXELROD: You know, here's the thing, and you mentioned this was Rudy Giuliani's own doing, this isn't the plot that he -- but he is running in Trump's tracks here, and Trump has laid these tracks and he's been very effective. People believe, his supporters believe, and Republicans generally have embraced the idea that these are politically motivated prosecutions.
So when you say, well, yes, these are politically motivated prosecutions, but he can't win, so we've got to let them go. I mean, you're going to hear some, even Asa Hutchinson has been making that argument. I think people say no, you're just abetting the plot by saying, we're not going to support Trump. That's exactly what they want.
I mean, it is very, very clever and diabolical what he's done, but it's been very effective. It's not -- I think it jeopardizes him in a general election, but so far, it has strengthened him. It has been his force field in the Republican primary.
COOPER: Elie, now there's going to be a fundraiser that the former president is having for Giuliani. Is that kosher?
HONIG: There's nothing illegal about it. It could give rise to a conflict of interest. It seems to me what Donald --
COOPER: And they can talk -- can they talk about the case to each other?
HONIG: So according to the order, the bail release order, they're not allowed to discuss the case because they're co-defendants. But what they may do is enter into a joint defense agreement, which happens a lot in these multi defendant cases. At that point, you absolutely are entitled to discuss the case with your co-defendants. The judge can't stop you from doing that.
It seems to me like Donald Trump is trying to keep Rudy Giuliani in line without having to open up the checkbook.
COOPER: What is the benefit of having a joint arrangement besides being able to communicate?
MOORE: Well, I mean, it takes some of the secrecy out of what your co- defendants are doing. And so, it gives you the chance to, make sure if you will, that you're on the same page in some respects, and I don't think this is a case where you're worried about necessarily cutting down on the work in a joint defense agreement, but this is certainly a case where you want to make sure people are saying the same thing.
GRIFFIN: But can I note, just on that, what's interesting is Mark Meadows has been very much away from Trump world for some time, and Jenna Ellis as well, who has come out as a strong DeSantis supporter. So there are some who are wrapped up in this indictment, that may not end up aligning in the defense.
COOPER: Also, I mean, if you are the former president, do you want to be in a joint defense agreement with Sidney Powell? I mean, is that -- does that sound like a good idea to anybody?
GRIFFIN: Probably not. It doesn't seem like a good idea.
HONIG: It becomes like "Lord of the Flies." I mean, everyone will find their own tribe and who's competing with who? I mean, any multi- defendant case, we've got 19 here. Watch the knives come out. They're going to go after each other.
COOPER: Were you surprised the federal judge rejected Mark Meadows' request?
MOORE: You know, I wasn't totally surprised. I thought there was a chance he might do it. Really, he had already set a hearing. He's going to have an evidentiary hearing on Monday, to where they will dig into this issue of transferring the case to federal court. And they'll talk about whether or not they were federal employees and entitled to the relief under the removal statute.
But he basically -- the judge basically said, look, there is no provision here to allow us to do a temporary injunction to stop the DA, and in truth, I mean, he is going to get processed at some point. It is very likely because there are charges out there. So this just moves the ball forward.
It was -- I think it was sort of a meaningless thing at this point. But, you know, the judge felt like he was giving him his day in court on the bigger motion, which is really what matters, and that's the hearing that they have next week.
COOPER: Michael Moore, Elie Honig, thanks so much. Alyssa Farah Griffin, David Axelrod as well. Thank you.
Coming up next: More on the plane crash and Putin's potential role in it. our Clarissa Ward who confronted one of the GRU agents allegedly behind the attempted poisoning of Alexei Navalny joins us.
Now later a look ahead at tonight's first Republican debate.
COOPER: Returning to our other breaking story: The suspicious crash of a private jet in Russia with Yevgeny Prigozhin and other top Wagner Group members on board according to Russian authorities.
Joining Matthew Chance, CNN chief international correspondent Clarissa ward.
So Clarissa, welcome back.
You have been reporting on the growth of the Wagner Group for years. What could the fallout from Prigozhin's death actually look like? Not just in Russia, but I mean, in all the places Wagner operate. There's a possible war about to break out in West Africa.
CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right. There have been significant operations that Wagner has been carrying out, not just in the Central African Republic where I was, but also in Mali and Libya. Now, there are, of course questions around Niger where there's just been a coup.
And so the question becomes who takes over these Wagner operations? It appears that the Kremlin has been kind of working on some kind of a succession plan to sort of spearhead those operations, if you will, but we don't know exactly what that will look like, and also, it becomes much more complicated because whereas Wagner up until the war in Ukraine didn't officially exist and gave the Kremlin plausible deniability, any other actor closely attached to the state who takes over those kinds of operations will be very limited in terms of how they can, you know, take part in some of these activities like massacres that Wagner operatives have been involved in. So it raises some real questions about what Wagner operations will look like across Africa.
Inside Russia, of course. I think the hope if the state was behind this is that this will kind of draw a line under the whole question of the mutineers, and just put a stop to that altogether by basically declaring a very direct threat to anyone who continues to speak out and support Prigozhin.
COOPER: And Matthew, the Wagner forces, what do we know about them? I mean, are they -- I mean, they were in Belarus for a while. How many of them are still in Ukraine? Are they actually engaged in the fight still in Ukraine?
CHANCE: I think since two months ago, when there was that attempted coup, their role has been significantly diminished on the frontlines in Ukraine, they have been pulled back for, you know, kind of what was characterized as rest and relaxation, but was, in fact, sort of moving them out of the way. So that, you know, Defense ministry regular forces could take over while the Kremlin decided what to do with them.
Many of them have been moved to Belarus, the neighboring country, of course, where Alexander Lukashenko, a close Putin ally that the president of that country said he would be using them to train Belarusian forces in sort of combat techniques, because of the experience they had.
But it was all very sketchy, and it's not altogether clear that any training was undertaken. And it's -- even though we know they were there, because we saw video of them in sort of tent city camps that were built close to the Belarusian capital. You know, there is the rumors that they've been filtering away, and in fact, they may be sort of taken back to Russia proper in the days and in the weeks ahead.
And so it's not clear what role they play any more in this special military operation, the euphemism that Russia uses to describe its war in Ukraine.
I suspect that, you know, this decapitation of the Wagner leadership is not going to have a massive impact on the war itself in Ukraine.
COOPER: Clarissa, I mean, you know, I don't know if this is a case of revenge being best served cold. But I mean, there's certainly been a long history both inside and outside of Russia, the assassinations or attempted assassinations of people whom Vladimir Putin views as rivals or enemies. You did that incredible report on the state sponsored attempted assassination of Alexie Navalny. How does this crash sort of fit into that history?
WARD: Oh, it very much fits into that history. I mean, we've seen President Putin being asked in interviews before, what's the one thing you cannot forgive? And the answer is betrayal. Traitors, he believes to be the worst kind of specimen of human. And if you look back, whether it's Alexei Navalny being poisoned, whether it's Sergei Skripal, a former double agent being poisoned. Again and again, we have seen Putin showing no mercy in his attempts to extinguish this kind of a threat.
I think what was really sort of fascinating to people, Anderson, was how it was possible that Yevgeny Prigozhin was wandering around very visibly seemingly very freely visiting Belarus, visiting Africa, apparently, greeting African leaders in St. Petersburg for a whole two months after this extraordinary mutiny took place, and everyone was sort of waiting in disbelief. Surely, at some point, this has to come to an end, and surely at some point, Putin must exact his revenge.
Now, we're hearing from some sources and people who watch the Kremlin very closely, that, you know, really, this just gave them a two-month period where they really had the time then to go about dismantling Wagner, getting all the pieces set in place so that they could go ahead and exact their revenge once and for all.
COOPER: Well, also, Matthew, I mean, I don't know if it's a sign of confidence that Prigozhin had that he and his, you know, a lot of his top people would be all together on a plane or just foolishness and, you know, lack of -- his security chief was apparently on this plane, that doesn't speak well to his abilities.
CHANCE: Yes, the security chief, one of the founders, or the founder of Wagner, Dmitry Utkin, who is a former military man was on the plane; Prigozhin himself, of course; and a few other sort of quite senior Wagner commanders as well.
I mean, I think, probably, although, we'll never know, but I mean, I think it probably speaks to the idea that Prigozhin thought he got away with it. He thought that he'd come to an accommodation with the Kremlin to settle, you know, some of the grievances that he had when he staged this march on Moscow in June, and he probably thought that he was too valuable to the Kremlin to be disposed of.
I mean, he's got very significant operations through Wagner in countries, in Africa and elsewhere as well, operations that really do extend the Kremlin's influence into that continent into the Middle East as well.
And he may have just made the calculation that he was home and dry, and that Putin was not strong enough to act. But obviously this is a -- if it is state involvement , this would be a very strong message to the country.
COOPER: Yes. Matthew Chance, Clarissa Ward, thank you.
Coming up next, analysis of the Prigozhin plane crash video. What it may tell us about what happened and the CIA's former top Russia operations officer joins us for his take of Prigozhin's apparent demise.
COOPER: Welcome back. Airplanes in level flight at cruising altitude do not ordinarily just lose a wing and spiral to earth, as this one apparently did. In fact, there are very few ways of making a plane crash in the fashion this one did, that did not involve foul plane. Beyond the mechanics, there are means and motive, which we touched on before the break, two things that Vladimir Putin and others certainly had when it comes to Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner leadership.
Wanting (ph) to explore all three, we're joined now by CNN Aerospace Analyst and PBS NewsHour Science Correspondent Miles O'Brien, also CNN National Security Analyst Steve Hall, former Chief of Russia Operations for the CIA.
Steve, first of all, what was your reaction when you heard about this crash and that Prigozhin's name was on the passenger manifest?
STEVE HALL, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYS: Not a great deal of surprise, Anderson. I mean, I think a lot of Russian watchers have been saying, look, this is coming at some point. We didn't know exactly how or didn't know exactly when, but it was sort of -- I think people who are familiar with Putin and have been following him for a while realize that it's sort of -- it's not conceivable that Yevgeny Prigozhin could do what he did and get away with it unscathed.
This is a very strong message obviously to others who might be considering something similar to that. I think that's the most important thing. One of the reasons that Putin is probably pleased at seeing all the videos circulating. He wants to take that message to be understood very clearly by other Prigozhin wannabes I think.
COOPER: Miles, I know you've had a chance to see the video of the crash. I mean there's a couple of images -- there is images sort of early on, as the plane is going on, then there's some cloud cover and then it comes back. What stands out to you in it?
MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, it's coming down quickly in a spin, and it's trailing a lot of smoke. So, this is an aircraft that was on fire and it looks like some structural pieces, aerodynamic surfaces, were missing. There are some reports I've been reading that maybe some piece of the rear section, perhaps the vertical stabilizer or tail was missing. I think what you have to assume in this case is that an aircraft like this, as you pointed out, they don't -- just don't catastrophically drop out of the sky without something very unusual happening.
So, I would think that investigators in this case, to the extent that it will be investigated in Russia, will be looking at an explosion either inside the aircraft or outside it. Inside a bomb. Outside would be some kind of missile.
COOPER: Obviously, if there was a missile, Steve, would U.S. Intelligence or some ally intelligence service be able to pick that up?
HALL: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I'm sure there is -- I'm sure all allied western intelligence service is trying to figure out what the actual cause of this was. There's a lot of technical things that can be done to track missile launches and such. There's radio communications. There's all sorts of different ways to try to get it, how this happened and why this happened. But I think the target was two people here, not just Yevgeny Prigozhin and not just others who might be aspiring to him and to his goals, but also there's some deniability with the Russian people who have to (ph) remember Prigozhin was popular among some of the Russians at least, those we saw in (inaudible).
And so, there has to be some sort of explanation, pilot error or some sort of terrorist bomb, did the Ukrainians do it? Those are all possibilities. It will be interesting to see how the Kremlin decides to spin this one, Anderson.
COOPER: Miles, what about the plane that was involved, the Embraer Legacy 600?
O'BRIEN: It's got a flawless record really, Anderson. Back in 2009, it was -- a similar aircraft was involved in a midair collision over the Amazon. There was a -- really, it was a flight control miscommunication as much as anything. And the aircraft, having collided with a 737, the 737 crashed and this aircraft was able to land safely. So, it's a well-built aircraft for sure. No other accidents on record. And really no reason to believe that it was in any way flawed.
COOPER: Steve, in "The Godfather," big culminating moments always -- like things happen in groups. There is a community and a bunch of people are getting massacred at the same time. The fact that -- maybe I'm reading too much into this or seeing too many (inaudible) movies. But the fact that the Head of the Air Force who was an ally of Prigozhin and had been in charge of the war in Ukraine, and was accused of maybe colluding with the rebellion is suddenly fired on the same day that Prigozhin goes down. That certainly seems coincidental.
HALL: Yeah. And like so much inside of Russia, Anderson, the coincidences can rarely be written off as only that. Obviously, it's two months to the day since this mutiny was started out. And Putin is a guy who likes his anniversaries and the symbols that go with that. So, that's one thing that tracks (ph). Also other people, like these other generals and other contacts of Prigozhin's are now beginning, in close succession, to sort of meet if not their actual ends, their professional ends.
HALL: So, we're going to see how it plays out and how the -- and again, how the Putin -- how the Kremlin decides to message this inside of Russia. It would be fascinating to watch that.
COOPER: Yeah. Steve Hall and Miles O'Brien, thank you so much. Just ahead, Miles made reference to the investigation in Russia. Coming up next, more on how the crash is being investigated outside Russia. To Steve's point, how American intelligence and others are trying to get to the bottom of it.
COOPER: More now on President Biden's reaction to our breaking news, the plane crash and confirmed death of Wagner's Yevgeny Prigozhin. For that, plus reaction from the U.S. intelligence community, we're joined by our Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto and by our Senior White House Correspondent, Kayla Tausche, who is following the president in California and has some new reporting.
So Jim, what are you hearing from the U.S. intelligence tonight and how are they trying to determine what caused the crash and just making sure that he is actually dead?
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWS HOST: Well, first on the read of this apparent death of Prigozhin -- I've spoken to a number of western officials. And they say, much like President Biden said today, that nothing on this scale happens in Russia without the knowledge and approval of the Russian President Vladimir Putin, particularly when it involves someone who was such a close ally of his through the years, but also someone who two months ago to the day led a failed coup against the Russian president.
In addition, there has been a view among western intelligence for some time that Putin could emerge stronger in the time after this coup because it would give him an opportunity to smoke out, as it were, potential challengers. And that's why it's important -- and you were speaking about this in the last segment, Anderson -- to look at not just one but two events today, the loss of that aircraft, as you're watching it now fall to the ground, but also the removal from his position as Head of the Russian Aerospace Forces of General Sergey Surovikin.
To have both those events happen on the same day and you'll remember, Surovikin was rumored in Moscow to have been, if not involved, then at least quietly approving of Prigozhin's attempt at a coup two months ago. Those two moves today point to something that two western officials tell me could have been a message in their view, meant to scare anyone who might have challenged Putin in the past or would think about doing so in the future. That is the current western intelligence read of this.
COOPER: And Jim, Matthew Chance was pointing out to me, (inaudible) which I hadn't realized, which is that General who got fired today, he has not been seen since that
SCIUTTO: He very visibly disappeared, if that's a way of describing it, immediately following the coup. And Russian officials said he was resting, which was an almost comical explanation for why the man who led, for a time, your military operations in Ukraine would disappear suddenly.
So now, he's been officially removed from his role. And the view from the U.S. is that this is part of a campaign post-coup to get rid of anyone who challenged him or might challenge him.
COOPER: And Kayla, has the White House commented on this at all?
KAYLA TAUSCHE, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, the White House and the National Security Council stopping short of confirming the details of that plane crash and confirming Prigozhin's death. But, they're tracking the intelligence and wanting to make absolutely sure that they know all the details before they step out and do so. But President Biden had no problem today engaging on this topic. He stepped out in public in Lake Tahoe where he has been vacationing all week with his family, and he said this when asked by the press pool about those events.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JOE BIDEN, (D) PRESIDENT, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: I don't know for fact what happened. I am not surprised. There's not much that happens in Russia that Putin is not behind. I don't know enough to know the answer.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: Jim, what are your sources saying about what this crash means for Vladimir Putin?
TAUSCHE: The National Security Council with the official word from the administration
COOPER: Sorry, go ahead, Kayla.
TAUSCHE: The National Security Council, Anderson, had the official word out of the administration on this. They released a statement about four hours ago saying that while they still cannot confirm the reports that Russia's -- the disastrous war in Ukraine led to a private army marching on Moscow and now it would seem to this. But of course, they're alluding to the death of Prigozhin. They are alluding to these events being accurate, but not confirming them just yet.
COOPER: And Jim, what do you think this means for Putin?
SCIUTTO: It could mean that he's been able to consolidate his power and eliminate, for now, challenges to his power, the most visible one being of course Prigozhin, who had the nerve and the support it seemed to drive his forces within a couple hundred miles of Moscow on a highway and greeted, frankly, along the way with cheers and the apparent approval of folks along the way. That's the near term, though.
When you look at this longer term, with the progress or lack of progress for Russia in the war in Ukraine, there are genuine threats to his leadership. And there is no one I talked to who says that Putin is, you know, impregnable, untouchable forever. But at least in the wake of this, he may have taken advantage of an opportunity to consolidate his power.
COOPER: Yeah. Jim Sciutto, Kayla Tausche, thanks so much. CNN's coverage of tonight's first Republican presidential primary debate begins at 11:00 p.m. Eastern with my co-host Dana Bash. John King is going to be there as well. Up next, he will break down where each candidate stands ahead of tonight's faceoff.
COOPER: Tonight at 11 p.m. Eastern, Dana Bash and I will co-host CNN's coverage of tonight's first Republican presidential primary debate. Eight presidential hopefuls are preparing to facing off and attempt to emerge as the party's top alternative to the former president. CNN's Chief National Correspondent John King is going to be there as well with his analysis. He joins us now. Can you just start with who is going to be on stage tonight and where they stand right now on the polls?
JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So, these are the candidates other than Donald Trump that you will see in the first debate tonight, Anderson. Governor DeSantis and the entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy in the middle because they are leading the nationals polls. I'll get to that in a second. Also Governor Former Ambassador Nikki Haley, Senator Tim Scott, Governor Doug Burgum, Former Vice President Pence, Governor Chris Christie, Governor Hutchinson round up (ph) the field tonight.
Why is this the lineup on the stage? Well, it's because of national polls. And if you look at the average of national polls, Ron DeSantis leads among this group. Remember this group, not Donald Trump. He leads among this group with 17 percent nationally. That's not a very strong number but it is stronger than any of these other candidates in the national polls. Now, you pick nominees, delegates state by state. So these are important as they set the debate stage.
Well, let's look at the first two states. In Iowa, DeSantis still leads among this group. Again, no Donald Trump here. But you do see Ramaswamy at 4 percent, Pence does a little better in Iowa, Senator Scott doing a little better in Iowa. The other candidates -- tonight, Anderson, is about trying to improve these numbers. (Inaudible) let's also look into New Hampshire, which votes second. Again, DeSantis leads among this group. He is actually above 20 percent in the most recent poll. We will get to Trump in a minute. And you see the other candidates, all still struggling -- 8 percent, 5 percent, it's simply not good. So what are you trying to do tonight? For this group, first challenge is catch DeSantis, try to move up into "second place" in this race, try to create a buzz, especially on those early states.
COOPER: It -- I mean, it's really a race for second place right now?
KING: It is because the guy who is not on stage tonight is Donald Trump. And look at this national polling average. Again, Donald Trump at 57 percent. Ron DeSantis 40 points behind him -- 40 points behind him. When Trump says I am not debating these guys because they are not in my league, this is one of those rare cases where he passes the fact check. He is telling the truth when it comes to the polling numbers.
Donald Trump, in fact, if you look at it this way, we often have sentences with Trump and unprecedented, never happened before. We are going to talk about that in a legal context tomorrow again. Never has a man with this big of a lead, a candidate with this big of a lead in history at this point in the race been beaten. He is the faraway frontrunner. These other candidates tonight are trying to defy history, trying to defy logic, trying to defy math -- you pick the term. It's a longer than long shot to catch that.
COOPER: I mean, it's a crowded field. Do you see in the polls a sense of deja vu back to 2016?
KING: Absolutely. Deja vu but then also Trump is much more powerful. First, let's insert the caveats, right? There is long way to go, anything could happen. A lot of Trump legal drama tomorrow and in the months ahead could change this. There's another debate in a little more than a month. The Iowa Caucus is just of five months away. Super Tuesday, a lot of delegates at stake in early March, that's still 195 days away. So yes, a lot can change.
Yes, these candidates could strike gold or Trump could implode, if look at that. But look at this. Donald Trump was just beginning -- this was before the first Republican debate in 2016. Again, a crowded field. Donald Trump was essentially neck-and-neck with Jeb Bush. This was the very beginning of Donald Trump's hostile takeover of the Republican Party. Running against a field with considerable political experience, included past presidential campaigns. In the case of Governor Huckabee, he was only at 18 percent at this point in 2016.
Remember Anderson, he is at 57 percent now. So deja vu because of the crowded field. But Donald Trump starts in such a much stronger position, which makes him so much harder to beat. Again, can any of these candidates catch Donald Trump? Any of them catch Donald Trump? He is at 57 percent. The best he is 20-something in this poll. So yes, deja vu because the field is crowded, but that is just a wow number.
COOPER: That's incredible. And when is the next debate after this?
KING: At the end of September. You have 35 days to that one. That's the second debate. There are two more -- there are two more that haven't been formally planned or announced. There are two planned. You will get Iowa, you know, in this season in here, between Iowa, Super Tuesday in March. Remember, New Hampshire and Nevada vote in here. So there is time. There is events. There will be debates. Maybe Donald Trump will show up at one of them. He says he is not going to the debates, we will see. But again, if you are Donald Trump, the numbers are very much on your side right now.
COOPER: Yeah. John King, thanks so much. A reminder, coverage of tonight's Republican presidential primary debate begins on CNN at 11:00 p.m. Eastern. Coming up next, back to Russia and some interesting new video on the wake of today's suspicious plane crash.
COOPER: Before we go, take a look at this video outside the Wagner Group's office in St. Petersburg, Russia. A makeshift memorial for Yevgeny Prigozhin killed according to Russian authorities, along with other top Wager members, in a suspicious plane crash earlier today.
Supporters lit candles, left flowers and Wager insignia, some unfurling the banner