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At This Hour

"Nonstop" Shelling by Russians at Mariupol Steel Plant; NYC Raises COVID-19 Risk Level with Surge in Cases, Hospitalizations. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired May 05, 2022 - 11:00   ET

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


ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, everyone. I'm Erica Hill in for Kate Bolduan.

We begin with big developments on the war in Ukraine. At this hour, a fierce battle is raging inside Mariupol's steel plant after Russian forces breached the compound. An officials there say, quote, if there is hell in this world, it is in Azovstal.

Now, Russia claims it will open humanitarian corridors for civilians to evacuate the plant, but the reality here is the Russians have repeatedly fired on those humanitarian corridors for civilians to evacuate the plant that the reality here, the Russians have repeatedly fired on those corridors.

[11:00:08]

Elsewhere, Ukraine says Russian troops have had no success breaking through the front lines in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

Despite all of this, Russia continues its relentless attacks on Ukraine's infrastructure, blowing up a bridge in Dnipro, hitting a whale wave (ph) with a missile strike. Let's begin our coverage this hour with CNN's Scott McLean, who is live in Lviv.

Scott, what is the latest at this hour, in terms of the fighting at the steel plant in Mariupol?

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Erica, yes. So things are not looking good for the civilians that are trapped inside there. We know that there could be potentially hundreds of them, including 30 children.

We know that yesterday Russians have offered somewhat of an olive branch saying that today, tomorrow and Saturday they would allow civilians to escape from the plant through humanitarian corridors. And they could go in any direction they wanted.

Either toward Russia, as some people have chosen, or more likely, back toward Ukrainian territory, as well. But we have just heard from a deputy commander of the Azov Regiment, that is the part of the Ukrainian military that is leading the fighting from that plant, who says that the Russians have not kept their end of the bargain when it comes to that cease-fire that they had promised. And there are no signs at this point that any civilians have been able

to make it out of the plant.

That deputy commander says that the heavy -- the fighting has been incredibly heavy in that area and that Russian troops have tried to storm for a third straight day, tried to storm the plant on the ground, something that Russia vehemently denies.

Now Erica, if you look at any TV channel in this country, you will see a QR code on the screen. That is soliciting donations for the Ukrainian military and the Ukrainian war effort more broadly.

Now President Zelenskyy, though, in an effort to get more funds, is appealing to the broader international community, saying that this is not just Ukraine's fight but a fight for freedom and democracy. He's launched a brand-new fundraising platform called United 24. Here's his pitch.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT: This fund-raising platform is a part of Global United 24 initiative that has been launched to support Ukraine. Here, in one click, you can donate funds to protect our defenders, to save our civilians and to rebuild Ukraine.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MCLEAN: Now I am certain that there are going to be skeptics, who will look at Ukraine's not-so-great record when it comes to corruption. It has been endemic in the country, really hampering economic growth here.

Zelenskyy, though, was elected in part on a platform to try to clean up that corruption. And he is promising that this platform will give donors transparency as to where exactly their money is going, Erica.

HILL: It's certainly an interesting approach. Scott McLean, appreciate it. Thank you.

Well, the White House is disputing a report in "The New York Times," which claims U.S. intelligence is helping Ukraine kill at least a dozen Russian generals. CNN's Barbara Starr is live at the Pentagon for us.

Barbara, what more do we know about the type of intel that's being shared with Ukraine and how it's being used?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, the administration is very clear in saying that it is not providing specific intelligence to kill specific Russian generals.

And in a statement, I want to read to everybody, in part, the White House said, and I quote, "The United States provides battlefield intelligence to help the Ukrainians defend their country.

"We do not provide intelligence with the intent to kill Russian generals."

Now what we do know is that the Pentagon has really opened the aperture to increase intelligence available to the Ukrainians. And I think another important point is to listen to what the Joint Chiefs chairman had to say about this earlier this week.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEN. MARK MILLEY, CHAIRMAN, U.S. JOINT CHIEFS: We have opened up the pipes, which I'm not going to go into detail here in an open hearing. But there's a significant amount of intelligence flowing to Ukraine from the United States.

All of that in combination and many, many more are some of the early lessons learned that have made the difference, is what you've seen.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STARR: So what we know is, for example, satellite imagery. We've all seen, for weeks now, a great amount of commercial satellite imagery that is available. Military satellite imagery, intercepts of communications are widely understood to be something that the U.S. looks at and, if appropriate, provides that intelligence information to the Ukrainians.

But adamant not to kill specific Russian generals. Erica.

HILL: Barbara Starr, appreciate it. Thank you.

Joining me now to discuss, CNN military analyst, retired Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton and CNN global affairs analyst, Kimberly Dozier.

Good to see both of you this morning.

Kim, when we hear and Barbara laid out for us there, the White House pushing back on the specific claim that U.S. intel is targeting U.S. generals, is that more in terms of further escalating tensions with Russia and Putin?

[11:05:00]

KIMBERLY DOZIER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Absolutely. The Biden administration doesn't want to make this anymore personal when Vladimir Putin is already portraying it, as he has for years, as all of this being part of U.S. efforts to unseat him.

However, there is some significant intelligence sharing that's happened since the opening days of the war. And it's only increased, as Barbara's reporting indicates.

I've also spoken to a senior U.S. official, who explained they've gotten the kind of information to the Ukrainians that's either helped point the Ukrainians toward something that they hadn't noticed yet or has helped Ukrainians map their own intelligence and made their battlefield attacks that much more precise. And this official said they've gotten that information very quickly on

a consistent basis, all the way to the very front lines.

So could it be used to take out a Russian general, if U.S. intelligence helped pinpoint where a Russian headquarters had moved on the battlefield?

Sure. But that's not specifically saying that this commander is here or there, go get him.

HILL: Right. So it's not -- it's not quite, Colonel, quite as pointed, as Kim just pointed out, as saying, this person is here, go get them.

But the U.S. is not exactly shying away from him. We just heard from General Milley, saying, the pipes are open. We know it's happening.

Give us a sense, based on your experience, what is this like behind the scenes?

And how is this different from perhaps intel sharing that's happened in the past?

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, that's a great question, Erica.

The basic way in which we've done this has actually gone back in as far as the '90s, the early '90s, when we went after the Colombian drug lords, like Pablo Escobar. U.S. intel was used to help the Colombians find him and, then of course, they killed him in a very infamous battle there in Medellin in Colombia.

So when we did that, that then set the stage for the work that we ended up doing in Afghanistan and Iraq. And it was developed as part of a program to go after high-value targets or HVTs.

But you know, as Kimberly properly mentions, this is something that is not -- you know, when we share this intelligence with other countries, a lot of those details are often left out.

And while we have the capability to go after individuals in this particular case, the administration clearly wants to make sure that people understand that we're not doing it.

We're giving them military targets, we're giving them to understand that there's a command post at a certain location, perhaps, or that it's moved from location A to location B. Those are the kind of things that we would be sharing with the Ukrainians and that's how this moves forward.

And the fact that it's in near-real time allows the Ukrainians to rapidly ramp up their targeting process and then, of course, give orders to fire on those particular targets.

HILL: Stick with me for a moment, if I could, if we look at what's happening in Mariupol, which Scott laid out for us just a few minutes ago. I know you said it looks like it could be seeing the end of this battle, with Russia being victorious.

If Russia takes Mariupol, where do they go next?

LEIGHTON: So Erica, this might be a pyrrhic victory for the Russians. They're looking at taking Mariupol and creating that land bridge that we've talked about between Crimea and the Donbas and into Russia.

That will all probably happen. But the valiant defense of Mariupol by the Ukrainians will serve as a rallying cry both diplomatically and militarily for the Ukrainians. And that's one of those intangibles that's going to be very hard for the Russians to combat on the battlefield.

And once they're done, the Russians will want to pivot. They'll want to move their forces from Mariupol to the north, toward the Donbas area and specifically to the Ukrainian army elements that are facing them in that part of the Donbas.

So what they could be doing is they could move those forces from the south into the center part of the country, to join with forces that they have coming from the north and the northeast. So that would be the goal on paper; whether or not they can actually do that, of course, is another question.

HILL: So much of what we will learn about what happened won't be learned immediately, right, especially when we look at Bucha as an example. We didn't know the extent of what had happened there until Russian forces had left.

And we learned about the atrocities there. There is certainly much to be learned about the horrors that have happened in Mariupol over the last several weeks.

Kim, when do you think we'll actually know the extent of that?

DOZIER: The fact is that that territory is in Russian control, largely. The Mariupol plant operation is just --

[11:10:00]

DOZIER: -- for them, it's a mopping-up operation, it's a continuing embarrassment that the messages keep coming out of there. It's a reminder that they haven't been able to take that last patch of territory.

But in a realpolitik way, it is also an opportunity lost for Vladimir Putin. Had he honored those requests to allow a true humanitarian corridor, organized by the International Red Cross and others, to get those civilians out and even allowed the wounded and some of the fighters to leave, it would have been a possible PR victory for him and a way to push back and say, yes, we are behaving in a humane way on this battlefield, contrary to all the accusations that the U.S. and the Ukrainians have been leveling at us.

But they didn't take that path. They took the path of total destruction. And we will hear from people inside. But who knows when we'll know what actually happened in a way that other people outside of Ukraine would believe it, people that might not necessarily believe the U.S. or the Ukraine narrative.

HILL: And that's where the documentation we've been hearing so much about from the prosecutors working on these war crimes cases will be key.

Kim Dozier, Col. Cedric Leighton, always appreciate your insight. Thank you both.

Coming up here, New York facing a new surge in COVID cases and hospitalizations, prompting officials to raise the risk level. The city's health commissioner joins me next.

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[11:15:00]

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HILL: Turning now to the pandemic, the new Omicron subvariant is spreading rapidly in the U.S. In New York, COVID hospitalizations have more than doubled in the last month amid a surge in cases. The troubling increase is leading New York City to raise its COVID risk level this weak.

Joining me now is New York City health commissioner, Dr. Ashwin Vasan.

Great to have you with us. So when we look at where we're at now, in addition to raising the alert level here in the city, I know you're also recommending that people start masking indoors again.

Do you envision bringing back an indoor mask mandate in New York City?

DR. ASHWIN VASAN, NEW YORK CITY HEALTH COMMISSIONER: Right now is the time, as we've moved into medium risk, where we're really encouraging New Yorkers to take more additional steps and use the myriad tools that we have to manage their own risks and also to manage the risk of those around them.

Because the choices we make, as ever with this pandemic, the choices we make are not just about us. They're about protecting others that you may not even know and those who are in the same spaces with you.

That includes vaccines and boosters, frequent testing. We're here today because we got rapid testing before the show. Treatment, which is why the acceptable (ph) at a scale that we haven't seen in prior waves and, of course, masks. So we're always looking at our policies and seeing when we may want to bring back citywide policies.

But now is not that time.

HILL: So you don't -- so just to nail you down on that one, you don't see a mask mandate coming back? (CROSSTALK)

HILL: But it could --

VASAN: At this moment --

HILL: -- at this moment it wouldn't.

VASAN: At this moment we're not considering that but if the data moves in directions that are not encouraging, then we'll -- all of those options are on the table.

HILL: You stress vaccines, boosters, right?

If you're eligible still for either, you recommend going to get those.

Do you think New York City got rid of its vaccine requirement too soon?

VASAN: I think this has always been a balancing act. And as Dr. Fauci said, we're in this transitional phase between epidemic, pandemic; emergency response and endemicity, or living with it in seasonal or other pattern.

And in that transitional phase it's crucial for us to get back to our lives and reopen our economy and as someone who cares about mental health, social connection and reconnecting with our loved ones is so critical.

And so, you know, I think those are hard decisions to make. And to the extent that those opened up, those decisions helped us open up the economy faster, I think they were good decisions. I think if data shows us that things are moving in a different direction, we'll reconsider those decisions.

HILL: How hard do you think it will be to go back?

VASAN: I think this whole two years has been hard. There's a lot of "Groundhog Day" for all of us, myself included. And I think, as the mayor says, this virus is a formidable opponent and constantly throws us curve balls. So we have to, as a policy position, be ready to pivot and shift.

HILL: You mention the importance of testing and New York City has said testing will remain free, vaccines will remain free.

But without that money coming from the federal government, how do you do that?

Where does that money come from?

VASAN: We are blessed that we have been able to mount one of the strongest testing and vaccination campaigns and now treatment programs in the country. And it's truly a testament to a collective effort, led by public health, our public health care system, and all of the different health actors in the city. But the federal government has been such an essential partner in that

to date. And, you know, we are concerned. We're definitely concerned about particularly, as I talked about, what this virus might throw at us in the future.

If we are saying that we are no longer going to pay for this out of Washington and that Congress is questioning whether they should be supporting municipalities, we are at risk of putting our COVID response and sort of hindering our COVID response but also baking in some of those inequities that we've seen throughout the pandemic.

HILL: So then, is the reality that, given the funding issue, New York City may not be able to continue to guarantee free testing and free vaccinations.

VASAN: I think at this point, we are not saying that. I think at this point we're in a good shape with our public health care system. We have a robust safety net health care system for underinsured or uninsured people.

[11:20:00]

VASAN: And we've got a great public health agency and assets. But, again, if we don't know what this virus is going to throw at us. And we have been really thankful and reliant on those federal assets. And we would like to see them continue.

HILL: I do want to get you, before we let you go, earlier this week you said in a statement, New York City would continue to be a safe haven for those who need abortion and reproductive health services. This is similar to what we heard from Governor Hochul in a statement as well.

When you say a safe haven, what does that actually mean?

Does that mean that medical services, reproductive services, including potentially abortions, will be available?

Will they be free of charge?

Does this mean you're taking care of transportation, of accommodations?

What does a safe haven mean in New York City?

VASAN: I think, first and foremost, reproductive rights, women's rights, the rights of pregnant people to make decisions about their health care and their bodies, is foundational to public health. And we believe in that here in New York City and in New York State and everyone is welcome here to receive that care.

The steps we need to take to ensure that are ones that we're thinking through right now, in terms of access to care, quality of care, subsidizing care. These are all questions that we're now wrestling with in the aftermath of this disturbing announcement.

HILL: So those answers to come, still trying to figure that out?

VASAN: Yes, this just broke. But we're prepared. Everyone is welcome in New York.

HILL: OK. Good to have you with us today.

VASAN: Thank you. Appreciate you.

HILL: Still to come here, the White House pushing back on a new report that U.S. intelligence is helping Ukraine to kill Russian generals. House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff joins me next.

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[11:25:00]

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HILL: Developing right now, U.S. markets, as you see on the screen there, tumbling in a big way at this hour, as Wall Street reacts to the Federal Reserve, raising interest rates by the highest level in more than two decades. So the impact of this hike, impacting every American. CNN's Matt Egan joining me now with more.

Matt, what should we read into this. This looks like really big tumbles. Put it in perspective for us.

MATT EGAN, CNN BUSINESS SENIOR WRITER: Erica, this clearly is some significant turbulence on Wall Street. As you mentioned, U.S. stocks down very sharply, basically at session lows, as we speak.

But we've got to keep in mind, this comes after a really big rally just yesterday, the Dow closed up more than 900 points, 2.8 percent. The S&P 500 was up about 3 percent. It was the market's best day in just about two years.

And the fact that markets are back down, I think, really just underscores the enormous uncertainty facing the U.S. and the world economy right now. We're dealing with a period of very high inflation. The jobs market is really strong but it's arguably overheating.

And so the Federal Reserve is coming in. They're acting like the firefighters. They're trying to put out this inflation fire by slowing the economy down. They're raising interest rates.

And so investors initially were very happy yesterday, because the chairman of the Fed, Jerome Powell, he signaled that the Fed is probably not going to do even bigger rate increases. He sort of downplayed the possibility of a three-quarters of a point rate hike. Markets were happy about that.

But I think some of the reality is setting in here. The Fed is still going to be raising interest rates. And there's no guarantee, Erica, that the Fed is going to be able to get inflation under control without causing a recession in the United States. So there's just a lot of uncertainty right now.

HILL: That's the big fear, right?

What type of -- you know, if and when that recession is triggered and what it looks like. Really quickly, Matt, we're watching all of this while also waiting for a new jobs report tomorrow.

EGAN: So the jobs market continues to be a really, really big bright spot for the economy. And we are expecting that the unemployment rate is going to tick down even further. We could see a new COVID low for unemployment, another steady increase in hiring.

I think the question, though, is, what happens when the Fed continues to raise interest rates, how much is that going to slow down the jobs market?

And how long does it take until inflation gets down to healthier levels?

So that's what everybody is wondering about right now, Erica.

HILL: As you point out, all of that uncertainty. Matt Egan, appreciate it.

The man who attacked Dave Chappelle is expected to appear in a Los Angeles courtroom as the comedian is speaking out about what happened. We've got details in a live report next.

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