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Russian Soldier Sentenced To Life Imprisonment In War Crimes Trial; GA Governor's Race Sharpens Rivalry Between Trump & Pence; Report: Southern Baptist Leaders Mishandled Sex Abuse Allegations. Aired 11:30a-12p ET

Aired May 23, 2022 - 11:30   ET



BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Aid to Ukraine military, weapons to Ukraine, what the alliances and partners could do to support Ukraine's war -- defense against Russian aggression.

Now, a virtual meeting of 44 countries to carry it one step further, they began. We are told by talking about the situation on the ground.

As for Taiwan, fair to say they may well get questions about President Biden's statement that he would use the U.S. military if China invades Taiwan because up until today and that statement U.S. policy -- U.S. military policy has been a source of strategic ambiguity, never seen exactly what the U.S. military would do if China invades

Taiwan. Now, the president changing that up, and we will see what both these Pentagon leaders have to say about it, Kate.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN HOST: Barbara, it's great to see you. Thank you very much for that. Appreciate it. Joining me now for more on this is Democratic Congressman Adam Smith.

He is the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. It's good to have you here. I want to get to that statement in just a second but first, the latest that we're seeing out of Ukraine.

Today marks the first war crimes trial wrapping up in Ukraine and they're clearly -- we can expect there would be more to come.

But already we're hearing from Russia, they're now saying that Ukrainian prisoners of war that they have in Russia that they are going to face their own tribunals as they're holding them in Russia.

And I'm wondering, just your reaction to that and what you think this all means to the pursuit of real justice in this war?

REP. ADAM SMITH, (D-WA): Well, it's not surprising. I mean, this information warfare, trying to win the narrative is a huge part of it and Russia is going to try to do that.

They're going to try to justify their actions, even though there is no justification.


SMITH: And Ukraine has done an incredible job of showing the world exactly what's going on.

And this war crimes trial brings that home to humans -- the violations, the war crimes that were committed, as the Russians have pulled out. The civilians they've killed, the land that they've torched, the civilian targets that they've hit.

I think you're going to see that ongoing struggle to sort of control that narrative. Russia wants the world to sort of look away, Ukraine wants people to pay attention and help them.

BOLDUAN: Now the thing we're just learning today is CNN is now reporting that officials at both the Pentagon and the State Department, they're at least in the early planning stages are working up plans to potentially send over Special Forces troops to Kyiv to guard and defend the U.S. Embassy as it's just reopening there.

It's early on, the president hasn't been presented any plans, yet, of course, but do you think they should be sent in?

SMITH: Absolutely. And there's a crucial element to this too, for under logistics.


SMITH: I mean we've got over 40 countries that are helping supply Ukraine. And you know it's confusing to pull that together. And we got to make sure they get the right equipment, which I'd like to talk about as well.

But then how do you make sure that the logistics once it gets in the country, it gets to where it needs to go, and that the people using it are trained properly?

The British already have some forces in Ukraine helping with that, so I think that's part of the calculation of reopening the embassy, how can we better coordinate the aid we're sending to Ukraine to help make sure it gets where it needs to go.

BOLDUAN: But it's complicated, right?

SMITH: Yes. Oh, gosh, yes.

BOLDUAN: Because in doing so -- in doing so, do you accept or do you have to acknowledge that this isn't -- this is an escalation from President Biden's stated position of no U.S. military on the ground?

SMITH: Yes. But look, that's the risk and that's the balance that President Biden has been trying to strike from the very start.

We're going to help Ukraine to the greatest extent possible up and to the point where we are not going to go to war directly with Russia. And that's easy to say, but what's going to trigger it, what moves it there? BOLDUAN: Exactly.

SMITH: What's going to raise that escalation level? I think, thus far, we've struck that balance exactly right.

Now back to the equipment, as the war is now being focused to the east in the south, the type of artillery, you have the type of drones, you have secure communications, you know, a higher level of equipment is now needed to help the Ukrainians fight in where the fight is happening right now and we got to figure out how to get that to them.

BOLDUAN: You don't think we're providing that or you don't think it's making it there?

SMITH: A little bit of both. We are providing it.


SMITH: But we've got -- it's got to get better and better. Drones in particular, secure communications. Getting those systems in and making sure there'll be being used.

I think it's all along the chain, providing it getting it through, and then making sure that the Ukrainians know how to use it.

BOLDUAN: I do think it's significant, though hearing that you would like to see -- I mean, you'd like to see some presence of U.S. military in the country in order to defend an embassy and also guard the aid to make sure the aid is getting where it needs to go.

I think this is -- this is showing how this war has changed and has changed the position of the United States.

SMITH: Yes. Well, absolutely. It is -- one of our crucial goals in this war is to maintain a sovereign democratic Ukraine, OK?


SMITH: Ukraine -- Russia wants to pretend that Ukraine doesn't exist. We want to make it absolutely clear that they do.

Well, if it exists, we should have an embassy there. And if we have an embassy there, we have to be able to protect that embassy and we have to be able to work with the people around there to make sure that it is protected.

It's all part of making sure that Putin is not able to do what he wants to do, which is basically wipe Ukraine off the map. He's not succeeding to date but he has not changed in terms of that being his objective.


BOLDUAN: Right. He isn't ending the effort, yes.

SMITH: Exactly. BOLDUAN: What do you take from President Biden's statement saying that he would intervene militarily in Taiwan if China would invade?

SMITH: Well, I saw two things. First of all, the biggest thing we want to do is deter China from using a military option.

And that's always sort of been our position, one China, you can work it out, but you can't work it out through violence, all right, Kate? It's between China and Taiwan to figure out how they're going to do that.

But we're also going to support Taiwan, which we have, we've sold them weapons, we've provided some training to them over the years, long- standing policy to try to discourage China from using that military option. There's a lot of different things we can do there.

BOLDUAN: Does it sound like -- Biden said that today.

SMITH: No, he didn't, OK? He's sort of moved away from strategic ambiguity without question.

BOLDUAN: Are you OK with that?

SMITH: Yes, I don't think it's going to make that big a difference. It clearly states the deterrence. It doesn't act --

BOLDUAN: Does confusion help?

SMITH: Well, it's strategic ambiguity, OK? That's all.

BOLDUAN: The ambiguity about the ambiguity, does that help?

SMITH: Well, look, I mean, we don't want China to know exactly what they're facing. And this is a very difficult policy question whether or not we're going to commit troops.

We don't have to answer it. Look, at the end of the day, until it actually happens, you know, you can say whatever you want to say, but is it actually going to happen?

What's more important, in fact, it hasn't been that reported that widely is the economic cooperation agreement that came out of this, where, because if we're going to deter China, it can't just be us.

The whole region has got to present alternatives to China's oppressive approach to their bullying of the region.

So to pull those countries together, as President Biden is doing, that is one of the best utterances we can have so we don't have to opt we make that decision as to how much military we would commit.

BOLDUAN: It's good to see you, Mr. Chairman. Thanks for coming in.

SMITH: Thanks, Kate. Thanks for the chance.

BOLDUAN: Thank you very much. I really appreciate it. Coming up for us, Donald Trump and Mike Pence, the former president, and vice president looming large over the Georgia governor's race right now with primary day tomorrow in that key state.

What does this fight and this race mean for the Republican Party far beyond those state lines? That's next.



BOLDUAN: Voters heading to the polls tomorrow in five states, including Georgia where the governor's contest is getting a whole lot of attention, and for good reason.

Many voters have already voted but former President Donald Trump and his Vice President, Mike Pence, they're backing different candidates in the Republican primary there, and one of those Republicans, Governor Brian Kemp.

He's already turning his attention away from his Republican challenger, and on to the presumptive Democrats -- presumptive Democratic opponent Stacey Abrams.

CNN's, Eva McKend is live in Atlanta with more on this. Eva, what's the very latest?

EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: Well, Kate, Governor Kemp certainly appears to be confident going into Tuesday.

He mentioned Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams, at least, a half dozen times in a campaign event over the weekend.

His Trump endorsed opponent, his closest opponent, David Perdue, appears to have not really gained traction for a number of reasons.

But perhaps the more interesting story is the more than 800,000 voters that turned out in this state during the early vote period.

Now Republicans already seizing on this, saying that this is proof that the voting law signed into law by Governor Kemp was not as restrictive or as some have claimed a racist.

Well, I asked Stacey Abrams about this in an inclusive interview, and here's what she told me.

She said that. That we have to remember voter suppression isn't about stopping every voter.

It's about blocking and impeding those voters who are considered inconvenient. So, really sticking to her guns on this issue.

Meanwhile, just because she is running uncontested, doesn't mean that there isn't a lot of enthusiasm among Democratic voters in this state.

They are really eager to see a rematch of the 2018 race between Abrams and Kemp. Kate. BOLDUAN: Eva, thank you very much for that. Join me right now for more on this, is CNN's Jeff Zeleny also on the ground there.

So, Jeff, talk to me first about early voting turnout in Georgia. The Secretary of State is saying that this is like the biggest early voter turnout that they've seen than like ever before.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: It certainly is, Kate. I mean more than 850,000 early voting ballots here.

And more than half of those are Republican as Eva was just saying, and that is something that really changes the dynamic of this race going into Election Day tomorrow.

Perhaps it's not quite as comparable to other years because there's never been an election after a pandemic, which is really when early voting got started here in Georgia, you know it's been very popular in other parts of the country.

But more than 800,000 people, the majority of them going in in-person to vote, just a handful of them sending in their ballot so, so interesting now that even Republicans are changing their voting habits here in this very competitive race for Senate and governor.

BOLDUAN: And what do you make of what Stacey Abrams told-- also told Eva when it comes to what the turnout means in relation to the state's new voting law that she says -- you know, the Republicans are saying this is showing that the law is not restrictive.

She's saying that's not what this shows at all. Does this complicate things for Stacey Abrams as she is running very strongly on election integrity?


ZELENY: Look, I think it's a bit of a trial run if you will for Democrats because there were some specific elements of the law that were changed, many of them.

But one of the significant ones was no voting on the Sunday before Election Day.

That was classically a time when Democrats use the Sunday souls to the polls, if you will, to urge voters to go from hearing a sermon at church to voting. That is not allowed anymore.

So, Democrats are just organizing in different ways. But look, election integrity will clearly be a central issue of this campaign going forward in the governor's race here.

But, Kate, it's also been hanging over this race in a big way because of the 2020 election and of course, Donald Trump's involvement in this race.

BOLDUAN: Yes. I mean, looking at the -- at the Republican primary for Governor there, I mean, this could end up being Donald Trump's most significant loss of the entire primary season.

Republican voters not only potentially rejecting who he's endorsing, but also rejecting -- in doing so rejecting his election lie in Georgia, which is at the center of this campaign. What are you hearing about this?

ZELENY: Well, Kate, it's been so interesting talking to voters here. In one breath, they can say, look, I liked Donald Trump as president, I might even support him again.

In the second breath, they're saying, I am not going to follow his lead here and a vote for David Perdue, who is the former president's backing, he said, we are going to stick with Governor Brian Kemp.

That is why he is leading significantly in the polls.

And this isn't just a smattering of voters. Virtually, every Republican voter we've spoken to here in recent days has said that, yes, they are fine with the former president, but they do not think he should be really sticking his nose into Georgia and they're going their own way.

And we've seen that in other races as well. You know there's no doubt that Georgia has been the object of Donald Trump's obsession, really for a year and a half.

And tomorrow if this election ends up as it seems to be, it is going to be a big rejection of him.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that voters are rejecting Donald Trump in the future. They're just rejecting now and in the past. They want to move on from 2020.

BOLDUAN: Yes. And it's also now pitting his vice president against President Donald -- former President Donald Trump, much more to discuss. It's good to see you, Jeff.

Thank you very much. Coming up for us. The sexual abuse investigation is shocking the country's largest Protestant denomination. We have details on this in a live report. That's next.



BOLDUAN: New this morning, an explosive new report showing leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, mishandled allegations of sexual abuse for decades.

CNN's Carlos Suarez has more on this. He joins us now. Carlos, what are you learning?

CARLOS SUAREZ, CNN REPORTER: Kate, good morning. That 288-page report outlined how leaders mishandled allegations, intimidated victims, and blocked any attempts to change. Now among the more damning revelations is that for more than a decade,

staffers kept the list of ministers accused of abuse, but did not remove them from their position.

That's a decision that led one priest to warn that senior leaders could be "falling into the same pattern as Catholic leaders and not dealing with clergy sex abuse."

Now, members, they called for the investigation last year. After stories of abuse, they came to light.

Now the report from 2000 to 2021 found 703 abusers, 409 affiliated with SBC at some point, nine people accused of abuse remained active in the ministry, and victims were considered "opportunistic with an agenda or professional victims."

Former SBC President Johnny Hunt, he is named in the report. Investigator said that an allegation that he sexually assaulted the wife of a fellow pastor back in 2010 was "credible." Now he's denied ever abusing anybody.

In a statement, the Southern Baptist Convention said in part, "we are committed to doing all we can to prevent future instances of sexual abuse in churches, to improve -- to improve our response and our care to remove reporting roadblocks."

Seniors -- leaders will take up the report tomorrow, including whether to adopt reforms listed in the report, including the creation of a database to track offenders and changing how non-disclosure agreements are handled, Kate.

BOLDUAN: So much more to come. Carlos, thank you for that. Now to a CNN exclusive. In his first interview since returning home, former Marine Trevor Reed says that he wouldn't allow himself to feel hopeful about being released from a Russian prison even as he was getting on the plane to head home.

Reed was released in a prisoner swap on April 27 that the -- after 985 days behind bars. Here's how he describes his time in Russian custody to CNN's Jake Tapper.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: What was the worst conditions that you -- that you had that you experienced during that time?

TREVOR REED, DETAINED IN RUSSIA FOR 985 DAYS: The psychiatric treatment facility, I was in there with seven other prisoners in the South. They all had severe serious psychological health issues.

Most of them, so over 50 percent of them in that cell were in there for murder, or like multiple murders, sexual assault, and murder, just really disturbed individuals and inside of that cell you know, that was not a good place.

There's blood all over the walls there, where prisoners had killed themselves or killed other prisoners or attempted to do that.


REED: The toilets just a hole in the floor and there's you know, crap everywhere all over the floor, on the walls. There's -- people in there also that walk around they look like zombies. There's --

TAPPER: Were you afraid of your life?

REEF: I mean, I did not sleep there for a couple of days. So I was too worried about you know who was in the cell with me to actually sleep.

TAPPER: You thought they might kill you?

REED: Yes. That's a -- that was a possibility.


BOLDUAN: Yes. Reed says that he now plans to spend his time fighting for the return of other Americans being wrongfully detained overseas.

Thank you all so much for being with us AT THIS HOUR. I'm Kate Bolduan. INSIDE POLITICS with John King starts after this break.