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At This Hour

U.S. Warns China Against Providing Weapons To Russia; Energy Dept. Says Chinese Lab Leak Likely Caused Pandemic; Ukraine Says It Repelled 81 Russian Attacks In East In Last 24 Hours; Tornado Outbreak Devastates Homes In Oklahoma; GOP To Investigate W.H. Response Of Ohio Topic Train Derailment. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired February 27, 2023 - 11:00   ET



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We firmly believe if you can see it, then you can achieve it. And these young men and women worked super hard day in and day out just because of that, because they know that there's very little representation out there.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Quite a moment for them. Congratulations, Howard. And thanks so much for all of you for joining us today. I'm Jim Sciutto. "AT THIS HOUR" with Kate Bolduan starts right now.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone, AT THIS HOUR, don't cross the line from the White House to the CIA, the new warnings to China, about helping Russia in Ukraine. Plus, Oklahoma just getting hammered by a series of tornadoes. People there are getting a first look at just how bad these storms were.

And a major decision on abortion rights could come today. And the impact could be immediate, and it could be nationwide. This is what we're watching at this hour.

Thank you so much for being here. I'm Kate Bolduan. The concern over China and its intentions in Ukraine are growing really by the hour. First, there was the intelligence assessment that China is considering providing lethal support like weapons to Russia for its unprovoked war on Ukraine. Now President Biden's National Security Adviser tells CNN there will be, quote, real costs if Beijing follows through.

As the latest U.S. intelligence suggests that China is strongly considering sending drones and ammunition to Russia for its war in Ukraine. But adding also the caveat that a final decision has not yet been made. This comes as Russia is launching new attacks throughout Ukraine. In just last 24 hours, Ukraine says that it is repelled 81 Russian attacks from the air.

Let's start with M.J. Lee, who's live at the White House for us at this hour. M.J., what is and isn't the White House saying about this latest assessment?

M.J. LEE, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate, the administration is openly warning that China is considering providing lethal aid to Russia in its war against Ukraine, we're talking about things like drones and weaponry and ammunition. While China according to U.S. officials has not made a final decision on whether to go down this path.

What we're learning is that conversations between China and Russia are ongoing, and that China at this moment in time does appear to be leaning towards going down this path. Now it is not a coincidence that we are hearing U.S. officials sort of publicly making these warnings.

And the hope right now is that by doing that, that the U.S. can try to deter Beijing from going down this route. Because of course, going down this route would be hugely consequential not only for us China relations, but also could mark a major escalation in this war on Ukraine.

Now, this is what National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on CNN over the weekend about what exactly is at stake if Beijing were to do this. Take a listen.


JAKE SULLIVAN, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Beijing will have to make its own decisions about how it proceeds whether it provides military assistance. But if it goes down that road, it will come at real cost to China. And I think China's leaders are weighing that as they make their decisions.


LEE: Now CIA Director Bill Burns also said emphatically that the U.S. is confident that China is currently considering this. But what U.S. officials haven't been as clear on what they haven't said with very much detail really is when this decision might be made by Beijing, and also what that real cost might exactly be.

But what U.S. officials have said is that they have through private channels made clear to Beijing what those real costs would be. Obviously just very hard to overstate what a dramatic effect this could potentially have on U.S.-China relations. And again, just on the war in general too, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. M.J., thank you so much for starting us off.

There's also this from China. The nation is disputing a new intelligence report from the U.S. Energy Department which assess that the COVID-19 virus first escaped from a lab in Wuhan. This has been called, of course, the lab leak theory. That CNN has also learned that the department only has what is -- what its labeling is low confidence in this -- in the findings which adds to the divisions that we've long heard of within the intelligence community over the origins of the pandemic.

Natasha Bertrand has this great reporting for us. She's joining me now. Natasha, what prompted this Energy Department assessment now? NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Yes, Kate. So essentially, the intelligence community has been investigating the origins of COVID-19 for a few years now. And they developed enough new information where they felt that they could brief Congress and included in that brief that they provided to lawmakers recently was this new assessment by the Department of Energy that said that it is the most likely explanation in their opinion that the virus did leak from a lab.

But what we don't know at this point is what new intelligence the Energy Department actually gleaned, to make them lean more toward to this theory.


Then we should note of course as you did that the assessment that they provided is low competence, meaning, that while they believe that this is the most likely explanation for how this virus originated, they don't necessarily have enough intelligence to draw that conclusion definitively and make a more high confidence judgment.

So right now, what we're seeing obviously is an ongoing divide within the intelligence community about the most likely origin of this pandemic. Now, I should note that the lab leak theory is still the minority view. The Department of Energy and the FBI both assess with low and medium competence, respectively, that the lab leak theory is the likely explanation here.

But without more cooperation from Beijing without access to that site, itself on the ground there, it is going to be very difficult for the U.S. and the world really to ever have a definitive explanation for how this pandemic began, Kate.

BOLDUAN: It's a great point, Natasha, thank you.

Joining me now for more on this and much more, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Republican Congressman Michael McCaul. Mr. Chairman, thanks for coming in. I want to ask you about Wuhan, about this new reporting. But first, let's talk about Ukraine.

The President's National Security Adviser said on CNN yesterday that if China provides lethal support to Russia, the White House has made clear privately what the consequences would be. Do you know what the consequences would be?

REP. MICHAEL MCCAUL (R-TX): I don't, but they should be very stern, strong consequences. We're talking about now something going from an alliance which was in alliance buying energy to now potentially putting not only drones, but other lethal weapons into the Ukraine conflict. This crosses the red line in my judgment. And I think all options should be on the table. I think sanctions would be an obvious easy one.

But I would urge the administration put all the options on there. This is a serious departure from where we've been in this conflict. I've been worried about this for quite some time, because China has been so supportive of Russia in this -- in Ukraine.

BOLDUAN: Mr. Chairman, we've heard, you know, consequences will be coming sanctions, of course, as you mentioned, is the first thing that comes to mind. But when you call a red line, this seems to be a real -- this seems to be a moment if China does decide to provide these weapons. But you have to also take into consideration you're dealing with Russia and you're dealing with China, what could the consequences be beyond sanctions that you think would be appropriate?

MCCAUL: Yes. Well, again, I think cutting off semiconductor chips would really bring both China and Russia to their knees, they wouldn't be able to manufacture these arms, the equipment. And I think that would be a very wise for sanctions to be looking at but making making sure we enforce them and enforce secondary sanctions, you know, on them.

You know, beyond that, you're talking about a military conflict. I don't think anybody right now wants to get into a full fledge war with China and Russia. But it just reminds the American people who may think that Communist China is bad, but somehow Putin and Russia get it passed. I think it reminds the American people, they are in this together. And they have been since day one since the Olympics.

And in fact, the 2017, Chairman Xi called Putin his best friend. So the idea that they're not in this together is just -- it's just wrong assessment of the situation. We have four nation adversary states now, Russia, China, Iran is in there as well and North Korea. These four are all lined up against the West, and freedom and democracy. And that's how I see the now what has become a struggle for the global balance of power.

BOLDUAN: And with that in mind, let me ask you this. The President, President Biden now says that he's ruling out for now sending F-16 to Ukraine. Jake Sullivan reinforced that on CNN speaking to Dana Bash, saying that it's a question for a later time is how he put it to Dana. Why do you think Biden's a no on sending F-16 for now?

MCCAUL: You know, it's always a question for later. They've dragged this thing out, such that we've been in this thing for a year and it didn't have to be this way. You know, they say as long as it takes to give them the right weapon systems, it shouldn't have to take that long. And what do I mean by that, they waited on stingers and javelins, then the short-range artillery HIMARS.

And now the longer-range artillery that can reach the Iranian drones and Crimea are being held back because, oh, it's too provocative. Oh, it could escalate. It uses the same delivery system as a HIMARS, by the way. And then the aviation whether it's F-16 or any other aviation equipment that Ukraine desperately needs, could be a real game changer at a critical time in this conflict when the Russians are actually going on the offensive right now as I speak.

This is a time we need to arm Ukraine to the force. And many high level generals have told me this privately that they would wish the administration would move forward on this and not backwards.


I just got back from the region, I saw the Ukrainians being trained on the leopard tanks and Abram tanks that will go into theater soon, at least the leopards within two weeks that I hope will have a great role in this counter offensive. But in the meantime, they need more than just that. And we can do that if we had the will to do it.

BOLDUAN: Your office has said that you plan to hold a hearing or hearings this spring on Russia's alleged war crimes. I heard that with great interest as I've been following, you know, we've all been following the thousands of alleged war crimes that have been committed by Russia in Ukraine. What do you hope comes from it?

MCCAUL: I just want the American people to see what I've seen. I don't think they have. I just got back from Bucha with the Prosecutor General, with the mayor of Bucha, I met with victims whose loved ones were killed. Civilians killed in cold blood hands tied behind their back, executed children who were burned alive.

People buried really in shallow graves with their hands sticking out of the ground. Horrific stuff. Mobile crematoriums taking children from villages and and exporting them to Russia, where they're then indoctrinated in violation of the Geneva Convention, all these crimes against humanity.

And I would argue, in some cases, genocide are in fact taking place. And the American people haven't seen it. I think they need to understand what's at stake in Ukraine, and why this is so important that we are facing evil in Ukraine, and evil must be fought and destroyed. And that is Putin, when he's committed these crimes.

And Kate, we've only scratched the surface here. Once Mariupol, that's the town more to the south. Once we get in there, and it's deliberate, then we find out what happened there. I think it's going to be far worse than what I saw just a couple of days ago in Bucha.

BOLDUAN: Which is terrifying to think that that's scratching the surface. Finally, on this new intelligence report from the Department of Energy that Natasha Bertrand was talking about, saying that the that most likely though with low confidence, the COVID pandemic started from an accidental leak -- lab leak in China, I know that you -- this is something you've been talking about for some time. You agree with that assessment, you said last night that China needs to be held accountable for this. How, Mr. Chairman?

MCCAUL: Well, first of all, we need to stop using NIH dollars and experiments in Wuhan at this lab. And I think the people involved in this in the genetic modification or gain of function, if you will, should be held accountable for what they did which possibly could have been done with U.S. taxpayer dollars.

My report came out over a year ago, the origins of COVID-19, and we found from a preponderance of the evidence it did happen, you know. You know, is it true we translated into Mandarin and got it through the Chinese firewall into mainland China, it went viral, because they're most concerned about their own people knowing the truth about what is happening.

And then I had the foreign minister of China publicly denouncing me in my report. I think they know what happened. And it started all that September before the February announcement that it was international. And I do believe because it was at a level two facility, not level four, level two is very low-grade security, that it did leak out as they're trying to create this monster in the virus with an eye towards creating a vaccine.

BOLDUAN: How should the United States respond? How should they be held accountable?

MCCAUL: I think there are several ways. I -- you know, you can go back to sanctions, you can get back to holding them with reparations for killing millions of people across the world. And we certainly need to cut off any ties between the United States in this type of research in China, which led to the problem in the first place.

And I think some people need to be held accountable, whether that be in a civil context or criminal liability context. What they did resulted in unleashing, you know, again, a monster out of a tube of a virus out of this experiment that went around the world and killed millions of people for the last several years. I think somebody needs to be held accountable for that.

BOLDUAN: Mr. Chairman, thank you for coming on.

MCCAUL: Thanks, Kate. Thanks for having me.

BOLDUAN: Thank you.

A system of severe storms just ripping through the central United States overnight. Multiple tornadoes touching down. We have an update on the damage live from Oklahoma. We'll take you there next.



BOLDUAN: It was really a terrifying 24 hours for millions of Americans, at least seven tornadoes tearing through Oklahoma overnight. You can see just some of the damage here. Homes ripped to shreds, cars tossed around, at least a dozen people were injured in this. And officials just gave an update on how things are looking at first light.

Ed Lavandera is live for us in Norman, Oklahoma with the very latest. Ed, what have you been seeing?


ED LAVANDERA, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well it's really -- so in the areas that were hit by this particular tornado here in Norman, Oklahoma, very, you know, really tell just how ferocious this storm was as it came through here. Watch the the impact from debris flying around hitting this windshield. This particular home here essentially shifted by the winds, and that caused everything to kind of collapse. So you see a wall coming out here to this side, the front garage, kind of shifting and falling on itself as well. That is pretty dramatic.

But then, you know, as you often see in these types of hurricanes, houses across the street, left basically intact, some roof damage and that sort of thing. But it really is amazing that only through this wicked line of storms that came through Oklahoma Sunday night, were winds in some places are really what we kept seeing over and over. 7,580 mile an hour sustained winds in all of this area that there was more injuries and even fatalities.

As you mentioned, 12 people injured, no fatalities been reported. And that obviously goes in long part is the amount of warning that so many people got throughout the day because this line of storms was expected to develop and it really kind of developed the way many of the forecasters were saying it was going to develop.

So that really helped people protect themselves. But we spoke with one woman, a 10th grade geometry teacher who said she was home alone when the storm struck.


TABITHA HEATON, HOME DAMAGED BY TORNADO: I'd went to Walmart not maybe an hour earlier, groceries for the week and whatnot. Got them unpacked, turned on the news because I knew there was weather. And I was like, oh, is this kind of went head towards this way.

I heard the sirens go off. I'm like, am I going to get my safe place? So I grab my cat. For like a second, I was like, I might not have a house?


LAVANDERA: And that's Tabitha Heaton. She told us she was stunned by just how quickly it was all over, but how much her house shook. She's trying to clear out her driveway and get to her car. She wants to go back to the classroom tomorrow. Kate?

BOLDUAN: That would be wonderful. Hopefully they can. But as you point out, just the unpredictability of these tornadoes is just always so terrifying, complete destruction and next door, a house standing just where it was. It's really remarkable.

Ed, thanks for being there.

Here with us now for more on this, Jordan Hall, he's an extreme storm chaser with severe studios. He's also in Norman, Oklahoma. Jordan, thanks for being here. So the sun is now up. We just saw Ed Lavandera was showing us a little bit of what he's seeing in one neighborhood a very long night for so many people.

We have some of the drone footage that you were able to take just this morning to give another really, really interesting and terrifying look at what this -- what it would happen when these tornadoes came through. What do you see in there? How do you describe it?

JORDAN HALL, EXTREME STORM CHASER: So yes, we are actually on that tornado last night about 9:30-ish cross the road in front of us completely rain wrap. So I was actually on the scene to some of the most impacted areas most damaged areas right after it happened assisting in search rescue. And it was very intense.

A lot of these structures that were hit in the East Norman area are well built structures. You know, we live in Tornado Alley, a lot of these are built to code. So to see a lot of these well-built structures ripped apart the way they are really shows just how intense this tornado was.

BOLDUAN: Also, we'll show also some of the video that you took last night late at night, as you were saying as the storm had just come through. Ed Lavandera was speaking with someone who said she was just amazed how quickly it came and quickly it went. Talk to me about how you would describe what it was like last night.

HALL: Yes, so it was just on the southwest side of Norman, probably about 9:22 and it was already up and out of Norman up there by Lake Thunderbird if you know where that's at, within five to six minutes, which is a really big area to cover in that amount of time. So these storms were moving in excess of 60, possibly 70 miles an hour.

So luckily, the warnings did come out and give people a little bit of time but it was really fast moving. You blink, it was gone but it just left an absolute path of destruction in just a matter of seconds it seems like.

BOLDUAN: Yes, absolutely. And, you know, it always feels like -- and thankfully no one -- there are no reports of any fatalities. But it never seems that there's enough time to get ready for something as horrible as this.

You posted that your apartment was hit by the tornado. Do you have a sense of the damage?

HALL: Yes. So luckily it was kind of sideswipe. There are a lot of trees that come down. Not too far away, probably a couple 100 yards away. There was is high tension power lines that had ripped down and fell on other apartment units as well.


And it looked like the tornado was still pretty weak when -- went past my apartment, but it started to intensify shortly after as it tracked on to the northeast. So the apartment does look all right.

BOLDUAN: And this -- it is all relative with some of what the destruction that you've seen last night and you see today. Jordan, thank you for bringing us that video. And thanks for chatting with me. I appreciate it.

Let's get to Chad Myers now, he's in the CNN Weather Center with more on this. I mean, Chad, that drone video that Jordan got is really shows yet again, the power that a tornado can bring in just a matter of seconds. But the severe weather threat continues today. Where are you watching?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: And the speed of those storms that he was talking about. 65 or 75 mile per hour forward speed, not even alone with the tornado in the middle of it and he called it rain wrap which is impossible to see. All you see is a sheet of rain and the tornado was in the middle.

We're looking at this yellow area here. Illinois, Indiana, parts of Ohio. This is the area that we'll see things like this. This was on the ground not that long ago, near Champaign, Illinois, kind of a cold air funnel because there's so much cold air aloft, this air just wants to rise like a hot air balloon.

So even though it's not hot on the surface, it's so cold above you have that difference. You have that delta between the surface and the cold air and the air is still going to rise. And some of the storms are still going to rotate.

At least a chance here for the next few hours into Illinois than Indiana and then by 4:00 or 5:00 tonight, that's when the severe weather gets into Central Ohio. The Scioto River Valley, all the way off toward the northeast toward towards Mansfield, could see some of these rotating thunderstorms as they move by.

As they get farther to the east cold and there will be snow to the east. A lot of wind gusts over 55 miles per hour behind the front not even with the storm itself, just that cold air, that wet air coming in from behind it. There is the snow from New York City. Yes, by tonight, 10:00, 11:00 it will be snowing. It will be a train day tomorrow for a lot of people who don't want to drive in that. Kate?

BOLDUAN: For sure. Chad, thank you. Chad's going to be watching it very closely for us, as he always is. Appreciate it.

Let's turn back to Washington now where there is mounting political fallout while the cleanup continues in East Palestine, Ohio. House Republicans are preparing to launch their own investigation into the train derailment with the focus on the Biden administration's handling of the disaster.

Lauren Fox following this. She's on Capitol Hill for us. Lauren, how Republicans and Democrats approaching oversight of this real, this tragic derailment?

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Yes, and that's the issue, right? Republicans and Democrats both view this as a tragedy, but their approach to oversight is going to look very different. And you're starting to see that split screen between the Senate and the House of Representatives.

So far, what you are seeing from senators, as we expect, in just a short time that Chuck Schumer, the majority leader is going to call for the CEO of Norfolk Southern to actually testify before the EPW committee. Of course, there's a lot of question marks about whether that would actually happen. But that just shows they are trying to really emphasize the corporate responsibility here. Meanwhile, you have House Republicans arguing that the Biden

administration has mishandled the response to this accident. And they're sending letters to Pete Buttigieg, the Transportation Secretary, trying to get EPA officials to come and testify before their committees, as well as trying to get all member briefings to learn more about this train derailment.

So a real split screen and how they are approaching this with Republicans arguing this is a Biden administration problem. And Democrats arguing this is a problem with corporate responsibility. Kate?

BOLDUAN: And also making the case for better, for worse, for whatever reason, this is not going to be going away anytime soon. That is for sure. Lauren, thank you.

It's the biggest abortion related case since the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and it centers on a drug used in more than half of abortions nationwide. That's next.