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The Lead with Jake Tapper

Zelenskyy Invokes Pearl Harbor, 9/11 In Plea To U.S. Congress; Biden Now Says Vladimir Putin Is A War Criminal; Biden Announces $800M More In Security Help For Ukraine; Fed Raises Rates To 0.25 Percent In First Hike In 4 Years; Biden Demands Faster Drop In Gas Prices As Oil Tumbles. Aired 4-5p ET

Aired March 16, 2022 - 16:00   ET



DANA BASH, CNN HOST: President Biden just called Vladimir Putin a war criminal.

THE LEAD starts right now.

The U.S. is sending Ukraine more military equipment and millions of dollars in aid -- additional dollars in aid after President Zelenskyy made an emotional appeal to Congress, but it's still a no on a no-fly zone.

And buying a house or getting a car loan is about to get more expensive as the Federal Reserve does something it has not done in four years, and the Fed is going to keep doing it.

Then, a college campus is in shock after nine people are killed in a crash on the way home from a golf tournament. Details are emerging about the victims.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BASH: Hello. I'm Dana Bash. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm in for Jake Tapper today.

And we begin this hour with our world lead, and an urgent appeal from Ukraine's president to U.S. lawmakers. Quote, I have a need. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy invoking Martin Luther King Jr.'s iconic "I Have a Dream" speech, as well as attacks on Pearl Harbor and 9/11, indelible moments on America's history and psyche.

Zelenskyy also played a graphic video of the horrors taking placed against the Ukrainian people.


BASH: The Ukrainian leader pleaded for more help, specifically fighter jets and a no-fly zone over Ukraine. He got a standing ovation, but the Biden administration says giving Ukraine the military help Zelenskyy asks for would escalate the conflict with Vladimir Putin. Hours before Zelenskyy's speech to Americans, Russian shelling hit the

residential building near the Kyiv City center, injured two people according to the emergency services. Rescue workers helped dozens of people escape fires after the impact.

To the south, the Mariupol City Council says a Russian bombed a local theater where hundreds of people apparently had been seeking shelter. It's not clear how many people were killed or wounded. Writing online, we will never forgive and never forget.

Also in the south, the Ukrainian government says it has successfully rescued the mayor in the town of Mariupol. He was detained by armed men after Russian forces took over the city last week. And to the north of Kyiv, a regional official says at least ten people were killed by Russian bombs as they stood in line for bread.

Let's go straight to senior international correspondent Sam Kiley reporting live from Kyiv.

So, Sam, moments ago, we saw a pretty big shift here in Washington. President Biden now says that Vladimir Putin is a war criminal. How big of a deal is this for Ukraine, the government specifically and the Ukrainian people?

SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): I think to the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian government, it's no big deal because what they want is immediate action rather than these rather nuanced diplomatic issues. So, for example, on a day that you've seen -- we've seen ten people killed in a bread queue, unknown numbers potentially killed in an attack against the theater in the southeast of the country in Mariupol, these are actual crimes that have been committed from the air, and it's air superiority that Ukrainians want taken away. That's something you see on posters and hear on everyone's lips every day.

The prosecution of Vladimir Putin in some future date for some -- in an abstract not existent court over war crimes is not something really that preoccupies Ukrainians. They're all about at the moment immediate action I think, Dana.

BASH: And on that note, you spoke today to the deputy prime minister. What did he tell you?

KILEY: Well, it's a she, Dana.

BASH: She, pardon me.

KILEY: The deputy prime minister though -- the deputy prime minister is in charge of the NATO file, but she's also one of the leading intellectuals in the government. She was pointing out, really, how it is possible that Vladimir Putin has allowed such appalling atrocities to have been committed across this country and how he may have very seriously underestimated the act of the Ukrainians resist as we've seen there. Mariupol, atrocious -- atrocious events being committed by Russian on almost a daily basis, same thing here in Kyiv, and yet the Ukrainians fight on. [16:05:10]

This is how she put it.


OLHA STEFANISHYNA, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER FOR EUROPEAN AND EURO- ATLANTIC INTEGRATION OF UKRAINE: The city of Ukraine has been circled with the Russian army in there. These are the people who are standing in front of the tanks with the Ukrainian flag, having no fear with that, and this is what surprises Putin. This is where he fails. So I'm absolutely sure he's uncomfortable in every moment as he's sitting in his bomb shelter, he fails in each of his assessment, and the chain of command which disinforms him and the senior management around shows that they know nothing about our nation. So, this is the strength that we have against this terror.


KILEY: Now, Dana, the appeal from Zelenskyy for a no-fly zone, they know they're never going to get that. What they need is surface-to-air missiles, long-range ones that can take out Russian aircraft and other missiles that are coming in that would allow them relief from being bombarded from the air. And there's every chance coming from the pentagon there may be some supplies of those coming in, if not directly from the United States, then from elsewhere, particularly the S-300, the old Russian antiaircraft missile systems -- Dana.

BASH: Sam thank you. A lot of very impressive, democratically elected women in that part of the world. So, thank you for bringing us one of them.

And in Washington, President Biden offered an additional $800 million in assistance to Ukraine for a total of a billion dollars over the last week. It's a lot of help, but as CNN's Kaitlan Collins reports, the White House still isn't giving Ukraine what it says it needs most.


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Biden responding to Ukrainian President Zelenskyy's direct appeal for more assistance for his besieged nation.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Additional $800 million of assistance. That brings the total of new U.S. security assistance to Ukraine to $1 billion just this week.

COLLINS: Biden announcing the U.S. will send hundreds of millions in new military aid to help fend off the Russian invasion.

BIDEN: It includes 800 antiaircraft systems, and at the request of President Zelenskyy, we have identified and are helping Ukraine acquire additional longer range anti-craft systems.

COLLINS: But Biden stopping short of granting Zelenskyy's request for a no-fly zone, announcing the U.S. will send drones to Ukraine instead.

BIDEN: Which demonstrates our commitment to sending our most cutting edge systems to Ukraine for its defense.

COLLINS: Biden commending Zelenskyy for his courage in the face of brutal Russian aggression.

BIDEN: Putin is inflicting appalling, appalling devastation and horror on Ukraine, bombing apartment buildings, maternity wards, hospitals.

COLLINS: Hours earlier, Zelenskyy delivered a direct and emotional appeal and a historic address to Congress.

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAIN (through translator): Russia has turned the Ukrainian sky into a source of death for thousands of people.

COLLINS: Zelenskyy pleading with U.S. lawmakers for more help, calling on the U.S. to sanction all Russian politicians and close Ukrainian skies.

ZELENSKYY: To create a no-fly zone over Ukraine to save people, is this too much to ask? Humanitarian no-fly zone, something that Ukraine -- that Russia would not be able to terrorize our free cities.

COLLINS: Zelenskyy showing a video to highlight how drastically life has changed in Ukraine in the last three weeks, from peaceful moments to missile strikes, in mass graves.

Zelenskyy even invoking U.S. history.

ZELENSKYY: Remember Pearl Harbor, terrible morning of December 7, 1941, when your sky was black from the planes attacking you. Just remember it.

Remember September 11th, a terrible day in 2001 when evil tried to turn your cities, independent territories in battlefields when innocent people were attacked.

COLLINS: The Ukrainian leader ending his speech in English with a direct appeal to President Biden.

ZELENSKYY: I'm addressing to President Biden, I wish you to be the leader of the world. Being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace.


COLLINS: And, Dana, for the first time today, President Biden also called President Putin a war criminal. That is a shift from where he was previously when the White House said they were going to let the legal process play out here. The State Department says they are still documenting the crimes and the atrocities that Putin is committing in Ukraine on a daily basis.


But the White House is saying that, yes, he is prepared to call him a war criminal now. The legal process, natural repercussions of this remains to be seen. Mainly this is a symbolic statement coming from President Biden, but the White House says he was speaking from the heart when he says that, yes, he does now believe Putin is a war criminal.

BASH: Kaitlan Collins, thank you for that report from the White House.

And joining me to discuss more is Republican Senator Todd Young of Indiana, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is also a former Marine and Navy captain.

Senator, thank you so much for joining me.

First, what's your reaction to President Zelenskyy's address to you and the rest of the U.S. Congress?

SEN. TODD YOUNG (R-IN): I and others Dana were just riveted by the presentation this morning by President Zelenskyy. He made a very strong cogent case for needing additional assistance, and he really challenged members of Congress and the like to lean into this situation and provide the assistance quickly so that Ukrainians might not just defend themselves but might arrest the Russian advance and go on an offense and go in a battle that America needs to ensure, ultimately, the Ukrainian people win.

BASH: And you tweeted today it's an obvious step to transfer MiG fighter jets to Ukraine. You say, quote, we can't wait another day to transfer these jets. I want to play for you something that the Pentagon argues why they don't believe that that plan is viable.


JOHN KIRBY, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: Our intelligence community has assessed and told us that for the United States to provide fighter aircraft could be construed -- misconstrued by Mr. Putin as an escalatory level and spin it to a higher level than it is now. I think we can all agree having the United States and Russia involved in an escalatory conflict, two nuclear powers, is not only not good for the world, of course. But it's good for the people of Ukraine.


BASH: So, given that, how would you logistically get the jets that you want, to go to Ukraine in there without Putin deeming it an escalatory measure?

YOUNG: I will answer that, but briefly, I -- this is not escalatory. And Vladimir Putin s attempting to establish through his rhetoric alone what constitutes escalation and doesn't constitute escalation. He said the same, it would be an escalation to sanction their oil and gas sector. I think that was the right action. I think we need to provide this aircraft. In terms of logistically, transferring the aircraft, very question.

But there are a number of avenues through which this could be done. Ukrainian pilots could go and procure the aircraft from Poland, from another neighboring country. United States could instead attempt to work with some nonaligned partners to get the aircraft into Ukraine.

There are a number of options, and I understand the administration has been considering -- candidly, there hasn't been a whole lot of daylight shine on those different options. So, to the extent the administration has serious reservations, they really need to communicate those reservations not just to President Zelenskyy but also to members of Congress so that we could have clarity about them.

BASH: I want to get your response to an argument made by Senator Mark Kelly who was a former naval pilot, who flew combat missions during the Gulf War. He says Ukraine already has 30 MiG-29s now. But listen to what else he says.


SEN. MARK KELLY (D-AZ): They're flying sorties a days, probably half of those airplanes work. So, what's the reason? Do they not have enough pilots? Do they not have enough parts? Can we help them with that? Maybe they can't get fuel into the airplanes? Maybe they don't have the weapons to load onto the aircraft, to take a third of the Polish fighter force and give it to the Ukraine -- to the Ukraine with no guarantee that they're going to increase their sorting rate, it doesn't seem like, right now, the right decision.


BASH: Are you concerned they won't maximize the use of these planes if they do get them, for example? Are you confident that the Ukrainian pilots that you talk about, that they even know how to fly these polish MiGs?

YOUNG: Well, I have been briefed that they know how to fly them. They've been trained by the United States and our partners how to fly Western jets and, of course, they have experience historically flying the MiG jets. With respect to any other reservations, we didn't hear those from president Zelenskyy, so we ought to be resourcing him and his commanders to what they feel like they need in order to get this done.

But the bigger picture here is not just about aircraft. It's about ensuring that they have battle space dominance. Right now, and the battle space that matters most is the air. As long as Russia has control of the air, it's going to be near impossible I'm told for Ukraine to win a counteroffensive from Kyiv. So, the extent we can resource them with anti-air weapons like the S300 system, which DOD has been in communication with Slovakia to transfer that surface-to- air missile system to Ukraine.


And we can provide them requisite aircraft so they can get some measure of control over the airspace. That will lead to military dominance on the ground and a better chance to bring this horrific situation to a close more quickly.

BASH: Republican Senator Todd Young of Indiana, thank you so much for your time, sir.

YOUNG: Thanks, Dana.

BASH: And still ahead, CNN visits Ukrainians who are doing whatever they can to protect themselves in their fight against the Russians, including making homemade body armor.

And then crude oil prices are falling, so why are you still paying record prices for gas? We're going to explain.


BASH: We're back with our world lead and fighting intensifying around the strategic port city of Odessa, Ukraine, including this which happened live on CNN this afternoon.



NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: This noise that we've been hearing here is it fits to this broader -- there it is again. I should say it's not something that we are accustomed to hearing here at all.


BASH: This comes just hours after Ukraine's armed forces said Russian warships in the Black Sea fired on villages outside Odessa.

I want to get straight to CNN's Nick Paton Walsh live in Odessa.

Nick, it does appear Russian forces are gaining ground there in the south.

WASLH: Yeah, today, Dana, I think it's clear it's the first day we've felt more military activity palpable around Odessa here. Certainly in the last 24 hours, Ukrainian officials say they took out two jets near here and shells were fired on villages along the coastline outside of Odessa. That's also been confirmed by a CNN U.S. defense official in the last hour or so. So, clearly, a build up around Odessa here, and that antiaircraft gunfire you heard in the clip earlier, that was pretty consistent for about 20 to 30 minutes.

This all feeds into the broader picture, though, of Russia pressuring from the east of the Black Sea coast from Kherson which it's controlled for over a week, through Mykolaiv, which has been on a bombardment for quite some time, trying to go around it or encircle it so it can begin to pressure here on the third largest city in the major maritime port. The toll on civilians, though, in Mykolaiv quite awful. On Sunday,

nine killed when a rocket hit outside a store, all civilians, very indiscriminate. Here's what it did to one woman's life who lost her husband.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The rockets landed and my husband just exploded and the blood came out from his head. And he is still lying there in the blood. And they took me here. In pieces.


WALSH: Svetlana there was at the store for her husband to buy sweets for the funeral of her daughter who died in an unconnected event in the Czech Republic, but she left the hospital entirely alone, having lost her family -- Dana.

BASH: Absolutely heartbreaking.

And, Nick, we're learning an air strike has hit a theater in Mariupol that was being used as a bomb shelter. What do we know about that attack?

WALSH: Yeah, I mean an event that's potentially so devastating, it's, frankly, hard to comprehend. This is the drama theater of Mariupol. It's been under siege for over a week. Limited aides getting in, very few people getting out. Intense bombardment frankly as Russian forces surround it and remain bent on annihilating what remains possibly hundreds of thousands of people.

But at the drama theater was where many children were sheltering underground. We're seeing satellite images that show the world children emblazoned to make it clear to anyone above exactly who was there. But according to local officials, an air strike hit that building today. It destroyed the entrance to the bomb shelter, inside which potentially hundreds, possibly as many as a thousand people were sheltering.

I've seen video filmed in the last week just now and that shows a densely packed area of people sheltering. They simply don't know how many people were there or how many may have been killed by this, and it is potentially one of the worst losses of civilian life we've heard so far, still the details to emerge here.

And yet another sign that if you're being extremely generous, Russia doesn't seem to care if it kills civilians, but more realistically, it looks like they're simply targeting them -- Dana.

BASH: It sure does. Nick Paton Walsh, needless to say -- please, please stay safe. Thank you for reporting from Odessa, Ukraine.

And Russian forces are not yet advancing into central Ukraine, but ordinary civilians are bracing for an eventual attack on their homes. In addition to building barricades and preparing Molotov cocktails, some Ukrainians are now making homemade flak jackets, essentially body armor for soldiers.

CNN's Ivan Watson is live in Vinnytsia, Ukraine.

And, Ivan, it is really incredible to see how these civilians are not only refusing to flee, but standing up and trying to help those who are fighting for their cities.

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And I'll get to that in a sec.

You know, I'm coming to you from a hallway because of some security warnings to the hotel that my team is standing at, is staying at. So, I think it's partially triggered by the fact that this city, one of its TV towers, according to a government agency, communications agency, was hit by rockets early this morning. No reports of casualties.

I actually heard that sound at 4:00 a.m. It sounded to me like aircraft, and then distant thuds.


And it seems to be part of a pattern. There was another TV tower targeted on Monday morning in another northwestern city called Rivne, and there at least 21 people were killed.

The ground war has not reached cities like Vinnytsia where I am right now, but signs of the population are really astounding. I met a family that had its own workshop -- makeshift workshop in its living room where a grandmother, retired seamstress who used to make men's coats and suits is now sewing flak jackets, armor for Ukrainian soldier, for members of the territorial defense, for people being called up to serve in the defense of their country and who I'm told, some of them don't have flak jackets as they have to head to front line cities and are looking around.

And so this is a homegrown grass roots effort with donations and money out of the ordinary Ukrainian's pockets and ordinary Ukrainian skills. For example, I went to a mechanic's garage and that's where they're taking scrap metal from cars and welding them into the armored plates that go into the flak jackets that this grandmother was helping sew.

Her son who's a lawyer, he was also sewing in the kitchen, sewing some of the blue and yellow arm bands you see the kind of volunteers and security forces wearing at checkpoints. You can take a listen to what he had to say to me.


WATSON: How many do you make in one day?


WATSON: Two hundred?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yeah. WATSON: And these go to soldiers?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, I think I help my country. I think this is good to do. This is for our country.


WATSON: Dana, the grandmother told me she hopes the flak jackets protect the soldiers because she sews them with love -- Dana.

BASH: You can see it and feel it coming right through the television screen. Ivan, thank you so much for that. Also you and your team, please stay safe as well.

And up next, he's one of several foreign policy experts calling for a limited no-fly zone over Ukraine. Former U.N. ambassador to Ukraine joins me after a quick break.



BASH: In our world lead today, President Biden said $800 million in additional security will be sent to Ukraine after President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gave an emotional plea to members of Congress for more help against Russia.

I want to discuss that with former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, John Herbst, who served as a foreign service officer in the State Department for over 21 years.

Mr. Ambassador, thank you so much for joining me.

I want to ask about the idea that you and 27 foreign policy experts have. You're calling for a limited no-fly zone over Ukraine. NATO allies say they're united in their decision not to establish a no-fly zone. So what realistically can be done to make sure that Putin doesn't see anything, when you're suggesting, as a limited no-fly zone as an escalatory measure?

JOHN HERBST, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE: Okay. I think the most important thing for U.S. policy for our great interest in Europe is for to stop worrying about what Putin considers an escalation and to start worrying about Putin's own escalations. When you keep talking about our fear of doing something Putin considers provocative, what we're doing is signaling weakness and it enables Putin to intimidate us not to pursue our own interest. This talk has to stop.

BASH: So what --

HERBST: So, regarding -- I'm sorry, go ahead, please.

BASH: I was going to say, can you explain what the limited no-fly zone that you're proposing would be?

HERBST: Sure, look, yes. A regular U.S. no-fly zone requires us to destroy any military installations which could attack our planes. In this case, that would mean we would have to shoot at Russian technicians at their antiaircraft installations, the S-400s both in Russia and Belarus. So, that is simply something we should not do.

What our proposal is for a humanitarian limited fly no-fly zone where we would put our planes up to protect humanitarian convoys to provide supplies, food, water, medical equipment, and also to protect humanitarian convoys, civilians leaving conflict zones. We were told the Russians were there. We told them we would send in our convoys, and we would not attack but tell them if you attack us, we'll strike back.

I think there's a very good chance that Moscow in that limited no-fly zone would not challenge us. So, that's not --

BASH: What if they did? What if they did? Would it mean an actual war?

HERBST: If they did, with would strike back and I believe that would tell them knock it off. It's worth recalling that we shot at and killed 200 Russian mercenaries in Syria in 2018 when they began to attack our forces.


The Turks shot down a Russian warplane in 2015, November 2015, because it violated Turkish airspace.

So, when countries protect themselves from Russian provocations, Moscow does not necessarily push the nuclear button. So, we need to understand that and stop being intimidated by Kremlin threats.

BASH: You are a diplomat, a lifelong diplomat, so I have to ask you about the diplomatic talks that are going on between Ukraine and Russia this morning. President Zelenskyy said the discussions are being more realistic.

You've been in these rooms. You were ambassador as I mentioned to Ukraine. Does this seem promising to you?

HERBST: I think it is interesting, but I remain deeply skeptical. First, there have been no real diplomatic talks yielding progress since Moscow's war on Ukraine began eight years ago. Second, the reports we have, especially in the "Financial Times," suggests there may be something going on, which is interesting.

But at the same time, President Putin is still demanding basically unconditional surrender by Ukraine. So, I don't know which is the real Russia talking. Is it whoever in those talks or is it President Putin? If, in fact, the reports we're seeing are real, then perhaps something truly is up. But I would -- I would hold my enthusiasm for the moment.

BASH: Ambassador John Herbst, thank you so much for that interesting perspective. I appreciate it.

HERBST: My pleasure. BASH: And borrowing money whether it is for a car, or a house, or

using your credit card, it's about to get more expensive. We'll explain, next.



BASH: In our money lead, if you just took out a loan to buy a house or a car, good timing. Borrowing money is about to get more expensive. The Federal Reserve just announced its first interest rate hike in four years after slashing rates when the pandemic began.

But there may be good news. This quarter percent of the rate hike is one of the best tools to combat ballooning inflation, which is strapping Americans at the gas pumps and at grocery stores.

CNN's Matt Egan joins me now.

So, Matt, the question I'm sure a lot of people who are asking is, so why didn't the Federal Reserve do this at the first signs of inflation going up?

MATT EGAN, CNN REPORTER: So, Dana, it's a great question and one that the people at the Federal Reserve are probably asking themselves. In fact, Fed Chair Jerome Powell, he admitted today that, with the benefit of hindsight, it would have been appropriate for the Fed to have raised interest rates sooner. He said that much is obvious now.

Now, to be fair to the Fed, very few people in Washington or on Wall Street expected inflation to be this high for this long. People did not anticipate this supply chain bottlenecks that are largely caused by COVID. The Fed dropped interest rates to zero almost exactly two years ago to try to rescue the economy from COVID. And it did help.

But it's obvious that the economy doesn't need emergency support right now. Unemployment is very low. Inflation, as you can see on that chart, is very high. Consumer prices spiking in February at the fastest pace in 40 years.

Now, the good news is that the Fed is stepping in here, acting like the firefighter, trying to put the inflation fire out by raising interest rates. I think the bad news is it feels like the Fed is late to the scene here and the more inflation gets further from healthy levels, the more the Fed has to do to try to rein it back in. It's not going to be easy, Dana.

BASH: Not at all. And what about fears of a recession, Matt?

EGAN: Well, Dana, the Fed faces this very difficult balance here because if they do too much, they risk short circuiting this economic recovery, starting a recession, but if they don't do enough, then inflation can move out of control.

Now, Larry Summers who's been sounding the inflation alarm for much of the past year, he's not very optimistic. The foreign U.S. secretary put out this op-ed in "The Washington Post". I'm going to read a key line from this.

He said, the Fed's current policy trajectory is likely to lead to stagflation and ultimately a major inflection. Now, stagflation is a toxic mix of slow growth and high inflation something we saw in the late '70s, early '80s. It's very hard to get out of. No one wants to see that. The key is going to be what happens in the coming months on inflation, because if consumer prices start to ease, then the Fed could feel vindicated here with their patient approach.

If not, then I do think the recession fears are only going to get louder. It is so critical that the Fed gets this right here, Dana.

BASH: Critical, and I think it's fair to say that everybody is rooting for those consumer prices to come down.

Thank you so much, Matt. I appreciate it.

And if crude oil prices are the rocket, gas prices are the feather. When barrels of oil plummet in price, gas prices tend to lag behind. Crude oil prices have fallen 22 percent from their peak on March 8th while gas prices are rising. They've risen 3 percent.

As CNN's Rene Marsh reports, this trend is frustrating for consumers and politicians, and the only big winner is, you guessed it, big oil.


RENE MARSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As gas prices soared and Russia's invasion of Ukraine was imminent, the fossil feel industry anticipated a rise in demand and a surge in prices and the blame game ramped up.

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): Democrats want to blame surging prices on Russia. But the truth is their out-of-touch policies are why we're here.

MARSH: The blame was pinned on climate policies for hampering the oil industry's ability to increase supply.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): We need to be ramping up and we need to be ramping up right now.

MARSH: Through its lobbyist, the fossil fuel industry also publicly called for ramping up production to ease Americans' pain at the pump.

MIKE SOMMERS, CEO, AMERICAN PETROLEUM INSTITUTE: The most important thing that we can do right now is really focus on increasing supply.

MARSH: But audio from several fossil fuel companies called are in stark contrast to those public comments. Instead, companies pledged to higher dividends and stock buybacks to investors as Americans were hit with soaring gas prices.

LEE TILLMAN, CEO, MARATHON OIL: Our cash flow driven return of capital framework uniquely prioritizes our shareholders at the first call on cash flow generation, not the drill bit.

MARSH: That's Marathon Oil's CEO on February 17th when the national average for gas prices was around $3.52 per gallon. That same day, Pioneer Natural Resources told investors this.

SCOTT SHEFFIELD, CEO, PIONEER NATURAL RESOURCES: We're not going to change our growth rate. We think it's important to return cash back to the shareholders.

MARSH: The day before Russia invaded Ukraine, Diamondback Energy CEO told investors they won't risk profits by increasing supply.

TRAVIS STICE, CEO, DIAMONDBACK: No one wants to see that shareholder program, you know, put at risk with volume growth.

MARSH: After a decade of dismal financial returns, including the pandemic, Diamondback also said the profit windfalls they're experiencing is the moment investors have been waiting for.

And on the day Russia invaded Ukraine, Occidental Petroleum CEO put it bluntly.

VICKI HOLLLUM, CEO, OCCIDENTAL PETROLEUM: We have no need and no intent to invest in production growth this year.

MARSH: CNN reached out to all of these oil companies, but did not get a response.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There are some in the industry that have made statements regarding not being interested in ramping up production, but I think those are offset by many in the industry that have expressed their intention to ramp up production.

WILLIAMS-DERRY: To hear their lobbyist speak, they're being held down by government.

MARSH: The vast majority of U.S. oil production takes place on private land, not federal lands or waters. And despite the Biden administration's emphasis on clean energy, it has approved more permits to drill on federal land in its first year compared to each of Trump's first three years in office.


MARSH (on camera): U.S. oil production is increasing, but it's happening at a very slow pace compared to previous periods of high gas prices. The fossil fuel companies would like Americans to believe it's because of climate policies, but these calls show that is simply not the case.

BASH: They sure do. They're hiding their real agenda, making money for them and not passing it onto consumers in plain sight. You found it and put it together. Thank you so much. Such an important piece, Rene. Appreciate it.

And a van carrying a golf team from college hit head on by a pickup truck. We're now learning more about the victims of that deadly crash.



BASH: In our national lead, nine people are dead in west Texas after a van carrying members of a New Mexico university's golf team collided head on with a pickup truck overnight. That's according to local authorities.

I want to get straight to CNN's Rosa Flores live in Texas.

So, Rosa, what a tragic scene there. Tell us what is happening and what the school is saying.

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, it's such a tragedy. According to Texas DPS, this crash happened last night in about 8:17 p.m. Now, all of this is under investigation. This is a preliminary information from Texas DPS who says that two vehicles were involved, a Dodge truck and a van. The students were in the van.

According to Texas DPS, the truck went onto incoming traffic and hit that van head on. Both vehicles went up in flames, and the driver and the passenger of that truck died. Now, according to Texas DPS and the University of the Southwest, there were nine individuals inside the van. That included seven individuals who, according to Texas DPS, have died, six of them students, one faculty member. The other two individuals were transported to the hospital in critical condition.

The university issuing a statement saying in part, quote, the USW campus community is shocked and saddened today and we mourn the loss of members of our university family. Please keep the families of the students, coaching staff, and the USW community in your prayers as we come together to support one another during this difficult time.

Now, authorities have not released the names of the deceased, however, the mother of one of the victims releasing one of the names, identifying her daughter as Lacy Stone, a freshman, and the president of the university releasing the name of the faculty member who died, president of the university identifying coach Tyler James. He's described as a very caring coach.

Dana, we should add not only is the Texas DPS investigating, but the NTSB is also investigating. They sent a go team on the ground. We're expecting 12 members to arrive sometime today.

BASH: Rosa Flores, thank you for that report.


And coming up, she was held in Iran for six years. Today, a British aid worker was freed. How her release was secured. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BASH: Freed after, quote, six years of hell. That's how one U.K. lawmaker described Iranian-British aid worker detention in Iran. She was arrested at the Iran airport after a vacation. The Iranian government accused her of espionage. Her husband calls her homecoming, quote, a journey, not an arrival.

The release comes after the British government settled a decades-old debt with Iran including the release of another dual national.

Thanks so much for watching. Our news continues right after with a quick -- after a quick break with Wolf Blitzer and "THE SITUATION ROOM".