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The Lead with Jake Tapper

Survivors Emerge From Bombed Mariupol Theater; Biden To Speak With Chinese President Xi Jinping; Over 3 Million Ukrainian Refugees Have Fled Ukraine; Romanian City Residents Working To House Ukrainian Refugees; NTSB Says 13-Year-Old Was Driving Truck Involved In Accident That Killed 9 People; Divisive GOP-Backed Bills Waiting FL Gov.'s Signature As Outrage Grows; Western U.S. Drought To Persist And Expand. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired March 17, 2022 - 17:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: What more do we know?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jake can you know it really is still difficult to get reliable information from that place. We know that around 130 people have been saved from that theatre after it was bombed. But the reason why it's so difficult to get those accurate figures is because the rescue teams down there more in touch with the authorities, they say they can't actually get to a lot of the people, because a lot of the rescue teams have been dispersed because of the fighting with the Russians.

One of the local administrators that we spoke to there, he said, even some of his friends are coming down to help dig, but there really isn't any heavy equipment to help with that. And he also says that the big trouble that they have right now is that there are still Russian attacks going on, there is still Russian shelling going on in that area.

So, what happened with that theaters that were people who were hiding inside the bomb shelter of that theatre in the underground, the building got hit, it seems as though the shelter has remained intact. But of course, there's rubble all over it. And those people now trying to dig folks out, but it's extremely difficult and information still very hard to come by, Jake.

TAPPER: And Fred, intentionally, intentionally attacking civilians is a war crime, according to the International Criminal Court. What more are you learning about this apparent -- it seems like a Russian strategy to attack civilians now.

PLEITGEN: Well, the Russians certainly are using a very heavy hand and not just in Mariupol but in many other places in in Ukraine as well. You have a lot of cities that are under siege and the Russians at this point in time, you know, the UK says this, The U.S. says they're really not making much headway on the battlefield, even though they have those cities under siege. So they're shooting into those cities with some pretty heavy weapons. And here's what we're learning about the consequences.


PLEITGEN (voice-over): As Vladimir Putin's military reigns, bombs, rockets and artillery on Ukraine, civilians are paying the highest price scores killed and maimed. In Chernihiv, north of Kyiv, rescue workers dig up the bodies of an entire family killed when a residential building was hit.

Dozens more civilians lost their lives and attacks. The Ukrainian government now confirming that U.S. citizen James Whitney Hill was among those killed. I asked Chernihiv's mayor to tell me about the situation in his city.

MAYOR VLADYSLAV ATROSHENKO, CHERNIHIV, UKRAINE (through translator): The intensity of the shelling is increased. It's been indiscriminate, apparently random. We're not talking about certain military infrastructure buildings being bombed. In reality, houses are being destroyed. Schools and kindergartens are being destroyed.

PLEITGEN: This graphic video shows the gruesome aftermath of an attack on people waiting in a breadline in the same town. Witnesses say at least 10 civilians were killed. Russia's military cynically claiming it wasn't that.

MAJ. GEN. IGOR KONASHENKOV, RUSSIAN ARMY (through translator): All units of the Russian Armed Forces are outside Chernihiv blocking the roads and no offensive actions are being taken against the city.

PLEITGEN: Other cities are getting shelled as well. One of the hardest hit Mariupol in the southeast. Several were killed and wounded mostly women and children when maternity ward and children's hospital were hit last week. And then the main theater where the U.S. believes hundreds of people had taken shelter was bombed.

A small miracle the bomb shelter under the building held up helping some of those inside survive. Though it's still unclear how many. Authorities say efforts to pull people from the rubble are being hindered by the total breakdown of public services and the threat of further Russian attacks. Aerial images show the building was clearly marked as having children inside leaving Ukraine's Defense Minister irate.

OLEKSII REZNIKOV, UKRAINIAN DEFENSE MINISTER: You can see from the maps from the drones that are around this there's a big letters of children were written so the pilot of the plane which was throwing the bombs could see and still in spite of that, this monster has bombed the theater.

PLEITGEN: Russia has denied it was responsible for the attack and the Russians claim they only target military installations, sending out this video of them allegedly destroying Ukrainian howitzers. But the UK's defense ministry says the Russians are increasingly hitting cities with heavy and less accurate weapons, because they're simply running out of precise munitions as the war drags on, experts believe it will only get worse. MASON CLARK, LEAD RUSSIA ANALYST, INSTITUTE FOR THE STUDY OF WAR: They're very intentionally targeting water stations and power supplies and internet towers and cell phone towers and that sort of thing, and a very deliberate attempt to make it more difficult for the defenders to hold out and try and force them to capitulate.

PLEITGEN: But despite bringing massive firepower on civilian areas, the U.S. and its allies say Russia's offensive in Ukraine has stalled and recent territorial gains have been minimal.


PLEITGEN: And Jake, are some of the experts that we've been talking to they are calling this a page out of the Syria playbook of the Russians of course, in that war as well.


You saw the Russians really bombing a lot of cities, bombing infrastructure trying to get the population into a submission. And it seems as though as the some experts say that that seems to be part of the strategy or could be part of the strategy here as well. But again, one of the things that we have to point out so far that does not seem to be working, the territorial gains have been minimal. And once again, the Russians three weeks into this war still have not taken a single major city in this country. Jake.

TAPPER: Fred Pleitgen reporting live for us in Lviv, Ukraine. Thank you. Joining us now live to discuss is Alex Wade. He's the Emergency Coordinator for Doctors Without Borders in Ukraine. He's currently working in the city of Dnipro. Alex, thanks for joining us.

Doctors Without Borders does such important work. I want to get -- I want to start by getting your reaction to our correspondents reporting on the increasing attacks on civilian areas of Ukraine, how have those casualties affected hospitals and medical workers on the ground? Do facilities have what they need to treat the kind of traumatic injuries that would result?

ALEX WADE, EMERGENCY COORDINATOR, DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS IN UKRAINE: It's affected them enormously. And we're very worried that many hospitals do not have what they need. Mariupol is a great example. We unfortunately lost contact with this hospital. It's a hospital we had been donating supply to before access became too complicated. We lost contact with them when the communications went down. The last communication we had was informing us that they're receiving many wounded but they're running out of supply.

We can only assume supplies haven't gotten in so the situation there could be catastrophic. We're also worried that situation could repeat itself in other areas of the country where the hospitals throughout the country were communicating with are confirming that they are receiving wounded and that they're worried about their supply chains and rupture in their essential medicines.

TAPPER: If you could talk for a moment, because I know you're familiar with Putin doing this in Syria as well. I mean, the Russian military there as well, along with Assad targeted hospitals, they went after hospitals. And it seems like that's also happening in Ukraine. Is there any other explanation other than this is strategy?

We lost his -- OK, he's back. Go ahead, Alex, if you could answer that question.

WADE: Sure it's OK. It was breaking up a bit. But yes, I got the gist. Look, I'm unable to comment on strategy and targeting or accidental. We're public health professionals, doctors and nurses. And I cannot comment on what the actual intent is.

But what I can say is that, without a doubt, not enough is being done to protect the structures that are meant to be protected. According to the rules of war, defined by international humanitarian law hospitals, and also the civilians and noncombatants populations, it isn't populations, which are also meant to be protected.

So accidental targeted, I'm not able to differentiate or say, which is the case, what I can say is that more needs to be done to ensure that those structures and that those populations are protected, because clearly, up until now, not enough has happened to keep those people safe and to keep those structures safe.

TAPPER: Alex, you've been serving patients across the country. So many individuals with chronic conditions are not able to get reliable care access to medication right now, how dire is that crisis at the moment, the needs of patients who have chronic diseases?

WADE: Yes, that those are needs that we're monitoring and that are quickly increasing. I mean, you have hundreds of thousands of displaced across the country settling primarily in large cities. These are populations which will have chronic conditions that need access to continued care.

So hopefully, they will continue to have access to care in many cities around the country. We're assessing these needs. We're supporting local health systems with donations because local systems as well didn't expect this massive influx in population so didn't have themselves the stock necessary for such an increase. And the medical supply system throughout the country has been disrupted. So we could see problems where access to care in those areas.

But the most critical needs are in the conflict zones in the cities that are receiving shelling that where there's fighting in the streets. This is where access is the most complicated or supply -- getting supply into hospitals is the most complicated and where the needs are increasing the fastest.

TAPPER: I want to ask about Mariupol, you noted that you lost contact with the hospital there. Hundreds of thousands of individuals are trapped there. Airstrikes pounding the area. People in Mariupol have no access to electricity or heat or water or food. When else if ever have you seen things this bad?

WADE: It's, you know, it's hard to compare two different experiences. But because each crisis will sort of have its own dynamics, its own sort of historical precedents. But it is a crisis on a massive scale.


We're talking about I think the last estimates I heard were around 350,000 people still there. 350,000 people without access to very, very basic needs that you're talking about water, food heat, it's below freezing at night, even just basic medications. That is a massive scale and not something that you come across very often.

TAPPER: Alex Wade from Doctors Without Borders in Ukraine. Thank you so much. And thank you for the very important work you do. For more information about how you can help humanitarian efforts in Ukraine, you can also visit And obviously you can Google Doctors Without Borders and make a contribution to them as well.

Coming up, a high stakes phone call President Biden preparing to talk to a world leader who is friendly with Putin. Plus, we've got breaking news on that deadly pickup truck and van crash involving a college golf team. Investigators now say the driver of the pickup truck was only 13 years old. Stay with us.



TAPPER: In our world lead, President Biden set to speak with China's Xi Jinping tomorrow. It is their first known conversations since the war in Ukraine began. And to CNN's Phil Mattingly reports for us now. CNN has learned U.S. officials have information suggesting that the Chinese government is open to providing the Russians with military and financial assistance.


JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: Putin's brutality and what he's doing. And his troops are doing Ukraine is just inhumane.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As Russia continues to escalate its attacks on Ukraine, the U.S. message to allies is clear.

BIDEN: We're meeting in a moment when demands on unity in the world are really accelerating. They have to be united and we certainly are.

MATTINGLY: But President Biden said to put the unity to the test against the most formidable of outliers on Friday.

BIDEN: I'm going to be speaking to President Xi tomorrow.

MATTINGLY: At a moment U.S. officials have grown increasingly concerned and explicit about ties between China and Russia.

ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: We're concerned that they're considering directly assisting Russia with military equipment to use in Ukraine. MATTINGLY: And as the mounting evidence of Russia's targeting of civilians led Biden on Wednesday to say this a President Vladimir Putin --

BIDEN: I think he is a war criminal.

MATTINGLY: The President's top diplomat today lined up in agreement.

BLINKEN: President Biden said that, in his opinion, war crimes have been committed in Ukraine. Personally, I agree, intentionally targeting civilians is a war crime.

MATTINGLY: While laying out this grim assessment,

BLINKEN: President Putin is not relenting and in fact, maybe growing more desperate.

MATTINGLY: All underscoring the urgency of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's progress towards securing an urgent indirect Ukrainian request.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're willing to do so immediately when we have a proper advisement.

MATTINGLY: Austin's Slovakian counterpart publicly open to providing S-300 air defense systems to the country, with the U.S. planning to backfill any transfer that transfer process designed to supplement the additional $800 million in military assistance announced this week by Biden, the White House still opposed to transfers of foreign war planes and firmly against any no-fly zone proposals.

LLOYD AUSTIN, DEFENSE SECRETARY: There's no such thing as a no-fly zone light. A no-fly zone means that you're in in a in a conflict with Russia.


MATTINGLY: And Jake, White House press secretary Jen Psaki described that call between Presidents Biden's and Xi as an opportunity for the President to assess where President Xi stands, which gets at a long standing condition -- contention of White House officials that the Chinese are currently engaged in an unsustainable balancing act between trying to implicitly support Russia while also trying to stay in their long stated idea of sovereignty of nations. At this point, Psaki said it's time for the Chinese to decide where they want to be when the history books are written. Jake.

TAPPER: Phil Mattingly at the White House, thanks so much. Let's bring in CNN Global Affairs analyst Susan Glasser, who served as the Washington Post's Moscow bureau chief, also with us former NATO Supreme Allied Commander retired General Wesley Clark and general let me start with you.

According to Britain's Ministry of Defense, Russia is resorting to the use of older, less precise weapons, so called dumb bombs that are less military effective and more likely to result in civilian casualties that the theater attack in Mariupol is just the latest example of Putin has seemingly no regard for civilian life. What do you make of it all?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET.), FORMER NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMANDER: Well, I think it's a deliberate tactic by Russia to put pressure on the Zelenskyy government by causing immense humanitarian suffering, starting with Mariupol, Kharkiv, trying to get close enough to keep to do it. This is a deliberate terror tactic by Putin. This is not accident. This is deliberate. And it is a war crime by international definition. So I'm glad the United States is calling it out, Jake.

TAPPER: And Susan, Vladimir Putin also taking harsh actions against the Russian people, specifically those who speak out against the war. He's called them national traitors. Russian military and police have arrested more than 14,000 anti-war protesters in Russia since the start of the invasion. Again, that number more than 14,000. I assume it's only going to get worse from there.

SUSAN GLASSER, STAFF WRITER, THE NEW YORKER: Yes, I think Putin has been very clear that he is engaged on a massive internal crackdown. These are two sides really of his war. His war is at home as well. And he's been signaling and foreshadowing that for a long time.

Jake, in two decades of watching Vladimir Putin, I've never seen a speech that was as chilling to the bone as the speech that he gave yesterday. That was a full on echo of the worst excesses of Soviet era totalitarianism. It was a very scary speech to anyone who cares about the fate of the Russian people because it suggested a kind of purging and self-cleansing, I think was one of the phrases that he uses. I would look for an enormous increase in arrest and a full iron curtain descending.


TAPPER: General Clark, as you noted, President Biden is now calling Putin a war criminal and Secretary of State Antony Blinken did as well. These are the harshest, personal condemnations of Putin from the U.S. since the war began three weeks ago.

But big picture doesn't matter. What's -- what does it matter if Biden calls Putin a war criminal? What does it matter in terms of the International Criminal Court to which neither the U.S. nor Russia is a member?

CLARK: I think this name calling and the International Criminal Court actions are very significant. They're very significant internationally. They have impacts on economic relationships, they have impact on countries that have not yet taken aside or held back from fully endorsing the U.S. position. And they do threaten the people in the chain of command under Putin.

Once these war crimes charges are formalized and indicted, they go out into the Interpol and international communities, people can't travel. And it means it's a long term squeeze. But we can't think about kissing and makeup -- making up with Vladimir Putin, not after this. So this war crimes investigations that are going on, this is the way the international community tightens the grip, puts the squeeze on through legal means. We're fighting for a rules based international order. And at the heart of that is the United Nations and of course the international criminal tribunals and the conduct of international humanitarian law. So it has to be called out and it has to be enforced. That's what this is about.

TAPPER: Susan, tomorrow President Biden we're told is scheduled to speak with Chinese President Xi Jinping. We know China's state media has largely been parroting the talking points from the Kremlin since the invasion began. There have actually been alerts and memos that have been posted on Chinese social media suggesting that it's coming from on high. What message do you think Biden needs to convey to Xi Jinping?

GLASSER: Well, Jake, I think it's very interesting that you've seen Tony Blinken, the U.S. Secretary of State and U.S. officials beforehand, saying we're very concerned that China's going to say yes to Russian ask for military assistance and the like, you know, is this a way of signaling in advance what that conversation is going to be about? This could be the most important conversation of the week in many ways.

China has embraced Vladimir Putin and clearly had some advanced knowledge of this war just released a 5,000-word communique between Putin and Xi Jinping as the beginning of the Olympics is suggested there's no limits to their friendship. They may be reconsidering that now. And I think its President Biden's message to be like now is the time that you should be reconsidering that.

Remember, China, unlike Russia has not in recent decades use force as a routine aspect of their foreign policy. The last time China went towards 1979, whereas Vladimir Putin has used brutal attacks on civilians and military actions throughout his 20 years in power. So they already have a somewhat different approach to the world, you know, and so we'll see if anything comes out of it.

TAPPER: Susan Glasser, General Wesley Clark, thanks to both of you appreciate it. Acts of kindness in the face of a brutal war how Ukraine's neighbors are opening their hearts and their homes to those fleeing for safety.



TAPPER: Topping our world lead, more than 3.1 million refugees have now fled Ukraine into neighboring countries. To give you some perspective on that number, that's close to 7 percent of Ukraine's entire population. And CNN's Miguel Marquez reports for us now. These new refugees, they need food, shelter, clothing, medical aid and residents of a picturesque Romanian city while they're all doing everything they can to chip in to help.


(voice-over): Friends, fellow citizens and colleagues she says, family too, all from Donbas in eastern Ukraine, refugees after the war there in 2014. Refugees again.

Some people crossed the border on foot, she says, two borders. Not everyone is lucky as 86-year-old Antonina Mikhailova, who had arrived. She survived World War II. Now she's in an apartment in central Romania with her daughter and lots of friends and her cat named Mucia.

My childhood was spent during the war, she says, now in my old age, there is war again. And for what, in the name of all people. God, please stop the war.

The mediaeval city of Brasov (ph) not far from Dracula's castle is preparing a 1,000 beds for Ukrainian refugees, those beds in a hotel and its historic center, a business development center and a brand new apartment building in a new part of town.

OLDA KEPAR (ph), UKRAINIAN REFUGEE: The main challenge is how to scale it up because this is only the first wave of refugees.

MARQUEZ: Olda Kepar (ph) from Odessa is here with her two daughters. How do you feel being here?


MARQUEZ: Other than perfect, she says, they gave us medicine and new beds. They fed us, then added it's very, very, very good. The city of Brasov (ph) preparing for even more refugees with a mayor believes will need even more support and possibly stay for a long time.

MAYOR ALLEN COLIBAN, BRASOV, ROMANIA: If you're a mother with a child, you can come to Russia, we can offer you a job, we can offer and we are discussing about solutions for daycare for children, how to integrate them in the educational system.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): The city planning the future but meeting basic needs too. Coordinating with local restaurants, providing thousands of meals. Today on St. Patrick's Day, prepared by Deane's Irish Pub. Luck of the Irish.

ALINA COLCERU, DEANE'S IRISH PUB & GRILL: It's more than just providing meals and we're kind of providing hope to them. And they do need that and we can see that on their faces and I think that's really important.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): Tatiana Kiriukhina and Natalia Zhivilka, mother and daughter from Mykolaiv got here only three days ago.

If not for the help here, she says, I don't think our nerves could have taken it. There were air raids day and night. We couldn't eat, we couldn't sleep. In Mykolaiv, she says the planes were flying right over our heads. Flying, flying, flying. I can't find words to explain. It's very scary.

Antonina Mikhailova has a simple wish.

In my old age, I only wanted peace and prosperity, she says. Then added, I like everything to be OK. But for now, it's not.


MARQUEZ: So now what cities like brushed off are dealing with is just the surge of refugees. There may be many more ahead and they are concerned that the ones that are coming are going to be here not for weeks or months, but months and years possibly. So the mayor here is saying, look, everybody sort of take a breath. We are in this for a marathon. Jake?

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: All right, Miguel Marquez reporting live from Romania for us. Thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Breaking news, a deadly head on crash involving a pickup truck and a van carrying a college golf team. Investigators now say the driver of the pickup truck was just 13 years old. Stay with us.



TAPPER: We have some breaking news for you in our national lead, an update to a story you saw in THE LEAD yesterday. Federal officials now say it was a 13-year-old behind the wheel of the pickup truck that was driving on the wrong side of a Texas road causing a deadly crash, a tragic crash with a van carrying collegiate golf players.

And let's get straight to CNN's Pete Muntean. And Pete, the NTSB just gave an update. What did investigators have to say?

PETE MUNTEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Two incredible findings by the NTSB not even 48 hours after that fiery head on crash. That University of Southwest van was hit by a pickup truck that swerved into oncoming traffic. Investigators now say the driver of that pickup was a 13- year-old boy. The NTSB says his passenger was 38-year-old Henrich Siemens, both were killed Tuesday night. Seven people died in the university van.

They were members of the men's and women's golf teams along with their coach. They had just left a tournament in Midland, Texas and were headed back to campus in New Mexico. Now investigators say most of the wreckage was heavily burned, but they now believe that the left front tire of the pickup fail. They think that that caused it to dart across the center line and into the path of the university van.


BRUCE LANDSBERG, VICE CHAIRMAN, NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD: It was very clearly a high speed head-on collision between two heavy vehicles. You won't be able to see the vehicles directly but we have literally thousands of pictures that were taken by the various first responders. And there is no question about the force of impact.


MUNTEAN: The University of the Southwest is a private Christian University, total enrollment about 1,200 students. Administrators say every one of them is grieving. Two students survived the crash and administrator say both are still hospitalized. The university provost says the recovery has been steady but, Jake, they say it will be very slow.

TAPPER: It's such a horrible story.


TAPPER: Pete Muntean, thank you so much for bringing us the latest.

Coming up, the politics of parenting how new legislation awaiting the signature of Florida's governor, fueling the latest culture clashes in the country. Will the outrage translate into votes? Stay with us.



TAPPER: In our politics lead, this week marked the end of Florida's legislative session. While state lawmakers debated the usual redistricting in the state budget, one democratic state representative says she's always going to remember this legislative session as the, quote, session of culture wars and red meat.

As CNN's Leyla Santiago reports for us now, divisive bills are awaiting Republican Governor Ron DeSantis' signature. And as each day passes, they are generating more public outrage.


UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKERS (in unison): Happy birthday dear Blake (ph).

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): 12 candles to blow out this year. With friends and loved ones celebrating the day Blake (ph) arrived.

TODD DELMAY, FLORIDA PARENT: We've known before he was born, there were going to be things unique about our family obviously being an interracial couple, being a gay couple, being that he's adopted, and we always made a priority that he knew exactly what was going on

SANTIAGO (voice-over): And that includes conversations about a new bill that is passed through Florida's legislature titled "Parental Rights and Education." Dubbed by critics they don't say gay bill. Even though it does not technically ban the use of the word gay, it does prohibit instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity and kindergarten through third grade or in a manner that is not age appropriate, leaving room for debate because it does not say what age appropriate means.

DELMAY: His first reaction was, does this mean I'm not going to be able to talk about my family.

MARTA MESA, FLORIDA PARENT: He shouldn't be worried, there's tonnes of movies and TV stars and everywhere that are gay couples in there. It's fine. You have to be proud of your families. So that's something that he has to work in and address it directly with his family and then we're going to. --

SANTIAGO (voice-over): Marta Mesa has two high school students in Florida. She argues this is about parents' rights and keeping conversations about sexuality out of the elementary schools.

ANDREW SPAR, PRESIDENT, FLORIDA EDUCATION ASSOCIATION: We don't teach anything about sex education in our elementary schools.

SANTIAGO (voice-over): Florida Education Association says this bill is not about children but politics legislation to create chaos and confusion and expect it to be signed by Governor Ron DeSantis who was up for re-election and widely considered a potential GOP 2024 presidential candidate.


SPAR: He's made it clear he wants to have a culture war in our public schools for a political game, not based on what is best for kids.

MESA: It's not culture war (ph), it's about protecting our kids.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): By us protecting against CRT and the Stop WOKE Act, you know, we're going to be making sure that time in school is actually spent learning and not just being targets of indoctrination.

SANTIAGO (voice-over): The Stop Woke Act, the title of legislation now passed by Florida's legislature that would make it illegal for schools to teach students that they, quote, must feel guilt for historical events committed by people of their same race or sex.

DELMAY: Whether it's differences about gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, right, the color of one's skin, these are all things that they are trying to block.

MESA: No, I don't agree. And again, as I mentioned, is a fake narrative. This is a law for parental rights of little kids, focusing on math, grammar, reading, and not about sexuality.

JEFF DELMAY, FLORIDA PARENT: You hear a lot of them say, oh, no, I'm -- we're supportive of LGBTQ parents. We're supportive of that. But you're not because you're clearly singling out, clearly discriminating against in the situation. And we feel it.


SANTIAGO: And Jake, the Delmay family says they plan to stay here to fight back on this. Todd Delmay now running for office. Jeff Delmay is chairing Equality Florida, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ rights. And right now, there's a lot of talk about the legal implications of these organizations already looking to the courts to explore their options on what some people call discrimination, what others call parental rights.

TAPPER: All right, Leyla Santiago in Florida for us. Thank you so much.

Let's discuss this with our panel. Ramesh, let me start with you because there's an opinion piece by Tom Edsall in the New York Times, exploring the concept of Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, quote, out trumping Trump. Edsall says in part, "Lacking Trump's impulsiveness and preference for chaos, a president DeSantis with his attention to detail and command of the legislative process, might well match or exceed Trump as liberals' worst nightmare."

What do you think? And could that be his ticket to the Republican presidential nomination?

RAMESH PONNURU, SENIOR EDITOR, NATIONAL REVIEW: Well, I think that the idea of Trump without the chaos and impulsiveness, I just wonder what's left really when you're talking about that. When people say that DeSantis is Trumpy, what they mean is he's combative. He's willing to take the fight to Democrats and Liberals, and he won't really give an inch.

And that it seems to me a separate from the things that cause Trump to be so unpopular and to repel a lot of traditional conservatives. It's not the same thing as saying, you know, I want to get rid of NATO. It's not the same thing as getting into fights with journalists, about their faces, and so forth.

And I think one of the things we're seeing when people say, DeSantis is Trumpy, is there's this idea that while we all disagree, we all dislike Trump, this group of people, that doesn't mean we all disliked him for the same reasons.

TAPPER: Right. And Paul, let me ask you, because one of the things that DeSantis is doing, I think Trump was known for a lot of things or is known for a lot of things, not just being impulsive, but also, he ran right for culture war issues in a way that most presidents don't do as a general matter of course. They might do it in an election year. But they don't necessarily do as a matter of course, where Trump was constantly running for -- I'm going to side with the people who hate Colin Kaepernick, example, he didn't have to say anything. You know what I mean? That's what I mean.

And there is something of that in how DeSantis is approaching his job. And that I think that could be very attractive to Republican voters.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Absolutely. There's a lot of research that what Republicans want now used to be when I was a kid, Republicans wanted to low taxes, limited government, strong defence, family values, OK, everybody. You know what they want now? The number one issue for Republicans, own the libs. It's -- let's go Brandon. That's what they believe in. And Mister -- Governor DeSantis has figured that out. It's no longer a system politics for them. It's no longer a system where we allocate resources in the most equitable way we can. It is, I just want to own the libs and he has done that.

Now the problem is, he's beating up on vulnerable kids. So people like me really find that distasteful. It's fine if he wants to attack...

TAPPER: Trans kids.

BEGALA: Yes, the trans kids and gay kids in Florida. For a powerful governor to be attacking most vulnerable kids in his state is pretty loathsome.

TAPPER: What he would argue he's not...


TAPPER: Right?

BEGALA: Yes, he would.

TAPPER: He would argue that he's just giving parents rights. And schools should not be treating -- teaching age inappropriate material to kids K through 3. That would be the counter of argument.

ZOLAN KANNO-YOUNGS, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, NEW YORK TIMES: He would say that, I mean, and this has been kind of the headline for Republicans, whether it be governor's race in Virginia all the way to DeSantis is that, you know, by introducing legislation and policies that will dictate what, you know, what can be taught in a class.


Some would say erases certain parts of history in a classroom by, you know, introducing something like the Stop WOKE Act that's now being advertised under the guise of empowering parents. But the issue is, and what critics would point to is the footage that you just showed, that also showed parents as well.

TAPPER: Right.

KANNO-YOUNGS: And, you know, there is the criticism that you're proposing these policies, saying that they will empower, you know, parents when it comes to the classroom, but what about those parents that also fear for the wellbeing of their children as well, and how they could be impacted.

MARGARET TALEV, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: But you know there's recent polling that it has kind of -- you can watch the DeSantis' rise through this. And there are two elements that are really interesting if the polling holds and if it applies beyond Florida. One is his appeal to independent voters, and the other is potentially his appeal to Hispanic voters, although I think Florida-Hispanic voters, probably lean maybe a little bit differently than Hispanic voters in California, or you know, what have you.

But these are two elements where an appeal could actually carry national implications. The one thing we haven't talked about is, the stronger DeSantis becomes, the harder it is for Trump to mount a real comeback initiative, or at least the more of a potential clash there. So I think there's a lot of interesting elements to watch there.

PONNURU: It's also worth noting that the morning consult in Politico did a poll on the policy that we're talking about here, this education bill in Florida --

TAPPER: This is the one about not making people feel guilty or the one about not talking about inappropriate age, inappropriate sexuality?

PONNURU: Age, inappropriate sexuality, and it had majority support from Americans, 51 to 35 percent split. So the idea that, you know, just because there are a lot of people who are very genuinely outraged by this, that this is necessarily going to be a weakness for the Republicans, that might not be the case.

BEGALA: There was an ABC poll that about 62 percent opposes. It depends on how you act it.


BEGALA: As a Democratic strategist, what I hope the Democrats do is not chase every shiny object. But instead tell people, is this the biggest problem facing Florida? Ron DeSantis party has run Florida for 25 years. If the schools are screwed up, and they're very mediocre in Florida, they're ranked 23rd, it's because of the Republicans. They're trying to distract you by dividing you and Democrats ought to be talking about jobs, crime, COVID, issues that really matter in your life.

TAPPER: So one of the thing -- what's something Paul just said about in his previous answer about owning the libs is what Republicans stand for. The way that I think Republican pollsters or consultants might view that is not owning the libs, it is -- they -- Donald Trump -- remember, this was something that people talked a lot about during the Trump years. He has the right enemies, right?

That's one of the things that Republicans, Conservatives liked about Trump is that he got -- he really bothered the media. He bothered establishment Republicans. He bothered, you know, Hollywood. He bothered, you know, the cast of Hamilton, whatever, you know.

He bothered all the right people.


TAPPER: That's what owning the libs is. Now sometimes there's performative Marjorie Taylor Greene, you know, ridiculousness. But I think this idea that, like, all the right people don't like Ron DeSantis is something that will serve him well potentially.

KANNO-YOUNGS: Could galvanize, you know, the base as well. I mean, look, we talked about this tension as well, between DeSantis and Trump. I mean, as you near a presidential election, you know, those voters that did gravitate towards the president because he tapped into a certain grievance that was felt across the country by specifically targeting some of the entities that you were just describing and tapping into these culture wars, that is something that seems to be mimic your, you know, by the Florida Governor as well.

I mean, one thing in Thomas' piece that you were previewing before, he talked about how you have these series of headlines that have gone out. You know, DeSantis borates, reporter at press conference. You know, there's some that would say, look, that's actually something that is going to continue to galvanize some of his followers moving forward.

I just want to follow up on something Paul was saying too, because when it comes to the other side of this coin, you know, while Republicans continue to kind of tap into what we've been describing, these cultural wars to galvanize their base, there is the other side of growing anxiety in the Democratic Party too. And, you know, many folks, Moderates as well approaching the White House saying, look, while the governor continues to do this, while Republicans across the country continue to do this, it's even more reason to focus on these tabletop issues such as crime and COVID.

TAPPER: Yes, the ones you were talking about. Happy St. Patrick's Day to everybody. Appreciate it.

Coming up, the forecast is grim too little water across the west and too much water along the Mississippi Valley and warmer than usual everywhere, everywhere, everywhere. How climate change is pushing the U.S. to extremes, that's next.



TAPPER: In our Earth matters series today, even though it's raining here in Washington, D.C. today, the government's top weather forecasters just put out a grim long range outlook for most of the nation. For starters, temperatures this spring will be above average across most of the country. The current drought in the western U.S. is predicted to persist and even spread.

Nearly 60 percent of the continental U.S. is experiencing minor to exceptional drought conditions. That's the highest since 2013. The western drought already has caused Utah's Great Salt Lake to shrink, and levels on reservoirs such as Lake Mead on the Colorado River to drop dramatically.

So where might it rain this spring? Well here in the East, forecaster say. The forecast shows a minor to moderate flood risk in the Mississippi Valley and along the major rivers the flow into it.

You can follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the TikTok at JakeTapper. You can tweet the show at TheLeadCNN. If you ever miss an episode of the show, you can listen to THE LEAD wherever you get your podcasts. It's all two hours just sitting right there.

Our coverage continues now with one Mr. Wolf Blitzer right next door in "THE SITUATION ROOM." See you tomorrow.