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The Lead with Jake Tapper

Federal Judge: Trump's Efforts To Overthrow Election Likely Criminal; Gas Prices Stabilizing But $1.39 A Gallon More Than Last Year; Academy Holds "Heated," "Divided" Talks On Will Smith Slap; Biden Says He Was Not Calling For Regime Change In Russia; Russian Forces Pummel The Kyiv Suburbs With Bombs; Federal Judge: Trump's Efforts To Overthrow Election Likely Criminal. Aired 4-5p ET

Aired March 28, 2022 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: President Biden refusing to walk back his controversial comments that Putin cannot remain in power.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Just moments ago, President Biden insisting the U.S. is not pushing for regime change in Russia even though he does not think that Vladimir Putin should remain in charge. How much weight will Biden's words carry on the eve of so-called peace talks?

Plus, a federal judge says former President Trump and one of his lawyers likely committed a crime by trying to stop the election process on January 6, 2021. Who decides if Trump will actually face charges?

And Will Smith's show-stopping slap, hitting Chris Rock in the face after Rock joked about Jada Pinkett Smith. The heated meeting after the Oscars that could determine Will Smith's fate with the Academy.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: Hello and welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin this hour with breaking news. President Biden insisting, quote, I'm not walking anything back. The president insisting he stands by his unscripted remarks that this weekend, that Vladimir Putin, quote, cannot remain in power, comments that were seen by many as calls for regime change in Russia. Here is Biden's explanation.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Let me begin by saying -- you know, you've heard me say this before, land war or nuclear war with Russia, that's not part of it. I was expressing my outrage, the behavior of this man. It's outrageous. It's outrageous.


TAPPER: On the ground near the Ukrainian capital today, the mayor of Irpin says Ukrainian forces have, quote, freed that suburb from Russian invaders. The fighting and Russian bombing have intensified in and around Kyiv, as Russian forces attempt to create a corridor around the capital, to block supply routes.

The mayor of Mariupol says they're in the hand of occupiers. That city has been flattened by nonstop Russian bombing and a weeks-long siege by the Russians. Ukraine's military intelligence chief is warning that Putin could be trying to cleave Ukraine in two, perhaps similar to north and South Korea, possibly splitting into occupied Ukraine in the east and south and unoccupied Ukraine, free Ukraine.

More on the ground in a moment, but let's start at the White House with CNN's Kaitlan Collins.

Kaitlan, president Biden suggested no one could have interpreted his remarks as calling for regime change.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Of course, Jake, many people raised that question of whether or not that was what he was advocating for at the end of the speech. But today, he says he is not walking back his statement that President Putin cannot remain in power but, Jake, he also says that not citing a new policy from the United States government, which, of course, officials in recent weeks have said they do not support regime change in Russia. That is up to the Russian people to make the decision, and the United States does not have a position on that.

But, of course, it came into question after those nine words that President Biden said at the end of a very forceful speech in Warsaw. It came after a day where he had been meeting with Ukrainian refugees, the very people that Putin has forced from their homes in Ukraine, and instead, President Biden told us a few moments ago he was expressing his moral outrage at Putin's behavior.


BIDEN: I wasn't then nor am I now articulating a policy change. I was expressing the moral outrage that I feel and I make no apologies for it.

The last part of the speech was talking to the Russian people, telling them what we thought. Now, I was communicating this not only to the Russian people, but the whole world. This is -- this is just stating a simple fact that the this kind of behavior is totally unacceptable, totally unacceptable and the way to deal with it is so strengthen and put -- keep NATO completely united and help Ukraine where we can.


COLLINS: Jake, we should note the French president was one of several leaders who expressed concern about this maybe being viewed as escalatory. The president told us he does not believe this is going to affect any diplomatic efforts when it comes to Russia and Ukraine, and he also say he doesn't care if Putin views it as an escalatory move, which is notable, given that is something that the White House has sought to balance, confronting Putin while not provoking. One other thing, Jake, that was really interesting from that exchange is we asked President Biden whether or not he'd be willing to meet with President Putin again. Of course, they sat down in Geneva just the last year, they talk on the phone several times, since then, but they have not spoken since this invasion began.


However, Jake, he did not rule out meeting with president Putin, the man he has called a war criminal and a pure thug. He said it depends on what Putin wants to talk about -- Jake.

BURNETT: All right. Kaitlan Collins at the White House, thank you so much.

A new warning from Ukraine's military intelligence chief today suggesting the Kremlin could be aiming to carve Ukraine down the middle.

As Fred Pleitgen reports, Russian forces have been pummeling Kyiv's suburbs with the bombing campaign. A warning to viewers: this story contains some graphic images.


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): Kyiv remains under full-on attack by Vladimir Putin's army. Ukrainian officials saying Russian forces are trying to storm the capital but failing, unleashing artillery barrages on civilian areas in the process.

We drove to Novi Petrivtsi a village north of Kyiv, only a few miles from the front line. Even the streets here are pockmarked with shrapnel and massive impact craters. Whole buildings laid to waste. Look at the damage caused. There's really thick brick walls and even they were annihilated by the force of whatever landed here. -

The people tell us they only felt one really large explosion and it wounded several people and killed a small child. That child was 2- year-old Stepan, killed while in his bed when the house came under fire. These videos given to us by local authorities show the chaos in the aftermath as the wounded appear in shock.

Residents and rescuers try save those who are inside. Stepan pronounced dead on the scene.

Stephan was Oleg Shpak's second child. We found Oleg sifting through the rubble of his house days later. Inside, he shows me the damage caused by the explosion. He was at work when his home was hit. His wife, the other children and his mother-in-law had already been brought to the hospital when he arrived at the house. Stepan couldn't be saved, and because of staff shortages at the morgue, oleg had to prepare his son's body for burial himself.

OLEG SHPAK, NOVI PETRIVTSI RESIDENT, SON WAS KILLED BY RUSSIAN SHELLING (through translator): I had to wash him, to dress him. His head from to his right ear to left ear, one large hematoma. His legs, his arms, a hematoma not compatible with life. And besides of that, lots of other wounds were discovered after that.

PLEITGEN: Many other houses have ultimately been hit here. The police tell me the Russians shell if town every day.

We bumped into 84-year-old Halyna in the town center. She was a child when the Nazis invaded this area and says now things are worse.

HALYNA, NOVI PETRIVITSI RESIDENT (through translator): Worse than fascists. When the Germans were here and entered our homes, they would shoot at the ceiling because they would not touch us. They moved us into the woods, but they did not shoot us like the Russian soldiers are shooting now, killing children.

PLEITGEN: The Kremlin claims its forces don't target civilian areas, but the U.S., NATO, and the Ukrainians say the Russians are frustrated by their lack of progress and are firing longer reining range weapons because they can't make headway on the ground.

VLADYSLAV ODINTSOV, KYIV REGIONAL POLICE (through translator): They understand that sooner or later our troops will push them out of our territory. Now the Russians are doing dirty tricks. They shoot more at civilian areas than the positions of the Ukrainian army.

PLEITGEN: Ukraine's army says it's pressing it own counteroffensive trying to dislodge Russian troops from the outskirts of Kyiv. The Kremlin's forces, meanwhile, so far unable to take the Ukrainian capital are instead laying waste to its suburbs.


PLEITGEN (on camera): And, Jake, that was really the story of the day today once again, where we heard explosions the other day, air raid sirens going on the entire day as well, and plumes of smoke especially over the northwest of the Ukrainian capital. A spokesman for the Ukrainian army today say the Russians were trying to advance in that area, once again trying to take streets and small villages, as he put it. He said so far the Ukrainians are able to confront them and hold them back. And, of course, the Ukrainians saying they're continuing to try to push the counteroffensive to completely push the Russians out of this area -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Fred Pleitgen, reporting live from Kyiv, thank you. Please stay safe.

Joining us live to discuss, Republican Congressman Mike McCaul. He's the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.

I want to start with the president a few minutes ago, saying his comments about Putin not wanting him ton remain in power he was expressing his personal moral outrage, not a policy change. What's your response to that? You seemed to suggest yesterday with Dana Bash he was being needlessly provocative in his regional comments. REP. MICHAEL MCCAUL (R-TX): Right. And, listen, I went down to the

border, the Ukraine border, Poland, saw the refugees.


I understand the moral outrage that the president must have felt in his emotions when he made that comment, but it seems like every time he goes off script, he causes some international incident here. And so, you know, when they say they don't want to be provocative by bringing in MiG jets but makes comments like these, particularly are the negotiations we think are going to take place in the next couple of days, I don't think it was very helpful.

The sad part, Jake, is it overshadowed pretty much the entire NATO/EU/G7 summit. This is all anything is talking about.

TAPPER: Yeah. And you agreed with the White House walk back that regime change in Russia, which President Biden reiterated today, is up to the people, not the American leadership. But I wonder about that. Because if the Russians don't have free and fair elections, the Russian people, if Putin suppresses and even kills those who push for reform, who push for democracy, is it up to the Russian people? I'm not pushing for regime change myself, but it isn't really up to them, is it?

MCCAUL: Well, Putin is a dictator under this sort of false democracy. He does control the elections. You know, I predict -- we had Condoleezza Rice, a visit with her in our retreat last weekend. These body bags going home, Jake -- I mean, 17,000 to 15,000 Russians killed, and you multiply that by three in terms of casualties. The mothers when they see their sons coming home, this is more than that he lost in Afghanistan in their war against the mujahidin and it's far more than we lost in Iraq and Afghanistan over 20 years.

I think this is going to have a profound impact on the Russian people. The oligarchs are obviously not happy with Mr. Putin. I think he thinks the world is circling in on him, and that's a positive thing. We want change from within with the Russian people rising up against this brutal war criminal.

TAPPER: Do you agree with President Biden when he made the comment that Vladimir Putin is a butcher?

MCCAUL: I do. I think he crossed the line when he killed civilians, when he bombed the maternity hospital, when he bombed the children's hospital in Kyiv. I actually helped facilitate getting these children out of Ukraine into Poland and NATO allied countries.

And the thing I worry the most about is, what's going to come next? We don't want to escalate the situation. If he's a scorpion backed in a corner and the stinger comes out, he has two options: one chemical, and one the short-range tactical nukes. That would change -- it would be a paradigm shift in this competition, this conflict, that could extend it to now a world power conflict.

TAPPER: There's another round of talks being held tomorrow in Istanbul between Russia and Ukraine. Is it worth it, do you think, for Ukraine to agree to a peace process if Zelenskyy has to cede the Donbas region and pledge that Ukraine will never join NATO? Is that worth it for peace?

MCCAUL: Now, I really leave that to President Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people. This is their decision, not our decision, or NATO's decision. Or for that matter, it shouldn't be Putin's.

I think he has agreed that it would be okay to be a neutral country, not a NATO power, but I think the territorial disputes are going to be the part that's difficult for Zelenskyy to accept, especially after the mass graves we've seen and the horror images we've seen on the television. I think it would be difficult for him to see the Donbas, for him to cede Crimea in its entirety. He can talk about no nuclear missiles in his country. This would be a very difficult decision.

I agree with your on list, though. I think Putin's strategy right now is to divide east Ukraine versus west with the Dnipro River right down the middle. And I think Putin does want those two Donbas independent separatist countries as he called them. He wants Mariupol which is a bread basket port to control the Black Sea.

TAPPER: Uh-huh. Republican Congressman Mike McCaul of Texas, thank you so much for your thoughts today.

Coming up next, the inconceivable tool of this war on the Ukrainian who volunteered and stayed behind, and fought for their country.

Plus, she's the wife of Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas. She also shared text message with the White House about overturning the 2020 election.


And a meeting this evening could make Ginni Thomas front and center of the January 6th investigation.

Stay with us.


TAPPER: In our world lead, Ukrainian officials say that at least 136 children have been killed and 199 wounded since Russia first invaded and began its brutal assault on the country and the Ukrainian people more than a month ago. While CNN cannot independently verify those figures authorities acknowledge the data is not conclusive and could be much higher.

CNN's Ben Wedeman takes a look at some of the civilians turned resistance fighters who are now getting a soldier's funeral.


BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Lord have mercy, goes the hymn's refrain. Another family's drink of war's bitter dredges. Forty-seven-year-old Yuri Solomka (ph) died on the 18th of March from wounds sustained in the front line city of Mykolaiv. His mother Lyudmila struggles through the ceremony.

Every day there's another funeral during this time of death, destruction, and displacement. These are indeed the times that try a people's soul.

Yuri was a volunteer, not a regular soldier. He was given full military honors.

Beyond customs of respect for a man who died in the battle for a nation at war, lies the trauma of a woman who brought him into this world.

There can be nothing more painful for a mother than to attend the funeral of her child. A son killed in a war not of his choosing.

He decided on his own to join the army, says Lyudmila. He hadn't told me. He was a good father and a good son.

Says his sister, Yelena, he was always a man of his word.

Yuri's lies with other freshly dug graves.

After a month of this conflict, no one really knows how many soldiers and civilians have been killed. The only thing of which anyone can be certain is that only the dead have seen the end of war.

Before this funeral ends, preparations begin for the next. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.


WEDEMAN (on camera): And, Jake, we're coming to you from the city of Mykolaiv where Yuri was killed ten days ago, and it was on this day in 1944 that Mykolaiv was liberated from the Nazis. But there were no commemorations today, with a new war raging just outside this city. Jake?

TAPPER: Sobering report. Ben Wedeman in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, thank you. Please stay safe.

Coming up next, a judge says the former president likely committed a crime in the run up to January 6th and on that day. Could this be trouble for Donald Trump?

Plus, what we know about Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner and an upcoming conversation he's going to have with the January 6th Committee.

Stay with us.



TAPPER: In our politics lead, a federal judge's ominous signal to Donald Trump and one of his top allies in the failed and unconstitutional attempt to overturn the 2020 election. The judge writing that Trump and Attorney John Eastman may have been planning a crime.

Judge David Carter, a Clinton employee wrote, based on the evidence, the court fines it more likely than not that President Trump corruptly attempted to obstruct the joint session of Congress on January 6th, 2021. The judge also writing, quote, the illegality of the plan was obvious.

Let's bring in attorney and CNN legal analyst, Elie Honig.

Now, Elie, how big a deal is this? Because just to be clear, the ruling was not about charging Trump with a crime.

ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Right, Jake. First things first, this is not an indictment. This does not ensure there will be an indictment. Still, though, this is a remarkable and really unprecedented ruling. The dispute here was the committee was trying to get certain emails between this lawyer John Eastman and Donald Trump.

Eastman said, can't have them. They're protected by attorney-client privilege. The committee argued, no, we get them because of what's called the crime fraud exception, because they're evidence of an ongoing crime.

And this is the remarkable part -- the judge said, I agree. I find more likely than not that the president of the United States committed multiple frauds relate to the coup attempt. That is really something we've never seen before from a federal judge.

TAPPER: Yeah, there's no attorney-client privilege if they're conspiring together to commit a crime.

So, who will decide if Trump will be charged with a crime? And does this judge's opinion in that matter impact that at all?

HONIG: No, it does not. So, this decision comes down to the United States Department of Justice and ultimately, really, one person, Merrick Garland.

Important to know also, this judge made his ruling but more likely than not, what we call a preponderance of the evidence. That's here in terms of legal standards. In order to chart a crime, a prosecutor has to show proof beyond a reasonable doubt. That's a much higher standard. That's a much different story, but this decision will up the pressure -- the political pressure on DOJ to take meaningful action.

TAPPER: We're also learning that Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is expected to speak with the January 6 this week. What might the committee learn from him?

HONIG: So, he could be a really interesting witness, Jake, because Jared Kushner likes to position himself as the grownup in the room. I'll leave that to people's determination whether that's no true or not. But he was a bit removed from January 6th physically and otherwise. So, if he's willing to be forthcoming, perhaps he can give his

perspective as sort of a scene minded outsider. But let's remember, Ivanka Trump -- she was right next to Donald Trump this whole time. They asked for her testimony. She sort of brushed off the committee. They need to subpoena her because she has direct crucial information.


TAPPER: And, lastly, quickly if you could, the January 6 Committee wants to ask Virginia Thomas, she's the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, about her text messages with then White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, which Meadows handed over to the committee before he stopped cooperating with them.

HONIG: Yeah.

TAPPER: We're told committee members will meet privately this evening to discuss what to do about Ginni Thomas. What do you make of this?

HONIG: This is not a tangent. This is not some sideshow at all. This is right down the heart of what the committee needs to be looking at. These texts really are game changers.

They show us -- we've known Ginni Thomas has sort of extreme political views. That's fine. She's entitled.

But those texts show that she was urging Mark Meadows, a very powerful person, to take action to bring this coup into effect. That's crucial. That's right down the heart of what the committee needs to look at.

TAPPER: All right. Elie Honig, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

Coming up, ahead, signs of relief after paying higher gas prices for weeks. How long might this respite last?

Stay with us.



TAPPER: You can try to look on the bright side in our money lead today. It seems safe to say gasoline prices have stabilized at least for now. AAA puts the national average at just under $4.25 a gallon, the same as last week, 8 cents less than the all-time high earlier this month. Still, a gallon of gas in the U.S. is about $1.39 more than this time last year. Stable or not, that hurts.

It's also one of the reasons why President Biden's approval rating is only 40 percent, in a recent CNN poll of polls.

Let's talk about pocketbook issues and more with CNN's Richard Quest.

Richard, good to see you. Inflation already was a concerned before Putin invaded Ukraine. The resulting sanctions sent oil prices way up. Where do you think things are likely to go from here?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN BUSINERSS EDITOR AT LARGE: Well, they've stabilized and they've come down a bit because Shanghai is going in lockdown. So, China's demand, if you will, for oil for production is not going to be that great. But there's one thing, Jake, you've got to remember with oil, the first whiff of further trouble, the first scintilla of possibility of supply problems and that price will go back up again.

So any respite that you're seeing now, any little bit of breathing room, take it while it's there because it literally could go tomorrow, oil prices are that volatile.

TAPPER: Higher fuel prices not only are affecting day-to-day life, it has people rethinking their plans for summer travel. What sort of ripple effects might that have?

QUEST: Every bit of the economy. So, you're going to have higher food prices. We already know that manufacturers -- food manufacturers, growers, fertilizer -- one example, fertilizer from Ukraine that can no longer be easily exported, the price goes up, therefore, the food chain becomes more expensive. Hotels, fuel surcharges on airlines.

I'm not trying to paint an unduly depressing picture as such but what I'm trying to do, Jake, is give you a realistic view. The economy is in transition at the moment because of this war. And the higher oil prices, supply chain problems left over from the pandemic along with a pandemic that is still very relevant in many parts of the world, that's why we're going to have difficult economic times in the United States and in Europe.

TAPPER: We want to you give it to us straight, Richard. No one is asking you to hold back and on that subject later this week we're due to get some new readings on inflation and jobs and unemployment. Are you anticipating another round of gloomy headlines?

QUEST: Oh, yes, yes. Look, the Fed has two jobs. One job and two things. It balances full employment with price stability. Those are the jewel -- that's the jewel mandate.

Now, at the moment, unemployment is not really the big issue but inflation is. So we know we're going to get five, six, maybe more, interest rate rises this year. This is despite the fact that the economy is to some extent slowing down already. It's going to be difficult. It's a time for saving if you can, a time for watching the pennies if you can.

TAPPER: All right. Richard Quest, thanks so much. Always good to see you.

Coming up next, that show-stopping slap at the Oscars. The response from the Academy and beyond after Will Smith's violent confrontation with Chris Rock, plus what police say about possible charges against the actor.

Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


TAPPER: In our pop culture lead, the Oscars' moment that has everyone talking but not for the right republics overshadowing a historic night for the awards. The Academy announcing late today that they are launching a formal review into Will Smith's conduct at the Oscars last night after he walked on stage and slapped Chris Rock across the face after the comedian had told a joke about his Will Smith's wife Jada Pinkett Smith's hair. She suffers from alopecia.

After 40 minutes later, Smith won the best actor Oscar Award.

CNN's Stephanie Elam was at the Oscars and reports on how the Academy Awards are responding to a shocking incident.


STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A slap to the jaw that had jaws dropping all around the world, and today, CNN has learned from two sources, at least a dozen Academy members, including actors and directors, held their own meeting on whether more should be done. This after Will Smith confronted Chris Rock on stage for a joke about Smith's wife.

CHRIS ROCK, COMEDIAN: Jada, I love you. "G.I. Jane 2", can't wait to see it.

ELAM: At first, Smith appeared to laugh. But watch Jada Pinkett Smith's face. Their mood changes as the joke sinks in.

ROCK: Oh, wow! Wow! Will Smith just smacked the (EXPLETIVE DELETED) out of me.

WILL SMITH, ACTOR: Keep my wife's name out your (EXPLETIVE DELETED) mouth.


ROCK: Wow, dude.

W. SMITH: Yeah.

ROCK: It was a "G.I. Jane" joke.

ELAM: The Dolby Theater crowd stunned. Denzel Washington and others stepped in to counsel Smith as Sean Combs called for calm.

SEAN COMBS, RAPPER: Okay. Will and Chris, we're going to solve that like family at the gold party.

ELAM: Rock's words a reference to the head shaven character from 1997's "G.I. Jane". Over the years, though, Pinkett Smith has spoken publicly about her struggles with alopecia.

JADA PINKETT SMITH, ACTRESS: It is line right here.

ELAM: An auto-immune disease that causes hair loss.

It's unclear if Rock knew this when he made the comment onstage.

Ironically, he directed a 2009 documentary about the struggles of accepting black hair in its natural form.


ELAM: When Smith won best actor later in the night, the world waited to hear what he would say.

W. SMITH: I want to apologize to the Academy. I want to apologize to all my fellow nominees. Art imitates life. I look like the crazy father just like they said.

ELAM: Obviously missing from his apologies, Chris Rock.

LAPD says Rock declined to file a police report so there's no assault case. The Academy later tweeted it does not condone violence of any form and today announced a formal review to explore further action and consequences.

While some on Twitter sympathize with Smith, others question whether he should have been allowed to accept his award at all.

ERIC DEGGANS, NPR TV CRITIC: They should have explained he wasn't allowed to do it because he attacked someone during the ceremony.

ELAM: After the show, Smith carried on into the Hollywood night. Dancing to one of his own songs, Oscar in hand, at the "Vanity Fair" after party.


ELAM (on camera): Now, the Academy does have to figure out how they're going to respond to this because as things stand Will Smith should be on the Oscar stage next year because he won best actor. That winner always presents best actress the following year, so they have to figure out how they're going to do this.

I also feel sorry for quest love, a person from Philadelphia, who won the award right after that all happened and I think most of the people there couldn't even digest it because they were all still caught up in the slap -- Jake.

TAPPER: Yeah. Stephanie Elam, thanks so much.

Let's discuss with Jemele Hill and Cari Champion, the hosts of "Cari and Jemele: Speak.Easy" available soon on CNN+ which launches tomorrow.

OK. First of all, I just need to know, what was your reaction? What do you think?

CARI CHAMPION, CNN+ HOST, "CARI & JEMELE: SPEAKEASY": Well, I know you were flying.

JEMELE HILL, CNN+ HOST, "CARI & JEMELE: SPEAKEASY": I was. I was flying here to New York.


HILL: And when I was able to turn my phone on I had 653 text messages and that is not hyperbole, Jake. Half of them were probably from you.

CHAMPION: Correct.

HILL: Did you see this? What is going on?

TAPPER: So, one of the things that you and I have -- maybe you did, too -- I listened to the Will Smith autobiography "Will," which is really good. But one of the things you get from the book is, this is a guy who has, to this day, whether or not he realizes it, a lot of pain from his very unhappy childhood with an abusive father and he always felt guilty about not standing up for his mother.

I'm not excusing anything. Anything at all, and I know you aren't either, but trying to understand.

CHAMPION: Well, you're talking contextually. I think Je and I have had this conversation so many times. This story is so layered and I tweeted this earlier. There is not one person who was right and one person who was wrong, and so many times we want to take sides, and it's just not that simple with this case.

I did read the book. I did feel as if he was -- and I'm not a psychologist but, you're right, there was a lot of trauma there. And for him to look over at his wife, I'm not a man, before a man to look over his wife and see her pain and be at their breaking point -- because let's look at his long career. Will, for better or for worse, has not done anything incorrect in his career. Very few missteps, right, when it comes to Will Smith.

TAPPER: Not that we know of, yeah.

CHAMPION: Not that we know of.

TAPPER: Right.

CHAMPION: So when you see someone who has been the butt of jokes for a very long time, because of -- when he was "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air", born and raised in Philly, his raps were always considered -- when he was a rapper, he was considered one of the good guys, if you will and, therefore, sometimes they make fun of you.

And I think what we saw last night, and I'm not even joking, is a man at his breaking point for a lot of reasons.

TAPPER: Yeah. And one of the -- Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley who I believe also suffers from alopecia, and she immediately posted and then deleted something that said: Thank you, Will Smith. Shout out to all the husbands who defend their wives living with alopecia in the face of daily ignorance and insults.

She since deleted the tweet and talked about the importance of nonviolence and how she obviously doesn't advocate violence. And, again, nobody is saying that it was okay to slap Chris Rock in the face. Nobody is saying that.

But obviously for Congresswoman Pressley, she has spent years being mocked and derided, and she felt for Jada Pinkett Smith.


HILL: Not only that, Jake, you have to understand this on an even deeper level than that. For black women, we just watched confirmation hearings with Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, right? We just saw everything that she went through, saw how she was really lambasted in the public eye.


HILL: And we saw all the things that she had to deal with and she was often lauded for keeping cool and collected. Sometimes things happen, people don't feel that way. And I think for black women in particular, I saw Tiffany Haddish as well where she felt very encouraged, if you will, by the fact Will Smith in this very public setting was standing up for his black wife and that's a protection black women often aren't afforded.

And, like you said, it was obviously wrong. Chris Rock shouldn't have told the joke. Will Smith's response can't be to go up and slap another man in public at the Oscars.

TAPPER: Can you imagine if every time a comedian told a joke about somebody in the audience in the Oscars, they had a right to go up and hit?

CHAMPION: That would never happen. This is a rare incident.

HILL: Very rare.

TAPPER: But there are comedians -- Kathy Griffin said comedians are going to be afraid.


CHAMPION: I disagree.

HILL: I don't think so.

CHAMPION: I disagree. I think the people who are in here saying that, it was an assault but those calling for his arrest, saying his Oscar should be taken away, the Academy is not in the business of deciding whose sin is bigger. If you take his Oscar away, then you have to look at everyone who has done anything wrong, who -- everyone who has won an academy, an Oscar, you have to look at what they've done as well. If you decide this is the moment.

HILL: Keep in mind, Harvey Weinstein still has all of his.

CHAMPION: Keep going.

HILL: Roman Polanski, Bill Cosby all members of the Academy.

CHAMPION: We don't want to open up that can of worms, but the reality is there's no one wins here. It was a sad night. I think Will is probably harder on himself today than we will ever be.

TAPPER: I don't know. So, here is the thing. One of the couple's children, Jaden, on Twitter, last night write, and that's how we do it. Now, obviously, they have a strong family unit and I can certainly understand --

CHAMPION: He's a kid.

TAPPER: Well, he's 23.

CHAMPION: He's still a kid.

TAPPER: Tell me, Cari, how do we -- how do we get past this? Obviously, Will Smith needs to apologize to Chris Rock, right? He hit him in the face.

CHAMPION: One hundred percent. And I think everyone knows this who has any type of insight on this. They will have a sit-down. But there's a history we're not even talking about. I believe there's a relationship that's tight and tense, because he's tired, he made a joke about Jada when there's a campaign that says Oscar is so white, and he said, why is Jada, he being Chris Rock, said, why is Jada weighing in? We don't care if she comes. It doesn't matter, essentially.

TAPPER: That's the clean version. I appreciate it.

CHAMPION: The clean version.

TAPPER: The reference to Rihanna.

CHAMPION: No Rihanna here. The reality is that he was tired. I'm not excusing his behavior. I think everyone has fault in this. I believe there's a lot of layers and nuance that we're not even considering, nor do we have time to get in.

TAPPER: What does Will Smith need to do?

HILL: I think Will Smith publicly probably needs to say something. I would be surprised if this is another episode of 'Red Table Talk", if you will.

TAPPER: Yeah, the show that they have.

HILL: The show that Jada hosts. They've been transparent before about issues they face. And so, I think he needs to say something.

If the Academy is going to go so far as to look into action, don't have him present next year. But as Cari said, to take away his Oscar is just ridiculous.

CHAMPION: It's asinine.

HILL: I think he can make amends. It's important people see this in context. People play will like he's soft. You mentioned he was the first hip-hop artist to win a Grammy in a time of the boom of Gangsta rap, he's winning for "Parents Just Don't Understand."

TAPPER: Right.

HILL: Right?

TAPPER: People thought he was soft because he wasn't cursing, wasn't dealing drugs --

CHAMPION: He's talking about the summer. Let's hang out.

HILL: We have heard about their marital issues before they've been brought to light. People have made him memes, the butt of jokes, and frankly, he probably just got to a point where he's like I'm tired.

TAPPER: I could do this all day but I have to take a commercial break. Thank you so much.

HILL: Why?

CHAMPION: Why, Jake?

HILL: Jemele, because I have to pay the bills.

Jemele Hill and Cari Champion, thank you so much.

Again, their new show is going to be called "Cari and Jemele: Speak.Easy", on CNN+, the streaming service debuts tonight at midnight Eastern Time. Well, less than 24 hours away. Learn much more at

I know I'm going to be watching. Thank you so much for joining us. Appreciate it.

Coming up, as Ukrainian refugees flood neighboring countries, leaders in Poland warn that taking on more people will be a challenge. How they're trying to make sure no one is turned away from that country. That's next.



TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

This hour, a look at how nearly 400 acres in Los Angeles County given to homeless veterans in the late 1800s became the site of an athletic center for an elite private school. This while thousands of veterans are currently sleeping on Los Angeles' streets. Plus, a federal judge going further than any other judge as of now,

saying it's more than likely Trump's attempt to block the certification of the election was a crime. What might this mean for the January 6 Committee or for Attorney General Merrick Garland?

And leading this hour, relentless Russian air strikes continuing even with just hours to go before representatives from both Russia and Ukraine are set to meet for talks in Turkey.

Let's get right to CNN's Ivan Watson who's live in the southeast city of Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine.