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The Lead with Jake Tapper
President Zelenskyy Ready To Meet And Discuss Neutrality; Biden Not Worried About His Comment; Some 3.8 Million Refugees Fled Ukraine; Trump Likely Committed Crimes Says Federal Judge; Romney Undecided On Judge Jackson Confirmation Vote; Shanghai Spike Tests China's "Zero- COVID" Policy; Data: Hospitalizations, Deaths Drop In U.S.; Almost 4,000 Veterans Experiencing Homelessness In L.A. County; Land Legally Required To Principally Benefit Veterans Leased To Schools, Oil Company; 101-Year-Old Man Finally Receives High School Diploma. Aired 5-6p ET
Aired March 28, 2022 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: And Ivan, after five weeks of Russian attacks, Ukrainian president Zelenskyy, he says he's ready to discuss a pledge to keep out of NATO and assume a neutral stance. What might that look like? How will the Ukrainian people receive it?
IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I mean, he also couched that by saying that if Ukraine was to move in that direction that it would need a popular referendum that the citizens of Ukraine would have to vote for it. But that would also have to wait for Russian occupying troops to leave Ukrainian territory, and that opens up a whole different can of worms which is Crimea, which Russia grabbed in 2014 and later annexed.
And then these two breakaway regions which the Russian government recognized their independent status in the early days of this more recent conflict. Another sticking point is that Zelenskyy has said he will not discuss with the Russians two of their pretexts for this unprovoked invasion which they say is demilitarization and denazification.
He says that's basically -- those are ridiculous concepts that don't really apply to Ukraine and so no negotiations can move forward if the Russians are going to stick to those two ideas. Jake?
TAPPER: Ivan, what exactly are residents facing in the southern part of Ukraine?
WATSON: Oh, I mean, especially in that port city of Mariupol, the conditions are absolutely abominable. It is a modern day siege and this city is one of the unofficial gateways for thousands of people who are fleeing that besieged city that make a dangerous journey. They are traumatized and shell-shocked when they arrived and I've been talking with some of these new arrivals.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) WATSON (voice-over): Shattered by Russian artillery, the windshield of a car that a Ukrainian family used to make their two-day escape from the besieged port city of Mariupol. We meet Natalia shortly after her family reaches relative safety in the parking lot of a super store on the edge of the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia. The day before yesterday an artillery shell hit our house, she says. Half of the house is gone. This is what was left.
UNKNOWN (through translation): If Russia sees this, I want them to know that they aren't defending us. They are killing us because they seem to think they're defending us and that's just not true.
WATSON (voice-over): This parking lot, an unofficial gateway to Ukrainian-controlled territory, for more than 70,000 Ukrainians who, officials say fled Mariupol. The evacuees look shell-shocked. They arrive in vehicles draped with white rags and signs that say children.
And some, like 4-year-old Alissa Isayava (ph) show up in yellow school buses. They were bombing us, she says. Bombing us with planes and tanks. Alyssa's (ph) aunt, Lilia (ph) says she suffered from a concussion for days after a strike hit her home.
UNKNOWN (through translation): We walked among corpses. There were bodies on to the evergreens. Soldiers without hats, without arms, they are lying there. Nobody is gathering them. There was such fear that I felt like I was under water. I wanted to wake up. And now I am here and this feels like some kind of a dream.
WATSON (voice-over): Inside the super store volunteers and the city government are trying to help.
(On camera): Newly arrived evacuees are welcomed at this support center where they're offered warm meals, access to medics and information about how to travel deeper into safer parts of Ukrainian territory. There's also a bulletin board here where some people are offering free repair of shattered car windows. And there are also postings here looking for information about missing loved ones.
(Voice-over): For some who survived Russia's modern day siege, this is the first hint of safety they've had in weeks. Outside, (inaudible) and her son, Stanislav (ph), have just arrived. Stanislav (ph) is chatty and upbeat, but his mother appears unsteady. When Russian warplanes bombed, she says, the family hid under the dining room table surrounded by pillows.
UNKNOWN (through translation): When the plane flew past we were sheltering in the center of town. Until now my ear still hurts from the shock wave.
WATSON (voice-over): The unlikely safe haven provided in this parking lot is precarious. Ukrainian officials say Russian troops are positioned barely a half hour's drive away from here.
(ENDE VIDEOTAPE) (On camera): Now, Jake, the mayor of Mariupol, he says that there's an estimated 160,000 civilians still in the shattered city. He's calling for a complete evacuation of those people but he accuses the Russian military of not allowing people to leave with buses that the Ukrainian government has organized for that.
As for the city's defenders, we're in touch with them. They still control a part of Mariupol and they say they are still fighting every hour and every day. Jake?
TAPPER: All right. Ivan Watson in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, thank you. Please stay safe. Let's discuss all of this with the former CIA chief of Russia operations, Steve Hall, former United States ambassador to Ukraine, Bill Taylor, and CNN global affairs analyst Susan Glasser.
And Steve, let me start with you. Today, President Biden said that he's going to stand by comments he made over the weekend when he said of Putin, for god's sake, this man cannot remain in power. Some people in the international community especially the president of France, thought that might send an escalatory message of possibly regime change. Here's what President Biden had to say to that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: It wasn't then nor am I now articulating a policy change. I was expressing more outrage that I feel and I make no apologies for it. The last part of the speech was talking to the Russian people telling what we thought. I was communicating this to not only the Russian people, but the whole world.
This is just stating a simple fact that this kind of behavior is totally unacceptable. Totally unacceptable. And the way to deal with it is to strengthen and put -- keep NATO completely united and help Ukraine where we can.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: So what do you make of all this? Do you think this statement will, what Biden said over the weekend, will have an effect on international affairs on Putin?
STEVE HALL, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I don't think, Jake, it will have an effect on Putin largely because Putin makes up his mind about these things and indeed has made up his mind about whether or not the United States actually wants regime change long ago. And I served in Moscow back in 2000 -- early part of 2010, you know, during (inaudible) protests.
We spoke to Russians on the streets there and they said, oh, yes, Hillary Clinton, no doubt, is behind this and they want regime change. So, this comment is spoken out of a sense of moral outrage. And to be truthful about it, it's absolutely correct. There is no doubt that somebody like Vladimir Putin shouldn't be in charge of any country.
And so, the idea that this is going to complicate things somehow, I don't understand how exactly it would because I don't think it complicates anything in the Kremlin.
TAPPER: And Ambassador Taylor, Ukraine's military intelligence head said that Russian President Vladimir Putin could be looking to carve Ukraine into two like North and South Korea, occupied Ukraine maybe to the south and east, free Ukraine to the west. Do Biden's comments about who should be in power embolden Putin in any way, do you think?
WILLIAM TAYLOR, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE: Jake, I don't think so. I don't think that those comments had anything to do with the decision to try to carve out a part of Ukraine. You know, Putin carved out a part of Ukraine in 2014 when he first invaded. He carved out Crimea. He carved out a place we call Donbas.
And if that's what they are going back to, that's actually a reduction in what they had planned to do, but that was an early effort and that's -- if they're going back to that now, that probably reflects the problems that they're having on the battlefield. That probably reflects the problem Ukrainian military has really bloodied the Russian military.
And, of course, Ukraine's military is fighting for its own land, its own people, its own freedom. So if Putin is going to go back to just the, you know, Donbas and Crimea that I think has nothing to do with anything that Biden said.
TAPPER: And, Susan, President Biden was asked if he thinks that Putin might view his remark as escalatory. He said he didn't care. What did you think about that?
SUSAN GLASSER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, look, I think Biden is embracing -- he's used increasingly strong language in recent weeks, right? So it wasn't just this comment the other day. He said that Putin essentially is a war criminal. He's a brutal dictator, and so this is of a piece, this comment, with where we've seen President Biden go.
I think it reflects, first of all, Jake, a sense that there is very little to be gained right now in terms of negotiations with the Russians. That is not the comment of an American president who believes that he's going to be talking with the Russian leadership anytime soon or actually settling this war, so that's one takeaway I have from it.
But, also, to Ambassador Taylor's point. Look, Russia is talking about pulling back to the Donbas because they have failed in the first month of this invasion to (inaudible) any of Putin's strategic objectives. And you know, the scary part is that I don't think these negotiations right now with Ukraine seem to have much going for them until Putin can come up with some way of claiming victory.
And if that's gobbling up another piece of Ukraine, the fear is how does NATO and how does President Biden stop him from just thinking he can gobble it up in bits and pieces going forward. TAPPER: Yes. And, Steve, President Zelenskyy, the president of
Ukraine, said over the weekend he gave a round of interviews to some of Russia's most prominent independent journalists. Zelenskyy told me he is ready to give Putin some of what he wants to keep Ukraine neutral, non-member of NATO, to keep it non-nuclear. And he said he'd engage in a serious treaty. Will that be enough for Putin or will Putin demand more including the seizing the Donbas region as Susan just talked about?
HALL: Yes, we'll see, Jake. It's really interesting because Finland actually historically faced a similar situation in about 1939 where the Russians invaded and basically at the end of the invasion the Russians said look, you give us a big chunk of your country, Finland, and we'll let the rest of it remain a state.
So, if that's kind of what Putin is thinking is going to happen again, it will be interesting to see. Zelenskyy has basically right now said, no, it's got to go to a referendum and the territorial integrity is very important. So, that's where the negotiations are going to start. Where they end up it will be really interesting to see.
TAPPER: I believe there was a soviet leader at the time named Molotov, right? Is that word where that comes from?
HALL: Yes, indeed.
TAPPER: Steve, Susan and Bill, thanks to all of you. Really appreciate it.
What is it like to be one of the millions of Ukrainian children running from war, forced to leave your homes and leave your parents especially your fathers behind? What if you're too young to understand what's going on? That story next.
TAPPER: Sticking with our "World Lead," Vladimir Putin's brutal invasion of Ukraine has turned nearly 4 million Ukrainians into refugees in a little over just a month. Half of those forced to escape to Europe are children according to an E.U. official today. But just getting out, crossing into the countries that border Ukraine, that's only the first step.
And then come the fears about where these refugees, especially the children, will go next. CNN's Kyung Lah reports for us now from Poland, which has taken in more refugees than any other of Ukraine's neighbors.
KYUNG LAH, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Nothing can help 5-year-old Jan (ph) understand how he and his mother ended up here, a packed convention hall in Warsaw, Poland filled with thousands of Ukrainians. He's constantly afraid. He's always afraid?
He's afraid to sleep alone, says his mother, Katya Krush after nights in this basement as Russian missiles leveled his neighborhood two hours north of Kyiv.
Everything is fine, she tells him. Are you sure there's nothing flying here, he asks.
TOMASZ SZYPULA, PRESIDENT PTAK WARSAW EXPO: They even don't know why they are here. They think maybe they came for some kind of vacation or --
LAH (on camera): They don't comprehend.
LAH (on camera): Because they're too young.
SZYPULA: They are too young.
LAH (voice-over): Multiply Jan (ph) by thousands of people a day and that's who Tomasz Szypula is trying to help at what's now the largest Ukrainian refugee hub in all of Europe with up to 7,000 refugees here a day.
SZYPULA: I must work, you know, and I don't have to think about such things too much because it's really difficult and it's a tragedy. It's better not to think about death.
LAH (voice-over): The 1.5 million square foot expo is now a gateway to the rest of the world where after crossing into Poland refugees begin the real process of finding a temporary life beyond war. They're waiting to go somewhere.
SZYPULA: (Speaking in foreign language).
SZYPULA: Estonia (inaudible).
LAH (on camera): Estonia.
SZYPULA: They're getting to Estonia.
LAH (voice-over): Those with no destination yet, wait.
(On camera): How long has this been going on?
SZYPULA: Less than a month.
LAH (on camera): Less than a month.
LAH (voice-over): That becomes more challenging as the war stretches on. Thank you Warsaw says this woman in Ukrainian, one of the more than 2 million Ukrainian refugees who have arrived in Poland, more than 300,000 in Warsaw alone.
RAFAL TRZASKOWSKI, MAYOR OF WARSAW, POLAND: The polish people will welcome Ukrainians whatever happens because they are fighting for our freedom and we do understand that, but of course there is a certain limit, human limit what we can do.
LAH (on camera): When you say you're at capacity, what do you mean?
TRZASKOWSKI: We've offered as country, free education, free health care to all of our guests, which of course means that, you know, our schools are going to be filled within weeks, that our hospitals are going to jam.
LAH (voice-over): Warsaw's mayor says no one will be turned away, but he needs help, to help Jan (ph), his mother, and the people of Ukraine. The Polish people accepted us well, she says.
KATYA KRUSH, UKRAINIAN REFUGEE: Good people.
LAH (on camera): Good people.
KRUSH: Yes, good people.
LAH (on camera): He says the kind of help that he needs is some sort of official system between the Polish national government and European and international allies that connects all of this, Jake. And he left us with this one astonishing statistic. He said there are now 30 percent more school-aged children in his city than there were just a month ago. Jake?
TAPPER: Outstanding. Kyung Lah for us in Warsaw, Poland. Thank you so much for that report.
Will Senator Mitt Romney be one of the few or maybe the only Republican senator to vote in support of Biden's Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson? The exclusive interview with Mitt Romney, next.
TAPPER: And we're back with our "Politics Lead." Former President Trump "more likely than not" committed a crime when he tried to obstruct the certification of the presidential election on January 6, 2021. That unusually bold statement was issued by federal Judge David Carter today.
Carter says Trump's lawyer, John Eastman, was also culpable. And now Eastman's e-mail which laid out a blueprint for an unconstitutional attempt to overturn the election are heading over to the January 6 Committee.
[17:25:05] Joining me now to discuss, "New York Times" Maggie Haberman and CNN Plus' Kasie Hunt. So, Maggie, let me start with you. Judge Carter went on to say "the illegality of the plan was obvious." Trump has already avoided full impeachment and removal twice. How big a deal of this is this actually?
MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It's a big deal and it isn't quite what it looks like, Jake. It's not an indictment. This is not coming from the Justice Department, but this is, you know, an external person. This is a judge. This is somebody making a very declarative statement about what this meant.
And so to the extent that we are seeing the Justice Department facing pressure from outside points, I do think that it's significant. Whether it's going to result in anything, we don't know. But this is the clearest that anyone has been, anyone in a real position of such seniority and authority to say this was wrong. This was -- there's a key quote in there about it being a coup in search of a legal argument. That's a pretty damning statement.
TAPPER: Yes. And there's a difference between a Democratic senator saying it or --
HABERMAN: That's right.
TAPPER: -- a pundit saying it and a judge, a federal judge.
TAPPER: And Kasie, neither the judge nor the January 6 Committee is actually able to prosecute Trump and his allies or anyone else. That's just not in their powers. Does President Biden need to tread lightly when it comes to Attorney General Merrick Garland and whether or not he decides to pursue Trump in a prosecution especially before 2024 election?
KASIE HUNT, CNN+ ANCHOR, THE SOURCE WITH KASIE HUNT: Well, I don't know about Biden needing to tread lightly. I feel like President Biden has been pretty clear in saying that he wants it to be very obvious that the Department of Justice is an independent operation. I think that's been one of the things and one of the places where he wanted to make the clearest of breaks with the Trump administration and the way they operated.
And Merrick Garland, I think, frankly, has generated some frustration on the left by his, you know, caution and deliberate carefulness in handling all sorts of these kinds of issues. So I think you're going to likely see that continue.
TAPPER: Yes. And Maggie, more January 6 news. A source tell CNN that Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is going to appear before the committee this week, the January 6 House Committee. What do you make of this? As I recall, he spent a lot of that post presidential time trying to achieve the Abraham Accords which probably would have gotten a lot more attention if President Trump wasn't trying to subvert the constitution. HABERMAN: Right, and trying to end the blockade of Qatar in the
Middle East. He was not around on January 6th until the afternoon. He was basically removed, as you say, when a lot of this was going on. But he certainly, I think, may have been more aware of it or at least as background noise. He certainly could speak to the state of mind that his father-in-law was in.
And so I think the committee is going to look for that from him. But in terms of whether they're going to get a whole lot of engagement on, you know, the sort of secret plan for lack of a better way of putting it, that they are looking for here as existing in the lead up to January 6th, I don't think from what our reporting shows that Jared Kushner has a ton of information.
TAPPER: Yes. And Kasie, let's turn to the Supreme Court because West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin says he's a yes for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson's confirmation which basically guarantees she will be confirmed. You sat down with an exclusive interview with Republican Senator Mitt Romney from Utah on his vote for your new CNN+ Show. CNN+ is our new streaming service. It launches at midnight eastern this evening. Let's take a quick a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HUNT: What was behind your colleagues and the way that they questioned her?
SEN. MITT ROMNEY (R-UT): Well, some colleagues, my side of the aisle, I thought asked respectful questions and were able to illicit responses from here that I think were very helpful to those that are making an evaluation. I thought some were preparing for their presidential campaign and were, if you will, doing the things you have to do to get on TV, which I think is unfortunate.
I think any setting like this that doesn't show respect for the witness or in this case the judge, is not the right way for us to go. We should show, in my opinion, more respect for one another. So, sometimes the rhetoric was a little hot, but I think in the final analysis we'll each be able to make our decision based upon our personal interviews with Judge Jackson and with the results that come from these hearings.
HUNT: Have you made up your mind about how you're going to vote? I know you voted against her confirmation to her current post.
ROMNEY: Yes. I have begun a deeper dive, a much deeper dive than I had during the prior evaluation. And, in this case as well, she's gone into much more depth talking about her judicial philosophy than she had before. And we're, of course, looking at her judicial record as a district judge and an appellate judge in far more depth than we had before. So, I'll complete that analysis and then reach a decision, but I have not reached my decision.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: Do you think he's leaning one way or the other? HUNT: Well, Jake, it's very interesting. So I've covered Mitt Romney
for a lot of years and he is very focused on being -- on public decency, so to speak.
So I thought it was interesting that he said what he said about his colleagues. While he was kind of gentle in his criticism for Mitt Romney, that's a pretty high level of offense. And I think that --
TAPPER: Yes, for those who don't speak Romney that is fed as foul language.
HUNT: Yes. Exactly.
TAPPER: That is a stern rebuke.
HUNT: He would not use the same words that Ben Sasse used, because that would be swearing and that's not --
HUNT: -- what Mitt Romney does in public. But --
HUNT: -- he, I think, clearly was offended by what happened in the Judiciary Committee. I think it is entirely possible and just based on kind of reading the way he approached this with me that he will vote yes for Ketanji Brown Jackson. I also think it's entirely possible he sticks with his party with Mitch McConnell and votes no.
What I think is potentially at the center of this is civil rights and the advancement of African-Americans. I think the idea for him voting against the first African-American woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court might stand a little bit at odds with some of the things that he takes the most pride in, particularly his father's legacy on civil rights.
HUNT: George Romney had a legacy on civil rights. And as a Mormon, I think, Mitt Romney is very acutely aware of what it's like to be a minority and to try and advance and protect the rights of minorities. So that's what I'm going to be looking at as he tries to make this decision. And I think it was part two of some of the offense that he described as to how she was treated.
TAPPER: One of the things that's interesting, there used to be an era not that long ago, when you would vote for somebody for Supreme Court, if they were qualified, having nothing to do with whether or not you agreed with their politics or their judicial philosophy. I'm not -- I have no idea what Senator Romney is going to do, but I could see him longing for those days where he could vote for a liberal justice the way the Conservatives used to vote for liberal justices and vice versa. MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Jake, I think that's right. I could certainly see him longing for those days. I think he frankly probably does long for those days. But whether he is going to go with that, you know, as a bit of hope, and go ahead with it, I think remains to be seen. I think that you are seeing a country that is pretty split down the middle and you are seeing all the institutions heading that way in one direction or the other.
TAPPER: All right. It's so great to see both of you and I'm so excited about your new show.
HUNT: Thank you, Jake. I'm excited about the book club also on CNN Plus.
TAPPER: OK, yes. Then we'll talk about that in another time. But Maggie Haberman, you could read her in the Times, of course, and catch Kasie's full interview with Senator Mitt Romney, that's tomorrow. The official launch of CNN Plus, that's our new streaming service.
The Source with Kasie Hunt streams live at 4:00 p.m. Monday through Friday on CNN Plus. Will always be available on demand on that service CNN Plus.
Coming up, the new policies that sparked this grocery store, panic and chaos in China, that's next.
TAPPER: In our health lead, you're watching social media videos right now of panic and chaos at a Shanghai grocery store on Sunday after Chinese authorities announced the new two phased COVID lockdown in that city. Shanghai is now the epicenter of China's worst COVID outbreak in two years with a record 3,500 cases reported Sunday. We don't know how many hospitalizations or deaths.
Dr. Peter Hotez joins us now. He's the co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children's Hospital. Dr. Hotez, good to see you. China's record case count, I have to say, seems relatively low compared to the January Omicron peak in the United States, when the seven-day average of daily cases topped 800,000. This new wave is a huge test of China's zero COVID policy. Obviously, shutting down everything is a good way to prevent the virus from spreading. But I mean, do we even know if it's necessary?
DR. PETER HOTEZ, CO-DIR., TEXAS CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL CENTER FOR VACCINE DEVELOPMENT: Well, you know, here's the problem, Jake, the Chinese are in a tight spot. Here's why. Even though more than 2 billion doses of vaccines have been distributed across China, so reasonable vaccination rates, it's with two vaccines that are made locally, predominantly in China, both whole inactivated virus, vaccines, a much older technology, one from Sinovac, one from Sinopharm.
And even against the original lineage and the Delta variant, they weren't holding up as well as you'd like a 50 percent, 60 percent protection much lower than the mRNA vaccines we have here in the U.S., but against Omicron it's really not working much at all it seems. So they are, therefore, have to resort to what we call NPI, non- pharmaceutical interventions. They don't really -- they can't rely on vaccinations.
So when you can't rely on vaccines, you know, you go old school, and that's about all you can do. And if you've ever been to Shanghai, we used -- I used to do a lot of work in Shanghai, we maintained the lab at the Institute of Parasitic Diseases there, it's an incredibly. You think Manhattan's crowded, you haven't seen anything like walking on the Fujin Road in Shanghai. So it's an incredibly congested area.
So I think they're in a tight spot. They're backed into a corner, and this may be the only option they have.
TAPPER: So in the U.K., if we can just hop to that country, U.K. government numbers show that the BA.2 variant of Omicron accounts for about 85 percent of the cases they have there. Hospitalizations and deaths there are up 22 percent and 17 percent, respectively.
Cases in the U.S. have plateaued. Hospitalizations and deaths continue to drop in the U.S. Are you surprised that the U.S. has not seen a sharp of an increase in cases yet as they're having in the U.K.?
HOTEZ: So here's the interesting thing with both the Alpha and Delta variant in Western Europe. As that accelerated, you automatically saw all the cases go up. So when we had Alpha and Delta rising in the U.S., we knew we were in for it. And same with Omicron.
With this BA.2, it's a little bit different. In some European countries, BA.2 is becoming dominant yet the cases are not shooting up as much as as in others. So there's something else going on that we don't quite understand whether there's some partial protection from Omicron against BA.2 or other factors that are in play. But it's not necessarily a slam dunk that the numbers are going to accelerate as much in the U.S. even though BA.2 will go up as a predominant variant. I'm pretty confident of that.
I don't necessarily know that we'll see that the big sharp increase. We may, we may not or get some kind of hybrid. So we're all kind of holding our breath and seeing what's going to happen.
TAPPER: All right, Dr. Peter Hotez, thank you so much. Appreciate it.
Coming up, hundreds of acres set aside to help homeless veterans. Why that land is now being used for athletic fields, while thousands of veterans are sleeping on the street? Stay with us.
TAPPER: In our buried lead today, these are stories we think are not getting enough attention. They volunteer to serve our country but after leaving the ranks often after multiple combat tours.
Thousands of veterans are experiencing homelessness and living in the streets in Los Angeles County. In 2016, the federal officials unveiled a plan to provide housing for many of these veterans. But as CNN's Nick Watt reports in the CNN investigation, in the more than six years since that promise was made, not one new housing unit has been completed. And yet another pledge this nation has made to its veterans and then broken.
NICK WATT, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In 2014, the mayor of Los Angeles made a promise.
MAYOR ERIC GARCETTI (D), LOS ANGELES: Can we end veterans' homelessness in this city by the end of 2015?
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKERS (in unison): Yes.
GARCETTI: Build together, we will do just that.
WATT (voice-over): They didn't. In 2015, there were over 4,000 homeless veterans in Los Angeles County. Latest count, not much under 4,000.
Meanwhile, abutting beautiful Brentwood, one of L.A.'s wealthiest neighborhoods, there is this. 388 acres gifted to the federal government beginning back in the late 1800s on one condition, that a home for disabled soldiers be there on so located, established, constructed and permanently maintained. A lot of the land was given by a senator and a businesswoman. Her great, great niece lives down the road.
CHRISTINE BARRIE, PRESIDENT, 1887 FUND: It wasn't given to anybody but veterans for a home.
WATT (voice-over): But today, just a few 100 vets live here, many in a nursing home run by California. The federal government leases a chunk to UCLA for the Bruins home field. Another 22 acres are leased to a private school for their tennis courts, track, swimming pool and athletic fields.
BARRIE: I mean, it is -- it's scandalous.
ROB REYNOLDS, VETERAN ADVOCATE: It's really kind of disgusting to see.
WATT (voice-over): Rob Reynolds deployed to Iraq on his 18th birthday for a traumatic tour, later spent time on the streets round here waiting for PTSD treatment.
REYNOLDS: It's when you see people who raise their right hand to serve our country sleeping and dying on the street. And you have one of the most elite private schools in the country charging $40,000 per year per student, and they have immaculate amenities and the veterans are living in squalor, it just doesn't make any sense. WATT (voice-over): In 2015, after a lengthy lawsuit, the V.A. promised transparency, vet involvement, and later produced a master plan proposing 1,200 units for homeless vets, a community. 54 existing units have been repurposed. 710 new units should be finished by now.
Timelines are fluid, but none are finished.
REYNOLDS: That's correct. There hasn't been new construction since then.
WATT (voice-over): It is finally underway, but the project still tangled in red tape, utilities issues, financing issues. Private developers are now leasing the land building the units and they will manage them.
(on-camera): What is to say that in 50 years, you guys don't just then turn this into luxury apartments?
TYLER MONROE, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT, THOMAS SAFRAN & ASSOCIATES: It's 100 percent deed restricted that requires that these housing units be kept affordable in perpetuity.
WATT (voice-over): 180 units scheduled to open by year's end.
ROBERT MCKENRICK, MASTER PLAN EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: We should be up with the 1,200 within the next eight years.
WATT (voice-over): Should be, 14 years after that Master Plan pledge.
REYNOLDS: I've dealt with quite a few veterans dying right outside the gates of the V.A. If you have the right programs and the right processes in place from the beginning, those deaths would have been preventable.
WATT (voice-over): Thousands of veterans did once live here. But in the 70s, the V.A. dedicated the campus to medical treatment, began leasing land to a car rental company, hotel laundry, a bus depot.
(on-camera): Where did all that money go?
MCKENRICK: For years, I believe, it was stolen parts of it, but I think some of it came in and was used in V.A. for some of the programs and initiatives.
WATT (voice-over): In 2018, the guy who leased this lot was imprisoned for embezzling more than $13 million. He blew a bunch of it on fast cars.
RICHARD SCOTT, OWNER OF WESTSIDE SERVICES LLC: How do they prove anything anyway?
WATT (voice-over): Well, the guy, the VA he was bribing, let the FBI tape their calls.
RALPH TILLMAN, VA CONTRACTING OFFICER: Why in the -- did I deposit that money? SCOTT: I don't know Ralph, I'm speechless.
WATT (voice-over): In 2016, an act of Congress decreed this land can now only be leased for services that principally benefit veterans and their families. A few weeks later, the V.A. renewed the licence for an oil company to drill here. They donate just 2.5 percent of revenue to veterans.
And the V.A. signed a new 10-year lease with Brentwood School. Last year, the V.A.'s Inspector General said it violates that act of Congress because the principal purpose of this lease was to provide the Brentwood School continued use of the athletic facilities. On paper, the V.A. called that view erroneous. In person --
MCKENRICK: The arrangement with the school is non-compliant. It does have a benefit for veterans not only on campus but in the community.
WATT (voice-over): The school pays and donates more than $2 million a year. They declined an interview but gave a statement that reads in part, "Brentwood School could not be prouder of our association with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Independent third party audits verify that Brentwood School has met or exceeded every lease obligation." One of them, veteran access to those lovely athletic facilities.
ANTHONY ALLMAN, VETS ADVOCACY: We've heard complaints that it takes a while to get the membership card. We've brought that to the attention of Brentwood School. They said they've corrected it.
WATT (voice-over): In 2017, just over 1,000 vet visits less than three per day. Last year, nearly 12 per day. More than 1,200 kids attend the school.
MCKENRICK: I'm sure if we terminated the lease, they would take us to court.
WATT (voice-over): And the Bruins still call this place home. Every year, UCLA pays more than 2 million in rent as well as legal, educational and medical contributions. They claim that's fair market rate. Actually it's about $ 0.5 million short. UCLA also declined a request for an interview.
In 2020, in private, the V.A. amended UCLA's lease added a practice field.
(on-camera): I've listened to you on tape in a meeting saying our advocates who are a little testy out there are going to get up in arms when they see there's another bowl field being built. Why not just be transparent?
MCKENRICK: So we probably should have showed that.
WATT (voice-over): In 2019, the V.A. proposed spending over $4 million on a healing garden. ALLMAN: I was distressed by to say the least.
WATT (voice-over): Anthony Allman is a vet sits on the board created to oversee the V.A.'s management of this land.
ALLMAN: V.A. was proposing to spend $4 million on a garden with that many homeless veterans on -- literally on the street.
WATT (voice-over): After decades of pressure, the V.A. has finally allowed some homeless vets to camp inside on their own land. About 100 now live in so-called tiny homes.
DR. STEVEN BRAVERMAN, DIRECTOR, VA GREATER LOS ANGELES HEALTHCARE SYSTEM: The pandemic provided an opportunity for us to justify piloting, bringing veterans on the campus.
WATT (on-camera): Right.
(voice-over): And those promised permanent homes, V.A. installs utilities.
MONROE: There are studio apartments.
WATT (voice-over): But the buck is passed to those private developers to finance, everything else, for this one building.
MONROE: It took us about a year to assemble it and then another six months to close the financing and get shovels in the ground.
WATT (on-camera): OK. Would have been quicker if the federal government just pony up all the cash?
MONROE: Inevitably, but that's not the reality.
BARRIE: I personally believe that the V.A. and the government should chip in for all of this. They shouldn't expect the public to redo something that they've let fall apart.
WATT (voice-over): She wants to renovate the chapel.
BARRIE: It's going to give hope that the rest of the campus will follow suit.
WATT (voice-over): When Rob Reynolds was in Iraq, three comrades were kidnapped by insurgency, shipped out before they were found dead.
REYNOLDS: I have the opportunity to not leave someone behind and do whatever I can to try to help these guys, that's what I want to do. Just this land was donated for a specific reason, and it was to remain that way forever. And that's the way it needs to remain.
WATT: Now, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs is expected to sign a new master plan for this site very soon. And the V.A. has appointed a new executive to oversee the process going forward. There's cautious optimism amongst advocates, cautious largely because of what's gone before.
And there's one thing that a lot of advocates tell me just still doesn't make any sense. This land is managed by the V.A.'s Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System. The clue is in the name, healthcare. They do healthcare. Why isn't this land they say handed over to a different department within the V.A. or a different federal department that actually deals with housing? Jake?
TAPPER: A very, very important investigation. Nick Watt, thank you so much. And it really honestly, this nation and the government of the United States, state and federal has such a long ignominious history of just --
TAPPER: -- screwing over veterans and breaking promises made to them. Google at home if you're interested in the 1700s. Google pension and Lieutenant Caleb Brewster and you can read about the very first veteran had this nation screwed.
And Nick Watt, thanks so much. Appreciate it.
Coming up, a milestone more than 80 years in the making.
TAPPER: In our national lead, a story that's been more than 80 years in the making but at long last 101-year-old Merrill Cooper finally has a high school diploma. Back in 1938 in the midst of his senior year in high school at a boarding school called Storer College, Cooper had to drop out for financial reasons. His family moved from West Virginia to Philadelphia where he had to get a job to help support the family.
Storer College was established in 1865 to serve newly freed slaves and it closed in the 1950s. It's now part of the Harpers Ferry National Historic Park. Now Cooper had the opportunity to visit Storer College in 2018. He told his family he regretted not ever having earned his high school diploma. So his family reached out to the park staff and they contacted West Virginia education officials and in the last week or so, Cooper got his diploma.
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