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The Lead with Jake Tapper

Ukraine: Not A Single Place, A Town, A City Or A Village" Is Safe; Biden Says U.S. Will Send More Artillery to Ukraine; U.S. Considers Labeling Russia State Sponsor of Terrorism; U.S. Considers Labeling Russia State Sponsor Of Terrorism; Masks Optional On Most Airlines, Public Transit After Judge's Ruling; U.S. Southern Border Arrests Surge To 22-Year High. Aired 4-5p ET

Aired April 19, 2022 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: All is not quiet on the eastern front.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Russia's war against Ukraine enters a new phase with their assault on the Donbas region, now begun. Russia's reported plans to according to intercepted communication, quote, level everything to the ground as a group of Ukrainian fighters hold down a steel plant near Mariupol and become the new symbol of resistance and desperation.

Plus, anti-tank missile systems, helicopters, ammunition and more -- growing concerns in the U.S. that the flood of weapons headed to Ukraine might end up in the wrong hands.

Plus, sky high celebrations as most mask mandates for public transit end, marking a landmark moment in the pandemic.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

And we start today with our world lead. A top aide to Ukraine's president warning that not a single place, town, city or village in Ukraine is safe, as the Kremlin announces a new phase in its unprovoked war against its neighbor to the West.

Today, the fate of the town of Mariupol rests on an unknown number of Ukrainian fighters trying to defend the city's iron and steel factory. A four square mile complex. They have rejected multiple calls from the Russians to surrender, in part, because of the estimated 1,000 civilians sheltering in the factory's basement.

The Azov battalion of Ukraine sharing this video saying these the men, women, children, babies who did nothing to deserve this bombardment and are now at the mercy of Putin's military. Despite relentless shelling and bombing from Russian forces, a local official tells CNN, that as of this afternoon, quote, the Ukrainian flag is flying over the city.

Today, the Pentagon confirmed a flight carrying U.S. security assistance for Ukraine arrived in Europe yesterday. Seven more flights are expected to land in the next 24 hours. Those weapons cannot arrive soon enough, the brother of Kyiv's mayor tells CNN, because he expects if Russia succeeds in eastern Ukraine, Putin will once again try to capture the capital of Kyiv.


WLADIMIR KLITSCHKO, BROTHER OF KYIV'S MAYOR: We crucially need help now. We can only defend our country during the war with the weapons. We expect everything and anything and especially in regard to the capital, of course, we're waiting for them to come back.


TAPPER: CNN's chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward is live for us in the Donbas region.

Clarissa, you're less than 20 miles away from the fighting between Russia and the Ukrainians. What are you seeing on the ground there?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, as you can see, we have to actually stand inside our hotel to do the live shots. There's a very strict curfew here and a total blackout. That's because we're in this town Vakmod (ph), less than 20 miles away from some of the heaviest fighting that we're seeing play out along this eastern front.

The village, or town, I should say, that we are closest to is called Papasna, where there has been incredibly intense battles taking place throughout the day as Russian forces have been pushing further in, local authorities warning that they no longer are able to effectively evacuate people. They continue to try to do so. But it has become more and more dangerous, trying to get people out safely while there is such heavy fighting going on.

It's interesting though, Jake, when you talk to people on the streets here, even though they can hear the sounds of those booms, those thuds of artillery in the distance, many of them are still refusing to leave. They say they don't have enough money. They don't have a place to go, and they're unwilling to leave their homes without some kind of a guarantee that there will be something to come back to at the end of this.

We also heard Ukrainian authorities confirming that the town of Kreminna, again, one of the front line towns in the Donbas region, is now under control of Russian forces, and yet, they are also experiencing a number of counter-offenses from the Ukrainian forces as they try to block off Russian supply routes -- Jake.

TAPPER: Clarissa, you heard the concern from the brother of the mayor of Kyiv. His concern that if Russia is successful in the east, Putin will try again to capture Kyiv. You've reported from a number of cities in and around Kyiv.

Do you think Russian forces could be more successful on a second attempt? WARD: Well, I think this battle that is going to take place in the

east, or starting to take shape, is a very different battle to the one we saw in and around Kyiv and up in the north, around Chernihiv and Sumy region.


In many ways, this terrain definitely favors Russian forces. But at the same time, Russian forces are also very depleted. As I mentioned before, Ukrainians are launching attacks on their supply routes. So the conclusion of this is not foregone by any measure.

As to the possibility of then going on and trying to take other cities, I think that is probably a tall order from the Russians. Keep in mind, in all this time they've only been able to take one regional capital of Kherson, a city of roughly 300,000 people. But certainly, when you talk to people on the ground in Kyiv, in Chernihiv, in places that were either under Russian occupation or close to it, they do not trust Russia and they are fully in anticipation of the possibility of some kind of a renewed attack, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Clarissa Ward, thank you so much.

To Kramatorsk now and CNN's Ben Wedeman.

Ben, today, you visited the site of that missile strike. What did you see?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we were in central Kramatorsk today when we saw and heard a very large explosion. And we went to investigate.


WEDEMAN: Just a few minutes after 3:00 in the afternoon here in Kramatorsk, a missile hit this construction warehouse causing all of this damage. At least one person was killed. The body is under this yellow and blue tarp. And according to people on the scene, at least three people were injured.

About an hour before this strike, there was another missile strike in another part of town, but as far as we know, there were no injuries in that case.

Now, as Russian forces mass nearby and have actually taken one town, about an hour's drive from here, this may be a taste of things to come.


WEDEMAN: And afterwards, we went to a hospital where the injured were being treated one after another. And then they started having other operations on soldiers from the front. The doctors there say they're getting no rest -- Jake.

TAPPER: And, Ben, Kramatorsk is where the Russian military attacked that train station packed with civilians. What is it about Kramatorsk, do you think, that makes it such an attractive target for the Russians?

WEDEMAN: Well, if you look at the map, the Russians are to the south, to the north, and further to the east. Really, if the Russians intend to carry out with their pledge to retake, or take Donbas region, Kramatorsk is right in the middle of it. And the expect -- we've already gotten indications that the Russians are trying to push from the north, heading toward a town called Slovyansk, which is just about a 25-mile drive from here, and up from the south.

So, if they manage to do that, they will be able to seal off a large area where the Ukrainian forces are already concentrated. So I think that's the thing. They want to encircle the large military presence in the eastern part of the country, and then do something, eliminate them, perhaps -- Jake.

TAPPER: Ben Wedeman in Kramatorsk. Thank you.

In case there was ever any question about Vladimir Putin's true intentions in Ukraine, he has now awarded an honorary title to the military brigade accused of committing those horrendous war crimes in the Ukrainian town of Bucha.

For weeks, we've brought you the graphic images of what Putin's forces left behind there. The mass graves, dead bodies thrown out with the trash after they were bound and shot in the head. The new cemeteries full of unmarked graves. So many of these victims -- women, children, civilians.

Now Putin is praising the soldiers who decimated Bucha for their, quote, great heroism and courage, and for, quote, protecting Russia's sovereignty and national interests.

Joining us to discuss, Garry Kasparov, chair of the Renewed Democracy Initiative, a long time critic of Putin.

And, Garry, you say this is part of Putin's usual pattern. Explain.

GARRY KASPAROV, CHAIR, RENEW DEMOCRACY INITIATIVE: Absolutely. Those who are surprised by the atrocities committed by Russian troops in Ukraine, they should be reminded about Putin's long record, beginning with the second Chechen war in Grozny more than two decades ago. Putin has been a war criminal from the very start.

And failing to win the war with a direct assault, as he tried, the first few days of this war, he came back to his favorite tactics, to bombard Ukrainians into submission, the same way they did with Syrians when Putin rescued Bashar al Assad. And now you can follow Russian propaganda, publications on state-run media.


They're talking about denazification, not political only, but as extermination of those who will not bow to Putin's rule. TAPPER: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was asked multiple

times today if Russia had any plans to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. As you know, they're concerned they might use a low yield nuclear weapon. Lavrov would not answer outright but he said Russia has historically opposed the use of nuclear weapons. How credible a threat is it do you think that Putin might consider using nuclear weapons in Ukraine?

KASPAROV: I don't know but I would not trust Lavrov. Whatever he says, we should consider a lie before he proves otherwise. Lavrov and his boss in the Kremlin, they have a longstanding record of lying for every occasion.

But I still doubt very much that the nuclear option is on the table because I don't believe that Putin will have enough generals and admirals to execute his orders. It seems they don't have the same appetite to die for Putin's ambitions.

TAPPER: What do you think Putin's next move might be? If he is successful in seizing the Donbas region, and obviously, there are a lot of pro-Russian separatists in that region already. There's been a war going on there since 2014. Do you think if he is successful in the east, he's willing to walk away and say, look, we got Donbas, that's our victory? Or does he want the whole country?

KASPAROV: There are no separatists in Eastern Ukraine. All is Russian forces, just not wearing Russian uniform. As for the outcome of this battle for Donbas, if Putin prevailed, God forbid, no doubt, he'll move on.

And I don't have to guess. That's what I've been said many, many times, and being repeated in Russian television. Ukraine statehood must be destroyed. They keep repeating it day, day, after day.

And Putin's ambitions, they are not limited to the few eastern territories in Ukraine. He sees Ukraine as an obstacle to his geopolitical agenda, that is to demonstrate that he is ruler of not just Ukraine but Eastern Europe as a whole. He made it very clear 15 years ago at the Munich Security Conference when he talked about returning the spheres of influence, same language has been used by Hitler and Stalin to divide Europe.

And we have to give him credit. He's very consistent in pushing this agenda. And that's why we have to do everything in our power to help Ukraine survive and repel Russian forces.

TAPPER: So, Garry, just a few minutes ago you referred to Russian generals you thought that maybe wouldn't be any that would be willing to carry out a nuclear attack if Putin ordered it. You've also recently said there could be a palace coup in Russia against Putin. How likely do you think it is that could happen? I was more under the impression that Putin had gotten rid of anybody that had that independent thinking a long time ago.

KASPAROV: I'm not sure the latest approach was about independent thinkers. He was looking for scapegoats. And I think it sent the message to all general that's they will pay the ultimate price if Putin fails. But we all know the moment they look weak, that's a demonstration of his weakness. He is vulnerable.

So that's why the pre conditions for potential coup, palace coup with Russia, is number one, defeat in Ukraine, Ukrainian victory. And ideally, the recovery of Crimea, that is sacred for Putin's legitimacy in Russia.

And then uprising in Russia. The Russian economy is on the verge of collapse, two or three more months, and you see people going into the streets. If Putin runs out of money to pay for police and propaganda machine, then we will see his inner circle looking for a scapegoat, and typically, he's dictated himself.

TAPPER: Garry Kasparov, thank you so much for your time today and also for your activism on these issues for so many years.

Beyond all the stories of lives lost killed in Russia's invasion, a small dose of hope. CNN finds a Ukrainian man unwilling to give up on the desperate search for his missing father.

Plus, with no American forces on the ground, the growing concerns the U.S. weapons could fall into the wrong hands in Ukraine.

Stay with us.



TAPPER: In our world lead in Kyiv's suburbs, a wide scale operation is underway to try to recover and identify the hundreds of slaughtered civilians in mass graves. The Ukrainian police say almost 1,000 bodies have been recovered just from the Kyiv region.

Sadly, that staggering number of bodies makes it difficult for families to identify their loved ones. Still, some are still holding out hope.

CNN's Ed Lavandera follows a story of one Ukrainian son desperately looking for his dad who went missing in a Kyiv suburb more than a month ago.


ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Oleksii Karuk is searching for answers in a place where answers were buried or bombed. But Oleksiy must find his father. Igor Karuk disappeared while helping a friend escaped the war zone west of Kyiv.

OLEKSII KARUK, SEARCH FOR HIS MISSING FATHER (through translator): He talked about it so light heartedly that I felt like everything would be all right. We didn't have information that civilians were being shot so I wasn't worried.

LAVANDERA: On March 8, 8:00 in the morning, you got seven different texts from your dad. What did they say?

KARUK: He said that he is going to drive here near Borodianka, yes, to take his friends, and to bring him to Kyiv.

LAVANDERA: What did you write back to him?

KARUK: I ask him to be careful, to care for himself, and that's all.

LAVANDERA: Those were the last words father and son exchanged.

Oleksii is joined by his father's friend, Andriy Filin.


They're looking for Igor's car, hunting for clues in the neighborhood ravaged by Russian forces, putting up pictures of the 48-year-old father of two boys, hoping someone has answers.

Unraveling the mysteries of what happened to countless missing people is another horrific chapter in this war. In the aftermath of Russia's siege around Kyiv, Oleksii and Andriy are on their own to find Igor.

ANDRIY FILIN, FRIEND OF MISSING FATHER: We have information that his phone was here, not just the car.

LAVANDERA: How difficult is it to do this? So many days, searching and searching and no answers?

FILIN: I don't know. I don't know words because we don't know where he might be.

LAVANDERA: This map shows the ground they've covered, looking for Igor. So far, every question leads to another dead end.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I didn't see an Open car left on the road or a gas station.

FILIN: We have been driving around looking for it, but we haven't found it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is a lot near the police station.

LAVANDERA: That lead didn't help.

Then men discovered four civilian cars scorched on a quiet road. Inside one of the cars, human bones were visible. Andriy thought one of the cars might be Igor's.

When you arrived here, and you saw this, what did you feel?

FILIN: I just cried. I don't see anything because I have cried.

LAVANDERA: It wasn't Igor Karuk's car.

FILIN: It's not his car.

LAVANDERA: Do you still think you can find him alive?

KARUK: Hope dies the last.

LAVANDERA: Hope dies last?


LAVANDERA: The search continues for this father who vanished in the war.


LAVANDERA (on camera): And, Jake, the human disaster left in the wake of Russian forces evacuating from these suburbs around Kyiv is just unimaginable. There are so few places these families can go to find answers. You saw this family go from a police station to a military unit, to asking people in a restaurant. No centralized list of where the missing might be, where they can go. Answers are just impossible to find right now -- Jake.

TAPPER: Ed Lavandera in Kyiv. Thank you so much.

The U.S. State Department is considering ways to label Russia a state sponsor of terrorism. How this could be more than a symbolic move as the world looks to punish Putin for all the atrocities in Ukraine.

Stay with us.



TAPPER: In our world lead, today seven more U.S. planes full of military aid are on their way to Ukraine, according to U.S. defense official. Part of the latest $800 million security assistance package. In total, the United States has sent more than $2.6 billion worth of security stance since Putin's unprovoked war began, including but not limited to Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, Javelin anti-tank missiles, howitzers, helicopters, armored personnel carriers, body armor, helmets, and 50 million rounds of ammunition.

CNN's Kylie Atwood and Katie Bo Lillis join us now.

Katie Bo, let me start with you.

How is the U.S. tracking all this military equipment as it gets to Ukraine?

KATIE BO LILLIS, CNN REPORTER: The short answer is that they're not. The U.S. is for many of these systems is largely reline on what the Ukrainians tell them which unit the equipment is going to and how it is being used. As one source who has been briefed on the intelligence told us, he said we have fidelity for a short time. When it enters the fog of war, we have almost zero. It drops into a big black hole and you have almost no sense of it all after a short period of time. And there are two big reasons for this. And one of them is that many

of the systems the United States is sending are smaller manned, portable systems. Things like shoulder fired missiles or single use drones. The kinds of things that are efficient to transport and potentially easier to hide, they say, of a major air defense system like the S300 that Slovakia has just sent.

Of course, the other reason that is really critical here, Jake, is the United States military is not in Ukraine. It is not embedded with the military the way the U.S. was in Afghanistan, for example, in a way that would allow them to do a much more precise accounting of how this equipment is being used, where the arms are being sent, which units are taking them and ultimately, how they're being used.

TAPPER: And, Kylie, you have some new information on the State Department looking at a new avenue to hold Russia accountable. Tell us more.

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yeah. So, the Biden administration says they're looking at every way possible to hold Russia accountable and that includes potentially add go Russia to the list of state sponsors of terrorism. That's according to a senior administration official.

Now, that determination is probably not going to be made for a few weeks. It might take even longer. But what the State Department is doing is looking at the definition of a state sponsor of terrorism, a country that has repeatedly supported acts of international terrorism, and comparing that to what Russia has done in Ukraine.


Now, there are only four countries that are currently on this list so add go Russia tom list, alongside countries like North Korea and Iran, of course, would make it an even more international pariah.

TAPPER: But, Kylie, would that designation, state sponsor of terrorism, would that actually harm Russia in any way? Or is it just symbolic?

ATWOOD: It is symbolic but it would have some impact that is further impact on the Russian economy. We should note, the Biden administration has already rolled out a tremendous number of sanctions so that change may be negligible but it would be there. So, for example, there would no longer be certain things that the United States could export to Russia that could be used for commercial or military use.

And other countries who are still doing trade with Russia would be prevented from doing some of that trade potentially, have to pull back because if they didn't, they could be subject to some U.S. sanctions.

TAPPER: Katie, you said something interest a moment ago. You said one of the reasons the U.S. can't keep track of all the weapons systems is unlike in Afghanistan, the U.S. has no presence in Ukraine. But when you brought up Afghanistan, it made me think about the fact, after the U.S. left, all those weapon systems fell in the hands of the Taliban, whether or not they knew how to use them.

Is there concern that might happen here as well? Except with Russians taking control of all these American weapons systems?

KATIE BO LILLIS, CNN REPORTER: Almost, yes. The concern is less that it would fall into the hands of the Russians. It is more long term than that. The U.S. acknowledges, at the close of the conflict, whenever that may be, if there are arms left, some of them could wind up in the black market and could end up in the hands of militias and militaries that the United States did not intends to arm.

And, of course, this is a risk that the Biden administration has had to bake into its decision making calculus when it determined it would send this really free flow of arms into Ukraine. One defense official we spoke to was very clear. This person said the Biden administration views the risk of not arming Ukraine adequately enough to push back the Russians as a greater risk than the long term possibility that some of these arms could end up on the black market.

TAPPER: It is often a choice between two bads and which one is worse.

LILLIS: Precisely.

TAPPER: Yeah. Katie Bo Lillis, and Kylie Atwood, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

The first full day of most mask rules lifted for most mass transit. Why the rules are not the same everywhere you go in the United States. That's next.



TAPPER: In our health lead, a major shift in COVID travel restrictions. For the first time in two years, many U.S. travelers will no longer be required to wear masks after a Trump appointed federal judge in Florida struck down the CDC's nationwide mandate which was set to expire on May 3rd anyway.

In the wake of the decision, many public transportation systems, ride sharing companies and several major airlines have announced customers are now free to take off their mask that if they want. Show their smiles.

But as CNN's Pete Muntean reports, some airports and some mass transit systems say they're imposing their own requirements.


PETE MUNTEAN, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It is a new maskless era for pandemic travel, marking the end of the 14-month long federal mandate that required masks on boards planes, trains, buses, ride shares and in terminals. Disappearing along with the mandate, the signs that reminded travelers to wear masks, along with masks themselves, being tossed in the trash by airline passengers as word spread late Monday.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Masks will be optional this evening for all crew and passengers as well.


MUNTEAN: In-flight celebrations were kicked off by a surprise court decision that initially caused confusion in the travel industry and ushered in a new patch work of mask rules.

Some airports will still require masks such as Chicago's O'Hare, as well as New York's Kennedy and LaGuardia, even though nearby Newark Airport will not.

Masks will be required on New York subway system as well as other mass transit systems that impose their own rules.

SARA NELSON, INTERNATIONAL PRESIDENT, ASSOCIATION OF FLIGHT ATTENDANTS: This was not an orderly shift. This is not the way that you move public policy.

MUNTEAN: The sweeping new changes come during a spring break travel surge. The latest TSA numbers say more than 11 million people flew nationwide over the long Easter weekend, with what could be a huge summer travel scenic on the horizon. The CDC remains firm on its guidance, telling travelers to continue to wear masks even in the absence of a federal mandate.

DR. LEANA WEN, FORMER BALTIMORE HEALTH COMMISSIONER: Just because the ruling was made by a judge doesn't mean that suddenly, the science has changed.

MUNTEAN: In her decision, the U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizell likened the mandate to, quote, detention and quarantine. Since the start of the pandemic, U.S. airlines unilaterally banned thousands of passengers for violating mask rules. But are now letting them decide for themselves.

RACHEL, TRAVELER: For masks, I feel very safe. Especially since airplanes are one of the safest indoor places that anyone can be.

JASON ALEXANDER, TRAVELER: Even in traveling here, being in downtown New York, and everybody not wearing, able to not wear masks and things, I felt much more comfortable keeping mine on.


MUNTEAN (on camera): This court battle might not be over just yet. We're just learning the Biden administration could likely appeal this federal judge's decision. That, according to the health and human services secretary who said in a press conference, ultimately, it will be up to the Justice Department to decide how to move forward with all this.

[16:40:03] But it only adds to the confusion that passengers have over the end of the transportation mask mandate. Remember, it was already supposed to end two weeks from now on May 3rd -- Jake.

TAPPER: Pete Muntean at Reagan National Airport for us, thanks so much.

Joining us in studio to help break this down what this change means for health policy and health in the U.S., Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the school of tropical medicine at Baylor College in Texas.

I'm guessing you think that it is the wrong decision by the judge and the wrong decision by the Biden administration to not appeal it. But you tell me.

DR. PETER HOTEZ, DEAN, SCHOOL OF TROPICAL MEDICINE, BAYLOR COLLEGE OF MEDICINE: Well, it was certainly inevitable, that eventually we have to lift mask restrictions. We can't go on like this forever. The problem is not now, Jake.

This -- the BA.2 subvariant is accelerating and we're seeing a big rise in cases, in Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont, and hospitalizations are going up as well. There has been a 100 percent increase in hospitalizations in Vermont over the last two weeks.

So when I was asked by members of the White House what I thought, I said, look, eventually they have to come up. Don't do it now when BA.2 is accelerating. That's all over the northeast and eventually it could spread nationally.

So just hang on. Hang on a few more weeks. I can't tell you whether it will be two weeks or an extra month. It will start going down. It won't be as bad as omicron but it is still substantial.

TAPPER: One of the things that is frustrated me as a journalist, is there's such a difference between the risk on an airplane and the risk on a bus or plane. Airplanes constantly have the air going in and out where a bus or a train doesn't.

I mean, shouldn't we be distinguishing between those two?

HOTEZ: We should. But remember with this BA.2 subvariant, it is more transmissible than omicron, which is more transmissible than delta, which is more transmissible than alpha, which is more transmissible than the original variant. We are looking at a virus agent now that is up there with measles, the single-most infectious agent that we know.

So, all bets are off, what happens on an airplane. Even if you wear a mask on an airplane, if the individual next to you is sneezing and releasing COVID-19 virus into the atmosphere because that individual doesn't have a mask on, that still increases your risk.

This only really works when both sides have masks and then the protective effect is there is synergy there. But now, you're going to lose that because too many people are not have masks on. TAPPER: So, Dr. Hotez, you know accurately the cases are up in parts

of the U.S., but current hospitalizations, which we know are a more important metric than cases are about the same as last week and nearly the lowest we've had on record during the entire pandemic, doesn't that bolster the argument in favor of dropping the mask mandate?

HOTEZ: Not exactly, because this is right now a regional problem, not a national problem, the BA.2 subvariant.

TAPPER: Where is it?

HOTEZ: It's taking off in the Northeast, right here in Washington, D.C. It's taking off in New York, New Jersey, Vermont. And hospitalizations are going up. Now, it's starting at a very low level. So, when I talk a 30-to-40 percent rise in hospitalizations, I don't want to create undue alarm because it's going at a low level, but they are going up, no question about it.

What we don't know is how extensive this BA.2 subvariant is going to be. I do not think it's going to be nearly as impressive as omicron did. It will still be substantial. We see a lot of hospitalizations.

And by the way, we are still losing 500 Americans every day to COVID- 19.

TAPPER: Who are we losing? Who are the people -- are they overwhelming unvaccinated, overwhelmingly my not boosted, overwhelmingly over 70, overwhelmingly obese, or smokers? Who are they?

HOTEZ: A little bit of everything, mostly the unvaccinated. If you got two doses, not a booster, you still have vulnerability and extreme age as well. So this is why we -- this is not the time to nearly let down our guard. As I say, we will not need to do this in perpetuity, but if we hung out another few weeks, we could have made a substantial difference.

TAPPER: I guess the reason I ask is one of the reasons I hear from people out there is, look, I'm vaccinated, I am boosted, if they're over 60s, maybe I double boosted. I have been safe the whole time. I want to live my life. The risk to me is very, very low, if people who are not vaccinated, who want to continue being unhealthy. I don't care if they have a mask on or not.

That's an argument I hear, I'm not saying I support it.

HOTEZ: Yeah, yeah.

TAPPER: But do you understand what I mean.

HOTEZ: Again, I'm saying we don't have to wear masks in perpetuity. But if we're only talking a few more weeks, and by the way, the judge must have known that, must have known the Transportation Department or White House was already moving in that direction to loosen mask restrictions. So, from my perspective, this is nothing more than a political stunt

coming out of Florida and it has two problems. One, it puts people at risk for BA.2. The other thing is I don't want to set a precedent where some random federal judge in Florida is overriding decisions from the Centers for Disease Control.

This individual has no public health background. I think that sets a dangerous precedent. So, I think almost it might be worth having the Biden White House challenge it, just on that grounds alone.


So, we don't -- because what comes next when we have another pandemic? Is every time we will have a federal judge from the state of Florida or from another state that has an axe to grind with the president going to subvert public health? We can't live as a country like that.

TAPPER: Well, we don't know she did this because she has an axe to grind with the punishment, with the president. She just -- I mean, this was her ruling, take it or leave it. I understand you would like to leave it.

Dr. Peter Hotez, thank you so much. Appreciate your time.

Coming up next, pushing back on the president's plan for migrants at the border and some of the loudest voices of opposition are coming from within the Democratic Party.

Stay with us.



TAPPER: In our national lead, growing opposition not just from Republicans but from Democrats to President Biden's plans to end pandemic era border restrictions known as Title 42. The rules first implemented under the Trump administration allow border agents to quickly return some migrants mostly to Mexico without the opportunity for them to seek asylum. This being done in the name of public health because of the COVID pandemic.

Senator Gary Peters of Michigan, who chairs the Democrats' Senate campaign arm, is the latest Democrat to voice opposition to the Biden plan.

CNN's Rosa Flores joins us now live from Houston.

And, Rosa, even before Title 42 ends next month, border authorities are reporting a 22-year high in arrests along the southern border in March. Why is this happening now?

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, Jake, in part, it's cyclical. It's definitely historic. Customs and Border Protection reporting 220,000 migrants encounters in March alone. Now, the key factor here is that in 50 percent of those cases border officials were able to return these migrants back to Mexico or home countries under Title 42. As you know, starting late next month, they will not be able to do that.

That is what both Republicans and Democrats have been asking the Biden administration about, about their plan, not just on how the Biden administration plans to pros cease these migrants because they're expecting an increase, also how they plan to maintain national security. All is happening in the backdrop of the mid-term elections.

That's why we are seeing a growing number of vulnerable Democrats, they're bucking their party, opposing the lifting of Title 42, against their own Democratic Party again because they are vulnerable. They are afraid of what could happen at the ballot box.

If you ask the Biden administration, they will say they are building soft-sided facilities to process migrants and are flooding the zone with extra agents to make sure they maintain national security and that they're also working on the longer-term big picture. That's why Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Panama right now talking to leaders from over 20 countries of the Western Hemisphere to make sure that they have these talks, longer-term talks. And the State Department hinting at a possible agreement, a possible compact when it comes to migration.

But, Jake, back to these vulnerable Democrats, at this point, they are not buying it, they are bucking their party -- Jake.

TAPPER: And, Rosa, you recently traveled to San Antonio, where the mayor is sounding the alarm about the possible impact to rescinding Title 42 and what impact it will have on the city. Tell us about that.

FLORES: You know, there was a lot of concerns there, because recently, there was a huge increase, a spike in the number of migrants that federal immigration officials dropped off in the city of San Antonio.

And so what happened, Jake, is that a lot of these migrants did not have planned destinations. They didn't have money to leave the city of San Antonio. So they started sleeping at a city park. They started sleeping outside, that, of course, raising a lot of concerns.

The city mayor there, a Democrat, sounding the alarm, sending a letter to DHS, saying it was unsustainable for this increased number of migrants to be dropped off in the city and also asking the Biden administration to give the city a heads up if they are increasing the number of migrants that were being dropped off. As we've seen so many times, the non-profit sector jumped in, they opened up a shelter so migrants are no longer sleeping outside in San Antonio.

I asked DHS about this. They have not responded. But the city of San Antonio does say that since mayor sent that letter on March 31st, they have been in constant communication with border protection and also with FEMA. And, Jake, I should add that in a memo that was obtained by CNN, we also learned from the city manager that he sounded the alarm say figure this increase in providing grants continues into the city of San Antonio, that Title 42 is lifted, that is city's ability to meet this humanitarian need would be limited -- Jake.

TAPPER: Rosa Flores in Houston for us, thank you so much.

Coming up, new scenes of devastation from Ukraine and the once thriving town that President Zelenskyy now says may be worse than Bucha.

Stay with us.


[16:59:06TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

This hour, the changes being discussed in Florida that could take away the special status of the happiest place on earth.

Then, it looks like nothing is left. I went inside one of the Ukrainian towns Russian forces bombed and then occupied for weeks until Ukrainians fought them out.

And leading this hour, a new phase of Putin's unprovoked war in Ukraine. That's how Russia describes the assault in the Donbas region in Eastern Ukraine. Kharkiv's mayor said there has been nonstop bombardment of the civilian areas in his town.

Now, a top aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says no city, town, or village in Ukraine is safe. Multiple Ukrainians have said it's impossible to count the dead as the war continues, even president Zelenskyy told me, he cannot possibly know how many have died in Russian held areas.

As CNN's Phil Black reports for us now, even the morgues in Ukraine are struggling to keep one the death toll.

I want to warn you. Some of the images we're about to show you may be disturbing.