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The Lead with Jake Tapper
Russia Pummels Ukraine With Drone, Hypersonic Missile Strikes; American Citizen Imprisoned In Iran Makes Plea To U.S. Government; Senate Minority Leader Treated For A Concussion After Falling At Event; Biden: I'm Ready To Meet With Speaker McCarthy, If He Has His Budget; Manchin Questions Spikes In U.S. Spending As Biden Unveils New Budget; U.S. Defense Secretary In Israel Amid Ongoing Protests; Punches Thrown In Confrontation Aboard Southwest Plane. Aired 4-5p ET
Aired March 09, 2023 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Russia pummels Ukraine with missiles and drones.
THE LEAD starts right now.
Ukrainian city after city bombarded by Russia as Putin unleashes a massive attack. Did the targets reveal strategy as this war drags on?
Plus, emotional plea from Iran's longest held American prisoner. Why he's taking the risk talking to CNN's Christiane Amanpour in an exclusive interview from behind bars.
And new details about Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, treated for a concussion in a D.C. hospital now after a fall.
TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.
And we begin with Putin's brutal war on Ukraine.
A deadly onslaught of Russian blanketing that country today, reaching nearly every corner of Ukraine from Kyiv to Lviv, the worst Russian barrage since January, punctuated by an unprecedented variety of Russian missiles, including six rare hypersonic missiles, eluding Ukraine's air defenses.
Ukrainian officials say in total, 84 missiles were launched. At least 11 people in Ukraine were killed. Russia claims the strike was retaliation for what it calls terrorist actions by Ukraine in a western Russian town last week. CNN cannot independently verify Russia's claims nor can we confirm evidence of any such attack, and for the sixth time, renewed fears of a nuclear catastrophe possibly.
Europe's largest nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia once again shelled, plunged into darkness, forced to run on backup power. Ukraine's prime minister saying it's, quote, nuclear terrorism committed by Putin. CNN's Ivan Watson is on the ground in Ukraine's capital for us, where air raid sirens wailed for nearly seven straight hours.
IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): By land, sea, and air, Russia launched a massive missile attack on Ukraine, hurling at least 84 missiles and killer drones against its neighbor in a single night. The deadly barrage pounding Ukraine in the north, south, east and west, decimating several houses in the western city of Lviv. Killing at least two women and three men there.
In the capital Kyiv, one missile strike temporarily knocked out some electric power, while another slammed into the courtyard of a large apartment block.
Fortunately, no one was killed here this morning by this missile strike, but it terrified people living next door. No one in Ukraine knows when a deadly Russian missile could explode in their neighborhood.
Ulya and Nastya Kolovsnokia (ph) say the 7:00 a.m. blast broke windows in their seventh floor apartment.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was very dangerous, so we were very scared.
WATSON: But the close call didn't stop them from working today.
We've developed immunity after a year of war, says Ulya. We don't even run and hide in the basement any more when there are air raid sirens.
WATSON: The Ukrainian military says air defenses shot down nearly half of Russia's missiles and drones. But can't intercept some of these deadly weapons.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): There were X-22, which we can't shoot down. We can't shot down the Kinzhal either.
WATSON: Russia's defense ministry calls the missile barrage a retaliation for what it claims was a Ukrainian terrorist attack in Russia's Bryansk region on March 2nd, claims which CNN has not been able to verify. Deadly Russian revenge attacks that leave ordinary Ukrainians picking up the pieces.
WATSON (on camera): Well, Jake, the Ukrainian armed forces -- they say that the risk of further Russian missile attacks is still very high. There also appear to be concessions now that this tactic of firing different kinds of missiles, and in particular, the Kinzhal hypersonic missiles, that those were able to foil some of Ukraine's air defenses.
And then there's the issue of the utilities and things like heat and electricity that were at least temporarily knocked out. The lights are back on here in Kyiv. The heat, though, is not. Thirty percent of homes don't have heat right now in March as a result of these latest strikes -- Jake.
TAPPER: All right. Ivan Watson in Kyiv for us, thank you so much.
Now to a plea to the West from Ukraine's prime minister today, tweeting, we need more weapons and more sanctions to stop the aggressor. While the U.S. has committed more than $30 billion in security assistance since the start of Putin's brutal war, some of the biggest weapons promised such as the Patriot air defense missile systems take months for Ukrainian soldiers to learn how to operate.
Let's get right to CNN's Natasha Bertrand at the Pentagon.
And, Natasha, if Ukrainian troops were up to speed on operating the patriot missile system, would that system have helped defend Ukraine from today's barrage of missiles?
NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Well, Jake, the short answer is probably yes. Now, the issue here is that some of the missiles that Russia fired at Ukraine today were a kind of ballistic missile. They were the hypersonic missiles.
And, right now, Ukraine does not have a sufficient air defense system to intercept those kinds of missiles. The air defense system that they have right now are primarily aimed to defend against cruise missiles. So if they had the Patriot system in place, while this kind of Kinzhal missile has not necessarily been tested against the patriot, it is likely that it would have had a better chance of defending those hypersonic missiles than what Ukraine already has.
Now, the argument the White House has been making is because the majority of the missiles Russia launched at Ukraine were regular cruise missiles, that a patriot system likely could not have made much of a difference any way. Here's what John Kirby said just this morning.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHN KIRBY, NSC COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS: The Patriot missile system is really designed to go after ballistic missiles, and it's not as effective on cruise missiles, and it's certainly not going to be effective against drones. So it's doubtful that you could say if they had the patriots, it would make a huge difference in this barrage, because this was largely cruise missiles.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BERTRAND: So the key word there is largely, but it was not only cruise missiles. These missiles launched by Ukraine can do a lot of damage. If they have the patriots, which we are currently training on, they could have made a difference, Jake.
TAPPER: All right. Natasha Bertrand, thank you so much. Appreciate it.
Joining us now to discuss is the chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, Republican Mike Turner of Ohio. Mr. Chairman, good to see you.
Let's start with Ukraine. You said you support giving Ukraine what they need to win. Quite frankly, I'm not quite sure that Speaker McCarthy is on board. He just balked at an invitation to visit Ukraine from President Zelenskyy and he repeated his stance that he doesn't support a blank check to Ukraine, even though no one is proposing a blank check to Ukraine.
Is there, do you think, the appetite in the House Republican conference for the kind of more aggressive aid that you're talking about?
REP. MIKE TURNER (R-OH): Well, the speaker didn't say he wasn't going to go to Ukraine, he said he didn't need to go to Ukraine to understand the need of what they are looking at, the Russian aggression, the absolute -- just the indiscriminate killing of innocent people. I've been with the speaker, with Speaker McCarthy in Poland, to a place where we're working diligently to try to make certain that we supply Ukraine but also on the border of Ukraine. He's well up to speed on the issues there, supported sending weapons in the last approval process.
So I think his approval is there, and his support is there, which I think is important here as we look to what Russia is doing, they are running out. Even though they're doing this desperation of lobbing everything that they can on unbelievably tragic days like today, absent China stepping in, which you know Director Burns, the director of CIA, has openly stated China was considering in trying to dissuade, absent a country like China coming in that has an inexhaustible ability to provide them with weapons systems, Russia does have a diminishing ability to attack Ukraine. As long as we continue to their support, with their resolve, they're going to continue to hold back Russia.
TAPPER: Yeah. As you noted, the CIA director said today no one is watching Ukraine more intently than China. Have you seen intelligence suggesting that China is aiding Russia with weaponry has gone anything past the consideration stage? Are they actually going to do it?
TURNER: What the Director Burns said openly and publicly is that China was considering it, and certainly, we're going to monitor it very closely. What is actually obvious, if China enters, if they would enter their weapons system which would show up on the battlefield, that would be alarming to all of Europe and all of NATO. So they would have a reaction greater than just the United States. I don't think China is prepared to that, and hopefully they'd be dissuaded.
TAPPER: So, you've also recently praised the Biden administration's decision to declassify and publicize intelligence that China is considering arming Russia. Have you pushed the Biden administration to declassify other matters?
TURNER: Well, certainly. This Congress is going to take a vote this Friday joining the Senate in the call for the declassification of materials with regard to the origins of COVID. [16:10:06]
I think that when you look, especially in space, we've been very effective of declassifying information allowing our allies to know, identifying the bad behavior that's happening for Russia and China and weaponizing space, certainly in Ukraine, declassifying what their strategies were, their plans are, they have an impact on our adversaries. That's the tool that needs to be used more and certainly from this administration has been used effectively.
TAPPER: I want to ask about your fellow member of the Select Committee on Intelligence, Congressman Darren LaHood. Today in the hearing you chaired on worldwide threats, Congressman LaHood accused the FBI of unlawfully monitoring him. Was the -- did the FBI do that? Was it improper, and why were they doing that?
TURNER: So what Darren LaHood was referring to is a report by the intelligence community of a FISA inquiry that occurred on a member of Congress, and it was identified as improper. Darren LaHood was coming forward and saying I have reviewed this material, and in his opinion, that it referred to him. I concur in his opinion that it's likely him.
But the point that was important here, he said there are abuses, there are valid and really wrong things that the intelligence has done, particularly the FBI has done, with FISA. We need to address those abuses as we go forward reauthorizing this program. But we have to address those abuses head on before we go to reauthorization or we're going to lose the faith of the American public, and I think they've lost in Congress.
TAPPER: Well, and, I mean, we've seen these abuses. I mean, there was an abuse like that related to Carter Page, I believe, the monitoring of Carter Page.
TAPPER: And the lack of disclosure of all the information.
Why -- why renew it if the FBI can't be trusted to do it without violating their own rules?
TURNER: I do believe that there are opportunities to reform the whole FISA process. Darren LaHood, who, as you just indicated, came forward and said he believes he's been not lawfully queried under the FISA system. He's the head of that. He's committed to working to solutions.
I think we'll find them but we have to have the cooperation of the FBI, the cooperation of the intelligence community. We have to look at what were the real abuses that happened, how do we fix this and protect the American public?
TAPPER: Yeah. The chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, Congressman Mike Turner of Ohio, thank you so much. We appreciate it as always.
TURNER: Thank you. TAPPER: Coming up next, an American prisoner held in Iran. What he told CNN's Christiane Amanpour as he begs Joe Biden to hear his cries.
Plus, party disrupter. Hear Senator Joe Manchin's response when asked if he might make the move to challenge President Biden in 2024.
And chaos on a Southwest Airlines flight when passengers started throwing punches.
TAPPER: And we're back with more on our world lead. The desperate plea for freedom from an American citizen, who has been behind bars in Iran's notorious Evin prison, for more than seven years. Siamak Namazi was convicted in Iran of charges of cooperating with a hostile government, meaning the United States government. Namazi is the longest held American-Iranian prisoner.
Today, he spoke exclusively with CNN's Christiane Amanpour through his lawyer's phone and Christiane joins us now to talk about that conversation.
Christiane, Namazi took an incredible risk to get his message across to not only President Biden but the world. Tell us more about what he had to say.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Well, we really hope that nothing happens to retaliate against him for this. He told me it was a risk he needed to take because he's out of options, he feels abandoned and he doesn't know what else to do. He's been left behind, he says, by three previous prisoner swaps between Iran and the United States. He doesn't understand why, and he's directly trying to appeal to President Biden.
Here is a little bit of what he said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SIAMAK NAMAZI, IMPRISONED IN EVIN PRISON, IRAN (through telephone): I think the very fact that I have chosen to take this risk and appear on CNN from Evin Prison, it should just tell you how dire my situation has become by this point. I've been a hostage for 7 1/2 years now. That's six times the duration of the hostage crisis. I keep getting told that I'm going to be rescued and deals fall apart or I get abandoned.
Honestly, the other hostages and I desperately need President Biden to finally hear our cry for help and bring us home. And I suppose desperate times call for desperate measures. So, this is a desperate measure.
AMANPOUR: Siamak, you wrote this letter to President Biden recently, and I'm going to quote a little bit from it. Day after day, I ignore the intense pain that I always carry with me, and do my best to fight this grave injustice. All I want, sir, is one minute of your day's time for the next seven days, devoted to thinking about the tribulations of the U.S. hostages in Iran.
Did you get any personal response to that letter, Siamak?
NAMAZI: I've never had any response. This is what makes things particularly painful. President Biden has been in office for 25 months now. You've got to excuse me, this is hard.
President Biden, I certainly hear and I sincerely appreciate your administration's repeated declarations that freeing the American hostages in Iran is its top priority. But I remain deeply worried that the White House just doesn't appreciate how dire our situation has become. It's also very hurtful and upsetting that after 25 months in office, you haven't found the time to meet with our family, if just to give them some words of assurance. Sir: Morad, Emad and I have now collectively languished here for 18 years. Our lives and families have been utterly devastated. We desperately, desperately need you to finally conclude that we've suffered long enough as Iran's hostages.
President Biden, you and you alone have the power to deliver on the Obama administration's broken promise to my family.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: It is heartbreaking. You can hear that. The whole interview is gut wrenching, really.
And, basically, we heard from the administration, continuing to tell us since this interview that they do keep it as their top priority. But we're in a very difficult political environment where the United States has all sorts of issues about Iran, including the crackdown on human rights, including the pretty much stalled Iran nuclear deal, and, of course, the allegations of Iran sending weapons to Ukraine, as you just saw with the Shahed drones.
But others say that a government that the U.S. must be able to compartmentalize, yes, condemn that side but also do whatever deal has to be done, to get their other citizens back. It's happened before and that's Siamak Namazi and the other two Americans there want to happen again.
TAPPER: All right. Christiane Amanpour, thank you so much for that.
This programming note, tonight, I will moderate a special CNN town hall with Virginia Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin. The topic is the war over education. Youngkin will take questions from parents, educators, students. That's tonight at 9:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN.
But first here on THE LEAD, the details about Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's condition after his fall last night at a D.C. hotel.
[16:26:17] TAPPER: In our health lead today, we are learning just how serious Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell's condition is after he fell at a dinner last night in Washington, D.C.
CNN's Jessica Dean is in Capitol Hill for us.
Jessica, the 81-year-old Republican is still in the hospital. How's he doing?
JESSICA DEAN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, we know that he is recovering from his concussion, that he's going to stay there for several days, his office giving us an update just a little bit ago.
And let me read you what they said. They said that Leader McConnell tripped at a dinner event Wednesday evening and has been admitted to the hospital and is being treated for a concussion. He's expected to remain in the hospital for a few days of observation and treatment. The leader is grateful to the medical professionals for their care and to his colleagues for their warm wishes.
I'm told by a source he was at a hotel here in D.C. for an event for the Senate Leadership Fund. That is a McConnell-aligned super PAC. It was described to me as a thank you event, where he was meeting with various people.
He gave a speech at that event, talk to the crowd. One person who spoke with him for several minutes said he seemed very on-point, that he gave what he described as a good speech. So acting very normally, everything going normally before this trip when he got the concussion, Jake.
TAPPER: Lawmakers on both sides are reacting to McConnell's event today. What are they having to say?
DEAN: Well, as you can imagine, there's been kind of an outpouring of warm wishes and we have seen from both sides of the aisle. We heard from Senator Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, I let you listen to him, and also House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, as well. Listen to them.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): Yeah, he's a little beat up but he's doing all right.
MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: But you haven't talked to him yet?
MCCARTHY: I didn't have the time but I'm going to call him later.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): My thoughts this morning are with my good friend, Leader Mitch McConnell, who is recovering from -- in the hospital after an accident last night. I called the leader this morning and spoke briefly with his staff to extend my prayers and well wishes.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
DEAN: And again, Jake, we talked to senators on both sides of the aisle all throughout the day, nothing but warm wishes for the Senate minority leader, that he gets well soon. It's unclear at this point when he's going to be back here on Capitol Hill.
And worth noting, just give everyone a little context. He is the third senator that's out. Dianne Feinstein has also been out. She's been ill. And Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania has been out being treated for clinical depression, Jake.
TAPPER: All right. Jessica Dean, thanks. And, certainly, our thoughts are with the minority leader as well today, and sending him and his family our best.
This hour, President Biden headed back to Washington, D.C. after his 20th trip to battleground Pennsylvania since taking office. This time to try to sell what Republicans and even some Democrats are not buying his new budget proposal out today.
CNN's Phil Mattingly is at the White House for us.
And, just to be clear, Phil, none of this is going to become law.
PHIL MATITNGLY, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's fair. I think that's fair. I think White House officials acknowledge that that's fair.
When they put together this document, it is aggressive both on the policy side, on the tax side. I think on the intent side of things, there was an understanding that the vast majority of this, particularly under divided government, was not ever going to find its way to President Biden's desk.
However, what it is, is a clear statement of valuing and I think the political sense, laying the ground work for what lies ahead. Now, inside this budget, the White House advisers included nearly $3 trillion in deficit reduction related to the baseline over the course of a decade.
Now, as part of that, significant tax increases on corporations and the wealthy. That would drive the majority of the trillions of dollars of tax increases for those making over $400,000 a year. There's also an increase in the defense budget, $835 billion that funds Medicare through the 25th.
He's shoring up the Medicare trust fund as part of this program, which has been central to his political pitch.
Also caps insulin at $35, expanding on a program that the president was able to enact in his first two years and also expands the child tax credit. It was something that they did have in place and the president's first year. It expired, now trying to go back at that again. And when you talk to White House officials, they make clear what they
are doing with this document is setting up a clear contrast with Republicans.
This is how Joe Biden framed it.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The things I'm proposing not only lift the burden off families, but it's going to generate economic growth. I'm ready to meet with the speaker any time, tomorrow if he has his budget. Lay it down, tell me what you want to do, I'll show you what I want to do. See what we can agree on, and we don't agree on, let's see what we vote on it. Now --
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTINGLY: And, Jake, in the president's remarks there, he has long framed his budget as the starting point for a discussion, but only when House Republicans put out their budget. That budget is expected in the coming months, but that is intentional. To some degree, this budget, while required by law, is also bait.
White House officials want Republicans to put out a budget. First, they're not totally sure that 218 Republicans can coalesce around any proposal, given how fractious the conference is. But they also know, given the stiff spending cuts that Republicans have pledged to put into place, given the fact they've said Medicare and Social Security are off the table at this point in time, they know anything that does come out there Republicans would be, as one adviser told me a couple of weeks ago, a political gold mine to attack.
They want to put that on the table. They know this is laying the groundwork for a very real and high stakes battle over the debt limit, but also, this would be the framing of the president's policy platform heading into a likely 2024 re-election bid, Jake.
TAPPER: All right. Phil Mattingly at the White House for us, thank you so much.
As for the squabbles within the president's own party, he may need to schedule time with Senator Joe Manchin, the West Virginia who sounded quite a lot like Republicans when telling CNN he's worried about Washington and how it's already spent so much money versus what the future budget should look like.
Manchin spoke with CNN's Kaitlan Collins who joins us now.
And, Kaitlan, Manchin is now one of the many voices that President Biden will have to negotiate within the coming months.
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, and he said $3 trillion is a good start, Jake, but obviously, there's a lot more to do. And he was critical of Democrats. He was critical of Republicans. He criticized President Biden for waiting so long to put out this budget that is just a budget blueprint, but it is a statement of priorities essentially.
But one thing that Senator Manchin had a deep concern about is when we talk about what the debt ceiling is going to look like, what this looming class with Republicans and how it's going to play out is discretionary spending, the non-discretionary spending, which is essentially what seen as nonnegotiable and where they could even make changes. This is what he told me.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D-WV): How come we have increased $3.5 trillion of spending in 2013, how did it get to $6.2 trillion? And how come we have some much in what we call nondiscretionary funding? That means we can't even talk about it, Kaitlan. That's mean -- it's put over there, you are just going to have to continue to fund that.
How did it grow so quickly? How do we have so many things that are necessary that weren't before?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COLLINS: And you kind of had this sense of exasperation, Jake. And, you know, when he's talking about where those cuts could come from, and a clean debt ceiling hike, which is what Republicans have said they want to do, not tie anything to it, which is what Republicans have said they want to do, he said he would vote for it. That he's not going to hold it hostage, but he did make clear he does believe there should be changes to spending. The question, of course, is where does it come from?
TAPPER: And, Kaitlan, you also asked Senator Manchin about his support for President Biden in 2024, or his lack thereof. And Manchin seemed to leave the door wide open on a possible challenge to Biden for president.
COLLINS: Yeah. This is a pretty fascinating answer because, as you know, Jake, Senator Manchin has kind of played coy on what his own political plans are going to be, whether or not he's running for re- election. He said he doesn't like the idea that he's being asked about it already. He feels like you get done with one election and you're being asked about another one.
But the question I asked him, because he also has not endorsed President Biden, saying he will support him in 2024. That's a question he's also not answering. I asked if he thought Biden should be challenged for the Democratic nomination, not necessarily by Senator Manchin, but just in general. And this is how he answered that question.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MANCHIN: Only in America does the next cycle start the day after the last cycle. This is crazy. Let's do our job for at least another year. We have a whole another year after that.
COLLINS: That's fair, but you know that answer is going to make some people think that you're thinking about getting into the presidential race.
MANCHIN: Hold on. I've said this, and I repeat this one more time, Kaitlan. I am not making any decisions whatsoever on my political future maybe until the end of the year.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COLLINS: Pretty telling when they don't always answer the question. The other day, he was asked if he still considers himself a Democrat. He said he considers himself to be an American.
So there are a lot of questions about his political future looks like. Is he still running as a Democrat? Is he still running in the Senate race? I don't know, maybe in 2024, Jake.
TAPPER: It's not that difficult to say, I'm not going to run for president. I mean, I'll say it. I'm not going to run for president, you know? But he --
COLLINS: I'm also not running for president.
TAPPER: Neither of us are running for president, although I would be willing to be your vice president if you decided to run. But the idea that he wouldn't answer the question when it was just sitting like, you know, a big balloon.
COLLINS: Yeah, and I think one thing he's tried to stress is he has been a thorn in the White House's side. We have all seen that play out, especially before we saw the changes in the 2022 midterms is how he does often push back on the White House.
And, you know, he said earlier today, he said, I'm not a Washington Democrat. He said there's some Republicans he believes, you know, that aren't the typical Washington Republican. But one thing he's done lately is, he's pushed back and said he was voting against several people that President Biden has put up for key positions. He lashed out at the Interior Department because they delayed leases for offshore drilling. He's had a lot of issues with the White House, and he was effectively making the argument earlier that is what he's going to continue to do if he disagrees with them. He phrased it as holding the White House's feet to the fire.
Of course, that is a relationship they want to keep in good terms. When they were asked recently about it, they described it as a fruitful relationship, Jake.
TAPPER: Yeah, no sense for them to alienate Joe Manchin. I agree on -- I agree with that.
Kaitlan Collins, thanks so much. It's interesting interview.
Still ahead, change of plans. The protest that disrupted a trip to Israel for Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.
Stay with us.
TAPPER: Also in our world lead, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is in Israel today, a visit where meetings and schedules had to be rearranged due to ongoing protests by the Israeli people against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his attempt to weaken Israel's judiciary system.
As CNN's Hadas Gold reports for us now, Secretary Austin was not shy about weighing in on the controversy.
HADAS GOLD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Protestors in Israel taking their days of disruption to the main airport Wednesday, for ten weeks now. Tens of thousands have been coming out to the street against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plans to weaken the judiciary and give Israeli politicians unprecedented power to overturn Supreme Court decisions.
Passengers forced to drag their suitcases so as not to miss their flights. This man from France walking more than half a mile to the terminal, saying he understood the protesters' point of view.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it's when you are fighting for what is right, you need to fight, not violence.
GOLD: Among the demonstrators, former fighter pilots who said they wouldn't heed the call to serve a government they believe is hurting democracy.
EYAL CARMON, FORMER FIGHTER PILOT: It's more important to have a free country than to catch a plan.
GOLD: The protestors here at the airport slowing down traffic to the entrance, trying to disrupt not only Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's planned trip to Italy, but also affecting U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's arrival. The Pentagon saying they asked the defense secretary's team to push back and alter his schedule instead of him meeting with officials in Tel Aviv.
Instead, he's arriving here to this airport, and immediately going to a complex right next to the airport, meeting with officials, and then flying out.
In an unusual move, Austin wading into the judicial reforms debate while standing alongside the Israeli defense minister.
LLOYD AUSTIN, DEFENSE SECRETARY: The genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy, they are both built on strong institutions, on checks and balances, and on an independent judiciary. And the president also noted that building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained.
GOLD: Meanwhile in Tel Aviv, protestors blocking traffic along the main highway, chanting chain (ph) on democracy, before dozens of police, including mounted officers, push them off. Organizers vowing they'll continue taking to the streets until the planned judicial changes are stopped, just like the traffic on this highway.
GOLD (on camera): And, Jake, right as the protests wrapped tonight in Tel Aviv, a terror attack took place just a few blocks away from where the protestors were. Police said essentially three men were walking down the street, shooting at them. All three were wounded, one of them critically, before passerbys including off duty police officers shot and killed the attacker. Hamas has claimed the attacker as one of its members, saying he's in his 20s from the West Bank.
Jake, just a reminder of the ongoing deadly violence that has been gripping both Israelis and Palestinians for several months now -- Jake.
TAPPER: Yeah. Hadas Gold in Jerusalem for us, thank you so much.
Turning to our politics lead, a U.S. Senate committee this week cleared the nomination of former Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to become the ambassador to India, sending the nomination to the full Senate for confirmation. It is a controversial move, given allegations that while he was mayor of Los Angeles, Garcetti ignored multiple reports of sexual misconduct by one of his key advisers, something Garcetti denies.
We asked CNN's Lauren Fox to look into what happened.
LAUREN FOX, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A nomination once on life support, now revived as Eric Garcetti gains momentum to be the ambassador to India after a year's long fight for confirmation. The former Los Angeles mayor was nominated for the position more than 600 days ago, in July of 2021.
ERIC GARCETTI, NOMINEE FOR U.S. AMBASSADOR TO INDIA: If confirmed, it would be the honor of a lifetime.
FOX: His nomination sailed through the committee the next January. Then it stalled, as senators in both parties raised concerns over whether Garcetti knew about and ignored allegations of sexual harassment by a top aide while in office.
GARCETTI: I want to say unequivocally that I never witnessed nor was it brought to my attention the behavior that's been alleged, and I also want to assure you if it had been, I would have immediately taken action to stop that.
FOX: Now questions looming on Capitol Hill if Garcetti has the votes to be confirmed by the U.S.
Garcetti's parents have hired a D.C. firm to lobby on behalf of their son's nomination, and those supporting Garcetti's nomination point to a report commissioned by the city of Los Angeles that found no wrongdoing. But last may, Senator Chuck Grassley investigated the allegations from whistleblowers himself. Issuing a 23-page report alleging Garcetti, quote, likely knew or should have known that a top aide, Rick Jacobs, was sexually harassing multiple individuals and making racist comments towards others.
Jacob has denied the allegations.
The White House blasted the report as partisan, and continues to stand by Garcetti's nomination.
KARINE JEAN-PIERRE, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We encourage and look forward to the Senate moving forward with his nomination on the floor.
FOX: With time, Garcetti's fortunes have begun to turn. His nomination cleared committee Wednesday, this time with two Republicans, Bill Hagerty and Todd Young, voting for him.
SEN. MARTIN HEINRICH (D-NM): I think those concerns are valid, that they don't -- I don't think that they rise to the level of disqualifying him.
FOX: Democrats, who were once on the fence, now saying they'll back him.
SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND (D-NY): I really trust the review of the committee of jurisdiction. They looked at his record, and they have unanimously supported him. That strengthens my review and I will look for him.
SEN. MAZIE HIRONO (D-HI): There's nothing definitive in my view that says he should have known in that situation. I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
FOX: But Garcetti's confirmation is not guaranteed. With several senators in both parties still undecided.
Have you made up your mind or Eric Garcetti?
SEN. TOMMY TUBERVILLE (R-AL): No, not yet.
FOX: What are you weighing at this point?
TUBERVILLE: I want to talk to him personally, face-to-face.
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA): I have heard concerns. I'll take a look at his full record, the same I do for any nominee.
FOX (on camera): And, Jake, another wild card is attendance here in the U.S. Senate. We obviously don't know when Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, is going to return to the Senate. Nor do we know when John Fetterman or Dianne Feinstein will be back in the Senate.
So a lot of questions remain, if the votes are going to be there for Garcetti's nomination. But one thing I heard over and over again from Democrats and Republicans is the country cannot go on much longer without an ambassador to India -- Jake.
TAPPER: Yeah, it's a 51-49 Senate. Very close. Lauren Fox, thanks so much.
Coming up next, unruly skies. What was behind a fight with passengers on a Southwest Airlines flight?
TAPPER: In our national lead now, heated moments between passengers on a Southwest flight Monday in Dallas. One man in the tan blazer there confronted another man and hit him with a flurry of punches.
CNN's Ed Lavandera is in Dallas for us.
Ed, do we have any idea what caused this fight?
ED LAVANDERA, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, it's a situation that escalated quickly. The flight hadn't even taken off yet. But from what we understand from eyewitnesses who were inside the plane and some of what the punching man said there in that video at the end, it had to do with the perception that the man believed that the man he was hitting had bumped into his family as they were boarding the plane.
We are told by the witness that the video you see only captures the tail end of the fighting, that before the video rolled the man in the tan jacket had unleashed a flurry of about four other punches before the video picked up. But you can hear what that man said after they were pulled apart.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tell him what happened. Tell them what you did. I was sitting down. You approaching my family. I would die for my family. So that's why I'll bet your (EXPLETIVE DELETED).
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAVANDERA: Now, both men were taken off the flight. Southwest Airlines says they commend the actions of the crew on board in separating those men and that the flight took off on Monday from Dallas to Phoenix and arrived. Everything else -- there were no other issues and arrived on time.
Dallas police tell us, Jake, that both men did not face any criminal charges. So as the spring break season begins and many people packing into flights across the country, a reminder, the tension out there is high -- Jake.
Ed Lavandera, thanks so much.
Coming up, the head of Norfolk Southern questioned on Capitol Hill today about that toxic train wreck, and a resident who heard his testimony back home in Ohio said the CEO was full of it.
Stay with us.
TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.
This hour a young sailor who died by suicide after being bullied and hazed is now the reason why every member of the military is theoretically entitled to mental health services. So why hasn't the Pentagon enacted this measure that could save lives?
Plus, new legal trouble today for Tiger Woods. The golfer's being sued by his ex-girlfriend for $30 million. She wants to get out of her non- disclosure agreement. Does she have a case?
And leading this hour, tense moments on Capitol Hill today as lawmakers demand answers about that train derailment in Ohio that released toxic chemicals into the air, water and soil. The CEO of Norfolk Southern today apologizing to the people impacted by the disaster and announced that the company will invest $21 million in the East Palestine, Ohio community.
But senators did not hold back questioning the rail company's long- term commitment to the cleanup and enacting new safety measures.
(BEGN VIDEO CLIP)
ALAN SHAW, CEO, NORFOLK SOUTHERN CORPORATION: I share your focus on our employees. I will commit to continuing to discuss with them important quality of life issues.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): With all due respect, you sound like a politician here.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: CNN's Sunlen Serfaty takes a look now at today's testimony and how it was received back in Ohio.
SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As cleanup efforts continue in East Palestine, Ohio, in Washington --
SHAW: I'm terribly sorry for the impact this derailment has had on the folks of that community.