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The Lead with Jake Tapper

Fears Of Bank Crisis; U.S, U.K. And Australia Nuclear Submarine Project; Biden OK's Alaska Oil Drilling Project; Trump Will Not Participate In Manhattan Grand Jury Probe; Sen. Mitch McConnell Discharge After Fall; Wednesday Hearing On Abortion Pill Lawsuit With National Impact; Texas Man Sues Women Accused Of Helping Ex-Wife Get Abortion Pills; Xi Vows To Build China's Military Into A "Great Wall Of Steel"; CNN In Eastern Ukraine, Where Some Refuse To Leave Despite Shelling; Actor Ben Savage Launches Campaign For Congress As Democrat. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired March 13, 2023 - 17:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: This hour, concerns over the stability of the U.S. banking system even after federal government intervened to guarantee all deposits at the collapsed Silicon Valley Bank in California and the Signature Bank in New York.

President Biden trying to calm the markets by insisting taxpayer money will not be used to bail out investors in the Silicon Valley Bank. Several regional banking stocks taking big hits on Wall Street today. We're going to start our coverage with CNN's Richard Quest.

And Richard, the Biden administration is scrambling to try to restore confidence in the U.S. banking system, but regional bank stocks tumbled to all-time lows. Are you afraid this could spark a banking meltdown?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN ANCHOR: That is the fundamental fear, Jake. But it is by most accounts unfounded for several reasons. Firstly, the banking sector overall is much better capitalized than it was in 2008. There have been huge changes. So, a full-scale banking meltdown crisis, is it possible? Maybe. But is it likely? Absolutely not, so the experts say.

I was talking to one such expert here in Israel where I am at, the tech sector which has been so badly hit by all of this, well, I spoke to Shlomo Dovrat who is the venture capitalist of the Viola Group. He said it's not a system at risk, but when it comes to runs on banks, today, they can be much faster than you think.


SHLOMO DOVRAT, CO-FOUNDER & GENERAL PARTNER, VIOLA GROUP: Run on the bank in a world of internet, in a world where everything (inaudible) is very quick. But I do believe it's an isolated, you know, specific event. I don't think it will have huge impact. This is not 2008.

(END VIDEO CLIP) QUEST: And putting that into wider view, it's certainly going to hit the technology sector because tech borrowed from these institutions. But the speed at which the regulators moved, shoring up the depositor savings, making it clear investors and shareholders won't be bailed out. There are risks here, Jake, but at the moment they seem to be well contained.

TAPPER: Richard, should Americans be worried? And also, on that line, what could make this worse?

QUEST: The very reason that these two banks went belly-up in the first place, they are stuffed to the gills with bonds, government bonds, corporate bonds, which were all bought in better times when yields were low. You know how bonds work, Jake. As the yield goes up, the price goes down. It's an inverse relationship.

Interest rates have gone up, and the value of all these bonds have gone down. That's the problem at Signature. That's the problem at SVB, and that could be the problem at all these other banks. They could have too many bonds, their assets could have now diminished, devalued, and they could be asset poor if you will. We won't know, but the Fed is still raising rates, so there could well be a couple more hiccups before this is over.

TAPPER: All right, Richard Quest in Israel for us. Thank you so much.

Right now, President Biden is announcing a landmark agreement with the governments of the U.K. and Australia to develop a fleet of nuclear- powered submarines. Let's go now to CNN's Jeremy Diamond who's at the naval base Point Loma in San Diego where the three world leaders are speaking.

Jeremy, this fleet would theoretically help strengthen naval forces in the Asia-Pacific region. At the same time, China is aggressive in bolstering its own navy in the same region. What's the significance of this announcement and what have you heard from President Biden so far?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, President Biden says that this announcement, this (inaudible) announcement shows that democracies can indeed deliver for the world. And he said it will help jump start Australia's undersea capabilities. President Biden is underscoring that because the timeline now for delivering these submarines is now the early 2030s.

Three Virginia class submarines with the possibility of purchasing two additional ones. That is a decade earlier than experts expected when this partnership was first announced about a year and a half ago. Interestingly though, Jake, President Biden only mentioning China in passing even though, make no mistake, the very clear subtext of this announcement and the very reason for its existence is the fact that China has this growing military presence in the Indo-Pacific and this partnership is expected to serve as a counterweight to all of that.

And beyond that, Jake, it's important to note that President Biden is pursuing a multi-pronged strategy as it relates to China. Yes, he is taking moves like this to try and counter China's military movements in the region, but he's also seeking to normalize diplomatic relations, in particular those military-to-military communications which (inaudible) administration officials have told me China has been reluctant to re-establish with the United States. U.S. officials say that that raises the risk of miscalculation.


And so, as President Biden looks for steps to counter China, he's also looking for ways to try and reduce those risks of miscalculation going forward. Jake?

TAPPER: All right, Jeremy Diamond, thank you so much.

Turning to our "National Lead," enraging environmentalists, the Biden administration officially approved a massive oil drilling project in the National Petroleum Reserve on Alaska's north slope. It breaks a Biden campaign promise to end new oil and gas drilling in public lands, but it does please Alaska's bipartisan congressional delegation.

The White House is also making the move over the objections of progressive Democrats and environmental groups who say that the venture will hurt the president's ambitious climate goals as well as the planet it will hurt the climate goals as well as the planet. CNN's Rene Marsh joins us now live with details. Rene, what is the White House saying about this change in policy and, frankly, broken promise?

RENE MARSH, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah. Well, Jake, the administration is saying, look, our hands were tied due to the courts, due to legal restraints, pointing to the fact that ConocoPhillips, the oil company that's leading this project has held these oil drilling leases for decades now. They didn't feel that they had the legal standing to take those rights away.

However, CNN spoke with environmental lawyers who would beg to differ. But some more detail on what exactly was approved today. This is a major oil project, again, led by ConocoPhillips. It is in the northwest region of Alaska, very remote land. It's on federal land. It would hold -- it holds up to 600 million gallons -- I'm sorry -- 600 million barrels of oil.

But it would take several years for this oil to make it to market because the infrastructure has not yet been put in place. By the administration's own estimates, there would be a release of the same amount of planet-warming greenhouse gases as roughly 2 million gas- powered vehicles added to the road, just to give you a sense of what the environmental impact would be.

And this issue has really divided Alaska natives both -- there are two sides here. Some that say that this is a victory because it would bring revenue into the state. The other side saying that this is an environmental disaster in the making, Jake.

TAPPER: And Rene, the White House is trying to temper some of the backlash through this approval with new protections for some of the land and water in Alaska. Tell us about that. MARSH: Right. So, on the same day that we heard about this approval

of the Willow Project, they also announced that they were going to be making the U.S. Arctic off limits for future oil and gas leasing. That would mean some 16 million acres that would be off limits for the future. They're saying that they are building this sort of firewall to prevent future oil and gas drilling in this region.

But when you talk to the climate activists, they all are not satisfied with this because they are still looking at the approval that happened today, which they say will have a dramatic impact on what we're trying to do here, which is curb greenhouse gases.

TAPPER: All right, Rene Marsh, thank you so much. Let's discuss the politics of all this. Jonah Goldberg, let me start with you because this decision angering environmentalists, pleasing a lot of people in Alaska who want the revenue and the jobs, comes at the same time that Biden seems to be taking some more conservative moves on other issues against the D.C. crime bill, for example, stricter rules, asylum rules for migrants crossing the border. Do you think that this is part of a strategy, or is it just kind of happening that way?

JONAH GOLDBERG, CO-FOUNDER AND EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, THE DISPATCH: I think it appears to be part of a strategy. I'm one of these people who thinks -- there are a lot of people who think it's bad policy but good politics. I think it' a good policy and a good politics. I think oil is a fungible commodity that is going to be produced around the world anyway and we're safer and cleaner about it than a lot of the countries where it comes out of the ground.

And it inoculates in many ways Biden against a lot of charges for 2024. After all, this is the guy who killed the Keystone pipeline, now he, at least gets to say, hey, look, I'm for smart oil development where we can put some teeth behind his rhetoric about how the oil companies refuse to drill, but you can see how the base of the party is going to be furious about it.

TAPPER: Yeah. And let, well, I was just going to say, let me just read you this quote from Ed Markey, a progressive from Massachusetts. He calls this move a disastrous decision, quote, "This decision not only leaves an oil stain on the administration climate accomplishments and the President's commitment not to permit new oil and gas drilling on federal land, but slows our progress in the fight for a more livable future."

I mean, the -- Biden has done pretty well in keeping the progressive left on board, even though he's not really actually a member, you know what I mean?

NAYYERA HAQ, SENIOR DIRECTOR OF CABINET AFFAIRS, OBAMA ADMINISTRATION: Well, climate science is undeniable at this point and Alaska is facing the challenge of jobs now or saving the rest of the planet later. Alaska had 90-degree weather, 90 forest fires this past summer. Glaciers are melting at a record pace. So, nobody, Alaskans especially, but Biden administration in particular wants to see climate refugees coming from Alaska into the lower 48, heading into a next presidential election. [17:10:00]

GOLDBERG: They won't. There won't be climate refugees coming out of Alaska.

HAQ: Well, this is a part of the point. This is my point though, is that this is jobs are disappearing. They're disappearing because there are no more fish. Canneries are disappearing --

GOLDBERG: Yeah. My wife is from Alaska. I got to Alaska a lot. I think you're taking it as --

HAQ: Tourism is disappearing.

GOLDBERG: Tourism is not disappearing in Alaska.

HAQ: This is not of right now. This is not a right now, but this is the constant challenge we see. It's the decision for now versus 15, 20 years. So, someone from Maine can take that longer-term view. Someone from Alaska is like, I need the problem in front of me right now, not the idea of what will happen 15, 20 years down the line.

GOLDBERG: Yeah. Look, I think the framing the you brought up was a little misguided. This is not Alaska versus everybody else. Lots of Americans very angry about high oil prices, high gas prices, about inflation and all the rest. This plays into it. The idea that somehow the look -- the people in the lower 48 want lower energy costs are going to be upset about this, the same people who are yelling about drill, baby, drill, and all that kind of stuff, they're going to be pleased by this.

It's good politics. And look, Alaska has gotten warmer, I agree with that. Climate change is real. I agree with that. But treating this as they do with every single attempt to drill for oil as an absolute catastrophe, I think that actually plays badly for Democrats who want to seem like they're mainstream and care about pocketbook issues.

TAPPER: Let's talk about the other big move. The president today seeking to reassure the country in calm financial markets after the failure of Silicon Valley Bank. He took swift action to guarantee the depositors will have access to the money. They're not be the investors in the bank. They say it's not a bailout. Obviously, a loaded term because of what happened in 2008. What do you make of how they're trying to manage this crisis?

ALEX BURNS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, I think that in terms of the basic politics of this, Jake, the proof of sort of the impact of what Biden is doing here is going to be this larger effect on the economy, whether we're still talking about this in three months or six months. I think there are a lot of folks in Washington who hear that word bailout and get very, very nervous.

The reality is, is that the number of people who are directly affected by this today is quite small. And if it stays quite small, I don't know the voters in six months or 18 months are particularly going to care, whether it was something that can be called a bailout. The much, much greater risk is that they do not act sufficiently or they act foolishly and suddenly this becomes a much, much broader issue.

Or that because of the concerns that Richard laid out earlier in the segment about the effect of inflation on banks like this one and others, suddenly -- excuse me -- of interests on banks like this and others that the Fed suddenly stops taking on inflation in the same way, and that return is a campaign issue.

TAPPER: So, we've seen some politicizing of this already which I don't mean as a criticism necessarily. But President Biden saying that President Trump signed into law a weakening of the Dodd-Frank bank requirements, and then we saw Nikki Haley who is running for president, slamming Biden for what she called a bailout.

And then Governor DeSantis said that he thinks the bank's failure, Silicon Valley Bank, was about the fact that the bank was too focused on DEI, which is diversity, equity and inclusion programs, DEI. Take a look.


RON DESANTIS, GOVERNOR OF FLORIDA: This bank, they're so concerned with DEI and politics and all kinds of stuff. I think that really diverted from them focusing on their core mission.


TAPPER: What do you make of that?

TIA MITCHELL, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, THE ATLANTA JOURNAL- CONSTITUTION: I make of it that Ron DeSantis is thinking about running for president and he's going to do it on the bank of the, quote, unquote, "culture wars," you know. Just on its face, if businesses can't adhere to their core mission and also consider, you know, treating people fairly and equitably and addressing any deficiencies that they might have on those measures, then what are we saying about the ability of businesses and industries to adhere to their core mission.

Like, they should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. And there's no evidence here that Silicon Valley Bank, that their DEI programs had anything to do on what was essentially just a run on a bank that quite, frankly, all banks are vulnerable to. But of course, smaller banks are going to be more vulnerable too.

So, the real issue here is about whether Congress and President Biden are going to move forward with new regulations because we should focus on what is really happening and not kind of the culture wars that are perhaps going to help someone politically.

HAQ: It's so much easier for Ron DeSantis to talk about culture wars than to speak about regulation, right, or the deregulation that has helped in the wake of Dodd-Frank. Some of these banks get a little bit bigger than they should be.

BURNS: Look, I think that what the Republican Party would love to find here is the sort of DEI equivalent of Solyndra, right. This sort of big renewable energy company in 2010, 2011, Obama administration. Poured money into it. I mean, it was just a total bust and they could say this is what with left, the economic management gets you. And this is what happens at Silicon Valley Bank. But you know, they said there was no evidence this is what happened at Silicon Valley Bank. But I do think that you're going to see Ron DeSantis and other folks in the party sort of hunting for that woke capitalist Solyndra.


TAPPER: Yeah. I mean, you know, if you other a hammer every problem, looks like a nail kind of situation, I think. I haven't seen any evidence that DEI programs, although I've seen -- there was an op-ed in the "Wall Street Journal" basically saying that if it wasn't just 12 white men on the board, because the board talked about its diversity, that maybe they were too -- there's a lot of just like extrapolation out of nowhere.

MITCHELL: And it also just kind of seems, again, a way to make it a problem -- diversity being a problem. And there's no evidence of that, but that could have real impact because there has been a conversation about diversifying boards and creating more diversity in general around different sectors that minorities are not well represented in.

And so now there's a convenience to say, look, if they hadn't been so focused on diversity, you know, maybe this wouldn't have happened. There's no evidence of that, but that can undermine efforts to focus on diversity moving forward.

TAPPER: All right. Well, DeSantis was in Iowa over the weekend so he might have had politics on his mind. Thanks to all of you for being here. Appreciate it.

Coming up, will he or will he not be charged.? New information from Donald Trump's lawyer about the possibility of an indictment for the former president.

Plus, an update on the biggest abortion fight since Roe was overturned. Why the judge tried to keep this hearing under wraps. Stay with us.



TAPPER: Today we're learning that Donald Trump's attorney recently met with Manhattan prosecutors to explain why the former president should not be indicted in the Stormy Daniels hush money case. That case alleges that Trump authorized his former fixer, Michael Cohen, to pay Stormy Daniels $130,000 in the days before the 2016 election so that she would stay silent about their alleged affair.

CNN's Paula Reid has been following the case. And Paula, this is not about the money or the affair, apparently. It's about where the money came from?

PAULA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Hush money is not a crime. Extramarital affairs, not a crime. But prosecutors are looking at whether documents may have been falsified. Business records were falsified for how Michael Cohen was reimbursed for the money that he gave to Stormy Daniels. They're also looking at whether this was concealing a campaign contribution. Because if it was, then this could potentially be a more serious case.

Now, the former president's legal team said they met with prosecutors. It's a pretty standard case when you get to this point in an investigation. And they were trying to figure out what the theory of the case was. They said that prosecutors didn't give them specifics on exactly what kind of charges that they want to bring forward.

And I think what's interesting, you're seeing today the Trump legal team for, I think the first time, really connecting the fact that the former president has declared another run for the White House to a legal case. Because here they're arguing that this has been politicized, that they're only going after him because he's, quote, "0leading in the polls." Now, it's not terribly surprising that they're making that connection. Also not surprising, they have said he will not testify before the grand jury. That was an invitation that they extended to him.

TAPPER: Yeah. And Michael Cohen just came out of the Manhattan courthouse. He confirmed he met with the grand jury. What do prosecutors specifically want to hear from him?

REID: Well, he's at the center of this case, right. He's the one who facilitated these hush money payments. He's been at the center of this for a long time. State prosecutors looked at this previously. Federal prosecutors have looked at this. And of course, he has pleaded guilty to nine federal charges including campaign finance violations, and he was sentenced to three years in prison.

Now, he does get a little upset when we point that out and raise questions about his credibility, Jake. But look, it's not just the federal charges. It's also the fact that for the past several years he has given dozens, possibly hundreds of public comments about how he wants the former president to be charged. His book was even titled, quote, "Revenge."

So, it was so interesting because as we reported and others have reported, any good defense attorney is going to seize on that. So, today, when we saw him and his attorney, Lanny Davis, going into the courthouse and coming out of the courthouse, we heard a much different tone. He said, look, I'm just here to answer the questions. I'm, quote, "not seeking revenge." So, it appears that he has kind of caught on to the fact that, yes, some of his past statements might undermine his credibility.

TAPPER: Interesting. Paula Reid, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Moments ago, we got an update on Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell's health. CNN's Manu Raju is live for us on Capitol Hill. Manu, how is Senator McConnell doing after his fall and I think he had a concussion last week? MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah. He hit his

head on Wednesday night, was rushed to the hospital, has been at the hospital ever since. And we just got a statement from his office saying that he has been discharged from the hospital, but also suffered a minor rib fracture. That was also discovered from his fall. He's now still being treated for both.

Now, according to the office from -- a statement from his spokesperson just moments ago, I'll read it to you, it's brief here, Jake. It says, "Leader McConnell's concussion recovery is proceeding well, and the leader was discharged from the hospital today. It says, "at the advice of his physician, the next steps would be a period of physical therapy at an in-patient rehab facility before he returns home.

And then it also says over the course of treatment, the leader's medical team discovered that he also suffered a minor rib fracture on Wednesday for which he is also being treated. The statement goes on to thank people for their well wishes as he has received them over the course of the past several days here. So, it is unclear from the statement exactly when Senator McConnell will be able to return to Washington.

The Senate is not in session today. It will return tomorrow. But it does say that he will be spending a period of physical therapy, doing some physical therapy and in-patient rehab facility before he returns home. So, unclear how long that will take. And of course, Jake, this all happened last Wednesday night. He was at a hotel in Washington at an event hosted by his super PAC.

He slipped and fell. He hit his head, rushed to the hospital, was in the hospital, was being treated for a concussion ever since then. And of course, concerns about his health. He's 81 years old, the longest- serving party leader in history. But by all accounts, his recovery has been going well from people who have been speaking to him here. So, the news here, discharged from the hospital, will continue rehab but also suffered a minor rib fracture for which he is also being treated.

TAPPER: All right, Manu Raju, with that update. Thank you so much.

Coming up, the new legal test of one of the most controversial aspects of the already quite controversial Texas abortion ban. Stay with us.



TAPPER: Just in to CNN, in our "Health Lead," a hearing will be held Wednesday in the fight over an abortion medication approved by the federal government. A federal judge in Texas is considering a lawsuit seeking to ban the drug nationwide. Let's bring in CNN's Jessica Schneider. And Jessica, we've known about this lawsuit since November, but there have been a lot of questions especially recently about when and if a hearing would happen and if the judge was trying to keep it quiet.

JEESICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, that's exactly right. And the judge just announced that this hearing will, in fact, be Wednesday at 9:00 a.m. central time.


But there were all those reports over the weekend that the parties in this case had a status conference on Friday and that this judge, Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk had said that he was going to schedule this hearing but wasn't going to put it on the public docket until maybe Tuesday night because he was concerned about protesters and other people coming to the courthouse.

This courthouse is in Amarillo, Texas. It's a few hours drive from Dallas. And it has been really a hot point, a real focal point for protesters because this is probably the biggest case of regarding abortion rights since the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court last June. This is a case that this judge Matthew Kacsmaryk is being asked to block an abortion pill, a medication abortions make up a majority of abortions in the United States, especially after the downfall of Roe v. Wade.

Women in states that currently ban abortion are using this medication. And even women in states that allow abortion. This medication abortion is often used in abortions, so they don't have to go physically to the clinic. So a lot of power is in this judge's hands. And there's also been a lot of criticism about judge shopping, forum shopping because the group that filed this lawsuit is anti-abortion.

And they specifically picked this judge in Amarillo, Texas, because he's the only judge there that oversees any case that gets filed there. And this judge actually has a long history of anti-abortion advocacy before he was named at the federal bench by President Donald Trump. So there's been a lot of controversy, Jake, surrounding this case, but also because the ramifications in this case are huge.

If this judge moves forward, as the plaintiffs in this case want to block this abortion drug, that it would really mean huge, limited access for women seeking abortions and obviously a very fraught time in the wake of the overturning of Roe v. Wade last June. Jake?

TAPPER: All right, good update. Thank you so much, Jessica Schneider. Appreciate it.

In a separate lawsuit involving the Texas abortion law, a Texas man is suing friends of his ex-wife for wrongful death after they allegedly helped his ex-wife obtain abortion pills. This is a lawsuit that would not have stood a chance before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. But now it's a major legal test of laws cracking down on abortion, especially the expansive ban in Texas.

CNN's Whitney Wild joins us now. And Whitney, tell us more about what's in this lawsuit. And could these women actually be held liable under Texas state law?

WHITNEY WILD, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT CORRESPONDENT: Well, that is according to this lawsuit, the multimillion dollar question here. This man is seeking more than $1 million of damages from each of these three women. And basically what he says happened is that in July of 2022, these three women helped his then wife learn the process for obtaining a medically induced abortion and then actually helped her procure the abortion pills.

So quite a bit of detail in the case about how they were able to do that. But the main headline here, Jake, is that he is seeking to bring this lawsuit under this Texas Senate Bill 8. Again, this conduct happened in July of 2022. That is after Texas passed this very expansive abortion ban, which effectively bans abortion after six weeks.

And the way that the law is set up is that it makes civilly liable, regular people throughout Texas and physicians. And so here's how this law is written basically says anybody who performs or induces an abortion in violation of Senate Bill 8 is simply liable. Anyone who knowingly engages in conduct that aids or abets the performance or inducement of abortion.

And it's so broad, Jake, that it includes people who intend to engage in the conduct described by Senate Bill 8 could be held civilly liable. There's a floor for the damages in the law, and that's a floor of $10,000. So it's a minimum of $10,000 and then anything above that including attorney's fees.

Notably, Jake, this man says in this lawsuit that he intends to go after the manufacturer of the abortion pills. So he's looking at basically everybody along the timeline here saying, OK, who was involved in my then wife's abortion and who is civilly liable and he thinks it's a pretty long list.

Notably, Jake, his then wife, the mother of his unborn child, he says is excluded from this lawsuit that is carved out per the Texas Senate Bill 8. Certainly this is a case to watch because it seems to solidify the web of liability here when it comes to abortions in Texas, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Whitney Wild, thank you so much for that update. Appreciate it.

Coming up, in Ukrainian city that was captured by Russians and then recaptured by Ukrainians is now in danger of falling to Russian troops once again. CNN is going to go live to eastern Ukraine next.



TAPPER: The Chinese and Russian governments have, quote, clearly aligned on propaganda about the war in Ukraine, according to a top U.S. State Department official today, adding that the two increasingly friendly autocracies have spent, quote, tens of billions of dollars on disinformation over the years, and Americans are just now waking up to that fact.

Meanwhile, in Beijing, China's leader Xi Jinping closed out China's big multi day annual government meeting. As CNN Selina Wang reports for us now, Xi focused on a message of fortitude against the West with words and with weapons. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SELINA WANG, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Chinese leader Xi Jinping vows to build the country's military into a great wall of steel. In his first speech of his unprecedented third term as president, with the biggest applause from the rubber stamp Parliament, came after Xi repeated the pledge to reunite Taiwan with the motherland.

It marks the end of a week long political meeting that saw Xi further consolidate his power and drive home how China needs to fortify itself against America's campaign to contain the country.


Less than a day after his speech, U.S. President Joe Biden hosting British and Australian leaders to discuss details of the new AUKUS defense pact that seen as a bid to counter China in the Pacific. China's new foreign minister Qin Gang has accused Washington of plotting an Asia Pacific version of NATO and called America's China's strategy, a reckless gamble.

But Li Qiang tried striking a more conciliatory tone in his first press conference as Premier. China's number two official. Li said U.S. and China decoupling is hype, pointing out that trade between the two countries reached a record high last year.

One of Xi's most trusted proteges, Li, is the former Shanghai party boss that oversaw the city's brutal two-month COVID lockdown last spring. He tried downplaying Beijing's crackdown on tech and private businesses, calling on officials to support private sector growth.

But Li steps into premiership with a tough road ahead. (INAUDIBLE) still battered after three years of tough COVID restrictions, U.S. sanctions and deteriorating diplomatic relations with the West. But China's economic and political powers are growing elsewhere.

Beijing hosted talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran that lead to a breakthrough, the two nations agreed to bury the hatchet and restore ties. It's a geopolitical wind amid growing concerns about Beijing's deepening ties with Russia and refusal to call the conflict in Ukraine an invasion.

ALFRED WU, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, LEE KUAN YEW SCHOOL OF PUBLIC POLICY: Xi Jinping makes it very clear that he wants to restore China's position China will play a leadership role in the international arena. I will say that Xi Jinping tried to learn from Putin to consolidate his power. So he sees Russia and also Putin's leadership as a role model. Their relationship is too deep.

WANG (voice-over): But Beijing is trying to use that relationship to build the narrative that Xi Jinping is a global problem solver, one who calls the shots at home and abroad.


WANG: And it's significant, Jake, that Washington was on the sidelines of that Saudi rank Aramco reconciliation considering that for so long. The Middle East has been shaped by American diplomatic and military involvement. And it's also significant that the new Premier Li Qiang tried to lower the temperature on U.S.-China relations.

But the position of Premier has been diminished under Xi Jinping as he consolidates more power to himself. So it's unclear if Li's closeness to Xi means he'll have more of a voice to take action or if he'll be even more of a yes man, Jake.

TAPPER: Selina Wang in Beijing for us, thank you so much.

Now to Ukraine, close quarters combat in the hotspot city of Bakhmut where private Russian Wagner units mercenaries are sustaining, quote, significant losses. According to Ukrainian commanders, Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin admits that Ukrainian troops are fighting with ferocity.

CNN's Melissa Bell went north of Bakhmut to the Kharkiv region where the few civilians left are refusing to follow evacuation orders.


MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is what the war has left of Kupiansk, a city in eastern Ukraine that the frontline has never strayed far from. The police called by a civilian who found this, a cache of Russian ammunition. Six months after they were driven out, Russian forces now less than 5 miles away.

You hear those explosions, says the police chief, those are rockets flying towards the civilian population. People here are suffering. Yet overcoming the human instinct to run, Liuba and her husband refused to leave. Artillery destroyed their neighbor's house a month ago narrowly missing them.

Heard that noise, that noise.

The worst she explains is at night, so she and her husband hold hands. It keeps them safe. This is their home, she says, not the Russians. Besides, she says, it's getting warmer now with the rainwater they collect in buckets, they will survive.

Kupiansk was one of the most strategic wins of Ukraine's full counter offensives, but at huge cost. Now, with Russian forces closing in again, civilians are being evacuated to safer parts. Residents leaving Kupiansk and its neighboring villages with not much more than their keys, a heavy heart and the hope they will return.


Those left surviving as best they can. A city of around 27,000 now reduced to two and a half thousand, according to local police.

(on-camera): It's because the main market in the center of Kupiansk has been entirely destroyed, that this makeshift one has been created. The last couple of days we're hearing have been a little bit quieter. And that's why people here are selling what they can, while they can. (voice-over): Of course, we're afraid, says Lida, who says she now knows the sound of artillery, both outgoing and incoming. We won't go anywhere, she explains. We're not rats, we won't abandon our city. If we do, who will take over.

The last civilians of Kupiansk determined like some of its buildings, not to be blown away by the shifting winds of this brutal war.


BELL: Jake, so much attention has rightly been paid to Bakhmut given the ferocity of the fighting the huge loss of life to all sides and of course, the extraordinary symbol that has become both to Ukraine and to Russian forces. But the point is that for the last couple of weeks, what we've been seeing is an intensification of Russia attacks all along the front line from here in Kyiv region at Kupiansk because you just saw further south through Bakhmut and further south still to places like Vuhledar.

And the point is, Jake, that what Russian forces are trying to do is really push that line westwards. The civilians are the ones caught in the crosshairs. But what they're trying to do is put pressure on Ukrainian forces to prevent them from being able to gather their forces ahead of what we expect will be a spring counter offensive, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Melissa Bell in Kharkiv, Ukraine, thank you so much.

Coming up, the star of the hit 90 sitcom Boy Meets World is trying out for a new role. Congressman, actor Ben Savage will join us live next to talk about his run for political office.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Students who struggle day after day with too much homework, unfeared teachers and an antiquated justice system that relies too much on detention. And if elected, if I win and you guys vote for me, I would say to each and every one of you, hey, thanks.


TAPPER: And just like his character on the hit 90s sitcom Boy Meets World, actor Ben Savage, is seeking a new role in the world of politics, running as a Democrat to become a member of Congress for the California seat currently held by Congressman Adam Schiff, who's making a run for the Senate. Ben Savage joins me now.

Hey, Ben, thanks for joining us. Being an actor in Hollywood seems like it'd be a lot more fun than being a congressman. Why would you want to do this? BEN SAVAGE, ACTOR: Thanks for having me, Jake. I'm running because I think we need new and positive leadership in D.C. I grew up in a home that was very passionate about politics. President Kennedy was revered in my household. We were always taught to stand up for our country and our community. And I want to see that in Washington, D.C. I want to see positive, optimistic leaders who are there to fix things, get things done, and do some good in Washington.

TAPPER: So this isn't your first run for political office. Last year, you ran and lost a race for the West Hollywood City Council.


TAPPER: What did you learn from that experience? And why do you think this campaign will be any different?

SAVAGE: That was a wonderful experience for me. It was my first time running for office. So I certainly learned a lot. But West Hollywood is a very passionate community. I had a great time. And I think I want to bring my message of positivity and bringing people together to Washington.

TAPPER: Why do you think you didn't win that race and you'll win this one?

SAVAGE: You know, that was my first time running. And I was a little new to the political scene in D.C. -- I'm sorry, in West Hollywood. And I think I want to kind of bring my message to a larger audience. And see how well we can do but we're very excited. We've gotten a very positive reception. And I think people are very enthusiastic about having some new fresh leadership.

TAPPER: You were an intern on the Hill for late Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, my home, Commonwealth. He was a Republican at the time. This is back in 2003. What did you learn from that experience? And how did a good Democrat end up in Arlen Specter's office?

SAVAGE: Well, Arlen Specter, as you very well know, was -- he was different parties based on different election cycles. But he was, you know, a historic figure in Washington, D.C. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to serve. And I just had a wonderful time in D.C.

It's, as you know, full of so many passionate people who love the country and who want to fix things. There's an energy there that can't be described. And it's just a wonderful town to be in. And again, I think we need to focus on electing young, passionate candidates who want to bring some real change and want to find solutions to the country.

TAPPER: So 2003 was a pretty messed up time in the U.S. Senate, as I recall, it had to do with the war authorizations, going to war in Iraq, weapons of mass destruction, evidence that turned out to not be true. Did you gain any insights watching that from the inside out?

SAVAGE: I certainly did. I was a college student at the time I was at Stanford majoring political science and it was a wonderful opportunity to go to D.C. and kind of get a first-hand look of what, you know, how the system works. I certainly learned a lot.

And yes, it was an exciting time. But again, I think it's always an exciting time to be in D.C. There's so much going on. And we need new leadership that wants to actually work on some solutions for this country.

TAPPER: Crime and immigration are pretty big issues in California and nationally. Biden is siding with Republicans to stop Washington, D.C. from over overhauling its criminal code. He's restricting the ability of migrants to seek asylum. Do you support what President Biden is doing there?


SAVAGE: I do support President Biden and crime is a huge issue in my district, in the 38th District of California. There's a lot of answers to that, but I'm more in favor of kind of an all hands on deck approach to solving crime issues. I think it's about investing in the community, providing mental health facilities, providing clinical health facilities. Of course we can talk about that a little more in depth if you'd like.

TAPPER: Unfortunately, my show is about to end. But Ben Savage --


TAPPER: -- a Democrat for Congressman from California, thanks for joining us. Really appreciate it.

SAVAGE: Well, I hope to be back on, Jake, it was nice chatting with you.

TAPPER: All right, cool.

Follow me on Facebook --

SAVAGE: Thank you.

TAPPER: Instagram and Twitter at JakeTapper. You can tweet the show at TheLeadCNN. If you ever miss an episode of the show, you can listen to THE LEAD from whence you get your podcast all two hours sitting there like some delicious grapes.

Our coverage continues next with Wolf Blitzer in a place I'd like to call "THE SITUATION ROOM". He's going to talk to former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers. Stay with us.