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The Lead with Jake Tapper

Russia Forces Down U.S. Drone In Unprecedented Collision; Officials: U.S. Erased Sensitive Data From Drone Before It Crashed; GOP Hawks Criticize DeSantis' Ukraine Stance; CNN Poll" 36 Percent Republicans Say It's "Essential" That GOP Pres. Nominee Opposes U.S. Involvement In Ukraine; Ohio's Attorney General Sues Norfolk Southern For Toxic Derailment; Trump-Aligned PAC Calls For Florida Ethics Investigation Into DeSantis; GOP Hawks Criticize DeSantis' Ukraine Stance; Manhattan Prosecutors Weigh Criminal Charges Against Trump; CNN Visits Antarctica To See Effects Of Climate Change. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired March 15, 2023 - 17:00   ET




OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): After what the U.S. called an unsafe and unprofessional intercept of a U.S. drone, officials now say the MQ9's operators erased sensitive software from the drone before it crashed. As Russia now says they'll try to recover the wreckage from the Black Sea. The U.S, military insisted they will not stop flying reconnaissance drones over international waters.

LLOYD AUSTIN, DEFENSE SECRETARY: The United States will continue to fly and to operate wherever international law allows.

LIEBERMANN (voice-over): The drone was taken down after a nearly 40 minutes encounter southwest of Crimea when Russian SU27 fighter jets flew in front of it and dumped fuel in its path. One jet flew underneath the drone, likely attempting to get in front of it while dumping fuel, and clipped the propeller on the back of the MQ9.

BRIG. GEN. PATRICK RYDER, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: Because of the damage, were in a position to have to essentially crash it into the Black Sea.

LIEBERMANN (voice-over): But Russia denies the two aircraft collided. The Russian ambassador to the U.S, trying to calm tensions after the Biden administration summoned him to the State Department.

ANATOLY ANTONOV, RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR TO U.S.: We prefer to not to create a situation where we can face unintended clashes or unintended incidents between the Russian Federation and the United States.

LIEBERMANN (voice-over): But with both U.S. and Russian aircraft operating over the Black Sea, the nearby, Russian invasion of Ukraine drags on, so too do the chances of a dangerous miscalculation. GEN. MIKE MILLEY, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: We know that the intercept was intentional. We know that the aggressive behavior was intentional. We also know it was very unprofessional and very unsafe. The actual contact of the fixed wing Russian fighter with our UAV, the physical contact of those two, not sure yet.

LIEBERMANN (voice-over): Russian aircraft have had other dangerous confrontations with the U.S. in the Black Sea before such as this interception of a B52 in 2020 like a scene from "Top Gun," a Russian pilot staring down his American counterpart while flying dangerously close. Or this intercept of a U.S. P3 plane in 2018. The Russian jet turned on its afterburners, causing the plane to shake. Pentagon says the incidents are getting worse.

MILLEY: There is a pattern of behavior recently where there is more aggressive actions being conducted by the Russians.


LIEBERMANN: In terms of, is it possible to recover the U.S. drone? Well, the U.S. has no Navy ships in the Black Sea and hasn't for more than a year. So it would be a very difficult proposition for the Americans. The Russians, however, have -- however, made it clear that they would very much like to recover the drone and are working to do so.

Jake, the question was the effort to fully erase any sensitive info on that MQ9 successful? The U.S. certainly hoping so right now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Oren Liebermann at the Pentagon for us, thank you so much.

Let's go to the State Department now, where we find CNN's Kylie Atwood.

And Kylie, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said he spoke with his Russian counterpart today. What do we know about that conversation?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, listen, the Secretary of Defense called this a hazardous episode that was part of a pattern of aggression by Russia in international airspaces. And clearly he voiced those concerns in that phone call. He didn't describe how the Russian defense minister described his messages, but here's how he described what he said to his Russian counterpart.


AUSTIN: Now, I just got off the phone with my Russian counterpart, Minister Shoigu. And as I've said repeatedly, it's important that great powers be models of transparency and communication.


ATWOOD: Now, we know that there have also been stern messages that have been expressed through diplomatic channels, right? There was the Russian ambassador here in Washington, D.C. summoned to the State Department yesterday for a meeting on this topic. We also know that the U.S. ambassador in Moscow sent a strong message to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Russia just yesterday.

And of course, this comes as there are still questions about the intention of what this Russian aircraft and what they were actually trying to do. We heard from the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Milley saying that it was clear that they were trying to be aggressive towards this drone.

But whether or not they were actually seeking to come into physical contact with the drone that led to it being downed remains an open question. That that is part of this ongoing investigation with the Secretary of State. And also these leaders from the Pentagon today saying that they are still investigating exactly what happened here. We'll wait and see if they put out any images. Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Kylie Howard at the State Department for us, thank you so much.

Joining us now to break all this down at the magic wall, CNN Military Analyst General Mark Hertling.

General, good to see you. We'll get to the Black Sea in a second. But first, today, the Secretary of Defense said that Russia is, quote, "running out of capability in Ukraine." Update us on the offensives currently around the southern cities of Ukraine and as well as the Crimean Peninsula.

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), FORMER COMMANDING GENERAL, U.S. ARMY EUROPE AND SEVENTH ARMY: Well, what we're talking about, Jake, is in this area. This is not the places where we have emphasized over the last couple of months. We have been focused primarily on Bakhmut, Crimea --

TAPPER: Right. This is just southern Ukraine. Yes.

HERTLING: This is southern Ukraine. So you're talking about three, Mykolaiv, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia. This is -- these are the places that Russian soldiers have occupied since the start of the invasion back in February, but they've had a hard time holding it.


Last summer, Ukraine was able to take over some territory in Mykolaiv Province up to the Dnipro River. Now, that river is about a mile wide. And truthfully, Jake, I called it wrong. I thought we would bag. When I say we, the Ukrainians, would bag about 10,000 Russian soldiers in this area. Most of them escaped.

And since the summer, as the winter is drowned on, they have actually created defensive positions. But I think this is the -- this is the location where we're going to see Ukraine conduct counterattacks in the coming weeks and months. So, this is the focus because Ukraine wants to cut Russian supply lines to Crimea, but also to Rostov-on-Don over inside of Russia. So this will, I think, be the focus primarily of the Ukrainian counterattacks. TAPPER: OK. And Russia says the U.S. violated a special temporary airspace, but the U.S. says this was over international waters. Who's telling the truth here?

HERTLING: Well, I don't know. If that UAV was within the shoreline of the Russian Federation, then yes, we could have violated their airspace. But one of the things Russia has said was, the Black Sea is our airspace. This is part of, you know, they've given warnings as part of the special military operation saying, don't have any other aircraft come into this area.

Jake, I had a story back in 2012 when I was still commanding in Europe, a conversation with a Russian general. He compared the Black Sea to Lake Michigan. He said, you have Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes, we have the Black Sea. But when you take a look around, there are at least four NATO countries --

TAPPER: Right.

HERTLING: -- that are around that Black Sea that share that shoreline. So, we don't know where the drone went down, but if it was other than that 12 mile nautical limit of the Russian Federation, it's international airspace.

TAPPER: Right. So, U.S. officials tell CNN that the U.S. remotely erased the sensitive software inside that Reaper drone before it crashed. Walk us through the specs of a Reaper drone. How would the U.S. have been able to do that?

HERTLING: Very familiar with these drones, Jake. I used these drones as part of the special ops mission in Iraq in 2007 and '08. It's a large aircraft. It's about bigger than a small Cessna plane. A large wingspan 66 feet, but it's multipurpose.

In this picture, you kind of see they have, you know, pods for missiles. It can be a killer. It can also be a hunter. It has multi roles. Intelligence collection, shooting things with Hellfire missiles or advanced missile systems, coordinating command and control in the sky.

The one that was shot down, I don't know the facts completely, but I would suspect it was an intelligence collector taking a look at Russian ships in the Black Sea or perhaps even merchant ships coming out of Odessa with the grain based on the grain embargo. But this is a great aircraft and it does wonderful things because it has an 1100 miles limit in terms of -- and it can loiter, stay over an area from anywhere from 14 to 34 hours.

TAPPER: Fascinating. Thank you so much, General Herling. Agree -- Appreciate it.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, more establishment Republicans and even former Vice President Mike Pence are disagreeing with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis's comments about Ukraine. The potential 2024 presidential contender told Fox News the war was not of, quote, "vital national importance to America." And he characterized Putin's brutal land grab and the systemic targeting of Ukrainian civilians as just a, quote, "territorial dispute." Take a listen to a few Republican senators reacting to this assessment earlier today.


SEN. MITT ROMNEY (R-UT): I have a different point of view. I believe it's very much in the interest of America to honor our word.

SEN. TODD YOUNG (R-IN): I can't imagine what Xi Jinping or the leadership in Iran would think if we took that course of action.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): To say this doesn't matter is to say that war crimes don't matter.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL): I don't know what he's trying to do or what the goal is. Obviously, he doesn't deal with foreign policy every day as governor.

SEN. SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO (R-WV): I think this is a much bigger issue than a territorial dispute.


TAPPER: Joining us to discuss now, CNN's Jeff Zeleny and Kaitlan Collins.

And Kaitlan, I have to ask the question here, a little counterintuitive perhaps, might all of these establishment Republicans criticizing DeSantis actually help him? He's trying to rally the base. They don't like establishment Republicans.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I think there's certainly a chance. And I think the broader point of that would be if this is DeSantis' view and it aligns with the view that is also held by the former president, President Trump, that's actually a pretty significant part of the GOP primary base, those who -- their support. When you look and you ask voters who are their top two choices for the 2024 Republican nominee, it is Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis. And they both are pretty closely aligned on this.

Now, I do think there's a little more nuance to the position that we saw from DeSantis and you're hearing from some people like Lindsey Graham when he made the comment about war crimes. But I think overall, it is a significant amount of pushback that is coming from a lot of Republicans, mainly Senate Republicans, who are saying that you can make an argument about the level of funding that's going to Ukraine and whatnot, but saying that it's not a key U.S. interest is what they're really disagreeing with.


And I will note that some people have pointed out Ron DeSantis did not say in that statement he's going to stop all aid to Ukraine. He drew a red line at the F16 fighter jets and long range missiles. That still leaves him a lot of wiggle room potentially on that.

TAPPER: Yes, there is a lot more nuance there than I think people are asking -- acting, rather.

Jeff, a new CNN poll shows that 36 percent of Republicans or Republican leaning voters believe it's essential that the Republican presidential nominee opposes U.S. involvement in any way in Ukraine. That leaves the majority of Republicans that don't believe that. What are you hearing from voters when you go out there?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: There's no doubt. I mean, six in 10 Republicans, if you follow that poll would say that, you know, some type of involvement is needed. So, the reality is there is still very much of a non-isolationist strain in the Republican Party. Without a doubt, over the last decade, certainly in the Trump era, the isolationist strain grew inside the Republican Party. But in many quarters it is still the party of Ronald Reagan and it is still the party of many of these establishment hawkish views.

So, as Kaitlan was saying, there is nuance in this, of course, and this is what campaigns are about. For voters to take a measure of the Florida governor. When I was at one of his events last Friday in Iowa, that's exactly what voters were doing. They loved what they saw in terms of how he was going after sort of these social issues.

But he didn't talk about foreign policies. That's what presidential campaigns are all about. So once he jumps into this race, if he follows his plan to do so in May or June, he's going to be asked exactly these things.

And one other thing about the Florida governor, he's saying things now and he's running on the idea of being Florida governor, but he also has a congressional record as well. And in fact, when he was in Congress he was calling on the Obama administration to send more weapons to Ukraine. So these are all things that he will of course have to square over time. But there is no doubt that he is stepping into what is a popular strain inside the Republican Party at the moment, certainly the side that Trump is on and that is opposing more involvement in Ukraine. But it certainly is going to have to be explained more than simply in a statement that he sent to Fox News.

TAPPER: Yes. And Kaitlan, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, he also had some choice words about what DeSantis had to say. Take a listen.


SEN. CHRIS MURPHY (D-CT), FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: I worry that DeSantis and Trump's support for Putin and opposition to Ukraine is part and parcel of a broader lack of enthusiasm for democracy. It is just true, if we don't defend Ukraine, the entire post World War II order falls apart.


TAPPER: This is a framing that we saw repeatedly during the Trump years, where any disagreement with mainstream foreign policy is framed as pro Putin and Nefarious. What do you think? COLLINS: I think there's obviously room for pushback when it comes to foreign policy. I think we've learned from lessons in the past that's a good thing to have that and to see that argument play out. I think the argument, though, that you're hearing from people who disagree with DeSantis, including a lot of Republicans, is that it is bigger than Ukraine. And it does go back to what is happening with China, and as you've seen, how aggressive they've been and as the tensions between the U.S. and China have gotten worse, especially when it comes to Taiwan and the concerns about what China could do if they could move to attack Taiwan.

And I think that is the argument that you hear from these lawmakers is that they do believe it's sending a message. And they also argue just about the fundamental right of it of saying, you know, you are seeing war crimes committed in Ukraine. You are seeing Putin just take territory that doesn't belong to him. That's the argument you're making.

When you hear from people who seem to be more aligned with Ron DeSantis, people like a Josh Hawley, for example, he's saying, well, we're not the -- the U.S. is not the policeman of the world. I'm pushing back with that sense.

Jeff is right, it will be fascinating to see this play out on the debate stage, though, when these candidates are probed further of what their position on this is. Because this is going to be the biggest foreign policy issue for these candidates when they're on the debate stage in August.

TAPPER: All right, Kaitlan Collins and Jeff Zeleny, thanks to both of you.

Coming up next, we're talking to the attorney general of Ohio. He is now suing Norfolk Southern over that toxic train derailment. What's changed in the week since?

Then, a warning from one of the coldest parts of the planet vital sea ice levels have dropped to their lowest levels on record due to the rising temperatures. CNN sent a crew to Antarctica to check it out.



TAPPER: To our national lead now. In the wake of that toxic train derailment in East Palestine, the state of Ohio is now taking legal action against the rail company at the center of the crash. Dave Yost is attorney general of the great state of Ohio, he's leading this legal charge. And he joins us now live.

General Yost, thanks for joining us. This is a 58 count lawsuit you have filed. What are the major complaints against Norfolk Southern?

DAVE YOST, OHIO ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, the linchpin is the federal law called CERCLA, probably the most important federal law or law of any sort that deals with toxic chemicals. The remainder of the complaint goes to federal and state charges that they polluted our air, our land, our water, that they damaged our economy, our environment, and people's lives in East Palestine.

TAPPER: We heard and continue to hear the anger and frustration from residents of East Palestine in the surrounding area, not only for the future of their health, but also their future finances. I don't know if you saw the town hall we did a few weeks ago, but here's one man voicing some of those concerns.


JIM STEWART, LIFELONG EAST PALETINE RESIDENT: I'm 65 years old, a diabetic, AFib heart, disease, everything. Now, did you shorten my life now? I want to retire and enjoy it. How are we going to enjoy it? You burned me.

We were going to sell our house. Our value went poof.


TAPPER: What would this or could this lawsuit do to help residents of East Palestine like him when it comes to their health, when it comes to the value of their homes?


YOST: Well, Norfolk Southern has been saying that this is on them and they want to make it right. So, that's to their credit. I expect that if things continue the way they are, we will find a common ground for a settlement.

And both Governor DeWine and I are very focused on having a fund that's going to redress some of those kinds of problems, particularly the ones that we don't know about yet. Everybody remembers Desert Storm and 9/11 and how years later we found out there were problems we didn't even know about at the time. We've got to protect the people of this village and the surrounding community.

TAPPER: So, is the goal a settlement with the company or is the goal to win in court?

YOST: The goal is to make East Palestine whole, to try to put them back as closely as possible as they were in January of 2023. I don't care if that's a trial. I don't care if it's a settlement. But we need to clean it up and help the people of that village.

TAPPER: We know rail is key to the U.S. economy. Obviously, Ohio plays a key role. Freight moves from the east coast out of the rest of the country. Do you have any fear that this action will lead to a negative impact on Ohio's economy or the economy of the United States?

YOST: Not at all. Look, we're talking about one railroad. There is a massive amount of freight that is moved safely and cheaply all across this country every day. What we're talking about is a company that has had a safety record. Their accident rate has gone up 80 percent in the last 10 years. That's a profound metric. In what business do you have an 80 percent delta on something that's important to your operations? And you don't say what's going on here? We need to do better. We need to do something different.

TAPPER: I know there's been a lot of criticism of President Biden for not visiting East Palestine. More largely, more broadly, though, are you getting what you need? Is Ohio getting what it needs from the federal government, from the Biden administration?

YOST: Well, that's kind of a mixed bag. I was extremely frustrated. You know, the cleanup is going on. Contaminated water and contaminated soil is being shipped to specialized centers that are permitted with permitted processes in other states.

The regional administrator in Chicago stepped in and stopped that for purely political reasons and in the rainy season left that stuff sitting out there in the village while they were concerned about political objections in the states where this was going to. Mind you, places that already had permits to do exactly what they were supposed to be doing, that delay in cleanup was absolutely uncalled for and atrocious all.

TAPPER: All right. Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, thank you so much for coming. Come back and keep us updated on this lawsuit and on the good citizens of East Palestinian.

YOST: Thank you, sir.

TAPPER: Is Governor Ron DeSantis violating the law by running a shadow presidential campaign? Well, a Trump allied Super PAC is calling for an ethics investigation of the governor. 2024 is here and it's heating up. Stay with us.



TAPPER: And we're back with our politics lead. A Trump-aligned Super PAC is demanding a Florida ethics investigation into whether Florida Governor Ron DeSantis' political activities are violating state law. The PAC is accusing DeSantis of running a, quote, "shadow presidential campaign," unquote and says DeSantis should have to resign from office under a Florida law that prohibits people from holding elected office while seeking another different office.

Let's discuss. Gloria, what do you make of this?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, an ethics complaint filed by friends of Donald Trump is something I have a hard time getting my arms around, but it's a nuisance. It's a nuisance lawsuit.

By the way, have you ever met a politician who is holding one elective office while seeking another? I've never met one. Do you? Every one of them is. And so, you know, this just gives us an indication that Donald Trump and his friends are willing to throw everything they possibly can at any time, at any moment against Ron DeSantis -- TAPPER: It's early, though. There's much worse to come. But, yes.

BORGER: Of course.

TAPPER: And we saw a poll yesterday, a CNN poll, with Republican voters, Trump at 40 percent, DeSantis at 36 percent.

BORGER: Right.

TAPPER: That's basically a tie.

ZOLAN KANNO-YOUNGS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": It shows just how much DeSantis is on his mind as well. Right?


KANNO-YOUNGS: I mean, we're already starting to see some factions or develop in this early contest for the Republican nomination. You can already see Pence and Nikki Haley, sort of, in one side, as well as DeSantis and Trump trying to compete, it seems, for a similar base as well. That you can point to the recent comments about Ukraine that DeSantis made as well, which really does align with Trump's stance beforehand.

So we're seeing these two take jabs at each other. And what's hanging over it is the fact that they seem to be trying to out Trump one another and heat for a similar base.


TAPPER: So Michael, there's this new poll from Quinnipiac University, and it's not about the base, it's about -- but it is an argument in favor of DeSantis, if you're a DeSantis campaign person, it's with independent voters.

In a head to head matchup, 49 percent of independents favor DeSantis over Biden. Biden 45. But then you have a Biden Trump matchup, and 50 percent of independents go to Biden versus 42 percent for Trump. Obviously, it's way early and DeSantis hasn't even announced a candidacy, although that hasn't stopped Congressman Chip Roy from endorsing him.


TAPPER: But as you know, Republicans lost independence by a very wide margin in 2018. In 2020, they spit evenly with them in that wash of the midterm elections in 2022. This is a strong argument for DeSantis.

Sure. But I don't know if you're going to win independence by waging war on business, waging war on Wall Street, waging culture wars. There's still a lot of tires to be kicked when it comes to Ron DeSantis for you in the media and for voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.

I don't think that -- I don't think the independence will be -- I don't think independence will go for Ron DeSantis in the end once he gets through a primary. I think at this point in 1995, Bill Clinton was worried about Lamar Alexander, and I think we still have a long way to go.

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think you may be able to win independence by going to war with Wall Street, at least of that list that you just gave him. I mean, that certainly jumped out to me as I bet you the DeSantis team has --

LAROSA: Now when they stop giving money --

SOLTIS ANDERSON: -- says calculated a different way. I mean, I think that poll number you just showed, look, I know Republicans don't trust the polls. I'm a Republican pollster. I hear it all the time. But numbers like that --


SOLTIS ANDERSON: -- numbers like that are the best thing Ron DeSantis has going for him. Because for years I've said the number one thing I hear from Republican voters is they want someone who fights. They want someone who fights. They want someone who fights.

After these midterms, they want someone who wins. The fight is not enough. You have to fight and win. And if there is a perception out there that grows that Donald Trump is just not the guy to win anymore. He's good at throwing punches, he's not good at landing them as much, and Ron DeSantis is the winner. That helps him eat into that Trump base.

Not all the way. There are some diehard Trump voters, don't get me wrong --


SOLTIS ANDERSON: -- but that's the strongest thing going from Ron DeSantis.

BORGER: But what was interesting in our poll yesterday was it showed that Republicans really care more about a candidate who shares their values rather than a candidate who can win, which was kind of stunning to me. But these are Trump supporters, obviously, right? And so that's kind of a shift that we've seen over the last, what, four to six years, maybe?

TAPPER: What do you make of the fact that DeSantis has -- his position on Ukraine doesn't sound the same as his position in 2014, obviously, different circumstances, et cetera. And he came out, he said that Ukraine is not a vital interest for the United States. He referred to Russia invasion -- invading Ukraine as a territorial dispute.

Here are some of the more establishment Republicans disagreeing with Governor DeSantis.


SEN. MITT ROMNEY (R), UTAH: I have a different point of view. I believe it's very much in the interest of America to honor our word.

SEN. TODD YOUNG (R), INDIANA: I can't imagine what Xi Jinping or the leadership in Iran would think if we took that course of action.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: To say this doesn't matter is to say that war crimes don't matter.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: I don't know what he's trying to do or what the goal is. Obviously, he doesn't deal with foreign policy every day as governor.

SEN. SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO (R), WEST VIRGINIA: I think this is a much bigger issue than a territorial dispute.


TAPPER: But my question is, does that help DeSantis with the base?

ZOLAN KANNO-YOUNGS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: I mean, this is the interesting question here. I mean, you have two of some of the more prominent members of the Republican Party now, somewhat with similarly spoken views on Ukraine, that being Donald Trump and DeSantis here, separating themselves from potentially the rest of the pact.

But I wonder too, just that wording of territorial dispute, and I think this reflects the concern of many Republicans on the Hill as well as many foreign policy experts say you do at one point have higher office. Even if you get to a point of needing to advocate for aid, even if you don't agree with this, to say territorial dispute now really belittles this war at this point.

And now if you're in a position in the future where you are trying to advocate foreign aid and U.S. support of this war and somebody who is opposed to it, they might just bring up the fact, well, wait, you once called it a territorial dispute. You once disputed this. That remark, I think, will live for a while.

LAROSA: It's really dangerous because Trump was able to drive his party away from free trade, which was brand new for Republicans in 2016. He's very persuadable with his base of support. And if he's been waging this sort of like quest to isolate the country from foreign entanglements, then I think it's a very dangerous policy for Republicans.

SOLTIS ANDERSON: It's definitely risky for DeSantis to take this position, because right now, if I look in my cross tabs at the types of Republican voters who lean more toward DeSantis than Donald Trump, they're pretty split on this issue. I've been asking this question for over a year. Do you think that this is in the U.S.'s vital national interest to support what's -- support Ukraine?


They're pretty split among DeSantis voters. So does he alienate some of them, push them into, say, Nikki Haley or Mike Pence's arms? On the other hand, the trend line has moved on this over the last year. It used to be that only about a third of Republicans said, you know, I don't think this is in our interest. That's now risen to almost half.

And so if DeSantis is headed where he thinks, that trend line is going to continue going where he thinks, a year from now, we may be asking this question again, where will Republicans be? He may be trying to, quote, state where the puck is going on this.

BORGER: I think this is becoming the fault line in the Republican Party. And it's easy for somebody like Speaker McCarthy to say, no blank check for Ukraine. Well, what does that mean? And as these primaries play out, the candidates are going to have to get a little bit more specific about what they think and what they believe.

What is a territorial dispute? What is our responsibility when it comes to Ukraine? Is democracy at stake in the world or not? I mean, I think these are questions that have to be asked. Very primary.

LAROSA: Well there's also going to be a burden on the White House to keep making the case for democracy in Ukraine and why we're there and why this --

BORGER: Yes, absolutely.

LAROSA: -- aid should not even be in dispute. Thank God that they got the omnibus pass, right?


LAROSA: And Kevin McCarthy, I'm sure, was happy they got it passed without him.

TAPPER: So two of the first Republican Congressmen to endorse Donald Trump, I think they're both former members of Congress have endorsed Ron DeSantis, and then very conservative guys. Today, Congressman Chip Roy, as I mentioned, formerly endorsed DeSantis. Chip Roy, Charter member of the Freedom Caucus.

Again, DeSantis has not announced that he's running.


TAPPER: But Congressman Roy wrote, "The next President of the United States must be a vibrant and energetic leader with the faith vision, encouraged to chart a new course. That leader is Ron DeSantis." I got to believe some of that is wish casting. He wants DeSantis to run.

KANNO-YOUNGS: I think that's right. I mean, it also -- DeSantis hasn't announced yet. It also didn't stop a former Trump Deputy Homeland Security Secretary from going out and supporting Ron DeSantis and Ken Cuccinelli.

TAPPER: Oh, he did? I didn't even know that.

KANNO-YOUNGS: You know, with --

BORGER: Got a pack.

KANNO-YOUNGS: -- with a pack that's happening right now, too. Look, right now you see that there are many members of the Republican Party that still don't want to lose so many of those people that supported Donald Trump. But as we've seen from the past, from recent years, are also trying to distance themselves from the actual person. So it's trying to appeal to Trumpism without Trump here.

TAPPER: Thanks, one and all. Speaking of trying to distance yourself from Donald Trump, still ahead, Stormy Daniels just met with prosecutors in the case that could lead to the indictment of Mr. Trump. Stay with us.



TAPPER: We're back with another story topping our politics lead. Today, Michael Cohen wrapped day two of testimony before that New York grand jury, tasked with deciding whether to charge Trump with criminal charges for making a $130,000 payment to adult film star and director Stormy Daniels in 2016, just days before the presidential election.

We're also learning that Ms. Daniels herself met with prosecutors today and is open to also being a witness before the grand jury. CNN Senior Legal Analyst Elie Honig joins us now. He's the former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. Elie, Michael Cohen testified for a couple of hours today, we're told. Would you, as a prosecutor, rest a case in the hands of Michael Cohen? Is he the star witness in this case?

ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, he's certainly the star witness, Jake. I'd be very reluctant to rest a case entirely on Michael Cohen. On the one hand, he certainly had insider access. He was an integral part of the making of these hush money payments. He pled guilty for his role in this.

But on the other hand, we need to be real about what's going to happen to a witness like this on cross examination. He's been convicted of perjury, he's been convicted of financial fraud, he's been convicted of tax fraud, and he has a very large axe to grind with Donald Trump that will undermine his impartiality, that will harm him on the stand.

And Jake, it's worth keeping in mind my former office and the Manhattan DA, Alvin Bragg's former office, the Southern District of New York considered this exact question a few years ago and rejected Michael Cohen as a cooperator. They said, we don't believe he's fully credible.

TAPPER: And so, presumably, I would think it's important for the prosecutors to have evidence that will corroborate whatever Cohen has to say.

HONIG: Corroboration is the whole ballgame with any cooperating witness, Jake. By the way, there's nothing wrong or unusual with prosecutors making a case based on testimony from criminals. I did it many times.

But when you look at Michael Cohen, you have to ask, is he going to be backed up? They have the checks that helps Michael Cohen to some extent. Did some other witness give them some testimony that's valuable, that backs up Michael Cohen? We don't know that.

But on the other hand, Michael Cohen has said the exact opposite. He said originally in 2018, these payments were not criminal, they were not tied to the campaign. SO that's going to undermine his credibility as well.

TAPPER: Prosecutors are signaling that they're close to bringing charges. How soon might we actually see any charges if they do?

HONIG: It seems to me we're not talking months, we're talking weeks, maybe days. By extending that invitation to Donald Trump to come in and testify in front of the grand jury, that is an end game move that you would not make until you were ready to wrap up in the grand jury.

TAPPER: So, look, the cases, I can understand why people would be like these witnesses are iffy, I don't know if a grand jury is going to like them. I mean, because it's about kind of -- it's about a hush money payment to a porn actress, right? I mean, you're not going to have nuns testifying about this case.

HONIG: Right.

TAPPER: Stormy Daniels spoke with prosecutors. She's offered to make herself a witness before the grand jury. I would think the grand jury would want to hear from her. Would you put her before the grand jury?

HONIG: Absolutely. And she would be a trial witness for me at trial as well, because she's an important part of this story. She was the person who received these payments. She presumably will be testifying about her version of the affair, which kicked off this whole thing.

But it's important to keep in mind, she probably won't have testimony that goes directly to Donald Trump's criminal culpability here. She probably won't know how these payments were booked internally at the Trump Organization, whether business records were falsified, and whether Donald Trump made these payments for a campaign specific purpose or some other purpose.


TAPPER: All right, Elie Honig, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

HONIG: Thank you.

TAPPER: Turning to our sports lead, it's time for March Madness, the annual men's and women's college basketball tournaments. The University of Alabama's men's team is one of this year's favorites, but beyond everyone's brackets, there are some nagging questions about the team, specifically about what happened off the court and its impact on the team's star player.

Here's CNN Sports Anchor Andy Scholes.


BRANDON MILLER, ALABAMA BASKETBALL PLAYER: I never lose sight of the fact, a family has lost one of their loved ones that night. This whole situation is just really heartbreaking.

ANDY SCHOLES, CNN SPORTS ANCHOR (voice-over): Brandon Miller is Alabama's best player and a projected top pick in the upcoming NBA draft. The freshman forward has led Alabama to its best season in school history, earning the top seed in the NCAA tournament for the first time. But the team's success this season has been marred by the shooting death of a young mother near campus.

NATE OATS, ALABAMA BASKETBALL COACH: We've been fully cooperating with law enforcement the entire time.

SCHOLES (voice-over): In January, a backup on the team, Darius Miles and another man, Michael Lynn Davis, were charged with capital murder, with police saying Davis pulled the trigger. A law enforcement officer later testified in a court hearing, according to CNN affiliate WBMA, that Miller transported the gun to Miles.

Miller's attorney later issued a statement saying that Miller never touched the gun, wasn't involved in giving it to Davis, and didn't know any illegal activity involving the gun would occur.

Miller has not been charged in the case, with Tuscaloosa's chief assistant district attorney telling, quote, "There is nothing we could charge him with." For its part, Alabama Athletics has called Miller a cooperating witness, but it's received heavy criticism for allowing Miller to play, never sitting him out during the investigation.

Athletic Director Greg Byrne was asked if Miller's talent and the ongoing season were the reasons he was still on the court.

GREG BYRNE, ALABAMA ATHLETIC DIRECTOR: I think that's a fair narrative that people can immediately go to. And what I have tried to think about this entire time is, let's do what we think is right. Let's make sure we are honest.

OATS: Brandon hasn't been in any type of trouble, nor is he in any type of trouble on this case like in the wrong -- spot the wrong time.

SCHOLES (voice-over): After those comments, Alabama head coach Nate Oats issued a statement saying his words came across poorly. Miller never missed a beat. Shortly after being named in court as the person who transported the gun, he scored 41 points in a win over South Carolina while many questioned whether he should be playing.

Before one game in February, one of Miller's teammates gave him a pat down during pregame introductions, which Coach Oats said had been going on all year, but it drew criticism after the shooting.

OATS: It's not appropriate. It's been addressed, and I can assure you it definitely will not happen again the remainder of this year.

SCHOLES (voice-over): On the eve of Alabama's first round game, Miller was asked how he's able to focus on the tournament with everything that's happened off the court.

MILLER: I just lean on my teammates, really. They hear from me like a family away from home.


SCHOLES: Miles nor Davis have entered a plea yet in their case. We reached out to their attorneys for comment. Now, Jake, when Miller came to his press conference today in Birmingham, he was actually escorted by an armed security guard, and Coach Oats said that was necessary because of threats Miller has received after everything that's happened.

And so far, Alabama has been unfazed by everything off of the court, and we'll see if that continues when they start playing the tournament tomorrow at 2:45 Eastern against Texas A&M Corpus Christi.

TAPPER: They're seated first in their division, right?

SCHOLES: Seated first in their region and first overall in the entire bracket.

TAPPER: Yes. Andy Scholes, thanks so much. Appreciate it.

Scientists are wondering if it's the, quote, beginning of the end. Is it too late to reverse course and protect the world's last great wilderness? That's ahead.



TAPPER: We're back with our Earth Matters series. CNN teams have just returned from a trip to Antarctica where scientists say Antarctic sea ice has dropped to its lowest level on record. CNN's Chief Climate Correspondent Bill Weir was on that trip. And Bill, how do you square these stunning videos of ice shelves and glaciers with the climate reality?

BILL WEIR, CNN CHIEF CLIMATE CORRESPONDENT: Well, to us, Jake, it is this magical wild wonderland. It just blew my mind. But if you're a penguin or a leopard seal, who hunts those penguins or a humpback whale that eats the krill under that sea ice, things are changing at alarming pace.

In fact, just in a couple of landings we made, we saw penguin colonies there that had to lay their chicks months late in the season, which means that this year's young ones, the little penguins, probably won't survive the winter as well. That's shifting snow patterns, the way we've seen up here, that are just unseasonably strange.

And then as that sea ice disappears, that is the habitat of the krill, the little crustaceans that feed everything. Ecologists we're with are worried about a crash. We spent a couple of days with whale scientists actually taking pregnancy tests with crossbows of these whales. A magnificent assignment, as you can imagine.

But they've already proven that when the krill and the sea ice goes down, the, you know, the maternity rate of the whales goes down. That's a big deal because now we realize that whales are doing about $2 million worth of earth services each for free between fertilization and carbon capture. So more whales, the better.

But it's just a little tip of what's happening down there. It's -- and when you see the penguins trying to find colder land to lay their eggs, it's just sort of foreshadowing of how that plays out globally.

TAPPER: Kind of heartbreaking, too.

WEIR: It really is.

TAPPER: Assuming that --

WEIR: Yes.

TAPPER: Bill, I assume the Arctic is facing the same issues as the Antarctic?

WEIR: Yes. I mean, up there, it's a frozen sea surrounded by continents. Antarctica is continent surrounded by seas. So the ecology is a little bit different. But, yes, you see the walrus behavior, the polar bear behavior is already being obviously and dramatically impacted. Both ends of the Earth heating up much faster than the rest.


TAPPER: Bill, you do these stories all the time for us, and we're so grateful and they make me so mad, they make me so angry at the politicians and the oil companies and all the people who are willfully ignorant or blind about this. Did you come back at all with any sense of hope?

WEIR: I did, I did. Because you realize that Antarctica is sort of this one of -- one place on Earth that's set aside for peace and science. You go below the 60th parallel, there no Asian nation owns it. It took twelve nations to start that Antarctic Treaty. Now there's 55 nations. The Montreal Accord, which is healing the ozone layer above Antarctica, that's working. The humpback whales have come back after being decimated by whalers.

And so, yes, it's proof that we can pull back from the edge and do smart things for our planet and ourselves.

TAPPER: All right, I'll try to find solace in your optimism because I don't have any of my own. Bill Weir, always so important that you bring these pieces to us. Thank you so much.

WEIR: My pleasure. TAPPER: You can follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the TikTok 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 sitting there just like all two hours, just like a giant pizza ready for you to dive into.

Our coverage continues now with one Mr. Wolf Blitzer right next door in a place I like to call "THE SITUATION ROOM". I will see you tomorrow.