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The Lead with Jake Tapper

FBI Arrests Two Alleged Chinese Agents Operating In NYC; Four Killed, 28 Injured In Alabama Birthday Party Attack; GOP Holds Hearing On Crime On Manhattan DA's Home Turf; Speaker McCarthy Warns White House Clean Debt Ceiling "Will Not Pass"; Putin Critic Vladimir Kara- Murza Sentenced To 25 Years For "Treason"; Ukraine: Russia Launched "Unsuccessful Attacks" In Bakhmut. Aired 4-5p ET

Aired April 17, 2023 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: An alleged Chinese government spy operation in the middle of Manhattan. And that's just the start of it.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Chinese dissidents in the U.S. harassed and intimidated from online to door knocks. The FBI says Chinese government agents were trying to silence their words against the Chinese government, even operating a fake cop shop in New York.

Plus, outrage in Kansas City as if, after a Black teenage boy shot after showing up at the wrong house to pick up his brothers. CNN is learning that the gunman was an elderly White man and was released after less than two hours in custody. Why critics fear he may never be charged with a crime.

And live from New York, it's the House GOP. Their spotlight on crime in New York today in the backyard of the prosecutor who indicted Donald Trump.


TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

And what appears to be a brazen act of espionage by the Chinese government as U.S. tensions with that country boil over, the U.S. Justice Department announced today three cases suggesting Chinese government agents spied on U.S. soil. Two suspected spies, American citizens were arrested today for operating a, quote, undeclared police station in Manhattan. Both men, U.S. citizens who apparently destroyed evidence when confronted by the FBI are set to appear in a federal court soon. U.S. officials say they operated an illegal Chinese police outpost in the Chinatown area of New York City that was apparently used to harass Chinese dissidents living in the United States on behalf of the Chinese government.

In another case, Chinese security officials apparently eavesdropped on Zoom calls in the United States in order to harass Chinese dissidents who were on the calls. They disrupted the calls. They had a spy inside Zoom's corporate operations allegedly, all this is high stakes diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and China are reaching a boiling point, over the Chinese spy balloon flying over the U.S., data privacy concerns about TikTok, China's increasingly cozy relationship with Russia and China's continued provocation of Taiwan, to name just a few.

Let's get right to CNN's senior justice correspondent Evan Perez.

And, Evan, prosecutors claim the Chinese government had something of an operative inside the company of Zoom?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jake. In all, over 40 people were named in these set of charges or announced today. Eight of them had to do with this operation, which was essentially orchestrating with someone who worked at zoom to try to disrupt chats and calls that were being held by dissidents. Anything that was critical of the Chinese government, things like mentioning Tiananmen Square, for instance, which is forbidden to talk about in China. They would disrupt those calls that would end those phone calls, and they would also try to essentially make sure that the accounts were shut down to the dissidents had a hard time doing Zoom calls to discuss things that were critical of the Chinese government.

One of the other cases that were announced -- that was announced today is this police fake police station operation that you just mentioned. In this case, two U.S. citizens were arrested today, they're appearing in court as we speak. There were associated with the nonprofit that was operating a police station for the Fujio (ph) municipal police authority.

Now, ostensibly, what this -- what they were trying to do, which was to for people to be able to renew their driver's licenses or to do things that the municipal government needed for back in China. Instead, what the FBI says they were doing was they were using the police station to go out and harass dissidents. They would show up at following Funggang (ph) protests, for instance, and harass people there. They door knocked people around the country to try to get dissidents to go back to China, where they would then, of course, face Chinese authorities.

TAPPER: So, the FBI has been worried about this for a long time. What have they been doing in the interim?

PEREZ: Well, we've been talking to counter intelligence officials who have been very worried about this Jake. They managed to get their eyes on some of these people who were operating in police stations, which was, by the way, not just in New York. It was around the country, and they managed to get them to be shut down.


They've also passed this information to other countries. We've seen action taken in other countries recently to try to shut down similar police stations that were operating there again to harass dissidents. And so we know that the FBI has been on this for some time. And it's just now we're finally seeing these criminal cases being brought. TAPPER: Just shocking, very brazen for us.

Evan Perez, thanks so much.

Here to discuss, Democratic Congressman Seth Moulton of Massachusetts. He's on the House Select Committee on China. He's also a marine veteran.

Congressman, good to see you.

REP. SETH MOULTON (D-MA): Good to see you.

TAPPER: Are there any more of these police stations set up in the U.S. that are essentially operating on behalf of the Chinese government to harass people here in the U.S. who are -- who are who are dissidents, who are critical of the Chinese government?

MOULTON: Yes, my understanding is that there are. And it's really -- I mean, just step back for this for a second, Jake, this is absolutely absurd that the Chinese communist party thinks that they can set up their own police station in a place like New York City. I mean, imagine you are I taking our families on vacation and foreign country and getting harassed by the FBI, being tracked for what we're saying or what we're doing in a foreign country on vacation.

You know, the heroes of this story, of course, are the Chinese dissidents. These Chinese Americans who actually have the courage to speak out against the Chinese communist party and their authoritarian regime, and they're getting harassed just for being American citizens, and exercising their freedoms.

TAPPER: Well, that's what's so we remarkable about this, is that what a brittle spirit Xi Jinping has. He can't even take somebody, a few people, few dissidents on a Zoom call criticizing him or mentioning Tiananmen Square and the oppression of student activists there decades ago.

This does really seem like an escalation by the Chinese government. Don't you think?

MOULTON: It's absolutely an escalation. And, of course, they're escalating tensions all over the globe. They're escalating tensions right here at home in America. They're escalating tensions over Taiwan.

Let's not forget Xi Jinping has threatened to invade Taiwan. He said very explicitly, much like Putin did in the lead up to the Ukraine war that he intends to take over democratic Taiwan.

And so, the story out there that the Americans and Chinese are ratcheting up tensions is really not accurate. This is China ratcheting up tensions. This is the Chinese communist party trying to exact their oppressive regime all over the globe.

TAPPER: Do you think the U.S. government even has a real handle and knows the full scope of the degree to which the Chinese government is operating inside the United States?

MOULTON: You know, we met with the FBI recently as part of the China select committee, and they gave us a briefing. But it wasn't in the level of detail, frankly, that I expected, so I think we have some work to do to better understand this.

We've heard about these police stations existing for a while. And I'm frankly shocked that it's taken us this long to take them out. I think that we need to take a much harder line against this because again when you step back from this situation, step back from the details and just the idea that the Chinese communist party thinks they can have a police station in America is totally absurd, and we've got to put a stop to it.

TAPPER: So these two individuals, these American citizens have now been charged with spying on behalf of the Chinese government. And also there have been punishments on Chinese officials in China. But do you think there's more needs to be done? I mean, what's the deal with this guy that was operating inside Zoom? Has he been charged?

MOULTON: Not that we understand yet, although I certainly expect him to be. But, look, this is -- this is the story with Xi Jinping and his authoritarian regime. You can't walk down a street in China right now without encountering multiple surveillance cameras.

It's truly extraordinary how scared he is. I mean, for someone who says that China is going to be the next lone superpower of the world, he's definitely afraid of his own people. And this does not bode well for our future relations with China. It doesn't bode well for just being a Chinese citizen.

And that's one of the points we have to remember is that the Chinese citizens are really the victims here in this case, Chinese Americans. But this is going on every single day in China as well. Xi Jinping is afraid of his own people, and now, he's taking it out on even, even American citizens overseas.

TAPPER: Yeah, that's so important for people out there to understand the Chinese government are the bad guys. But the Chinese people are the victims.

MOULTON: That's right.

TAPPER: I just keep thinking when I think about this group of Chinese spies and government agents, stopping, disrupting Zoom calls where people are talking and being critical. I'm reminded of how Xi Jinping didn't like it when people compared him to Winnie the Pooh and banned images when people try to use that is like a little caricature of him. He got -- he got mad about it and banned it.

This is an incredibly insecure individual.

MOULTON: It is. It's an incredibly insecure regime, and at a certain level, it's just totally pathetic.

[16:10:04] And yet, Jake, it's also deadly serious because he's not just doing this to Chinese citizens or even Chinese Americans. He's trying to export this technology, this way of governing, this whole authoritarian regime to other countries around the globe.

And so, when we see Xi Jinping, and Vladimir Putin getting together, when we see Chinese expansion efforts in Africa and other places where they're trying to take over local governments and exert all sorts of covert influence in different ways, this is a very dangerous regime and may be terribly insecure, maybe almost jokingly pathetic on a certain level, but it's also a deadly serious threat not just to America, to American citizens, but to our fundamental democratic values. I would say fundamental human values all around the globe.

TAPPER: Member of the House Select Committee on the Chinese communist party, government, Congressman Seth Moulton, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

MOULTON: Good to see you, Jake.

We have some breaking news now in our national lead. A grand jury in Akron, Ohio, has decided to not indict any of the eight police officers involved in the death of Jayland Walker. You might recall last June, Walker was shot dozens of times after leading police on a car and foot chase. This comes after police -- this came after police say Walker fired a shot at officers and then ignored orders to drop his weapon.

Let's get right to CNN's Polo Sandoval, who's been following this case for months.

Polo, walk us through the decision of the grand jury.

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, Jake. That last point that you just mentioned is going to be key here in terms of what the grand jury decided the attorney general in the state of Ohio, making that announcement just in the last hour, essentially saying that the offi -- the actions of those eight Akron police officers on that night in June of last year are in fact justified because they -- because of the perceived threats. Not only that Jalen Walker, the 25 year old man that was shot and killed by officers that night, not only did he open fire, shooting at least one time during a vehicle pursuit, but also this perceived threat.

The attorney general saying that so called cross draw motion, meaning Jayland Walker reaching towards his waistband after the report of that shot that was fired 40 seconds into the pursuit. That was a massive game changer. And it is because of that reason. That each officer established independently, according to invest state investigators with the bureau of criminal investigation in Ohio, that perceived threat.

I can tell you, the big question now is exactly how the community will respond. For weeks now, Akron City officials have been bracing, preparing and trying to inform the community about that grand jury process. The grand jury seated just a week ago, and they've been going over this investigation, have been presented those findings by the Ohio BCI until that decision was handed down today, or at least they voted today.

And so, now, we will certainly have to see any potential frustrations in the community, the city even going as far as to block off certain buildings. There was the worst small outbreaks of violence when we were on the ground last summer immediately, following the release of the body camera video members there in the community calling for justice. The Walker family, certainly calling for that.

But calling for peaceful demonstrations, and that is no doubt what we will see tonight's and perhaps in the days ahead now that this information is being received by members of the community that the Akron police officers, eight in all, will not be charged after a Summit County grand jury determined that their actions that night were justified when they opened fire, shooting Jayland Walker over 45 times.

TAPPER: So, Polo, there are no federal charges. There are no state charges, so is that it? Is at the end of the legal road?

SANDOVAL: Yeah, we'll have to see about any potential of federal investigation down the road. But at this point, we haven't been led to believe that that will happen.

What will likely happen, according to Akron PD, is this will now initiate the beginning of an internal use of force investigation, meaning each one of those eight officers will have to speak to Akron investigators and will have to account for each one of the bullets had left their barrel that night. Unlike the grand jury proceedings, where they did not have to speak to grand jurors, here, according to a sergeant with the Akron police department that's spoken a community gathering that long ago, they will be compelled to speak to investigators there with the police department.

So, now, it's about defending their jobs if they wish to keep it. But for now again, this now clears them of any potential criminal charges -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Polo Sandoval, thank you so much with our breaking news. Appreciate it.

In a small town in Alabama, four innocent people were killed and 28 injured. This was at a sweet 16 birthday party. But police in Alabama are describing a strong leads as a frustrated community pleads for answers. We'll tell you that story.

Plus, the agenda for House Republicans who took their fight against crime to New York City today.

And House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was also in Manhattan on a separate cause.


How his speech today at the New York Stock Exchange sets up his own fight with President Biden.

Stay with us.


TAPPER: And we're back with our national lead. Investigators are pleading with the public to share any information they have as law enforcement searches for a suspect and motive and yet another horrific mass shooting in the United States of America. This one killing four and injuring 28 at a teenager sweet 16 birthday party in Dadeville, Alabama, Saturday night.

Today, we're learning more about the victims who were killed: 17-year- old Kekei Smith, 18-year-old Phil Dowdell, 19-year-old Marsiah Collins, and 23-year-old Corbin Holston.

This is just the latest of more than 160 mass shootings in the us so far this year -- nine last weekend alone. A mass shooting CNN defines as a shooting with four or more victims, not including the shooter. That's also according to the gun violence archive.

CNN's Victor Blackwell is Dadeville, Alabama, for us, where investigators say they now have strong leads in their search for a suspect.




He was loved by his teachers. Phil was just what you call an all around great guy.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Once again in America, young lives, including Philstavious Dowdell taken in a mass shooting. This Dadeville dance studio was packed with kids celebrating a sweet 16 party Saturday night, and then the shooting started.

SGT. JEREMY BURKETT, ALABAMA LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCY: Four lives were lost in the tragic event that occurred here. There are 28 individuals that were injured.

BLACKWELL: Police are asking for information about the attack. The deejay at the party told CNN that he did not see a fight or commotion before the gunfire began.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I tried to make sure everyone around me was safe, so I pulled a couple people under the table in front of me. Shots went off behind me.

BLACKWELL: One of the victims, Philstavious Dowdell, was the birthday girl's brother, a talented senior with a football scholarship described as the hometown hero. MIKE TAYLOR, DADEVILLE HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL COACH: Phil just told me about a month ago, because if anything ever happened to me even when I go to college, take care of my two sisters. I've never dreamed that he was talking about this.

BLACKWELL: Another victim, 17-year-old Kekei Smith, set to attend the University of Alabama. She ran on the track team but was recently injured. So she took a role as a trainer.

TAYLOR: She just had pull ACL, couldn't run track, so she just came to help her out.

BLACKWELL: The county coroner says the two other deceased were young men. Marsiah Collins, a 19-year-old aspiring musician who took a gap year headed to Louisiana State in the fall. And Corbin Holston, a 23 year old from Dadeville.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Lord, we pray that you would be, that their parents that they would be able to comfort them.

BLACKWELL: A small town of around 3,000 people held an emotional vigil.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: These children have very bright futures, the ones that I knew from Dadeville, very, very athletic, very humble children. Very respectful children, smart.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it's catching the community off guard. I think they're in utter shock, and I don't think they have the words right now to even process what's going on right now.


BLACKWELL (on camera): And about those 28 injuries, authorities have not said how many of the 28 have been shot. It's possible some were injured in the melee of trying to get out of the building. But we do know this from a local hospital, at least 15 teenagers were shot, six of them at least have been released from hospitals.

So many questions about a potential shooter, but we know from the state agency investigating that they believe there is no public safety concern at this time, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Victor Blackwell in Dadeville, Alabama, thank you so much for that. Appreciate it.

Coming up next, some House Republicans argued that the Manhattan d a seems more focused on prosecuting Donald Trump and on stopping crime in New York, but is a hearing in Manhattan the best way to make their case. We'll talk to a House GOP member next.

Stay with us.


[16:27:14] TAPPER: The Republican-led House Judiciary Committee is holding a field hearing in Manhattan today to focus on violent crime in New York. They are doing this, at least in part to make the argument that the Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg, the man prosecuting Donald Trump, is focusing on the wrong things.

But as CNN's Sara Murray reports, Democrats are saying that today's event is a mere political stunt.


REP. JIM JORDAN (R-OH): We welcome everyone today.

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): House Republicans looking to stick it to Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg in his own backyard.

JORDAN: In this country, justice is supposed to be blind, regardless of race, religion or creed. However, here in Manhattan, the scales of justice are weighed down by politics.

MURRAY: The House Judiciary Committee holding a field hearing to highlight violent crime in New York.

MADELINE BRAME, CHAIRWOMAN, VICTIMS RIGHTS REFORM COUNCIL: And until there is justice for the murder of my son, there will be no peace.

MURRAY: They submit an escalating feud between GOP Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan and Manhattan's Democrat district attorney.

ALVIN BRAGG, MANHATTAN DISTRICT ATTORNEY: These are felony crimes in New York state, no matter who you are.

MURRAY: Republicans have sought to discredit Bragg and his criminal case in the former President Donald Trump, after Trump pleaded not guilty to 34 felony charges.

JORDAN: You have a district attorney interfering with the most important election we have, which is election of the commander in chief, the president of the United States.

MURRAY: Bragg sued Jordan, aiming to block the Judiciary Committee's attempts to obtain documents and testimony related to the Trump investigation. Today, House attorneys argued they should be immune from civil lawsuits because their actions are within the legislative sphere. Democrats casting today's event is a political stunt.

REP. JERROLD NADLER (D-NY): The chairman is doing the bidding of Donald Trump.

REP. HANK JOHNSON (D-GA): The real purpose in coming to New York City is to harass, intimidate and threaten Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.

MURRAY: Taking aim at Republicans for refusing to crack down on guns in America. Bragg touting New York's crime statistics on Twitter as the hearing played out: Violent crime here is nowhere near record levels. But crime numbers rose in 2022, the year Bragg was sworn in from a year earlier.

So far this year, crime has falling in key categories like murder, shooting incidents and rape.

As Democrats kept their focus on Trump today, they drew the ire of the GOP's witnesses.

REP. DAN GOLDMAN (D-NY): The problem is that this is a charade, and the purpose of this hearing is to cover up for what they know to be an inappropriate investigation.

REP. ELISE STEFANIK (R-NY): Don't insult my intelligence Democrats have politicized this hearing, mentioning Donald Trump 38 times. That number for Republicans is zero. We are focused on victims and making sure that we support law and order in this country.


MURRAY (on camera): Now, Bragg's office was clearly unimpressed by this field hearing today, a spokesperson saying for outside politicians to now appear in New York City on the taxpayer dime for a political stunt is a slap in the face to the dedicated NYPD officers, prosecutors and other public servants who work tirelessly every day with the facts and the data to keep our home safe -- Jake.


TAPPER: All right. Sara Murray in New York, thanks so much.

Seventy-five days and counting, that's how long it's been since President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy met to discuss the looming debt ceiling crisis, with zero action being taken since that February meeting. The White House argues that President Biden is waiting for Republicans to propose a budget. Speaker McCarthy says Biden won't even have a conversation about the matter.

CNN's Melanie Zanona is live for us on Capitol Hill.

Melanie, Kevin McCarthy marked his 100th day of his speakership with a trip to the New York Stock Exchange and he spoke about his standoff with President Biden on this debt ceiling issue. What did he have to say?

MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: Well, Speaker Kevin McCarthy clearly is trying to turn up the heat right now and President Biden and today at the New York Stock Exchange, he continued to slam Democrats and Biden and blame them for inflation, through excessive spending. And he promised that Republicans are going to put a bill on the floor in the next few weeks. That is going to raise the debt ceiling for one year, and it's also going to be paired with a reduction in federal spending.

Now, he did not go into specific details about what those cuts would be. But we do know that House Republicans are looking to return to fiscal 2022 levels for nondefense discretionary spending. They want to claw back unspent COVID funds. And they also want to impose work requirements on Medicaid and other government assistant programs.

But, Jake, that could be a really tough sell within the House GOP. Remember, McCarthy can only afford to lose four votes on any partisan bills. Moderates might not want to walk the plank on this bill and support those work requirements. And even if they were able to pass a bill like that, it would be dead on arrival in the Senate anyway.

But for McCarthy, the point here is he's trying to force Biden back to the negotiating table for these long stalled talks because so far, the White House official position has been that Republicans should raise the debt ceiling without any conditions, which is what they did multiple times under former President Donald Trump.

So they continue to read her that today, but a senior White House official did tell our colleagues Jeremy Diamond and Arlette Saenz that if McCarthy was able to pass a bill on his own to raise the debt ceiling, that then Biden would potentially be willing to sit down and talk to him. But again, Jake, that is a big, big if.

TAPPER: All right. Melanie Zanona on Capitol Hill for us. Thanks so much.

We have two -- two big stories there to talk about with Republican Congressman Mike Waltz of Florida.

Thanks so much for joining us, Congressman.

So, I guess let's start with the house judiciary committee in New York City today. Republicans being very critical of the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, depicting him as soft on crime, lots of people testifying about their experiences as victims or their family members victims. Democrats are calling it a political stunt, and they say it's being undertaken to slam Bragg because he's prosecuting Donald Trump and not these other criminals.

What's your take on it all?

REP. MIKE WALTZ (R-FL): Well, Jake, I think there's a bigger story here and that crime is at crisis levels across our inner cities, including New York, but Chicago, L.A., I mean, we could we could go down the list, and I think it is often. Well, look at the end of the day to hear the actual stories from these victims who themselves are the victims, not the criminal and to hear time and time again that the perpetrators of these violent crimes on their relatives were not prosecuted or were basically slapped on the wrist is something certainly I think worthy of the Judiciary Committee highlighting.

TAPPER: I get -- I take your point, and it is horrible what's happening nationwide, although the statistics differ here and there I mean for example, you represent Florida sixth congressional district. It's between Jacksonville and Orlando.

WALTZ: Uh-huh. TAPPER: Both of them have higher homicide rates than the New York City. That's according to an analysis from the conservative organization, Wirepoints.

New York City statistically is one of the safest big cities in the country in terms of murder, and that's why I think this focus on New York might look political to some observers, as opposed to actually being concerned about victims of crime because they can be found anywhere, really.

WALTZ: Yeah. Well, but, Jake, I mean, you can take that one statistic. But when you look at carjackings, when you look at robberies, when you look at the amount of assaults, for example, on subway stations, I mean, crime is up and crimes up in cities all over the country, including in Florida, and you have to look, you know, for example, you just mentioned Orlando. That's largely a Democrat-run city and county.

So I think it's taking a broader perspective on, you know, looking at these policies, and is it the policies that are leading to these bad results? And if they are, then we need to change the policy and we would certainly want to highlight to our voters that if people don't change the policy, and you continue get these bad results, vote them out of office.


Let's make change.

But look, I mean, we can look at D.C., where the president just signed a bill passed out of the Republican House that walked back massive reductions in all kinds of crimes. I mean, the president even agreed with Republicans on that, that that was going way too far. And we're seeing that in city after city after city. We're seeing D.A.s get recalled in places -- district attorneys get recalled in places like San Francisco because they've gone too far.

TAPPER: Yeah, I mean, for the record, the Democratic mayor of D.C. also sided with House Republicans on that because of the mainly, I think because of a lot of reasons, but one of them was punishment for carjacking in was proposed to go down --

WALTZ: Which is up by double digits in the nation's capital.

TAPPER: Yeah, it's horrible.

Let's talk about the debt ceiling standoff --

WALTZ: Sure.

TAPPER: -- because the White House and House Republican Speaker McCarthy engaged in the standoff. I want to get a reaction to something that President Trump said in 2019. Take a -- take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT: I can't imagine anybody ever even thinking of using the debt ceiling as a negotiating wedge. When I first came into office, I asked that -- I can't imagine anybody ever even --


TAPPER: So, Donald Trump is there saying that the debt ceiling should not be used as a negotiating wedge. Now, Republicans -- House Republicans raised the debt ceiling three times under Trump.

We should no doubt -- we should note that you were not among them. You voted against raising the debt ceiling in 2019 after those comments from Trump, but it does seem as though you know Republicans did that, and now that the Democrats in the White House, things are different. Why?

WALTZ: Well, as you mentioned, Jake, number one, I voted against it.

TAPPER: Right.

WALTZ: And then number two, I think it's a little bit disingenuous to not point out what else was going on right then, which was a nation wide lockdown of our entire economy. I probably agree that that probably wasn't the time to then have to negotiate structural reforms to out of control spending to the federal government.

So I think let's set that one aside as kind of a pretty extraordinary moment in history. That said, look, Jake, as -- just as a national security issue, just the interest on our national debt is approaching the size of our entire defense budget. You and I were talking about China earlier, that Chinese actually are building in when our economy goes upside down and then solvent as part of their -- as part of their broader strategy to be a global hegemon and be the global leader.

At some point, we have to get this under control, and I think to expect just a continued blank check without even a conversation about federal spending about work requirements about some of these things that are pretty common sense. I just don't think this is a bridge that we can't close. Put some common sense reforms in place, and then we can talk about like -- of course, we're not going to default on our debt.

TAPPER: Republican Congressman Mike Waltz of Florida, thanks so much. Good to see you again.

WALTZ: Okay, thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: Coming up next, in Russia, Putin's latest way of silencing a critic of the Kremlin. Stay with us.



TAPPER: Topping our world lead, 18 days after American "Wall Street Journal" reporter Evan Gershkovich was wrongfully detained on bogus espionage charges in Russia. The U.S. ambassador to Russia was finally, finally able to see him.

After meeting Gershkovich in Russia's infamous Lefortovo prison, U.S. Ambassador Lynne Tracy tweeted, quote: He is in good health and remain strong. We reiterate our call for his immediate release, unquote.

Gershkovich will likely stay in the prison, which "The Wall Street Journal:" describes as a, quote, sterile facility engineered to keep inmates from ever seeing one another until late May.

And today, the harshest sentence yet in Putin's draconian crackdown on freedom and even basic descent over his brutal war in Ukraine. His only crime being criticism of Putin, 41-year-old human rights advocate Vladimir Kara-Murza has been sentenced to 25 years in a Russian penal colony, 25 years on charges of treason.

As CNN's Matthew Chance reports for us now, just before Kara-Murza's detention one year ago, he characterized Putin's government as a, quote, regime of murderers in an interview with CNN.


VLADIMIR KARA-MURZA, RUSSIAN OPPOSITION ACTIVIST: Today, the whole world sees what the Putin regime is doing to Ukraine. The cluster bombs on residential areas, the bombings of maternity wards and hospitals and schools.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was this speech before the Arizona state house that Russian prosecutors used as part of their case against Vladimir Kara-Murza.

Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine just a few weeks earlier, and the veteran Kremlin critic, like so many others, was incensed.

KARA-MURZA: The war crimes, these are war crimes.

CHANCE: Less than a month later, Kara-Murza was arrested in Moscow, accused of discrediting the Russian army. He was later also charged with the much more serious offense of treason.

In a court in Moscow, Kara-Murza stood motionless as he was sentenced to 25 years in jail. Outside, there was international outcry.

LYNNE TRACY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO RUSSIA: Criminalization of criticism of government action is a sign of weakness, not strength. We support the right of Mr. Kara-Murza and every Russian citizen to have a voice in the direction of their country.

CHANCE: More than 40 other foreign diplomats were at the sentencing, too. While in Britain, where Kara-Murza is a dual citizen, the Russian ambassador was summoned over what was called a politically motivated conviction. It would by no means be Russia's first.

The country's most high profile opposition figure, Alexey Navalny, is already serving an 11-1/2-year sentence amid renewed concerns for his health behind bars.


Another prominent Russian opposition leader Ilya Yashin was recently sentenced to 8-1/2 years in jail for criticizing the Ukraine war. This will all end soon, he shouted out in court. But there's no real reason for optimism.

In fact, the Russian crackdown on free speech is getting worse. Only last month, U.S. reporter Evan Gershkovich of "The Wall Street Journal" in Russia was arrested for espionage. The paper vehemently denies the charges against him, but it all sends a chilling Kremlin message aimed at silencing the voices against it.


CHANCE (on camera): Well, Jake, tonight, the Russian foreign ministry is criticizing the international condemnation of the Vladimir Kara- Murza case, accusing the United States and other countries of interfering in Russia's internal affairs. What's clear is that maximum 25 year prison sentence that's been imposed on this opposition activist sends a clear message that the Kremlin is prepared to lock up anyone it regards as a political threat, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Matthew Chance, thank you so much.

Next to Ukraine, where CNN heard from folks adamant to not leave their towns, even with scenes of the brutal war creeping closer to their homes and loved ones.

Stay with us.



TAPPER: To the eastern Ukrainian City of Bakhmut we go in our world lead.

Over the weekend, house to house firefights and at least 100 shells launched by Russia in just a 24-hour period. That's according to Ukraine. And despite Russia's claims that its troops are advancing, footage geolocated by CNN shows that Ukrainian troops are holding their positions in central Bakhmut, all while Russia aims to destroy towns in eastern Ukraine.

CNN's Ben Wedeman spoke with some residents who after more than a year of war finally have accepted that it's time to leave.


BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPNDENT (voice-over): Another family is moving out, leaving the frontline town of Krasnohorivka with the help of the police.

Perhaps to lessen the blow to his children, Yevgeny equips, we'll be back. It's just a vacation.

Eighty-four-year old Raya doesn't sugarcoat it.

It's like torture, she says. But don't worry, we'll survive.

Raya has lived in Krasnohorivka all her life.

Rustam (ph) and his colleagues venture out to the front line villages several times a week, trying to convince people to move to safer ground. It's dangerous work, but for Rustam, it's worth the risk to get these children out of harm's way.

Looking into those eyes, he asks, what else can you do?

If friendly persuasion doesn't work, there are other means. There's an order from local government requiring that children be evacuated from areas close to the fighting.

This is how Vassily (ph) goes about the job of friendly persuasion, sitting talking, trying to convince those who remain that their lives are in peril.

The people in this basement turned bomb shelter have been down here for more than a year, and clearly that has taken a toll.

Their homes are here. Everything they know is here. They refused to leave.

The eastern end of Krasnohorivka is the hardest hit, yet even here, there's a stubborn holdout.

They've come to this building to try to convince an old man to leave. They have already evacuated his wife. As you can see, this area has been seriously smashed by incoming rounds. The Russians are just five kilometers around three miles from here.

He didn't want his face to appear on camera.

I'm not going anywhere, he says. I was born here, and I'm going to die here.

The chances of that happening here are perilously high.


WEDEMAN (on camera): And what makes these areas even more dangerous is that the Russians are now deploying what are known as guided aerial bombs. These were bombs that are launched about 30 miles away from the front line, and they're using them ever more frequently in towns and villages like those -- Jake.

TAPPER: Ben Wedeman in eastern Ukraine for us, thank you so much.

Coming up, Senate Democrats want to replace Senator Dianne Feinstein on a key committee. But Senate Republicans -- well, they might have other plans. Plus, in a remarkable update, the Kansas City team shot twice after showing up at the wrong house to pick up his brothers is now out of the hospital. But will the man who shot him allegedly face charges?

Stay with us.



TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

This hour, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is not backing down when it comes to his fight with the Sunshine State's largest employer. The Florida governor now threatening to build a prison next to Mickey Mouse's home.

Plus, a door knock gone terribly wrong. And elderly white man accused of shooting a 16-year-old Black teenager after the team knocked on the wrong door when trying to pick up his younger brothers. Growing questions today about why the homeowner was arrested but released in less than two hours.

And leading this hour, an Ohio grand jury decided to not indict eight Akron police officers involved in the shooting death of Jayland Walker. Walker died after being shot last June during an attempted traffic stop.

Police say that Walker refused to pull over and they fired a shot. And then they say he fired a shot at them from his car. He then tried to run away, leaving his gun in the car.

The Ohio attorney general says police did not know Walker was unarmed when he ran. Officers fired 94 shots at Walker.