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The Lead with Jake Tapper

Manhattan D.A. Willing To Delay Trump Hush Money Trial; Trump In Federal Court For Critical Hearing In Docs Case; D.A. Fani Willis To Face Primary Challenge Amid Trump Case Disqualification Fight; IDF: Dual U.S.-Israeli Citizen Killed By Hamas On October 7; Vladimir Putin Headed For Sweeping Re-Election; Lithuanian Officials: Attack On Former Navalny Aide "Looks Like Action Of Russian Special Services"; SpaceX Tests New Starship Spacecraft & Super Heavy Booster. Aired 4-5p ET

Aired March 14, 2024 - 16:00   ET



BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: It's an interesting image. It's aimed at, quote, those who think and see the world differently. It contains 13 clues representing letters that spell out a message.

And after posting the puzzle yesterday, the agency is now revealing the answer. Those who found journey to GH, rather GCHQ hidden in those clues, you might be hearing from a spy master soon.

Do you see?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: I think I need a vision test. That's what it tells me I need a vision test.




TAPPER: Donald Trump might get yet another delay in yet another one of his many criminal trials.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Moments ago, the prosecutor in the New York hush money case said he'd be okay with a 30-day delay. This as the former president spent the day in the Florida courtroom, his lawyers arguing broad leeway under the Presidential Records Act as a reason to throw out the case. The judge in that case expressing skepticism. We'll explain all of it to you coming up.

And Rodgers response. NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers with a new post on Twitter today, kind of alluding to the exclusive reporting we broke here on THE LEAD yesterday, that he had privately shared with the least two people we know of deranged conspiracy theories about the 2012 Sandy Hook School shooting not being real. Plus, space success with a major mishap. The massive SpaceX Starship rocket that's part of NASA's plans to get back to the moon -- while that goes farther and faster than ever before, yet the spacecraft is now lost.


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

We got a lot of legal news as for you relating to Donald Trump and -- we'll explain it to you as clearly as possible because I know it's tough to keep all of these cases apart.

We'll start with breaking news in our lawn justice lead. The Manhattan district attorney just said he's not opposed to a delay of up to 30 days. This is in Trump's hush money file. This is according to a new court filing, breaking this afternoon.

Now, this is the case that involves Trump's alleged payment to adult film star and director Stormy Daniels in an attempt to keep her quiet about their alleged affair. This is right before the 2016 election.

Now, this trial was supposed to start in less than two weeks, on March 25th. So it looks like it will start later than that. That's number one.

Number two, we are also following a major hearing in Trump's Mar-a- Lago classified documents case. Again, I know it's tough to keep all these straight, but remember, this is the case where Donald Trump stands accused of taking highly sensitive classified documents to Mar- a-Lago after leaving the White House, after which the National Archives repeatedly asked Trump to return the documents, requests he ignored, and Trump continued to distort the documents in unsecured locations throughout the Mar-a-Lago property, including these famous photos you've seen of the box is being stored rather insecurely in bathrooms and ballrooms and more.

Today's big development, Trump's attorneys asked the judge to delay that case or even throw it out altogether. Trump's team arguing two things. One, that the presidential records act was not clear enough so Trump did not know he was breaking the law when he brought the documents to Mar-a-Lago. Two, arguing that these were his personal records. He had a right to keep.

Special counsel Jack Smith's team fighting back, saying, come on, clearly knew the importance of some of the classified documents he had, pointing to a meeting Trump had at his Bedminster, New Jersey club in 2021. There's a recording of this meeting in it. He describes certain documents as classified and he did not seem to think that they were personal.

Now, that's one and two. Now, we turn to three. We are also awaiting a major ruling that could come at any moment in Fulton County, Georgia, this has to do with the case against Donald Trump for trying to steal the Georgia electoral votes. Judge Scott McAfee is any minutes had to decide whether District Attorney Fani Willis, who is prosecuting Trump should be removed from overseeing Trump's Georgia elections case.

This is over claims from the Trump team that Fani Willis financially benefited from a relationship she had with one of her top prosecutors.

All right. Got it all? Let's start with CNN's Katelyn Polantz outside the courthouse in Fort Pierce, Florida.

That's where the classified document case is. Kaitlan, Judge Cannon seem pretty skeptical of the Trump team's arguments today.

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: She did Jake and what the Trump team is trying to do here in Florida in this federal case about classified records is the same thing they're trying to do every everywhere else. They're either trying to get the case dismissed or to make things take a really long time until everyone's set to go to trial.

Today, they spent five hours in the courtroom in arguments before Judge Cannon, where she didn't rule, but she did express some skepticism to these arguments Trump is making to have his case dismissed on the grounds that these were his personal papers that he wanted to take out of the White House and that the law around national defense secrets is a little too big for him to have known. He shouldn't have taken them out of the White House and to Mar-a-Lago, Judge Cannon said it would be an extraordinary step for her to dismiss the case on these grounds, and it would be difficult to see her doing that at this juncture.

But he's asked by my count nine different ways to have this case dismissed. This was arguments for just two of those nine topics or approaches his team has made. So we now wait for Judge Cannon to rule. She is very likely to write something potentially lengthy about the Presidential Records Act, about the law in this case, and how it's charged against Donald Trump. She says, it'll be coming promptly, but we still don't even have a trial date the last time we were here two weeks ago. That was what they were talking about then and still nothing on the books.

TAPPER: So I'm becoming a connoisseur these Donald Trump courtroom sketches. If we couldn't put the one up of him glowering, looking toward there. That's it.

It's good. It's a pretty good. I like the shading. It's not cartoony, kind of captures him.

He was inside the courtroom today. We see these images. What was his behavior like?

POLANTZ: Well, Jake, the glowering Donald Trump that you saw in the arraignments, that type of criminal defendant in that posture of the former president. That's not what he is like now. He's been in Judge Cannon's courtroom for hours at a time. And so, you can tell that he is getting much more comfortable sitting there at the defense table.

From our producers and reporters inside the court who were able to watch every moment of this, he spent some time chatting with his attorney. He had reactions to some of the arguments that people were making, you know, little facial expressions, things like that. One thing in this case that is really interesting to watch is what people refer to Trump in the courtroom. There's not any interaction with him directly in a day like this where it's about legal arguments.

And so, Judge Cannon, throughout the day was referring to him as the defendant, whereas his own lawyers are referring to him as the president

TAPPER: All right. Katelyn Polantz in Florida, thanks so much.

With us now, CNN chief legal affairs correspondent Paula Reid, and CNN senior legal analyst Elie Honig, and former Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Tom Dupree.

Thanks to one and all for being here. And let's start, I think with Judge Cannon, right? That seemed the most interesting.

What do you think she is thinking when it comes to possibly throwing out this case?

PAULA REID, CNN CHIEF LEGAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: It's pretty clear that she's not going to throw out this case, but we knew that before today's hearing because this argument that this should be thrown out, its undercut by former President Trump's own statements. Remember, he's had this evolving explanation for how you should be allowed to have these classified documents. He had a standing order. He declassified them with his mind. He's also on tape, a central piece of evidence in this case, acknowledging that he couldn't declassify them when he's no longer president and he shouldn't have that. He knew he had secrets.

But even though he's unlikely to win on the merits, the fact that she allowed arguments here took a whole day to hear this out, which he could have just dispense with this on paper. That is significant because every day, every filing, every motion helps delay this and we know that is the crux and we said it 100 times of the Trump defense strategy.

So she may have animal loss in this battle, but in some ways she's helping win the war.

TAPPER: So there was an argument, Tom, that's kind of like the unfrozen caveman lawyer argument, which is just like I'm just a humble caveman. I don't understand your Presidential Records Act, right? I mean, like he was so confused. It's written so vaguely.

Is there anything?

TOM DUPREE, FORMER PRINCIPAL DEPUTY ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL, G.W. BUSH ADMINISTRATION: In my opinion, no, Jake. Look, the fact is, is that this law and the other law, the Espionage Act and its charged under have been on the books for a long time. And although it's not impossible for a federal judge to basically invalidate a statute on the theory that it is too vague to be enforced, that happens very, very rarely. I cannot imagine her doing that here, particularly because the

president -- I mean, look, he's not a lawyer, but he's a sophisticated person. He worked in the White House. Obviously, he's well aware of the ways the federal government, and I just don't think it's going to be plausible to the judge for him to say I had no idea that what I was doing could possibly be deemed illegal.

TAPPER: Now, an interesting moment today, Elie. Trump's team today argued that Robert Hur, the special counsel who investigate Joe Biden's mishandling of classified information, that that report helps them.

How so and do buy it?

ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Yeah. So, let me translate this over into the legal world. I'm not buying the argument. Let me just right up front.

The argument is something called selective prosecution, where a defendant can raise a defense. It's very, very rare to succeed on this. I would say nationwide, the success rate is close to zero on this.


But if you can show somebody else did essentially the same thing. I did. That person was not prosecuted and I am being prosecuted and it's for a bad reason. You can get a case thrown out and Donald Trump's lawyers, of course, are saying -- well, look at the Hur report, both guys knowingly to some extent retained classified documents. Biden's not charged. I am charged, hence, selective prosecution.

But the response from prosecutors and I think the better argument is, there are very big differences here. This is not similar enough to warrant dismissal, starting with the fact that Trump obstructed, Biden mostly, cooperated different quantities of documents, different conduct overall. So I think the judge is going to reject that argument, but I will say the Hur report does give Trump's team some basis to make that argument. I don't think it will succeed.

TAPPER: Although we should note also that the Hur report for all the hand-wringing Democrats are doing about how he describes Biden is aged, et cetera, there's also a whole section where he talks about what Trump did is so much worse. And here's why.

HONIG: It's almost as if Robert Hur was anticipating that argument. I mean, against --

TAPPER: Almost as if.

HONIG: Right.

TAPPER: Almost as if.

So, let's talk about the decision we just heard this bombshell filing in the Manhattan D.A. hush-money case against Trump. This is about Trump hiding payments to Stormy Daniels to hide their alleged affair before the election of 2016? The trial was set to start in two weeks.

We all, you know, scheduled our spring breaks around it.

REID: Yes.

TAPPER: And now, the district attorneys open to a delay?

REID: Yeah. So the defense had asked for a 90-day delayed it, go through some discovery, and the surprise was that the prosecutor said they wouldn't be opposed to a 30-day delay. Now it'll be up to the judge. So this judge could come back and say 30 days, 45 days out. We'll give you 90 days.

But what's astonishing to me, Jake, is this is the one case that was on the calendar. The other three criminal prosecutions are in limbo and even if he delays it, 45 days, let's say, there's nothing that would require me to say absolutely this will go. You can always come back and delay it again every week, every filing, every little delay makes it possible. This may not go before the election.

So this was a real shocker.

TAPPER: So I said the other day that a lot of legal experts consider this the weakest of the prosecutions and I think some people in the D.A. Bragg's office objected to that. What's your take on this decision and what's your take on how strong a case this.

HONIG: So it definitely is the least serious conduct of the four. I mean, two of the other ones relate to the effort to steal the 2020 election. And the third relates to classified documents. So I don't think there's any question this is the least serious.

That said, it's still a serious allegation. It might be the only one that could realistically go to trial before the election. And it is a virtual certainty now, now that both parties, when the defendant says, we need 90 more days and the prosecutors even say we agree at least 30. It's going to get moved at least 30 days.

And then it's all sort of a slippery slope downhill. I mean, it gets moved 30 -- think about it like when if you have an air a flight on an airline, it gets delayed 20 minutes, then it gets delayed other 45 minutes.

TAPPER: Oh, boy, yeah, I know the feeling.

HONIG: We've all been there, right?

TAPPER: You start calling other airlines.

HONIG: Exactly. And it's incremental and its not all at once. It just slides and it slides again and it slides again. And next thing you know, it's a four-hour delay. I feels like we're going down that path even with this Manhattan D.A. case, which seemed like the most likely.

TAPPER: All right. So District Attorney Bragg, I hope that I was a better answer than my -- REID: We are both going to get texts.

TAPPER: You're both going to get them?

REID: Yeah.

TAPEPR: Well, like either way, I'm not a lawyer, Elie.

What do you make of the sliding of this case? I mean, this was the one that was supposed to go to trial before the election.

HONIG: It was, but the fact that it's getting bumped doesn't surprise me at all. Trial dates are notoriously fluid. That's true for civil cases. That's true for criminal prosecutions.

And it doesn't surprise me especially just given the gravity of what's at stake here. I mean, for goodness sake, a former president the United States is going on trial. And I think both the prosecutors and the judge are going to take the extra step, go the extra mile to ensure that he has ample time to prepare his defense. That's what caused the delay today.

The prosecutors acknowledged that the former president had gotten more documents and they wanted to play it safe. They didn't want to create the possibility of reversible error on appeal. So they agreed to give the former president sufficient time to look at these new documents and formulate his defense.

So I do think it's surprising, but in the grand scheme of things, this does happen pretty often.

TAPPER: Yeah, North Carolina four corner offense, you know what I'm saying.

Paula Reid --

HONIG: Run out the clock.

TAPPER: -- Elie Honig, Tom Dupree, thanks so much.

We're also standing by for a judge's decision in Fulton County, Georgia, a decision that will determine whether District Attorney Fani Willis can stay on the election subversion case that she brought against Donald Trump. Why this decision might not be the only thing standing in Willis's way. That's next



TAPPER: Continuing with our law and justice lead, as we noted in the last block at any minute, we could hear whether Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis will be disqualified by the judge from prosecuting the election subversion case against Donald Trump in more than a dozen of Trump's allies in Georgia. Remember, Willis had a personal relationship with her prosecutor

Nathan Wade. That is not disputed. And Nathan Wade, she hired, and Nathan Wade has never tried to case this big in his life before.

Now, Trump's legal team is arguing that Willis financially benefited by hiring Wade to lead the case. They want all the charges against Donald Trump dismissed.

CNN's Nick Valencia is outside the courthouse in Atlanta.

Nick, the decision is solely in the hands of Judge McAfee. What -- what will happen if the case -- what will happen to the case if Willis is disqualified?

NICK VALENCIA, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, it would be devastating. And will almost guarantee that there would be no trial before the start of the November election. But what would happen is it would be handed over to nine-member panel, the prosecuting attorney's council and executive director Pete Skandalakis. And it would be up to them to find a replacement for Willis if she is disqualified.

And that comes with its own unique challenges. There's not only politics at play, but also safety issues. And we've heard repeatedly that Willis had to change basically how she moved in her life and anyone who takes the case over would be presented with likely the same issues -- Jake.

TAPPER: Even if District Attorney Willis is not disqualified from the case, Nick, she could be out of a job. She's up for election. She might -- she could lose to her primary challenger on May 21st.


How serious is the challenge to her position as of now? And could that impact the election subversion case?

VALENCIA: Well, I spoke to progressive Democrat Christian Wise Smith, that's the Democratic challenger. And he's basically saying that he's sort of dipping his toes in the water at this point. He wants to wait to see what happens with the decision about her disqualification before he launches a full-fledged campaign.

And last time he ran in 2020, he came in third behind Fani Willis and former D.A. Paul Howard. Meanwhile, her Republican challenger, Courtney Kramer, she's a long shot and has a very, very, very low likelihood of beating Willis in a primary.

And remember, we're really at the beginning of this process, this case. There's no trial yet set in this case. And if there is a trial set, if and when that happens, prosecutors say that this likely could take at least six months -- Jake.

TAPPER: Nick Valencia in Hot-lanta, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

We'll be right back.


TAPPER: Back with our world lead, and it's a sad, sad story.

This week, we brought you the tragic news of the murder of a dual American Israeli citizen, one whom we'd profiled many times here on THE LEAD. He had been thought to have been a hostage held by Hamas terrorists in Gaza.

But on Tuesday of this week, Israel Defense Forces reported that Itay Chen was actually killed by Hamas on October 7. And then they took his body into Gaza.

Itay had been serving with the IDF near the Gaza border. He was just 19 years old at the time of his murder. He was the second of three sons, a former Boy Scout, a fierce basketball player. He loved hiking, good food, listening to music.

His family held out hope that he was still alive for the last five months.

And joining us now are Hagit and Ruby Chen, his parents, whom this is their fourth or fifth time on the show.

And I'm so sorry, is under these circumstances Ruby and Hagit. I -- I don't know what to say. I know words can't offer any conciliation. How are you holding up?

RUBY CHEN, SON, ITAY CHEN, KILLED BY HAMAS: Yeah. On Monday, we got notified the worst possible outcome from our perspective became a reality. For five months, we've had hope that the fact that there was no negative signal on Itay was hopefully a positive signal. And unfortunately, we found out from the intelligence, both from the U.S. side and from the Israeli side that have been working closely with one another, that he was killed on October 7th and the last five months, have been basically psychological warfare that Hamas ISIS have been doing by not communicating that Itay actually was killed, and it was taken not alive to Gaza. Well, God knows what, just for the sake of causing more torture and using them as a pawn --


R. CHEN: -- for some type of negotiation tactics that they have.

TAPPER: Pretty twisted, pretty twisted. And for months you two have been urging President Biden to get the remaining American hostages out of Gaza. You just spoke with President Biden.

Tell -- tell us about that conversation?

R. CHEN: I like to acknowledge the fat that we haven't lived in the U.S. for a while. But the way that the U.S. administration, the Biden administration, but also senators from both side of the aisles specifically, Senator (INAUDIBLE), Senator Lindsey Graham, have adopted us anytime and have wanted just the best outcome possible is something that is not taken as face value. You know, we truly appreciate it. We've gotten calls the last 18 hours

from the president himself, the vice president, Mr. Jake Sullivan, Brett McGurk, across the aisle, secretary of state, as well as from the CIA, all of them wanted to show their condolences. The president himself when we met in mid-December, we kind of talked about moms and I had a sentence I think resonated with the president where I said, I thank God each day that my mom passed away, and is not living this.

And the president has a very unique relationship with his mom as well, had a unique relationship with his mom.


R. CHEN: And we talked about moms, and how they impact us. And I think he remembers the fact that I don't have living parents anymore, and the fact that he took the time to talk to us like a dad will talk to his son, that got the worst possible message possible and just talking about how he dealt with that message that he got many, many years ago when he had his personal loss.


R. CHEN: And how to look forward, and how to think of how to put the pieces back together and keep on looking at the future and try to find some ways to make some sense out of it and keep on going.

He ended the call with us by giving him -- giving us his personal phone way said, look guys, we just need to talk.


R. CHEN: We need to hear somebody out. We just need someone to listen. Don't hesitate.

And I don't think that that any global leader, you know, would have said that to us and being able to be with us not just talking, but actually feeling and like igniting the fact that we lost the most precious thing possible.



R. CHEN: It is something that we will never forget. And we will be relayed to the president that when we met last time, Itay was a hostage. But I also reminded and even today, as we speak, Itay still hostage, citizens out of 134 hostages, for more than 160 days.

TAPPER: Yeah, you can't even -- you can't even have a funeral. I mean, in Jewish law, you're supposed to bury your loved one in the next day.

HAGIT CHEN, SON, ITAY CHEN, KILLED BY HAMAS: We need to bring him back.

R. CHEN: Yeah. It's kind of like a statement for the viewers that when someone is deceased in the Jewish tradition, you have what is called a Shiva.


R. CHEN: Where are you have a funeral and you'd have a week to be able to mourn for your loved one. We, even though by having the nullification, we can have a Shiva, which is virtual, but we decided that we will not have the Shiva until Itay is back with us as well.


R. CHEN: We have a place to mourn. So, the job is not done, not to the Israeli prime minister who has the utmost responsibility to get the tie back home.


R. CHEN: As well as the U.S., as well as all the international entities that have been on this, Qatar, Egypt, and all the others that can influence Hamas to stop this madness and stop the humanitarian crisis that is in Gaza.


R. CHEN: Gaza people are also suffering and the simple question to ask, any Palestinian, guilty elected government, which is Hamas, that you voted for? Tell them to stop the fighting. Give us the hostages, let's get a deal done and move on to a better future.

It's -- I mean, you're in a shock period and a grief period that you may never fully leave. As I was telling you before, one of my best friends lost his 18 year-old son to cancer two years ago and there's no getting over it. There's no one day you wake up and you're better. There's just -- it just is what it is. There's living with the loss, learning how to live with the loss.

But I do want to end with a memory of Itay. And, Hagit, if you could, how -- how do you want Itay to be remembered?

H. CHEN: Now, Itay is a happy boy, always smiling, we just got many visitors since Tuesday, since everyone find out about this terrible news about the Itay, and so many friends who came and told us stories about him. You know, he wasn't -- you know, how he's funny. And then he loves people, he loves to help.

And everyone -- everyone came could tell me a very unique story about Itay and how -- he helped him and how he making laugh. And now he -- we they will always, always remember him nowhere.

TAPPER: Yeah, he's a beautiful boy.

H. CHEN: Best person, beautiful boy.

R. CHEN: Jake, you know, my hour glass. So, it's now empty.

H. CHEN: Actually, we came back from Washington after seeing you and when we opened his backpack. R. CHEN: Back pack.

H. CHEN: And it was empty. And, you know, we started to cry because it's so symbolic that it was empty and we said, okay, we will buy a new one. And then hour later, they knocked on our door --

TAPPER: Oh, no.

H. CHEN: -- on the terrible news and, you know, I didn't unpack since we came back Monday -- no, we cannot do anything. Just sit and cry.

TAPPER: I'm so sorry.

R. CHEN: The hour glass is empty, but the job is not done. We need to take him back home.

TAPPER: Ruby and Hagit, I'm so sorry. And there's nothing I can say except may Itay's memory be a blessing, and please stay in touch and please reach out to other people who have gone through and are going through similar things because I know from my friends, Darryl and Lana, I know that groups like that can be of great comfort. And so, please, please do that and stay in touch with us also. Thank you.

R. CHEN: Thank you, Jake.

H. CHEN: Thank you. Thanks a lot.

TAPPER: So-called presidential elections are just getting underway in Russia. We're going to go live to Moscow, next.

Plus, a former chief of staff for Alexei Navalny was brutally attacked this week with a hammer and tear gas.


The White House weighing in on this today


TAPPER: It's just after 8:00 a.m. Friday, in parts of far eastern Russia, and voting is now underway there in Russia's so-called presidential election, which resembles actually democratic elections in no way whatsoever.

Voting will occur in Russia over the next three days, but the outcome is a forgone conclusion. Given that officials have kept other viable candidates off the ballot with some ending up in prison, some even dead.

Vladimir Putin is headed for a sweeping reelection victory that will keep him in power until at least 2030.


And he can run again after that.

CNN's Matthew Chance joins us now live from Moscow.

Matthew, there are three Kremlin-approved candidates on the ballot to challenge Putin, but they're not really considered much of a challenge at all, right?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CHIEF GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: No. In terms of public recognition, they don't even get into the double digits. I mean, one of them is a hard line communist who has a vision of returning Russia to its sort of glorious Soviet past. That's not a vision, by the way, that shared by most Russians.

There's a nationalist who I spoke to, during one of his campaign events, events, and he told me he was aiming to come second in the presidential race, not first, that which is extraordinary.

And then the third candidate is this figure who independent election monitors say is doing his utmost to try and make sure he doesn't get any undue attention. You're dealing with candidates that don't want to win this election. This is really just a process for the reappointments, if you like, of Vladimir Putin for another six-year term. But millions of people across Russia will be voting in these elections over the course of next few days, Jake.

TAPPER: And as this election happens, obviously, Russia's military operation, as they call it, and Ukraine rages on. Ukraine has recently stepped up drone attacks in Russian territory. Today, the Russian defense ministry claimed to have fought back what they're calling sabotage groups in the Belgorod region?

CHANCE: Yeah. I mean, that's the region right next to the Ukrainian border. There are a few other regions as well, which have been subject not just to drone attacks from across the border, but cross-border raids by a paramilitary groups, Russian paramilitary groups that are based in Ukraine, sort of coming across the border. They're the anti- Kremlin, trying to take back territory or take and seize control of territory inside of Russia, that's been going on for some months, but its been really stepped up over the course of the past couple of days.

The Russian authorities insist they've killed large numbers of these -- these individuals, these fighters and that no Russian territory is under their control. But nevertheless, it's a real kind of slap in the face for the Kremlin, which is trying to show its population that has control over this conflict and can protect them from, you know, kind of the war.

TAPPER: Matthew Chance in Moscow, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Russia's so-called election comes just a few days after Alexei Navalny's former chief of staff, Leonid Volkov, was brutally attacked outside his home in Lithuania. And the Navalny spokesman says Volkov was in his car Tuesday when someone broke the window, sprayed tear gas into his eyes and began beating him with a hammer. Volkov had served as chairman of Navalny's anti-corruption foundation until last year.

And CNN's Fred Pleitgen joins us now for more on the story from Berlin. And Fred, Lithuanian officials today offered a new assessment on the attack, and they put the blame on Russia?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, they certainly did. I just actually re-read that report by those Lithuanian officials, Jake, and they not only blame Russia, they say that this bears a hallmark of Russian special services. Obviously, Russian intelligence services, and they believe that the Russians probably recruited someone to a conduct this attack against Leonid Volkov welcome again, the former chief of staff of Alexei's Anti-Corruption Foundation.

It was interesting because there was another Lithuanian official came out there and called this an act of political terrorism, unlike anything that Lithuania had seen before. And he also said that he believed that this was conducted what he called a very professional way, obviously, going back to this possibly being the work of special services. The U.S. also saying they are very concerned about the spokesman for the national security council coming out today and saying they don't really have much in the way of facts to add to all of this, but they also say that this does show the threats and the dangerous for people in Russian civil society who speak up against the Kremlin.

The Kremlin itself, Jake, also asked about this today on a conference call saying they refused to comment at all on any of this because all this took place in Lithuania.

Leonid Volkov, he came out already yesterday and so that he was very happy, quite frankly, to survive this attack. Some of the photos of the aftermath truly are pretty grim there. He said he was very lucky that that person who attacked them with a hammer, didn't break his leg, but it certainly seems he has some severe bruises on his leg. He also says he has a broken arm.

However, Leonid Volkov, just like the Anti-Corruption Foundation, the other members of it say they are not going to stop their political work, Jake.

TAPPER: Fred Pleitgen in Berlin, Germany, thanks so much.

Coming up, we always hear about spacecraft making a, quote, fiery re- entry into Earth's atmosphere. But today we actually got to see one live as it happened. We'll bring you these incredible pictures right after the break.



TAPPER: In our out of this world lead, something we rarely good to see and never live. This morning, SpaceX's new Starship managed to send back live pictures of its fiery reentry from space. It was spectacular at least for a while. In the end, the spacecraft lost all communications and likely broken heart, but no people were onboard, as the saying goes, this was only a test. CNN's Kristin Fisher is here to wrap it all up for us.

All -- all in all, a whole lot of things. We should note went right today.

KRISTIN FISHER, CNN DEFENSE AND SPACE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, far more went right than went wrong and the stuff that went right and wrong, we got to watch it all play out live in that spectacular HD footage, that plasma on entry. I've never seen anything like it. I don't think anybody has ever seen anything quite like that.

They were able to do it because they had Starlink terminals onboard Starship and so some of the things that went right, Starship reached orbital velocity or orbital speed, that was the primary goal of this third test flight.

They were also able to get Starship to fly for about 49 minutes, much farther and faster than any other flight tests that starship has flown.


And then of course, it was a successful launch. It made it away from the launch pad. There was a successful stage separation.

I mean, all in all SpaceX is calling this a success, but it's not just SpaceX, it's NASA, too, and Blue Origin, one of SpaceX's primary competitors.

TAPPER: And what's next, both in short and long-term?

FISHER: Short-term, SpaceX needs another test slight and they have four Starships that they are working on right now and they say that they're in varying phases of being ready to fly. So they need to do more flight tests and quickly. They need the FAA to license those launches and those flight tests.

But then in the long term, I mean, this is the rocket that SpaceX wants to use to land the first humans on Mars, to eventually colonize Mars. But first, they need to use it to land NASA astronauts on the surface of the moon for the first time since the Apollo program, Starship is the centerpiece of the Artemis program. And so that's why today, you had so many people at NASA watching this one so closely and the administrator calling it a success.

TAPPER: Very, very cool.

Kristin Fisher, thanks so much.

FISHER: Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: Let's talk about where the U.S. space program stands with Miles O'Brien.

Miles, so great to see you. Starship and its booster are the most powerful rocket ever launched. A test flight in April of last year ended with an explosion on the way up. And the November test also ended with explosions.

Do you agree with NASA administrator Nelson, who says today's test is clearly a success?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AEROSPACE ANALYST: Well, steady progress, right, Jake? You know, you test, you might fail a little, but every time you fail, you learn a lot. So that idea, that term failure is not an option -- is not act here. The approach that SpaceX has taken over the years and this today after you, it's 22nd anniversary, is test a lot, fail a lot, learn a lot, and that's what were seeing here.

And it got to orbital speeds. It didn't quite meet the full mission profile. They would have liked to have seen it splashdown in the ocean intact. But there were a lot of things that they learned and presumably that next slide and they got four more of these waiting to fly already. That next one we might get a little further.

TAPPER: Today's re-entry pictures were just spectacular. Tell us more. Let's put them up there and tell us more about what were seeing.

O'BRIEN: That's plasma, Jake. And a little bit of physics for you. As an aircraft comes in, it compresses molecules and it turns those molecules, they compress them so much that the electrons become breed, which is essentially electricity. So those are electrified molecules that you are seeing there.

And that plasma is something we know about often causes radio blackouts between spacecraft and the Earth, but in the case of Starlink, apparently not. And so, we got a chance to see it like we've never seen it before.

TAPPER: The spacecraft apparently broke up during re-entry, but SpaceX has successfully landed the Starship before we were pictures from an earlier test. And that's important because starship won't be using runways to land like the space shuttle did, and might even land on the moon?

O'BRIEN: Yeah, it's a key part of the moon mission, Artemis 3, which is now scheduled for late 2026, but don't put too much money on that right now. The idea is to land at the astronauts on a modified version of Starship. And you've got to have powered descent all the way down. And that's an important thing to learn.

They haven't done it from the tremendous speeds and altitudes which they attained today. But that's forward work. There is plans right now for a crewed mission this summer all right, all civilian crew led by the person who founded Shift4 Payments, Jared Isaacman, and some engineers from the SpaceX team.

So it could be pretty soon before people are on board that rocket.

TAPPER: When do you think we're going to actually see American astronauts on the moon again? O'BRIEN: Well, as they say, September 26 is official, but this particular piece of the puzzle, the Starship might be the one that could delay things a little bit. It's going to take a lot of work to get to the point from what you saw today to the point where we have a modified version that is capable of landing. NASA astronauts safely on the moon, but its not a good idea to bet against Elon Musk in the space business. He has a way of delivering on promises and he's got plans, he says, to fly six more of these Starships just this year.

So maybe just maybe the tall pole and a tent, or the big delay item might be NASA budgets, which is another issue we can talk about.


TAPPER: All right. Miles O'Brien, thanks so much. Appreciate it.

CNN's KFILE is out with some incredible new reporting today about a candidate who hopes to run North Carolina's public schools. KFILE unearthed some posts from her linked to QAnon and some truly chilling comments. That's ahead on this hour.


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

This hour, brand new CNN reporting about the woman Republicans nominated to run public schools for the entire great state of North Carolina.

CNN's KFILE unearthed a streak of social media posts linked to QAnon calling for the murder of Democrats and even suggesting thousands of Chinese troops were preparing to invade America to rig the election. Why wouldn't you want her in charge of educating the state's youth?