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Don Lemon Tonight

January 6 Select Committee Subpoenas Five House Republicans; Intense Fighting In Azovstal Steel Plant; CNN Investigates Deadly Civilian Bombings In Kharkiv; 900 Homes Evacuated In Orange County Wildfire; Living Through China's COVID-19 Lockdowns. Aired 11p-12a ET

Aired May 12, 2022 - 23:00   ET




DON LEMON, CNN HOST: This is DON LEMON TONIGHT. Republicans subpoenaed. The January 6 Committee issuing subpoenas to House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy and four other Republican lawmakers.

Russian setbacks. A naval support ship on fire in the Black Sea, and Russia is angry that its neighbor, Finland, is moving to join NATO.

Plus, under COVID lockdown for two months in Shanghai. CNN's David Culver finally able to leave.


DAVID CULVER, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: A few people you see out and about, most of them are head to toe in hazmat suits. As you look on the streets, the ropes are still blocking off a lot of the sidewalks, stores basically all closed.


LEMON: He joins me ahead with his personal story of living under China's COVID lockdown.

But I want to get right to CNN's John Avlon, CNN's senior political analyst, Charlie Dent, CNN's political commentator and former Republican congressman. Alice Stewart is here as well, CNN political commentator and Republican strategist. I'm happy to have all of you on. Good evening to you.

So, John, let's start with the new stuff, the stuff that's breaking. Hi, everyone. So, listen, the FBI issuing -- investigators issuing, I should say, a subpoena to the National Archives to access classified documents that Trump took to Mar-a-Lago. Are we going to find out what he took to Mar-a-Lago and what does this mean for the former president, you think?

JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, we will find out what he took to Mar-a-Lago. We might find out the context in which he took it. Was it just sort of Trump cluelessness, grabbing everything that he could on his way out the door, or was there classified information that hadn't been declassified?

There's also a statute having to do with these documents which might end up being material. There is a law on the books that says if you steal, spindle, mutilate official documents, that there are punishments that go with that.

And not necessarily jail time, although some folks have gotten jail time. Usually, they try to sell documents that belong to the people, because these are the people's documents. But in some cases, not being eligible to serve in government again. That is a long ball.

People should be aware it exists, but not put too much -- too many eggs in that particular basket. But this is a serious deal if it's something beyond mere cluelessness. Depending on the secrecy of those documents, they belong to the people.

LEMON: Uh-hmm. Charlie, there is more big news today. Those subpoenas by the January 6 Committee for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy along with Congressman Scott Perry, Jim Jordan, Andy Biggs, and Mo Brooks. I mean, this is an unprecedented move. Give me your reaction to the committee subpoenaing its own colleagues.

CHARLIE DENT, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR, FORMER PENNSYLVANIA REPRESENTATIVE: Well, as a former chair of the House Ethics Committee, we actually did authorize the issuance of some subpoenas to members at various times. It was always for documents. I don't think we actually ever issued the subpoenas, but we authorized them.

Senator Bob Packwood, he was subpoenaed, I think, also for documents. He went to court and Packwood lost. What's unusual about this is that members are being asked to provide testimony under a subpoena. And so, I suspect these members will not comply. And then if the House flips, I suspect they'll return the favor and they will issue subpoenas to their favorite targets, maybe Adam Schiff or someone like that.

So -- but this is -- I think it's bad for Congress at the end of the day because, you know, if these subpoenas are defied by the members, you know, it just weakens Congress. So, I think that's really what's happening here.

LEMON: He didn't say it, but I could hear it, John.


AVLON: Yeah, I'm going to go with that (ph). Look, I think this is not a process story. Yes, they may try to run out the clock. Yes, it's bad for the institution. They'll probably refuse it. But that's not the real deal. You know what's bad for the institution? Members of Congress trying to coordinate with a sitting president to overturn an election.

And the reason they're resisting testifying is they have something to hide apparently. They can't handle the truth. And it's important to get the information, knowing what we know about Scott Perry, knowing what we know about some of these other folks who were working. We got the text messages in some case. We know they were working with the Trump White House to try to overturn an election. All that information has got to come out, and they should testify.

LEMON: Alice, I want to bring you in. Look, this investigation --

DENT: I agree.

LEMON: Wait a moment. Hold on, Alice.

DENT: I just said I agree. I agree with that.

LEMON: All right.

AVLON: Thanks, Charles.

DENT: I agree they should testify.

LEMON: But will they -- I don't think -- Alice, will they?



LEMON: Good night, everybody. They're not going to do it, right?

STEWART: Have a good night. No. We're not going to get any additional information out of them than we already have. There's the off chance that they will provide documents that have been subpoenaed and some extemporaneous information.


But as far as any of them testifying under oath, that's not going to happen. And potentially, they could be found in contempt of court. And John is right. They're probably going to try to run out the clock and have this stretch as long as they possibly can in hopes of, by the time this does come to fruition, Republicans will be in control.

Look, I'm talking with Republican members of Congress now. They say if this does get to that point and there have been no findings out of this committee and Republicans take control, they may dismantle the January 6 Committee or they could repopulate it with some of their own and begin their own investigation. And what they would look at would be Nancy Pelosi's security procedures at the Capitol that day as well as the Capitol police.

So, there are far-reaching consequences of this one way or the other. But the reality is -- I think we can all agree on this -- I truly believe at least in terms of Republican voters and many independents, they're not looking back with regard to that when they're going to the polls. They're looking to the future.

And while getting an answer to January 6th would be ideal, most voters out there that I talk to and Republican members of Congress, they're not concerned as much with that as they are, as we all know, the pressing issues of economy and jobs and now the big issue being pro- life and the abortion issue. LEMON: In your multiple choices that you offer there, I'm going to

say it is "B," repopulation and changing of the narrative to investigate Nancy Pelosi and the Capitol police. That's what will happen if the clock does run out here.

So, Alice, heading into the midterms --

DENT: Right.

LEMON: Charlie, you agree with me, right?

DENT: Yeah, I do.

LEMON: Charlie is just, like, I agree. Charlie is the perfect guest. Look, he doesn't go on for a long time. He is, like, I agree, you're right, next question.

DENT: There needs to be accountability for what happened on January 6.

LEMON: Right.

DENT: Members should come in voluntarily to answer questions. That's my preference.

LEMON: Of course, we all know that, but the reality is, as you said, you don't think that -- everyone on this panel has agreed that they don't think the chances of them testifying are slim and between slim and none. And Alice said either they will get to dismantle the January 6 Committee or they're repopulate it. I think repopulating is the answer.

So, Alice, heading into the midterms, we have seen a much sharper tone from President Biden toward former President Trump and the Republican Party. Take a listen to this.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Under my predecessor, the great MAGA king, the deficit increased every single year he was president.

I never expected the ultra MAGA Republicans, who seem to control the Republican Party now, to have been able to control the Republican Party.

This MAGA crowd is really the most extreme political organization that existed in American history, in recent American history.


LEMON: Look, Alice, you've actually got some in the GOP embracing these comments. Will the attacks have the impact that Biden thinks they will?

STEWART: I don't think so. If that's his version of calling us deplorables, it's not going to work. It just kind of goes to show what a nice guy President Biden is.

Look, that kind of thing is not going to frustrate Republicans. Quiet frankly, I don't see it impacting independents and undecided voters. Certainly, the Democrats are going to jump on board with that, but, you know, independents and Republicans are not concerned about being ultra MAGA. They are concerned with the ultrahigh inflation, ultrahigh crime, ultrahigh prices, ultrahigh gas prices, and that's the --

LEMON: You got to let John in before he jumps out of his seat here.

AVLON: I hear what you're saying and the new Monmouth polling shows, you know, whether this will be about the inflation or abortion, those are the key issues. But I got to say independent voters in particular, this election does have a lot to do with democracy. And the fact that one political party is by and large backed the big lie, some will say it out loud, some will say, you know what, let's just not address it.

You know, this is very much about democracy because that's what was threatened in the last election. And one party -- a large number of it, including younger members, when they call themselves ultra MAGA, that's what they're backing. That's not appealing to independent voters, Alice.

LEMON: I had to cut you off, Alice, because he is -- I mean, he was like ah, ah. I said, wait a minute, don't leave off of the set here. Look, my point was -- Alice, you didn't really talk about this, but to call him the great MAGA king -- I mean, Trump wants nothing more than to be a king. And, of course, he's like, yes, of course, I'm the king of the MAGA movement. So, I don't know how insulting that's going to be to him. Charlie, go ahead. What do you want to say?

DENT: I'm just going to say, look, if you look at -- just look at Pennsylvania right now. You have a gubernatorial race and a Senate race. And most of the Republican candidates are running as, you know, Trumpian campaigns.


But the two leaders, this Kathy Barnette for the Senate, she's on the cusp of breaking through, and Doug Mastriano running for governor, they are ultra MAGA.

I mean, these guys are so far out on the limb. The other candidates, even Fox News is attacking Barnette. They're out there attacking. So, what I'm saying is that there are some very fringe elements. I don't know if ultra MAGA is the right word or term. But they're problematic, and they're ascending in the Pennsylvania primary now, setting up a situation where we could have -- you know, we could have two completely unelectable candidates in a year where Republicans should probably win those two races. They could blow it.

STEWART: Charlie is right. That's a big fear in the Pennsylvania race, in that Senate race he's talking about. Charlie knows Pennsylvania. He has won 13 out of 13 races. He understands how it works. But Barnette has benefited from the roller derby of that U.S. Senate race there. We've had Oz and McCormick really going after each other for months. And Barnette just kind of coasted around on the outside and she is right there --

LEMON: Alice, you think people are sick of the fighting between those two?

STEWART: Yeah, they are. But in the next three days, they're going to see a lot of people fighting against Barnette because she is posing to be quite a threat. So, we will see how the next few days pan out in Pennsylvania.

I happen to think people in Pennsylvania are more conservative and would support someone like McCormick, who supports Trump but is not as in the Trump trenches as Oz currently is. But, you know, it's down to the wire. Right now, we have a statistical dead heat between the three of them. This will be a great race to watch.

AVLON: Yeah, I mean, what Alice just conceded, though, there is such a thing that's too extreme. It's a problem for the Republican Party.

LEMON: Really?

AVLON: Yeah. You just heard it right there. If the Republican Party nominates the most extreme folks, they're going to have a real problem in the general election, which speaks to the problem with folks --


AVLON: -- who are ultra MAGA, who are backing the big lie in one shape or form. They're not going to win the moderates. They're not going to win the independents. That is the political reality. That's what Republicans are dealing with right now in these relatively low turnout, high stakes primaries.

LEMON: Can someone answer a question for me? What happened to Dr. Oz?


AVLON: How much time have you got?

LEMON: Politically, he can be as right as he -- if he is a conservative, then that's fine. But to embrace the big lie, someone who is a doctor, you know, who had at times a respectable show, in the beginning was -- of course, Oprah Winfrey brought him into prominence. You know, Oprah. Oprah operates from light. Now you have this person operating from darkness. What happened to Dr. Oz?

AVLON: He's trying to win a Republican primary. Alice, go ahead.

STEWART: Sorry to bump in. Look, like it or not, Donald Trump is the titular head of the Republican Party in many places. Currently in Pennsylvania, he has 70% approval rating in the Republican primary voters. So, with Oz's long-term vision of becoming a U.S. senator and probably -- and dreams of being president someday by sleeping -- I guess he slept on a My Pillow a little bit too long -- look, clearly, he realized the path to victory in his mind was to be all in on Trump. He got the Trump endorsement, and he thinks that's the winning ticket.

But I happen to think we need to make sure and have a more moderate candidate to win the primary in order to win the general.

LEMON: Charlie, I don't know if there's a quick answer for this. Why are people -- why isn't he having as much success in Pennsylvania as one would think? I mean he's gone full MAGA. Is it because he's a carpetbagger? But a lot of people are carpetbaggers.

AVLON: Yeah.

DENT: Look, I think the challenge for Oz and McCormick to a certain extent is a lot of Pennsylvanians don't think they're particularly authentic. Oz, look, he's got his TV persona, which is very different than he is as a candidate. McCormick, he was a Bush guy, a successful biography and career, and a lot of people really don't believe he's a real MAGA guy either.

LEMON: Yeah.

DENT: So, there's an authenticity issue for both of them unlike Kathy Barnette, who is seen as authentic. Authentically way out there, but they say her as authentic. And the real authentic guy is Jeff Bartos, who is the most normal of them all, and he's not getting traction right now.

LEMON: That's the one word that you hear about Kathy Barnette, authentic, authentic, authentic. Thank you. Fascinating conversation. Come back. Come back now, you hear? You all come back, you hear? Who knows what that is? Come on, it's "The Beverly Hillbillies."

AVLON: Hillbillies. Come on now.

LEMON: All right. Thank you, guys. I'll see you soon.

New video tonight of what the fighting was like inside the steel plant in Mariupol. We're going to break down what it tells us about the fight. That's next.



LEMON: The Ukrainian military says a Russian support ship is on fire in the Black Sea. Here's a map of it. They claim that the ship is currently being towed near the now infamous Snake Island. Now, that as new video obtained tonight by CNN shows close fighting in the Azovstal steel plant.

Let's get right to CNN military analyst and retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton, the star of the show, Colonel, because you've been giving us -- I've been singing your praises everywhere because I really love the information that we've been getting from you. So, thank you and good evening.


LEMON: So, CNN has just obtained this video from the Azov regiment showing the Ukrainian defense on the Azovstal steel plant.


We can assume that the video isn't recent since Russian forces have largely pulled out from that area. But what are you seeing when you look at this fight?

LEIGHTON: Don, talk about close combat. This is one of the most impressive, real combat pieces of video that I've seen in a long time. What you're looking at here is an industrial site. You see this right here? That's a (INAUDIBLE) or grenade launcher that is being used directly against enemy combatants, which are right over to the edge right there. They were kind of in this smoky area right there.

And you see the remnants of some of the rockets that have hit. It is, you know, clearly a scene of complete devastation. There's a manhole cover, what looks like a manhole cover there, where they probably go down into the tunnels down below the Azovstal plant.

So, there is -- you know, this is one of those areas where a lot of fighting has happened. You know, it's clearly all destroyed. In one of the scenes that's coming up here I think in a little bit, you see the soldiers firing right there. You're going to see some really close combat or at least the closeness of, you know, some of the firing that goes on there.

So, this shows you the danger of what is actually happening here. It is something where it's a matter of inches. It kind of reminds you of Stalingrad in World War II. There it is right there. This is the kind of, you know, close quarters where they're firing out there. Then you see a grenade go in and the bang right there. Those are the kinds of things that this was all about. It's a very dangerous place, a very lethal area of combat.

LEMON: Colonel, Ukraine saying today a Russian naval support ship is on fire in the Black Sea. They aren't saying what the cause is, but after the sinking of the Moskva, how is the Russian navy holding up?

LEIGHTON: They've got some problems, Don. There are somewhere around 20 Russian surface combatants and subsurface combatants right in this area. Snake Island, of course, is marked right here, right at the southwestern edge of Ukraine. The ship that is on fire is being towed here to Sevastopol, which is the main Russian naval base.

But ever since they lost their flagship, the Moskva, that you mentioned, they've had some significant command and control issues. They've had some significant areas where they've really lacked the ability to deploy their naval forces and they haven't been as effective as they could be. But they're still firing missiles, so they're still dangerous for the Ukrainians.

LEMON: Colonel, thank you so much. We'll see you tomorrow. Thank you.

The U.S. and the international community have accused Russia of war crimes in Ukraine. Next, what a two-month-long CNN investigation reveals.




LEMON: The world is watching horror as Russian artillery has devastated Ukrainian cities and Ukrainian lives seemingly with impunity. The U.S. and the international community have accused Russia of war crimes in Ukraine. But what has been difficult is tying specific generals to specific crimes, the key to actually carrying out war crimes prosecutions.

In Kharkiv, CNN has seen the aftermath of attacks targeting civilians using indiscriminate cluster munitions. A war crime.

In a two-month long investigation, CNN can reveal the commander responsible for these attacks, and the string of atrocities he has committed not just in Russia's latest war in Ukraine but also in the 2014 war in Donbas and in Syria.

CNN's international investigative correspondent Nima Elbagir has the exclusive report. And warning, you might find some of the images in her report disturbing.


NIMA ELBAGIR, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A devastation of civilian homes and lives. Throughout the last two months, we have witnessed atrocities in Ukraine.

(On camera): More mortar strikes very, very close. They want us to start moving.

(Voice-over): While we know these are Russian actions, it's been difficult to draw a direct line from individual atrocities to a specific Russian commander -- until now.

CNN can exclusively reveal that this man, Colonel General Alexander Zhuravlyov, commander of the Western Military District, is the commander responsible for this.

Munitions targeting civilians in the city of Kharkiv, East Ukraine -- a war crime under international law.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You can see more artillery rockets apparently be firing from Russian territory towards the territory, I would say, around Kharkiv. I don't know if you can hear this right now.

ELBAGIR (voice-over): This is the start of the war. CNN's senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen witnessed artillery being fired from inside Russia within Zhuravlyov's district toward the city of Kharkiv. Sam Kiley was in Kharkiv and could hear the shelling moments later.

SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Could feel the concussion against the glass.

ELBAGIR (voice-over): We soon learned from experts these were smart rockets. This is what they're capable of delivering.

Cluster bombs, one smart rocket releasing many smaller explosives, scattering bombs, amplifying the devastation. These attacks captured on social media both in Kharkiv and both from the same day are a clear example of their indiscriminate nature. When used in this fashion against civilians, it's considered a war crime.


The use of smart rockets is key in our findings of who is responsible because they are unique to one unit here, one commander. After months of forensic work, we can reveal the trail of evidence leading to Zhuravlyov.

Using social media videos to guide us, we returned to some of the scenes of the attacks, focusing on February 27th, when three civilian targets were hit and eight more on February 28th. We start in Pavlovo (ph) neighborhood of Kharkiv.

This is shrapnel from those missiles that fell on our neighborhood, Lilia (ph) tells us. This shrapnel was found in one of the rooms.

Lilia (ph) takes us to see a smart rocket that fell 200 yards from her apartment block in this once affluent area.

I remember the whistling sounds of the missiles. I know that the missiles were flying and that they were accompanied by fighter planes or drones.

(On camera): You can see the hole that it came through. You can see the way that the rocket buckled when it hit the car. You can also very clearly see that this is a Smerch.

(Voice-over): It's not the only rocket coming from this direction on this day. Less than a half mile down the road, another hit.

(On camera): Helping to situate us, this kiosk, that water cooler, they're key landmarks. The bodies landed here, down this road. Those blue doors you see, that's where the cluster munition shrapnel embedded.

(Voice-over): This video filmed moments after the attack where four people, including a child, were killed. Another Smerch launching cluster bombs. We know this because one of the unexploded bombs was found only 280 yards away. Notice the date, 2019. Russia stopped selling arms to Ukraine in 2014. This confirms this is a Russian cluster bomb.

One and a half miles away, another strike, more suffering and no sign of any legitimate military targets.

People were queueing for food, and then something just hit. People started running here, she says.

This is the exact moment of impact. Look at it again. Frame by frame, you can see the scale of the rocket and proximity to innocent civilians.

We are here in Kharkiv. Notice the five hits along this line from the 28th. They're pretty much in a line, apart from three here, which line up with the hits from February 27th. We can trace these lines 24 miles to a point of convergence here, across the border in Russia, well within the range of a Smerch rocket, where we have a satellite image from the 27th showing the launching position.

Notice the plume of smoke and the telltale burn marks of a Smerch launch. Here, here, and here. In collaboration with the Center for Information Resilience, we can also tell you who is firing from this position. The 79th Russian Artillery Brigade, part of the Western Military District which borders Ukraine and is under the command of Zhuravlyov.

According to open-source information reviewed by CNN, (INAUDIBLE) experts, and intelligence sources, they are the only unit in this district equipped to launch Smerch rockets, and only the commander has the authority to order the 79th Artillery Brigade to launch the rockets.

One expert told CNN, Smerch is a district-level asset. There are very few of them in the Russian Armed Forces and therefore they are dedicated to special missions at the order of a military district commander.

Colonel General Zhuravlyov is this commander, and he's no stranger to these brutal tactics, atrocities targeting civilians.

They're very similar to what we saw in Syria in 2016, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that Zhuravlyov also led Russian troops during the siege of Aleppo. He is the architect of the devastation you see here. For leveling Aleppo, he was awarded the highest honor granted to Russian officers. Hero of the Russian federation, yet Syrians have documented his war crimes.

(On camera): Russian?


ELBAGIR (voice-over): Despite the direct line from the impunity the world afforded Russia in Syria to the atrocities suffered by civilians here today, the question remains, what will the world do to stop this cycle?

Nima Elbagir, CNN, Kharkiv. (END VIDEOTAPE)

LEMON: We've asked the Russian ministry of defense for comment as well as the Kremlin, but we have yet to receive a response.


CNN shared our findings with the State Department, noting the lack of action taken against Colonel General Zhuravlyov and other Russian generals.

They would not comment on these specific acts or any other information reviewed, but said that they continue to track and access war crimes and reports of ongoing violence and human rights abuses.

We will continue to update you on the story.

Hundreds of homes evacuated in the Orange County, California wildfire. CNN is there. That's next.




LEMON: A blazing wildfire ripping through a California community. Hundreds of homes evacuated, dozens already destroyed as firefighters fight the fast-moving brush fire. CNN's Nick Watt has more.


NICK WATT, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Multimillion- dollar mansions eaten up by fast-moving flames. This is one of California's most affluent neighborhoods.

UNKNOWN: I feel like it's the end of the world, honestly, and I just hope we can all get through this.

WATT (voice-over): Hundreds of homes as well as a luxury golf resort evacuated. Firefighters dousing homes in the hope of saving them. Some using water pulled from the country club pond. Two firefighters injured.

TJ MCGOVERN, ASSISTANT CHIEF OF FIELD OPERATIONS, ORANGE COUNTY FIRE AUTHORITY: We have a fresh group going out today. They're going to be out there for 24 hours.

WATT (voice-over): This is no back country fire. This is near the beach in densely-populated Orange County, just south of L.A. Damage assessment already underway in the ashes.

(On camera): Basically, this is what happened. The winds whipped in from the Pacific across that golf course and then pushed these flames through the canyon, up the hillside, threatening these ocean view ridgetop mansions right here, destroying some of them, including this, a $10 million home.

(Voice-over): Winds are gusty, pushing the flames, but the winds aren't terrible or unusual. It's the acres of bone-dry brush that's the major problem.

BRIAN FENNESSY, CHIEF, ORANGE COUNTY FIRE AUTHORITY: With the climate change, the fuel beds in this county, throughout Southern California, throughout the west, are so dry that fire like this is going to be more commonplace.

WATT (voice-over): The fast-moving fire seared through that dry brush, ballooned to roughly 200 football fields in just a few terrifying hours. January, just 1% of this state was in extreme drought. Today, it's 60%. The January-April 2022 period was the driest on record for California, so says the U.S. drought monitor.

MCGOVERN: This fire is not controlled or contained yet. We still have a lot of work to do. It's very steep terrain out there. We're going to get a little more heat, nothing significant. We are going to get those west winds again.

WATT (voice-over): This fire broke out yesterday afternoon. The cause, the spark as yet unknown.

Nick Watt, CNN, Laguna Niguel, California.


LEMON: Nick Watt, thanks so much.

CNN's David Culver out of lockdown in China and back in the states for the first time since 2019. You won't want to miss this. That's next.




LEMON: The U.S. today mourning one million Americans dead from COVID. These are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, neighbors, friends. One million people gone. And now, cases are trending up in almost every single state. But it doesn't seem like officials are looking to bring restrictions back.

It is the exact opposite in Shanghai where people have been essentially forbidden to leave their homes for nearly two months because of this virus.

CNN's David Culver has been stuck in these strict lockdowns but was finally able to leave this week. I'm going to talk to him in just a moment. But first, here's his story.


CULVER (voice-over): Leaving Shanghai today is a one-time, one-way journey. I've not had this much freedom in 50 days.

(On camera): And here we go, off to the airport.

(Voice-over): Heading out for the first time since mid-March, it all feels so strange.

(On camera): A few people you see out and about, most of them are head to toe in hazmat suits. As you look on the streets, the ropes are still blocking off a lot of the sidewalks, stores basically all closed.

(Voice-over): With a government-permitted driver, we pass through checkpoints, our documents thoroughly inspected, including a letter from the American Embassy. Many ex-pats like me needing diplomatic letters just to leave our apartments.

Once vibrant and rich with energy, Shanghai was forced into an induced coma. The rolling lockdowns began in mid-March. But by April, this city of more than 25 million people was under strict, harsh lockdown. Most of us sealed inside our homes. Community COVID test after test after test. And in between, at-home COVID tests.

(On camera): I've done quite a few of these.

(Voice-over): Early into the lockdown, I packed a go-bag for me and for my dog. If I tested positive, I'd likely end up in a government isolation center like this, or worse, like this. Most of us would prefer just to recover in the privacy of our home. But in China's zero-COVID world, that is not an option.

Shocking scenes of people shouting "we are starving, we are starving." Heartbreaking stories of people being rejected medical care. Some of them later dying, all because hospital workers feared breaking unforgiving zero-COVID.

Witnessing Shanghai's handling or mishandling reminded me of Wuhan. On January 21st, 2020, we traveled into the then-epicenter of what was a mystery illness.

(On camera): It's the wildlife and seafood market.


CULVER (Voice-over): Still fresh in our minds, the perseverance of those in Wuhan who lived through the original lockdown. Some losing loved ones to COVID early on.

(On camera): Just give him a second.

(Voice-over): They risked their freedom to share with us their painful stories, furious with their government for not doing more to stop the initial spread.

Chinese officials maintained they were transparent from the start. And in recent days, President Xi Jinping has reaffirmed and praised his country's zero-COVID efforts, vowing to fight any doubters and critics.

Over the past two years, we lived through China's military-like mobilization: Rapidly building hospitals, mastering mass testing of tens of millions at one time, designing a sophisticated contact tracing system, essentially sealing off their borders to the outside world.

Wanting to keep on the story, I've not left China since 2019, making this departure a long overdue homecoming visit.

Shanghai's Pudong International Airport, once among the busiest in the world, is now a lonely experience. On the departure's board, only two international flights to leave on this day. On the floor, sleeping bags and trash where stranded travelers have camped out. They wait here for days or weeks for a flight out.

Outside on the tarmac, strict COVID protocols and sanitation in place. Ground crews spraying each other with disinfectant. Boarding the near empty plane, it finally starts to feel real.

(On camera): About to takeoff.

(Voice-over): The disorder, despair, the chaos, the anger, the exhaustion, all of it feels so distant now. With a sigh of relief and a bit of survivor's guilt, leaving behind a country amidst almost unprecedented changes, I wonder if China's tightening zero-COVID restrictions coupled with rising tensions with the west will keep its shuttered doors from ever reopening.


LEMON: CNN's David Culver is here in New York, and he joins me now. David, thank you. Good to see you.

CULVER: Good to be back.

LEMON: (INAUDIBLE) shook someone's hand --

CULVER: It's been a while, states either. Sure, yes, it's 2019.

LEMON: It's good to see you. So, it is alarming to see the extent that China is willing to go to stop the spread of COVID. Is there any indication that President Xi is going to back away from this zero- COVID approach?

CULVER: Here is what is so frustrating. Any indication of a timetable, right, that there's perhaps an exit from this, it falls short. And there's this credibility deficit now between the people and the officials and certainly the state media and the propaganda they're pushing out.

President Xi has doubled down even in recent days, telling his own standing committee, the top leaders and rulers of that country, that they will continue to implement zero-COVID. And so, as soon as he says that, you then have local officials who are starting to study exactly what he says and keep it in place.

LEMON: So, David, at least 32 cities are under full or partial lockdown in China. Cases are rising in Beijing. We have seen the anger in the video, you've seen this anger up close. People are banging on pots and pans from their balconies in Shanghai. Could this outrage end up getting too uncomfortable for the Chinese government?

CULVER: That's what you wonder, right? I mean, you see scenes like this which normally in China are very rare. You don't see a lot of folks vocalizing their anger, their frustration, their fatigue. And yet here they are, you hear the banging of pots, something that for many is reminiscent of 1989 in Tiananmen Square and the massacre that played out there.

So, you wonder, is it going to rise up to a point where there's going to be so much social unrest, that there will perhaps be some sort of governmental change or regime change. As of now, there's no indication of that.

Why? Because they're able to allow these venting of frustrations to kind of go out for a moment and then they come down hard on it. And so, then it will be on social media, it will be in person. There are windows that they can freely express themselves, but then it's clamping down. It doesn't really seem to be clear how long that's going to sustain, though.

LEMON: The dilemma here, what people are grappling with the conversation is, how do you stop COVID, right?

CULVER: Right.

LEMON: You restrict COVID without all of the restrictions like what's happening in China. Do you think -- has that changed your idea, perception of the debate here in the U.S.?

CULVER: So, it is interesting. If you look at how China initially handled this -- and as I pointed out, I haven't left China since 2019, so I was there for the initial outbreak -- we saw this military-like mobilization. You see all the extreme measures they put in place. And they were effective. But they were effective for those early variants, it seemed.

When it comes to Omicron, this has been a game-changer for China. We saw that certainly around the Beijing Olympics. And now, it's clear that they don't really know how to stop it altogether. So, you see the extreme measures being put in place in places like Shanghai.

As far as what's effective there, it's tough for me to say. I can tell you what's not working, and it's the lockdowns. And part of that is, Don, I was locked down in my neighborhood for 50 days.


CULVER: You start to wonder, how are people still in my community testing positive after three weeks, after four weeks, after five weeks? Turns out, there was some concern that the mandatory community testing that we had to go to and then the government distributions that we gathered together to receive, those were perhaps spreader events.

LEMON: Spreader events, right.

CULVER: And so, where do you go from there? And I think they're at a loss for that, too, but it has become political, and it's this ideologically-driven mode of now from the top, from President Xi Jinping, that will keep it in this direction.

LEMON: Before I let you go -- how does it feel to be home?

CULVER: It feels weird. It feels really strange, honestly. I mean, I'm still processing it. I lack words. But feels ultimately good. I'm grateful.

LEMON: I'm glad you're here safe and healthy. Thank you, David Culver. Great work there.

CULVERA: Thanks, Don. I appreciate it.

LEMON: I appreciate it. And thanks for watching, everyone. Our coverage continues.