Return to Transcripts main page

CNN Newsroom

Russia Targets Donetsk; Interview With Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer; U.S. Secretary of State Holds Meetings on NATO Expansion; High Drama in Primaries. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired May 18, 2022 - 14:00   ET



VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: Hi. I'm Victor Blackwell. Welcome to CNN NEWSROOM. Alisyn is off.

That high-stakes Pennsylvania primary race still too close to call. Trump-endorsed Dr. Mehmet Oz and former hedge fund manager Dave McCormick, they're locked, just a few thousand votes part here. The race is well within the margins for an automatic recount.


LEIGH CHAPMAN, ACTING PENNSYLVANIA SECRETARY OF STATE: There's still quite a few among ballots that are left to be counted in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

We will have unofficial returns completed within the next few days, and every county will be reporting their unofficial returns by next Tuesday. So we will have a sense very soon as far as how many mail-in ballots are left to be counted.


BLACKWELL: The outcome in Pennsylvania sets up a consequential race for November. Now, that could ultimately determine who controls the Senate.

Tuesday was the biggest day so far of the 2022 primary season. It was expected to be a referendum on whether former President Trump has any staying power, but the results have been a mixed bag.

In the Pennsylvania governor's race, state Senator Doug Mastriano won. Trump endorsed him at the last minute. In North Carolina, though, Trump endorsed the incumbent in the 11th Congressional District. There will be, though, no second term for Madison Cawthorn.

CNN political director David Chalian is with me now.

So, David, let's start with the Pennsylvania GOP Senate primary. Where are these outstanding votes for Republicans?


First of all, just look at this margin here, right? We're talking about 2,400 votes that Mehmet Oz is ahead of Dave McCormick, and that's with 96 percent of the estimated vote in. You said ,where are we waiting for more votes to come? Take a look here.

I can bring this down to show where in the commonwealth we see some pockets of remaining votes. Now, this is showing where 90 percent reporting or less. I think one interesting county to keep your eye on is Lancaster County, because we know that there was an issue, and they had to sort of remark some of the ballots because the coding didn't allow the scanning to happen properly.

This is an error they caught yesterday when they opened up the ballots to start processing them, Victor. Kathy Barnette is winning this county. But take a look how close it is between McCormick and Oz. So the outstanding vote here, the fact that we have got, I don't know, 87 percent of the vote in, so there's still a chunk of vote in Lancaster that remains to be counted.

And that could help perhaps determine the end here. I would just note overall, as we go back to the full reporting, so you can see, that this is a 0.2 percent margin, 31.3 to 31.1. The law states that any margin less than 0.5 percent, Victor, is going to trigger an automatic recount.

So we may not have final resolution to this critical Senate Republican primary for days to come yet.

BLACKWELL: All right, good to know.

Then talk to us about the Democrats in this race.

CHALIAN: Well, take a look at this map, 100 percent John Fetterman, meaning he won every single of the 67 counties in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania with a whopping 59 percent, just destroying the competition there of Conor Lamb and Malcolm Kenyatta.

Of course, he had this victory last night from his hospital bed. He had had a pacemaker, defibrillator put in to his chest, Victor, and he is hoping for a full recovery. His campaign has indicated that's coming. But he obviously is now going to have to pivot to the general election in a very competitive environment in a big battleground state.

BLACKWELL: All right, let's move to North Carolina now, closely watched for the Trump endorsements there in the primaries. What happened?

CHALIAN: Well, let's first take a look at that Senate Republican primary there.

Ted Budd had a huge victory, OK? He's a congressman. He got 58.6 percent of the vote, compared to Pat McCrory, the former governor of North Carolina, Victor, 24.6 percent. Ted Budd had Donald Trump's backing. He also had the backing of the influential outside group the Club for Growth, spending on behalf of conservatives.

So, there, that outside spending and Trump's endorsement matched up, and that helped Ted Budd.

You, of course, had noted in the House races, out here in the Asheville area, this is where Madison Cawthorn fell short. He did have the Trump endorsement, but he conceded last night to Chuck Edwards. The entire Republican establishment basically was eager to see Cawthorn lose his race last night.

BLACKWELL: All right, David Chalian, stay with us.

And let's bring into the conversation Abby Phillip, anchor of "INSIDE POLITICS SUNDAY," and CNN political analyst Margaret Talev, managing editor of Axios.


Welcome, ladies, to the conversation.

Abby, let me start with you.

Is there a clear narrative from last night of the strength of a Trump endorsement?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I think the narrative -- and maybe you have to combine last night and some of the other primaries that we had in the prior week.

The combination of those races just indicates that the Trump endorsement is not necessarily going to be the cure-all for damaged or problematic candidates. However, you name me a candidate who has won a primary in this Republican field that is not a Trump candidate.

Virtually everybody who is out there, they are all running as Trump candidates. So, even when he endorses or when he does not endorse, they are running on his legacy. They are running on his name. And in the places where he does endorse, it can help people, candidates like Oz and like J.D. Vance, for example, break through in a crowded field.

But, if you're Madison Cawthorn, you have a lot bigger problems than Trump can solve. And I think that's what we saw in North Carolina.

BLACKWELL: Yes, Margaret, is there some lesson from the Madison Cawthorn race here for that wing of the Republican Party? Or was this loss unique to Cawthorn and his challenges?

MARGARET TALEV, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think it was quite unique.

And I agree with Abby. I think, look, every state is different and every candidate is different. But, all in all, you're seeing an accumulation of people at least winning nominating contests who have been Trumped-backed or embraced the mantra of Trump's policies and stances, who in many cases wanted to overturn Joe Biden's election win, who have perpetuated the lie that there was mass fraud or that Donald Trump actually won.

And so you're setting up a situation here where you're -- either Democrats in some cases may think that benefits them, may think it makes it easier for them to win statewide races. In other cases, where both Democrats and the -- what's left of the Republican political establishment are very concerned that these candidates could win and then lead governor's mansion or join the U.S. Senate.

And I think it really raises the stakes for the contest we're going to see a week from now in Georgia. It could have implications potentially for the Senate primary, but the governor's primary and the secretary of state's primary on the GOP side are really much clearer litmus tests of these questions that we're talking about.

BLACKWELL: Yes, David, let's talk about Georgia. That's up next, the next big, I don't want to say fight, competition between the Trump- endorsed and the Trump, I guess, opponent in Brian Kemp there.

Is there some carryover, some residual impact of Pennsylvania, North Carolina, I would even throw Ohio in there, on what we're going to watch next week in Georgia?

CHALIAN: I don't know, Victor. We will see, I think, in the days to come if that race shifts in any way.

But that race between Kemp, the Republican incumbent governor, who has been like political target number one for Donald Trump, because he wouldn't go along with Donald Trump's big lie about the election -- he went ahead and did what was the right thing to do, certify the legitimate election of Joe Biden in that state of Georgia back in 2020.

That made him political target number one. He's actually been running well ahead of David Perdue, the former Republican senator, who's running with Trump's backing. And not only that. This is also an interesting moment where much of the Republican establishment, even those that have been very aligned with Trump, like his vice president, who could not have been more aligned and attached to the hip for four years with him, are on the other side here.

They're with Kemp, Pence, Chris Christie, Doug Ducey, Pete Ricketts, the Republican Governors Association, trying to protect their incumbent. And the only reason Donald Trump is on the other side and recruited Perdue in is because he wanted to perpetuate this baseless lie about the election.


Speaking of perpetuating the basis lie about the election, Abby, let's talk about Doug Mastriano, who is now the Republican nominee for governor in Pennsylvania. The first indication we get of the general election fight is that victory speech on election night. Is he running on an economic message? CNN polls show us that that's the top issue for voters this time around.

They're not really concerned about 2020, the polls show.

PHILLIP: I mean, no, I didn't hear really anything that spoke to that, which is surprising, considering that Republicans almost unanimously agree that that is probably their strongest -- their strongest argument against Democrats, writ large.

What you heard from Mastriano is actually the kind of thing that causes Republicans to be concerned. He is running as a Christian nationalist candidate who was at the forefront of the efforts to undermine the election results in 2020.


He was in Washington January 6, organized buses to come to Washington. And his candidacy is about those conservative cultural issues, against Critical Race Theory, against vaccine mandates and coronavirus precautions.

Those were the things that he talked about last night. Last night was his opportunity to show how he was going to run in the general election. And I think he said a lot last night about what direction he was going to go in, and it's probably not toward the middle. And that's why you're seeing a lot of hand-wringing from Republicans.

And I should know that the Republican Governors Association, they put out a statement about him last night, but they did not explicitly say in that statement that they would actually be supporting him. That's pretty notable, considering how important the state of Pennsylvania is.

BLACKWELL: All right, Abby Phillip, Margaret Talev, David Chalian, thank you.

CHALIAN: Thanks.

BLACKWELL: The Ukrainian fighters who surrendered at the Mariupol steel plant are in Russian captivity as prisoners of war. We will talk about what comes next for them.

And the Department of Homeland Security is warning law enforcement of potential threats against the public and the Supreme Court tied to the abortion debate. We have details ahead.



BLACKWELL: The U.S. flag is flying once again in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. It was raised just an hour ago to mark the official resumption of operations at the U.S. Embassy.

Now let's go further east. Ukrainian officials say Russia is mounting a concerted effort to take the region of Donetsk. The bombardment is day and night. And Russian helicopters are swarming the area, trying to encircle the key town of Luhansk.

CNN national correspondent Suzanne Malveaux is in Lviv with more on the fighting.

Suzanne, so Ukrainian officials say that these Russian efforts are failing. SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Victor.

And just to call your attention to the air raid sirens behind, they had gone off earlier in the day. And we're waiting for an all-clear. This is the siren with the all-clear here. So, that means that there's nothing that they're detecting in the sky at this moment.

But, yes, you bring up a very good point. And that is that the fierce fighting is continuing in the east. So the Donetsk region is where Ukrainian forces say, day and night, they are being shelled and pummeled. But they are pushing back, also in the Luhansk region.

That is where Russians control 90 percent of the territory, and they're just escalating the air attack to try to take the other 10 percent, so Ukrainian forces saying they have seen an additional 15 attack helicopters and additional airstrikes to do that, but the Ukrainians fighting back.

You will see some video of this bridge that was blown up. These are the Ukrainian forces really trying to maintain at least control of the areas that they do have by blowing up those bridges, denying access from the Russians. They also say that they're making some progress to get to those critical supply lines that the Russians are counting on.

And so, Victor, it is very intense. It is escalating here. All eyes on the east to see whether or not the Russians move forward in trying to really circle the Ukrainian forces in three different directions. If they managed to do that, that would be bad for the Ukrainians, but, so far, a very fierce fight between these two.

BLACKWELL: Yes, central to the Russian strategy of taking the east and the south.

Ukrainian soldiers in that Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, they have surrendered. But there's a separatist leader, Suzanne, who claims that there are military commanders still inside. What can you tell us about that?

MALVEAUX: And, Victor, that would complicate things. CNN has not independently actually confirmed that.

But, if that is true, and that these are top commanders of the military, of the Ukraine military, still inside the plant, it makes the negotiation process much more complex here, whether or not they would release them and whether or not they would actually face trial in court for potential war crimes.

We have heard from not only that separatist leader, but also some Russian officials from their parliament, the Duma, who are essentially saying that these are high-level, high-value people. And they would not necessarily be released. And so the loved ones of those who are still inside, it remains a question their fate, their future.

BLACKWELL: Suzanne Malveaux for us.

And we can hear those sirens going on, as we have heard many, many times.

Suzanne Malveaux, thank you so much.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken just met with Turkey's foreign minister. That's after Finland and Sweden formally handed in their applications to join NATO. Now, Turkey's leaders have expressed concerns about admitting them to the alliance.

CNN's national security correspondent, Kylie Atwood, is with us now from the U.N.

So, what do we know about this meeting?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, the secretary of state, standing next to the Turkish foreign minister, said that the United States and its allies are going to work together when it comes to this process to admit Finland and Sweden to NATO.

But, of course, the foreign minister of Turkey once again reiterated the concerns that Turkey has surrounding the admission of these two countries into NATO. We have heard those reservations from Turkish officials over the last few weeks now.

Essentially, they believe that there are terrorist organizations that are Kurdish terrorist organizations operating in Finland and Sweden, and they want those countries to go after what they are calling these terrorist organizations. They also want there to be a lift on some of the restrictions on arms exports from those countries to Turkey.


So the secretary of state was very diplomatic standing there, saying, listen, this is something that we are going to work through together, essentially saying, we're going to work with Turkey on its concerns, so that we can get them to green-light these countries joining NATO.

And it's interesting to watch the secretary of state stand and say these words, as you have the Biden administration, President Biden coming out earlier today, and saying that the U.S. warmly welcomes the application of Finland and Sweden to NATO, calling these historic applications.

Of course, this is fundamentally going to change the security of all of Europe once these two countries join NATO. And the United States is really supporting it. But, because of Turkish pushback right now, behind closed doors, Secretary Blinken and other diplomats are trying to figure out what they can do to get Turkey to green-light this -- Victor.

BLACKWELL: Kylie Atwood at the U.N., thank you.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer is with us now. He's also the William Perry fellow at Stanford University.

Mr. Ambassador, welcome back. Let's start where Kylie ended, with what can be offered to Erdogan, to

Turkey to green-light this admission of Finland and Sweden. NATO admission requires a unanimous vote. What do you think?


Well, that's -- Victor, that's exactly the right question to ask. I mean, at the end of the day, the Turks understand that bringing Finland and Sweden to NATO dramatically improves NATO's security position in the Baltic region. But they also see an opportunity here to bargain for things.

For example, they have expressed interest in getting perhaps -- being able to buy F-16 aircraft. So I think what you have seen here is the beginning of a bargaining process. It may take a little bit of time, but my guess is, at the end of the day, this is not going to stop the membership applications of either the Swedes or the Finns.


Let's stay with Finland now. And a gas supplier there in Finland says that the risk of their Russian imports of natural gas, they could end this weekend. The Russians are requiring payment in rubles. The Finns have refused to do that.

We know that Russia has threatened that there will be consequences if Finland moves forward with this application. Is this the type of consequence that you expect, that it's going to be economic, and less about a military consequence?

PIFER: Yes, Finland has already seen this.

For example, over the weekend, the Russians cut off the electric supply that they're providing to the Finns. The Finns very quickly replaced that with supplies, for example, from Sweden. Now, the -- I think the Finnish position is that under the contract they have with Gazprom -- that's the Russian gas provider -- they're required to play -- pay in either euros or dollars.

So they're saying the demand now to pay in rubles is just inconsistent with the contract, and that they may take it to arbitration. But even if the Russians do move to cut off the gas, I think Russian gas accounts for only about 8 percent of Finland's total energy needs. So it's going to be a bump, but I'm also pretty sure the Finns have been thinking about this for some time and have a plan B in place.

But this may be...

BLACKWELL: Let's talk about -- go ahead.

PIFER: ... this kind of pressure -- yes.

BLACKWELL: No, finish your point.

PIFER: This may be the kind of pressure you see. It was interesting. Yesterday, President Putin was asked about the applications by Finland and Sweden, and he seemed to be pretty relaxed about it. So there may be some economic pressure, but the Russians at this point, at least at the highest level, don't seem to be overreacting.

BLACKWELL: Apologies for the interruption there.

Let me move on to Azovstal. The Russians claim that there were 1,000 -- about 1,000 Ukrainian forces who surrendered, now prisoners of war. The Ukrainians have suggested a prisoner swap. And Russia and Ukraine, they have done this several times before, not at this level of this number of forces.

There are some Russian politicians who say that Nazi criminals, as they call them, should not be traded. How do they work this out, considering the accusations against Russia when it comes to prisoners of war?


Well, over the weekend, the Ukrainians basically said that the forces that have been fighting in Azovstal -- and these guys have been fighting now for 11 weeks under really difficult circumstances.

But the Ukrainian high command said, your mission is accomplished, you can surrender now, and we will bargain for your release.

So, that negotiation apparently is still ongoing. Now, if the Russians begin to single out some of these -- some of the fighters, and they're saying things like these are Nazis or these are high-ranking officers, and somehow treat them differently, that could be a mistake for the Russians, because, if the Ukrainians begin to see that sort of thing, that may give them disincentives to surrender in the future.


So, I think the Russians have to think about this, what this means. Do they want to have the possibility that Ukrainian forces that, sometimes, they will lay down their arms, or do they want to have Ukrainian forces persuaded that, if you surrender, who knows what's going to happen? Maybe you ought to just keep on fighting.

BLACKWELL: Ambassador Steven Pifer, always good to have your insights, sir. Thank you.

Thirty minutes before he started shooting, the suspected gunman in the Buffalo racist mass shooting revealed his plans on social media. And now New York's attorney general, she wants answers, and she's launching an investigation into the platforms that he used.

All right, let's look at the Dow plunging now, the Dow down more than 1,000 points. What's scaring investors?

That's ahead.