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Putin Threatens Nukes; Putin Troop Escalation; Biden Addresses U.N.; Fiona Strengthens to Category Four; Millions without Water, Power and Shelter in Puerto Rico; Special Master Asks for Proof of Declassification; Stocks Edge Higher Head of Expected Rate Hike. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired September 21, 2022 - 09:00   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: It is the top of the hour. Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Jim Sciutto, live outside the U.N. General Assembly in New York, where just over an hour from now President Biden will speak directly to world leaders for the second time as commander in chief. It is a critical time. Biden's speech comes just hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin signaled a major public escalation of the war in Ukraine, announcing the mobilization of some 300,000 Russian reservists and threatening a nuclear attack in clear and disturbing terms.


PRESIDENT Vladimir PUTIN, RUSSIA (through translator): This is not a bluff. The citizens of Russia can be sure that the territorial integrity of our homeland, our independence and freedom will be ensured. And those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the prevailing winds can turn in their direction.


HARLOW: Now global leaders are responding to that, calling that announcement from Putin a sign of panic, and the administration saying an admission of failure. This as the mayor of Kyiv says Putin has, quote, launched the process that will bury him. The question, though, today, Jim, is, how will President Biden respond when he speaks in just over an hour in front of a global audience?

SCIUTTO: Yes. No question. And how seriously does the world take what is a very public threat from the Russian president, who has often followed through on threats.

Our team is covering all of the latest developments in Russia, also on the ground in Ukraine, as we await the president's speech.

For more on Putin's seeming admission that his war is not going according to his plan, as well as what amounts to an alarming and explicit nuclear threat, CNN's Nick Paton Walsh, he is in eastern Ukraine, one of the hottest fronts in that war, in Kramatorsk. And I wonder, Nick, what was the reaction there from Ukrainians to

Putin's words?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: Yes, I mean, look, fundamentally this is about whether or not those words, that claim that he can get 300,000 more troops to the front line here, essentially reservists, those with military experience and those with specialized skills, those are the categories that publicly he stated they will be looking to essentially conscript. Whether he can turn that into actual people, troops equipped to fight on the front line in very short order.

That process starts today. And today, too, Russia is still losing on multiple fronts here. Yesterday appeared to be making some progress near Bakhmut (ph), near where I'm standing here in Kramatorsk, in terms of getting into that city. But elsewhere it's a very bad story for their military.

And we've seen them struggle, Jim, as you've been seeing yourself over the past six months, just to equip their regular army once they're inside on multiple fronts around Ukraine. So, a tall order certainly and one I think that may be more about trying to explain to the Russian people that they are in this war, too. So much of ordinary life in Russia has continued untouched, despite this war damaging nearly every corner of Ukraine.

On top of that as well we have these full referenda in occupied territories being no doubt no democracy at play here. We'll just get a number at some point in Monday or Tuesday telling us essentially fake how many people have voted in favor under war conditions, under military occupation to join Russia. It's likely that Moscow will accept that. Does that change the equation for Ukraine's supporters, for Ukraine's front line commanders? Well, that's where this fairly explicit nuclear threat comes in.

I should point out, Putin was talking most of the time about how Russia is under nuclear threat from NATO. Of course, nonsense. They first put nuclear weapons on the table. But he's couching it in certain degrees while he said he will be mobilizing troops to defend newly occupied areas, he didn't extend that same specific expression of what Russia's territory is when he talked about nuclear threats.

Nonetheless, it is there in the background that when Moscow feels uncomfortable or is losing here, that could come into play, Jim.

SCIUTTO: And as those sham referenda take place, does Russia then claim those Ukrainian lands as Russian territory and, therefore, threaten some sort of response if Ukrainians continue to attack there?

Nick Paton Walsh, keep your team and yourself safe. We'll speak with you again soon.


Some U.S. officials are dismissing Russia's plans to call up more troops, making it clear that the results as well of these referenda planned in occupied Ukrainian territory will not be recognized on the world stage.

CNN's Barbara Starr joins me now from the Pentagon.

And, Barbara, for months now we have heard from officials and other observers that the Russian president would not dare to mobilize nationally because he doesn't have the public support for it. Here we have him doing so at least partially as some have described it. I wonder what the response is from the Pentagon.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think they're watching to see if it actually happens. If Putin can carry through on this promise.


STARR: Just think about the supply lines, food, fuel, spare parts that would be necessary, vehicles to get that number of troops into eastern Ukraine anytime soon and to be able to support them to operate on the battlefield. That is a very tall order. It is not to say that Russia doesn't have considerable military power and capacity it could still use.

Now, to go to your point and Nick's about these referendum to try and essentially annex parts of Ukraine and simply declare them Russian, well, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine had something to say about that on social media. And let me read a bit of her tweet. And she says, sham referendum and mobilization are signs of weakness of Russian failure. The United States will never recognize Russia's claim to purportedly annex Ukrainian territory and we will continue to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes.

Read all of that to mean that the U.S., that the Biden administration, will continue to supply Ukraine with weapons, will continue to help Ukraine develop its military for the future, to defend itself against Russian aggression in the coming months and indeed years.

Now, as to the question of Putin's nuclear threat, look, that's something the Pentagon, the intelligence community watches every day to get the best information they can about where Russian nuclear weapons are. We've been told so far there's no indication Putin is moving any of that around, but you can be sure that is continued to be under watch 24/7.


SCIUTTO: No question. Superb point there. The words are one thing. They will watch for movements, which might precede an actual Russian nuclear strike.

Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you so much.

CNN chief White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins with me here at the United Nations.

And, Kaitlan, of course, the president's words today certainly planned in advance, but overnight these are significant developments, that the Russian president threatening not just an expansion of the war, 300,000 troops, but also making a nuclear threat. And I wonder, do we expect the president to respond?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, we'll see how explicitly he leans into and references this speech exactly. But this speech from President Biden was already going to be basically all about Ukraine. That was going to be the overarching theme to this. And so now, with President Biden coming here, you know, just hours after President Putin has given this speech, it adds a new twist to it.


COLLINS: And basically the way U.S. officials are viewing this is it's not entirely unexpected for Putin to make these comments given what, of course, he's been facing on the battlefield for the last several weeks. They do view it as an escalation, but also a sign of weakness on Putin's behalf.

I think the concern is what Nick Paton Walsh was saying there, which is that if they do - if they are successful in getting these 300,000 forces added, it more than doubles what Russia has on the battlefield right now involved in in war.


COLLINS: And so that's the question that they'll be watching there. We'll see how much President Biden leans into it because he was already expected to recommit the United States' support for Ukraine, which is not just in military weapons. It's in money and intelligence as well, which has just been almost as critical to them as the weapons themselves.

And the nuclear comments, it was just a few days ago when President Biden said that if President Putin took that step, if he went there, he was warning him not to do it because he said he would change the face of war in a way that we haven't seen since World War II.


COLLINS: And was talking about what that would look like.

So, the White House has been very cautious, though, to really engage on the nuclear rhetoric, as Barbara was noting -


COLLINS: Because they really just see it as rhetoric from President Putin.

SCIUTTO: They do? OK.

COLLINS: They haven't seen any actual changes behind the scenes there.

SCIUTTO: And that's the thing. And as Barbara was saying, they are watching closely. And I imagine if they see a change, they will look at it differently. And just to your point, 300,000 reservists is larger than the original

invading force of Ukraine, so not insignificant.

COLLINS: And I think that one key part of that is, if they actually do get those numbers, the one thing the White House will note is, it would take time to train them and to get those forces prepared.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Exactly.

Kaitlan Collins, thanks so much.

Poppy, back to you.

HARLOW: All right, well, thank you both.

Hurricane Fiona has now strengthened to a category four storm as it moves north after knocking out power and running water for millions in Puerto Rico and in the Dominican Republic.

Let's go to Chad Myers, our meteorologist, in the CNN Weather Center. Also, we have Leyla Santiago, on colleague, on the ground at a FEMA center in Puerto Rico.

Chad, let's just start with you on the tracking of this storm, the intensity. What can you tell us this morning?


CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: A category four storm really and getting stronger at this point, Poppy. This is a storm that has the in and out of the breathing of the storm where the eye and the air is falling, the eyewall and the air is rising. Ad significantly moving around in very warm water. And this is the water it needs to get stronger.

Something you'll notice here, the East Coast of the United States, not in any danger of a hurricane, but absolutely in danger of some very significant wave action this weekend. Could be eight to 10 foot waves coming on shore this week. Misses so far Bermuda, but then turns to the left and makes a run at Atlantic Canada. Possibly the strongest storm Atlantic Canada has ever seen.

Here you go, the waves between 40 and 50 feet in the ocean. Not all the way to the shore, but still an eight or 10 foot wave will make significant rip current problems this weekend all along the East Coast. Look at those waves all the way up toward Halifax and Newfoundland. Things are going to get very rough up here. Winds could be gusting to 100, 120 miles per hour on Sable Island. Now, very few people, like three, live there, but they will have to probably get off of that island as this storm moves up toward Atlantic Canada.

It's getting busy out here. Storm, storm, storm, and another one possible in the Gulf of Mexico by next week. We are watching this. There's the -- we call them the spaghetti models, spaghetti plots. But the European and the American model putting something very close to the Gulf of Mexico. This is a week from today. We're going to have to watch it because this could be significant for the Gulf Coast and Florida.

HARLOW: No question about it. Chad, we appreciate the update. Thanks. We'll come back to you very soon.

Meantime, let's go to the ground. Let's go to Puerto Rico. FEMA's administration is in Puerto Rico vowing to make sure the response this time is significantly stronger than it was in the response to Hurricane Maria, which, of course, devastated the island five years ago.

Our colleague Leyla Santiago joins us live from that FEMA center in Puerto Rico.

So you just spoke to the administrator of FEMA and what did they say?

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, one of the key questions I asked her, Poppy, was the governor has said that power should be restored for a good chunk of the people here on the island by the end of today. I asked her if she agreed. Had to ask twice. She did not say yes or no, she just said, we're here to support the governor.

Now, listen, I am in a warehouse where they have quite a few supplies here for disaster relief and give credit where credit is due, this is quite different from what I saw here before Hurricane Maria devastated this island. So, lessons have been learned in terms of response.

The question will be how well will those lessons be applied. And now how they respond to Hurricane Fiona and the aftermath that has led to catastrophic flooding and destroyed lives of families who lost everything.

So, we're waiting to see exactly if the power will be restored by the end of today for a good chunk of the island, as the governor said yesterday. But listen to what else Administrator Criswell told me today during our conversation.


DEANNE CRISWELL, FEMA ADMINISTRATOR: We are doing whatever we can to stabilize the infrastructure as we go, as we continue to do assessments, right, because it's going to take a while to understand truly the extent of the damage for repair. But as far as the temporary measures that we need to put in, we're doing those as we find them.


SANTIAGO: They are still assessing right now. In fact, I asked her if she could quantify, let me know exactly how much damage Fiona caused here, and she said it may be a while before they can do that.

But the other big issue here, not just the power, but also water. You have half the island without water right now. And so for a lot of people, this triggers flashbacks. Quite frankly trauma from those who lived weeks, months, nearly a year in some cases without power and without water. The critical things you need. And I'll tell you, yesterday, I went into the interior part of the

island, which is often the last place most folks can get into, still some areas right now that have limited access as we speak, and when I spoke to one neighbor who was living right behind a mudslide, he said, I've learned to live here without power on this island, but I cannot live without water.


HARLOW: We remember the real lackluster, to put it lightly, response to Maria, power out for some for a year and the amazing work you did, your team, the private sector, to help those folks. Let's hope they get what they need from the government now.

Leyla, thanks very much for being there.

Up next for us, former President Trump's legal team gets a warning from the special master looking at classified documents found at Mar- a-Lago.


Hear what they need to prove according to the judge.

Plus, the group representing many of the migrants flown to Martha's Vineyard has now filed a class action lawsuit against Florida officials who flew them there, including Florida's governor, Ron DeSantis.

SCIUTTO: And we will bring you all of the developments live from here outside the United Nations as President Biden is set to deliver a major speech to world leaders at a critical and dangerous time.

Stay with us.


HARLOW: Welcome back.

The special master reviewing the documents seized at Mar-a-Lago is asking former President Trump's lawyers if these documents were classified where is your proof? And so far Trump's legal team has declined to provide any proof. Judge Raymond Dearie not mincing words, telling the former president's legal team, quote, my view of it is you can't have your cake and eat it.


CNN's senior crime and justice reporter Katelyn Polantz joins us from Washington with more.

Well, you can't get more clear than that.

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: No. And Judge Dearie really didn't mince words in that meeting he had yesterday with the Trump team and the Justice Department as he gets to work here. Really the focus still is on these 100 or so documents marked as classified that were seized out of Mar-a-Lago. The Trump team really wants to keep the door open on the possibility that Donald Trump could have declassified them. It's something Trump has said publicly.

But Judge Raymond Dearie, at this meeting, he says, let's not belittle the fact that we are dealing with at least potentially legitimately classified information. The government has a very strong obligation to see that it doesn't get into the wrong hands. So, he's making very clear that until anyone says otherwise, these sorts of things have to be treated as if they are classified. They're marked as such.

And the Justice Department, they, in that meeting, as well as in a filing last night, they are arguing that it's immaterial, it's a red herring whether or not these things are declassified. At the end of the day, they are at the center of a criminal investigation into the handling of potential national defense information, national security information. The executive branch is treating these things as so sensitive that even investigators working on this case don't all have the appropriate clearances to look at these sorts of things.

And right now the Justice Department and the intelligence branch, they're saying, is restricted from continuing their work on this, seeing what's in there. They can't figure out what was declassified at this point in time. They can't figure out who has seen it. A the prosecutor in court yesterday said they can't figure out yet what they need to do because they can't see these documents in order to safeguard the nation's security. Those were her words.


HARLOW: Katelyn, thank you very much for running through all of that for us.

So, let's bring in Renato Mariotti. He's a former federal prosecutor, also the host of the "On Topic" podcast, for more.

Good to have you. Good morning.


HARLOW: I think if we just read here, just to reiterate what Katelyn was reporting, this quote by Judge Dearie says, if the government gives me prima facia evidence that they are classified documents and you, Trump's legal team, doesn't have any of that evidence, I'm left with a prima facia case of classified documents and, as far as I'm concerned, that is the end of it.

You have called what Trump's legal team is asking for here a non- starter. Why?

MARIOTTI: Well, essentially they're the ones who have made the motion here, Poppy. They are asking the judge to make a determination that some of these documents, you know, may not be classified or that they may -- that the former president has a - you know, has an interest, possessing those documents. And I think what he's trying to say is, you know, at the same time the trump team is not taking a position about it. In other words, they're not willing to say that the former president declassified the documents, they're not going to provide any evidence about that at all, and so it's really difficult for a judge to know what to do with that. I think it's a nonstarter because there's no -- there's nothing for the judge to consider.

HARLOW: One thing that I think -- I mean it's fascinating here, let's not forget this special master came at the request of Trump's team, and the judge who's acting as a special master, was also their suggestion. And now he's asking them for things that they don't want to provide. I just wonder if you think it was a miscalculation on their part.

MARIOTTI: Well, no question. It's a miscalculation. I don't really understand what they thought the end game was going to be here, Poppy. None of this moves the ball forward for them. I mean now actually they put themselves in a position where they have to answer questions that they don't want to answer. And so usually at this stage, as a defense attorney, I will say, usually you don't want to take positions, you don't want to be putting yourself out there, so why have this early, you know, unusual litigation I don't understand.

HARLOW: Really interesting amicus brief from 11 state attorneys general here basically saying, no, no, no, the 11th Circuit should not intervene here. DOJ is appealing to them. This special master, Judge Dearie, is a total neutral arbiter, let him do his job, et cetera. And they write in the brief, right in the middle, at a minimum this court should view the administration, meaning the Biden administration, assertions of good faith, neutrality and objectivity through jaundice eyes and reject their request to stay the district court's order.

Where do you think that goes other than the very interesting fact that you've got 11 states trying to intervene here?

MARIOTTI: Yes, I have to say, it really seemed like a political document to me, Poppy, not really a legal argument. It was meant for public consumption, for our consumption here on a news program. I don't think that's going to sway the court of appeals.

A very unusual, bizarre argument where they're essentially saying, you know, you can trust - you could - you could trust the -- the former administration, not the current administration, and also basically urging, of course, the court of appeals to trust the special master, who I suspects the Trump team is not very happy with right now.


HARLOW: And just very quickly here, it was noted by one of the lawyers - Justice Department lawyers, in its appeal to the 11th Circuit, saying that it would, quote, most likely consider other appellate options at this point. I mean that is essentially saying, we're going to try to take this to the Supreme Court if we have to, right?

MARIOTTI: That's right. I mean, they'll take it to the full 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and then to the Supreme Court for sure. I think, as a practical matter, an order from a judge saying you can't conduct your investigation, you can't even use your own classified documents, executive branch, I mean, that is so beyond what a judicial role is that I think the government can't let something like that stand.

HARLOW: OK. Renato Mariotti, thank you.

MARIOTTI: Thank you.

HARLOW: Next for us, Russian President Vladimir Putin suddenly escalating at least his rhetoric about a nuclear threat to world leaders as President Biden prepares to speak next hour at the United Nations. Is this a sign that the Kremlin is panicking? We'll take you back to the U.N. straight ahead.

We are also moments away from the opening bell on Wall Street.

Our colleague Alison Kosik live at the New York Stock Exchange.

Good morning.


Stocks are edging higher ahead of the Federal Reserve's decision on interest rates today. The Fed is expected to raise its key interest rate by another three quarters of a percent. The focus, though, will really be on what Fed Chair Jay Powell says after the decision when the central bank releases its projections for how aggressive the Fed plans to get going forward.

Stay with CNN.