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Chinese President To Meet With Russian President; U.S. Assessing Ops Over Black Sea; Mar-a-Lago Staffers Subpoenaed In Probe; Banks Throw Lifeline To First Republic; David Frum Is Interviewed about DeSantis. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired March 17, 2023 - 09:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: A very good Friday morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto.


New overnight, an alarming high stakes meeting now on the books. A meeting that could have global ramifications. For the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine, China's president, Xi Jinping, will meet face- to-face with Vladimir Putin. So, what could this mean for the war and also for tensions between the U.S. and China? We're on it.

SCIUTTO: Plus, a CNN exclusive. Dozens of Mar-a-Lago staffers, members of Trump's inner circle as well, have now been subpoenaed to testify in the ongoing probe of classified documents. Find out who is on that list.

And, big banks to the rescue. Eleven of them are now offering a $30 billion lifeline to one of the regional banks in danger of collapsing after this week's banking turmoil. We'll be watching for reaction when the markets open in less than 30 minutes.

We do begin this hour with next week's meeting in Moscow between the Russian president, Putin, Chinese President Xi.

CNN's senior international correspondent Will Ripley, he's with us.

Will, what more are we learning about these talks and what they're expected to focus on?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the timing is certainly significant. It is Xi's first overseas trip since this unprecedented third presidential term. And it certainly gives us a clue as to what's on his agenda, which is to get right over to Moscow and meet with Vladimir Putin, where China is putting out these statement saying that it's about urging peace and promoting talks, and that China has an objective and impartial position.

Remember, they put out that 12-point peace document, but refused to actually call the war an invasion, refused to condemn Russia's actions and are asking Ukraine to slice up its country and give Russia some of their territory that it stole to try to end what China calls a special military operation, parroting Russian propaganda.

And then the Kremlin is saying that the two are going to be talking about strategic cooperation and signing important bilateral documents. What neither the Kremlin or Beijing talked about is whether they're going to be talking about providing lethal weapons, whether China will be willing to provide ammunition and lethal weapons that could actually shift the course of the conflict and it would be not good for Ukraine, even with the influx of western weapons.

Analysts say if China were to actually decide to just give up this, you know, illusion of being a neutral party here, even though President Xi hasn't even talked by phone yet with President Zelenskyy of Ukraine, and if they actually start arming Russia, potentially trying to support Russia's war.

And then that raises the whole question of, OK, they're - they're backing Russia in what they're doing in Ukraine, and then would they expect Russia's support for what's widely believed to be an ambition at some point to make a move here on the self-ruled democracy of Taiwan.

So, a lot of people around the world and the west are nervous and waiting to see what happens at this big meeting in Moscow next week.


HILL: Yes, absolutely.

Will Ripley, appreciate it. Thank you.

SCIUTTO: New reporting this morning, U.S. officials tell me and my colleagues, Oren Liebermann and Natasha Bertrand, that the U.S. is reassessing its drone operations over the Black Sea. This after Russia harassed that MQ-9 reaper drone earlier this week, forced it down. We are told the U.S. has not stopped these flights entirely.

The military, in fact, sent the same type of reaper on a mission in approximately the same area over the Black Sea shortly after that collision. However, the U.S. military is, quote, taking a close look at the drone's roots and assessing how to better deconflict with Russian forces. There is concern among some in the U.S. military that limiting routes will impact intelligence gathering related to the war in Ukraine.

Joining us now to speak about all this, CNN national security analyst Steve Hall. He's a former CIA chief of Russia operations.

Steve, good to have you on this morning.


SCIUTTO: So, first, I want to ask you how serious you think this collision was between this drone and after the deliberate harassment by two Russian jets here. Clearly there's concern in the Pentagon about the chances for escalation after 13 months of deliberately trying to avoid U.S. and Russian forces coming into direct contact. Is there real danger from escalation from an event like this?

HALL: Well, Jim, for some perspective, I mean these types of intercepts happen, you know, routinely. There's all sorts of aircraft up in the air all the time in this particular area and other areas that Russia and NATO sort of, you know, play this game where they launch intercept planes to not only determine response times, but also just monitor what they're up to.


And also there's a display of force there.

What's a little more unusual, of course, is when one of those planes go down.


HALL: In this case, you know, an unmanned vehicle. So, that part isn't - isn't quite as normal.

But the other thing I think it's important for viewers to understand is, whenever you have an incident like this, a significant incident where one of our planes go down, the U.S. military is going to do a hot wash. They're going to take a look at this and say, OK, what happened, how did it happen, you know, should you make any adjustments. So, all of that sort of thing I think is pretty routine for the U.S. military.

SCIUTTO: Understood.

HILL: So routine, and as - you know, as we just heard from Jim -- Jim's reporting with the team, the U.S. reassessing these drone operations over the Black Sea, could be routine. Is there any concern, though, from your view about the impact overall on intelligence gathering in the region?

HALL: You know, the United States and our NATO allies have really significant intelligence resources, you know, starting from things like, you know, these drones that are doing IRS missions, intelligence collection missions, as well as all sorts of other capabilities.

So, I don't think it's as if - I mean if the thought is, OK, we're going to change routes or we're going to cut back on these - on these missions, I don't think that's going to significantly impact. I just think it's a - it's a responsible, professional thing to do to look at this and to double-check the flight plans and see if there are ways that we can continue that deflection but minimize the possibility of some sort of escalatory problem in the future.

SCIUTTO: Xi and Putin, they're going to meet in Moscow. The latest iteration of their growing increasingly close relationship here. Part of the topic of conversation will be potential peace, some sort of settlement to Ukraine. China has backed Russia in this war to some degree but not by sending weapons.

Does it have, one, the power, but, two, the credibility to be a mediator that all sides would be acceptable -- would be comfortable with?

HALL: I don't think so. I don't see how the Ukrainians are really any - you know, any other free world can look at Chinese - the Chinese position on this, which is failing to call it what it is, which is a war, failing to recognize that it was a Russian invasion. And then, of course, really not taking into consideration any of Ukraine's completely valid issues with regard to sovereignty.

So, you know, I don't see how they can really be considered the, you know, real brokers here. But the Chinese are interested in being part of this because they see themselves, you know, as the future of, you know, of a future large power in the world and they want to dominate that. And part of that is playing this kind of role where they try to get into these conflicts.


HILL: It will be interested to see what we learn after that meeting on Monday.

Steve Hall, always appreciate your insight. Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Now, a CNN exclusive this morning. At least two dozen staffers at Mar-a-Lago, as well as members of former President Trump's inner circle, have been subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury investigating Trump's handling of classified documents.

HILL: Special Counsel Jack Smith is seeking testimony from everyone from a housekeeper and restaurant servers to the former president's own attorneys.

CNN's senior legal affairs correspondent Paula Reid joining us now with more.

So, when we look at this list, it sort of feels like anybody who may have taken a breath in the same air space -


HILL: As where any of these documents could have been, which could be a smart move.

REID: Absolutely. Look, the message here is that if you worked at Mar- a-Lago, either as an attorney to the former president, an adviser, or you're the guy who serves burgers at the restaurant, Jack Smith wants to talk to you. And why does he want to talk to you? Because he and his investigators, they want to know what you've seen and what you've heard about any potential classified documents, any boxes that could have contained classified materials and how these things moved around the resort.

Now, the former president's team, folks in his orbit argue, like, this is a little excessive, why are you bugging the groundskeeper, right? But this is an unprecedented situation. We have never had a former president who lived at a resort. And, of course, there are these legitimate questions. This investigation not only about classified documents, but also about

any efforts to obstruct this investigation. So, in our reporting we learned that, for example, there's one young man who was caught on security camera moving boxes with a young man named Walt Nata (ph), one of the president's aides, who we know has also spoken to investigators.

They want to talk to him. Who told you to move those boxes? Where did they go? Who, what, when, why, where, right? It makes sense that they're trying to turn over every single rock, but it leaves open the question, well, who's left?

HILL: Right.

REID: And yesterday we got one of the answers to that. One of his close advisers, Margo Martin. She was at the White House. She's not a household name, but she's in his inner circle. She was at the White House. Delt with her every day at the press office. She's one of a handful of advisers who followed the former president to Florida.

She appeared before the grand jury yesterday. And we know that the special counsel is still fighting to try to talk to one of his attorneys, Evan Corcoran. And by 5:00 p.m. today, we expect a decision from the judge on whether prosecutors will be able to get around attorney/client privilege and ask him more questions.

So, full steam ahead on the special counsel investigation. Where it leads and how much information they're getting from these folks, unclear.


HILL: That's still unclear. Important reporting there.

Paula, appreciate it. Thank you.

SCIUTTO: All right, now to your money and the $30 billion lifeline that several big U.S. banks gave a regional bank to shore it up. This morning, a sense of calmness returning to U.S. markets. So, of course, the question is, what happens from here.

HILL: CNN chief business correspondent Christine Romans has been working overtime keeping us up to speed on all of this, this week.

So, happy Friday, I guess, my friend. Maybe you'll get a break this weekend. The question is, will this be a happy Friday on Wall Street?

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, I mean, the efforts to try to reassure the public that the banking system is safe have been just almost without precedent over the past few days. And when you look at this bank-led bailout -- I'm going to call it a booster, actually, a bank-led booster of a rival bank, it's just remarkable here. Some of the nation's biggest banks putting cash - putting cash into the coffers of First Republic to show that the system is safe, the system is solid and to make sure that this bank does not teeter anymore. So, this has been remarkable and this has been led by Jamie Dimon of

JP Morgan Chase and by the Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen working the phones over 48-hours, putting together this - this package to show support for First Republic and try to draw a line under what has been a really tumultuous seven or eight days.

You've got the - the bank stocks -- the regional bank stocks, we'll watch them closely today. They're leaning lower here in the pre- market. I'm going to tell you why. It's not existential. It's not worries about these going out of business. Now it's worries about their earnings. They're going to have to cut dividends.

They're probably going to have to raise the interest rates they pay you, the saver, as they're trying to attract -- you know, attract deposits. So, that's going to hurt their profits and their earnings. So, this is -- appears to be profit driven, not sort of like, you know, staying in business driven, the weakness you're seeing on Wall Street. So, in a way, that's a sign that we're moving forward in what has been a really, really remarkable, you know, six or seven days here.

SCIUTTO: You know, Christine, what's notable, this is a private bailout of a private bank.


SCIUTTO: It's private banks that are putting up the money. That's different, right, to some degree than what we saw in 2008.

ROMANS: It is. It is. This is not the taxpayer at all here.


ROMANS: This is the industry, in coordination with the Treasury secretary, frankly, saying, we're going to -- look, it's good for them to have financial stability. Financial stability is almost like a public utility, like, you know, clean water and electricity, right? I mean, if you don't have financial stability, nothing else can really work here.

And those banks know it. And they know that it's good for them not to have a banking system that's being questioned and doubted. So, I think that it is a remarkable -- a remarkable, you know, self-preservation but preservation of your industry. And, you know, and it's capitalistic and it's patriotic all at the same time.

HILL: Yes.

ROMANS: So, it's remarkable here what we've seen over the past 48 hours.

SCIUTTO: Yes. $30 billion. That's a lot of money.


SCIUTTO: Christine Romans, thanks very much. ROMANS: You're welcome.

SCIUTTO: Coming up next, Ron DeSantis is headed to New Hampshire, interestingly enough, next month in what seems to be an inevitable lead up to a presidential bid, but our next guest, a conservative, argues his campaign may be flaming out or could be before it gets started.

HILL: Plus, three hospital workers are now charged with murder after the death of a Virginia man in police custody. These charges come on top of these -- of the charges to seven officers already charged in that man's death. What we're learning about the potential defense now from a court hearing.

And a bit later, TikTok's CEO will be on Capitol Hill next week as some lawmakers push for a nationwide ban of the app. How he's responding to calls for Chinese owners to sell their U.S. stake in the app.



SCIUTTO: Republicans on the House Oversight Committee say that financial records show that members of the Biden family indirectly received more than a million dollars from a Chinese company. Not clear exactly the details of such records as they make this disturbing allegation. The committee issued a memo yesterday that names -- and this is remarkable -- Hallie Biden, the widow of the president's son, Beau Biden, as one of the family members allegedly receiving the money.

HILL: CNN congressional correspondent Melanie Zanona joining us now.

So, this, of course, goes back to the promises that Republicans had made that they would be investigating Hunter Biden.


HILL: But how does this line up with those promises? What's the deal with this money?

MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: Yes, well, so we already knew that members of Biden's family had received money indirectly from a Chinese-based energy company, but the House Oversight Committee is providing new details about those payments, including, as you mentioned, that one of the residents was Hallie Biden. She is the widow of Beau Biden. She also was romantically involved with Hunter Biden after Beau's death.

And the House Oversight Committee was able to obtain this information by seeking financial records from a business associate of Hunter Biden. His name is John Robinson Walker. He is someone who Republicans have scrutinized for many years. We know that he did transfer around a million dollars to members of Joe Biden's family after he received $3 million from that Chinese-based energy company. Republicans say this raises questions about foreign influence and also

whether Biden's family members were using his name to try to make money. But the memo does not link these payments in any way to President Joe Biden. I want to be crystal clear about that.

And the memo does not show that President Joe Biden, while he was vice president, used his position to either direct these payments or to try to enrich his own family members in any way, which Republicans have said is the entire purpose of their investigation.

And, meanwhile, Hunter Biden's legal team says that he pursued these business deals legitimately and he has a right, as a private citizen, to do that.

I want to read you part of the statement from his legal team. They said, Hunter Biden, a private citizen with every right to pursue his own business endeavors, joined several business partners in seeking a joint venture with a privately owned, legitimate energy company in China.


As part of that joint venture, Hunter received his portion of good faith seed funds, which he shared with his uncle, James Biden, and Hallie Biden, with whom he was involved with at the time and sharing expenses.

So, again, Republicans are digging into this issue. They are trying to make this a political liability for President Joe Biden. But so far they have not provided any evidence of wrongdoing.

Jim and Erica.

SCIUTTO: Melanie, thanks for that important context. Thanks very much.

HILL: Well, the battle for 2024 is heating up. South Carolina playing host to several Republican presidential candidates and potential contenders. Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson is traveling to the critical early primary state today. He'll join Senator Tim Scott and declared presidential candidates Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy at a GOP forum tomorrow.

SCIUTTO: Yes, a few hats in the ring these day. Well, in New Hampshire, former Trump official Ken Cuccinelli is continuing his push for, not Trump, but Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to run for president. Neither DeSantis nor Hutchinson, for that matter, have actually officially announced a 2024 run, but DeSantis is making more than ripples in the party this week with his statement that the U.S. should deprioritize engagement with Ukraine as the party watches very closely what he will do next.

We're joined now by David Frum, he's a staff writer at "The Atlantic." He recently wrote a piece titled "Is Ron DeSantis Flaming Out Already."

David, good to have you on this morning. DAVID FRUM, STAFF WRITER, "THE ATLANTIC": Thank you so much.

SCIUTTO: You write in your piece that DeSantis is a rational actor and is following what somebody has convinced him is a sound strategy. It looks like this. One, woo the Fox audience and win the Republican nomination, two, question marks, three, become president. Seems your essential argument here is he's winning the far right of the party but without setting himself up for being able to win a coalition to actually win the presidency. Explain why you think so.

FRUM: Well, as governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis played a double game. He both nodded to the far right of the Republican Party, supported anti-vaccination, he promoted his -- an anti-vaccination surgeon general, he fed all kinds of anti-vax paranoia. But at the same time, he delivered results for more moderate voters.

He had - he made -- invested heavily in reclaiming the everglades and he made big bets on reopening schools during Covid, which looks like a good bet for millions of kids who didn't lose learning. And that's what got him re-elected with 59 percent of the vote.

The problem is, as running for president, he's only playing a single game. He is talking to the Republican base, the most extreme voices in the party. And that's getting him so far, but not all the way.

HILL: And to that point, it's very clear where DeSantis stands on the culture wars, for example, but it is less clear, as you point out, what his policy and even his passion is when it comes to things like jobs, the economy, health care. Is this, at the end of the day then, simply about getting the nomination in the hopes of ultimately winning the White House? Is it just about power? Is it actually about governing and doing anything for the American people?

FRUM: Well, I'm not sure it's such a good strategy even for winning the nomination. DeSantis has, in the past -- in the past month has fallen behind in a lot of polls, behind former President Trump. He -- so he's got a path for getting air time on Fox News. This is really working.

The Fox audience gets very excited about these cultural issues. And that's what his Ukraine statement seems to have been about. DeSantis went a long way to avoid making comments on Ukraine. He looked -- but he looked quite frightened.

And a dramatic example of this is on the eve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine there were 165 members of the Florida National Guard on a training mission inside Ukraine. They were, of course, evacuated when the Russians attacked, moved to a neighboring NATO country where they continued their training mission and they returned to Florida in August of 2022, by which time it was clear the United States was helping Ukraine.

Now, a lot of governors would have used that as an opportunity to welcome the troops, maybe - you know, maybe appear in-person, certainly send a letter or statement thanking them for their service. He stayed clear because he knew the Fox News primetime lineup wouldn't like it. And so he didn't thank his own state's National Guard for their contributions to the defense of Ukraine, the defense of the west.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Let me ask you this because Trump and DeSantis are far ahead of the rest of the field right now. You and others have made the point, it's early and other folks who led the field at this stage flamed out. But I wonder, is there a path in the primaries -- of course, the primary is different from the general election -- is there a path in the primary with the current Republican electorate for someone who does not take a MAGA path to that nomination? Is there a path for a moderate Republican or is that the way the party stands today?

FRUM: Well, there may be a path, but the record in the Republican world is pretty clear that if you are leading in the summer of -- before the election, I mean it's - we're not at the summer yet.


If Donald Trump declared in the summer of 2015 moving to first place by beginning of July of 2015 and pretty much stayed there all the way through, if DeSantis is 12 -- still 12 points behind Trump, as he has been in the most recent polls in two or three months it's pretty hard to see how he makes up ground.

And he's already raised this gigantic pot of money. He's using it to run a kind of rose garden campaign before any of the primaries. Donald Trump, meanwhile, has reverted to more retail politics, which he did not do in 2016, but he is right now -- or he was this week in Iowa, he's on his way to New Hampshire, where he is going to be doing the kind of person to person contact that Iowa and New Hampshire voters like so much.


HILL: David Frum, good to have you with us this morning. Thank you.

FRUM: Thank you.

HILL: Still to come here, three hospital workers are now facing second-degree murder charges in the death of a 28-year-old Virginia man. This is on top of the seven deputies who have already been charged. The latest on their arrests and also the video of that violent encounter.