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CNN International: U.S. Defense Secretary Austin: I Did Not Handle This Right; EU Unlocks More Than $50 Billion in Funding for Ukraine; Zelenskyy to Fire Ukraine's Top Military Commander; Farmers Block Roads Amid Growing Anger for EU Policies. Aired 4:30-5a ET

Aired February 02, 2024 - 04:30   ET



MAX FOSTER, CNN ANCHOR: U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin apologizing for not disclosing his recent hospitalization to the president and senior officials sooner. He's been receiving treatment for prostate cancer. CNN's Oren Liebermann has the details.


OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: At 10:30 in the morning, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin walked into the Pentagon briefing room. He moved slowly, visibly limping. In his opening remarks, Austin took full responsibility for the lack of transparency around his prostate cancer diagnosis and hospitalization.

LLOYD AUSTIN, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: We did not handle this right, and I did not handle this right. I should have told the President about my cancer diagnosis. I should have also told my team and the American public.

And I take full responsibility. I apologize to my teammates and to the American people.

LIEBERMANN (voice-over): Austin last took questions from the media on board the USS Gerald R. Ford more than a month ago. It was two days before he first went to the hospital. He says his diagnosis with prostate cancer shook him, and he didn't want to burden others with his problems.

AUSTIN: It was a gut punch, and frankly, my first instinct was to keep it private.

LIEBERMANN (voice-over): Austin was admitted to Walter Reed Medical Center on New Year's Day for complications from the procedure on December 22nd. In a 911 call, an aide asked for discretion.

CALLER: Can I ask that can the ambulance not show up with lights and sirens? We're trying to remain a little subtle.

LIEBERMANN (voice-over): Austin says there was no order given to keep the hospitalization secret.

AUSTIN: To answer your question on whether or not I directed my staff to conceal my hospitalization from anyone else, the answer is no.

LIEBERMANN (voice-over): Austin says he apologized directly to President Joe Biden for not telling him about his diagnosis, but he says he didn't consider resigning.

On January 8th, Austin's chief of staff, Kelly Magsamen, ordered a 30- day review of notification procedures.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The 30-day review is due in a matter of days now. I think less than a week if I'm not mistaken. Do you commit to making that review public?

AUSTIN: I commit to being as transparent as possible. There will be elements of this that are classified, but we're committed to sharing as much as possible as soon as possible.

LIEBERMANN (voice-over): Austin's press conference comes as the administration promises to respond to a drone attack Sunday that killed three U.S. service members in Jordan, as well as more than 165 other attacks on U.S. forces in the Middle East. The White House said it holds Iran ultimately responsible for arming and supplying the militias that have launched the attacks.

The U.S. has promised a multi-phased response, one that officials say will be more powerful than previous strikes in Iraq and Syria.

AUSTIN: I don't think the adversaries are of a one-and-done mindset, and so they have a lot of capability, I have a lot more.

LIEBERMANN: Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made it clear that a U.S. response is coming against the Iranian-backed militias that have carried out strikes on U.S. forces in the region, including the attack on Sunday that killed three U.S. service members and wounded scores more.

Though he wouldn't say exactly what that attack would look like, he did say that the U.S. has already taken away capabilities from these militias, and now it's time to take away more of those capabilities.

Oren Liebermann, CNN, in the Pentagon.


FOSTER: European Union leaders say the ball is now in Washington's court after Brussels unlocked more than $50 billion in aid for Ukraine.

NOBILO: On Thursday, EU leaders managed to bring Hungary on board, whose Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been stonewalling the funding for weeks.

Next week, the U.S. Senate is set to vote on a separate $60 billion package for Ukraine, which is held up in Congress, and Washington now faces new calls to act.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) URSULA VON DER LEYEN, EUROPEAN COMMISSION PRESIDENT: I think we have proven today by these 50 billion euros that we stand by Ukraine. And I think it will be an encouragement for the United States also to do their fair share.

VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT: Europe today sends a signal across the Atlantic and the world all over that the international rules-based world order will withstand all challenges. Europe sets the tone for global affairs with its unity.


NOBILO: Bearing in mind, of course, that the EU has said that this 50 billion is not to help Ukraine fight off Russia, but just to stabilize its economy and prepare it for ultimate European --

FOSTER: So, it won't change the fight.

NOBILO: Not according to what they've said, but it will sustain them in their productive base. But in terms of having that fresh momentum to push Russia back, not necessarily going to have a huge impact.

FOSTER: As the EU approves more aid, then, Ukraine's top general says his military must learn how to operate with less of it.

NOBILO: In an opinion piece for CNN, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi wrote that Ukraine must be less dependent on foreign military aid and focus on new military technologies. But, as Brian Todd reports, the general is reportedly about to lose his job.



BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Ukraine's charismatic president apparently engaging in some palace intrigue amid tensions with his top commander on the battlefield.

Two sources familiar with the matter tell CNN Volodymyr Zelenskyy is pushing out his popular army chief, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, after Zaluzhnyi was called to a meeting at the president's office on Monday.

Zelenskyy's spokesman denies that Zaluzhnyi is being fired, but sources tell CNN a presidential decree could come within days. It would be the biggest military shakeup by Zelenskyy since Russia's full-scale invasion almost two years ago. The reasons? Analysts say it could be a political move.

HENRY HALE, PROFESSOR, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: The possibility that Zaluzhnyi could be a presidential candidate sometime in the future, and he's the only person in Ukraine right now that potentially rivals Zelenskyy in public trust ratings.

TODD (voice-over): Why is the 50-year-old Zaluzhnyi so popular in Ukraine? HALE: Well, he was the military leader of when Ukraine rebuffed Russia's all-out invasion of Ukraine back in February of 2022. He was able not only to save Kyiv and mobilize the national defense, but also to push back on a lot of Russian military advances.

TODD (voice-over): Aside from the politics, experts also say Zelenskyy could be simply holding Zaluzhnyi accountable for the fact that Ukraine's counteroffensive launched last year has not gone as well as many had hoped.

KEITH DARDEN, PROFESSOR, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: This is a way for Zelenskyy not to take the blame for the lack of progress in the war over the last year.

TODD (voice-over): Zaluzhnyi even described the war as a stalemate in a November essay in "The Economist" magazine, which was said to have displeased Zelenskyy and his circle.

In a new opinion piece for CNN, Zaluzhnyi wrote that Ukraine has to adapt to getting less military aid and rely more on technology in the war.

Who could replace Zaluzhnyi as army chief? Two candidates are prominently mentioned. Ukraine's land forces commander, General Oleksandr Syrsky and Kyrylo Budanov, the young, ambitious head of the Defense Intelligence Directorate, who just spoke to CNN's Frederick Pleitgen about his plans to strike inside Russia.

KYRYLO BUDANOV, HEAD, UKRAINE'S DEFENSE INTELLIGENCE DIRECTORATE (through translation): I believe the plan includes all major critical infrastructure facilities and military infrastructure facilities of the Russian Federation.

TODD (voice-over): According to "The Washington Post," Budanov's plans to strike at Moscow last year made U.S. officials nervous. Ukrainian officials say the Russians have tried to assassinate Budanov at least 10 times. Recently, Budanov's wife and bodyguards became ill from what Ukrainian officials said was a poisoning.

DARDEN: I think that the Russians see him as a capable military leader, as a threat, and they've tried to take him out.

TODD: What are the biggest, most immediate concerns for Ukraine's next army chief? The analysts we spoke to say he'll have to make some crucial decisions regarding the upcoming springtime phase of the war. He'll have to inspire confidence among the Ukrainian people. And he'll have to not be seen as a political plant of the Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.


FOSTER: Coming up, Wall Street shakes off the midweek blues. We'll see what investors are expecting today from the January jobs report.

NOBILO: Also ahead, unions in France are calling for farmers to end their roadblocks now that relief is in sight. You're looking at live pictures there.

Next, we'll have the government's plan to address their grievances.



FOSTER: The new trading day getting underway in the U.S. in less than five hours. Here's where stock futures stand right now. The Dow down, but very marginally. Investors waiting really for the first jobs report of the year from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's due out in a few hours as well. It's expected to underscore the strength of the U.S. economy despite 11 rate hikes from the Federal Reserve.

Meanwhile, European markets are open. And they're pretty positive on that news as well. Looking back on Asia, a mixed bag.

NOBILO: Wall Street seems to have recovered from the Federal Reserve's decision to leave interest rates unchanged for the near future. The markets are hoping the fast start to February will continue throughout the month. On Thursday, the Dow added nearly a full percent. The Nasdaq was up one and a third percent. And the S&P 500 gained one and a quarter percent.

FOSTER: Protesters and police clashed outside Argentina's Congress as lawmakers debated the president's controversial and wide-ranging reforms package.

Security forces used tear gas and water cannon to clear out protesters in Buenos Aires on Thursday. Workers unions, human rights groups and left-wing political members are among those opposed to the bill known as the omnibus. The measures include economic austerity, privatization of public institutions, weakening labor protections and increasing the president's power.

President Javier Melei says it's all necessary to tackle the country's economic crisis. And while controversial, a recent poll shows 42 percent of the population supports the reforms, whilst 51 percent opposes them.

Crowds of farmers and their tractors blocking roads in a Paris suburb this morning as they extend their protests over economic hardship.

NOBILO: Two of France's major farming unions are calling on their members to end their blockades in the wake of new government proposals to support the industry.

FOSTER: Farmers have been protesting across several EU countries against the bloc's agricultural rules, taxes and low wages. Demonstrators rolled into Brussels on Thursday where EU leaders gathered to discuss Ukraine.

NOBILO: French President Emmanuel Macron is calling for an EU-wide policy to support the farmers. CNN's Melissa Bell has the latest from Paris.


MELISSA BELL, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): From Italy to Greece, Portugal and France, the anger of farmers has grown and spread, reaching now all the way to the heart of the E.U. Too restrictive, they say, in terms of regulations, but with little to protect them from unfair competition, especially from duty-free Ukrainian meat.

Calls for action forcing themselves onto the agenda of leaders gathered in Brussels to discuss aid to Ukraine.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): We are asking the leaders to review their laws. They talk about being greener, but if that happens then there will be land which isn't worked anymore and it's difficult enough as it is.

BELL (voice-over): Concerns echoed by farmers in France who've reached the edge of Paris where the police have drawn a line.

EMMANUEL MATHE, FRENCH FARMER (through translator): We can't earn a living. We're subject to enormous constraints and there are products coming in from outside Europe that compete with us without having to apply the same rules that we're obligated to in order to produce.

BELL: Scenes like these have been playing out across the European Union and whilst the grievances are fairly distinctive from country to country, what unites the farmers across the E.U. is in the end frustration with Brussels, the red tape and bureaucracy, regulations that it imposes.


And the fact, say the farmers, that it doesn't protect them sufficiently from competition from outside the EU.

SEBASTIEN ABIS, FRENCH INSTITUTE FOR INTERNATIONAL AND STRATEGIC AFFAIRS (through translator): Why is it that we tell a European farmer that he cannot produce like this, but we allow food products to enter the European market which costs less? They have to produce food and increasingly they have to offer bioenergy and bioeconomy. They have to keep in mind the environment, the landscape and sometimes regulations and standards. Not all measures are compatible or convergent.

BELL (voice-over): The anger has spread across the EU. and beyond the disruption now represents a political threat with European elections just a few months away and leaders rushing to announce concessions.

GABRIEL ATTAL, FRENCH PRIME MINISTER (through translator): Our livestock farmers need specific support. That's why I'm announcing that we're allocating 150 million euros to them in tax and social support starting this year and continuing on a permanent basis.

BELL (voice-over): Yet so far, little has calmed the farmers united across Europe in their anger at Brussels, which they say is killing their livelihoods.

Melissa Bell, CNN, Paris.


NOBILO: In Kenya, a huge fireball engulfed several houses, businesses and vehicles overnight, when a truck loaded with gas exploded in the capital city of Nairobi. Officials say at least three people were killed, and at last count, 271 people are hospitalized. A command center has been set up at the scene to coordinate the rescue.

FOSTER: Authorities warning people to stay away from the area to avoid disrupting rescue operations at the scene. It's not clear what kind of gas the truck was actually carrying.

NOBILO: In a moment, Formula One champ Lewis Hamilton is leaving Mercedes for a new team. Find out which one after the break.



NOBILO: Big news in the racing world. Seven-time Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton will be joining Ferrari, if you didn't already know, in 2025 on a multi-year contract. A part of the Mercedes team since 2013, Hamilton says the shock move was one of the hardest decisions he's ever had to make. The British driver who shares the record for the most F1 world titles will leave Mercedes following the 2024 season.

FOSTER: It is Messi mania, meanwhile, in Hong Kong. Lionel Messi and the Inter-Miami team are now in Hong Kong as part of Miami's first ever international tour. Rocking the pink. Is that a Barbie pink?

NOBILO: No, I think it's their team costume.

FOSTER: Basically.

A welcome ceremony and photo ops were held at the Hong Kong International Airport on the team's rival. They'll play a friendly match with a specially invited Hong Kong team on Sunday.

NOBILO: The Los Angeles Chargers are showing off their new head coach. Jim Harbaugh says that his main goal is to win a Super Bowl, which will come from teamwork and not some magic formula, he says. Just last month, Harbaugh led the Michigan Wolverines to the college football championship.

And in Washington, the Commanders have hired Dan Quinn as their new head coach. He's been the Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator since 2021, and he led the Atlanta Falcons to the Super Bowl in the 2016 season.

FOSTER: Now, to say Rey Pena is a one-eyed 49ers fan is literally true. In fact, his nickname is the Eye of the Niner because the team logo has been imprinted on his prosthetic eye.

After a childhood injury, Pena battled health problems, including a series of eye surgeries until he was diagnosed with cancer when he was 30.


REY PENA, SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS FAN: I had to remove my eye within six months where it was going to spread to both my eyes. I asked him if he can make me a 49er eye. That's how a diehard of a fan I am. I've been a 49er fan my whole life. My first game was back in 1987 when I was five.

Let's go Niners!


FOSTER: Pena was selected as the 49ers fan of the year --

NOBILO: I should hope so.

FOSTER: -- in 2022, and says he has enough memorabilia to fill his three-car garage. He'll also be watching as the 49ers take on the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl. February the 11th, not far long now.

Stories in the spotlight.

Here's something you don't see every day. Police in Australia were called to help bust a toddler out of a claw machine he was able to crawl into. He wanted a win.

Authorities say three-year-old Ethan climbed through the machine's dispenser to get his hands on a prize. They're all going to be doing it now.

NOBILO: I mean, it augurs well for the future of this kid's life.

FOSTER: Technically, if he shoves them down the chute, does that mean he gets them?

NOBILO: I don't know. And also, did he crawl in through that little cat flap thing that they come out of? You could also get gymnast.

Queensland police officers asked him to move to the back of the bin and to cover his eyes. And that's so they could break the glass and set little Ethan free and get him back into the arms of his family. There's no word on whether or not he was able to get the prize.

I mean, come on. Like, they had to give him something --

FOSTER: And he said a soft landing.

FOSTER: -- for that.

And a frightening moment for another Australian family who was caught on video. Tell us more.

FOSTER: Oh, yes, I will. A 12-year-old girl saved her pet guinea pig from the jaws of a snake by picking up the reptile and swinging it about. My goodness.

NOBILO: Again, I'm now feeling confident about the next generation. Like, they get stuff done.


NOBILO: They'll crawl into that toy claw thing. They'll swing a snake around if it means saving a guinea pig's life.

FOSTER: The future's bright.

NOBILO: Yes, the future's bright.

FOSTER: The snake wasn't letting go, though, until Dad stepped in. You saw there he dropped -- and it dropped the guinea pig.

NOBILO: The dad then threw the snake across the garden while the guinea pig, named Maxibon, was scurried off to safety. The family says Maxibon is doing just fine. Hardly a scratch on him.


FOSTER: That is brilliant.

NOBILO: And everybody knows that the beaver is the national emblem of Canada. But it was another rambunctious animal who cut the lights in Toronto on Thursday night.

FOSTER: Authorities say a troublesome raccoon made contact with electrical equipment at a downtown station, cutting power for about 7,000 homes and businesses for about three hours. Firefighters responded to elevator rescues in about seven buildings. No word on the raccoon's fate. But it doesn't sound good.

NOBILO: No. The environment strikes back. I see.

Singer Tracy Chapman is heading back to the Grammy stage 35 years after she won for best female pop vocal for this monster hit.


TRACY CHAPMAN, SINGER: I want a ticket to anywhere. Maybe we make a deal. Maybe together we can get somewhere. Any place is better.


NOBILO: Fast Car, a heartbreaking tale of a woman dreaming to drive her way out of hard times, was also nominated in 1989 for record and song of the year.

FOSTER: I think it's brilliant how we started and ended this block on cars.

Country singer Luke Combs wasn't even born when it first came out. He covered it last year, made Fast Car a hit again, and it's now nominated for best country solo performance. They'll sing the song together at the Grammy show on Sunday. Chapman says she's grateful new fans have embraced Fast Car.

And this is part of a whole thing now, isn't it? Where songs, this is an age thing.


FOSTER: Songs I listen to, kids are listening to now.

NOBILO: Yes, they become new again.

FOSTER: And they think they're new.

Thanks for joining us here on CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Max Foster.

NOBILO: And I'm Bianca Nobile. "EARLY START" is up next right here on CNN. Have a wonderful weekend, everyone.