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CNN This Morning

Chinese President Xi Jinping to Travel to Russia to Meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin; Pentagon Press Secretary Brigadier General Patrick Ryder Interviewed on Meeting between Chinese and Russian Presidents and Russian Jet Forcing Down U.S. Drone over Black Sea; Army Says Investigators Found No Foul Play in Death of Private Ana Fernanda Basaldua Ruiz; Staffers at Mar-a-Lago Subpoenaed in Special Counsel Investigation; Dozens Of Mar-A-Lago Staff Subpoenaed In Classified Docs Probe; Judge Vows To rule "ASAP" On Whether Abortion Pill Should Be Banned; House GOP Digging For China-Linked Payments to Biden Family. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired March 17, 2023 - 08:00   ET


OVIDIA MOLINA, PRESIDENT, TEXAS STATE TEACHERS UNION: Our students are in spring break right now, so they have no idea what's going on, let alone our educators in HIC (ph).

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Ovidia Molina, we will continue to follow this, and we appreciate you coming back as this develops. Thank you so much for joining us this morning.

MOLINA: Thank you.

LEMON: Thank you.

CNN THIS MORNING continues right now.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Cavaliers are playing with four guards, and the four guards out there along with Shedrick are the best free throw shooters.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Clark in a straitjacket. He threw it away!





LEMON: Yikes.

COLLINS: Good morning to Furman fans and Princeton fans who are in a really good mood today.

LEMON: Paladins. COLLINS: Not so much Arizona and Virginia there. Good morning, everyone. Poppy is off. Don and I are here. We are tracking a major announcement from China this morning confirming that Beijing's President Xi Jinping will visit Russia as the war is raging in Ukraine. The Pentagon's press conference is going to join is just moments on that.

LEMON: And here at home an investigation underway into the death of a female soldier at Fort Hood. Her family says that she complained about sexual harassment, but the Army says no foul play is expected.

COLLINS: Plus, we have CNN exclusive reporting. Dozens of Mar-a-Lago staffers have been subpoenaed in the special counsel's investigation of Trump's handling of classified documents. We will tell you why they could be key witnesses.

But we're going to begin this morning with the high stakes meeting that could have major implications for the war in Ukraine. This morning China has confirmed President Xi Jinping will go to Russia on Monday to meet face to face with President Putin. This is his first meeting, his first time in Russia since they invaded Ukraine over a year ago.

LEMON: Obviously, a very big deal here. This all comes at the critical moment in the war. U.S. officials have been warning that China might send weapons to help Russia turn the tide. But Beijing is insisting the upcoming meeting is to urge peace.


WANG WENBIN, CHINESE FOREIGN MINISTRY SPOKESMAN (through translator): China will uphold an objective and fair position on the Ukraine crisis and play a constructive role in promoting talks for peace.


LEMON: CNN's Will Ripley live for us in Taiwan this morning. Will, hello to you. The Kremlin says the meeting is about strategic cooperation. What else do we know?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Look, the outcome of this meeting, a lot of analysts believe, could have a very significant effect on where this war goes certainly for Ukraine, because if there were to be an influx of Chinese lethal weapons, as the United States suspects China is seriously considering, and it would make sense that when President Xi goes to meet with President Putin, neither the kremlin nor the Beijing readout actually mentioned weaponry, that is a discussion that they could very likely have. And if China does decide to do that in defiance of warnings from the United States and west, it could be very bad for Ukraine, even with the influx of weapons that have been flowing from NATO and the United States.

So while China is saying this is all about urging peace and that they have an objective and impartial position, Don, if they are so impartial, they put out this 12 point peace plan, they didn't call Putin's war an invasion, and Xi has not even spoken by phone with Ukraine's president even though he is now traveling to Moscow to meet with Putin, his first trip overseas, by the way, since he got this unprecedented third term. So we will have to see what happens, what is spoken and perhaps what is not said. A lot of questions this morning now.

LEMON: Let's follow up on something you said, that they have been wanting -- they said this was to urge peace. Is there any reason to believe them at this point, Will?

RIPLEY: Well, you read this 12-point document that they issued, and a lot of it is pretty boilerplate stuff. Not to mention the fact that they are using Russian propaganda terminology, calling it a special military operation. And they are calling for the kind of concessions that Ukraine, frankly, the Ukrainian people that I spoke with when I spent the month of December there is unwilling to accept, slicing up their country, giving some of the land that Russia took in exchange for the intense bombardment of civilian infrastructure to stop.

There's two distinct realities that exist in the world right now. There's the west, and the west sees what's happening in Ukraine through one lens, and then there's the China and Russia propaganda lens that paints it totally differently. But you have two rulers of those countries with absolute power and total control of the message inside their countries. That in and of itself a pretty dangerous formula, Don.

LEMON: Will Ripley in Taiwan. Will, thank you very much.

COLLINS: And joining us now to respond is the Pentagon press secretary Brigadier General Patrick Ryder. Good morning, General, thank you for being here this morning. China is saying that this meeting with Russia is about promoting peace and urging talks. Does the U.S. believe that's what's happening here?


BRIG. GEN. PATRICK RYDER, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: Yes, thanks for the question, Kaitlan. So again, this is something that we're keeping a very close eye on. Interestingly, in China's so-called peace plan one of the things that they highlight at the very top is respect for the sovereignty of all countries. We certainly would hope that they mean that. But if that means that Ukraine supposed to somehow just give up and allow its territory to be subsumed by Russian occupiers, then that certainly is duplicitous and something that I don't think Ukraine nor the rest of the world would take seriously.

COLLINS: Does the U.S. still believe China is considering providing weapons to Russia to use in Ukraine?

RYDER: Yes, so at this point we have not seen that China has provided any type of lethal assistance to Russia for use on the battlefield in Ukraine. Again, that's something that we are keeping a very close eye on. We would hope that China would not do that. We think it would be a big mistake. It would not be in their interests. And would squarely put China in the camp of the small number of countries that have said that Ukraine should be extinguished as a country. And so any type of lethal assistance going from China to Russia that could be used on the battlefield would needlessly prolong this conflict and needlessly kill innocent Ukrainians. And so we hope that they don't do that and we have communicated that both publicly and privately.

COLLINS: How important does the U.S. think it is for Chinese President Xi to speak with President Zelenskyy before he goes to Russia?

RYDER: Well, again, you have heard the White House and others say that we welcome a discussion between President Xi and President Zelenskyy. We think that it's important that China has the perspective of Ukraine. Clearly, Russia's motivations are nefarious. They illegally invaded and have occupied Ukraine. So we would hope that President Xi and the Chinese government would be able to have the benefit of understanding what exactly the impact of their support to Russia is having.

COLLINS: And on the downed drone, the U.S. downed drone in the Black Sea, we are now told Russia has recovered parts of the debris. What exactly does the U.S. believe that they have gotten so far?

RYDER: Yes, thanks, Kaitlan. So what we know is that Russia has made an effort to try to recover some of the debris, likely debris that may have been floating on the surface. But we are very confident that if they were able to recover anything, and we can't corroborate those press reports, but if they were able to recover anything, that it would very likely have very little use. We took precautions to ensure that information on that MQ-9 was protected, and, therefore, they are really not going to be able to exploit anything useful even if they were able to get it.

Oh, by the way, that drone landed in extremely deep water. So, again, very unlikely that they are going to get anything useful from it.

COLLINS: Does the U.S. want Russia to return any of the debris that they do recover?

RYDER: Look, it's U.S. property. As you saw, they attacked the drone. They essentially harassed it, knocked it down. We controlled, crashed it into the water. We are looking at options, assessing options in terms of recovery. Again, because of where it crashed in the deep water, that's something we are still looking at. I think the bigger issue is a recognition of Russia's actions, which were coming up on our drone, harassing it in international airspace where we were flying in accordance with international law. We have communicated to them that this type of behavior was reckless, dangerous, unsafe, and unprofessional. And again we call on them to ensure that their forces are operating professionally and safely.

COLLINS: General, the White House says that Poland's decision to send these MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine has not changed the U.S.'s mind on sending F-16 fighter jets. Why not?

RYDER: Yes, so it's important to understand, first of all, that Ukraine has an air force, and they know how to operate those type of aircraft. They operate MiG fighter jets within their own air force. And so from a training and a maintenance standpoint, the ability to absorb these into their force and to be able to operate them in the near term is real.

What we have been very focused on in the United States in working with our international allies and partners is on getting Ukraine the assistance that they need right now, that they can use right now to change the equation on the battlefield. And so you see us giving them things like air defense, armor, Bradley fighting vehicles, strikers, the Germans, the U.K. providing Leopards. The Germans also providing mortars. So all of these are things that they will be able to use in combined arms and joint warfare maneuver to change the way that things are right now along the front lines.


COLLINS: Has the U.S. made any assurances either to Poland or Slovakia to backfill the fighter jets that they are sending to Ukraine?

RYDER: So these are sovereign decisions by both of those countries. And again, we are grateful to them and all the other countries that are working together with us to ensure that Ukraine has the assistance that it needs. But just this week, in fact, we had a Ukraine defense contact group where all of our nations talk about what it is that we need to do to support Ukraine, but also, importantly, talk about how we can work together as not only a NATO alliance but an international community to ensure that our own borders are protected.

COLLINS: OK. I will note you didn't say whether or not the U.S. has made those assurances.

Last question. Is it accurate that the Pentagon has raised concerns with Ukrainian forces that they are burning through ammunition very quickly?

RYDER: Look, we are in contact with our Ukrainian counterparts on a near daily basis talking to them about how we can best support them. Ammunition is a very critical requirement, as you know, and so at every single contact group, in all of our discussions we're looking not only at ammunition, but a variety of capabilities and equipment that we can give this them. Importantly, also training. As you know we are conducting training in Grafenwoehr. So we are going to continue to work around the clock to ensure that we're getting them the ammunition, the equipment, the training that they need to be successful on the battlefield. And we are confident that they will continue to have what they need to be successful.

COLLINS: OK, thank you for that information. Brigadier General Patrick Ryder from the Pentagon this morning, thank you for joining us.

RYDER: Thanks very much. I appreciate it.

LEMON: Perfect person to have on this morning to discuss that.

The U.S. Army now launching an investigation into the death of a female private this morning. The family of 21-year-old combat engineer Ana Basaldua saying that the army told them initially that she had committed suicide. The private, who served with the First Calvary Division for the past 15 months was found dead on Monday.

Let's bring in now CNN's Camila Bernal live in Los Angeles for us. Camila, thank you so much for joining us. Her family made allegations of sexual harassment. What can you tell us?

CAMILA BERNAL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, this is a very tragic case, Don. Good morning. The family demanding answers, saying they want justice, but the Army saying investigators have found no foul play here. Look, Private Ana Fernanda Basaldua Ruiz, she was reported dead on Monday. And the family just giving these very, very emotional interviews to our affiliate Univision and to Telemundo News saying that her daughter committed suicide, that's what she was told by the Army. But her mother is questioning that and adding that her daughter told her that she was sexually harassed at the base. She said she spoke to her daughter every single day, and she detailed these allegations.

Now, the army is saying they will look into possible harassment. They will look and investigate all of the details in this case. But again, most of this information is coming from her mother. Our team in Mexico went to visit her mother and asked her if her daughter had expressed wanting to leave the Army, to leave the base. She said, yes. Here is the rest of that answer.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): Mom, I want to go with you to Mexico. I want you to hug me the way you did when I was little.


BERNAL: And again, that mother just saying her daughter wanted to be hugged the way she was hugged when she was young. I mean, this is a devastating case for this family. That mother is trying to come to the U.S. with a special visa. She is devastated and saying that she brought her daughter to the U.S. alive and she is going to bring her back to Mexico dead. Don?

LEMON: Camila Bernal, thank you very much. Appreciate that.

COLLINS: We are moving a major development in a CNN exclusive when it comes to the special counsel's investigation of former President Trump. Sources tell CNN that at least two dozen people who work at Mar-a-Lago have been subpoenaed in Jack Smith's investigation about Trump's handling of top secret and classified documents that were found stashed away at his Florida resort. That includes everybody from restaurant servers and a housekeeper to, of course, members of Trump's inner circle. Just yesterday, CNN cameras captured one of Trump's top communication staffers at a courthouse in Washington where she was appearing before the grand jury.

Our CNN senior legal affairs correspondent Paula Reid is here tracking all of this. I mean, it's amazing. We are halfway through March, just seeing the speed that Jack Smith is moving with this investigation.

PAULA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Yes, exactly. And who is left, right? When you get down to the guy who serves the burgers at Mar-a-Lago, who else are you going to talk to? We got the answer to that yesterday when we saw one of his closest advisers, a former communications official at the White House headed into the grand jury. But what you see here is they want to talk to everybody. His attorneys, his advisers, the groundskeeper at Mar-a-Lago.


And why? Well, because this is a very serious and extensive investigation into the possible mishandling of classified documents. But also questions about whether there were efforts to obstruct this investigation. So, for example, there was one young man that they saw on a security camera who was helping another advisor, we know, a wall not another aide, move some boxes, they want to know, who told you to move them? Where did they go? So, it's clear they're turning over every stone.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: And who told you to move them? Could be a very big question.

REID: Exactly, big, big question. Who told you to move them, when, why, what was in them? Where did they go? A lot of questions for these folks. And there some people in the former president world argue like this is ridiculous. You're talking to the guy who flips burgers, but how do we know it's ridiculous? There's no standard here, we've never had a former president who lived in a resort.

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Exactly, and we've never really -- to my knowledge had this issue when it comes to classified documents, right? And they --

COLLINS: Well, apparently, we did and we just (INAUDIBLE) tell about it.

LEMON: And we did it. Exactly, right on. Can we talk about the special counsel Jack Smith? He has been trying to get testimony from the Trump attorney Evan Corcoran, since the very beginning. Is he any closer to making that happen?

REID: It's possible. This attorney Evan Corcoran, he has already gone before the grand jury, but he declined to answer questions about his conversations with the former president. Attorney client privilege one-on-one, but Special Counsel prosecutors, they said no. We think that there should be an exception applied here that crime fraud exception. We believe that his advice may have been used to perpetrate a crime. So, we should be able to ask them these questions. And the judge who has been overseeing a lot of these big questions from the special counsel investigation and that grand jury, she leaves the bench at about five o'clock today. She ages onto a different role in the system. So, she has until five o'clock today to make this ruling. Kaitlan and I, we will be on our phones --

LEMON: Wow. REID: -- up the girls have every Trump attorney trying to figure out, when this decision comes down?

LEMON: Five o'clock.

REID: Because it's not public either.

COLLINS: I'm thinking, is she's handing this over to another chief judge who's walking into this and this is all going to be on his plate now.

REID: Yes, good luck to him. And it's really interesting because as you know, some of the people in Trump world, I believe that this judge just how that she's been too favorable to the special counsel, and there's going to be a new sheriff in town. But if you read -- if you read actually his jurisprudence, his opinions, I'm not sure how that's actually going to play out. So, it's going to be fascinating to watch.

LEMON: All right.


LEMON: Paula Reid, thank you. And we'll be watching for those alerts to see the reporting.

REID: We're on it. We're on it.

LEMON: Thank you very much. A decision to access medication abortion could come down. Medication, abortion -- abortion medication, I should say, should come down as soon as today. If the pill is no longer federally approved for use. What will it do? How will state leaders handle that? We're going to ask the Democratic Governor Tim Walz of Minnesota. That's next.



LEMON: A federal judge in Texas could decide as soon as today whether to block access to a key abortion pill nationwide. Trump appointed judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, heard about four hours of arguments. This was on Wednesday and suggested that he is seriously considering undoing federal approval of the drug. What's at stake here, access could be cut off nationwide to the most common method of abortion in the United States, even as states where medication abortion is legal. Vice president Kamala Harris warning of potential consequences.


KAMALA HARRIS, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And the fundamental issue at play with that court case, is our public health system as a whole. If politicians can start using the court to undo doctor's decisions, imagine where that could lead.

(END VIDEO CLIP) LEMON: Well, this comes as Walgreens earlier this month said it will not dispense Mifepristone in the 21 states. Including a handful where abortion remains legal, following a February letter from GOP attorneys general in those states. In response, this week, a group of 14 governors issued a letter to major pharmacies writing, "We urge that your decisions continue to be guided by well-established science and medical evidence, not politics or litigation threat." So, joining us now to discuss, one of the signers of that letter and that's Democratic Governor Tim Walz of Minnesota. Governor, we're so happy that you could join us this morning. Thank you very much. Here's what you say. You say pharmacies must put health and safety of the people before politics. So, how are you -- how much are you concerned about this?

GOV. TIM WALZ (D-MN): Well, very concerning Good morning, Don, I think vice president Harris summed it up, right? Imagine this someone with no medical training, arbitrarily making decision. About a drug that is legal, is prescribed by a licensed physician to an individual in their private consultation of what's best for their health. This is not surprising, they extremist attacks on reproductive rights and access to abortion is of course. You know, accelerated since the Dobbs' decision. But I think what this letter is stating is being very clear amongst the states that understand that this is going to be an issue that will continue on further beyond Mifepristone.

But we want to make it very clear that that they need to dispense these as according to laws. So, it's a big deal. I think Vice President Harris is not overstating where this is that we see it and I'm in an area where the states around me have made abortion illegal or criminal. And what that's done is just increased access, because we know this does nothing to improve women's access to reproductive health care, it forces them to make really horrific decisions. So, we're watching this very closely. We're making clear that, you know, 21 extremist attorney generals do not dictate health care in Minnesota or other states.

COLLINS: Governor, can I ask you a question? Because in January, you signed a pretty broad abortion rights bill into law and Republicans in your state were very critical of it. They said, the chairman of the Republican Party said that you lied to voters. That's what they accused you of. they said Make no mistake, this extreme bill provides for taxpayer funded abortion on demand up until an even after birth. Can you respond to them?

WALZ: Well, these are people that want to make it as you see a death penalty in South Carolina and others and Republicans in Minnesota would do the same thing. Look, what I've done is precedents of law of Roe. Making sure that we trust women to make their health care decisions. We trust physicians as they deal with these very complicated and very personal decisions. We've simply codified it into law, to make sure that that has been the law of the land. So, again, you hear these extremist screams from the -- from the right these are the folks that that simply want to criminalize women.

They want to do make it impossible to access care, we're seeing it in Utah. And I think what you're seeing is states that trust women, trust science, are standing up and saying not on our watch. And that's what this letter was about. That's what the codification here in Minnesota is about. Overwhelmingly Minnesotans voted in November. And I was very clear with them. I trust women and I will protect access to reproductive and abortion care. There's nothing unclear about that statement. They simply will not respect that the voters overwhelmingly rejected their position and support women. And we're just making sure we follow through with what that -- what that election said.


LEMON: Governor, I want to follow up on to your first answer, because you mentioned these attorneys general and the Republican attorney generals have threatened legal action, against these pharmacies. Isn't there a significant risk for these nationwide pharmacies here?

WALZ: Yes, there's a significant risk and we need to stay on with them. I think, again, I'm -- they made a decision to not do this. You saw one of our colleagues in California Governor Newsom made the call on Walgreens. We're not threatening these pharmacies, we're backing them up on their freedom's initiatives. Again, I would go back to this statement. Imagine whatever drug you are having dispensed for you, or your family, for whatever reason it is. That someone in one of these states decides to get together and says we don't want that drug to be dispensed, because we have religious or ideological opposition to that, and you can't get it.

These are drugs that are life saving for women that have pregnancies and complications. This outrageous idea that women are using these things as birth control on the final weeks is ludicrous. And so, yes, I am deeply concerned about this. It is -- it is unconscionable, that you're seeing these folks make this type of decision. And using the federal courts, not any science, not any precedents, Judge shopping to find this and then banding together. Again, it is outrageous. And I just want to be very clear. The women in these states are travelling to states like Minnesota and others to get lifesaving care.

That is all they're doing states like Minnesota, were there to make sure that we're protecting folks. And a lot of the things we're doing here and codification of laws and things that we're doing is we're not cooperating with the states, we're not cooperating with what they're doing. And we want to make it clear to these pharmacies, they don't need to cooperate either. This is -- this is an extremist position totally out of any precedents. And it's putting people at risk.

LEMON: Governor, I want to move on to talk about gender affirming care, because last week, you took executive action to protect access to gender affirming care in Minnesota. Republican state lawmakers across the country have escalated their fight against this type of care, including this week in Georgia. I want to know your reaction and -- listen, you're a former high school teacher, how does that inform your approach to these issues that concern minors?

WALZ: Yes, I know that every child brings their authentic self into my classroom for 20 years I did this. And what we know is that students are understanding or trying to understand who they are as their gender identity is being developed. They are most at risk, they're most at risk for bullying, and most at risk for suicide. And what we want to say is we're there to protect children, we're there to have you understand that in Minnesota, you're going to be protected. And I just want to be clear, I will never understand what goes into the thinking of these folks who bully these children.

There are not impacting them in one bit, and making it a living hell, for children, for families, for adults, for folks who are just trying to bring themselves in. So, in Minnesota, we're making it very clear, we're not going to cooperate these folks, we're not going to extradite people, we're going to say that this is a place where you can come to make these decisions I am -- this is -- these the community, the trans community is as terrified as they've ever been. We've seen attacks across the nation, even here in Minnesota. And we're now saying we have to be much more proactive, we have to be much more aggressive about making sure that folks are protected.

So, this is another of the fronts that again, you know, don't deal with climate change. Don't deal with other things, deal with making people's lives miserable on something that won't impact you. That's what these governors are doing, these attorney generals are doing. And I've had it as a teacher, I will not stand bullies, I never did and I'm not going to stand bullies who are masquerading as somehow about freedom. This has nothing to do with personal freedoms. It has everything to do with forcing an ideology on a vulnerable group of people for short term political gain. It won't stand and in the long runs Americans are far better than that. And they're going to find that out.

LEMON: Yes, well, Governor Tim Walz of Minnesota, we appreciate you joining us this morning. Your fellow Minnesota and Poppy Harlow is off today. And she sends her regards. Thank you for joining.

WALZ: Thank you both.

COLLINS: Quite a forceful answer there.


COLLINS: Yes. All right, also this morning, there is a new memo where House Oversight Republicans claim, that President Biden's family members have received more than a million dollars, indirectly from a Chinese company. These Republicans we should note have not provided evidence tying the payments directly to anyone yet. The White House and a spokesperson for Hunter Biden's legal team have dismissed the new memo. CNN's Melanie Zanona is joining us live from Capitol Hill. Melanie, what did we learn from this memo exactly? What are Republicans laying out here?

MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: Well, Kaitlan, we already knew that members of Biden's family had received money from a Chinese based energy company, but the House Oversight Committee is now providing new details about those payments, including that one of the recipient.