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CNN This Morning

Russia Accuses U.S. of Orchestrating Drone Attack on Kremlin; White House's National Security Council Spokesman John Kirby Interviewed on Russian Accusations against U.S., American Citizens in Russian Prisons, and Ongoing Civil Conflict in Sudan. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired May 04, 2023 - 08:00   ET



KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to talk to one of the reporters who broke that story about why it was not disclosed just ahead.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Nordstrom closing its store in San Francisco. Is it because of crime? We'll talk to the city's chief economist. This hour of CNN THIS MORNING starts right now.

COLLINS: Russia now accusing the United States of being behind that drone attack on the Kremlin that we first reported here yesterday. Vladimir Putin's spokesperson making this claim, which we should note is a baseless one this morning. No evidence to back it up. But he did tell journalists, quote, "We are well aware of decisions on such actions and such terrorist attacks are not made in Kyiv but in Washington. And Kyiv is executing what it is told to do. Such attempts to disown this both in Kyiv and in Washington are, of course, absolutely ridiculous."

HARLOW: To be clear, Ukraine has vehemently denied any involvement in the attack, but Moscow insists Ukrainians were trying to assassinate Putin. Overnight we saw Russia unleash a wave of its own drones on Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities. They had handwritten messages on them reading "for the Kremlin" and "from Moscow." Our CNN senior international correspondent Matthew Chance tracking it all for us. Matthew, such an escalation. The Biden administration has been adamant that it is not helping or encouraging Ukraine to carry out attacks inside of Russia. But these two baseless claims without evidence from the Kremlin in the last 24 hours are striking.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, well, striking perhaps, yes, but also typical of the Kremlin to say that the attacks against it are not necessarily orchestrated by Ukraine, but someone else is pulling the strings. And of course, it's the United States, and it's the sort of broader western alliance.

This has been the narrative that the Kremlin has tried to put across from the outset since launching its war more than a year ago, what is it, 14, 15 months ago now to conquer Ukraine, that it's doing that too stop Ukraine falling into the hands of the western military alliance, specifically under the sway of the United States. And so through the prism in Moscow, all of this action, these dramatic

images we are seeing here again of these apparent drones exploding over the dome of the Senate palace inside the walls of the Kremlin, that was all orchestrated, the material was supplied by the targeting information was given by the United States. That's the Kremlin line. Of course, as you mentioned, the United States is, obviously, distancing itself from this. Ukraine has as well. There are a couple of other options as to what might be responsible for this. In fact, I have spoken to a former Russian M.P. who says he is in contact with militant groups, partisan groups inside Russia who say that they are the ones that carried out this attack, Poppy and Kaitlan.

COLLINS: Matthew Chance, as you learn more, keep us updated. Thank you.

Joining us now, the White House's National Security Council spokesman, John Kirby.

John, thanks so much for being here this morning. What's your response to Russia claiming that it's actually Washington who is behind this drone attack, saying essentially they tell Kyiv what to do?

KIRBY: There's a word that comes to mind that I'm obviously not -- not appropriate to use on national TV. I would just tell you Mr. Peskov's lying. I mean, that's obviously -- it's a ludicrous claim. The United States had nothing to do with this. We don't even know exactly what happened here, Kaitlan. But I can assure you the United States had -- had no role in it whatsoever.

And again, just to be clear, and I think you covered this at the beginning, we neither encourage nor do we enable Ukraine to strike outside Ukraine's borders.

HARLOW: Do you have any information that might indicate who was behind the drone strikes?

KIRBY: No, we don't, Poppy. We really don't. I mean, we're -- we're trying to learn more about this best we can, but we honestly just don't know what happened here.

I think -- here's another thing that happened, though, Poppy.


KIRBY: In just the last 48 hours or so, Mr. Putin has continued to rain down on Ukraine cruise missiles and drones, and conducting other kinds of air strikes and -- and just yesterday killed 23 innocent civilians in a residential complex that -- that they hit, likely intentionally. So that -- that's also what's happening, and I think we -- we can't forget that.

HARLOW: Are you saying you think this is a pretext by Russia for those actions?

KIRBY: No, I'm not saying that. I don't know.


KIRBY: It's not as if -- just, you know, back up, you know, even longer than 48 hours ago, he -- over the course of the weekend, Mr. Putin was flying cruise missiles and drones, hitting civilian infrastructure and targets throughout Ukraine. It's not like he's looking for an excuse to continue to try to find ways to kill innocent Ukrainians.

COLLINS: Given all that, Kirby, do you see Putin as a lawful and legitimate military target?

KIRBY: Look, we don't favor, we don't endorse strikes on individual leaders. Mr. Putin is the aggressor here. His forces are in Ukraine illegally and in an unprovoked way. If he really wants to end this war, if he really wants to -- to see security there on the continent, he could have his troops pull out of Ukraine right now and end this thing all together.


COLLINS: You said you don't favor it, you don't endorse it, but is it lawful? Would it be legitimate?

KIRBY: Look, I don't think it's useful for me to get into a legal discussion here. We -- we do not endorse, we do not encourage, we do not support attacks on individual leaders.

HARLOW: Notable to -- to hear you say that. I do want to get, also, your reaction to what we're hearing from NATO leaders. The assistant secretary general for NATO this morning, John Kirby, is saying that -- that they are -- there is significant risk that Russia could pursue sabotage, in terms of their latest actions, to disrupt Western life, gain leverage against those nations that are providing support to Ukraine.

They're talking about real concern that Russia is targeting NATO's critical infrastructure systems, even undersea cables, et cetera, as just another way to try to fight this. What is your reaction?

KIRBY: That's something we've been mindful of and -- and watching as best we can since almost the beginning of the war, Poppy. I mean, that's one of the reasons why the United States moved, President Biden moved so -- so fast and so decisively to shore up our -- our NATO defenses on the eastern flank. We're watching this very, very closely.

I'm not aware of any specific intelligence or information that would lead us to believe that that's about to happen. But we're certainly monitoring this as best we can. It's not -- you know, just separate and distinct from that reporting, it's not as if Mr. Putin hasn't already weaponized energy by the way he has tried to sell oil at well above market prices and hold back the supply to try to -- to coerce the international market. And it's not like he hasn't weaponized food. He's -- he's done that, too.

So, again, all this would be, sort of, part of a Russian playbook. But we just -- I don't have any indications or haven't seen anything that that's happening.

COLLINS: John, you did say that the U.S. does not encourage attacks or endorse them on other world leaders. We do know from leaked documents that the U.S. did encourage Ukraine not to attack inside Russia on the anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. That came in leaked documents that were made public online.

President Zelenskyy said this week the White House never called him about that leak. Why not?

KIRBY: Well, we -- I can tell you for sure, Kaitlan, that -- that, as these documents started to get out into the public, we had multiple conversations with high-ranking officials in Ukraine, as you would expect that we would, frankly with other countries as well that were affected by these -- by these leaks. And so we did communicate with Ukraine, again, at various levels, various agencies and at various -- with various officials, to let them know what was going on and to promise that we'd keep them informed.

COLLINS: Kirby, we've been hearing a lot from the U.S. about when this expected counter-offensive is -- is going to start. What's the -- what's the latest assessment, in the U.S. intelligence view, of when that's going to happen and how much potential land Ukraine could retake?

KIRBY: Well, I'm certainly not going to get ahead of Ukrainian plans here. I think that this would be the worst place in the world to -- to try to divulge that, even if we had that kind of information. This is going to be up to the Ukrainians to decide. President Zelenskyy's the commander-in-chief. He gets to decide where his military operates and when and in what circumstances. So I'll leave it to the Ukrainians to speak to whatever future operations that they might or might not conduct.

What I can tell you, though, Kaitlan, is that regardless of when or where and what units he decides to use to conduct offensive operations inside his country, he's got pretty much everything he needs to do that coming in the weeks and months ahead. We have provided, again, another security package yesterday of some $300 million, ammunition, artillery pieces, as well as breaching equipment and logistics and sustainment vehicles.

He's got about 98 percent of everything his forces say they need to be able to conduct offensive operations in the -- in the spring, in the weeks and months ahead. And that's not just coming from the United States. That's coming from allied and partnered nations all over the world. So we've really worked hard to get them the materiel that they need so that, we if and when they step off, they can do so ready.

The other thing, Kaitlan, that often gets lost in this is the training we have done. We have trained multiple brigades of Ukrainian soldiers outside the country over the last few months to get them schooled up on something we call combined arms maneuver, which is the kind of integrated war-fighting they're going to need, again, when the weather improves and when they're ready to move out. So there's been a lot of training, a lot of materiel deliveries, a lot of contributions to their efforts, that they are -- they are ready, and of course it will be up to them to decide how and when to execute.

HARLOW: I don't want to let you go without asking you about Sudan. We've seen just remarkable images out of Sudan. One of our reporters, as you know, was alongside some of the evacuations from Port Sudan of Americans. Samantha Power just told Kaitlan on the program, who heads USAID now, that they cannot get the humanitarian aid that is needed in unless there's a permanent ceasefire.

Is that achievable, in your view? And, also, can you guarantee that every American who wants to get out of Sudan can?


KIRBY: If -- so, on the first question, is it achievable, we certainly hope so. And that's why we're working through diplomacy to get these two generals to put their arms down and to actually abide by the ceasefires. Now, the ceasefires have gone through -- through a couple of extensions here, and that has resulted in a decrease in the violence, Poppy, but it certainly hasn't eliminated it. It needs to stop so that the humanitarian assistance can get in. It's not just the United States that wants to do this. The U.N. does; allied and partner countries want to get humanitarian assistance in, food, water, medicine. All these are in critical short supply. It's important for these two generals, if they really do care about the future of Sudan and the Sudanese people, to put their arms down and let this aid and assistance get in. Certainly the United States will be right there with the people of Sudan, trying to make sure that they have that -- those necessary supplies.

Now, as for departures, we have, I think, as you know, conducted three ground convoys, gotten out, according to the State Department's estimate, more than a thousand Americans. We continue to stay in touch with Americans to provide any kind of information that they might need, any guidance that they might need, should they still want to get out.

I want to tell you that a population of Americans that we were in touch with, that wanted to get out, much, much smaller, a fraction of that number that's been floating out there of 16,000, which are largely dual nationals who -- who want to stay in the country -- they were born there; they live there; they work there; their families are there; and they want to stay. But we're going to stay in touch with Americans, as needed. But I will tell you, again, conducted three ground convoys to get Americans out successfully, and includes -- that includes even yesterday.

COLLINS: Kirby, before we let you go, I mean, I think every interview we do with the administration going forward, especially from a national security perspective, will include this question, which is, what is the latest on the efforts to get Evan Gershkovich out of Russia, as he's being wrongfully detained?

Have you spoken with Russian officials and have you spoken with his family lately?

KIRBY: Secretary Blinken talked about this yesterday. We are actively, energetically, trying to get him released, as well as Paul Whelan. That has never stopped. There's a proposal on the table for Paul. We will urge the Russians to accept that proposal so we can get him out of there.

But, yes, we are in touch with the Russian officials and trying to get Evan released. We want more consular access to him. I think we've only had one consular visit. We want to get more access to Evan so that we can get eyes on him, get a chance to talk to him. But, yes, we are actively involved in trying to secure his release.

COLLINS: There's a proposal on the table for Paul Whelan. What about Evan Gershkovich?

KIRBY: I would tell you we're just in -- we're -- we're in initial conversations here, trying to get the Russians to agree to release Evan. I don't think I would go into more detail than that right now, at this -- at this early stage. But we have not, obviously, forgotten Evan. We certainly have not forgotten Paul. We're going to try to get both of these gentlemen home to their families where they belong.

HARLOW: Just, finally, on asking about Austin Tice, because we heard Secretary of State Blinken speaking about Austin Tice as well yesterday.

KIRBY: Yeah.

HARLOW: And he said the United States is engaged with Syria, engaged with third -- with third countries as well.

KIRBY: That's right.

HARLOW: Kaitlan and I both this week, at the White House correspondents' dinner, spoke to Debra Tice, Austin's mom. Just so for her sake, does that indicate that she should have more hope this morning that her son is going to come home after 11 years?

KIRBY: What I hope that indicates to her, and to everyone who cares about Austin, is that the United States has not forgotten him, either, and we're going to continue to work on trying to get his -- the best information we can about Austin. We want to see -- we want to see this issue resolved. We want to see him home as well. So I -- I hope that Debra can understand how -- how seriously we're taking his detention as well and -- and trying to get this resolved as quickly as we can.

HARLOW: Hopefully those words can bring her some comfort this morning.

COLLINS: Absolutely.

KIRBY: We hope so.

COLLINS: John Kirby, a lot of topics there. Thank you so much for your time this morning.

KIRBY: You bet.

HARLOW: Protesters flooding the subway stations here in New York where a homeless died after a passenger put him in a chokehold. Now police, prosecutors investigating this. We'll tell you what we know about that case. That's next.



COLLINS: New this morning, ProPublica has just released a new investigative report raising more questions about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' relation -- relationship with that Republican megadonor Harlan Crow. ProPublica says the Texas billionaire actually paid for justice Thomas' grandnephew to attend private boarding schools in Georgia and Virginia after they dug into unrelated court filings.

Justice Thomas had legal custody of the boy who is identified in the report as Mark Martin, are lived with Justice Thomas and his wife and they were said to be raising him as a son. What's unclear this morning is how much the bill was, but ProPublica does say that Crow picked up the full tab according to a school administrator, former school administrator. It could have exceeded $150,000 based on these public records. ProPublica says Thomas did not disclose the payments from Harlan Crow with the payments for the tuition. He did want to disclose a $5,000 contribution to the boy's education from another friend but not these.

Crow's office responded to this report with a statement saying, "Harlan Crow has long been passionate about the importance of quality education and giving back to those less fortunate, especially at-risk youth. It's disappointing that those partisan political interests would try to turn helping at risk youth with tuition assistance into something nefarious or political." Joining us now on set Justin Elliot, one of the three ProPublica reporters who broke this story, and this just comes on top of all the other reporting, what did you learn from this?

JUSTIN ELLIOT, REPORTER, PROPUBLICA: Yes, I mean, so, our previous reporting was about Harlan Crow, providing decades really of lavish travel to Justice Thomas on his private jet, on his yacht. But this is really a new category, I mean, this is Harlan Crow paying private school, boarding school, tuition expenses for justice Thomas' relative. It's a boy, Mark Martin, who Thomas was raising as a son, as you mentioned. So, I mean, this is a significant flow of money from influential political donor to a Supreme Court justice.

HARLOW: Lot of questions, one of them being, the disclosure rules changed at some point in time here? Would payments like this $6,000 a month for the school? Would they have been required under the disclosure rules, then?

ELLIOT: Yes, it's a good question. You know, we talked to a number of ethics lawyers about this. And they said that this should really probably be viewed as a gift to Justice Thomas. And any gift over a few hundred dollars in this category should have been disclosed. As you mentioned, Justice Thomas actually disclosed a much smaller gift of a few thousand dollars --

HARLOW: Right.

ELLIOT: -- from another friend, for the same child's education. So, it's totally unclear why he didn't disclose this, and he didn't respond to our questions about that.

HARLOW: Even beyond the disclosure, one of the questions that I have is, can Supreme Court Justices just take anything under the current standards as long as they disclose it, because they don't even know what cases might come before them, before the court?

ELLIOT: Yes, no, it's a great question. I mean, I have friends who work in the government who say they have to be careful about even letting somebody buy them lunch.

HARLOW: Right.


ELLIOT: And, you know, members of Congress absolutely could not take gifts like this. Or if they -- if they could, they'd have to go through some sort of pre-approval process with an ethics committee. I think the larger issue here is really the Supreme Court, there's really no rules, besides the disclosure rules that they have to abide by. So, you know, that's kind of the larger theme here.

COLLINS: And one of the White House Ethics Attorneys, a former White House Ethics attorney, said it's way outside the norm.

ELLIOT: Yes, we talked to that was actually the Former Chief Ethics Lawyer back in the George W. Bush White House, who said that if he'd had somebody on the staff who'd taken this number of undisclosed gifts, you'd want to get them out of the government.

COLLINS: Yes, so, remarkable reporting. Justin Elliot, you and your colleagues have said done so much substantive reporting on this -- in depth reporting on this. So, thank you for hustling over breaking this morning and joining us here on set.

ELLIOT: Thanks so much.

HARLOW: Thanks Justin.

COLLINS: All right, also, this morning, we're tracking this out of San Francisco Nordstrom. Now, the latest retailer to say goodbye to the city. At least 20 major stores have closed recently in the area. We're going to talk to the city's chief economist about those recent departures.

HARLOW: And a terrifying moment caught on camera as a stroller with a baby boy strapped in, so it's rolling for a busy street in Southern California. Look at that, as the baby's great aunt falls struggles to get up. Good Samaritan Ron Nessman came running at the last minute to save that little boy.



RON NESSMAN, SAVED CHILD FROM ROLLING INTO TRAFFIC: I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I did nothing, of course, you know, I'm just glad I realized it was on it, you know.




HARLOW: Well, this just into CNN, the last four men who escaped from that jail in Mississippi was just arrested this morning. His name's Corey Harrison, and he was taken into custody by a resident in Crystal Springs, Mississippi, in a residence, I should say there. According to the sheriff's office, a female acquaintance was also arrested. She's facing charges stemming from the investigation surrounding the inmate's escape. We will bring you more information on this as we get it.

COLLINS: We're also learning more this -- more -- this morning about an investigation that's now underway here in New York. After a subway incident where a man was killed, he been put a chokehold by another passenger. The New York City Medical Examiner's Office has now ruled the death of Jordan Neely, a homicide but to be clear, it is not a ruling on intent or culpability. CNN has learned through law enforcement and military records that a former Marine is the one who held Neely in a chokehold. A witness tells CNN, the victim was quote, acting erratically before that happened still big questions about this. And I should note, CNN has not independently confirmed what happened leading up to that incident. We do not know how long the man was restrained, we do not know whether or not he was armed. Mayor Eric Adams, excuse me, says that this comes back to mental health.


ERIC ADAMS, MAYOR OF NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK: We don't know exactly what happened here until the investigation is thorough. This what highlights what I've been saying throughout my administration. People who were dealing with mental health illness should get the help they need and now live on a train. And I'm going to continue to push on that.


COLLINS: Mayor Adams told Abby Phillip he wanted to learn more about that investigation. Joining us now, CNN's Chief Law Enforcement and Intelligence Analyst John Miller, John a lot of questions here about what happened. And this particular incident, what was going on before, you have learned more about the victim here though.

JOHN MILLER, CNN CHIEF LAW ENFORCEMENT AND INTELLIGENCE ANALYST: So, the victim is a 30-year-old man Jordan Neely. He's got 65 encounters with the NYPD arrest for petty larceny, jumping the turnstiles, 16 encounters as an emotionally disturbed person. But notably, three assault arrests for unprovoked attacks by punching women on the subway. Now, it's important to note, the person who engaged him in this --

COLLINS: Didn't know that.

MILLER: -- couldn't have had any of that information. But it shows that, you know, there are people that are in the subway, living in the subway, prowling the subway unhinged individuals. And these encounters are something that every subway writer in New York knows about. They usually don't end this way.

HARLOW: Right, and you think about we're about to get on the subway the day this happened, you know, and my husband and I were talking I mean, makes you think again, right? But this is what millions of New Yorkers rely on. We rely on to get around all the time. The question is where legally, where does this go? The medical examiner said this is a homicide, but that's not a legal implication. That's the manner of death. Grand Jury, do you think this goes before? Does the former Marine get arrested? What do you think?

MILLER: Well, three ways it could have gone. One, the police could have arrested him and charged him with murder or manslaughter, but they wouldn't do that without the district attorney of Manhattan.

HARLOW: Right, Alvin Bragg.

MILLER: And joining them in concurring on that charge. The district attorney wants to look to the case more. Now, what the district attorney can do after reviewing all the video and interviewing all the witnesses can decide to authorize a charge and direct the police to make that arrest. Or there's the third option, which is probably, the more likely given the history of such cases, which is they'll put all the facts into a Grand jury of 23 New Yorkers from Manhattan. They'll hear from the witnesses, they may hear from the suspect if he agrees to testify. They'll get all the video, they'll play out all the facts, and they will ask the Grand jury whether to indict or not indict.

COLLINS: Advocates for the homeless, some city officials here in New York are calling for the arrest of that former Marine saying that should happen. Is there a chance that happens as they're doing that as they're investigating and looking at this video and hearing from witnesses?

MILLER: There's going to be pressure, this case presses a lot of buttons, a lot of emotional buttons involving race, involving fear in the subways, involving looking at that video and, you know, all you have to do is squint and you see George Floyd or Eric Garner. So, this is going to be Something of controversy and emotion. The district attorney's lot in this case is to stick with the law and the process, but there's going to be a lot of pressure.

HARLOW: Really quickly, do you think there's anything more that could be done right now to make our subway safer and feel safer? MILLER: Well, that's two different things. And it's a really interesting question because ridership is up.

HARLOW: I know.

MILLER: Crime is down.

HARLOW: I know.