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Erin Burnett Outfront

Senior U.S. Official: Russian Troops Could Move Into Pro-Moscow Regions Of Ukraine As Soon As Tonight; Putin Orders "Peacekeeping" Russian Forces Into Ukraine After Recognizing Two Territories As Independent States; Sources: U.S. Security Council Expected To Meet Tonight As Putin Orders Russian Forces Into Pro-Moscow Regions Of Ukraine; Report: Trump Org Holding Talks To Host Saudi-Backed Golf League; Trump Allies Help Pressure Florida Officials For New Voting Laws. Aired 7-8p ET

Aired February 21, 2022 - 19:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Brian Stelter, thanks as usual for joining us.

And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM." You can always follow me on Twitter and Instagram @WOLFBLITZER. You can always tweet the show @CNNSITROOM.

Erin Burnett OUTFRONT live from Ukraine starts right now.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: OUTFRONT next breaking news, live from Ukraine, a top U.S. official telling CNN Russian troops could start moving into Ukraine as soon as tonight, this after Putin makes his first move and recognizes two territories in eastern Ukraine.

Plus, an administration official now telling CNN that Putin's passionate speech was meant to 'justify war'. Will Putin use his address as the first step to invade Ukraine?

And Trump wants to strike a deal with the Saudis reportedly pushing to host their new and controversial golf league at his resorts. Let's go OUTFRONT.

And good evening. I'm Erin Burnett. Welcome to a special edition of OUTFRONT live from Ukraine tonight.

We begin with the breaking news, Putin ordering troops into Ukraine and a U.S. official tells CNN that that could happen as soon as tonight. In what could be a prelude to war, Putin sending what he calls peacekeeping forces to two regions of this country. Regions controlled by Russian-backed separatists and Putin today recognize those regions as independent states.

Putin tonight making it clear that this is much bigger though than even those two Ukrainian regions.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA (through interpreter): Ukraine has never had a consistent tradition of being a true nation.


BURNETT: Now the world is scrambling to respond, Putin's move triggering military and security meetings in capitals across Europe from Ukraine to France. President Biden tonight speaking with Ukraine's President, Volodymyr Zelensky, for 35 minutes.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeting, "Kremlin recognition of the so-called 'Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republic' as 'independent' requires a swift and firm response, and we will take appropriate steps in coordination with partners."

Well, I'm going to speak with President Biden's Principal Deputy National Security Adviser in just a moment. But first, you must remember that tonight there are nearly 200,000 Russian troops and fighters already in and around Ukraine and Western officials telling CNN that Putin now has about 35 battalions in what is called tactical formation, which means that they're actually poised to attack.

It's a level of preparation that can really only be sustained for days, just a matter of a few days before Putin has to choose is he going to attack or pull them back. Putin's address tonight to the Russian people was lengthy and passionate. He called Ukraine a puppet of the U.S. and he said there is no reason that Ukraine shouldn't still be part of Russia.


PUTIN (through interpreter): Why did we have to transfer the rights to the territories? We have been historically part of the Russian Empire and they've received even stretches of their national territorial units. Why? Why? Again, I am asking you, why did we have to be so generous? This is just madness.


BURNETT: One thing that would be madness is the biggest war since World War II in Europe if such a thing actually happens. But that is exactly what the Biden administration says tonight that Putin is planning.


JAKE SULLIVAN, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: We also have intelligence to suggest that there will be an even greater form of brutality, because this will not simply be some conventional war between two armies. It will be a war waged by Russia on the Ukrainian people to repress them, to crush them, to harm them.


BURNETT: And here in Western Ukraine, in this tense moment, there is fear and fatigue, but also fortitude. This was a mass at a church for military families that I attended, it was packed. It was packed. Priest focusing on the 108 Ukrainians who lost their lives six years ago in a crackdown against freedom protests, and you can see how many people were in that church.

Young Ukrainian military of visible presence outside that church marching. And regular civilians still also standing strong, despite frankly, some fear. Today, Diana Borychenko, an English professor at Lviv University and a tour guide here ran into her in the street, she told me that while she's been economically hurt because people are canceling their trips here, she still believes in the military here and her country.


DIANA BORYCHENKO, TOUR GUIDE: I'm sure that Ukrainian Army is the strongest army in Europe, because of its experience.

BURNETT: You have confidence in the armed forces?

BORYCHENKO: Yes. We have a lot of volunteers. We have big patriotism. Ukraine is one of the patriotic countries. Yesterday there was a parade of people here saying that Ukraine is one country and we're not going to let the enemy in.



BURNETT: And these local designer T-shirts for kids capture the sentiment that we have been showing you for over a week now, many Ukrainians define themselves by a will to fight, fight like a Ukrainian. Those are kids T-shirts.

Matthew Chance live tonight in Kyiv, east of where I am tonight, obviously, in the center of this country and the focus here. Matthew, how are officials responding there tonight?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, up until just a few seconds ago, that hadn't really been much of a response from Ukraine officials. But as I'm speaking to you now, President Zelensky of Ukraine is making an address to the nation.

I've just heard the first bit of it, he said, look - he's calling on his partners around the world to give support to Ukraine and I'm paraphrasing him a little bit, obviously. He's also saying that Ukraine will follow a diplomatic path or wants to follow a diplomatic path when it comes to addressing this issue and these are the first remarks that President Zelensky of Ukraine has made.

Since those stunning announcements that we got from Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart, within the past few hours, in which after a long and rambling and angry speech about Ukraine's - or his interpretation of Ukraine's history and how it was created by the Soviet Union and was in traditional Russian lands.

He recognized the independence of two Ukrainian rebel Republic's in the in the east of the country, something that has been taken as a further escalation of the conflict here. Also, that recognition was accompanied by a friendship and cooperation agreement, which allows Russian forces to enter the country that allows them to use military bases there is one of a whole range of other things.

Already tonight, there's been a further escalation by the Kremlin, with them ordering the Russian army to maintain peace, as they call it, inside those rebel republics that have now been recognized by Russia. And so we're expecting to see Russian troops, that's not been confirmed yet, we're expecting to see or this is a possibility that Russian forces could soon be deployed inside those rebel republics, as I say. That's being confronted with widespread condemnation around the world. Erin?

BURNETT: All right. Thank you very much. Matthew Chance.

And OUTFRONT now, I want to go to President Biden's Principal Deputy National Security Adviser, Jon Finer. And I appreciate your time very much.

So let me just start off with the basics here, if Putin is putting troops in Donbas, he calls them peacekeeping, but they are military troops. Do you define that as an invasion?

JON FINER, WHITE HOUSE PRINCIPAL DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: So what President Putin has done already today is something that we are appalled by but not surprised by. The entire spectacle that unfolded in Moscow was more or less predicted publicly by President Biden and some of his comments by Secretary of State Tony Blinken in his comments to the U.N. Security Council and something we were prepared to respond to and we already have responded to through an executive order that this administration put out tonight.

We've also said that we plan to take additional actions tomorrow in terms of what is actually happening on the ground in the Donbas region of Ukraine. We have seen reports, but we are basing our actions on what Russia actually does, not the statements that Russia makes, we're going to continue to assess overnight, and the steps that Russia takes and we will be prepared with a significant response tomorrow.

BURNETT: Okay. So let me just understand though then just the basics. I understand you're waiting to see if they actually walk over the line, but the Secretary of State, of course, Tony Blinken said very specifically on January turning 21st that if Russian forces move across the border into Ukraine, it's a 'renewed invasion'. So this would be, if one troop walks over that border or drives over, however it is, a renewed invasion, correct?

FINER: So I'm going to repeat what I just said, which is we are not going based on what Russia has stated. I understand that he made a statement about deploying what they call peacekeepers but they're not peacekeepers.

BURNETT: No, I know, I understand that. But I'm saying I understand they haven't done it yet, but if they - right, I'm sorry, we have a bit of a delay. I don't mean to be talking over you, but if a troop comes over that border, if that happens in the next two hours or three hours or whatever it is, when that happens, is that an invasion?

FINER: What I'm telling you is that we will be prepared with a significant response tomorrow based on whatever it is Russia does overnight. We're going to continue to assess this. I will remind you though, Erin, that Russia has occupied that part of Ukraine for eight years now. They have said all along that these were separatists that were taking military action against Ukraine. The reality was that those separatists were backed by and in many cases supported by the presence of Russian forces already on the ground over the last eight years.

So that history is important. We're going to continue to assess the situation overnight and we will talk more about the significant actions that we plan to take tomorrow.

BURNETT: Okay, So in that context, Secretary Blinken has said, and I quote him, "If President Putin decides to take military action, we will swiftly impose severe economic sanctions."


And I do understand that you said these are going to be the most severe measures we've ever contemplated against Russia. It could mean that their money is no good overseas. They have no access to the banking system. They are the most severe sanctions possible.

If troops go in, is that the level. I mean, you're going all the way up to 100 to DEF CON level or is there a possibility of a lower sanctions level that you might impose for what they're going to do in Donbas?

FINER: So we will take actions based on the actions that we see Russia take actually on the ground. We've been consulting all day today. As you said, President Biden with the leaders of France, and Germany and of Ukraine, we were going to continue to look at the picture of what unfolds overnight in close consultation with our European partners and allies and we are going to take a set of actions tomorrow in response to whatever we see. We expect our European partners and allies will take actions too and that those will include significant sanction steps.

BURNETT: So I want to ask you one thing here, I'm in Lviv and I know that is where some of the remaining members of the embassy had come for a time. There's a report in Bloomberg that they have now been removed and taken to Poland. Can you confirm that?

FINER: So I will defer to the State Department to make any announcements about that exact question. But the President has already made clear, the Secretary has already made clear that we would take whatever steps were required to keep our diplomatic personnel safe. That is why we have transferred our embassy operations from Kyiv to Lviv in recent days and if the Secretary determined that further steps were necessary, then he will take them.

BURNETT: Right. Okay. That was obviously a pretty specific report in Bloomberg tonight.

One other question for you, if I can, Jon. President Biden said on Thursday, he believes Russia could invade Ukraine in 'the next several days'. We are four days later. Do you expect eminent - it's a loaded word these days - but do you expect military action to be launched by Putin in the next hours or day?

FINER: What we've said and we continue to believe this is absolutely the case based on the latest intelligence that Russia could take this military action at any time. That means it could take this military action tonight or tomorrow or in the days ahead. We fully expect that Russia will take this military action. We have offered them and we continue to hold out some prospect of a diplomatic off ramp for Russia, should they choose to de escalate the conflict that way, but all signs that we see on the ground, including the pageantry that unfolded the Kremlin today suggests a step towards additional military action, not diplomacy.

BURNETT: So when you did say you there was still a hope that you had of some sort of an off ramp, can I just ask you about the meeting, there was tentatively possibly going to be a meeting between President Biden and Putin. There also, of course, was scheduled to be a meeting between the Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Are those still possible given what happened in Donbas tonight, the announcement, or are they completely off the table?

FINER: So we're consulting with our partners and allies on exactly those questions. The step that Russia has taken, frankly, today is a step away from diplomacy. It was a step to shred an international agreement that Russia made the Minsk agreement, which is the only agreement that has been made among the various countries involved in the Ukraine crisis.

We are not closing the door to diplomacy, but as to whether that meeting will go ahead, it will depend on what happens in the coming days, because we've also been quite clear that there can be no diplomatic meeting either with the foreign ministers, the Secretary of State and Foreign Minister Lavrov or with the President if Russia takes further military action in Ukraine.

BURNETT: All right. Jon Finer, thank you very much, the Principal Deputy National Security Adviser. I appreciate your time. And I want to go straight now to John Sipher, former CIA Deputy Chief of Russian operations.

So, John, when you hear the Principal Deputy National Security Adviser there, what do you take away from that?

JOHN SIPHER, FORMER CIA DEPUTY CHIEF OF RUSSIAN OPERATIONS: Well, I don't want to burst anybody's bubble. But I want to make it clear that those Russian peacekeepers are not there to keep peace. Vladimir Putin failed terribly in the Donbas. He thought that Russian speakers would rise up and fight the Ukrainians. They didn't do it.

So he sent in Russian troops sort of hidden and thought he would win then and they didn't. So now he's sending in peacekeepers and saying that he's recognizing this. That will fail too. But it does cross a line and we have to be - I understand that the Deputy National Security Adviser is being careful with words. They have to get their ducks in row. BURNETT: Yes.

SIPHER: But the problem here is we've been mealy-mouthed for years and years. When we say we're going to do something tough, we have to do something tough or Putin sees that as weakness and moves forward.

BURNETT: Of course, the thing is, I guess, their decision is if they're going to go in and start high, stay high as they've said with sanctions. If you're going to go in at DEF CON level, there's nothing worse to come. So it's as if he's going to get that for something that he just did. Does that encourage him to go for something much bigger because he's got nothing lose?


SIPHER: No, that's a good point but that's the problem, that sort of shows our weakness because if all we have is sanctions and, yes, we don't have much to offer, and it doesn't really push back much on Vladimir Putin. The sanctions can be bad, but those are after the fact. We have to start doing things by making it clear that we're going to send more troops to Europe, we're going to send more weapons to Ukraine. We're going to do no fly zones outside of Ukraine. We're going to do a number of these kinds of things.

We need to show Putin that we're serious, especially if you listen to his nutso speech today. We have to make - he believes this stuff and so we need to really start to toughen up here and sanctions are just one piece of that.

BURNETT: I want to show something, John, I know you saw but anyone who didn't see Putin's address to the Russian nation tonight did not see the room. This was when he was speaking to his security council or before the actual address to the nation to be clear.

And according to the Moscow Bureau Chief of the Financial Times, we know these are the senior most Russian officials over there sort of arrayed social distance. None of them were within 20 yards of Putin at any point. There was a press poll taking pictures, hence, the Financial Times is able to say this definitively.

In light of that long table that we saw the other day, which applied to certain presidents, not all, not one who took a Russian PCR test, these are all Russian PCR'd people who are in the inner circle of Putin, so that can't be the excuse. What do you make of it?

SIPHER: Yes. There's been a lot of reports that Putin is getting more and more paranoid. He's obviously been cracking down domestically for the last six months to a year quite a bit. There's been stories about people visiting and have to wait in quarantine for weeks to go visit him. You're a dictator for 20 years, you worry about not dying in your sleep as an old man, so it looks crazy.

But listen, I assumed when I heard that speech today that Putin knows that his lies are lies. But listening to him today, it sounds like he really believes his own BS. It's almost like a Russian version of QAnon stuff and that's scary, because if he actually believes this stuff. It's hard to negotiate with crazy.

BURNETT: John, thank you.

And next, we're going to take you to Southeastern Ukraine where Putin's forces could soon be moving in. So just how worried are people who live there tonight?

Plus, Trump reportedly courting Saudis so that he can host their golf league. Of course, for Trump, it's all about money, how much.

Plus, an inside look tonight of baseless allegations of voter fraud in Florida that are now fueling demands to change the state's election laws.



BURNETT: Breaking news, the U.N. Security Council expected to hold an urgent meeting in less than two hours on Ukraine after Vladimir Putin announced he will recognize the independence of two Ukrainian regions in the eastern part of this country, regions that are controlled by pro-Russian separatists.

It is a move that multiple officials say puts Putin perhaps just hours away from sending troops into the region, he has approved sending troops in, he calls them peacekeeping troops. They are, of course, military troops.

Alex Marquardt is in southeastern Ukraine tonight. And Alex, you were on the ground in the East throughout the past week and I know tonight, you've had a chance to speak with people you met there. Obviously, all of this, even down to the brief address just given by the president of this country happened in the late hours of tonight into now the early to mid-hours of the middle of the night. What are you hearing?

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. That's right, Erin. But because of all this concern, people, of course, as you can imagine, are very much online tonight, posting their thoughts on social media. Now, we just came from Mariupol, which is in the far southeast of the country, it is in the Donbas region. There was a small rally there tonight, I believe we have some pictures of that, that we were sent that with people holding up signs that say amongst others, Mariupol is Ukraine.

Now that area is one that we believe is of great interest to President Putin because it is right in the middle of what would be a land bridge, a connection between Crimea, which you see the last time he invaded Ukraine and the area where he is now sending peacekeepers.

Erin, we did a piece for your show just last week, where we met a priest who has a church and Mariupol. He's also a military chaplain and he told us at the time that we are preparing for the worst but hoping for the best. Tonight he tells us that history is being written in front of them. He says that they do not have any fear. He says that should this be a large scale war that he will do what needs to be done.

And he went on to say that this could be the first time if they end up fighting the Russians, that the Russian mask will be off and the Ukrainian military will actually face officially the Russian military. Because, of course, they've been facing Russia-backed fighters and widespread belief that actual Russian fighters are among them.

At that same church, we met someone who said that they are praying for one thing praying for peace. So Erin, there is a lot of confidence and patriotism tonight, a lot of confidence in their Ukrainian military. But there's obviously going to be a lot of concern that that military could be facing off against the Russians, one of the most powerful militaries in the world. Erin?

BURNETT: You. Thank you very much, Alex. Yes, it is amazing, the patriotism and the belief in their military. We haven't seen a lot of the training drills and stuff put up by them only a couple videos, whereas the Russian's Ministry of Defense was putting out propaganda videos all the time. But there is great belief in the armed forces here.

OUTFRONT now retired U.S. Army Major General James 'Spider' Marks and Jeffrey Edmonds who was the NSC Director for Russia under President Obama and also a former Military Analyst for the CIA.

So Jeffrey, you think that this will not stop with the troops that Putin has now ordered to go into Donbas that he calls peacekeepers, you think that Putin is ready to invade and occupy half of Ukraine?

JEFFREY EDMONDS, FMR. NSC DIRECTOR FOR RUSSIA & FMR. CIA MILITARY ANALYST: I do. I think, given what he said today, and the force posture you have on the Russian side that he's preparing for a major operation. You don't really need 70 percent of Russia's ground forces opposite Ukraine to just recognize the separatist republic.

So I think what we're going to see as Russian forces move into the east, you're going to see some kind of false flag operation or something that blames Ukrainian military for attacking the Russians and that will be his move to broaden the campaign.


BURNETT: So look, there are still different views here of what will happen. Gen. Marks, I know you agree with much of what he said that there are great risks, but you think it is possible still that this ends up being almost bloodless like Crimea in 2014, tell me why?

JAMES MARKS, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, not entirely bloodless. But, yes, I think this is going to approximate more Crimea than the Balkans in the '90s, which we remember as a horrible slaughter until the Dayton Accords and then the U.S. rolled in and the stabilization force, et cetera.

What we have in the Donbas is we already have a large Russian presence. So the increase of peacekeepers, and let me pause for a second, these aren't peacekeepers. These are peacemakers. There is a difference. There is a distinction here. Peacekeepers don't pick aside. Peacemakers go in and they choose a favorite and then they start breaking heads on the other side.

These are peacemakers and Putin is going to achieve that, but he could do that. He's got a large presence already. He can then bring in the additional forces. And I love the enthusiasm and confidence of the Ukrainian people and clearly the love and support they have for their military, but this is an unfair fight.

I don't know that it's going to be bloodless. But I don't think it's going to approximate the large number of corpses and dead bodies that one might anticipate with a full invasion, say in the vicinity of Kyiv.

BURNETT: Okay. So let's talk more about that. So Jeffrey, we saw this video near Belgorod, Russia and what it shows, and I'll show it to viewers, it shows Russian vehicles marked with a large Z, which suggests that they are in attack positions. And obviously, when we make that distinction, when they move forward in that way, they can't stay in formation very long. They have to attack or they have to go back. They have hours or days that they can do that, that's it. So what do you see when you see these tanks with the Zs on them?

EDMONDS: So I think it's probably signifying that they're part of a larger task force. It could also be to distinguish friend from foe so that friendly forces aren't shooting each other. But I think you're right, we're seeing the way that they're deployed, they're outside of their camps and when you do that, you can only maintain that kind of posture for a short amount of time before you have to actually pull the trigger and conduct an operation or go into a more reserved status where you can maintain your forces.

MARKS: Hey, Erin, can I ...

BURNETT: So, Gen. Marks, everyone ...

MARKS: ... I'm sorry.

BURNETT: ... yes, go ahead.

MARKS: No, I was going to follow up on that.

BURNETT: Yes, go ahead.

MARKS: When you mark the vehicles like that, it's exactly as he indicated. I mean, we did that before we went to war in Iraq. Every place we deploy, we mark our vehicles only because in the dust and confusion of combat, a friendly tank might be looking at another friendly tank and panic and not know exactly what's in his or her sights.

And so fratricide is always something that's a huge concern for militaries. So I see that as a force protection move on the part of the Russians.

BURNETT: Gen. Marks, quickly before we go, how do you think about Jeffrey's point which is - look, you've got - how do you have 200,000, I understand in and around, but all these troops on the border if you don't plan to use them? How do you explain that in a situation that ends up more like Crimea?

MARKS: What happens, I think, a plausible scenario here is Putin can move into the Donbas maybe with some additional forces, as we've indicated and then in very quick order. I mean, he's been there for eight years, so he has sources. He's got folks in those two regions, those two provinces, he could have an election in the very near term.

And then the concession is, as a result of that election, sham election, everybody says, yay, we love Russia and we want to be a part of Russia. All those forces, then - he then indicates all those forces will go away. So it becomes something that he's willing to give up, but they stay in place until he doesn't need them.

BURNETT: All right. Thank you both very much.

MARKS: Thank you, Erin.

BURNETT: And next, Trump reportedly trying to strike a deal with the Saudis to host a possibly lucrative and controversial golf league. The reporter who broke that story is next.

Plus, an inside look at the baseless widespread election fraud claims in Florida that could result in some of the state's voter rolls being purged.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... have yet to see something that is factual that needs to be addressed.




BURNETT: Tonight, former President Trump looking to host events for a new and controversial golf league funded by Saudi's government. That's according to "The Washington Post", which reports one property being eyed for the tour is Trump's golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey, which was scheduled to host the PGA championship this year.

But, the PGA said no way, and pulled the whole event after the deadly insurrection.

Trump's course in Doral, Florida, is also being considered for the tour.

OUTFRONT now, Josh Dawsey, who broke the story for "The Post".

So, Josh, this could be very lucrative. This is what it's all about for Trump, and when some say the presidency was also -- how lucrative? JOSH DAWSEY, POLITICAL INVESTIGATIONS REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST:

We don't know the specifics, but we do know that the Saudis are offering incredibly large purses, 20, 30, $40 million for a golf tournament. They're trying to blow away some of the PGA tourers, the best players, and trying to enlist a number of courses across the eastern seaboard, and across maybe the rest of the country, to. What they are basically doing is, blanketing this tour with cash. They are putting so much money on, it that it is becoming a very real threat for the PGA tour.

And what this would do for former President Trump was he's pushing Doral, lost its tournament during his presidency, because of the comments that he made. Bedminster also lost PGA championship because of the January 6th, they pulled it away three days after that.

So, it would give him, you know, a modicum of success for his forces, if he could get some of these players and some of this tour to come and do their events there .


BURNETT: Right. I know that's the question, whether you get players. Phil Mickelson did an interview where he said, why would I go, you know, they murder people, Saudi prince killed Khashoggi, this is what he said, why would I join, it because I want to transform golf. It was a shocking moment.

The CIA did conclude that the Saudi Arabian crown prince was behind the murder of "Washington Post" journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But Trump, of course, has consistently defended, and praised him, while he was president, as you know, Josh.

Just a reminder. Here we go.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT: I hate the crime, I hate was done, I hate the cover-up. I will tell you this -- the crown prince hates it more than I do. They have vehemently denied it.

Saudi has been a great ally. They've been a tremendous investor in the United States.

It's a great honor to have the crown prince with us. We really have a great friendship, a great relationship.


BURNETT: I mean, Josh, here's the thing. If he hadn't been president, he would not have these relationships that he has with the Saudis. That's the reality of it. It's the first trip that he took as president. He spent time on that relationship, and it's now paying off.

How deep is the relationship? DAWSEY: Well, he defended the Saudis at all costs, there were some of

his advisers to that urged him to take a more difficult line against the state the Saudis. They urged him to impose sanctions, to have them answer for human rights violations. They urged him to publicly speak out against the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the former "Washington Post" columnist.

And former President Trump does not want to do that. He frequently touted their wealth, their power, in that region of the world. He wanted to do arm sales with them. Jared Kushner was very close with the young MBS, and Jared Kushner was recently spotted over in Saudi Arabia at one of these golf tournaments.

So, it's hard to really overstate, way to close relationship Donald Trump cultivated with the Saudis. The reason that he said he did it, was that they are an important player in the world. Of course, we know he's a good relationship, but -- it brought a lot of criticism what the Saudis did various things throughout his presidency and he defended them, even when others urged him not to.

BURNETT: All right. Josh, thank you. Josh's reporting in "The Washington Post".

And next, and inside look at a self described citizens organization, that wants to remove voters from Florida's registration list. And wait until you hear who is behind it.

Plus, a seismic move by the Kentucky horse racing commission tonight. The winner of last year's Kentucky winner spread stripped of his victory and one of the most storied trainers of all time in the process.



BURNETT: Tonight, baseless allegations of widespread voter fraud in Florida -- here we go -- now fueling demands to purge the states of voter rolls and change its election laws. It's all being pushed by a self-described citizens group. Of course, there is no proof of fraud.

Leyla Santiago is OUTFRONT with this "Inside Look".




ROGER STONE, TRUMP ALLY: I'm going to be there.

SANTIAGO: Roger Stone


SANTIAGO: Mike Lindell.

They are all promoting Defend Florida, a self-described citizens organization, touting false claims about widespread election fraud.

CAROLINE WETHERINGTON, CO-FOUNDER, DEFEND FLORIDA: That happened thousands and thousands of times in the 2020 election.

SANTIAGO: Caroline Wetherington, the once president of Women for Trump Florida is a cofounder of Defend Florida. The group, recently, released a report that calls for the purging of voter rolls, and changing Florida election laws. Even though, in November of 2020, Florida's governor, Ron DeSantis, said this.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R), FLORIDA: We are now being looked at as the state that did it right.

SANTIAGO: Defend Florida school founders told reporters, they found more than 5,000 instances of voter, or voting irregularities, in Florida. They say they have signed affidavits to prove all of them.

WESLEY WILCOX, SUPERVISOR OF ELECTIONS, MARION COUNTY: The group has not provided me with any actionable data.

SANTIAGO: Marion County supervisor of elections, Wesley Wilcox, a registered Republican, is the president of the Florida supervisor of elections association, which represents supervisors in the state's 67 counties.

WILCOX: I take it as a slap that they are insinuating that we are not following the law.

SANTIAGO: The group is asking election officials to remove the inactive voters from their legislation list. Voters like this 78-year- old, Sally Davidson.

Did you know you are on that list?


SANTIAGO: We tracked her down, to find out if she was aware that Defend Florida had deemed her voter registration, problematic.

DAVIDSON: They cannot take my God given, constitutional right away from me, because, as the Constitution is written, now, it does not say failure to vote.

SANTIAGO: She hasn't voted in decades, but remains active in the electoral process by signing petitions.

Defend Florida also claims it discovered tens of thousands of people registered at locations that are not residential addresses. At the top of their list of examples, over 9,100 registered at the Crestview Courthouse.

We reached out to the Okaloosa County, where the courthouse is located. They tell us, there is actually 7,670 registered voters at the court house. It is an address that the county assigned to them, because, around half are active military, or they're family members.

WILCOX: They may, literally, be in Afghanistan, Germany. They still are eligible to vote.

SANTIAGO: The others are those without a physical address, like a voter living in a boat, or an RV.

This month, Florida Republicans introduced a new bill, aiming to put in place many of the measures Defend Florida is pushing. It's calling for an office of election crimes, and security, more voter ID requirements, adding steps to more limits on vote by mail, and requires county supervisors of elections to update the voter registration lists more often.


WETHERINGTON: We didn't have a totally clean election cause we have dirty voter rolls, but at least the people of Florida came out and voted.

WILCOX: I have yet to see something that is factual, that needs to be addressed.


BURNETT: So, Leyla, in all of your reporting, okay, were you able to find any -- any evidence to back up this group's claims?

SANTIAGO: No. No proof at all for some of their claims.

Here's another example, Erin. We looked at the claim they made in their report that they found a voter in Alachua County that voted and then drove 300 miles to Broward County, voted again the same day. We reached out to Alachua County election officials to look at that claim. They had already looked at it and they realized the group was talking about two separate individuals with similar voting information that voted separately.

So, again, another example without proof or evidence to back it up. And, Erin, we should mention we reached out to the co-founders on multiple occasions, tried to talk to them about this, but our request for an interview were denied.

BURNETT: Wow, it's one of those things where one said and it's repeated and repeated and nobody ever checks.


BURNETT: Thank goodness you're out there checking on the truth. Leyla, thanks.

And next, the shocking move rocking the sports world tonight. One of horse racing's most dedicated winners suspended, stripped of a Kentucky derby win.

And more of our reporting here in Ukraine, where Putin's moves are now testing his ties with the world's other superpower, China.



BURNETT: New tonight, Medina Spirit no longer the winner of the Kentucky derby. The Kentucky Horseracing Commission, they stripped the horse of the 2021 victory, after the horse failed the drug test after finishing the race. Hall of Fame trainer, the trainer of Medina Spirit, Bob Baffert, one of the most storied names in all of sports is being punished, being suspended for 90 days.

It also means the owners of Mandalorian, the horse that came in second by just a small amount, half a length, will get the nearly $2 million for finishing in first.

Nick Watt is OUTFRONT.

And, you know, Nick, you have covered so much of what's going on in the world, the doping on the race tracks, some of the very dark and seedy sides of the sport. Nine months now since the Kentucky Derby Race and this is just happening now. It does involve one of the most powerful and prestigious trainers in the sport.

What happened?

NICK WATT, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, listen. Doping allegations always take a while to iron out and figure out what's happening. And, also, Bob Baffert really fought this hard. To start with, he said he had no idea how the drug, betamethasone, which is an anti-inflammatory, could have gotten into the horse. He fought to have the samples independently analyzed.

And he said, listen, this must have been in a skin ointment. It wasn't injected into the horse, therefore, by law, it's okay. But the Kentucky stewards were having none of that. Hence this ruling today.

And, Erin, this is also far from over. I got this statement from one of Baffert's lawyers this morning. He told me, I am very disappointed in the ruling. It runs contrary to the scientifically proven facts. We will be filing an immediate appeal.

Bottom line, this is only the second time in the 147 runnings of the Kentucky Derby that a winner has been disqualified for drugs. And you mentioned, Medina's Spirit, no longer a winner after a collapse at a training run. The necropsy shows it appears to be a cardiac issue -- Erin.

BURNETT: I know part of it is Bob Baffert is fighting this. It is not the fines, $7,500. For him, that would be de minimis.

But for him, it is because it is his legacy and this is a guy who went as a hero and now is going to be one of two disqualified. I mean, he has won two triple crowns, six Kentucky derbies. What is the impact on Bob Baffert? WATT: Well, I mean, it's massive. First of all, they have to return

the $1.86 million winnings. Now, secondly, he is banned for 90 days which means he won't be in the derby. He wasn't anyway. But also, he won't be able to enter horses in the Preakness stakes which is the second of that fabled Triple Crown horse racing season.

So he won't be able to do that. It could hit his livelihood. Will owners stick with him if he can't enter horses into these big races?

And also, his reputation has already taken a hit. This is a goliath in this sport of horse racing. He has been in this game for more than 30 years, winnings of over $300 million. He has taken a hit.

Today, the Animal Wellness Action called him American horse racing's most infamous violators. They say they're elated. He won't be in the derby.

If you put money in the derby, this doesn't change anything. What matters is the declaration on the day. So if you had money on it, the change is nothing -- Erin.

BURNETT: All right. Nick Watt, thank you very much.

And next, China. A super power, actually, really, if you think about it, one of the most crucial ways, the most powerful foreign player in Ukraine. I'll tell you why.



BURNETT: And now, a power player in the shadows of the super power showdown in Ukraine. Here's something really interesting. I went to a hotel here in Lviv. It calls itself Chinese friendly. The signs for the elevator, the breakfast room, the times of day, the conference center are all in Ukrainian, English and Chinese.

The hotel says it offers a Chinese breakfast menu. They say on their website, along with chopsticks. They say they're doing that here in Lviv because Chinese tourism surged 40 percent before COVID-19.

Part of the reason, well, China is now Ukraine's number one trading partner. China bought 51 percent of Ukraine's iron ore in 2020. Exports of food and agriculture from Ukraine to China doubled during the pandemic and some even quadrupled.

Lviv Polytechnic University here tells me they have Chinese students at all degree levels. I mention that because more than half the foreign PhD students here are from China. China has food and raw materials on the line here. That's what the matters. Maybe that's why China's embassy in Kyiv is open, unlike America's.

And, look, it's complicated. On the one hand, China has no love lost for what it represents. Remember those Ukrainian flags at the Hong Kong protests that China brutally suppressed it. And Putin and Xi flouting their strengthening relationship at the Olympics. Yes, that's all true.

But on the other hand, China's foreign minister indicated this weekend that China and Russia may not be exactly on the same page on Ukraine. The foreign minister saying, the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of any country should be respected and safeguarded. Ukraine is no exception.

Now, he drew the line at NATO expansion but it all adds to something to consider. I mean, it's the dire words, the saber-rattling, the deteriorating situation between Moscow and Washington. China has a lot of power here, too, and a lot on the line and it is currently unclear whose side they're fully on.

Thanks so much for joining us. And tonight, on CNN, don't miss the new original series, "LBJ: TRUMP AND TRAGEDY". It starts at 9:00 Eastern.

Meantime, it's time for "AC360."