Return to Transcripts main page

Erin Burnett Outfront

Putin Admits "Losses In Our Ranks" During Speech To Intel Agency; Fox Chose Money, Ratings Over Truth Again And Again; Students, Faculty At Florida Liberal Arts College Protest DeSantis' "Hostile Takeover" With New Conservative Board; Students, Staff Protest DeSantis' Overhaul Of Progressive College; FBI Director Says For The First Time Publicly That He Believes COVID "Likely" Came From Chinese Lab Leak. Aired 7-8p ET

Aired February 28, 2023 - 19:00   ET



ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: OUTFRONT next, Russia tightening its grip, unleashing a barrage of strikes on Eastern Ukraine. We are now hearing from generals on the front line as the battle is now brewing in Washington over providing Ukraine with F-16s.

Plus, follow the money. Fox titan Rupert Murdoch among others admitting that the network lied to viewers about the election to make more money over and over and over again. And we're going to show you in their own words exactly what happened.

And standing up to DeSantis over his conservative takeover of a small progressive college. One professor who's speaking out publicly is my guest tonight.

Let's go OUTFRONT.

And good evening. I'm Erin Burnett.

OUTFRONT tonight, the enemy is raging. Those are the exact words of a Ukrainian general on the front lines in Bakhmut tonight.


UKRAINIAN COMMANDER (through translator): Over the past 24 hours, the enemy is raging, shelling with all they have. They don't really have success on the ground. Hence, they are making it up from the skies. They are just breaking this city into molecules.


BURNETT: Breaking the city into molecules, a city that used to have 70,000 people. We have new video tonight of what the Ukrainians are up against. They are on those front lines. These are the men leading Putin's fight, these Russians from the brutal Wagner group are seen patrolling in the area in and around Bakhmut as they try to root out Ukrainian fighters.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) WAGNER FIGHTER (through translator): We entered into the area literally four days ago. Now it is completely liberated.


BURENTT: Well, you know, here's the reality. They are there on the front lines, and they say they're liberating it of course. U.S. intelligence has estimated that 80 percent of Wagner fighters as of last year were dead or injured -- 80 percent. But it seems that Russians much prefer their odds fighting with Wagner on the front lines than fighting with the formal Russian military there.

Here's a new video that we found of Putin's own soldiers and now pleading with the Wagner Group to let them get out of the military and join the private army instead. Here it is.


RUSSIAN SOLDIER (through translator): Unfortunately, the situation here has led to the disbanding of our regiment. We ask that we be allowed to join your ranks. There are ten of us here who are combat- ready.


BURNETT: Ten might sound pathetic to you. But the reality of it is, when you think about what they're doing, speaking out against the military that they serve, the country they serve for, wanting to fight for Wagner, those words are damning for Putin's generals and for Putin himself. In fact, Putin today admitted to losses, which he almost never does, saying that his top-secret intelligence agency, the FSB, specifically has been suffering losses because of the war.

He is saying that units suffering losses were directly involved in his, quote, special military operation, actively fighting terrorism, organized crime, corruption and extremism, as he called it, talking about death in their ranks.

And it comes as tonight we have new video of the vicious back and forth around Bakhmut. Here you can see Ukrainian forces storming Russian trenches. So that's a trench there that you are looking down on. At one point, a Ukrainian fighter hurls what looks to be a grenade into that trench. And you can see the blast.

Now, obviously what follows is too graphic to show. We're not going to show you that. You can imagine it, and we can tell you, yes, the explosion left the bunker littered with bodies. Human lives now extinguished.

And amidst all this death, Putin's top ally, the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is trying to help get more military aid for Russia. He arrived in China today for a state visit on the same day that the U.S. reiterated concerns that China could up the ante big time in this war, sending lethal military aid to Putin.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We did very clearly warn China about the implications and consequences of going through with providing such support.


BURNETT: Well, in Washington, meanwhile, a battle is raging over U.S. lethal military aid to Ukraine over whether specifically to give Ukraine what President Zelenskyy wants most right now, F-16 fighter jets. The Pentagon saying that they are too costly and it would take too much time to train the Ukrainians on them.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's just hard for me to tell any member of Congress or the American people that the best use of that dollar spent right now is on F-16s.


BURNETT: It may be a fair point, of course, they obviously could've started training them a long time ago for the potential of this. But they're saying they haven't.

Fred Pleitgen is OUTFRONT live in Moscow tonight.

And, Fred, when we see those trenches along those front lines in Bakhmut where you have spent so much time, how is Russia responding?


FRED PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Well, for Russia, obviously, Bakhmut is extremely important.

And one of the things that the Russians are saying now is that they believe that they're very close to encircling the Ukrainian forces that are inside Bakhmut, and, of course, the city of Bakhmut as well. Even though the Ukrainians say that isn't the case yet. But the Russians also acknowledge that a lot of their forces are now active there. A lot of their very strong forces are active there, not just on the ground but also a lot of their front-line aviation.

Here's what we're seeing.


PLEITGEN: Russian war planes bombing Bakhmut. This video posted on state media trying to show the advances the Kremlin's forces are making.

On the ground, mercenaries of the Wagner private military company are leading the assault, the Ukrainians say. These Wagner foot soldiers saying they're close to Bakhmut city limits.

We're approaching Yavidnoy (ph), he says, and Yavidnoy is the entrance into town. This district, our platoon has taken without a single loss. Ukraine says the situation is tough for their troops in Bakhmut. But

that they are clinging on.

While Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin is recruiting even more people in an ad with a top Russian propagandist.

Sign up for PMC Wagner, he says, you'll learn a man's work, and will be in good shape for the upcoming World War III. While Prigozhin claims he's gearing up for world war three, he's also involved in a social media standoff with the son-in-law of Russia's defense minister Sergei Shoigu, after the son-in-law, Alexey Stolyarov, allegedly liked an antiwar blogger's comment on social media, which he later denied doing.

Prigozhin taking aim: We need to catch Stolyarov and bring him to me, he says. I will train him for six weeks since I am a Z red neck myself. I will help him improve by sending him to combat operations.

As the fighting in Ukraine rages on, Russia's president now acknowledges that operatives for the intelligence service, the FSB, are both on the front lines and allegedly behind Ukrainian lines.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): Unfortunately, there are losses in our ranks. The leadership of the FSB must do everything to provide additional support to the families of our fallen comrades.

PLEITGEN: With the FSB boss Alexander Bortnikov on the stage, Putin also said Russian intelligence needs to up its game.

PUTIN (through translator): We need to beef up our counterintelligence in general, because Western special services have traditionally been very active in relation to Russia. Now they have put in additional personnel, technical, and other resources against us. We need to respond accordingly.


PLEITGEN (on camera): It was very interesting watching that speech by Vladimir Putin there in front of the FSB. He, of course, used to be an agent for the KGB, the predecessor organization of the FSB. And you could really see that Vladimir Putin was very comfortable speaking to the FSB operatives and the FSB leadership there as well.

You could also see that the FSB is very important to what Vladimir Putin is doing in Ukraine. He kept talking about how the intelligence service was really important, especially in those newly annexed areas. He says he wants them to improve and to increase their footprint in those areas -- Erin.

BURENTT: All right. Fred, thank you very much, live from Moscow tonight.

I want to go straight now to the Democratic congressman and former army ranger, Jason Crow, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs and Intelligence Committees. Congressman, I really appreciate your time and I want to get straight

to this current, you know, huge request from Ukraine that has really met with a wall in the U.S. and that is the F-16 fighter jets. You've signed a bipartisan letter supporting that, calling on the Biden administration to provide those F-16s. But Biden's comment just the other day about Zelenskyy, quote, he doesn't need F-16s now.

Why is Biden wrong?

REP. JASON CROW (D-CO): Well, Erin, first of all, President Biden and this administration have done a tremendous job of leading and building an international coalition to put Ukraine in the position to win. Not since World War II have we seen a mass mobilization and a logistics operation like we are leading and executing right now to help the Ukrainians fight for their freedom.

But, you know, what I learned in war is that every day is a new day. You can't take for granted the successes of the past days. This war is constantly evolving. It's constantly changing.

Putin is playing a long game. He believes he can continue to send young Russian men into the teeth of the Ukrainian army to be chewed up, and he can just do that for a year, two years, three years.

So, yes, there is a short game that we have to play, it is true we have to send munitions, we have to send tanks, armored personnel vehicles, the things that they need right now. But, at the same time, we have to send the things that they might need in the midterm and longer term. That means we need to start putting the logistics together for the F-16s.

BURNETT: OK. So, I guess I understand you're making a point you've got to start that now because it takes time to train, right, as they're saying.


You know, Adam Smith, your colleague on the Armed Services Committee, he said that it is not a wise use of the resources that are necessary to win the fight on the F-16s. So I guess I'm asking you, not why are they all saying that, but why do you come to a different conclusion? What are the core reasons that the United States should send those F- 16s, start that process now?

CROW: Well, we fight in the United States what's called combined arms, fire and maneuver warfare. And what that looks like is we synchronize all of our forces, our ground forces, our infantry, our armor, that is synchronized with what's called long-range fires, that's long-range rockets, long range artillery. And then it's complimented by air superiority. We have an air cap that goes over all of it that does direct strikes that coordinates everything.

We're now training the Ukrainians on that style of warfare. We have brigades that are rotating through the training fields of Europe and Germany and other places. We're trying to now modernize and change their style of warfare so they can be more effective against a larger Russian army. But they can't do that unless they have all the pieces to that puzzle. And that includes more advanced fourth-generation fighters.

I've been told in my discussions with senior military leaders that we can train these pilots, these Ukrainian pilots and get this ready in three to six months, much faster than I've been told by other folks in the administration.

And the reason we know this is because we have had a nine-year partnership between the California Air National Guard and the Ukrainian air force. For nine years they've been flying and training with the Ukrainians, over a thousand training engagements in that time. And they are telling us the Ukrainians know these systems, they know how to train, they are capable of getting this done.

BURNETT: So, the other pushback, and obviously you're saying three to six months. And the administration is saying a year. So, you're right. It's a very different frame that you're talking about.

But one of the reasons that they have held back on the F-16s. And before that held back on the tanks, right, and before that -- this has been a step process, has been this fear of escalation into World War III. You heard Prigozhin has referred to that.

Putin has made plenty of threats to world war three if the U.S. helps attack inside Russia. And certainly by his definition he would do in Crimea.

So what do you say to that? Do you have -- do you buy into this World War III business, or is it just bluster?

CROW: Well, I don't think there's going to be World War III, but I am concerned about spillover, and President Biden and this administration have actually done a really great job of containing this conflict, making sure we're supporting the Ukrainians, but the United States and NATO are not fighting. Our troops are not involved. And that is the right answer.

But, listen, talk about escalation. What I am concerned about is the escalation of failure. If Russia wins this and conquers Ukraine, what message does that send to autocrats, the dictators around the world, to China, you know, fill in the blank? If we fail, that's escalatory in and of itself, and that's not something I'm willing to accept.

BURNETT: Congressman Crow, thank you very much. I appreciate your time.

CROW: Thank you.

BURNETT: And as the war in Ukraine rages on tonight, many of Putin's political enemies are behind bars in prison. And among them Alexei Navalny who survived a poisoning from a nerve agent in 2020, a poisoning that CNN helped trace back to Russian intelligence and the FSB.

Navalny is now in solitary confinement in one of Russia's most brutal penal colonies. I will speak to his daughter, Dasha Navalnaya, in an exclusive interview on Friday. I'll also be speaking to investigative reporter Christo Grozev, which as you know helped to uncover the people behind Navalny's poisoning.

And Daniel Roher, the director of the award-winning Oscar nominated CNN Film "Navalny." Don't miss "CNN PRIMTIME", "Navalny and the Cost of Standing Up to Putin". It is Friday night at 9:00.

And, next tonight, Fox News on defense as evidence piles up tonight. Hosts knowingly lying to their audiences about the election. I'm going to talk to a former Fox commentator who left the network after 12 years because of something Tucker Carlson said after the election. What was going on behind the scenes there?

Plus, students and faculty pushing back over Ron DeSantis giving their college a conservative makeover.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Does this trustee have the intellectual skills and fiduciary duty to serve the college? Or as he admitted to the media, is he merely a soldier of rhetoric in DeSantis' army?


BURNETT: The professor got a standing ovation for that. She's OUTFRONT.

And the FAA tonight investigating another near collision, this time in Boston. A JetBlue flight was involved. This is the fifth near-miss this year.



BURNETT: Tonight, Fox News reeling, facing growing criticism after just unsealed court documents tonight show Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of its parent company, admitting he put ratings and profit ahead of the truth, and allowed Fox News to push Trump's lies that the election was stolen. And that he knows he could have done more to stop it.

Paula Reid is OUTFRONT.


LAURA INGRAHAM, FOX HOST: Is the fix already in?

PAULA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Explosive new court documents reveal Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch knew his top hosts were pushing election lies. But he admits that driven by money and ratings, he did nothing to stop it.

TUCKER CARLSON, FOX HOST: The outcome of our presidential election was seized from the hands of voters. REID: A Monday court filing in the Dominion Voting Systems, $1.6

billion lawsuit against the right-wing talk channel includes portions of a deposition with Murdoch where he was grilled about Fox's efforts to push election lies.

CARLSON: Thanks so much for coming on.

REID: Murdoch admitted it was wrong for Tucker Carlson to host MyPillow CEO and conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell after the election, making false claims like this.

MIKE LINDELL, MYPILLOW CEO: I've been all in trying to find the machine fraud. And we found it, we have all the evidence.

REID: But when asked why Murdoch let it continue to happen, he said, it is not red or blue, it is green. And Lindell pays us a lot of money.

Paying tens of millions of dollars for ads like this, seen frequently on Fox News.

LINDELL: I want you to get the best night's sleep of your life.

REID: Fox officials also concerned about losing viewers to competition like Newsmax.

Lachlan Murdoch, Rupert's son and executive chairman of Fox, testified the ratings drop would keep me awake at night.


And when former House speaker and Fox Corp board member Paul Ryan warned Rupert Murdoch about the damage being done, telling viewers the election was stolen, the Fox chair responded, saying prime time host Sean Hannity had been privately disgusted by Trump for weeks but was scared to lose viewers.

The lawsuit also revealed the fallout when Fox was the first to call Arizona for Biden on election night.

BRET BAIER. FOX ANCHOR: The Fox News decision desk is calling Arizona for Joe Biden. That is a big get for the Biden campaign.

REID: The court documents showing a scramble behind the scenes to put profits first as viewers repelled against Fox for calling the contest in Biden's favor, staff did, too.

Tucker Carlson texting his producer: We're playing with fire for real. An alternative like Newsmax could be devastating for us.

Later, after Fox News reporter Jacqui Heinrich fact-checked a Trump tweet about votes being destroyed, Carlson texts, please get her fired. Seriously. What the F? It's measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down.

In a statement, Fox News said Dominion's lawsuit has always been more about what will generate headlines than what can withstand legal and factual scrutiny.


REID (on camera): The big question now is will this case go to trial. Both sides are asking for summary judgments. That's a ruling in their favor that would preempt the need for a trial. Possible we could even see a settlement.

But, Erin, as of right now, the trial is scheduled for April in Delaware. And if this goes to trial, this will definitely be one to watch. This is a landmark case.

BURNETT: Absolutely. And it's incredible just to watch all of this and just so clearly admitting not red or blue but green. Paula, thank you very much.

Now let's go to Jonah Goldberg because he left Fox News after 12 years when Tucker Carlson suggested that January 6th could've been a false flag operation. And I also want to note, Jonah, of course, he was subpoenaed and deposed by Dominion in this case, and you can't speak about that.

Also with me, Jim Rutenberg, who has reported extensively on Rupert Murdoch for more than two decades.

And your reporting, Jim, was the basis for CNN's "The Murdochs: Empire of Influence" series.

OK. So, between the two of you, you can write the series on this.

Jonah, the new court documents get to the heart of why you left Fox. You were there for 12 years, right? Was any of this a surprise to you that you see, you know, when you see the reporting, you see the text messages, you see Rupert Murdoch admit it?

JONAH GOLDBERG, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR; LEFT FOX NEWS AFTER 12 YEARS: Surprise -- you know, the difference between the surprise -- I'm not that surprised. But there is the shock of actually seeing it in black and white on the page.

I am still willing to defend a lot of people on the news side at Fox. I just think they get drowned out by the much larger and more privileged megaphone of the opinion side. And I think one of the problems is the perception is that news side is just the tail wagging the dog at this point for the opinion side. And that's because what is important and what screams out in all of these filings is they care more about the brand and, quote, unquote, respecting the audience, and what respecting the audience means telling them what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear.

And in this case, it means, in effect, lying or at least allowing lies to propagate without rebutting them in a coherent and responsible way.

BURNETT: And, Jim, you know, we see this, right? It's not red and blue, it's green, from Rupert Murdoch. He admits in a deposition that he put ratings and profits over telling the truth. Now, I have to say when I read that, I was thinking to myself, this is

the guy who owns the whole thing, basically giving it to them on a silver platter. It's not what you'd necessarily expect in such a deposition.

You know, sort of I had someone else in charge, I don't recall. It wasn't. It was all there.

What do you think is happening here?

JIM RUTENBERG, WRITER-AT-LARGE, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Well, first of all, I would expect Fox's lawyers to say that's Rupert Murdoch, there is some distance here between Rupert Murdoch and the running of the Fox Network, the Fox News Channel. And so, this is -- the argument on the Fox side is they're trying to pull Rupert Murdoch into this.

The issue is what these emails show is that Rupert Murdoch was very much, along with Lachlan Murdoch, involved in conversations about how they were going to repair the broken trust with our audience, the broken trust, we see that come up with these emails, and the trust was broken by declaring Arizona for Biden, by calling Biden president- elect after everybody kind of together made the call the following weekend after the election.

So, fascinating. Again, I would agree with Jonah, not surprising but fascinating to see that this line we all sense they were -- they were bouncing, it was there.

BURNETT: It's interesting. Trust was broken by telling the truth, right? You're right, an incredible sort of thing to just ponder for a moment.

You know, Jonah, when you hear Paula's reporting, Murdoch admits it was wrong to let Mike Lindell appear on Tucker Carlson weeks after January 6th, right?


After January 6th, I was still pushing election lies, all of which have been debunked.

So, Tucker Carlson has him on. Murdoch admitted in this deposition, right, that that was -- that shouldn't have happened. But I want to just play a little bit more of what Lindell said that night on Tucker's show.


LINDELL: I've been all in trying to find the machine fraud. And we found it. We have all the evidence.

I dare Dominion to sue me because then it would get out faster. Why wouldn't everyone want to know the truth of this country? Just let the truth be told.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BURNETT: And he was on as Rupert Murdoch says because he spends a lot of money on ads from MyPillow on Fox News.

Does any of this matter? Now that this is all out there, does any of this matter, Jonah, to the people who watch Fox News?

GOLDBERG: Well, that remains to be seen. One point about the money quotes, Tucker talking about the stock price crashing and this red, it's not red, it's not blue, it's green thing. I think that could be very effective for a jury, assuming all of this turns out to be, as dominion presents it.

Because this is like the last stop to provide accountability to say you can't lie for profit, you can't, you know, whip up paranoid doubts about election integrity for profit. And if the profit motive is what's going on, a juror will say, well, let's fine them for doing this and maybe send a message.

Whether this changes things for Fox, I really don't know. Fox is not reporting on this. They have made it as a matter of policy. They're not going to report or comment on it at all. It's not getting a lot of play in sort of the broader ecosystem of conservative media.

I mean, at "The Dispatch" where, you know, Chris Stirewalt, who's the one guy, one of the only people who was fired for telling the truth, is a colleague of mine, but, for the most part, if they don't hear about it, they probably aren't going to change their opinion because of it.

BURNETT: It's the tree falling in the forest.

Now, Jim on that, separate from that point of how it may impact viewers, do you think the lawsuit poses a threat to Fox News and/or Rupert Murdoch itself?

RUTENBERG: Well, first of all, I'd say, let's see what the damage -- should Fox lose, let's see what the damages will be. Fox News is trying to argue about the valuation of dominion and they'll make that case in court should it go that far.

So -- but financially, if Dominion were to get what it wants here, it's a significant portion of Fox New Channel's annual revenues. So that would be a huge hit. It would survive that hit. I agree with Jonah that its viewers are likely to stick around.

But this will be part of Rupert Murdoch's legacy. He's 92 years old in a couple of weeks, and that will matter to him.

BURNETT: Yeah. All right, thank you both very much.

And, next, students and faculty confront Ron DeSantis' conservative makeover of their small, progressive college.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What you're doing here is not about education. This is political theater.


BURNETT: A professor who spoke out against DeSantis at that meeting got a standing ovation, is next.

Plus, the breaking news, the director of the FBI tonight for the first time acknowledging COVID-19 likely came from a lab leak in China.



BURNETT: Tonight outraged, dozens of students, parents, faculty and alumni of the New College, a small, progressive public college in Sarasota, Florida, speaking out today against Governor Ron DeSantis' conservative takeover of their school. DeSantis has removed six of New College's 13 trustees just in January, insisting that the school had declining enrollment, and was too focused on things like diversity and critical race theory. The board in turn ousted to the college president, appointed a DeSantis ally, and gave him a base salary of $699,000 a year to run this school, which is nearly twice what his predecessor made, and an absolutely enormously large number compared to any college presidents across the country.

Here is just some of what the new Board of Trustees heard today in this emotional and contentious meeting.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'd like to be one of the first students to welcome our new president by letting you know that you are in fact not welcome here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What you're doing here is not about education. This is political theater. You want political theater? We'll give you a shove, and we're not going to make this easy for you.

LIZ LEININGER, ASSOC. PROF., NEW COLLEGE OF FLORIDA" PROTESTING DESANTIS OVERHAUL: Does this Trustee have the intellectual skills and fiduciary duty to serve New College, or, as he is admitted to the media, is he merely a soldier of rhetoric in DeSantis' army? Please make sure to comply with outstanding public records requests in order to not break the law. Thank you.


BURNETT: They just be quickly, right? There was a clock going. You only had your minute of time. "Outfront" now, the professor that you just heard there, Liz Leininger. She teaches biology at the New College. And, Professor (ph), I really appreciate your time. So, you got a standing ovation after your statement aimed at the new board, aimed at the president, and Governor DeSantis. Why did you feel so strongly and choose to speak publicly?

LEININGER: Thank you for having me on your show. I chose to speak publicly because I'm concerned about the governor's attempts to curtail educational freedom at New College, the freedom to study what you would like the freedom to explore different ideas on campus, and also the curtailment of students feeling included and safe and welcome on campus.

BURNETT: So, to be clear, I said you're a biology professor, right? So, you are--


BURNETT: --science and biology. So, the board has come out, and one of the first moves that it did was to abolish the office that handles diversity, equity and inclusion programs,--


BURNETT: --and that's not the area in which you're a professor, right? So, this is just the school you teach at, that happens to be there. Do you think that this is just the beginning, and that is where this is going right now?

LEININGER: I do want to say that as a Professor of Biology and Neuroscience, I care deeply about outreach and inclusive excellence, and deeply about diversity, and fields like gender studies that are in the crosshairs.


LEININGER: I, in fact, teach a course in gender studies, and I stand with all of my gender studies colleagues for their freedom to explore our area. The Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence, in fact, provides lots of really crucial support to our students, such as financial counseling for financially vulnerable students, outreach to the local community, the administration of grants and scholarships, and all of that really good work that that office did was erased by our trustees who actually don't care about that work. They just care about scoring political points.

BURNETT: So, DeSantis went on Fox News, and he explained why he is trying to defund these programs at New College, and added other schools as well. Here is what he said, Professor.


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R), FLORIDA: We're getting the ideology out, and we have every right to do it. Some people think that you have a right to operate inside of a university and do whatever you want and have the taxpayers' fund, any delusion that you may have.


So, what we're doing is really making sure that these institutions are accountable to the voters that have put us into office.


BURNETT: Professor, what do you say to that?

LEININGER: Our institutions are accountable for educating the students of Florida in all of their brilliance and all of their diversity, in all of the different ways that they exist here. And, I would disagree with DeSantis that banning subjects is OK. If you ban a certain subject, that means that any subject of study is up for debate about whether it can be taught or not, and that's not how universities work. We seek the pursuit of truth in open inquiry, and not the banning of ideas or subjects.

BURNETT: All right. Well, Professor Leininger, I appreciate your time. Thank you so much.

LEININGER: Thank you.

BURNETT: All right. And next, the breaking news, the FBI tonight weighing in on the origin of COVID-19. Plus, Bill Maher on the state of American politics now.


BILL MAHER, HOST, HBO'S "REAL TIME": You have Trumpers and then you have wokesters, and those fringes are not doing this country any great favors.



BURNETT: Breaking news, the FBI Director publicly saying for the first time that COVID-19 likely came from a lab leak, Christopher Wray telling this to Fox News.



CHRISTOPHER WRAY, FBI DIRECTOR: The FBI has for quite some time now assessed that the origins of the pandemic are most likely a potential lab incident in Wuhan. So, here you're talking about a potential leak from a Chinese government controlled lab that killed millions of Americans, and that's precisely what that capability was designed for.


BURNETT: I mean, that was just putting it right on the nose, right, responsible for millions of American deaths, right? He didn't just, like, add that on the fly. He wanted to make that point. It comes after the U.S. Department of Energy came to the same conclusion that it was a lab in Wuhan that caused the COVID outbreak. China lashing out over the lab leak theory today, taking on Elon Musk. The Global Times, which is a Chinese state run newspaper, threatened the Twitter CEO, who also happens to of course be the CEO of Tesla, threatened his business dealings in China, after he tweeted about the suspected lab leak in Wuhan. And, this is a big deal for Musk. He has got a huge factory campus in Shanghai. China is the second largest market in the world for Tesla. And, it's just the latest example of how sensitive this topic is.

"Outfront" now, David Feith, he is the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State. He has extensively investigated the lab leak theory and done so since 2020. So, David, since the very beginning here, you have been saying it is very plausible that COVID came from that lab in Wuhan, right, which is in Wuhan, and is designed to study Coronaviruses, and is where scientists - apparently there was - had Coronavirus at some point. Is there a question in your mind that that's where the virus originated?

DAVID FEITH, FMR. DEPUTY ASST. SECY. OF STATE; INVESTIGATED COVID ORIGIN: Well, I think that we don't have certainty here, and it's important to maintain appropriate doubt and care about what we say and what we assert. What we do have, though, is the high plausibility of the lab leak explanation as the origin of COVID. This was a very high plausibility from the absolute beginning of the outbreak. But, it was an explanation that was just about immediately driven underground by all sorts of scientific authorities on these issues.

And, only slowly have people come around to recognizing the plausibility of it, which is important not only for understanding COVID and understanding the U.S. government response, including the shortcomings of our response to the issue, but also for understanding China, how to understand the inherent secrecy, non-transparency and even hostility that comes to us from the Chinese authorities. But, it's especially important for understanding how to prevent the next pandemic.

BURNETT: All right. So, two things I want to ask you from that. There is this lab, there is others there, right? They're studying Coronaviruses. They're tweaking Coronaviruses. They're doing all sorts of things, right, possibly to come up with vaccines for them. But, this is what's happening, and it is not transparent. And, it raises the question, right? It's not just COVID-19 that could leak out of a lab. Something much worse could leak out of a lab, right?

FEITH: That's right. If you combined, for example, the infectiousness of COVID with the deadliness of the SARS-1 virus that created a limited pandemic out of China 20 years ago, you would have not the COVID pandemic that we've just suffered through, which was catastrophic, but really only up to a point. It hit vulnerable populations very badly, but it was not deadly to many other segments of the global population. If you combined the deadliness we had 20 years ago with the infectiousness that we've had from COVID, which is the kind of combination that these laboratory experiments seek to produce, you could have a future pandemic that actually threatens the entire species, which is why taking this possibility seriously is so important.

BURNETT: And, just to be clear, you're saying this is the sort of thing they are working on, right now labs like this.

FEITH: This is the sort of thing they're working on. And, I think we can stipulate, as your question earlier suggested, that there have been good faith motivations for this kind of science. The concept in principle is create super viruses in labs so that you can then create vaccines and therapies to treat them if they were to emerge in nature.

But, the fact is, people have been warning that this kind of lab work can create super viruses that escape because lab leaks happen. They especially happen when you have substandard safety practices, and when you have endemic secrecy as we do in China's politics, and that sort of thing can be devastating. We've now lived through that. And, unfortunately, when this happened three years ago, all sorts of authorities who were familiar with this formerly obscure corner of science did not raise their hand and say, this has been a thing that people warned about, now we have to take it seriously.

BURNETT: No. in fact, you said they drove it underground, this theory, and they did. How big of a failure was it that the United States completely, publicly, and from highest levels, dismissed the theory?

FEITH: It's a really - it is a grim and rather sad failure, and it's says certain things about the public health response that we had, as a government and as academic and expert communities.


It also says certain things about our posture toward China. We should have been, from the very beginning, a lot more careful, deliberate, and even frankly suspicious of the things that we heard from Chinese authorities. But, many U.S. officials and U.S. experts weren't that way. Getting China right is extremely important to future pandemic risk and to our national security, and this was not an impressive case, unfortunately.

BURNETT: David, thank you very much. I appreciate your time.

FEITH: Thank you.

BURNETT: I want to bring in Harry Enten. And, Harry, you hear what he is saying, right? I mean,--


BURNETT: --and the possibility of what could happen because of what's happening in those very labs right now. And then, you hear the Director of the FBI, right, not mincing words. This is what they've come to the conclusion, and that would be that China was responsible for millions of American deaths, right? I mean, he chose to take that extra step and say that. So, three years into the pandemic, how important is it to Americans that we get to the bottom of how it began.

ENTEN: Extremely important. I mean, the clear majority of Americans believe that there should be a U.S. Congressional investigation into the origins of the COVID-19. And, more than that, what you see is a majority of Democrats, majority of Republicans, and a majority of independents believe it's important to hold those investigations. There are so few issues in the American public right now in which you can get a majority of Democrats or Republicans to agree on anything. And, here you get 78 percent of Republicans and 60 percent of Democrats agreeing, it's quite important to the American public. BURNETT: Overwhelming. All right. So, the lab leak idea, right, the theory of it, it came from a lab in Wuhan, was dismissed by the U.S. government for a very long time, right. It had been - it was very clear that it was seen by them as a conspiracy theory. Do Americans believe it?

ENTEN: They've believed it for a year and a half. I was surprised to find a poll from mid-2021 that actually found that the majority of Americans believed it was likely that the way COVID-19 came about was that it leaked from a lab. And, on this particular issue, look, we do see--

BURNETT: Yes. You see the Democrats.

ENTEN: --we do see Democrats less likely than Republicans, but the fact is, you still see a very high percentage of Democrats, 41 percent, and the clear majority of Republicans on this particular issue who believe that in fact COVID-19 likely leaked from a Chinese lab and that majority that 65 percent majority holds through to this day.

BURNETT: Right, and only going to go up. You've got--

ENTEN: Probably so.

BURNETT: And so, what does all this mean for Americans' perception of China?

ENTEN: Yes. I mean, look, compare how Americans perceived China four years ago compared to where - four and a half, five years ago, to where they see them now. China is the United States' greatest enemy. Look at that. In 2022, 49 percent, that is quadruple the percentage in 2018.


ENTEN: Quadruple. Look at that, Erin.

BURNETT: And, they used the word enemy.

ENTEN: Used the word, the greatest - the greatest enemy to the United States, the greatest threat. Look at that. It's just - it's very clear what's going on here.

BURNETT: Right. That's an unbelievable change. All right. Harry, thank you very much.

ENTEN: Thank you.

BURNETT: And next, Bill Maher on why he says mainstream Republicans and Democrats are running scare. Plus, the FAA tonight investigating the fifth near-runway collision this year. This time, it involved in JetBlue plane.




BURNETT: Tonight, politicians running scare. That's how Bill Maher puts it in a wide ranging interview with Jake Tapper. It is set to air tonight. Here is a preview.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR, "THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER": Do you think Democratic politicians have changed their views, or do you think they're just afraid of their party's activists, the way that a lot of Republicans are afraid of their party's activists, the MAGA folks?

MAHER: They are afraid, yes.

TAPPER: They're just afraid.

MAHER: Yes. I think both sides. I think again, there are four tribes I think in this country. I think there is old school liberals and old school conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, the kind of people who used to. I think that's the majority of the country.

TAPPER: Like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush or something.

MAHER: Yes, the kind of people who never agreed on a hell of a lot, but they found ways to work together. They didn't hate each other. It wasn't all about making liberal tears and cry and all this stuff, and owning and destroying people. It was just, yes, I don't agree with Bob Dole. But, we can work together. We can get a grand bargain, that kind of stuff. And so, I think that's the majority, but then you have Trumpers and then you have wokesters, and those fringes are not doing this country any great favors.


BURNETT: Jake is with me now. So, interesting, Jake, the fringes, the Trumpers and the wokesters, as he calls it. What else did he say about that? When you all were having the conversation, you with your political - being a political reporter for so many years, how does this dictate this next election?

TAPPER: Well, I think he is afraid and he is not alone. I should note that these fringes, the roughly 35 percent of the Republican base who supports Donald Trump no matter what, and this rising, what he calls wokesters, this is the group of progressives that are - the way he characterizes them, like the kind of people who think Abraham Lincoln is not a hero, that type of group, that they are too powerful, in his view. And, they control too many things, whether it's academia or politics or primary party elections. And so, he has a lot of disdain for both of those groups while not as much disdain for the group he is a part of, traditional liberals, or even traditional conservatives.

BURNETT: So, when you talk to him about - as he refers to a canceled culture, wokeness, look, anyone who watches his show, he talks about this a lot there as well. How does he define those things, right? And, we all know woke and canceled culture, everyone just throws them around when they want to throw them around, right, when it's convenient to where they sit. How does he define it?

TAPPER: That's a really good question. I did ask him to define it, and he didn't have like a quick and easy definition, but he had more of an explanation of, for instance, the Abraham Lincoln thing, not thinking Abraham Lincoln is a hero, he talked about. And, I don't know if you're quite as old as I am, Erin, but there was a big movement long time ago. I forget what it was called, Live Aid maybe, it was - no, it wasn't Live Aid. It was this big movement comedians did to help the homeless.



TAPPER: This was like in the 80s or 90s. I forget what it was called. But he said, like, you can't even use the term homeless now. We're not supposed to pretend - we're supposed to pretend that people like living on the street. I think it's that kind of sensibility is what he is talking about. Maybe it's like the old Potter Stewart definition of pornography. I can't explain it, but I know it when I see it.

BURNETT: Yes. Well, I mean, it looks to be fascinating, because it has been fascinating to watch him, and the ire that he has taken from some of his more traditional viewers and traditional base, as he has called out what he perceives as wokeness. I'm fascinated to see this entire conversation, especially with you, and again, your decades of experience covering politics to talk to him about it. It's going to be fascinating. So,--

TAPPER: I have centuries of experience, centuries.

BURNETT: Centuries. I mean, if you want to put context on it, my son would say, I'm sure you were around for the War of 1812. Jake Tapper, don't mistake special. It is CNN Primetime, one-on-one with Bill Maher. Their conversation tonight at nine.

And next, we're learning about another close call at an American airport, the fifth this year.


BURNETT: And finally, the FAA investigating what is now the fifth close call involving commercial airlines this year, this latest at Boston's International Airport last night. According to the FAA, a private jet was told to line up and wait on RWY 9. You see that there in red. A JetBlue plane was landing on 4R, which you can see flashing yellow. Well, obviously, that's a problem. The private jet started to take off, and that put it right in the path of the JetBlue flight. The JetBlue pilots saw that plane as they're coming in, aborted the landing successfully. According to Flightradar24, the two planes came within 565 feet of a crash. Thanks for joining us. AC360 starts now.