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Erin Burnett Outfront
Nashville Holds Vigil As New Details Emerge About Victims; Lawyer: Russian Man Arrested After Being On Run Over Anti-War Posts; GOP Senator Defends Holding Up 158 Military Nominations; China's Top Diplomat To U.S.: Do Not "Play With Fire" On Taiwan; Fox News Chief On Trump Fact-Check: "This Has To Stop Now". Aired 7-8p ET
Aired March 29, 2023 - 19:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: OUTFRONT next:
He knew the victims, and he also trained the school staff for this very tragedy. The man who lead active shooter drills that Covenant and just walk through the school today for the first time since the horrific attack is OUTFRONT as we are learning more tonight about the shooter's mysterious past.
Plus, we are live in Moscow, where the head of Wagner Group is publicly breaking with Putin, over a 13-year-old girl and her father. It is a story you'll see first OUTFRONT tonight.
And one Republican senator singlehandedly holding up 158 military jobs. Even his own party thinks he's gone too far. Is he putting America's national security at risk?
Let's go OUTFRONT.
And good evening. I'm Erin Burnett.
OUTFRONT tonight, you're looking at live pictures out of Nashville, a grieving community. They're gathering to honor the three children and three adults who lost their lives in a mass shooting at Covenant School.
(SHERYL CROW SINGING)
BURNETT: Sheryl Crow that you're listening to there. Sheryl Crow is performing. The first lady of the United States, Jill Biden, is also there, along with families and friends of those lost in the senseless attack.
And tonight's ceremony comes as we are learning more about the victims, the young lives that were cut far too short. And those include the three children, of course, the 9-year-olds, also the head of school, Katherine Koonce, custodian Mike Hill, Cynthia Peak, a substitute teacher, and those 9-year-olds, Hallie Scruggs, Evelyn Dieckhaus and William Kinney.
In a moment, I'm going to speak to a former officer who knew several of the victims and walked through that Nashville elementary school with officials today, actually once conducted active shooter drills at very school. It comes as investigators are trying to piece together a motive.
The shooter's former art professor telling CNN that the shooter had an unusual outburst on the first day of class. Listen to this description.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MARIA COLOMY, NASHVILLE SHOOTER'S FORMER ART INSTRUCTOR: The first task I gave them was to go to the student portal, create a login and password. And during the creation of the password where it asks you for a non alphanumeric character, meaning a special character. She didn't know what it was asking for, and she got really frustrated, and she just like turned red started crying, and I could see that she was getting upset, and I just said, hey, if you need to step out, you can go ahead and step out.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNETT: And we're going to have more from the shooter's former professor in a moment.
I mean, you know, you may say this is a tiny detail, but it is important because so little is still known about the shooter, Audrey Hale. Police have told us she identified as transgender. They have said she was under a doctor's care for an emotional disorder. But we know very little beyond that.
I want to begin with Dianne Gallagher. She is OUTFRONT live in Nashville at tonight's vigil -- where, of course, Dianne, we're listening to that hunting and beautiful song by Sheryl Crow.
What is the latest that you've learned?
DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Erin, the mayor of Nashville, John Cooper began by saying, I wish that we did not need to be here today, but we need to be here together. Even thanked First Lady Jill Biden for dropping everything to come in born with the city of Nashville and said that Mike Hill, the family of Mike Hill, one of the victims of that shooting at the Covenant School was there with him, including his seven children.
They said that this is a city united by grief, but the mayor said they wanted to go forward for a better future and one that does not repeat this tragedy.
GALLAGHER (voice-over): Tonight as a grief stricken city unites to mourn the six lives taken on Monday, and yet another school shooting. We're learning more about the victims who were lost. Tennessee's Governor, Bill Lee, speaking Tuesday night to hurting community, revealing this is very personal for his family, specifically for his wife. GOV. BILL LEE (R), TENNESSEE: Maria woke up this morning without one of her best friends, Cindy Peak. Cindy was supposed to come over to have dinner with Maria last night after she filled in as a substitute teacher yesterday at Covenant. Cindy and Maria and Katherine Koonce were all teachers at the same school and have been family friends for decades.
GALLAGHER: Hallie Scruggs on posting a heart wrenching tribute today to the nine-year-old, reading in part, I have often longed for a daughter and Hallie embodied all of those things, I'd want in my own little girl.
She was incredibly smart, feisty enough to keep up with her three brothers and my four boys.
Mike Hill, a beloved custodian at the Covenant School, is survived by his seven children and 14 grandchildren.
Family friends of nine-year-old victim William Kinney started a GoFundMe page in his honor, posting that he had an unflappable spirit was unfailingly kind, gentle when the situation called for it, quick to laugh and always inclusive of others.
A city councilman telling CNN today that Katherine Koonce likely died trying to protect the children of her school, saying a witness told him the school's headmaster ended a Zoom call after shots were heard in the background.
JOHN DRAKE, METROPOLITAN NASHVILLE POLICE CHIEF: I do know she was in the hallway by herself.
GALLAGHER: A nine-year-old Evelyn Dieckhaus, whose family said in a statement: Evelyn was a shining light in this world.
Amidst all this pain for friends and family, authorities continue to work to answer questions about who the shooter was and the motive behind Monday's massacre.
DRAKE: I met with the school this morning. We met with the parents. And as of right now, we don't have any indication that there was any problems at the -- at the school or at home.
GALLAGHER: One of the shooter's college professors talked to CNN today, describing what she witnessed on the suspect's social media page over the last year.
COLOMY: About a year ago, she started openly grieving about someone that she had lost and there was a slight romantic context to it. It didn't seem like she was just talking about a friend. And literally since that happened, I mean, I honestly feel like that those are the only updates I've seen from her on Facebook have been and her openly grieving saying how you know how much she was hurting how much she was missing this person.
GALLAGHER (on camera): Right now, we're hearing from Metro Nashville Police Department Chief John Drake. He slowly said the names of each of the six victims and talked about the heroic efforts of his officers on that morning.
You know, Erin, we expect to hear from religious leaders, from many faiths at this event, as well as local and state leaders who are going to talk about this event. And, you know, we don't anticipate we're going to listen too much to them talk about what's going forward. They said that this is about mourning those six victims, but you can see the number of people who again are here today gathered, candles in hand to more.
And we've seen members of the Tennessee Titans again. There's local leadership, but predominantly, we're seeing families. We're seeing parents who are bringing their small children and some of them saying that look this just once again, snap them back into reality that in any point in time here, this could have been their child.
And that's the fear and the grief that many of them are carry as they're here tonight, grieving, as in, the mayor said together.
BURNETT: All right. Dianne, thank you very much.
As that vigil is going on in Nashville, Brink Fidler joins me now. He knew several of the victims. His company Defense Systems had conducted active shooter drills at Covenant School. He did a walkthrough of the school today with officials to help try and understand what happened.
And I should notice Brink, of course, you also spent 18 years working for the Nashville police department, and their actions, of course, saved so many lives in this shooting this week.
So I do want to ask you about your walk through in just a moment, Brink, but first, these live pictures of what you're -- you know, what's happening right now in Nashville and talking about the victims. I know you knew a few of them, and including nine year old William Kinney, his father, West, is a friend of yours and I know he was out of town during the shooting and texted you. What more are you able to tell us about that?
BRINK FIDLER, KNEW SEVERAL VICTIMS: Nothing more than that. He was concerned about obviously the location of his son, and he knew we had conducted training at the school. He knew I was a former officer and thought I may have some insight. Into that, and I did not, unfortunately for him, and at the time we were actually out of time we were in Memphis, Tennessee, working with another school, so I couldn't get any more information from him. And tragically, his son will turn out to be one of the victims.
BURNETT: You also knew the head of school, Katherine Koonce and Mike Hill, the custodian, because obviously, you know you had had done training at the school. What can you tell us about them?
FIDLER: Mike, I met a few times. I didn't know him well. Katherine, I had a very good relationship with. I actually just saw
her a couple months ago, I ran into her at the bank. She was the type of person that knew this was a heavy topic and knew she had to be very careful about bringing this in front of her educators. But she was also adamant about doing that because she understood the severity of the topic and the severity of the teachers needing to have the knowledge of what to do and that situation.
So she actually did her due diligence so much that she came and sat in on our training at another school first to make sure it was what she wanted for her staff. And then we worked very closely together to customize that training program for this location and advise them on some physical security and teach them what to do in the moment.
And so, she was steadfast in her commitment to doing this and in our commitment to these kids, and, more importantly, her staff and their ability to perform under stress.
BURNETT: And she did, and I did mention that you did that walk through of the school today with officials and obviously because of her, right, you'd conducted active shooter drills there before because she felt this was so important.
You know, we've all now seen the video of the shooter walking through the halls on the surveillance video. As you were going through today with officials trying to understand what happened, what -- what did you see? What stood out to you?
FIDLER: Well, a lot of it. I can't talk about because it's still an open homicide investigation. I will say this I want to make this clear to this story. You know, the whole story here is about these teachers.
People are talking about the training we did with them. And yes, training is important. But I wasn't here on Monday. They were here, right? Their ability to execute literally flawlessly under that amount of stress while somebody trying to murder them and their children, that is what made the difference here, and that is the -- you know, these teachers are the reason those kids went home to their families.
Again, the training is important. But we weren't the mornings executing it in the moment. They were.
I'll also tell you from the walk through that the only victims this shooter was able to get to where victims that we're stuck in some sort of open area or hallway. Everyone else will. Several were able to evacuate safely. The ones that couldn't do that safely did exactly what they were taught and trying to do and that was locked down and fortify their position. They did that.
The shooter fired multiple rounds into several classrooms and was not able to hit any of the victims in those classrooms because the teachers knew exactly what to do, how to fortify their doors and where to place their children in those rooms. So I just want to be clear that that this story needs to be about them.
BURNETT: Well, it's pretty incredible that they did that. I mean, you know, it's not it's not their job, right? They're not there to do that. And that they did that and did it right and saved all those lives. The horror and the tragedy of the people who are in open spaces.
And I know your friend, Katherine. You know, it appears may have run towards the shooter to try to stop -- to try to stop it, but that so many lives were saved despite as you say, live rounds being fired into classrooms that no one in those classrooms died.
You know, when we saw the shooter initially go into school by, you know, shooting at those glass doors and going in right sort of kamikaze style. When -- when you heard about this, and you knew Katherine. You'd been in that school. You had trained.
What actually went through your mind?
FIDLER: So when we were in Memphis, assessing this other school, because we still have such a deep connection to the police department, we were getting pretty up to date information. And, you know, at first. It was very surreal.
You know, I knew -- because of what I do for a living, and because of our company growth, I kind of knew eventually that it was going to happen at one of the facilities or one of the schools or whatever that we had trained, but it's still never -- it's still very surreal right now, and today, and very tough, I'll say, you know, because we walked that crime scene even though it was very tough. It is important for us to learn from these events and get better moving forward.
But at the same time, I felt confident that that the people here because of Katherine's commitment to this program I knew what to do and would execute policy. I'm just proud they did, but I really -- I really felt like they would because every one of these people took this training seriously and we had extreme buy-in from every faculty and staff member.
BURNETT: Brink, thank you very much. I appreciate your time.
FIDLER: Thank you for having me.
BURNETT: All right. Thank you.
And I hope so many hear his words that with all that training, and he actually knew that at some point, it would happen in a school that he had trained -- just to even think about that, that that's the reality that we're living in this country as a very hard to hard to process.
Well, next, we're going to break down how the response from the Nashville police department was night and day compared to what happened in Uvalde. That's a story you'll see first OUTFRONT.
Plus, the public rift between Putin and the head of Russia's private army, now escalating tonight over a prison sentence for Russian father whose 13-year-old daughter has been stripped from him and is now in an orphanage. A new eye opening messages from inside Fox News, including the CEO of
the company, writing that fact checking Trump's election lies was, quote, bad for business, just stop it.
BURNETT: New tonight. Police believe that the shooter who killed three children and three adults at that private Christian school in Nashville had prior weapons training and they are working right now to determine when and where that training took place.
Police are also right now trying to create a timeline of the shooters movements on the day of the rampage, and these developments come as the heroism and quick response from the Nashville police department is drawing comparisons to the tragic school shooting last year.
Shimon Prokupecz has more with the story that is first OUTFRONT.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We got shots fired in the building.
SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: It looks tragically the same. Police responding to a school shooter on a killing spree.
DISPATCHER: We do have an active shooter.
PROKUPECZ: Calls for help and police respond.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm making entry on the front side.
PROKUPECZ: But that's where the similarities between the school shooting in Nashville and Uvalde end.
CHIEF JOHN DRAKE, METROPOLITAN NASHVILLE POLICE DEPARTMENT: We have six innocent, beautiful lives that were taken. And we had officers that went in harm's way to stop this.
PROKUPECZ: When police arrived at the Nashville school, the response is swift.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The kids are locked down, but we have two kids that we don't know where they are.
PROKUPECZ: Police rushed the building with rifles and handguns, door keys in hand clearing rooms.
POLICE OFFICER: It's upstairs. It sounds like it's upstairs.
PROKUPECZ: Charging to the sound of gunfire.
POLICE OFFICER: Right, right, right.
PROKUPECZ: And engaging the shooter.
Within four minutes of police arriving, the 28 year old shooter is dead. It's just 14 minutes after the first 911 call.
DRAKE: I was hoping this day would never ever come here in the city. But we would never wait to make entry and to go in and to stop the threat, especially when it deals with our children.
PROKUPECZ: It's the opposite of what police did.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everybody, shots are fired.
PROKUPECZ: In Uvalde, police would initially rushed to the classroom, but then retreat when fired upon and wait 77 minutes before going in.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are we going in or are we staying here? What are we doing?
PROKUPECZ: Gathering inside and outside the school.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've got multiple officers inside the building at this time.
PROKUPECZ: And questioning what to do with no clear leadership.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are we just waiting for BORTAC or what's going on?
PROKUPECZ: Hundreds of law enforcement officers arrive and yet no one enters the classroom where the gunman is with the teachers and students.
The school police chief fumbles for a key to her door that was actually unlocked and tries to negotiate.
UVALDE POLICE CHIEF: Please put your firearm down, sir, we don't want anybody else hurt.
PROKUPECZ: Before law enforcement finally goes in and kills the 18 year old gunman. Family members in Uvalde believed that delays cost lives.
COL. STEVEN MCCRAW, DIRECTOR, TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY: Hey, from the -- from the benefit of hindsight, where I'm sitting now, of course, it was not the right decision. It was the wrong decision, period. There's no -- no excuse for that.
PROKUPECZ: Both shooters were former students and guns in both attacks were AR-15 style weapons.
The failed response in Uvalde under investigation, while there is praise for officers in Nashville.
But in both shootings, families and communities are devastated and will never be the same.
MAYOR JOHN COOPER, NASHVILLE: This is our worst day. We're resilient city, but it's a shock to have to add our name to the list of places where there have been messed killings of children.
BURNETT: And Shimon is with me now.
And I mean, Shimon, you've done such incredible reporting on everything that went so horribly wrong in Uvalde that you uncovered and we see this stark difference in Nashville. But there is a similarity with how the shooter's gained access to the schools, which you know oddly, when you see some of those images that you do see the similarity in a school, right, with the overhead lights and the hallways and --
PROKUPECZ: And initially how the police were going in, in Uvalde, and then here in Nashville, very similar ways. The difference is, in Uvalde, the police stopped at some point. And then they waited 77 minutes.
And, yeah, look, the shooter in both of these situations entering through a side door. In Uvalde, the door never locked, so the gunman was just able to open and go inside. Sadly in Nashville, was just easily able to shoot their way through that door and just easily enter that school.
But the other thing I think what we're seeing here is drilling the sort of the practice and sadly that schools and teachers and students have to go through pays off. You know, you see teachers handing keys off to police officers, all that is practice and we see the international situation --
BURNETT: Right, and I wonder if even on that door alone, the fact that there had to be shooting through it, right, that sound, that gives you, you know, those seconds, any second can matter of a warning, right? Which you didn't have in Uvalde, someone just comes in and unimpeded.
All right. Shimon, thank you very much.
And next, breaking news, an update tonight on a story we've been following. We're just learning that the Russian father who'd been on the run after being sentenced to two years in a penal colony for posting anti-war messages has just been arrested. We have the latest on that.
Plus, stonewalling, unlike anything really ever seen. A Republican senator holding up nearly 160 military nominations, and tonight, there are concerns it is pushing, putting America's security at risk.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LLOYD AUSTIN, DEFENSE SECRETARY: It's a powerful effect and will impact on our readiness. (END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNETT: And breaking news tonight just into OUTFRONT on a story we've been following. Alexey Moskalyov, the father of a 13-year-old girl who's gained international fame after being questioned by police for her antiwar drawings, well, her father has been arrested tonight. This is according to her attorney who tells this to OUTFRONT.
He says that Moskalyov was just sentenced to two years in a penal colony for anti-war online posts. We told you that but then he fled. He was on the run. And we are just learning that right now, he has just been detained. That's all we can tell you right now.
But obviously he had been on the run from this sentence in a penal colony, and we can tell you right now has just been detained.
So as that story is developing, we want to remind you, his daughter, 13-year-old Masha is in an orphanage. She was taken away from her father, and we've obtained heartbreaking letter that she wrote to him. And in the letter, she says, in part, quote, everything is fine with me. I love you very much, and I know that you are not guilty of anything.
Matthew Chance is OUTFRONT in Moscow tonight, talking about the heavy Russian losses on the battlefield we're finding out about and what the Russian private military group Wagner is now doing to challenge Putin.
MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In the darkness, Russia's Wagner mercenaries edging their way to the front line. The open ground here in Bakhmut is a killing zone, only it's devastated buildings any kind of cover.
Like this destroyed school where Wagner's leader Yevgeny Prigozhin is again visiting his troops.
The 61 year old frequently appears near the front lines to see what can be done better, he says. The new plan he informs them is to go forward.
Even Prigozhin admits Wagner has been battered by the fighting. The sacrifice, he says in the new audio statement, for a greater cause.
YEVGENY PRIGOZHIN, WAGNER BOSS: If Wagner dies in the Bakhmut meat grinder and takes the Ukrainian army with it, giving the regular Russian army the opportunity to further protect the interests of Russia. Then we will have fulfilled our historical role.
CHANCE: Wagner's role in Russia's present remains fragile. This funeral have killed fighters in southern Russia nearly didn't go ahead at all. The town's reluctant administration saying there was no room to bury Wagner's dead. Only after this group of masked Wagner gunman issued a public threat extraordinary in Russia did local officials back down.
Until we come and deal with you, one of them warns. You're worse than the Ukrainian Army.
In the Ukrainian battlefield, Wagner has often criticized Russian military command. Accusing defense officials have intentionally cutting off the mercenaries from ammunition supplies, even deviating from the Kremlin's war justification against NATO and Nazis.
PRIGOZHIN: We are fighting Ukrainian army exclusively. In terms of the denazification, I don't know if there are any Nazis or not. I haven't checked it out myself.
CHANCE: Emboldened Wagner, which is trying to recruit new members, he's also intervening in non-military matters. Like the highly publicized case of the anti-war picture that got a young Russian girl sent to an orphanage and her father sentenced to jail.
Wagner issued a public letter condemning the case as unjust.
We fight a war against evil for the sake of our children's future, the letter reads, calling on the Russian authorities to revisit the case.
But it is uncertain if Wagner will continue to enjoy Kremlin support, or have any further impact either on or off the front lines.
CHANCE (on camera): Well, Erin, the Wagner Boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been incredibly useful to the Kremlin, recruiting thousands of troops for the frontline. Now, he denies having any political ambitions, but this figure who once lurked in the shadows is now increasingly in the public eye. It's not clear whether the Kremlin is encouraging that all military tolerating it, Erin.
BURNETT: All right. Matthew, thank you very much, live from Moscow tonight.
I want to bring in Christo Grozev now, the lead Russia investigator for Bellingcat. Of course, he helped Navalny, Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader in Moscow, exposed who was behind his poisoning. And, of course, Christo is also on Russia's most wanted list right now.
So, Christo, just this latest reporting that we have here, Alexey Moskalyov, the father of that 13-year-old girl, right? He was sentenced to two years in a penal colony but had fled, right, so that he was on the run. There was a chance that he might have been able to get out of Russia.
But we found out that it's not the case. He has now been detained. What does this mean? You know for him, if your sense to tears and a penal colony and you are then found when you're on the run, what does this mean? CHRISTO GROZEV, LEAD RUSSIA INVESTIGATOR AT BELLINGCAT: Well, I mean,
this is going to exacerbate his situation both legally and from the point of view of Russian security services, having a reason to even extrajudicially. Maybe -- maybe there's something for him because of his -- him embarrassing them, and this was a major embarrassment for him to flee from rest, from detention.
But it's going to also give Prigozhin to -- an opportunity to even further make a claim in a statement on this political initiative he has found recently. That we've been discussing with you for almost a year now.
BURNETT: So let me ask you about what precautions said. You heard Matthew saying, you know, he condemned the sentence for Alexey Moskalyov, Masha's father, as unjust. Why is he doing that? Why is he speaking out on this?
GROZEV: Well, for me, this is just part and parcel of the strategy that he chose to pursue almost a year ago of creating an image of himself as an alternative to Putin, and many experts said, no, that's not possible. He will never dare go against Putin, this is all tolerated by Putin.
There's no hypothesis in which this serves Putin's interest, and what we see here is Prigozhin is following a strategy of presenting himself as an alternative. Then it's almost like a trope of the Russians czar that the image that he's trying to project for himself, which is you have to be very austere and very stern and strict, but just at the same time.
So in this case, he's going against the Kremlin there -- against what the courts in Putin's Russia are doing. He's saying, well, we have to be nice to the people who haven't committed a major crime, and this girl is the sort of embodiment of that -- of that innocence. So we have to be nice to her.
That is definitely a political game that he's playing in my view.
BURNETT: Absolutely, I mean and pretty incredible to see it right, answering the cost that he may end up paying for that in the world that we're talking about.
And, you know, too, that the implications of that of what I just said. We spoke last week with Elvira Vikhareva, a Putin critic. She says she got very sick in the fall. She says she has no doubt she was poisoned. She says anyone else who dare speak out against Putin's war is at risk as well.
Here's part of what she told us, Christo.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
ELVIRA VIKHAREVA, PUTIN OPPOSITION (through translator): Essentially I had convulsions, palpitations, people, reconstruction and pains in the stomach region. My blood work showed changes in the same convulsions that were happening in November, December came back as well as other specific phenomena, which we now understand, are compatible with poisoning by heavy metals. I know a lot of people who don't share the Kremlin's views, and they have no guarantee of safety because their oppression machine is rolling along with maddening speed.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
BURNETT: You know, we hear about people pushed out of, you know, falling out of windows and things like that, right? But poisoning still appears to be the method of choice in in Russia, and you say that Elvira is not alone in being poisoned for criticizing the war.
GROZEV: That is true what we have been working on and unfortunately cannot name names because of the innocent victims, not agreeing to expose their identities, but we know of at least three other journalists or bloggers or public figures from Russia, who have experienced similar poisoning symptoms in the years since the war started, and clearly the correlation between these people is that they have been outspoken against the war that have been either investigative journalists or people who have just spoken up against the barbaric war.
And also, interestingly all of them are women, and, it may be a coincidence, maybe not. But what we do see well -- we do see is that poison as in psychological effect on people, in addition to its not necessarily a binary weapon. It doesn't always kill you. But if it doesn't kill you, it does send a strong message.
BURNETT: It certainly does. And you know, I should note, Elvira, you know, she was speaking to us on the phone, and she said it's affected her appearance, and that's part of why she has been speaking on the phone as opposed to other ways. At this point, she, of course, remains in Russia.
Christo, thank you very much. I appreciate it, as always.
And next, one Republican senator now holding up nearly 160 military nominations. It is unprecedented, and even his own party is not supporting him tonight. So why is he doing it?
Plus, a sobering warning this evening from China as Taiwan's president arrives in the United States in New York, China's top diplomat tonight warning of a potential serious confrontation.
BURNETT: Tonight, an unprecedented blockade. Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville telling CNN he is not letting up on his one-man protest that is holding up nearly 160 military promotions. These promotions include -- I mean, all sorts of high ranking posts, and they are around the world, the Pacific, Middle East, NATO.
In fact, this could even impact the naming of the next chairman of the chiefs of staff. And it's not Democrats only that are criticizing here. Republicans now are saying Tuberville's tactics have gone too far.
Sunlen Serfaty is OUTFRONT.
SEN. TOMMY TUBERVILLE (R-AL): I'm not going to let our military be politicized.
SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: What typically is a very routine process of approving military promotions in the Senate has now become a high stakes standoff.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): The senator from Alabama's hold on hundreds of routine military promotions is reckless. It damages the readiness of our military and puts American security in jeopardy.
SERFATY: Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville singlehandedly holding up the promotions of 158 military nominations over his opposition to the Defense Department's unrelated policy on abortions.
TUBERVILLE: You got the American taxpayer on the hook to pay for travel and time off for elective abortions. And you did not make this with anybody in this room, or Congress taking a vote.
SERFATY: The Pentagon's policy, which officially went into effect last month, expands access and support for service members and their dependants, choosing to get an abortion, providing travel expenses if they are stationed in states that ban or restrict abortions and allowing paid leave to do so.
TUBERVILLE: It's not about abortion, per se. It's about taxpayer funded abortion. And it's against the law.
SERFATY: Tuberville's maneuverings blasted this week by the defense secretary.
LLOYD AUSTIN, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Almost 80,000 of our women are stationed in places that where they don't have access to non covered reproductive healthcare. This policy is based on strong legal grounds.
SERFATY: Saying the move is a national security threat, putting three and four star generals in limbo in critical areas like the Pacific, the Middle East, and the U.S. military representative to NATO as the war rages on in Ukraine.
AUSTIN: It's a powerful effect and will impact on our readiness.
SERFATY: The stalemate has grown increasingly divisive on Capitol Hill.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're becoming political hostages. That's all.
SERFATY: Sparking weeks of intense debate.
SEN. MICHAEL BENNET (D-CO): There is no precedent for what the senator from Alabama is doing. It has never been done. Stopping the U.S. Senate from taking up promotions for uniformed military officers.
SERFATY: And even dividing some Republicans criticizing Tuberville for his approach. It's a tactic that he chose to use, Republican Senator Deb Fischer told "Punchbowl News". It's not one that I would use.
Tuberville attempting to downplay the impact of his blockade.
TUBERVILLE: This is not the end of the world.
SERFATY: Even as he recommits continue to have a hold until I get to sit down with people in the Department Defense.
SERFATY (on camera): And if this doesn't get resolved, the Senate majority leader could work around this. Schumer could bring up each and every one of the nearly 160 nominees to the floor on their own for an individual vote, rather than in mass like it's typically done, but that is a very time consuming process that could eat up days, potentially even weeks of this, and it's time -- Erin.
BURNETT: All right, Sunlen, thank you very much.
And I want to go now to someone you saw profiled in Sunlen's reporting, the Democratic Senator Michael Bennet. He has been one of the most vocal critics of Senator Tuberville, and he's a member of the Intelligence Committee. So, obviously, national security front -- front of mind for you.
So you just took to the Senate floor again tonight, Senator, to condemn Senator Tuberville's actions here when he's chosen to do on this blocking these nominees. Why do you feel so strongly about this?
BENNET: Well, Erin, thank you for having me.
I feel strongly about it for two reasons. One is no senator in the history of America has ever had a blanket hold on the promotions of flag officers in the United States. You know, we heard today is the Fifth Fleet, it's the Seventh Fleet. These are really important things. So that's point one.
But point two is we need to ask ourselves why Senator Tuberville is doing it and the reason he's doing it is he is objecting to new policies from the Department of Defense that say that if you are enlist -- if you are enlisted person in the military, where anybody in the military and you find yourself in a situation where you need an abortion, that the United States government will pay for you to travel from the state like Alabama, which bans abortion, with no exceptions for rape or incest, that the United States will pay for you to travel like we do with Lasik, that you don't have to use paid leave to do that, like we do for Lasik.
And that women who find themselves confronted by this incredibly difficult choice, actually just get a little bit extra time before they have to decide whether they talk to their commanding officer about the condition they're in which, by the way, raises all kinds of profound privacy challenges.
That is -- those three things is what has led the senator from Alabama to say in the wake of the Dobbs decision, overturning a woman's right to choose that he's going to hold up every flag officer in the military.
BURNETT: Now, a question for you. Obviously, his tactics are one thing. What he's saying is another, right? He's saying -- and I know you heard him say this to Manu Raju -- that you could separate this from his view on abortion, that this is actually to him about American taxpayers having to pay for abortion, which he says is wrong because that policy has not come up for a vote in Congress.
And here's how he put it.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. TOMMY TUBERVILLE (R-AL): We don't have a national security problem here. You know, we got a problem with the department of defense, trying to make a law and they weren't elected. We were. They want to run it through us, and we vote on it. I'm good with it.
But go through the proper channels. What do you say to that? That that this is actually about having taxpayers fund these abortions that, he says what's wrong?
BENNET: Yeah. First of all, he is saying if he is saying that, what he's saying isn't true, and I have to say, I don't think that's what he's saying. He's saying that the Defense Department will be an abortion travel agency because it will be paying for travel. I don't think even he is trying to make the claim that abortion would be paid for which again is what makes this even more outrageous.
But the second point is that things have changed dramatically for women serving in our military since the Dobbs decision was reached that overturned Roe versus Wade, and he seems not to understand how complicated the world has become. So I don't think it's a correct statement of the law that, he said.
And the second point is that there has -- he is not made an objection. Nor has anybody on the Republican side to the fact that people travel for Lasik, the fact that people travel for bunions, for other elective surgeries. We've never heard any complaint about that, and that's not passed by the U.S. Senate.
Those are regulations that the Department of Defense puts in place, just like the regulations they put in this context when it comes to a woman's reproductive health. No one objected on the floor of the Senate or held up every flag officer because people had the right to go get Lasik under a regulation by DOD. It's just because this is the issue of abortion, which you know, as I have said is, is all but banned in his state and --
BURNETT: All right. Well, Senator, thank you very much. I appreciate your time. Thank you for being with me.
BENNETT: Thanks for having me.
BURNETT: All right. And next, the president of Taiwan in the United States, in New York tonight. China watching her every move and leveling a sharp new warning at Washington.
And damning messages we have just gotten revealing more of the conversations taking place inside Fox News after the 2020 election. We've got a new one from the CEO of the network demanding Trump fact- checking has to stop now.
BURNETT: Tonight, video just in to CNN, showing Taiwan's president in New York. It comes as China's top diplomat in the United States is issuing this warning about her visit.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
XU XUEYUAN, CHARGE D'AFFAIRES, CHINESE EMBASSY IN THE U.S.: It could lead it to another serious, serious, serious, I repeat, confrontation. We urged the U.S. side not to -- not to repeatedly playing with fire on the Taiwan question. As we say, those who play with fire will perish by it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNETT: Those who perish up -- play with fire will perish by it. I mean a clear threat. Chinese state media also blasting the visit. "The Global Times" calling the U.S. and Taiwan, quote, desperate gamblers, saying they're gambling with the livelihood and wellbeing of the people in Taiwan, and even the fate of the island itself.
Selina Wang is OUTFRONT. She's based, of course, in the Beijing bureau, but is here in New York tonight.
So, Selina, the U.S. is obviously worried about what is the Chinese government going to do this visit this sort of stopover, even though not a formal state visit, obviously is very significant for China. How is China reacting?
SELINA WANG, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Not well. And to your point, the U.S. is trying to downplay this saying, look, she's just stopping over. This is not the first time Tsai Ing-wen has come to the U.S., met with U.S. lawmakers. She's on her way to Central America. No need to overreact.
Beijing obviously does not see it that way. They see Taiwan as a breakaway province and this kind of high level meeting as a violation of its sovereignty. So you're not surprisingly seen them lashed out state media, saying this visit is a grave provocation and that Beijing has every right to take, quote, resolute countermeasures. Also, nationalistic tabloid, state tabloid "Global Times" published an op-ed with the headline calling the meeting insane and wrote, quote, a kinetic war between the U.S. and China is now on the horizon. There's little time for the U.S. to credibly change course before the first shots are exchanged by accident or design.
Now, look, there are fears this could set off another crisis because the situation is different this time from her other stopovers. U.S.- China relations are at a low. This comes after the Nancy Pelosi visit that happened last summer when China responded with these unprecedented military drills, simulating this practice blockade.
Experts I speak to say we probably won't see anything of that scale, but Beijing is still going to take this seriously. We still might see some kind of military response and this visit matters because it sets the stage for future communications.
We had the Antony Blinken trip postponed to China because of the spy balloon incident and still have yet to schedule the Xi Jinping-Joe Biden call.
BURNETT: I mean, right, when you talk about first shots are exchanged by accident design. I mean, you know, the words start to really matter here and as you mentioned, they're trying to position this is as, oh, this is just a stopover, president of Taiwan just stopping over in the U.S., ha, ha, on her way to Guatemala and Belize.
Obviously, Taiwan and China are playing a real battle here, trying to force countries to choose, especially countries in South America.
Again, "Global Times", the head of "The Global Times" as you mentioned tweeted Taiwan, quote, just got slapped in the face by Honduras, which went and chose China.
How ugly is the fight getting?
WANG: I really think on this, numbers say it all. So, when Tsai Ing- wen came into office in 2016, Taiwan had 22 diplomatic allies. After this move from Honduras, there are just 13 and most of those remaining allies. They are these small countries in Latin America and in the Pacific.
And what that really displays is that under Xi Jinping, China has ramped up its military, its diplomatic, its economic pressure on Taiwan, and part of that strategy is to use China's massive market to entice those countries to change diplomatic relations.
However, that being said, unofficial ties between Taiwan and major countries like the U.S. are growing.
BURNETT: Right, right. Absolutely.
All right. Thank you very much, Selina. And coming up on "AC360", Christian singer Steven Curtis Chapman, who
was close friends with Nashville shooting victim Katherine Koonce will join Anderson. That is coming up next hour.
And next here, new eye-opening messages from inside Fox News, including from the chair of Fox, Rupert Murdoch, who we now know from what we're about to tell you thought Trump's lies were criminal.
BURNETT: Tonight, this has to stop. That's a direct quote.
Those are the words of Fox News chief Suzanne Scott about anchors and correspondents at the network who were fact-checking then President Trump's election lies on air, writing in one email coming to light and filings from Dominion's $1.6 billion defamation suit against Fox News.
Scott writes: This has to stop now. The audience is furious. Bad for business.
Scott lashing out in another message, saying, in part quote, I can't keep defending these reporters who don't understand our viewers and how to handle stories.
And in another email written on inauguration day, Rupert Murdoch, ultimately the ultimate boss of the company, lays into the former president himself. In this case, the totally opposite side, Murdoch, saying Trump's election lies were, quote, a huge disservice to the country. Pretty much a crime.
Thank you so much for joining us.
"AC360" begins now.