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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Russian Troops Take Control of Kherson City Council; Defense Secretary Austin in Germany for Talks with NATO Allies; Ukrainian Rescue Team Rush to Danger to Save Lives; Meadows Texts Reveal Trump Inner Circle's Communications. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired April 26, 2022 - 05:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to our viewers in the United States and all around the world. I'm Laura Jarrett. Christine has the morning off. So glad you're with me this morning. And we begin with breaking news.

Ukrainian forces repelling stepped-up Russian strikes in the country's south and the east. Ukraine's military claims six Russian attacks were pushed back over the last 24 hours. Meantime, Russian troops have taken control of the Kherson city council weeks after first occupying that southern Ukrainian city. The mayor posted on Facebook that armed men entered the council building and, quote, "took the keys and replaced our guards with their own."

Right now U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany meeting with NATO allies and the U.N. secretary- general is in Moscow where he will meet with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Our coverage this morning begins on the ground in Ukraine with CNN's Isa Soares live in Lviv.

Isa, good morning. What do we know about Ukrainian forces pushing back against the Russian offensive now?

ISA SOARES, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to you, Laura. Let me give you a sense of what we have seen in the overnight hours, that Russian offensive pushes further east as well as south. We've seen intense and nonstop shelling really from the Russian side overnight. In all directions this coming from an adviser to President Zelenskyy, he said what Russian forces are trying to do, and I'm quoting him here, Laura, raising everything to the ground. We also know from Ukrainian officials that about 25 Russian soldiers

or so are trying to take the city of Kramatorsk and of Sloviansk, that's in the Donetsk region, that's in the east of the country. If we go further south, we take you to Kherson. You mentioned that briefly. But we know that the city council in Kherson has fallen to Russian hands. The Russia forces have taken control several weeks ago of the actual of Kherson, but now it's taken the city council. They walked in, they took the keys, they swapped the guards and they are now fully in control.

We also know that in Kherson, Laura, that Russia is trying to create an independence, trying to create an independence referendum. And obviously what we have heard from President Zelenskyy who called it a sham, that really Ukrainians are pushing back, trying to repel Russian forces even in Kherson and really turning their backs on this idea of a Kherson's independent republic. Have a listen to what President Zelenskyy had to say about this.


PRES. VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINE (through translator): The lessons of history are well-known. If you are going to build a millennial Reich, you lose. If you're going to destroy the neighbors, you lose. If you want to restore the old empire, you lose. And if you go against the Ukrainians, you lose.


SOARES: Pretty strong words there from President Zelenskyy. I want to show you, though, this new video you're looking there, right there on your screen, coming to us from Novotoshkivka, that's in the east of the country. It's a video, the drone footage that's been geolocated and authenticated by CNN. It's small but also as you can see the dense village and it's been completely shattered, blitzed, destroyed.

It looks almost like a hurricane, doesn't it, Laura, has gone through it. But, no, this is manmade, this is not God's will, this is manmade. And Russia is blaming Ukraine for it, Ukraine saying this was Russia yet again decimating their cities -- Laura.

JARRETT: Destruction either way. Isa, thank you for your reporting. Appreciate you bringing us up to speed.

Also right now Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is this Germany for talks with his NATO counterparts. CNN's Oren Liebermann is traveling with the secretary and he joins us live from the Ramstein Air Base.

Oren, we've heard some very strong comments from General Austin already on this trip. What's his primary message today?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is all about bringing together countries, not only NATO, but some 40 other countries to provide Ukraine with the weapons it needs, to get a better sense of what's needed, who has it and how to get it into Ukraine as quickly as possible. You're absolutely right that this comes on top of the stronger

rhetoric we've heard not only from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin but from others in the U.S. administration, a more optimistic perhaps even a more definitive message that not only is Ukraine doing well in this fight, Ukraine can win if they are given the right weapons and given those weapons quickly.

Here is Austin from the opening statements earlier today.


LLOYD AUSTIN, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: My trip to Kyiv reinforced my admiration for the way that the Ukrainian armed forces are deploying these capabilities.


Ukraine clearly believes that it can win. And so does everyone here.


LIEBERMANN: Much stronger rhetoric we're hearing not only from Austin but from the American administration. And that comes on top of the shift we've seen over the course of the last few weeks where not only the U.S. and the U.K. but others have been more willing to send in bigger, more powerful weapons such as the howitzers that had begun arriving. Howitzers, artillery, they're critical to Ukraine for the fight in south and east Ukraine, in the Donbas region.

So that is part of what this conference focuses on. It will be broken down essentially into three parts. One, a battlefield situation update, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov is here so he'll provide that. And then two different sessions, one in the short and the medium term, what does Ukraine need to stay in the fight and to succeed in that fight. And then in terms of the long term, right now Ukraine uses largely Soviet-era weapons, weapons the West doesn't really have, so how do you transition them and train them on Western and U.S. weaponry -- Laura.

JARRETT: All right. Oren Liebermann, traveling with the secretary, thank you so much.

Let's bring in retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Kevin Ryan. He's also a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belford Center.

Sir, nice to have you this morning. Appreciate you coming on bright and early. The Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin says that the U.S. wants to weaken Russia's military ability so that they can't launch an attack like this again, or at least be deterred from doing so. That may sound from an outside perspective like an obvious statement, but it's actually a meaningful shift. Explain how.

BRIG. GEN. KEVIN RYAN (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Yes, you know, Secretary Austin's comments may be the very first expression of a concrete U.S. objective in this conflict. Russia has weakened itself through its failure to defeat the Ukrainian military and to take over the whole country. What exactly the United States will do to further weaken Russia is left to the imagination right now. But it is an important revelation, if you will, of what the people in Washington are thinking about right now that we could actually end up with a weaker Russia than before the war.

JARRETT: So then at the same time, though, you have Russia's foreign minister saying in an interview that the danger of nuclear war is serious and cannot be underestimated. He also said Russia is trying to lower the risk and blamed current fears on the West's refusal to trust Russia. What's the U.S. supposed to do with that?

RYAN: You know, the threats to use nuclear weapons are mainly directed toward the West and the United States and not Ukraine. So that's the most important thing to remember about threats to use weapons of mass destruction. They are speaking to us at this time. He doesn't need to use nuclear weapons to get what he wants out of Ukraine. But he does need to use nuclear weapons in order to try and coerce NATO and the West from -- into not putting troops in Eastern Europe or into changing our policies toward Russia. The question remains whether that will be enough to keep us from doing those things. I don't think it will.

JARRETT: Sir, let's talk about how this might all end. I know you say the fight in eastern Ukraine is likely the last big fight of this conflict and that Putin will want a ceasefire but likely not conclude a treaty with Ukraine. So essentially we sort of go on in this frozen conflict?

RYAN: Yes, it's a little bit like maybe the end of Korea, the end of some other conflicts that Russia has had, and it's near abroad in Georgia, and in Ukraine back in 2015. By allowing a ceasefire, he gives himself the opportunity to refed and to repair his own military and to consolidate his gains. Some of your reporters have mentioned the establishment of new political leaderships in these captured towns and regions.

That is what we'll be seeing a lot more of going forward. The end of the fighting doesn't mean the end of violence, though. And he can continue to ramp up missile strikes, et cetera, both in western Ukraine and along the line of contact if he is not getting what he wants out of Ukraine and the West.

JARRETT: An important distinction there.

General Kevin Ryan, thank you so much for coming on, sir. Appreciate it.

RYAN: Thank you.

JARRETT: Coming up for you, the head of the U.N. about to meet with Russia's Vladimir Putin. But first, a rescue team taking shelter from a barrage of Russian shells.


(COMMERCIAL BREAK) JARRETT: Welcome back. People in and around Kharkiv, Ukraine right now face the constant threat of Russian shelling. CNN's Clarissa Ward rode with the brave first responders risking their lives to save others.


CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): It's the beginning of a 24-hour shift for paramedics Alexandra Rudkovskaya and Vladimir Venzel. They prepare their ambulance for the carnage that Kharkiv residents confront every day.


"We have to tourniquets," Vladimir says.

Alexandra's mother stops by the dispatch center to give her daughter a hug. This is one of the most dangerous jobs. Every moment together is precious.

A loud stream of boom signals the day's work is beginning. "That's incoming now," this ambulance worker tells us. Alexandra and Vladimir answer the call.

"Temperatura," she says. The code used when someone has been wounded by shelling. Their flak jackets on, they're ready to roll out.

(On camera): So they've said that they've got reports one person at least has been injured in the shelling and they're hearing some rockets as well, so we're going to see what's going on.

(Voice over): The shells hit a residential apartment building. The paramedics need to act fast. Russian forces are increasingly hitting the same target twice. It's called a double tap, a horrifying strategy to take out rescue workers as they respond.

We see for ourselves. "Get in," Vladimir shouts. "Faster, faster, faster." We take cover under the stairwell. Alexandra is trying to find the wounded person, but there is no signal. At that moment, another barrage moves on.

We brace for the impact.

"Is everybody okay," Alexandra asks. Our team member, Maria Abdieva (PH), has cut up her hands on broken glass. Vladimir treats her injuries as Alexandra calls the dispatch again to find where the wounded are.

"We've got no connection. We're sitting in the entrance," she says. "And they're shelling the shit out of us."

The connection keeps dropping.

Finally, she gets through to the person who called for the ambulance.

"Tell me your damn house number," she says. "I repeat, 12-G. I've told you a thousand times," he replies. "The man is dying." We decide to try to make a run for it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's go. Come on, Maria. Maria, come on. Come on, Maria. Come on. Go, go. Get in the car. Get in the car.

WARD (on camera): OK, so we were just in an apartment building. They were looking for an injured man, a bunch of rounds came in and hit the next-door building, so now we are getting out as fast as we can.

(Voice over): While we run out, Vladimir and Alexandra run back in. We find them treating the injured man on the side of the road. Their back window has been blown out by the blasts. He has shrapnel injuries and head trauma. Once they've stabilized him, they rush him to the hospital.

Vladimir asks about his pain. The man has been deafened by the blast. Arriving at the hospital, they've done their part. It's up to others now to save him.

(On camera): I have to say I think you guys are like the bravest people I have ever met.

(Voice over): Back at base, we asked them why they continue to do this work with all the danger it entails.

"It's normal. This is our work. Of course, it's scary, like for everyone," Alexandra says. "Today, you were with us in the hottest place, in the oven, but we're still alive. Thank God."

"You feel it's your duty or obligation," Vladimir tells us. "To help the people who are still here."

(On camera): And what do your parents say? What does your family say? Aren't they wanting you to stop this work?


VLADIMIR VENZEL, PARAMEDIC: No comment. No comment. It's very difficult.

WARD: They must be scared.

VENZEL: Yes, yes.

WARD: Proud, but scared.

VENZEL: Call us all day, all night.

WARD: We saw your mother.


WARD (voice-over): "She is worried to the point of hysteria," Alexandra tells us. She says, "You need to leave. You need to go to some safe place. Why are you doing this? I have only one, child stop it." (On-camera): And what do you say?

(Voice over): "I have to do it," she says simply. And with that, they go back to cleaning their ambulance. Their shift only halfway through.

Clarissa Ward, CNN, Kharkiv.


JARRETT: Our thanks to Clarissa for that spectacular reporting. Appreciate it.

Coming up, the new ruling from a federal judge that could disrupt President Biden's plan for the southern border.

But first, revealing new text messages, what Trump's inner circle was talking about around January 6th.



JARRETT: A plot to overturn the 2020 election hatched over text messages. CNN has obtained more than 2300 texts sent and received by former Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. Now these texts leading up to President Biden's inauguration in January of 2021 not only show Meadows playing a key role in the attempt to stop Biden from taking office but how other Republican lawmakers tried to meddle with the election results as well.

Let's bring in CNN's Katelyn Polantz with more on this CNN exclusive.

Katelyn, the January 6th Committee has had these texts for months but this is the first time CNN has actually got their hands on almost all of them. What stood out the most to you in all these?

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Laura, this really is the big picture. These are the 2,000 text messages that Meadows has voluntarily handed over to the House Select Committee in their investigation, and what we have here, as you mentioned earlier, you called it, these coming from the inner circle, that is what it is. And why that is important is it's very clear that as these people around Trump, close to Trump, prominent lawmakers were texting Mark Meadows, they were trying to get to the president or at least they viewed Meadows as a conduit to Trump.

So we are getting to see what people were really believing and what they were hoping Trump would hear before the election or, I'm sorry, after the election and then in the heat of what you can call the fog of war on January 6th. So who is sending these? We have them from lots of different people in political spheres including more than 40 current and former members of Congress who were texting Meadows.

There are group chats, there are individual chats, people that were sending theories about the election fraud conspiracy to Meadows, as Trump was pushing that publicly. And then on January 6th, I want to walk through a couple of these that we'd like to highlight that we think are very important because they come from such important people in the moment of what they were actually thinking.

So we have Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, she's a staunch supporter of Donald Trump, on January 6th sends a text to Mark Meadows that says, Mark, I was just told there is an active shooter on the first floor of the Capitol. Please tell the president to calm people. This isn't the way to solve anything.

Now, Greene the next day on January 7th was changing her tune a little bit. Yesterday was a terrible day, we tried everything we could in our objection to the six states. I'm sorry nothing worked. I don't think that President Trump caused the attack on the Capitol. It is not his fault. She was texting him.

And then there are also people aside from members of Congress who were trying to get a message to Trump on January 6th. Those include two former White House chiefs of staff, so people in the same position as Meadows who was holding that job at the time, texting, Mick Mulvaney texting Meadows, Mark, he needs to stop this now, can I do anything to help?

Reince Priebus, another former White House chief of staff, all caps, texting, tell them to go home, three exclamation points, on January 6th to Meadows. There's also people that Mulvaney was texting back. He's not always texting back that quickly, but there's a GOP rep, William Timmons of South Carolina, texting, the president needs to stop this ASAP. And the text back is we are doing it.

And so all of these text messages taken together are showing what these people are seeing, what Meadows was receiving, but I should note this is not everything that the committee wants. They are still seeking more text messages. And they are not all being turned over at this time -- Laura.

JARRETT: All right. Katelyn, we will see what comes next. Thank you.

We expect to see Vladimir Putin very soon. What he is doing now, coming up. And will Elon Musk put his money where his mouth is once he owns Twitter?