Return to Transcripts main page

Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Oz & Fetterman Face Off in Pennsylvania Senate Debate; Rep. Jayapal Withdraws Letter Urging Diplomacy on Ukraine; Russia Braces Forces in Kherson for Ukrainian Offensive; Brittney Griner's Appeal Rejected by Russian Court. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired October 26, 2022 - 05:00   ET



CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. It is Wednesday, October 26th. I'm Christine Romans.

We begin with the high stakes debate between the two men vying for Pennsylvania's open Senate seat. The first and only face-off between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz quickly spiraled into a series of biting personal attacks.

Much of the attention leading up to the debate was focused on Fetterman's stroke in May and how it might affect his performance. Safe to say it did. At times he struggled for words or lost his train of thought.

Oz did not draw attention to Fetterman's trouble. Instead he focused on painting Fetterman as, quote, extreme using that word over and over.


MEHMET OZ (R), PENNSYLVANIA SENATE CANDIDATE: John Fetterman takes everything to an extreme and those extreme positions hurt us all.

JOHN FETTERMAN (D), PENNSYLVANIA SENATE CANDIDATE: Let's also talk about the elephant in the room. I had a stroke. He's never let me forget that. And I might miss some words during this debate. Mush two words together but it knocked me down, I'm going to keep coming back up.


ROMANS: Fetterman especially lost his footing on the subject of fracking when questioned about a 2018 interview when he said he would never support the industry versus his current position supporting fracking.


OZ: John Fetterman calls fracking a stain on Pennsylvania. He says that he would sign a moratorium to ban its continued use. He's against pipelines. He voted -- supported the vote against the Keystone pipeline that ended up shutting it down. He supports Biden's desire to ban fracking on public land.

FETTERMAN: I do support fracking and I don't -- I don't -- I support fracking and I stand -- and I do support fracking.


ROMANS: Fetterman seemed on firmer ground on the subject of abortion where Democrats have focused much of their midterm attention. Oz was asked about a nationwide ban on abortion.


OZ: There should not be involvement from the federal government in how states decide their abortion decisions. As a physician, I've been in the room when there's some difficult conversations happening. I don't want the federal government involved with that at all. I want women, doctors, local political leaders letting the democracy that's always allowed our nation to thrive to put the best ideas together to let the states decide themselves.

FETTERMAN: If you believe your reproductive freedom belongs with Dr. Oz, you have a choice. If you believe the choice for abortion stands with you and your doctor, that's what I stand for. Roe v. Wade for me is -- should be the law.


ROMANS: All right. Let's bring in professor of political science at the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, Chris Borick.

Nice to see you this morning.

All right. So, a lot to unpack there. Did anyone emerge stronger last night?

CHRISTOPHER BORICK, PROFESSOR OF POLITICAL SCIENCE, MUHLENBERG COLLEGE: No. It's such a unique circumstance with lieutenant governor Fetterman's condition. It's hard to evaluate in a traditional way. Certainly, the lieutenant governor struggled at times to get his message out. He's dealing with a cognitive challenge that's making that difficult for him.

And it showed at points. It was hard, I believe, for him to make points that he wanted to. It took some time.

On the other hand, I think Dr. Oz stayed on the message that he has hammered away at in terms of his campaign, that John Fetterman is too extreme, too left, he's soft on crime and he was able to keep that repeatedly said during the debate.

ROMANS: How do you feel Dr. Oz responded to the abortion question last night? Lieutenant Governor Fetterman has consistently stood by Roe versus Wade. Then you heard Dr. Oz say I've been in the room when the difficult decisions have been made. I've had difficult conversations and this should not be up to the federal government? BORICK: Yeah, this is one of the parts where Oz struggled somewhat.

He's on the defensive. He's been hit pretty hard on this throughout the campaign.

And his answer, I think, left some question marks that Fetterman campaign is going to follow up on, a statement about it's the person, doctor and the local officials that get to decide this. Certainly, I think this is one area where his performance wasn't as tight as it was on other areas where he was hammering away at Fetterman.


ROMANS: You talk about how unique this particular time is for these candidates. Lieutenant Governor Fetterman stumbled.

I guess we don't know how voters are going to feel about what that means for his competency?

BORICK: Yeah, that's exactly right. It's hard to see what the evaluation standards would be. He fried to make it clear from the start, acknowledge his health challenge. I believe there is empathy among voters for the challenges that the lieutenant governor has had.

But as they evaluate, they see the back and forth and some struggles the lieutenant governor had in making his points. It's really hard to determine what type of evaluation criteria they're going to use. So, like so many things in this campaign that seemed fairly unique, this is another one of those points.

ROMANS: All right. Mr. Borick, so nice to see you this morning. Thanks.

BORICK: Nice seeing you, too.

ROMANS: All right. President Biden directing the DNC to immediately transfer an additional $10 million to the campaigns of House and Senate Democrats. He's also offering an additional $8 million through fundraising. That's $18 million for the final push before the midterms. The new cash infusion brings the total amount transferred by the DNC to $27 million. That's a record for the party.

Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal now withdrawing a letter to the Biden administration urging it to pursue a diplomatic solution to Russia's war with Ukraine. That letter sparked backlash from fellow Democrats who felt blindsided by the move that it was released two weeks before the midterms.

CNN's Daniella Diaz joins us from Washington.

How has the congresswoman explaining this sudden reversal?

DANIELLA DIAZ, CNN REPORTER: Christine, she issued a statement yesterday, this came after she clarified the letter on Monday night that read, quote, the letter was drafted several months ago but unfortunately was released by staff without vetting. As chair of the caucus, I accept responsibility for this. Christine, it's interesting. You said that Democrats were upset that

she issued this letter to President Joe Biden. Some of the Democrats that were upset with her signed the letter. There were 30 names on this letter when it was sent to President Joe Biden on Monday.

Some of them said that if they had known this letter was going to be sent this week, they would have removed their name from this. Because this was written in July, that's what sources told me, and it was never sent. There was a miscommunication in Jayapal's office where aides including Jayapal sent this letter to President Biden without notifying the signers.

Many, many of these lawmakers saying, quote, the timing was terrible. It was sent as this war with Ukraine and Russia amped up. Very different circumstances than it was when they wrote the letter in July and it's been edited.

Another thing, Christine, this is two weeks from the midterms. There are a lot of moderate Democrats fighting for their seats and now discussion -- while it's been in the Republican Party about whether to continue funding u drain, that discussion is spilling over who have had to qualify their stances about supporting Ukraine. So, this debate has not been including in the Democrats, some that these Democrats, as they fight for control of the House, didn't want the discussion to be this two weeks from the midterms.

ROMANS: Yeah. To use a baseball analogy, unforced error very close to the very big game.

All right. Thanks so much for that. Nice to see you, Daniella Diaz.

A fiery debate between New York Governor Kathy Hochul and her Republican challenger Lee Zeldin. The two sparred over abortion rights and the 2020 election, but crime captured the spotlight.


GOV. KATHY HOCHUL (D), NEW YORK: There is no crime fighting plan if it doesn't include guns, illegal guns. You refuse to talk about how we can do so much more. You didn't even show up for votes in Washington when a bipartisan group of enlightened legislators voted for an assault weapon ban.

REP. LEE ZELDIN (R-NY): Unfortunately, Kathy Hochul believes the only crimes being committed are crimes with guns. You have people afraid of being pushed in front of oncoming subway cars. They're being stabbed. They're beaten to death on the street with hammers.


ROMANS: Abortion rights led to another heated exchange.


HOCHUL: You know why nothing changed the day after the Dobbs decision? Because I'm the governor of the state of New York and he's not. So, we can talk about policies all you want but let's look at the record very few people in Congress who have a more pro-life record.

ZELDIN: It doesn't matter who the governor was the day of the Dobbs decision, because it was already passed into law a few years ago. Here's the reality, a few years back, New York codified far more than Roe. When we woke up the day after the Dobbs decision, the law in New York was exactly the same as it was the day before. And I'm not going to change that.


ROMANS: Hochul's once commanding lead has dwindled to single digits in the latest polls.


More than 9.2 million early ballots have been cast across 40 states. Pre-election voting remaining on pace with 2018, when the highest midterm voter turnout in recent history was reported. It is still too early to say whether total voter turnout will exceed 2018 with voting habits shifting significantly in recent years.

All right. Britain's third prime minister in seven weeks about to face parliament and lay out his plan to stabilize a faltering economy.

Plus, what could be a bad omen for U.S. economy. Google's profits plummeting.

And CNN on the ground for a potential turning point in Ukraine.


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We have to get out of here as fast as possible because the Russians might target this position after they got hit the salvo from our rockets.



ROMANS: Welcome back.

A pivotal moment in the war in Ukraine. Right now, Russia's plans for the critical port city of Kherson are uncertain.


Their forces may be digging in to challenge the Ukrainian counteroffensive, but there are other indications they may be preparing to retreat.

Frederik Pleitgen live on the ground in Mykolaiv.

Fred, what do we know about the Russians pulling occupying officials out of Kherson? What do we think is happening?

PLEITGEN: Yeah, it's very difficult to tell. One of the things that we did so, because we were on the front lines near Kherson just yesterday, is there's a lot of fighting going on. It's a very kinetic situation near the front line. There are some who believe that the Russians might be planning to withdraw their forces. It's a very difficult military situation for them on the ground there. A lot of people being evacuated.

But this morning, Christine, there was an adviser to Ukraine's president and he said he believes the Russians are bringing in more forces and gearing up for a counteroffensive. Nevertheless, right now, the Ukrainians are the ones on the move.

Here's what we saw.


PLEITGEN (voice-over): En route to the front in one of the most active areas of the brutal war in Ukraine with a rocket artillery team taking aim at Vladimir Putin's forces.

They're called Karlson and use light trucks with missile pods mounted on the bed. The rockets carry a message of retribution. This one signed on behalf of a fallen soldier, from the witch, it says.

"TARAS", UKRAINIAN ARMED FORCES (through translator): Our vehicle is very effective because we can set up quickly, fire, and get away again.

PLEITGEN: Now they're aiming at Russian positions several miles away.

But Russia's artillery is also dangerous and could fire back fast. It's not safe, he screams.

We have to get out of here as fast as possible because the Russians might target this position after they get hit by the salvo from our rockets.

Their key to accuracy comes from the air. The drone scopes out the target and then watches as the artillery hits a Russian military repair shop, the unit says.

"JOHN", UKRAINIAN ARMED FORCES DRONE OPERATOR (through translator): We are the eyes of the unit. We do reconnaissance and then make sure the target gets hit.

PLEITGEN: The Russians are under such pressure, they started evacuating tens of thousands of people from Kherson and the Ukrainians believe Moscow is making its unfounded claims about preparing to use a so-called dirty bomb because Russia's troops are pinned down in this area.

The Karlson's commander believes it's only a matter of time before they oust Vladimir Putin's army from here.

TARAS (through translator): By the end of the year, we believe Kherson will be under Ukrainian flags.

PLEITGEN: And they hope their unit will make a small difference in the battle for Kherson.


PLEITGEN (on camera): Christine, the latest information we have is well over 20,000 people have already been relocated by the Russians across the river that their forces are pinned up against. And, of course, a lot of that comes from the city itself, from Kherson.

The big problem that the Russians have there is that pretty much all the bridges across the river have been knocked out by Ukrainians. Logistics difficult for them. That's why they thought the Russians might do a complete withdrawal.

But, again, now, the Ukrainians are saying their information seems to be different. The Russians apparently beefing up their forces possibly for some stand around the Kherson area.

ROMANS: All right. I know you'll be covering it for us. Fred Pleitgen for us in Mykolaiv, thanks, Fred.

ROMANS: Top U.S. forces trying to decipher Vladimir Putin's claim that Ukraine is preparing to use a dirty bomb on its own soil. Now, Democrats, of course, combined with regular explosives with radioactive material.

Ukraine, the U.S., the U.K., the European Union, NATO, all accuse Moscow of trying to create a pretexts of them to use a dirty bomb.

Here's President Biden's new warning to the Kremlin.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Let me just say, Russia will be making an incredibly serious mistake if it were to use a tactical nuclear weapon. I'm not guaranteeing you it's a false flag operation yet, don't know, but it would be a serious, serious mistake.


ROMANS: Clare Sebastian live from London with the latest developments in this scary developments in this story.

Clare, Russia repeating the claims that Ukraine is preparing to use a tactical nuclear weapon. What's the reaction in the U.K.?

CLARE SEBASTIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, pure Russian disinformation, Christine, were the words of a diplomat in Ukraine. There was a closed door meeting on Tuesday that Russia called to discuss these allegations that it's making against Ukraine. The U.K. foreign office, the foreign ministry on a tweet on Tuesday saying Putin's war is built on lies.


So they are dismissing this as disinformation, as is the U.S., and as you noted other Western officials. Even NATO secretary general is speaking against this morning, saying they've seen this from Russia in the past where it accuses someone of doing something or planning to do something only to do it itself. He said the world is watching closely.

But, of course, the confusion around this, the chaos, that is all part of the Russian fabric as well, Christine to exert the psychological pressure on Western powers to test their resolve and support for Ukraine. And, of course, that resolve so far, we don't see any signs that it's weakening.

I can tell you the new British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has already called President Zelenskyy and has reappointed the current foreign minister for continuity in the U.K.'s approach to this war.

ROMANS: All right. Clare, thank you so much for that.

The White House vows to keep trying to get Brittney Griner home after a Russian court rejected her appeal, upholding her nine-year prison sentence on drug smuggling charges. President Biden says the administration making every effort to bring the American basketball star and other wrongly detained Americans home.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We are in constant contact with Russian authorities to get Brittney and others out and so far we have not been meeting with much positive response.


ROMANS: Let's get more from CNN's Matthew Chance.


MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the outcome for Brittney Griner is not good. She appeared in that courtroom outside of Moscow by video conference. She didn't appear in person. She made an impassioned plea to the judge to reduce her sentence. And she did that for apologizing by what she had done. She admitted her guilt but said it was so hard for her, essentially to paraphrase her, to be away from her family and the other people who had committed much more serious crimes had received much, much less of a prison sentence, much reduced sentences.

But none of that emotional plea seems to have had any impact on the Russian judge. The judge upheld the conviction, guilty verdict for Brittney Griner for smuggling drugs, essentially, into the country. Remember she was caught with a tiny, less than a gram of cannabis oil in her luggage when she came into Russia back in February. And he also basically upheld the sentence as well, that we did reduce it a little bit, by a couple of months.

Now she will serve 8 1/2 months. So, there isn't much consolation there. The lawyers on behalf of Brittney Griner said they are surprised and devastate that had this has happened. They were expecting a much bigger reduction of the sentence. I spoke to them last week actually in Moscow and that's what they told me. They're now unfortunately kind of at the end of the road legally. It's

not clear whether they'll be able to appeal again to a Russian court and so now what happens is that Brittney Griner will be taken away from her pretrial detention center outside of Moscow where she is now and moved to a more permanent location, a penal colony outside of Moscow. It could be further away.

And, of course, the conditions in those Russian penal colonies leaves much to be desired to say the least. The worst sort of moments for Brittney Griner are still potentially ahead of us. Not a good day at all in terms of news for that American basketball star.

Matthew Chance, CNN, London.


ROMANS: All right, Matthew. Thank you for that.

A student and teacher gunned down in a high school. What a teenage shooter wrote in a letter he left behind.

And dozens of migrants found in a dump truck in Texas.



ROMANS: New details emerging about a shooting at a St. Louis high school that left a teacher, tenth grade student and the gunman dead. Police say the shooter had an AR-15 style rifle, more than a dozen high capacity magazines and more than 600 rounds of ammunition.

Investigators found a handwritten note the 19-year-old left in a vehicle he drove to the school.


COMMISSIONER MICHAEL SACK, ST. LOUIS DEPT: He wrote, quote, I don't have any friends. I don't have any family and I've never had a girlfriend. I've never had a social life. I've been an isolated loner my entire life. This was the perfect storm for a mass shooter.


ROMANS: Sixty-one-year-old Jean Kuczka and Alexzandria Bell just three weeks shy of the 16th birthday were both killed. Police are not saying how they made access for security reasons. They do say it was not through an official entry point.

Texas state troopers arresting the driver of a dump truck who they say was trying to smuggle migrants. More than 60 migrants concealed inside the bed of the dump truck when it was stopped on I-35 in Cotulla, Texas, Tuesday. The driver was taken into custody. The migrants were turned over to U.S. Border Patrol.

All right. Just a couple of hours from now, the United Kingdom's new prime minister, the third prime minister in seven weeks faces questions in parliament. Rishi Sunak saying mistakes were made and vowing to bring stability to the country after months of political and economic turmoil.