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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

White House Warns Ukraine Aid Runs Out At Month's End; Border, Ukraine Aid Talks Stalled In Senate; U.S. Defense Sec. Austin: Israel Talks Focus On Next Phase Of The War. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired December 19, 2023 - 05:30   ET




JOHN AVLON, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, and thanks for getting up early with us. I'm John Avlon in for Kasie Hunt.

A new warning from the White House that a Ukraine aid package set for later this month will be the last if Congress doesn't approve additional help.

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters that aid to Ukraine has been essential in resisting Russia's invasion, but Kyiv still needs our help.


JOHN KIRBY, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS: We need the supplemental funding to be able to continue to support Ukraine. And as we've said, by the end of the month, there -- that dedicated funding for Ukraine is not going to be there."


AVLON: We've got CNN's Nick Paton Walsh live in Kyiv, Ukraine with more. Nick, is Ukraine preparing for the possibility that this crucial money from the U.S. could run out?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, absolutely. It is the heart of everyone here, frankly, that these billions they've relied upon -- it's not going to necessarily switch the lights out one given day but it is already causing ammunition to be rationed, morale to be tumbling. That's absolutely clear. In fact, just here in Kyiv, before we joined you, a funeral march for two Ukrainian soldiers on the square down below me.

A sense of Russia revigorated on many of the frontline positions moving forward aggressively. Ukraine struggling with equipment and even personnel casualties, too.

Here is rare access we got to a place which should have seen significant Ukrainian advances during the summer counteroffensive but is now struggling with Moscow pushing back. (END VIDEOTAPE)

WALSH (voice-over): This was where the billions were meant to spell a breakthrough but with a counteroffensive that was supposed to have kicked Russia to the sea this summer, now it is mud, death, deadlock, and the remnants of American help vanishing.

WALSH: It's a notably different mood here -- dark, frankly. In the summer, they were buoyed, feeling like they had the world at their back moving forwards. Now it's slow, dangerous, and a real sense of despair, to be honest.

WALSH (voice-over): Forty Russian drones swarmed one Ukrainian trench here in a day. Down here in this tiny basement, the rule is do not get seen. The other side are not so lucky. Two Russians spotted moving a load. They guide in a mortar strike. There are just so many Russians now.

"Usually more meat means more mince," the commander says, "but sometimes their machine struggles to handle it and sometimes they have success."

Batteries die fast in the cold and Russian jamming seems to damage them, too.

This is Orikhiv, whose streets wreak of crushed lives and how much horror Moscow is willing to bring to be seen to win.

WALSH: It's been a matter of months since we were here in the summer. How much more damage has been done?

WALSH (voice-over): If you stop thinking about Ukraine, be sure Putin hasn't. At command, they watch a wasteland of tree lines now bare. The dead, the injured -- it's unclear if Russia treats them differently. Another Ukrainian drone aims for a foxhole.

What they've struggled with are the waves of Russian assaults. Dozens of Russian prisoners, well-trained and equipped and backed up by armor, who they say are given a mix of drugs. They show us this graphic video of a wounded Russian, his legs severed, seemingly high enough to smile through his fatal injuries.

Still, they claim they held hard-won ground but at a huge cost.

"As we say in the Army," he says, "the counteroffensive was smooth on paper, but we forgot about the ditches. Colossal changes are taking place. They started making their own attack drones and outnumber ours. They use them badly, like a kid's toy."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking foreign language).

TEXT: What's happening?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking foreign language).

[05:35:00] TEXT: Heavy injuries!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking foreign language).

TEXT: From what?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking foreign language).

TEXT: Dexter, Dexter, I'm Bremya. Do you copy?

WALSH (voice-over): They say a drone has hit a trench and blown up a gas heater.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking foreign language).

TEXT: Begin the evacuation. Begin the evacuation. Evacuate with a small vehicle. Did you move already?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking foreign language).

TEXT: We didn't.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking foreign language).

TEXT: Why not? Why not?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking foreign language).

TEXT: No transport. No transport.

WALSH (voice-over): The silence and the wait for news, agony.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking foreign language).

TEXT: Already dead.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking foreign language).

TEXT: Copy. Is he dead?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking foreign language).

TEXT: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking foreign language).

TEXT: It's over. Evacuate him. No rush. We can't help him already.

WALSH: Does it feel like the casualties are getting worse?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking foreign language).

WALSH (voice-over): "Every casualty makes a difference," he says. "It affects everyone's morale. It's very painful for me."

Sergey (PH), aged 48, was one of four Ukrainians to die in that area that day, and about 50 that week. They haven't had to really talk about losing in this war but this is what it looks like.

It's not just drones. This Russian video seems to show a new threat -- gas -- caustic, flammable. The Ukrainians have had nine instants on this front killing one.

Here are two survivors.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): At first, I saw smoke. We ran out from the trench and the gas suddenly caught fire. The trench was in flames. This gas burns and blinds you. You can't breathe. It shoots down your through immediately. We didn't even have a second.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): You inhale it twice then you fail to breathe.

WALSH (voice-over): Medical reports confirm that poisoning. A Ukrainian official told CNN a form of CS gas was being used.

WALSH: And there was injuries inside your mouth? Where?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): On my cheeks -- everywhere inside the mouth. My face is swollen and covered in red marks.

WALSH (voice-over): It is an ugly, savage world, even on a TV screen where there seems little Moscow won't do but too much the West won't.


WALSH (on camera): Now, we asked the Russian minister of defense to comment about the use of gas there and received no response.

Some Western analysts have looked at the number of reports we're now seeing from Ukrainian soldiers of the use of sort of low-level irritants like -- control agents like CS gas -- and think that perhaps Russia is seeing what it can get away with on the front lines in terms of violating the Chemical Weapons Convention.

But be in no doubt here at all, John, it is a deeply bleak picture for Ukraine on most of the front lines we've visited over two weeks. One with the lack of U.S. and EU funding -- very clearly in everyone's heart, impacting morale, and imminently, in the weeks ahead, likely impacting operations. And Russia waiting for this moment and very ready -- John.

AVLON: Nick Paton Walsh, thank you for your frontline reporting as always.

All right. Hopes that the Senate can pass a deal on immigration and Ukraine aid before Christmas seem to be fading as some senators are changing their predictions from not likely to what they say is impossible.

Senate Minority Whip John Thune telling CNN's Manu Raju this just yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It seems like there's no way an immigration bill can be voted on in the Senate this week.

SEN. JOHN THUNE (R-SD): That is a fact -- yeah, yeah. There's no way.


AVLON: This as the Pentagon warns it will run out of military aid for Ukraine by December 30.

Let's bring in Mica Soellner who is a congressional reporter for Punchbowl News. Mica, is Sen. Thune right? And what are the specific details being debated over the reforms to the asylum policy in particular?


So we're going to see senators on both sides argue differently when it comes to the negotiations. Democrats have been insistent that there has been progress made in the last few days as they were here over the weekend. Republicans, meanwhile, are a lot more pessimistic, and we saw that by the amount of Republicans that ended up showing up to last night's unrelated vote. There were only 14 members that ended up coming back to Washington.

So right now, some of the things that are being debated over is parole, deportation policy, and a lot of these aspects that would really impact the way that the U.S. is handling migrants coming into the country with progressives saying that some of these go far. Conservative Republicans saying some of these don't go far enough and trying to find that consensus there.

AVLON: Well, the devil's always in the details but I think the more information that gets out about the specific changes, the more we might be able to find some common ground.

Now, I want to talk about Ukraine aid. You saw that package from Nick Paton Walsh just a few moments ago.


And I remember when Republicans used to be quick to rally around the cause of freedom at home and abroad.

But I want you to respond to something David Frum wrote in The Atlantic yesterday. Quote, "Solidarity with Ukraine has faltered as support for Trump has consolidated. Make no mistake," he writes, "If Republicans in Congress abandon Ukraine to Russian aggression, they do so to please Trump. Every other excuse is a fiction or a lie."

Is that how you see the dynamic in Congress right now there?

SOELLNER: Yeah. I certainly think that at the start, we mostly saw resistance and hesitance about the situation in Ukraine coming from the conservative wing of House Republicans. Now it's interesting to see this play out more among Senate Republicans as well.

And we saw this among those who supported President Trump -- former President Trump the most in the House. And we're seeing this growing mostly among, I would say, the right flank, which is most likely to align with not just Trump but his kind of America First policy. And this is very intrinsic in kind of the way that the former administration handled global affairs by restricting foreign aid and being very skeptical of this. And we're seeing Trump comment more heavily on this.

So I do think that there is a lot of ties that can be said, especially going into 2024. A lot of lawmakers are afraid -- Republicans are afraid to get on Trump's bad side. And if he sees them as weak on this issue and weak in the sense that they are supportive of Ukraine in his view, then he may attack them personally and politically.

AVLON: It's that fear that seems to drive a lot of decisions on Capitol Hill.

Mica Soellner, Punchbowl News, thank you very much.

All right. Former president and current candidate Donald Trump seems to have a thing for dictators. So what should that tell us?



AVLON: Defense Sec. Lloyd Austin is on a mission in the Middle East right now. He's been holding talks about the next phase of the Israel- Hamas war and the release of the remaining hostages held in Gaza. This as supplemental aid for both Israel and Ukraine remain stalled back home as President Biden negotiates with Republicans over their demands for changes to U.S. border policy.

I want to bring in CNN political and national security analyst David Sanger. He's also, of course, the White House and national security correspondent for The New York Times. David, it's great to have you as always.

First, I'd like your reaction to the sort of bilateral meeting in Qatar and how likely it is that Lloyd Austin walks away from this trip with a new hostage deal. What are you hearing?


So, the hostage issue is being negotiated quietly as they've tried to turn on again the kind of deal that they had going several weeks ago, which resulted in the release of more than 100 hostages. More than they thought possible.

Before Austin got to Qatar, there was a meeting in Poland just yesterday between the CIA Dir. Bill Burns and officials from Qatar as well, as they try to sort this out. And that's the channel that has been most active. Burns to David Barnea, who is the head of the Mossad.

But it's not clear at this point that Hamas is willing to keep this going and there is some indication from U.S. officials that they didn't want to turn over more women and children for fear that they might discuss the conditions under which they were held or the treatment that they received, which suggests that there may have been more brutality along the way.

It's a little bit of a black box right now about what they are actually discussing. But I would really focus on the Burns channel. He's been the sort of lead player on the hostage negotiations.

AVLON: All right. I want to shift over to Ukraine. The Pentagon saying, of course, that military aid will run out at the end of this month.

What are hearing from the White House about the current impasse in the Senate over Ukraine aid and its impact on the war?

SANGER: Well, the impact is clear. Even before the aid was running out the U.S. was dispensing it at a lower rate in order to make the existing congressional authorization last as long as they can. They maintain that will end around the end of this year -- just two weeks away.

But at the same moment, we have seen the Russians step up their own provision of artillery, pour more fresh troops into the battlefield, and perhaps most importantly, make greater use of drones, including the Iranian drones, than they ever have before.


SANGER: So we're at an odd moment where it actually looks like the Ukrainians are beginning to be outgunned. Now, we have not seen that translate into significant gains of territory for the Russians, but there's a lot of fear around that that's exactly what will happen in the new year if there is no new funding. Now, the Republicans argue that they need a new strategy as well to see.

AVLON: All right, we'll see. And as you pointed out in a recent piece in The New York Times, Russian propaganda are, in effect, cheering the impasse.

SANGER: That's right.

AVLON: I want to shift gears for a second. It was announced yesterday that U.S. Steel, which is a great symbol of industrial might, is being sold to Japan's largest steelmaker in a $14.1 billion deal. But some U.S. lawmakers from both parties have major concerns about the potential national security implications on this.


I want you to watch what Sen. John Fetterman said yesterday in a video from the roof of his home in Braddock, Pennsylvania, right across the street from a U.S. Steel plant. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN FETTERMAN (D-PA): And I just have to say it's absolutely outrageous that they have sold themselves to a foreign nation company. You can't do that. Steel is always about security as well, too.


AVLON: Do these folks have a point about the security risks here?

SANGER: Well, certainly, this is an argument that goes back to the 1980s when there was a big claim of national security concerns about Japanese purchases -- everything from American manufacturing companies to semiconductor companies, to movie studios. And you probably remember that debate well.

I think the critical issue now is not as much whether there is a national security concern about a cutoff of steel from U.S. Steel. That has to depend on where Nippon Steel plans, if at all, to be producing this steel. And every indication is they plan to keep producing it in the United States.

But it would be a national security concern if it was going into the hands of an adversary. With the Japanese, I think there is less of a concern today.

I am certain, though, that this will be reviewed by this very -- a little-known committee called the Committee on Investment in the United States that takes a look at all foreign investments in the U.S. and then would have to sign off on it. I think that's going to be a lot easier process than had it been, say, a Chinese firm.

But, you know, we're in a new era now post-COVID in which we worry about supply chains in a way that we never used to before. So I think they may well want a series of assurances from Nippon Steel that those facilities are going to stay in the United States.

AVLON: All right, David Sanger. Unfortunately, we're going to have to leave it there. We've got you later in the week and we're going to talk to you about Trump's dictator rhetoric and its implications.


AVLON: Be well, my friend.

SANGER: Great. Good to be with you.

AVLON: All right -- you, too.

All right. Meanwhile, Marvel is firing actor Jonathan Majors after he was found guilty of assault and harassment of his former girlfriend. What it means for the film's franchise he was set to star in. That's ahead on "CNN THIS MORNING."



AVLON: Now, if you're an early to bed early to rise kind of guy or gal you missed a fantastic finish between the Seahawks and Eagles on "MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL."

Carolyn Manno has this morning's Bleacher Report -- Carolyn.


Well, it's been quite a couple of weeks for Seattle's backup quarterback Drew Lock. He was not sure if he was going to start his second consecutive game until right before kickoff when he actually got to the stadium. Starter Geno Smith was activated shortly before game time. He missed last week. So you can imagine the moment that he was in. But it turns out that Lock was the key for the Seahawks last night.

Some late-game heroics here for the quarterback. Down by four with less than two minutes to play, he marches his team downfield on an 11- play, 92-yard drive that ended with this touchdown from the rookie Jaxon Smith-Njigba. That 29-yard strike gave Seattle their first lead of the game.

The Eagles got the ball with 28 seconds left by the Seahawks' defense coming up really big. Julian Love -- look at his second interception of the fourth quarter, somehow managing to keep both feet in bounds to seal the stunning 20-17 win and keeping Seattle's playoffs hopes alive as well.

And after the game, Lock reflecting on the team's big upset win.


DREW LOCK, QUARTERBACK, SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: Amazing won't do it justice. But amazing also doesn't do justice what the o-line, what DK did on that catch, what the receivers did, what Ken Walker and Zach Charbonnet did all game long -- the tight end player.

It takes a special group to rally around a guy that has come into his second game of the year, right? Used to the same thing all year long. Same cadence. Same spin on the ball -- everything. A team like that -- not just the offense -- the defense to rally around me tonight -- man, that was -- that was amazing.


MANNO: You can see how meaningful it was.

Meantime, Steelers' safety Damontae Kazee has been suspended without pay for the rest of the season and the playoffs by the NFL for this hit, which knocked out Colts receiver Michael Pittman on Saturday. Kazee has already been fined five times this season for unnecessary roughness.

But former quarterback Tom Brady is one of the voices defending him. Brady posting on Instagram he thinks the punishment was too harsh. He's not alone. He said, "To put the blame on the defensive player all of the time is just flat-out wrong. It's not OK, quarterbacks, to get your wide receivers hit because of your bad decisions."

Kazee can choose to appeal the suspension.

In the NBA now, where Clippers guard James Harden caught fire last night by hitting four-straight threes against the Pacers in crunch time.

And since it is the holiday season, Christmastime, and the rest, "The Beard" deciding to break out a festive celebration after his fourth three-pointer fell to the ground, John, and did some snow angels on the court as his teammates came over to congratulate him. Harden would finish with 35 points in L.A.'s 151-127 road win.

And lastly for you this morning, the Lakers unveiled their latest banner ahead of last night's game against the Knicks. The team honored its title in the inaugural NBA In-Season Tournament. This one looks different from the other 12 championship banners that are hanging in the rafters. It will get future dates added to it should the team end up winning more of those NBA cups.

But the Lakers ended up losing this game by five. They've now lost three out of four since winning that mid-season championship.


But the real start of the show here, John, was this adorable pup sitting courtside. This is a service dog named Brody. He's a big-time star, wearing an Austin Reaves jersey to boot. He spent some time as a lapdog here at the game, dancing around. The crowd was loving it. I'm curious what you think about a four-legged fan being courtside here.

AVLON: I love it. I love it.

MANNO: OK, good.

AVLON: And look, I don't know if my daughter Toula would appreciate the dog more or the Knicks win more. I think maybe the dog.

MANNO: Yeah. You know, he's got his own line of grooming products. He's a social media star. Why not get courtside seats?

AVLON: I love it.

MANNO: I feel like it fits.

AVLON: All right. Thanks, Carolyn. Be well.

And thanks for joining us. I'm John Avlon. "CNN THIS MORNING" starts right now.