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Russian Warship Sinks, Moscow Strikes Back; Russians Make Advances Inside Besieged City Of Mariupol; Jewel Of Russia's Fleet Sinks After Possible Ukrainian Strike; Ukrainian Commander: Everything Under Attack In Donetsk; Ukraine Braces For Russian Onslaught In East; Russia Targets Military Facility Near Kyiv After Warship Sinks; Texts Reveal GOP Lawmakers Encouraging, Then Warning Against Trump's Efforts To Overturn 2020 Election. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired April 15, 2022 - 12:00   ET



JOHN KING, CNN HOST, INSIDE POLITICS: Hello, and welcome to Inside Politics. I'm John King in Washington. Thank you for sharing your day with us. A new and exclusive CNN interview this hour with the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He tells CNN's Jake Tapper, the world should prepare for Vladimir Putin to use chemical or yes, even nuclear weapons.


PRES. VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINE: They should do it. They could do it. I mean, they can do, for them live of the people is nothing. That's why we should think, not be afraid. I mean, that not to be afraid, be ready. But that is not the question to Ukraine and not only for the Ukraine, for all the world, I think so.


KING: More new CNN reporting this hour. Listen here, the American Secretary of State is telling European allies, he believes Putin's invasion may last the rest of the year. And there are important battlefield developments today, the crown jewel of Russia's navy, the Moskva now at the bottom of the ocean. That ship had helped Russia take out key Ukrainian targets and the big loss may complicate Moscow's battle plan now, as he tries to take the south and the east.

Overnight, Russian retaliation, Moscow hitting a military facility on the outskirts of Kyiv. Russia says it will launch more attacks on targets in and around the capital in the coming hours. In Mariupol, time is simply running out. A key military commander there, says the Ukrainian flag is still fling. But Russia claims critical advances and appears quite close to capturing that city.

Along the frontlines in Donetsk, you see the horrible pictures, everything under attack. A Ukrainian official says, Russian firepower destroyed 100 homes, 13 high rises and a school in Maryinka. And in Mykolaiv, at least two people were killed after Russian artillery exploded in front of an Orthodox Church. CNN heard multiple explosions and then witnessed the cleanup of blood and debris. Let's get straight to Ukraine now. CNN's Ben Wedeman, live for us in the strategic eastern city of Kramatorsk. Ben, what's the latest?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, John. Well, this city was struck early this morning. Apparently, an industrial site was struck, no word of injury. Elsewhere, of course, many Ukrainians are not unhappy with the news that the cruiser, the most vile went to the bottom of the Black Sea.

The Russian ministry of defense says that it's probably problems started when a fire broke out of unknown origin. That fire caused the stored ammunition on board to explode that the ship was being towed to port. But there were rough seas, and it went down. And of course, it's widely believed it was Ukrainian shore to ship missiles that took that out.

Regarding those strikes in Kyiv, those were the first major strikes in the Ukrainian capital since Russian forces pulled out of around the capital in the entirety of north central Ukraine. As far as Mariupol goes, we understand that two units of the Ukrainian army within the peace besieged city were able to link up, but the area they control seems to be shrinking day by day.

Now, in the past, the Russians have said they were in full control of Mariupol. And then, we've heard news that they bombed it. So clearly, they haven't been able to take full control. But as I said, the area controlled by Ukrainian forces is shrinking day by day. John?

KING: And then, shrinking day by day in Mariupol, the question is what next? And we've seen the convoys coming in from Russia, pointing toward where you are in the east Kramatorsk, a key city in the east. There has been an uptick of strikes there, correct in that area?

WEDEMAN: Up strikes - up taking strikes here and many of the towns and cities close to Russian lines. Yesterday we were in Sievierodonetsk, where there was sporadic but continual shelling, but we understand today the shelling intensified there. That's the easternmost city under Ukrainian control.

And we understand that just north of there, and I mean, basically the northern suburbs are to Russian artillery, armor and troops are massing. And we did hear from the regional military administrator for the Donetsk region where we are, saying that at this point, they believe that every town and city along the front line is under attack. John?


KING: Ben Wedeman, critical live reporting for us in Kramatorsk. Ben, thank you so much. Let's get some insights and expertise now, retired Air Force Colonel, CNN military analyst, Cedric Leighton is with us. Colonel Leighton, thanks for your time. This is where Ben Wedeman is right here. We've talked before about how important this crescent is right here. Ben just mentioned, the military governor, let's listen because he's been watching the Russians advance and here's his timeline. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PAVLO KYRYLENKO, MILITARY GOVERNOR, DONETSK REGION: We have not yet seen a full-scale offensive from all directions as we expected. The kind of weather we've been having impedes the passage of heavy armored vehicles. And, but I believe it is a matter of several days rather than weeks.


KING: That's the key point at the end there. He believes this is coming in days, not weeks. Now. The question is what's coming? We know the convoys are coming in. But do you see the Russians trying to take a tight crescent here, essentially take Mariupol, get it to finally fall, create a land bridge here? Or is it something more ambitious that would cut off the country like that?

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON, U.S. AIR FORCE (RET.): I think we have to be prepared, John, for something more ambitious, because the Russians had this grab at all philosophy from the very beginning of this conflict. So, I would expect them to try to do this. But it doesn't mean that they aren't going to start here.

So, for example - sure, if they wanted to surround Kharkiv and do it in in this way, they could potentially do that. But they're also looking at Donetsk right here, and of course, Izium, the city right here, and where Ben is, those are all on their path. And if they do this, then they will, of course, gain more of the eastern area, the Donbass specifically and extend their control over that.

They already have, of course, the Russian separatists since 2014. But this is the big thing. This is the area where I think we will start seeing major battles that will come out, looking a bit like what we saw in World War II, with major tank formations and things like that.

KING: You mentioned they already have their significant Russian advantages in the east that they did not have when they came on Kyiv. That is easier land routes, areas where you have the red here already under Russia control. They did have out here though, they did have the Moskva, they no longer have. This is at that port in Crimea, getting attacks here. And we can show you more here. This was a key ship. You can attack from the land, but you can also attack from the sea. How big of a blow is this, that this is now off the battlefield?

COL. LEIGHTON: John, this is a huge blow because not only is it a guided missile cruiser, it is a command - and was a command and control ship. What that meant was this the flagship of the Black Sea fleet commander, it was his node to control all of the battlespace in the Black Sea. And with this gone, the Russians either have to replace it or find another way around it.

They have two other vessels like this within their fleet across the entire Russian navy. To bring those ships into the Black Sea, that would be a very difficult feat for them to achieve and they have to work around this now. KING: As they try to work around it. I just want to bring up here in the back - come back to the east because again, if you had the most when you had the capacity down here, but when you see the key cities and you're just drawing it out. You heard the military governor says, he believes this is coming within days. The question is, are the Ukrainians ready for it? And as the United States and other NATO allies try to rush in more heavy, more deadly equipment, can you get it there soon enough?

COL. LEIGHTON: So, this is going to be a battle of time. The clocks are on nobody's side here, is more on the Russian side than on the Ukrainian side because the Russians are actually determining the tempo of the battle. Whereas the Ukrainians, as the defenders have to really work very hard to meet the Russian timeline.

So, if the Russians say come down here, down these highways, this way, and then try to go this way. What they're going to have to do is, figure out a way very quickly to do all of this because the Ukrainians are going to be getting resupplied by the west. They're also going to be moving their forces. So, the Ukrainian forces, which I'll do in blue here, will be coming this way from various parts of the country.

They're going to have to try to protect Kharkiv. They're also going to have to try to keep the Russians from making these junctions right here. So, if they can keep the Russians out of this area, then they have a chance to stalemate the battle. And if they do that, then this will grind on as the secretary of state mentioned, for quite some time.

KING: Quite some time part. I want to just come back to the bigger map here. Just to show, we did see a missile strike overnight on the outskirts of Kyiv. The Russians say, they hit a munitions plant, a missile factory. Do you expect that more of that? Is that retaliation in your view for the sinking of their crown jewel down here? And do you expect that just, if they're going to attack in around the capital, they've pulled their troops out? Is that going to be lobbing missiles or you don't expect any more ground defensive in that area?

COL. LEIGHTON: Actually, I do expect missiles to come into the Kyiv area, because what the Russians have said, is there going to be attacking command and control nodes everywhere across Ukraine. So that means, Kyiv that could potentially mean the airfield at Vinnytsia, that could mean all kinds of other things, the reason for Vinnytsia is that the air force headquarters for the Ukrainian air force.


So, what I would expect is, they're going to cede the ground to the Ukrainians for the moment around Kyiv, but the Kyiv is still within range of Russian missiles. And from Belarus or from Russia itself, and any of that territory is really fair game for them as far as they can tell.

And the Russians are doing this as a revenge plot because when the Moskva was sunk right near here, that was one of the key things that they had to look at, was how to avenge that and they're going after those missile facilities.

KING: Colonel, grateful for your time and your insights. We'll continue the conversation. You can catch more Jake Tapper's exclusive interview with the Ukrainian President, President Zelenskyy. That will be on CNN as the lead today 4pm eastern. Next, domestic politics. Exclusive CNN reporting inside the plot to steal the 2020 election. This exclusive reporting details weeks, yes, weeks of texts between Donald Trump's chief of staff and key allies in Congress.




KING: Important and exclusive, CNN reporting reveals behind the scenes discussions between the former Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, and two of them President Trump's most loyal allies in Congress. Dozens of text messages in the two months between the 2020 election and January 6, dozens of them, show Utah Senator Mike Lee and Texas Congressman Chip Roy, first encouraging then pushing back on Trump's efforts to overturn the election results. Here with us to share his exclusive reporting, CNN's Ryan Nobles. Ryan, tell us more?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, John. We've obtained close to one hundred text messages that were sent between Chip Roy, Senator Mike Lee, and then White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. And it shows that both of these men were very interested in the possibility that Republicans could stand in the way of the certification of the election results. But as the time ticked closer to January 6, they were both recommending that Trump and his team back away.


NOBLES (voice over): Senator Mike Lee of Utah, and Congressman Chip Roy of Texas, two a former President Donald Trump's most loyal defenders in Congress. But in dozens of private tax to Trump's Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, a picture emerges of how both went from aiding the effort to challenge the election results to ultimately warning against it.

The texts obtained by CNN show how they were trying to help initially, but by the end raise concerns to Trump's top deputy about his campaigns effort to stand in the way of the certification of the 2020 election. We're driving a stake in the heart of the Federal Republic.

Roy warned Meadows in a text message on January 1, that is in possession of the January 6 select committee. Historic warning came after weeks of begging Meadows for hard evidence of election fraud, and concerns that the lack of specific evidence was a real problem for the Trump legal team.

We must urge the president to tone down the rhetoric. He wrote to Meadows on November 9. Roy did believe that there were problems with the election. In early December, he went to the House floor, imploring his colleagues to look into the thin examples of fraud.

REP. CHIP ROY (R-TX): The American people are raising legitimate questions about our elections in this body is missing an action and doing nothing.

NOBLES (voice over): Like Roy, Senator Mike Lee started out hopeful that there was a path to challenge the election results. In early November, he touted the work of conservative lawyer Sidney Powell, encouraging Meadows to get her an audience with the president, calling her a "straight shooter." But less than two weeks later, Powell appeared with Rudy Giuliani in what would become an infamous. Press conference, where the duo made wild, baseless claims about the election.

SIDNEY POWELL, AMERICAN ATTORNEY: President Trump won by a landslide. We are going to prove it.

NOBLES (voice over): Lee then changed his tune, calling Powell a liability and turning his focus to touting Attorney John Eastman. Lee pushed a plan to convince state legislatures to offer up a set of alternate electors. When that plan fizzled, Lee decided he was no longer on board.

He texted Meadows on December 16, "I think we're now past the point where we can expect anyone will do it without some direction and a strong evidentiary argument." Both Lee and Roy ultimately chose not to join other Republicans to vote against certifying the election.

SEN. MIKE LEE (R-UT): Our job is to open and then count open then count. That's it. That's all there is.

NOBLES (voice over): Privately they were even more emphatic about the fool's errand Trump's team was on. The president should call everyone off. It's the only path, Roy texted Meadows on December 31. Well, Lee argued the effort was on dangerous constitutional grounds. Three days before January 6, he warned, I know only that this will end badly for the president, unless we have the constitution on our side.

They did not. But the Trump team and a group of loyal Republicans went ahead with their plan anyway. As it became clear, their effort would not be successful. Hundreds of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in protest. As the violence was raging, Roy texted Meadows, fix this now. He then went to the House floor and placed the blame squarely at President Trump's feet.

REP. ROY: And the president should never have spun up certain Americans to believe something that simply cannot be.


NOBLES: And both the offices of Roy and Lee did not dispute the information that we revealed in these text messages. Congressman Roy's office telling us that the texts speak for themselves. As per Senator Lee, his spokesperson telling us that he was very transparent during this period of time, and the information these texts reveals do not at all contradict what he was saying publicly. John? [12:20:00]

KING: The texts do speak for themselves. So, that is a fact. Ryan Nobles, this is proof. These are texts from the Mark Meadows tranche, handed over to the committee. Approved the committee has a lot of information about who was involved, the timeline, how long it went on, that we have not fully seen yet. What else? What else do you know that they have in their possession that perhaps has not come public yet?

NOBLES: Yes, John. You know, we've been able to report on a lot of the details that the committee has not yet released, but it's really just the tip of the iceberg to use a cliche. We know for instance, that the committee has thousands of documents from the national archives that were handed over from the Trump White House. There was a whole batch of emails that they just won a lawsuit over related to conservative lawyer, John Eastman.

And then there's, of course, the hundreds of depositions and interviews that they've already taken place with many members of the Trump administration. People are very close to the president, including his own daughter, Ivanka Trump and his son in law, Jared Kushner. The committee is promising explosive public hearings later this spring. And it's anticipated that we're going to learn a lot more about what the committee has uncovered in the days and weeks ahead. John?

KING: It's important and fantastic reporting from Ryan Nobles, and your colleagues. Ryan, thank you. And up next for us. We're going to talk more about this exclusive reporting, including more of these text messages with our great reporters. Plus, brand new details on the former Trump aide, Stephen Miller's eight-hour meeting with the January 6 committee.




KING: More now on CNN exclusive reporting, dozens of text messages between Ben Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Republican lawmakers Mike Lee and Chip Roy. Those texts discussing Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 election. These texts show that Senator Lee in particular went from, I want to offer words of encouragement to the president to November to encouraging Trump and his aides to empower lawyer Sidney Powell, to then being worried about Powell asking Meadows to tell him what he should be saying, to concluding closer to Inauguration Day and January 6, that a very few senators would in the end object to the election results.

And finally, "I know only that this will end badly for the president, unless we have the constitution on our side." With me to discuss their reporting and their insights, Sabrina Siddiqui of The Wall Street Journal, CNN Plus anchor Kasie Hunt, and Politico's Laura Barron- Lopez. It is remarkable to go through these texts. And again, props to our CNN team, Ryan Nobles, and his colleagues. It just shows you at a time when it would have been helpful if the president's allies and Congress had stopped. Stop that from election day on early on, there was encouragement from the people, Senator Lee, maybe had - could have had the presidency, or Chip Roy maybe could have had the presidency. But no, they were saying greenlight go.

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: Right. And that's what's really striking about these messages. Now, these are two members of Congress, who eventually jump ship when it comes to the president, former president's efforts to overturn the election. But their instinct at first was to go along with these baseless claims of widespread voter fraud, and to really encourage the president and help him come up with legal strategies to try and overturn the outcome of the election. And this is happening at a time when, you know, numerous legal challenges that the president and his allies had filed to challenge the election were rejected by the courts.

And you know, they're really taking their cues from the White House. There's a point where Senator Lee is texting Mark Meadows, telling me what to say, give me something to work with. And so ultimately, you know, they did, eventually, like I said, jump ship, but they were still willing to help the president, rather than accept the outcome of the democratic process.

KASIE HUNT, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, I remember doing reporting on this contemporaneously. And this was the Republican line, when you spoke to them on the phone, they were willing to let the White House play out and see if they could find evidence of fraud. And they demanded it, they asked for it. And then they had to kind of sort themselves into their various camps. And it took them a minute to realize that this is where things were heading.

But I think the most interesting thing about this, as you said, terrific reporting from our CNN colleagues, is the question about whether or not what Trump was doing was legal or not. And when you read into what Mike Lee in particular, was saying, it was that, OK, if the states send us new electors in accordance with state law, then maybe we can do something. But by the end, he realizes that this is outside of our legal framework. So, my question is, what's the committee going to do as they set the stage to potentially have that question and answer.

KING: As you jump in by the end, he realizes it's outside of our legal framework. Early on, Sidney Powell, she's a straight shooter. Mike Lee was - Sidney Powell was having a hard time getting to the president because some people in the White House were trying to say, keep her away. She does not have a real legal case. She is making this up. There were people around Trump, trying to protect him from her. Mike Lee was saying, let her in. He changed his mind. He changed his mind. But early on when they were losing in the courts, who say letter in no.

LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, POLITICO: No. Yes, I mean, this is a huge deal that that the senator who has long prided himself as being, you know, a defender of the constitution was encouraging access to the president, saying that he should have - that this lawyer who clearly had no evidence of fraud should have access to him, that us alternative slate of electors should be sent to Congress. That's contrary to the law.

Also, the fact that this is exactly that exact gambit is what election law experts are concerned about happening in 2024. And they've warned that states don't need to change any laws. Those state legislatures could just decide, they want to send a fake slate of electors to Congress. If Republicans are in power of the House and the Senate, they can decide we're just going to accept them and declare the loser and the winner.