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Zelenskyy: Russian Forces Have Started Battle For Donbass; Ukraine: No Humanitarian Corridors Open For Civilians To Leave; Ukraine: Russia Bombing Steel Factory In Besieged Mariupol; Biden Held Call With Allies On War In Ukraine; U.S. Looking At Labeling Russia State Sponsor Of Terrorism; U.S. Ends Mask Mandate For Travelers After Judge's Ruling; CDC Launches New Forecasting Center For Infectious Diseases; WH Weighs Next Move As Judge Voids Travel Mask Mandate. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired April 19, 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 phase and the Russian assault on Ukraine. President Zelenskyy says the battle for Donbass is now in full force, and he vows Ukrainians will repel Russia's advancing army.

The Kremlin says the goal of this new phase is to "fully liberate" what Moscow calls two new independent republics in eastern Ukraine. One is in Luhansk, where a top Ukrainian official is pleading with anyone left to "evacuate now," saying residents of the fallen town of Crimea are now hostages. But moving about is dangerous.

Ukraine says there are no agreed upon humanitarian corridors in the entire country. And a top adviser to President Zelenskyy telling CNN "not a single place," a town a city or a village is safe right now. In Kharkiv, three people are dead, and other 16 wounded that after Russian shelling hit Ukraine second largest city.

In the south, another Russian surrender deadline has passed in Mariupol, as Ukraine digs in desperately hoping to hold on to that key port city. Ukraine says, Russia is now bombing a steel factory where Ukrainian forces and civilians remain encircled, including what Ukraine says is willingly firing at a plant where hundreds of civilians are sheltering.

Now CNN cannot independently verify the authenticity of this video you're seeing or when it was taken. But it appears to show, appears to show some of the civilians hunkering down, hoping to survive. Our CNN correspondents are deployed across Ukraine. CNN's Matt Rivers is in Lviv. And we begin this hour with CNN's Ed Lavandera, who's in Kyiv. Ed, what's the latest?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Well, we are closely watching that offensive of Russian forces in eastern Ukraine. President Zelenskyy saying that this new stage, and the second wave of this war is essentially beginning there. In the east and what we're seeing is heavy bombardment in many areas across the eastern area of the Donbass region of Ukraine.

And essentially, what's at play here is Russian forces trying to soften up Ukrainian forces on the ground, suspected to be kind of ahead of ground - more of a ground invasion into various areas there in eastern Ukraine. So, that has started in forces. We are seeing and hearing reports of the heavy bombardment, artillery fire, that sort of thing in various cities there in eastern Ukraine.

And that's why you are hearing from Ukrainian officials in this region, pleading in urging people to evacuate these areas as quickly as they can that time is running out. In that one town Crimea, that you mentioned, there are a number of people who were not able to escape that city before Russian forces moved in.

And officials there are describing the civilians that are left there now simply as hostages in that city. But all of this is complicated, John, by the fact that, as you mentioned, humanitarian corridors are not open today. There was nothing that was agreed upon. So, that makes the move for civilians, far more treacherous, far more dangerous to be able to escape those areas. And those were already, even on days that these humanitarian corridors were agreed upon.

It was very difficult to really move vast numbers of people into safer areas of the country. But we are seeing that offensive begin in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian officials say, they feel confident, they will be able to withstand this second offensive by Russian forces.

And there's some real questions as to whether or not the organizational issues and the supply chain issues have been fixed by the Russians. So, we will see how that continues to play out. But right now, what we're seeing mostly is bombardment artillery fire against Ukrainian forces there in various cities in the east.

KING: Ed Lavandera, kicking us off live from Kyiv. Thanks for the important live reporting. Let's go to CNN's Matt Rivers now out in Lviv. Matt, what else are we watching on the ground today?

MATT RIVERS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we are really concerned with what is going on in the southern port city of Mariupol, which has been, you know, under a state of siege for weeks now. And we've been talking about this, you know, with the idea that Mariupol has been closed to falling to Russian forces for a long time now. And yet, there still remains a Ukrainian resistance force.

We're not sure exactly how many fighters there are. It's very difficult to get verifiable information out of Mariupol because of just a lack of communications infrastructure there after weeks of fighting. However, we believe that the main pocket of resistance is at the as of stall steel plant. That is where we believe the Ukrainian resistance has center now for a little while. And that is what we're hearing from the Russians as well.


Today, we got another ultimatum from the Russian side, saying that by midday, all Ukrainian fighters needed had to lay down their arms and surrender. The last time they gave that ultimatum was on Sunday, that Ukrainians ignored it. They tried it again today. The Ukrainians ignored it once again. So, the shelling the bombardment remains active in and around that steel plan.

But what really is new and what we've learned over the past 24 to 36 hours is just how many civilians are also in that steel plant. We've known for a while, John, that fighters from the Ukraine side in there are risking their lives. But now we know that as this fighting goes on, around them, there are basically civilians, women and children that are also in that steel plant.

Now that is based on video that CNN cannot independently verify. We should add that, this is video that was posted to Ukrainian government social media channels that claims to show some of the women and children that are inside that steel plant. And that's just staggering when you think about that, that this is the main pocket of resistance in the city.

And yet, right alongside those fighters that are actively engaged in firefights with Russian soldiers, you have women and children who are trying to survive some of the tens of thousands of citizens that remain in need of evacuation from the city of Mariupol after weeks of not having enough food, water, medical supplies.

It's like a microcosm in that steel plant of what we've seen across that city for weeks now, fighting alongside civilians who should be nowhere near that kind of violence, and yet as of now are trapped with nowhere to go.

KING: Trapped with nowhere to go. Matt Rivers, appreciate the live reporting from Lviv. We will keep our eye on that, as this week unfolds. President Biden a short time ago, wrapping up a call with key allies about the war in Ukraine, of course, the weapons needed and continued economic pressure on Russia. That call lasted just about an hour and a half.

With me now to share her insights is Heather Conley. She's a former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, and right now as the president of the German Marshall Fund. Heather, grateful for your time today. So, the president is on the phone. We can show you the other leaders on the call, some of them from NATO, the prime minister of Japan on as well, other European leaders are in 24 minutes.

As we know, we are entering into a new phase in this war. From your context, what is on the table? Let's start with militarily. Is the United States or the European allies willing to do anything different in this next phase, in terms of heavier weaponry or more direct NATO involvement from your knowledge?

HEATHER CONLEY, PRESIDENT. GERMAN MARSHALL FUND: Well, John, great to be with you. Absolutely, we just saw an announcement by the Dutch government this morning that they're flowing in heavier defensive equipment. We are now seeing the allies understand. We are now in a more decisive phase of the conflict. And this is going to be as General Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said this is the long slog and we have to prepare, our allies have to prepare for that long slog policy.

The challenge, John, has been that we simply don't have an agreed end state with our allies. The first phase of this war was just Ukrainian survival, making sure that the government was able to remain in place and repel these Russian forces. This is a different phase. And we have to continue to not only provide military equipment to the Ukrainian government, we have to now cripple the Russian economy.

So, you have the European Union now really talking aggressively about a ban on Russian oil. We are going to have to try to cripple Russia to prevent them from providing additional equipment to their forces in Donbass. But this is going to be a very long and difficult phase, everyone should get ready for images that will look like they're coming right out of the pages of the second World War.

KING: Well, as we unfortunately prepare for images like that and prepare for an armored tank battle, armored vehicle battle on what is essentially the farmland in eastern Ukraine. You just mentioned the economy. We have seen some evidence from Russian officials that the sanctions are having some effect.

But as you know, if you want to really hit Putin's economy, if you really want to cause stress on the Russian people that might cause some anxiety in Putin's Kremlin, or you need to cut off gas and you need to cut off oil. Who in the European alliance is holding that up? It's obviously would be incredibly painful. It will be more painful for Germany. It will be painful for Italy. What is the status of that? Is there any hope of that?

CONLEY: Well, I think it's - we have couple of holdouts in the European Union. Hungary has refused to consider banning Russian energy. Austria and Germany although, they have declared that they are planning to phase out Russian dependency on energy. The phase out is simply too slow.

The European Union High Representative, Josep Borrell, said last week that while the E.U. was flowing over a billion euros in defensive equipment to Ukraine, they're paying the Russian government 30 billion euros over the last month in energy. This is what we have to cut off.

But John, you are right, the sanctions are now really going to start pinching the Russian economy. The head of the Russian central bank just said yesterday that basically she's done her best to stabilize the ruble, which she has. But now between the technology, they can't get supplied its parts, they can't get supply chains going. U.S. and European companies that are leaving Russia are causing unemployment.


So, that pain is going to be slower, but it's going to hit. But Vladimir Putin doesn't care he is going to continue to punish Ukraine. He has not changed his war objectives one bit. He's prepared for the pain. And he's challenging Europe and the United States and other allied countries, are we ready to accept the pain for Ukraine?

KING: One item on the table, President Zelenskyy would like this, and others have suggested as well, which would be labeling Russia now as state sponsor of terrorism, because of what we see the horrible pictures we see every day out of Ukraine. We just want to show you that list. It's Syria, Iran, North Korea, Cuba. You would be on a list of rogue nations, would make Russia more of a pariah. Is there any tangible impact? Or is it just international shame if the Biden administration would agree to that?

CONLEY: I feel like this is more symbolic of exactly calling the Russian regime the rogue that it is, it would certainly prevent really any meaningful diplomatic relations. Although, we've so minimized diplomatic relations with the diminishment of our diplomatic staff that it would be - it would be hard to say, but I would much rather focus on in continuing to flow significant military equipment to Ukraine.

We're following it now, wish it would have been there six months ago to really help the Ukrainian military fight these Russian forces, but really the action is looking at the European Union and having to suspend those energy payments to Russia and really making sure potentially Russia defaults, a sovereign default on its debt, bringing that economic pain, slowing that Russian war machine, and trying to give Ukraine the ability to defend itself. That's where we need to keep our eye on the price.

KING: Heather Conley, the German Marshall Fund, grateful for your time as always. Thank you. We'll have more on the Ukraine battle ahead. But right now, it's a new day in COVID era travel. The masks are off on planes, on trains, even in Ubers, what you need to know, next.





UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are having an option right now. If you want to wear a mask, you're welcome to do that. I'm not wearing mine. That's my personal choice. It is up to every single one of you on board not to do that. I am all for following. A scientists tell me I should wear it. I'll wear it, but right now they're saying I don't have to, so I will not.


KING: As you hear that United flight attendant right there and forming passengers, masks can come off, that after a federal judge in Florida struck down the federal government's mask mandate for planes and public transportation. Our CNN medical analyst and former Baltimore City Health Commissioner, Dr. Leana Wen, joins me now.

Dr. Wen, one judge in Florida did this yesterday because the Biden administration did not rush to court to try to get a stay. Essentially, the administration said, we'd like you to wear a mask, but we're not sure what we're going to do yet. And then the domino effect. Is it the right call? Is it safe to be on a bus or a plane or a train or in an Uber without a mask?

DR. LEANA WEN, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: Right now, John, there is so much confusion. My husband was on a flight this morning. And in Baltimore, 90 percent of people at the airport were wearing a mask he said. He landed in Atlanta, and in Georgia less than 50 percent, he said at the airport wore masks. And I think that's the situation that we have right now. There's this piecemeal approach all across the country.

And what people need to know is that just because this ruling was made by a judge, doesn't mean that suddenly the science has changed. We know that masks remain very protective. Masks reduce the risk of virus transmission. And one way masking, you wearing a mask protects you very well.

And I would absolutely urge for people, especially if they are vulnerable, if they're concerned about getting COVID to be wearing in N95, KN95 or KF94 mask whenever they are in crowded indoor settings, that includes on airplanes, on buses on trains. Just do that because that protects you very, very well.

KING: What you just described there was impart common sense. If you're in a tightly congested environment, or a lot of people aren't, especially if you don't know them. You don't know if they're vaccinated. You don't know if they're boosted. Why don't you put in a mask, right? What's the harm? But where's the science exactly?

I just want to show recent cases versus hospitalizations. We've been at this for more than two years. You and I, and I'm grateful for your insights all the time. We have seen sometimes in the past when cases start to go up, wait a week or two, hospitalizations tend to track up afterwards. Right now, there is a significant gap. You see the red line is hospitalizations, it's more flatlined. Are we seeing less severe cases of COVID? So, this is not as big a deal. Is that a fair way to put it?

DR. WEN: I think it's fair to say that we are seeing a decoupling between infections and hospitalizations. And that's in large part because of the number of people who are vaccinated, as well as the fact that about 50 percent of Americans got Omicron during the last surge. And so, there's a high baseline degree of immunity, that is preventing our hospitals from getting overwhelmed. That's great.

And actually, I'm less worried about what's happening now. I'm worried about what could happen in the future. What if there's a new variant that evades existing immunity? What if our hospitals get threatened at the point of being strained again? I want the CDC to have the authority at that point to say that masks have to come back.

I actually think that right now, I'm not really worried about what's going on. Now. I think we're going to see an increase in cases, but not that rise in hospitalizations. But that could all change in the future. And we need to preserve public health authority to protect Americans going forward.

KING: Well, the CDC has this new task force. They call it like the National Weather Service. It's a bunch of scientists who are supposed to predict when those things are coming. Hopefully, their view is to give the government more credibility. If it says things have taken a turn for the worse, we need to whether it's a mask mandate or some other restriction or protection in place. But given the politics of this particular issue in the last couple of years of our lives, can the government be effective or is that genie out of the bottle?


DR. WEN: I am an optimist and I certainly think that this early surveillance system that the government is setting up is really good. First of all, because it provides information about what's going to happen for the government, so that people can start preparing for hospitals to start getting ready. I also think that it's intended to be like a weather forecast, so that individuals can look up what's happening in their area and say, OK, there's a lot of virus around me.

And so, I'm going to choose to wear a mask today, or there's a ton of virus, I may not go to indoor events. Or if I go, I want to make sure that everybody tests before that. We are moving to a different phase in the pandemic, away from the government saying you have to do this, to empower individuals with the tools that they need in order to make the best decisions.

And so, I think that that's where we're going to go. And I hope that we'll continue to have this idea that we are watching out for one another, even as we move to this more individual decision-making phase of the pandemic.

KING: As we move to that face, Dr. Wen, we will continue the conversation and I'll be grateful for your help. Appreciate your time today. With me in studio now, to share their reporting and their insights, Olivier Knox, The Washington Post, Laura Barron-Lopez of POLITICO, and CNN's Nia-Malika Henderson.

So, this ruling came out yesterday, it's a Trump appointed judge, a federal judge in Florida, who says the mask mandate was not written right, the CDC exceeded its authority. It wasn't written according to the rulemaking. This is Jen Psaki. Now again, this is almost 24 hours ago, right after, right after the mask ruling comes out, the White House says this.


JEN PSAKI, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECURITY: Certainly no one here is trying to provoke uncertainty with passengers. We also think the mask mandate should be in place and that it's safer for individuals who are flying to continue to wear masks. So, we would say to anyone sitting out there, we'd recommend you wear masks on the airplane. And then, as soon as we can provide an update from here, hopefully soon, we'll provide that to all of you.


KING: When will they provide that the question. You could rush to federal court and ask for a stay. And say, this is one judge. There's a whole appellate process. I'm not saying the judges right or wrong, not my job, not a lawyer, but there's a process. They have not done that. Right, so it speaks volumes.

OLIVIER KNOX, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, THE WASHINGTON POST: You are correctly putting the spotlight on what is essentially the non-response from the Biden administration. They knew this that this case was winding its way through the process. They knew they might have an adverse ruling fact. I think they expected one given who this judge is, and they didn't have the machinery in place to start the appeals process to ask for a stay or anything like that.

What I think you saw from Jen Psaki is the not subtle shift from a mask mandate to a mask recommendation. And I think - I do think that the administration's response, again, or non-response, however you want to couch it. I think that's almost more notable than what the federal judge did.

KING: Right. Now, on the one hand, they only extended it for two weeks. So, their part of them is saying, well, you know, we're going to let this lapse in two weeks anyway, what's the big fight for. On the other hand, if you let this ruling stand, there'll be other cases, you can maybe fight it somewhere else. But the CDC's authority here is undermined by this ruling.

Now, again, maybe smarter lawyers will argue whether they wrote it right, or whether they did it right. But that's the challenge to the administration. Do you defend your agency? Or do you just say the politics of this are bad for us we don't want to touch it?

LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And I was talking to a former CDC scientist today who said exactly that, John, which is that they're worried that what does this mean for the future of the agency in terms of how they're going to be able to use their authority to help prevent the spread of additional infectious diseases, where it's COVID, or another infectious disease that comes along?

You know, the CDC was founded at its inception to help battle the malaria outbreak and to help try to control that, as a malaria control agency. So, that's a big question that a lot of - I think CDC scientists, former, current have right now. And also, you know, one thing that's interesting about this ruling is that this judge, in particular, seem to try to parse out the word sanitation, and say that, oh, well, masks aren't used to clean anything. So, this doesn't apply under the CDC's rules.

Well in public health, sanitation means, you know, to keep things clean, to keep people safe. And so, it'll be interesting to see whether or not challenges come and how exactly that judges specific ruling on CDC's authorities.

KING: But you do get a sense, we wait to see if the legal fight continues in one way or another, well this case of somewhere else it will, you know, the governor of New Jersey, a Democrat, saying never mind, you don't need mask anymore, New Jersey transportation. You could just see they understand the politics. Chuck Grassley, who was the chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

The Democrats now control the Senate, but when they put a lot of these Trump judges in place, a pre-election this year, federal mask mandate on plane struck down, judge administration lacked authority is at the end, shows why my work with Trump on judicial nominees so important that people see the politics.

Nia-Malika Henderson: Yes. I mean, he is not wrong there. I mean, as you noted, I mean, these were Trump appointed judges, you have, the White House in and of itself, looking at the politics of this over the last many weeks. They haven't been wearing masks, and you saw COVID kind of spread around folks in the White House. So, they are certainly looking at the politics of this as well.

What's unclear is whether them not challenging now, means that, you know, sort of preserving their ability to challenge this down the road if there is God forbid, another big COVID outbreak, say, you know in the fall or in the winter, can they then go back and try to get this in place, where people when they get on public transportation have to wear masks.


KING: To Dr. Wen's point, clarity is important here for the flight attendants, the airline workers, the TSA agents who have been getting yelled at for months now. I was on an American flight last night back from Boston. The United States were right over there. United had already lifted it, said it's optional. It's up to you American by today it has, but last night we had to have our masks on, it was just a little confusing.

Up next, the battle intensifies. Back to Ukraine, its president says the Russian assault on the east is underway. Pentagon officials say, that's true but they worry the worst is yet to come.