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Zelenskyy: Russia Has Started the Battle for Donbas; Interview with Retired Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt; Today: Biden Travels to New Hampshire to Tout Domestic Agenda; Big Lie Legal Push Continues; Kimberly Guilfoyle Met with 1/6 CMTE Monday for Second Time; Legal Challenge to Marjorie Taylor Greene's Candidacy. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired April 19, 2022 - 12:30   ET





JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: The battle in eastern Ukraine, the part of the country you see here, all that red, those are Russian troops. The stripes, areas already controlled by Russia or pro-Russia forces. That battle is intensifying. And it will be very different from the fighting we have witnessed in this war so far.

The Donbas region, here in the east, is the new front. Unlike the early fighting over here near Kyiv, Russia already has forces here in the east and flowing more in. And the terrain is very different.

Let's get some important insights from the retired Brigadier General, former Assistant Secretary of State Mark Kimmitt. General Kimmitt, grateful for your time.

President Zelenskyy says the battle is underway, but if you talk to folks at the Pentagon they see this more as a table setting. Howitzer fire, artillery fire, tanks rolling in.


KING: Setting the stage if you will. Explain the distinction.

KIMMITT: Well, the distinction is, it may be much worse than President Zelenskyy thinks it's going to be. If he believes that what's going on right now is the offensive, could well be that with this new General Dvornikov and the positioning of the artillery, bringing up more forces, that the actual offensive will be much stronger and, candidly, much more deadly than what's going on right now.

KING: And you can see that. I'm just showing some video of a column of Russian forces coming in. You see missile launchers on the back of trucks, there were some tanks in the video as well. And then you come out to the terrain, I just want to show the terrain in the east and the south. Again, when the Russians tried to take the Kyiv and the suburbs around it, you're talking urban areas, apartment buildings, high places where snipers can shoot, you can hide.

Out here, what's the difference in the terrain? In terms, there's a lot of farmland out here, a lot of mining towns and things like that. What's the difference in terms of what this will look like?

KIMMITT: Well, if the weather holds up that means that the Russians will be able to deploy their forces in a much more spread out way. They could have an offensive that is much deeper and much wider than they were able to do when they were stuck on one road heading down to Kyiv.

I think that the attack will probably come from the north, because that area in the east is so -- has been going through a war for the last eight years, so there are probably a significant number of trench lines and such that would make it much easier to attack from the north going south rather than from the east going west.

KING: So, you see more Russian troops coming in this way. If you're Ukraine, what do you have to do? Obviously, you have some forces here, but you have more to the west, to the capital. As you come -- as those -- as Ukrainian forces come east, Russian forces, they're in a much better position than they were before because they already have troops and supporters in the area. How does that play out in the battle for the kinetic part of that?

KIMMITT: Well, I think what it means is that President Zelenskyy needs to get advice from his military that the initial focus during this phase should be going against that artillery, should be going against the logistics train (ph). So, if you want to run a true offensive, that is going to take mounds and mountains of artillery, food, fuel and that's got to be put somewhere.

And if you can take out those logistics, facilities and those depots and that artillery before the offense starts, it's going to be much, much weaker fight at the front and a much shorter fight at the front that you otherwise would have if that Russian army is fully fueled, fitted and has sufficient ammunition.

KING: We know there has been intense fighting for Mariupol. I just want to bring a close-up here and a small ban of Ukrainians are still holding on in this iron and steel works. The Ukrainians say there are also civilians in there as well. It is being shelled.

Number one, what is the strategic significance? Obviously, it's a port city and a land bridge for the Crimea, I want you to explain that. But number two, I'm going to show this Reuters video off the streets of Mariupol.

Just as a general, who understands the rules of war, it sounds funny to say, maybe ironic to say, there's a -- there are decency in the rules of war. When you see, these are not military targets. This is where people live. These are not factories, these are not government buildings. This is what the Russians have done to Mariupol. What is the word for that?

KIMMITT: Well, what the word for that is war crimes. What you're seeing there is complete violation of the norms labor of the laws of war. But, I think it's important to recognize, again this General Dvornikov, did the same thing when he was in command in Syria. He ran and will run a scorched earth campaign, which says that anything's a target, nothing's off limits. And that's what we're seeing in Mariupol.

KING: General Kimmitt, grateful for your time, sir, as we go into this next important chapter. Thank you.

KIMMITT: Sure, John.


KING: Up next for us, on the road again. Today, the president is off to New Hampshire. President Biden now trying to highlight his accomplishments and trying to improve the midterm election climate for Democrats.




KING: President Biden stepping his election-year travels, that is Air Force One, wheels up, on its way to Portsmouth, New Hampshire right now. Two days on the west coast later this week. It was Iowa and North Carolina last week.


The president's goal is to talk up his accomplishments and to try to improve a very tough midterm climate for the Democrats. Or "Politico" put it this way, "Biden's been consumed by Ukraine. His team want to bring the focus back home."

My panel of great reporters is back with me. Laura Barron-Lopez, you are the co-author of that "Politico" story. And this is a piece, a candid quote from, Celinda Lake, Democratic pollster -- veteran pollster.

She's been through good and bad years. "Voters, as sympathetic as they are to Ukraine, are getting a little fatigued," said Celinda Lake, a veteran Democratic pollster. "And they're wondering: We're spending all this money abroad but what are we spending here at home?"

Candid and also, you know, just that you have Democrats on the record, so many of them recently, saying this a really tough climate, we got to figure something out.

LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. And she went on to tell me that half of voters still don't know all of what Biden passed in the bipartisan infrastructure package, what was included in the American Rescue package, the COVID stimulus bill or also the executive actions that he's been taking to tackle inflation, whether it was the recent one, you know, to include an ethanol blend to try to bring gas prices in certain parts of the country, or also, to tackle gun control and gun violence.

So, those things, she said, voters aren't entirely aware of. They still don't know it. Part of what the president's trying to do now is to travel more across the country to take it to those states so that way voters start to hear more.

One thing that she also said that was striking was that one of the biggest voting blocks that is a swing voting block is women over the age of 50. And they primarily get their news, she said, from local news. And so, when Biden travels to those states he is now able to get in front of those swing voters much more because he dominates local news coverage when he's actually there.

KING: And a challenge a president, look, a president's first midterm is always, always, almost always tough for his party. As Laura notes, he wants to say, he look what we did, rearview mirror.

That's hard though when in the front-view mirror people are still getting hit in the teeth just about every day. The gas prices are down a little bit, but food prices are still up. It's just hard. I guess, part of the traveling to be there is to say, I get it, right?

NIA MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I feel you pain kind of thing. Though the problem is, for months and months and months people have been experiencing the economy in a painful way. Prices at the grocery store, prices at the gas pump.

And so, now the challenge is, how can you sort of explain a way people's feelings about the economy and experiences of the economy that have been pretty baked in for many, many months?

I mean, if you go back to January of 2021, on my Facebook page people were complaining then about gas prices. So, you know, if Biden sort of tries to go in and explains now, I think it's going to be hard.

Remember talking to a Democrat in 2010, going into Obama's first midterm, and one of the things she said about the challenge was, if you have to explain it to voters in some ways it hasn't been done, right? And so, because if they don't feel it, it's almost like, you know, the kind of changes that they expected hasn't really happened (inaudible).

KING: And one of the things you always watch in a midterm year is, look, the Republicans all they believe they have to say is we're not Biden. All right, we're not Biden. That's what the Republicans think, we're not them, vote for us. So, we'll watch.

There -- these are nine Democratic senators who've expressed some concern. Some have said don't do it. Some have said we're worried about it. On this Biden administration deciding to get rid of Title 42. Which was, if you're seeking asylum, you come up to the border during COVID, Trump said no. You came up to the United States. Biden kept that in place. They're reversing it now.

Among them is Maggie Hassan, Democratic senator of the state the president's headed to right now, New Hampshire. That's one of the big questions this year, is, you know, later, more -- more June, July, August, September, but are Democrats standing with the president? How many internal Democratic fights are there? Or is it just we disagree on this, but big hug? Or distance?

OLIVIER KNOX, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT FOR THE WASHINGTON POST: Sort of an all the above strategy, really. I mean, I think what the White House is going to do is give Democrats the freedom to break with President Biden where they want to. Let the gauge their own states, let them gauge their own districts, let them figure out how to break with him.

You know, one of the interesting things about this local media idea, the idea that he comes in and he dominates the local media. Two thoughts on that. One is, the White House has been promising us a Biden barnstorming of the country since at least last summer and it just hasn't happened. That's very significant.

The other is, what two other things are big local stories? Turns out COVID's a local style, right? Turns out inflation's a local story.

KING: Yes it is.

KNOX: And so if you tune in to the -- if you look at the newspapers around the country, if you look at the evening newscasts on major affiliates all across the country, you'll see that drum beat getting pounded again and again. It's very hard for any White House to push back against a trusted local newscast that says, ugh, gas prices are up again, you know, here's a problem.

Ugh, either -- either -- either mask mandates are a problem or COVID is still spreading, 500 people dying a day. It's very, very hard for any White House to push back, but especially if the president's not on the road.

LOPEZ: And another thing that White House officials told us is that, of course yes, the president's going to be trying to explain his record. Look at all the things I've done to date that are trying to make the economy better, but a big piece of his message is also to talk about what they have left that he wants to get done.


KING: Yes. I saw all six of my siblings during a weekend in Boston, and I -- it's a tough environment for the Democrats. I'll just put it -- put that out there, like that.

Up next, the 2020 election was 17 months ago, but prominent Trump allies still fighting to reverse it.




KING: Decertify is new rallying cry of those who are still, yes still, pushing Donald Trump's big 2020 lie. "The New York Times" digs deep on this ludicrous but persistent effort.

Trump allies, including the lawyer John Eastman, pushing courts and pushing state legislators to decertify slates of electors in key battleground states. And then make the case somehow that Donald Trump should still be president.

Olivier Knox, Laura Barron-Lopez, Nia Malika Henderson are still with me.

Number one, really? Fifteen months since the insurrection, 17 months since the election, Joe Biden has been president for 452, 453 days, and yet, but it's not really about looking back.

KNOX: It's not. It's not. Thank you for saying that.



KNOX: It is not about relitigating 2020. It is not about the January 6th insurrection. It is about the wholesale Republican Party effort to shape 2022, 2024 and elections going forward. Who counts -- whose votes get counted, by whom, under what circumstances, with what rules, what can be ruled out (inaudible). This is not a relitigation. It's a -- forgive me -- it's a prelitigation.

KING: Right.

KNOX: It is a look forward at taking control of the machinery of government. We've seen it. My -- my -- some of my colleagues at "The Post" have done a really good job of tracking this, putting Trump allies who've -- who believe or say they believe the big lie, putting them in charge of counting the votes, putting them in positions of importance. Removing the Republicans who told the Trump White House, no, we're not going to find the votes for you magically so that you can win Georgia. This is not -- this cannot be seen as a backward effort.

KING: Right, it's --

KNOX: It's a forward looking effort.

KING: -- forgive me for interrupting. But, it's more about, it's like don't wait. Don't wait until they count they votes or don't wait till you lose the recount appeal or don't wait till you lose in court, intervene. If you think you're in trouble intervene. The story smartly points it out. They warned of unintended consequences, including the potential to incite violence of the sort on January 6th.

But, then it's at the end part, legal experts worry the focus on decertifying the last election could pave the way for more aggressive and earlier legislative intervention the next time around. And that's what it's about, essentially, you know, getting people leaning forward.

HENDERSON: Yes. KING: You see trouble, try to stop it.

HENDERSON: Yes, and we've seen it already. I mean, in several states the idea that there shouldn't be any Democrats on the election board, there should only be Republicans there. They're sort of rearranging the deck chairs in terms of who can actually count all the votes.

At the root of this theory, which is sort of a fringe theory, but we know that fringe theories sort of become the dominant in the Republican Party, at the center of it is this idea that local officials and legislators can actually count the vote, right? That the actual vote doesn't necessarily count.

That they -- anyone who's in power, Republicans, can actually be the most powerful people in the state in terms of what the outcome of the vote is. And we've seen it already in several states. And putting people in place who will make it much easier for a Donald Trump to win and overthrow an election.

KING: Which is why a sunlight on what happened when you do look back, sunlight on what happened is very important to try to expose what happened so it doesn't happen again, which is why the January 6 committee's work is important.

One of the lawyers still at this, John Eastman, is trying withhold documents still, fighting to withhold e-mails from that. And Kimberly Guilfoyle, fiance of Donald Trump, Jr.,. appeared before the committee for some length of time.

The question is, were -- we've been told -- you mentioned earlier, we've been told about this Biden travel for a long time and we're seeing little pieces of it, but not a barnstorming. We've been told for months we'll get public hearings from the January 6 committee, a big test for them, but when?

LOPEZ: Yes, I mean, that is. You know, it -- we thought as early as April, now it may not be till May or June when these hearings start taking place. But, it -- how they structured those hearings, you know, we know that a lot of lawmakers on that panel that they want to utilize, you know, the way historians tell the story -- tell stories of what has happened in the past.

They want -- they understand that they need to make it digestible for the American public about what happened and connecting the dots between who was -- who was involved, t what level they were involved, how high does it go, because whether or not they refer, you know, criminal charges against Trump to DOJ, it is about making sure that the public understands what happened with January 6th and the lead-up to it and what that manes for 2024 or 2022.

Also, when we talk about this, I just think about the fact that there's this question that we're talking a lot about in the press about whether or not Trump is losing his grip on the party because his -- his primary candidates may not be doing as well. Well, the vast majority of people running in Republican primaries are spewing the election lie. KING: Right.

LOPEZ: They still are big Trumpists and they may very well win governorships or secretaries of state, like you mentioned, John, who control and they can control what electors are sent to future Congress'.

KING: Right. The important part as we study what's behind us is to remember, it never stopped. It -- it's ongoing to this very day.

Up next, a rule incoming on whether Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene can run for Congress again. We'll have the details of that case next.




KING: Topping our political radar today, a federal judge is allowing a case to block the Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene from seeking re-election to go forward. A coalition of liberal groups contends the Georgia Republican violated the Constitution's disqualification clause by aiding January 6th rioters. The hearing in the case now set for Friday.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis escalating his feud with Disney. The state legislature will consider repealing Disney World's self- governing power during a special session this week. That move would strip the park of its ability essentially to act as its own city. Right now Disney is allowed to control everything, from zoning to building codes.

Appreciate your time today on "Inside Politics." Hope to see you back here this time tomorrow. Don't forget, you can also listen to our podcast. Download "Inside Politics".