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Inside Politics

Mariupol Mayor: Situation At Steel Plant Worse Than Hell; Russia Bombards Crucial Rail Hub & Supply Line In Donbass; Russia Attacks Kyiv During U.N. Chief's Visit; Russia's Vicious Campaign Fuels Terror Across Ukraine; Mark Meadows & Sean Hannity Exchanged Over 80 Texts Between Election Day 2020 And Biden's Inauguration; Hannity To Meadows On 1/6: Trump Should "Ask People To Peacefully Leave" The Capitol; Jan 6 Cmte Planning To Hold 8 Public Hearings In June; Raskin: 1/6 Was "Worst Presidential Political Crime" In U.S. History. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired April 29, 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. They are trapped and they are dying. Soldiers and civilians surrounded in Mariupol's final stronghold. Today, the renewed effort to get people out of the Azovstal steel plant that efforts stalled, blocked by Russians overnight.

600 were injured overnight, scores killed when Russian bunker buster bombs collided with a makeshift feel possible inside that complex. Moscow Eastern Blitz is now two weeks old. It has produced few Russian land gains so far on the battleground, but plenty, plenty and mounting destruction.

In Lyman, the crackle of war, smoke and flames trailing a key rail hub that connects Kharkiv to Donetsk. Elsewhere in Donetsk, a fuel depot fire that Russia blames on Ukrainian shelling. Today, Russia also accusing Ukraine of sending mortars across the border.

Away from the front line in the capital Kyiv, air raid siren sounding again after weeks without them. This the aftermath of a Russian barrage that pummeled the city just hours after the United State nations secretary general met there with Ukraine's president.

In Mariupol, it remains literally a life or death waiting game. Conditions are crumbling, with every passing hour. The city's mayor puts it bluntly, "if Mariupol is hell, Azovstal is worse. A field commander live right here on CNN this morning worries, they cannot survive another direct hit. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MAJ. Serhiy Volyna, COMMANDER, UKRAINE'S 36TH SEPARATE MARINE BRIGADE: Yesterday was the heavy strike a direct hit on the field hospital that is situated inside Azovstal steel plant. And this operating theatre was hit directly and all the surgical equipment, everything that is necessary to perform surgery has been destroyed. So, right now, we cannot treat our wounded, especially those with shrapnel wounds and with bullet wounds. We cannot tell you for sure, how long we can hold on for.


KING: Let's get straight to Ukraine for the latest from the battlefield. CNN's Scott McLean is in Lviv, that's in western Ukraine. Scott, what is the latest?

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: John, I just finished up an interview with a deputy commander of the Azov regiment that is leading the fighting from the Azovstal steel plant, who said that not only have they gotten heavy bombardment from the air, from artillery, but also now Russian troops are trying to storm the Azovstal plant. He tells me. But the troops there are managing for the moment to repel them.

We also know that some of the sellers, some of the underground bunkers in that Azovstal steel plant, this deputy commander tells me collapsed in the shelling. And there are areas they cannot get to. They don't know if there are people trapped underneath the rubble. What they do know is that a lot - there were a lot of injuries from the soldiers.

He says that there have also been three people injured, two women and one man, two civilians who were injured in that bombing as well. I also asked him about the evacuation corridor that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy promised was coming. This organized effort to evacuate people from the plant with really no details given. Here's what he told me about that effort.


SVIATOSLAV PALAMAR, AZOV DEPUTY COMMANDER: As of today, we know that evacuation convoys heading here to Mariupol. It's on the way and where exactly they are now, I cannot speak about it for safety reasons of the people in this transport. We hope that first of all, civilians will be evacuated.


MCLEAN: Now, I also asked him, if there is no way to evacuate the soldiers who are left behind, if he is willing to continue fighting, or if there's any chance that he might surrender. And the bottom line is he said that, surrendering is not being considered at this time. They would like to have some kind of a deal broker to get civilians out first and after that to allow soldiers to walk out either to Ukrainian territory or to some third country territory, so that they can get out of the plant safely. Beyond that, he said simply, they will not surrender themselves to the Russians. I also spoke, John, with an advisor to the mayor of Mariupol, who suggested that failing any kind of a deal, surrendering to the Russians may well be the best situation. But in order to get some kind of a deal, he suggested that they may in fact need a miracle. somebody famous, perhaps even the Pope himself to drive the bus, to pick up those soldiers and get them out of there. Not a very likely scenario, John?


KING: Not a very likely scenario, but just shows you the stakes involve. Scott McLean, grateful for that important live reporting for us. Let's get some insights now from retired air force Colonel, CNN military analyst, Cedric Leighton. Colonel, great to see you.

Let's start right there. This is the bigger map of the battlefield. And I want to get to some of the dynamics of recent days in just a moment. But let's just come back here for a minute. We've talked for weeks now about Mariupol, and we have talked largely about how fierce the fight is, how fierce the resistance is, but how surrounded and desperate this situation is?

When you hear the commander, they're saying, they're trying to get a convoy in or they're trying to at least get the civilians out. What does it tell you, A, about the stakes here, and B, to the point where we won't surrender? We're trying to negotiate some way for the troops to leave. Will Russia allow that?

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON, U.S. AIR FORCE (RET.): Yes. John, that's I think the biggest issue here is, you know, the way this is playing out, this is like the last ditched attempt for all of the soldiers that are - the Ukrainian soldiers that are holed up in the Azovstal plant in Mariupol.

It looks really grim. Unfortunately, now, if that convoy that was just talked about in Scott's report, does make it through. It'll be a miracle. It'll be another miracle if it actually takes them out, takes the civilians out of there, out of the danger zone. And then, of course, if the soldiers can leave as well, that would be a highly unlikely, I think, unfortunately.

KING: So, as we have this region up. I just go through it. You see here, these flashes, the flames that shows you recent battles. This is the place where we've seen recent conflict and a lot of recent selling. And you see, essentially, you know, the crescent, the long Russian trying to take this land and things extend all the way over to Odessa, if they can.

One of the things. Yes. I just want to show you. This is in alignment, what you just saw on the map, and you see the shelving here. And you see, if you look closely, you see the strategy here. These are railways that the Ukrainians are using to reinforce, to bring in new weapons, to bring in more supplies for their troops. Russia targeting them. Logistics, it seems pretty a common sense, right? COL. LEIGHTON: Absolutely. This is what you target when you're engaged in any kind of combat. You target the supply lines, which in this case, are the rail lines and the roadways. And what you see here in linemen is very clearly an attempt to go after a switching railroad, switching center, as well as any of the other attended pieces that are part of the rail network right in that area, which is a critical node for the Ukrainian rail system.

KING: I want to come back to this region in just a moment. But we also saw again yesterday after a high-profile visit to Kyiv, Russia targets buildings. Do you see, is that no coincidence, right?

COL. LEIGHTON: None whatsoever. These are deliberately targeted buildings. This is part of the terror campaign against the civilian population in Kyiv and really in all of Ukraine. And John, when you look at what is happening here, it's taxing the emergency services of Ukraine. It is taxing the entire civilian population. And it's really a psychologically is what the impact is here.

Here, you know, we talk about hearts and minds in a positive sense. What they're trying to do is they're trying to really make it seem hopeless for the Ukrainian nation. And that's why they're doing what they're doing.

KING: So, let's forgive me for interrupting. Let's come back out and look at how this has changed. We're now in the third month of this. And if you go back, this is March the 5th, right? This was the area in the north. Remember, when the Russians were trying to take Kyiv. This is area in the north, the Russians had moved their forces into. You see the red here, this is Russians. The stripe areas, says what Russia has had forces for eight plus years.

And I just want to play this through and watch it play out. You see the Russian advances here, but then that was the big change. The Ukrainians fight and drive the Russians out. But then you see the gains coming this way, Colonel, in recent days. And if you come in closer to the scene again, and you come in here. What do you see, as the Pentagon says, senior U.S. officials say slow, not really seizing land, but using artillery, other long fire missiles to soften these territories up? What do you see the Russians doing?

COL. LEIGHTON: So, what they're doing right here, John, is in some ways, a simple strategy. But it's a very deliberate, very methodical strategy. So, you look at the Russian lines that go through these areas right here. Major clashes around Izyum, and around Sloviansk, and all of these areas, right in three, Rubizhne, of course. All of these areas, they're on a line right here.

This is a perfect line of advance for the Russians to take. They could also potentially, if they're freed up from Mariupol, they could potentially go up this way. What does that do? That takes the entire Donetsk region out of the picture and the Donbass region, and of course, Luhansk.

So, the Donbass region would effectively be gone. This may give the Russians an attempt to pause the operations. And look at, you know, the gains that they achieve, but they're looking for one other area, and that would be this area right here, and then to the west of this, which of course is Odessa.

KING Looking at the map (cross talk) get all the way over there.

COL. LEIGHTON: Right. So, when you look at this, this of course, is critical right here. There's a very little of the Ukrainian coastline that is left under Ukrainian control. And that is what the Russians see. They also have this area around called Transnistria, which are these red areas right here on the Moldovan border.


The Russians have been there since it is - for several years now. And they've used this as a way to leverage their advances from here, and they could potentially use this to go this way as well. Highly unlikely that they can make that work because there are few troops here, but they can leverage that because the Ukrainians have been forced to move troops in this area.

KING: The Ukrainians move this way to counter that, which means fewer Ukrainians in the fight over here.

COL. LEIGHTON: Exactly, exactly.

KING: Colonel Leighton, that's for watching the week ahead. Appreciate your perspective very much. Up next for us, a CNN exclusive. Text messages between Sean Hannity and Trump's White House Chief of Staff. The Fox host eager to sell Trump's big lie, but things did take a turn after the insurrection.




KING: Some important breaking news now. New details of how the Fox Host Sean Hannity, eagerly used his position, his platforms to help Donald Trump sell his big 2020 election lie. Those details come from more than 80 text message exchanges between Hannity, and then Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, from Election Day 2020 right up until the Biden inauguration.

Now the texts makes clear. Hannity eagerly offered up his television and his radio programs to spread Trump lies and unfounded conspiracies. They also though, do show a change in Hannity's mood and approach after the January 6 violence. CNN special correspondent, Jamie Gangel, is part of breaking the story. She's right here with the latest. Jamie, tell us more.

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: So, first of all, Sean Hannity is one of the most frequent textures with Mark Meadows in this period, 82 text messages. Just for context, let's remind people that Sean Hannity is not a journalist. He is a TV host and entertainer. He is a good friend of Donald Trumps' and it's been reported that he was sort of a shadow chief of staff in all this.

And one other picture, you may remember, Trump calling Sean Hannity up to the stage during a campaign rally. So, this is not an ordinary relationship. These text show a peek behind the scenes between two men were very close to Trump. What they are saying and doing in real time. And as you said, it shows an evolution.

So, let's just start with Election Day. And Hannity is all in on Election Day. He calls up Meadows and says, where do you need support? What should I be talking about? Meadows mentions a couple of states. Hannity says, yes, sir. But a week later, on November 10, Hannity has a very different tone. He says, "I'm beginning to feel down." And by December 6, he and Mark Meadows are now talking about life after Donald Trump.

So, let me read you one text here. This is December 6. Sean Hannity, if this doesn't end the way we want you, me and Jay. I'm guessing that's Jay Sekulow, are doing three things together. One, directing legal strategies versus Biden. Two, North Carolina real estate. Three, other business.

I talked to Rudy, thanks for helping him. There's also another text where he suggests, where Hannity suggests, Meadows comes to work for Fox. So, after this is over, they know what's really going on. They are moving on very early.

KING: But in some ways that makes it more infuriating. They're talking about, maybe we'll go into real estate business, maybe we'll cut some deal with Rudy. That's what they're talking about privately, but publicly, they are still fighting and pushing and promoting the big lie publicly.

GANGEL: Correct. Then you get to approaching January 6. As December goes on, you see that Hannity is starting to get worried. He talks about well, White House counsel resigned in protest. He's worried about the fringe fighting and here's an exchange December 22. Sean Hannity, hey, my friend. How are you doing. Meadows, fighting like crazy. Went to Cobb County to review process. Very tough days, but I will keep fighting. Hannity, you fighting is fine. The (Inaudible) lunatics is not fine. They are not helping him. I'm fed up with those people.

And then move right to January 6, the attack is happening. Hannity text meadows, as many did to try to get the president to do something. Hannity, can he make a statement? I saw the tweet. Ask people to peacefully leave the Capitol. Meadows, on it, Hannity, WTH, what the heck is happening with VPOTUS.

Pence, one of the few mentions by the way. Oh Pence, in these logs. But again, here's someone who is inner circle, very close to Trump, trying to get the president to tell people to leave. Focus on the word leave. That is something that committee is very - is going to underscore that Trump took so long to ask people to leave.

KING: And so, there's one final exchange that you've obtained and it's from January 19, which is of course one day before the Biden inauguration and the exchange centers on this.



SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people. And they tried to use fear and violence to stop a specific proceeding of the first branch of the federal government, which they did not like. But we pressed on. We stood together and said an angry mob, would not get veto power over the rule of law in our nation.


GANGEL: So, Hannity sends that to Meadows and says, "well, this is as bad as it gets." He knows it's over. I don't want to read too much into that. But I thought January 6 was as bad as it gets on January 19. He's worried about Mitch McConnell condemning Trump.

KING: That's tells you just about everything you need to know about how he views his role with Trump. As we'll watch this obviously a lot more to talk about as we dissect more. Jamie, appreciate this. We will continue our coverage of this. Thank you. Coming up, these texts may be just a preview of what we can expect to learn in the weeks and months ahead. As the committee investigating January 6, now says it is prepared for public hearings in primetime in June.




KING: The January 6 committee says, it is almost ready to connect the dots in public hearings, aid hearings beginning in June. A few, plan for primetime. It is an enormous challenge. Just think about what we just discussed with Jamie Gangel was here. The Mark Meadows text messages with Sean Hannity.

Or the broader CNN reporting in the past week on more than 2,300 text exchanges with the former Trump chief of staff about trying to overturn the election results. Compelling, informative, yet, just small, tiny pieces, actually, of what the committee says is a detailed conspiracy, going from Election Day through the January 6 attacks to Biden inauguration day. And many committee members, say beyond, including this day.

With me to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Melanie Zanona, Jeff Mason of Reuters, and Tia Mitchell, the Atlanta Journal Constitution. So, we've been waiting for months to figure out when will they come public. They promised these hearings, we thought initially they would be before this, but here they come in June, Jamie Raskin, a key member of the committee, characterize it this way.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REP. JAMIE RASKIN (D-MD): We now have the evidence to support a story of the worst presidential political crime against the union in American history. Nothing that any other president ever did comes close to what happened on that day. And it will be harrowing for the American people to watch this story unfold.


KING: The congressman, they're setting a very high expectations bar of what they think they can prove. And the minds they hope to change, which is a key point in these hearings.

MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: Yes. I mean, I think one way to think about these hearings, yes, there is an expectation that there's going to be bombshell revelations. But some of these bombshells have been hiding in plain sight. Thanks to some of our reporting, from our colleagues. Thanks to some of the information that the committee has dripped out.

Really what the challenge is going to be for them is distilling all of that information. I mean, they have thousands of documents, hundreds of deputations that they're going through. How do they tell a compelling story?

And I think the other challenge, as you alluded to, is do they change any hearts and minds? I also think eight hearings is quite a lot of hearings. You would think maybe distilling them into a few more, like people might lose interest after eight. But clearly, they feel like they have a lot of ground to cover.

KING: They've hired former federal prosecutors. They're viewing this as almost as like a trial.

JEFF MASON, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, REUTERS: For sure. And I think the key word that jumped out at me from Congressman Raskin was evidence. This is not just a story, although they want to tell the story. And they want to piece together the narrative, so that it is compelling. And so, that Americans follow it and understand what happened. But they also want to prove it. They want to show that, look, we've got concrete examples. We've got these text messages. We've had these interviews, and this shows what happened and this shows who was culpable.

KING: And we know the committee has done meticulous work about interviewing mid-level staffers, some high-level staffers, people around Trump, people in the campaign, people in these organizations, people were involved in financing the rally. The question is, can you put that together in a way?

Again, if your left of center, you believe Donald Trump committed this horrible crime, and you'll be cheering this on. Can you convince the middle of America? So, that they start thinking about this in the context of a Trump comeback, in the context of election law changes, in the context of what's happening in the secretary of state races around the country? TIA MITCHELL, ATLANTA JOURNAL WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I mean, it's clear they're going to try. And I think what they're going to be spend in the next couple of months ahead of these June hearings, is trying to put together, you know, this coherent case, almost like they are prosecutors, and they're going to work on their opening statements and work on their videos, and work on what evidence they share.

But the concern is, are there people in America voters who their minds cannot be changed? And will those voters even be tuned in? You know, we know that there may be networks that may wholly ignore these hearings or put them in a different light? And so, the question is, how can it cut through the noise when we're so partisan right now in America?

ZANONA: And it's interesting that they're thinking about it in the terms of primetime versus regular hours. They're also planning a multimedia presentation. That shows that they're trying to make a splash. And that yes, they're trying to show evidence. But they're also recognizing that this is part of like a PR and messaging thing as well. Right?

KING: Their challenge is hard because again, we've learned a lot, we've learned a ton. I mean, every day we learned something new about this. You would think at some point, OK, is there anything new to learn? Well, yes. We've learned a ton new. The question is, can you put it together in a compelling way? One of the issues, I just want to show you. Three Republican lawmakers, the committee has been trying.