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U.S. & Western Officials Believe Putin Could Formally Declare War On Ukraine By May 9; Ohio GOP Primary Is Big Test Of Trump's Endorsement Power; Obama & Biden Not "The Tight Brotherhood Both Men Had Sold"? Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired May 03, 2022 - 12:30   ET




JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Today, a new sign the Russian President Vladimir Putin is digging in. U.S. and Western officials believe Putin could formally declare war on Ukraine as soon as May 9th, allowing him then to dedicate more troops to what the Kremlin calls Russia's, quote, special military operation.

In Mariupol, a commander in the steel plant says they are under nonstop bombardment. But he hopes, hopes to evacuate what he says is 100 remaining civilians there. In the East, Ukraine says it has fought off 12 Russian attacks in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

However, U.S. intelligence does suggest Russia will try to annex those two regions by mid-May. And CNN has told the call between the French President Emmanuel Macron and Russia's Putin earlier today lasted more than two hours. The Kremlin insisted it is still open to dialogue with Ukraine.

CNN of course covering this war across the battle zone, CNN's Scott McLean is in Lviv, but first to CNN's Nick Paton Walsh in Zaporizhia. And Nick, you have been witnessed to many emotional moments today.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: Yes, extraordinary to see, finally after days of expectation, global expectation, and hopes that we will begin to see people from the worst affected area possibly of the country, the Azovstal steel plant in the heavily besieged port city of Mariupol emerge. Those buses did finally come out after two days, frankly, of waiting and the holding of them by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine that the evacuation would have begun at 8:00 a.m. on Monday, here we are Tuesday afternoon. And finally, they came to Zaporizhia, a Ukrainian held territory.

People coming off those buses, three of them that I actually recognized from videos we'd seen of them emerging from the rubble of Azovstal, video filmed by Ukrainian troops on the scene there. And they emerged, frankly, Olga (ph) in her 70s blinking at still at the sunlights having been in the basement for two months of that steel plant, heavily fortified area. They've been under intense bombardment. Also too, we recognize Valentina (ph) with her child, Skatoslav (ph), a son who turned six just two days ago, as they said in the video, she emerged and that child has spent a third of his life underground. She was full of praise of the Ukrainian soldiers there who even managed to bring baby food and diapers to her infant son there, but also to describe how now she still is terrified of the sound of aircraft that she associates that with the intense bombardment of that plant.

These scenes, emotional families reunited in front of us, as they got off only five buses, just over 100 people taken out. It's not really the volume of those who got out today, John. It's the fact that the U.N. and the Red Cross. The United Nations and Red Cross were able to orchestrate this through Russian checkpoints. Not a large number of people, very vulnerable people caught in the worst place of Mariupol. But the hope had been this might be able to ignite a larger volume of civilians getting out of Mariupol.

Remember, there are 100,000 in there, but the complexity of this task does, I think, leave certainly in my mind, doubts, as to how easy it's going to be to get that humanitarian corridor going. But hearing those witness accounts for what it's like inside Mariupol so urgently need. John?

KING: After all, we've heard in recent days and weeks, a small, even a small dose of hope, is helpful. Nick Paton Walsh, grateful for that important reporting. And let's go now to CNN's Scott McLean. He is in Lviv. Scott, what are we hearing latest from the battlefields today?

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, John. Well, as you mentioned, May 9th is coming up pretty quickly. And Vladimir Putin, at least according to Western sources, perhaps not wanting to pass up the opportunity to use it as a the symbolism of it at least. Because of course, Putin has framed this as an operation to denazify Ukraine and perhaps he wants to use that May 9th day, the day that the Soviet Union declared victory over Germany to his advantage by either declaring war, as you mentioned earlier or declaring victory, declaring formally that Russia was annexing Donetsk and Luhansk.

There are a lot of possibilities of how he could use this day. But if he were to declare war that would give him the possibility of a formally instituting a draft, calling up more reservists and trying to bolster his troops in the eastern part of the country. American estimates are that before the war, there are about 110,000 or so Russian troops surrounding Ukraine. Now there's about 85,000 or so with 20,000 just outside of the border region.


But as of late, John, the head of the military administration in Luhansk region says that the Russians are really having a difficult time trying to take towns and villages on the ground. And so instead they are resorting to bombing campaigns, artillery campaigns, lobbing any kind of explosive device into those towns to basically flatten them and force the Ukrainians to actually retreat.

Just today, there were nine civilians killed in the Donetsk region, according to the Ukrainians. Ukraine now says that the Russians are taking some equipment out of storage and bringing it to the frontlines to try to replenish what they've lost already. John?

KING: Scott McLean for us live in Lviv. Scott, thank you very much. We'll continue to watch develops in Ukraine. But when we come back, it is primary day in Indiana and Ohio. The Republican Senate nomination in Ohio is one big prize. And it's also a big test of Donald Trump's sway with Republican voters.



KING: Polls are open right now. It is primary day in both Ohio and Indiana. And as you can see from this map, both of those states factor into one of the big prizes this midterm election year, control of the United States Senate, it is 50 Democrats, 50 Republicans at the moment with the Vice President breaking the tie. If they want to get a majority one key for Republicans is to hold what they have.

Republicans control Ohio right now and Indiana, Indiana is not considered much of a contest this year. The Republican incumbent is expected to win reelection, we'll watch it. Ohio is more interesting though, because Ohio is an open race. The current Republican incumbent Rob Portman is not running for reelection. So you have a crowded primary right now, five leading candidates. You see Matt Dolan, businessman Mike -- Josh Mandel, Jane Timken, J.D. Vance.

Five leading Republican candidates, only one of them, only one of them State Senator Dolan has distanced himself from the big lie. The others are all aligned or at least promoting Trump's big lie. But this candidate, J.D. Vance, has Trump's endorsement, which makes today's primary quite interesting. Does Donald Trump still have enough sway to motivate Republican voters to back his horse in the race, if you will? That would be J.D. Vance. Josh Mandel wanted Trump's endorsement. He's second in the polls right now trailing J.D. Vance. J.D. Vance says I'm grateful for the for President's support. Josh Mandel sometimes asked to explain why he doesn't have it.


J.D. VANCE (R), OHIO SENATE CANDIDATE: I'm endorsed by President Trump because he recognizes that whether we have a Republican Party that fights is the fundamental question in this primary.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you tell us why Trump supports J.D. Vance instead of you?

JOSH MANDEL (R), OHIO SENATE CANDIDATE: I don't know the answer to that. But I can tell you this, sir. Tomorrow we're going to win the election. And after that, I'm going to work very closely with President Trump.


KING: Catherine Lucey, Melanie Zanona, Abby Phillip back with me. Melanie, this is a seat Republicans want to hold. They need to hold if they have to hope to getting the Senate Majority of the Trump factor, big Question. That's one of the big questions tonight.

MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: Yes, that is the big question. Heading into this entire primary season really is how much is a Trump endorsement worth and this will be a first early test. But I will say one word of caution, even if J.D. Vance Trump's endorse candidate doesn't win here. That doesn't mean Trumpism lost because there are multiple other candidates were positioning themselves as the pro Trump candidate. And one could argue that if J.D. Vance does lose, it might be because his opponents have still drawn attention to his past criticism of Trump.

But nonetheless, after a few months here, there is going to be a scorecard for Trump about his record of endorsements. And it's a risk that he got too involved because if that record doesn't look good, you know, his 2024 rivals are going to be looking at that. And they might be more inclined to challenge.

KING: You would think Trump would know that and understand that power calculation, if you will. And yet he messed up the name. He called his candidate JP Mandel and then J.D. Mandel the other day. Well, we'll watch as it plays out. But to Melanie's point, only State Senator Dolan has said, look, the 2020 election was free and fair and fairly decided Joe Biden as president. The other candidates have one way or another to one degree or another, embrace the big lie, which does tell you a lot about the continuing Trump effect endorsement aside.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: And to be clear, Dolan has says, he's not anti-Trump. He's just anti the big lie that that particular part of it. And so that's why this race tonight will tell us actually about the size of the part of the Republican electorate. That is, maybe they're OK with Trump.

You know, they are tried and true Republicans, but they don't really like the big lie. And that's important because there is probably a sizable number of Republicans not just in Ohio, but in other states who are uncomfortable with the former president's near obsessive focus with the big lie. And Ohio is a case study for that because Dolan has tried to differentiate himself on that particular issue.

KING: And we focus on the Trump endorsement, Catherine, but you also learn if we could just show the top five candidates up there again. You see in the middle. Jane Timken, she's the former state Republican Party Chairwoman. She has Senator Portman's endorsement. He's the one who's leaving office not running for reelection, and it doesn't seem to have helped there.

So I think there's a question, the establishment in the party even if Trump's endorse candidate doesn't win today, it's not like the establishment can do any chest thumping.

CATHERINE LUCEY, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: No, we're in a moment really of reordering, right, about who has power, who can actually move these candidates and there hasn't been enough polling to really know right now. I think we're all kind of waiting to see how this plays out, right?

But certainly again tonight, I mean, the big, big question, obviously is how powerful Trump's endorsement is. We saw he had sort of mixed impact, right, in 2020 and in the midterms in this president in terms of, you know, when it wasn't him, people don't -- when it's not him running, it's not him on the ballot, you know, people don't always feel the same way.


KING: I'll be counting votes tonight which is something I'd love to do, so come back and see us tonight if we can. This is also not just -- looking at the Republican divide here, Republican tensions here. This also -- this race also -- the state also has a rematch in Ohio's 11th Congressional District, which has the split in the Democratic Party right there. This, Shontel Williams, who's now our congresswoman, won this race last year against Nina Turner, Progressive's Nina Turner running again. She's a Bernie Sanders acolyte. She has the endorsement of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Democrats want to have this fight one more time.

PHILLIP: Yes, and I think this is just a sign of the fact that that divide among Democrats is not going away. The progressives are pretty angry, in fact, about the last six to eight months. And this is one of those races that kind of shows you where that anger is showing up and how much impact it has in a state like Ohio that, frankly, is actually trending much further to the right than it had been in prior election cycles.

KING: Yes, tonight it kicks off a very, very important month of primary. They're going to be with us all year through the summer. But tonight, come back join us tonight as we count the votes.

Ahead, though, a new book out today, just out today details Mitch McConnell's advice for dealing with Donald Trump and it also answers this question, why does Nancy Pelosi say Barack Obama is jealous?



KING: Quote, just ignore him like I do. That was Mitch McConnell's advice regarding Liz Cheney and how he believes she should deal with Donald Trump, that according to the authors of a new book that is available today. Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin of The New York Times write this, for the life of him, the top Senate Republican could not understand why Cheney had kept criticizing Trump.

McConnell told an advisor that the congresswoman had signed her own death warrant. In his mind she was committing a cardinal sin, relinquishing power. Quote, when you're in leadership, the last thing you want is to be a liability for your members. His counterparts in the House, he said, we're a mess.

Alex and Jonathan are here and their book, "This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden and the Battle for America's Future" is available today. Jonathan Martin, let me start with you. That is one of the things you cover here in the book. Let me center for you here. That's an example, one of the vignettes, the get set, one of the big topics of the book, which is the tensions in the Republican Party over the Trump question.

JONATHAN MARTIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: As the months go on in 2021 we chronicle in this book, John, that McConnell and Cheney begin to sort of allies in January and February of 2021. They're appalled by Donald Trump's conduct. They're infuriated about his inciting the mob that stormed the Capitol. But Cheney won't drop it.

And she won't stop talking about Trump and McConnell, wants to turn his focus entirely to Democrats in the coming midterm elections. And that is what drives this wedge. And McConnell glances over at the House. And he sees Cheney talking about Trump still, and then McCarthy can't quite corral her. And he believes his counterparts over there, as he put it, are a mess.

KING: And, Alex, that point you -- that's a question, the Ohio primary tonight, for example, the Ohio Senate primary, it's an unanswered question, you guys lay it out explore quite well, but we don't know the end yet.

ALEX BURNS, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: That's right, John. And the tension that Jonathan just described where a small number of Republicans, including Liz Cheney want to continue prosecuting the case against Donald Trump, perhaps literally, and Mitch McConnell wants to move on and focus on the 22 elections, continues to just hang over this primary season. You referred to Ohio kicking off this big stretch of primaries. Mitch McConnell has an awful lot at stake, so does Donald Trump. The power of the Trump endorsement is going to be tested in state after state.

And for Mitch McConnell, this is a stretch that could well determine whether he has a good shot of becoming Majority Leader again, and maybe just as important, John, what kind of majority he would have. That is very, very possible that Mitch McConnell later this year will get his wish of winning back the Senate majority. But the balance of power will be candidates handpicked by Donald Trump. And that is not what he was hoping would happen. Last year when he told Liz Cheney, it's time to just move on from Donald Trump.

KING: And another gift of this book, folks watching at home, these are two of the best political reporters in the country. And you also detail many great individual stories that get at the tensions in the Democratic Party, including this one about that Nancy Pelosi and the relationship between Obama and Biden. Obama and Biden spoke by phone occasionally, but not often, hardly the stuff of the tight brotherhood, both men had sold to the country as a cheery political fable.

Pelosi told a friend, quote, Obama is jealous of Biden. Biden echoed Pelosi's view in a conversation with an advisor several months into his tenure. I'm confident that Barack is not happy with the coverage of this administration, as more transformative than his. So tensions on the left as well as the right, Jonathan. MARTIN: Yes. And look, there are such intense rivalries with in both political families. And Biden, you have to understand the context here when we get into this in the book, John, the Biden fell he was never fully respected by President Obama's inner circle, and that he was sort of looked down upon for eight years as Vice President.

And so part of what's happening in 2021 is that Biden feels the opportunity not only to go big in his agenda and be a consequential precedent for history, he also sees an opening to one up Obama in that crowd around him that he feels never gave him the respect he deserved, and he looks around in the spring of '21, a year ago now, very different moment and thinks I could be a bigger figure on policy than Obama and he ain't going to like that.


KING: Why is Nancy Pelosi talking about this, Alex?

BURNS: Well, she is one of the relatively few figures in the Democratic Party who speaks pretty frequently with both men. So this is not a speculative statement on Nancy Pelosi's part. It's not, you know, her sort of watching Obama from afar and saying he sure seems envious. This is the Speaker of the House saying in a conversation reported in our book that Barack Obama and Joe Biden clearly have a rivalry and the former president is jealous of his former running mate.

KING: Alex Burns, Jonathan Martin, appreciate your time today. And folks at home, especially in this midterm election year, you won't understand what's happening. It's a great place to start. Gentlemen, thanks so much. Appreciate it. We'll continue the conversation.

And thank you for joining us today on INSIDE POLITICS. We'll see you tomorrow. I'll see some of you tonight too. Ana Cabrera picks up our coverage after a quick break.