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Inside Politics

Finland Moves Closer To Joining NATO, Angering Kremlin; Finland's Leaders Back NATO Membership, Sweden To Make Decision Soon; Women Who Survived Russian Attack Recounts Harrowing Ordeal; Kremlin: Finland Joining NATO Is A Threat To Russia; Ukraine Acknowledges Some Russian Advances In The East; White House Officially Marks One Million U.S. Deaths; 44 States See Increase In COVID Cases Compared To Previous Week; Today: Supreme Court Justices Meet For First Time Since Roe Leak. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired May 12, 2022 - 12:00   ET



JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Hello, and welcome to Inside Politics. I'm John King in Washington. Thank you for sharing your day with us. Today, a supreme gathering, the high court's justices meet for the first time since that leak of a draft decision that would reverse Roe vs. Wade. It happens just a day after Senate Democrats failed to pass a bill guaranteeing abortion access.

Plus, where's the data? New CNN reporting this hour raises questions about why the White House is slow to backup. It's startling fall COVID forecast of as many as one hundred million new infections. And likely unconstitutional, a Florida judge appointed by Ron DeSantis, says the governor's proposed congressional map is not fair, because the judge says it boxes out black voters.

But we begin this hour in Europe, with a dramatic example of how Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine is backfiring. Today, Finland's leaders say they support ending decades of neutrality and joining NATO. The NATO Chief, Jens Stoltenberg, promises a quick welcome if Finland follows through and applies to join the alliance. The Kremlin says, Finland joining NATO would "definitely pose a threat to Russia security." Listen here, though, the Finnish president, says Putin has one man to blame for this decision.


PRES. SAULI NIINISTO, FINLAND: Well, if that would be the case that we join, well, my response would be that you cost this. Look at a mirror.


KING: Sweden could soon follow Finland. New NATO members would redraw the European security map and expand right along Russia's border, the very alliance Putin hope to fracture and weaken with his assault on Ukraine. We begin our coverage this hour in Helsinki, CNN's, Nic Robertson, is there. Nic, this is dramatic, and it is just the opposite of what Vladimir Putin wants. NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: A completely the opposite and it's momentous. I mean, this is the geopolitical realignment of the post, World War II era, certainly post the Soviet. What the prime minister and the president today said in a very short two paragraph statement, you know, given the momentous nature of it, it is almost understated, but very simply that Sweden - Finland rather is safer by joining NATO, that it gets better security, that NATO itself will become more secure and stronger if Finland joins and that these decisions should happen without delay.

And we're learning from government officials now that the government plans to produce a white paper Sunday on this, recommending that the country that the parliament votes in favor of joining NATO, and that parliament session would be on Monday. So, the decision could come very, very early next week.

And as you say, the opposite of what President Putin wants. And this is why we're hearing the rhetoric from the Kremlin ratcheting up. They are saying that they will be watching closely to see what Finland does, to see if it increases its military presence along the border, and essentially, they will match on the other side. They are saying that this is a threat.

KING: Nic Robertson. Nic, any doubt that Sweden will follow suit? Is that an open question or just likely to follow soon?

ROBERTSON: It's going to happen. They've been slightly a step or so behind Finland on this, but there's no doubt. The joint statement between the two prime ministers a month and a half ago setting all this out. The coordination the president of Finland here going to Sweden on Tuesday. It's very much that just even trying to time this to the announcements almost come at precisely the same moment.

KING: It is remarkable. Nic Robertson, grateful for your kicking us off. Let's get to the Ukraine battlefield now. Ukrainian officials today acknowledging a hard truth, Russian forces are making gains here in the eastern part of the country. CNN's Nick Paton Walsh, he's up here in Kharkiv. For a firsthand look, it's Ukraine second largest city. It is battered. Nick's reporting, listen here, includes this from a woman who barely survived an earlier Russian strike.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voiceover): Sometimes places that speak only of death for a jewel of life. This is the first time our unit has stood in this spot. Since, 72 days ago, she was dragged out from the rubble here. Her husband, Andrei, had been scouring it, looking for her for three hours. She remembers the cupboard.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That was where I was standing.


ROBERTSON (voiceover): The multiple rocket attack on this, the Kharkiv regional administration, was an early sign of the ferocious cowardly brutality. Russia would unleash on civilian targets. This is our unit, then she had been serving coffee and cookies to soldiers saw a flash and curled into a ball.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I feel a physical manifestation of fear. I don't like cookies anymore. The box fell on me, and I remember the smell.


KING: Remarkable reporting there from Nick Paton Walsh. Now, let's get some insights from the former commanding general of U.S. Army Europe, now a CNN military analyst, General Mark Hertling. General, grateful for your time. I want to come back to the battlefield in a minute, but I want to start with where we were at the top of the hour with Nic Robertson.

You are a young major in Europe, if I have the calendar right when the Berlin Wall started to fall. You were later the commanding general of U.S. forces Europe. Imagine a NATO, put your general U.S. forces Europe back a NATO that includes Finland, right here along Russia's border that likely later would include Sweden. Think about Russia's port access. Its naval access up here.

How significant is it that Vladimir Putin is getting essentially the opposite of what he wants, an expanded stronger NATO right on his doorstep?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.) FORMER COMMANDING GENERAL EUROPE AND SEVENTH ARMY: Yes, John. Thanks for reminding me my past, first of all. Secondly, during my time in Europe as an older guy, we worked extensively with Finland, Sweden and Norway in partnership exercises and training, especially doing cold weather training. Finland and Sweden have played their independence and NATO neutrality very well over the last few decades.

But their people in their government are feeling threatened. And they want protection against additional Russian advances. But if you look at that map of Sweden, take a look NATO's border with Russia will double in size, something that Mr. Putin does not want. Russia is infuriated by that, then there's the historical perspective.

When Russia invaded Finland in World War II, the Finns inflicted serious and embarrassing losses against the Soviets. The Russians never forget battlefield defeat, especially during their Great Patriotic War. So, if Finland joins, is just going to lend more credence than Putin's narrative of NATO expansion and may give him more of a narrative with his domestic audience. But that comment that you showed at the top of the hour saying, Putin you caused this is probably the most important thing of all this discussion.

KING: And it continues in evolution, again, you served in Europe after the Berlin Wall came down, and then were the commanding of these forces. This loop right here, these lighter shade blue. Those were the countries that joined many of them in the former Soviet bloc that joined after the Berlin Wall came down. Putin doesn't like this. He's complained about this for some time. One of the reasons he's attacking Ukraine is he doesn't want Ukraine to join the European Union, then perhaps down the road, join NATO as well. What does it say to Putin about how he thinks, how he views the world? He thought that Germany would crack. He thought maybe that Hungary would crack.

He thought maybe you know, Macron had elections this year, and France would crack, maybe Biden was unpopular, and he would crack instead. He has this as we get to 80 days into this war, and he's about to get Finland and Sweden. Will that force a Putin rethink? Or will it just make him triple down?

GEN. HERTLING: Well, I sure hope it does. And you forgot one thing about that too, John. He also thought that the blackmail and the extortion of the Nord Stream pipeline would carry through and cause some of those European nations to fold. It hasn't done that either. Quite the opposite. So, you know, you can't ever guess what's Putin is thinking about.

But when you're talking about Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Estonia, now, Finland and Sweden, you know, he ought to be rethinking, because it's not like NATO is going out and asking these people to join. The reason they're joining is because they felt the pressure of the Soviet Union and now the Russian thumb on their shoulders. And I think that's why all of them, said they want to be part of the security alliance.

KING: Let's go. Now, let's go into the battlefield. Again, just to make your point. Here is Ukraine here. If Putin will come into Ukraine, are there things what's to stop him? Right? What's to stop him from doing it somewhere else? But let's come to the battlefield now as we come. And this Ukrainian officials are acknowledging today, it's been slow. It's been plotting.

We've talked for a couple of months now, General, Putin failed. He wanted Kyiv, he failed. So, he has re-shifted, and he's over here now. But the Ukrainians do concede that it may be slow, and it may be village by village, but the Russians are advancing in the east.

The question then for Ukraine, and for the United States and the western allies, helping them with new military equipment, what changes? Or what do you need to rush in? Is there a different mix of weapon systems? Or is it just, Russia is going to take this territory and it's going to take months and months and months to try to force them out?

GEN. HERTLING: Well, I'm convinced Russia is not going to take that territory, John. I think we're seeing a combination of the offensive maneuvering of Russia. Yes. There are some back and forth along that frontlines in the northeast of Donbass or the northeast region of Donbass. But what we've seen over the last few days in terms of the success of the Ukrainian army in Kharkiv has been magnificent.


And the intelligence report shows that a lot of Russian soldiers and their leaders are going AWOL. They are leaving the battlefield. They don't want to go back in. They are being defeated on a massive scale just like happen north of Kyiv, the same thing is happening in Kharkiv.

There's some exchange of ground and some of the smaller cities in and around the northeast, like Izyum and Sievierodonetsk, and several of the other cities that it's hard to pronounce the names of. That's one of the unfortunate parts about this. We sometimes don't get the names right.

But truthfully, the Ukrainian army is doing a masterful job in taking terrain, outpacing the Russian force and doing a good job in terms of regaining ground when they've lost it the Russian forces. And if you see in and around Kharkiv, Russia is trying to put more and more forces there. They're retro graded forces, they're regenerative forces, they're not having success doing that.

KING: General Hertling, great for your time. Sir, thank you.

GEN. HERTLING: Thank you, John.

KING: Next for us, the present United States today marking a tragic milestone in the COVID pandemic.




KING: President Biden today spoke at the White House organized global COVID summit. The president urging Congress to quickly approve more pandemic funding and he lamented a tragic milestone. 1 million American COVID deaths.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: This pandemic isn't over. Today, we mark a tragic milestone here in the United States. one million COVID deaths, one million empty chairs around the family dinner table, each irreplaceable.


KING: Our CNN count, you see it there is based on Johns Hopkins data. It's still just a bit shy of one million. But sadly, there is no doubt, no doubt we will hit that mark, eclipsed that mark in the next few days. Our chief White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins joins us now. Kaitlan, just simply a sad message from the president as part of a broader COVID message.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. And this is something that of course, is completely defined Joe Biden's presidency, ever since he took office. This is something he has had to deal with in different phases of the pandemic. And now today, commemorating this grim milestone, marking one million American lives lost to COVID-19. And the president is vowing to stay vigilant in the fight given of course, the pandemic is not over yet.

He talked about how it's really forever changed the nation here, not just the globe, but of course, the United States as well. And so, as he was talking about this, of course you didn't know, John, we're just shy of the models that show we are actually reaching a million deaths here in the United States.

The White House knows that that's because today he is holding that second COVID-19 summit. The last one they held virtually, of course, back in September. They're holding another one with leaders around the world, today talking about their COVID-19 response. And you've seen some nations step up and pledged billions of dollars to their next phase of this fight, saying that they are going to keep putting money into this, keeping this issue at the forefront.

The president was unable to talk about what the United States is going to commit to that fight because of course, John, the $22 billion that he has asked Congress for is still tied up on Capitol Hill with no agreement right now on how much or when they are going to pass a new COVID aid package that the White House, says they so desperately need.

So instead, you are seeing the president take more symbolic efforts. He lowered the flags here at the White House and other federal buildings to have staff, they'll remain that way through Monday, John, of course, as they mark this. And they talk about rallying the international community around this to reinvigorate the response and say that this isn't over, and they want to be prepared if there are future surges and whatnot coming forward. John?

KING: Kaitlan Collins, live at the White House. Kaitlan, thank you. Let's get some important perspective now from Dr. Megan Ranney. She's the associate dean at the Brown University School of Public Health, also an emergency physician. Dr. Ranney, grateful to see you, a sad the occasion, if you will, that the president is marking today.

Let's look at where we are now and look forward a bit before I look back at the tragic number we're talking about. Here's the case map. Now you and I've talked a lot over the last two and a half plus years in this. And the case map, even though we're starting from a lower baseline is back in what you just say is terrible territory. We have 44 states now trending in the wrong direction.

Again, the case count in many of those states is way lower, and hospitalizations and deaths matter more than cases at this point of the pandemic. But just what does it tell you that as we move through the spring, the 44 cases - 44 states reporting more new infections this week compared to last week?

DR. MEGAN RANNEY, PROFESSOR OF EMERGENCY MEDICINE: We are absolutely in another surge scenario, John, as these new Omicron variants take hold across the United States. We are watching case counts go up in the same patterns that we follow throughout this pandemic. Starting in the northeast now spreading south Midwest and to the west as well.

The big thing that's different now is that it does seem that case counts are at least somewhat decoupled from hospitalizations and deaths. We're seeing hospital numbers start to inch up, deaths start to inch up, but nowhere near the levels that we saw, even with the original Omicron wave, much less, of course, delta or the earlier COVID variants.

But the thing that gives a lot of us pause is that so far, this BA.2 and its sub variants. The wave that we've been seeing has been mostly in our most vaccinated most boosted states, those in the northeast. And we're worried about what's going to happen as it spreads to the south and to other states, to other parts of the country that have lower vaccination rates.

KING: So, tell me if this statistic here, if you look at the data this way. Does this surprise you? Is this about what you would expect? This is January and February deaths by vaccination status, 58 percent of those who died from COVID were unvaccinated. A 29 percent were vaccinated, 15 percent were both vaccinated and boosted. That number when I saw, it seemed a little high to me. Is that because of the strength of the new variants or is that normal?

DR. RANNEY: So, that is folks who are super ill for a variety of reasons, who are immunosuppressed, who have other chronic conditions. You're never going to find a vaccine that prevents 100 percent of the deaths. What these numbers actually say to me, John, more than anything is the importance of that first booster, the third shot for all of us, who got our shots more than four months ago, and then the importance of the fourth shot for people who are over 65 or have multiple chronic conditions.


Unfortunately, the way that this virus is evolving, the vaccines do lose their ability to prevent the most severe outcomes for those who are at highest risk. So, if you are older than 65, please go get your fourth shot. And all of us should go and get our third shot.

KING: As we enter this new chapter and as we mark. And I hope all Americans take a moment to pause because we've all been affected by this, the one million deaths, which we will hit in the next 24 or 48, 72 hours. I want to go back through some of the legacy of this because unfortunately, politics is tied to the legacy, whatever chapter we're in, however many chapters to come.

Dr. Ranney, I just want to look. This is counties, we just took the top 25 counties right, to counties with the highest percentage of vaccination. 21 of them, one by Joe Biden, for one by Donald Trump. I hate to have to do this, but we've had to do this for two years. Politics and public health emergency, 21 counties highest vaccination rate one by President Biden.

Now you look at it this way, counties that are boosted, 23 of the top 25. One by Biden. There's just a clear red-blue divide, when it comes to getting vaccinated and getting boosted. And there's also this Dr. Ranney and it's just simply sad. The top 25 counties with the highest percentage of COVID deaths, 20 of them, one by Donald Trump because right, they are less vaccinated, less boosted, less serious about listening to public health officials. DR. RANNEY: So, there's two things. First is, as an ER doc who has been on the frontlines throughout this, who knows countless folks who have lost loved ones. This is an unbelievably somber and unnecessary milestone for us to be passing. But at the same time that we take a moment to grieve the lives that we have lost. We have to commit to doing better in the future.

As you mentioned, so many of those lives that have been lost are folks who did not get vaccinated. I don't like the red-blue divide. I actually think that this is the fault, not of who someone votes for, but rather of the policies in the state, the governmental state, public health infrastructure, and the messages that people are being fed. Our Americans deserve better. They deserve better messaging from trusted folks in their own communities. We can do better going forwards, but we've got to get into communities and get them to get their shots.

KING: Dr. Ranney, thank you for your time.

DR. RANNEY: Thank you.

KING: Thank you. Up next, call it a tense day at the office. All nine Supreme Court justices meet today for the first time since that astonishing leak of a draft opinion erasing abortion rights.




KING: Talk about an interesting day at the office. Supreme Court justices meeting today for the first time since a giant breach of the High Court's work rules. By that of course, we mean the leak of that draft opinion. In this case, a draft opinion that would make history by overturning Roe v Wade and returning the question of abortion rights back to each state.

With me to share their reporting and their insights, Julie Hirschfeld Davis, the New York Times, Leigh Ann Caldwell, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal's Tarini Parti, and our CNN legal analyst, Joan Biskupic.

OK. So, I'm grateful to see all you guys, but it's a lot more dramatic. When they're all sitting around the table today, the nine justices for the first time since this happened, what do we expect? Certainly, it's the kind of a thing that, you know, impacts, what about the next decision? Are we going to share that?

JOAN BISKUPIC, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I can't tell you how big this is for them. In fact, they were sitting around a table a little bit larger than this, but nine of them, you know, five of us here, nine all having to look each other in the face after that, and to wonder about recriminations, wonder about what else is coming out.

And one thing I want to say, political releases draft 98 pages, written by Samuel Alito, and they've since said that no other drafts have been circulated. But that leaves a very big question and from what we know about what happens behind the scenes with this court, and what's happened behind the scenes with other abortion decisions, is that there is plenty of other writing going on.

Chief Justice John Roberts, who tends to work on the side in - working confidentiality with maybe one or two other justices is no doubt, still trying to push some sort of alternative approach. Our reporting right before this draft broke was that he was not making serious headway, but he had not given up, and neither had the three liberals who do not want to see Roe completely rollback.

Meanwhile, the other justices who have tentatively signed on with Samuel Alito, are no doubt trying to get modifications in that. So, that process is all going on, John, while they're now under this microscope, it already was going to be incredibly difficult to do very delicate negotiations. And now, now with what's happened.

And let me, kind of, just say one other thing. 30 years ago, this exact week is when they were resolving Planned Parenthood versus Casey. You remember that so well, in 1992, when everybody thought that they were going to turn back Roe, and justices O'Connor, Kennedy and Souter have worked in secret until the end of May that year to produce a hedge on that. Now, those three justices are not like today's conservatives. So, there's more of a chance that Roe is going to be completely gutted. But I always say, it ain't over till it's over.

KING: Well, so that's the idea. Let's just put up on the screen here. You see the five conservatives on the screen, and then you see the four who have not signed on to this opinion, that include the chief justice appointed by Republican, the other three appointed by Democrats.

It's just the issue is, can you imagine going to the office to Joan's point. To Joan's point, the language is not final. It seems pretty clear that those five on the left are determined to wipe out Roe, but the language is not final, and you have a process, but you have a process that has been warped