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Inside Politics

Zelenskyy Dismisses Top Military Commander; Russian Artillery Rains Down On Ukrainian Front; CIA Director: "Confident" China Thinking About Arming Russia; Biden: No F-16 Fighter Jets To Zelenskyy, For Now; DeSantis Inches Closer To Possible 2024 Announcement; Trump Not Invited To GOP Group's Retreat For 2024 Hopefuls; Trump On Backing Eventual GOP Nominee: "It Would Depend"; U.S. Energy Dept Reports COVID Likely Leaked From China Lab; China Rejects Report COVID Leaked From Wuhan Lab. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired February 27, 2023 - 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. Air raid sirens ring through the Ukrainian night, as Russia loves artillery, drones and missiles at every corner of the country. That as the United States delivers a public warning to China, do not dispatch weapons to Vladimir Putin.

Plus, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee thinks she can get Donald Trump to put pen to paper and say yes to supporting the party's 2024 nominee, even if it's not him. And new intelligence pushes the energy department to change its view of how the COVID pandemic began. The agency now believes the virus leaked from a Chinese lab.

Up first for us this hour though, turnover and triage in Ukraine. Today, a shakeup at the top of Ukraine's military ranks. President Zelenskyy dismissing the commander of joint force operations. Mr. Zelenskyy did not explain why or why now, as this leadership shuffle collides with a new Russian offensive.

Overnight, a staggered drone assault, 14 Iranian made unmanned attack aircraft buzzing over Kyiv. Ukrainian air defenses say, they shot down 11 of those drones. In Ukraine south and east, Moscow trying to fracture the line, Russia launching 81 artillery strikes over the last 24 hours. Russia hopes the bombing frenzy chokes off Ukrainian forces in and around Bakhmut and breaks the battlefield stalemate.

Let's begin in eastern Ukraine, with CNN's Alex Marquardt with the latest from the battlefield. Alex?

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, absolutely right, a pivotal moment in this fight. As we focus on the fighting in the east, we have also been reminded that Russia continues to try to bomb cities all across Ukraine with drones. Overnight, at least two people killed in the city of Khmelnytskyi. That is in southwestern Ukraine very far from the frontline. They were both first responders who were responding to an earlier strike by a drone, a so-called double tap attack.

Then there were some 11 drones that were sent over Kyiv, nine of those shot down. There were sent in at least two waves, and the air raid sirens in Kyiv ringing out for some five and a half hours. Reminder that even as life continues relatively normally, in many cities all across the country, there is the constant possibility that those cities may be attacked by drone.

But the fierce is fighting, John, is taking place in the eastern part of the country, particularly around the eastern city of Bakhmut. It does appear that Russian forces primarily from the Wagner mercenary group are making some progress. They claim that they have taken several villages north of the city as they try to encircle it.

Ukrainian forces say that they are standing their ground that they are repelling attacks. We have not heard any talk from the highest levels of the Ukrainian government about surrendering the city, but President Zelenskyy softening his tone on that saying, that he will not defend it at all costs.

We're watching that very carefully. At the same time, as this general whose area of command was much of the east, Major General Edward Moskaliov was dismissed by a presidential decree with little explanation from President Zelenskyy's office, John?

KING: Alex Marquardt, live for us on the ground in Ukraine. Alex, thanks for that update. Let's get some important perspective now from the former Deputy Director of National Intelligence, Beth Sanner. Beth, to the point of this shake up, no explanation. You relieved from duty, a top official in the military command that has been a purge and anti-corruption purge of late. But no explanation here. Does it come as a surprise? What does it tell you? At a time when you know, Russia is picking up the pace of its attacks?

BETH SANNER, FORMER DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Well, there hasn't been much turnover actually in the Ukrainian command structure. And so, you know, I think these things happen. It could be one of two things, either it's part of the corruption probe or its dissatisfaction in some way or inability to carry out the orders or the offensive that's planned. So, we will find out soon enough about that. But I think that, you know, making a hard decision in wartime, it's actually maybe a good sign.

KING: And so, you have over the weekend, something quite remarkable. The CIA director publicly talking about a warning to China, talking about what his agency with the intelligence community is learned about China. Connect the dots for me. You just heard in the lead up, Iranian made drones over Kyiv. And now Bill Burns, the CIA Director saying, we have intelligence in China, don't do it.



BILL BURNS, CIA DIRECTOR: We're confident that Chinese leadership is considering the provision of lethal equipment. We also don't see that a final decision has been made yet.


KING: It takes a process to even say that some people say well he didn't say much, but for the CIA director to say that publicly takes a process, why?

SANNER: This is part of a strategy. It's like an actual policy and strategy by this White House to use intelligence to declassify it, to release it publicly in order to affect the decisions of adversaries. So, in this case, it's designed to deter China. It's also designed to make sure that the Europeans are on side about the threat that China poses and the threat that China and Russia pose together.

So, I think it's going to be very effective when Biden said this weekend, look, I don't really think that they're going to follow through with this. I agree with that. Because now that it's out there and it's called, it makes it really hard for China to do this because they need the U.S. and Europe economically.

KING: We have talked from the beginning of the Ukraine conflict, not only about how does Putin process this, and NATO's resolve, and the U.S. resolve, but how does President Xi process this? Nick Burns, the ambassador to China sent an event earlier today, that he thinks she is surprised by the strength of the world's democracies. Is that right?

SANNER: Yes, I think so. I think so. And I think that this is the reason we've seen a shift in China's approach toward the rest of the world instead of the wolf warriors, these diplomats that go to European capitals, or in European capitals, and are really, really super tough. Instead, we're seeing a charm offensive, trying to put things back together because they need that trade as China tries to recover from the COVID crisis.

KING: So, the United States is publicly warning China, there'll be consequences, don't do it. Do not send lethal weapons to Vladimir Putin. One of the Chinese responses. Number one, they say we weren't planning that which, you know, take that with a grain of salt, I guess. But number two, they say, well, you're hypocrites. You're sending weapons into the battlefield.

One of the big questions right now is will the west, will the United States or others send fighter jets? President Biden was asked about this on Friday, and he says, not now.


DAVID MUIR, ANCHOR ABC WORLD NEWS TONIGHT: You don't think he needs F- 16s now?

JOE BIDEN, 46TH U.S. PRESIDENT: No, he doesn't need F-16s now. There is no basis upon which there is a rationale, according to our military now to provide F-16s.

MUIR: But you're not ruling it out?

PRES. BIDEN: I am ruling it out for now.


KING: Does that hold, we have seen month by month in this now in its second year beginning the second year the conflict, a change in U.S. posture and NATO posture, other western allies' posture about the muscular nature of the weapons they will give. Why no F-16s?

SANNER: So, when Jake Sullivan and others say that they don't need the F-16s now, that what they really need is more artillery and more of what we've been giving them. I agree with that. But I also agree with generals who say the phrases, you have to be prepared, not just to fight the war of today, but the war of tomorrow. And this is where the critics I think are also right, is you've got to put everything in place to get those F-16s there when you're ready to do so.

KING: And so, we talked a minute ago about China, and its local politics, internal politics. What about Russian internal politics? Vladimir Putin gives this interview over the weekend. Listen to this. Number one, it's dated, if you will, it's a fantasy of how the world is today. But what does he mean by this?


PRES. VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIA: They have one goal to break up the former Soviet Union and its main part, the Russian Federation. And then perhaps, they will accept us in the so-called family of civilized peoples, but only separately, each part separately. Moreover, in today's conditions, when all the leading NATO countries have declared their main goal to inflict a strategic defeat on us, so that our people suffer. How can we under these conditions not take into account their nuclear potential?


KING: Two things jumped out at me. You're way smarter than me when it comes to how he thinks, so help me. Number one, the nuclear potentials. He waves that flag when he feels it's in his interest that they have nuclear weapons, and they don't like us.

But they have one goal to break up the former Soviet Union and its main part. The Soviet Union has been broken up for a long time, at least to use the word former. What is he trying to communicate to the people at home there?

SANNER: He's trying to communicate what the Russians call strategic depth, which means that he's got this alliance of former Soviet states, including like Central Asia, that he has under his thumb, and he needs to keep those.

And right now, this week, Secretary Blinken is headed to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, those core parts of this former Soviet Union that were trying to break away. So, yes, it's kind of true. But that doesn't mean that that's not the way the world should work.

KING: Interesting point. Beth Sanner, grateful that you're here for us. Appreciate it that much. Up next for us, new 2024 Republican rumblings. Ron DeSantis launching a book tour. And guess why, Donald Trump has no problem promising to support the Republican nominee.



KING: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, inching closer to a 2024 presidential campaign.

(Video Playing)

KING: That what you just saw, they're part of a polished nearly two- minute video produced by the governor's political organization. It was added to his YouTube page as DeSantis now begins a promotional tour for his new book. A formal campaign announcement though, still down the road a bit.


With me to share their reporting and their insights, Marianna Sotomayor of The Washington Post, CNN's Dana Bash, and Francesca Chambers of USA Today. It is interesting as others get into the race, DeSantis feels he has the luxury of doing a book tour first and then getting in, because if you look at the early polling, emphasis on early polling, he's up there with Donald Trump. Everybody else is way, way, way, way, way behind.

MARIANNA SOTOMAYOR, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Yes. He's definitely waiting the waters and he can afford to do that. Right now, there's still time, even though we are in this world of very early political races. The interesting thing about DeSantis is there are a number of Republicans, including on Capitol Hill, who very much applauded the fact that he really blew it out of the water in his governor's reelection race.

But the thing is, as we saw in the midterms, and this is going to be interesting thing as he's going around the country, Pennsylvania, Michigan, states that really were pivotal. There are lot of Republican voters actually said, you know what, these people were running like Trump, who are just focusing on the culture wars, that is a staple of DeSantis. As governor, I have no idea yet, if that's going to resonate in those places that really do elect a president at the end of the day.

KING: I think that's a fascinating point in the sense that presidential primaries tend to litigate, and they're supposed to settle differences when a party is debating who are we? What are we for? DeSantis is interesting, he's just signing into law. Now there's new law in Florida that allows him essentially to control Disney to have some significant control over Disney.

And listen to this in an interview with Mark Levin on Fox over the weekend. Again, he's promoting his new book, and he's talking about using government power against those who do things with whom you disagree. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GON. RON DESANTIS (R) FLORIDA: If Wall Street banks will not give a loan to someone, say in the firearm industry, that's effectively changing gun rights in America, not getting any votes to do that. They're not winning any elections to do that, but they're bringing power to bear in a way that does affect public policy.


KING: Help me with the intellectual consistency question. Republican say, if you are a baker, and you don't want to sell a cake, or provide services to a gay wedding, that should be your right as an individual. Ron Desantis there is saying, if a bank decides it will not lend money to somebody with whom they have some disagreement, the government can step in and do something about it.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It's such a fascinating dichotomy/contradiction that we're going to see play out as part of the Republican nominating process. And that is, what does being a conservative actually mean? Does it mean the historic definition, which is keep government out of your life, maybe more leaning towards the libertarian?

That is certainly what you're going to hear and see some of the candidates say, and you're going to hear them say that they're the true conservative, not the DeSantis wing, or DeSantis himself, who says I'm going to enforce the conservative ideals by using the government. It's absolutely, as I said fascinating, I asked Ronna McDaniel, the RNC chair to sort of try to litigate that, of course, she wouldn't, because we do see that coming down the pike as one of the key questions.

KING: You see it coming down the pike. The Club for Growth is one of the conservative groups that are calling people together, essentially cattle calls, they bring donors in, they bring potential candidates in. So, people can try to impress to raise money. The Club for Growth guests includes Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, Governor DeSantis, the Mike Pompeo, a Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, Senator Tim Scott.

I mean, they're again, you have this debate about it used to be Ronald Reagan's Republican Party, to your point was keep the government out as much as possible, free market, don't tell the private business what to do, let them do their thing and have basic regulation. We're going to have a fascinating debate over DeSantis, who a lot of Trump voters will like that. Use your power to punish your enemies or punish those who cross you. But it's not free market conservatism.

FRANCESCA CHAMBERS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, USA TODAY: But also notice who was left off that list, which is Donald Trump, the Club for Growth tells me he was not invited to this contract. So, it does, again, show you how there are many Republicans who want to keep Trump's ideals, but they want to move on from Trumpism.

But to your point Dana, but what does that even mean at this point, several of the Republican candidates or wouldn't be candidates have really struggled to define in the last couple of weeks, how their policies would be different than Trump, how they would actually be different than Donald Trump.

So, I do think that that is going to be a key questions. That's facing many of these candidates is, beyond January 6th, like what would you actually do that's different than Donald Trump and why you versus someone else on the stage?

KING: When we get them on a stage. Thank you for the use of that term. August, the first planned Republican presidential primary debate. You mentioned your conversation with Chairwoman McDaniel. She was appointed by Trump. She's viewed by many in the party who don't like Trump, is too close to Trump.

She's clearly deciding to create some space or tried to create some space with Donald Trump including the idea. She says if you want to be on the stage of a party sponsored debate, you should sign a pledge promising that if you're not the nominee, you will support who is.


RONNA MCDANIEL, RNC CHAIRWOMAN: If you're going to be on the Republican National Committee debate stage, asking voters to support you, you should say I'm going to support the voters and who they choose as the nominee. As RNC chair, if I said I wouldn't support the Republican nominee, I would be removed from office. Anybody getting on the Republican National Committee debate stage, should be able to say I will support the will of the voters and the eventual nominee of our party.



KING: It worked, at least to a degree in the sense that within an hour or so after that interview, Trump's campaign said, of course, released the statement said, of course, will support the Republican nominee because it will be me. You know, so but in a way, she at least got him halfway there.

BASH: Yes. Obviously, Donald Trump, and the question about him and his loyalty is one of the factors in the equation. It hasn't been tested because the first time Republicans sign this was in 2016, because of the consternation about Donald Trump as the potential nominee, wasn't tested because he became the nominee. Now, it's so multifaceted, because it's not just about Donald Trump and who he support.

It's even more importantly, the other candidates, especially those who have said very explicitly, Donald Trump should not be president. Again, he is not qualified. He tried to overthrow the government. How can I sign a pledge supporting his candidacy? You're asking me to put party over country and I don't feel comfortable with that. That is one of the open questions about what those candidates will do.

KING: And so, do they want people to actually sign, pen to paper, all of them? CHAMBERS: And some Republicans tell me that they don't see this as enforceable. Sure, you sign it. You get on the debate stage. But after that, if you're not the nominee, what's to actually make you support Donald Trump. Of course, your own truthfulness.

Your own conscious, of course, is what one of the Republican potential candidates Cassidy Hutchinson told me is, is that you have your own word there that you have to look at, but they see it as a potential impediment for getting more people on the debate stage is having to write a "blank check" as he called it to support the eventual nominee.

KING: So, I'm trying to think who would be in the group of people who would not sign such a thing, Liz Cheney, maybe Larry Hogan, who might run anyone else.

BASH: Chris Christie.

KING: Chris Christie. We'll see how that list grows. Up next for us. A new report says a lab leak in China likely lead to the COVID-19 pandemic. This latest assessment, adding to the global debate of how and where the virus originated.




KING: A new report on the cause, potential cause anyway of the COVID- 19 pandemic. The virus most likely leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China. That conclusion from the energy department, although sources say the agency has quote, low confidence in that classified assessment. The intelligence community remains divided over the origins of Coronavirus.

Let's bring in CNN's David Culver, who as you might remember, was in Wuhan back in January 2020. David, so the energy department says, probably isn't that essentially the thing here?

DAVID CULVER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Probably, and it's probably that it accidentally leaked from a lab. They don't go into much more detail beyond that, John. And I think a lot of folks want to know what that new intelligence is that led them to that low competence assessment. The low confidence is how they characterize it. They still are leaning towards that direction, meaning they just feel that they likely fall short of having enough definitive evidence to conclude that in a more robust manner.

And as you point out, there's a lot of division over this, particularly within the U.S. intelligence community, which if you go back to 2021, President Biden had put forward a 90-day review from the intelligence community, trying to get to the bottom of figuring out the origin of COVID-19. And really, they fell short of any sort of unanimous decision that would suggest it came from one place over another. And really, we look at the lab leak theory as one location that perhaps this is where it started, and the other is natural, and that would be jumping from animals to humans. It's interesting, having been in Wuhan, as you point out, we've been three times since the start of the outbreak. And one of the things that you can't miss is the amount of security that you encounter when you try to get to places like the Huanan seafood market.

That's the place that was deemed the original epicenter of the outbreak where they saw the first number of cases really linked to or if you try to go to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, for example. You will notice it is more heavily secured than perhaps most buildings here in Washington D.C. You have a lot of guards out front and it's heavily fortified. That's the BSL-4, that biosafety-4 lab.

We also went to the Wuhan CDC. Now, I mentioned that because that has gotten an increasing amount of attention, John, in recent months, and perhaps that is where a lot of the focus will be going forward because it's only two blocks from that market, where those first cases were detected. John?

KING: David Culver, important reporting. Appreciate the insights there. Thank you. And let's continue the conversation. Dr. Megan Ranney joins us. She's Deputy Dean of Brown University School of Public Health, and back with us Beth Sanner, the former Deputy Director of National Intelligence.

Dr. Ranney, let me start with you. After this came out over the weekend, the Chinese foreign affairs ministry are saying this, China has always actively supported and participated in global science based origin tracing, relevant parties should stop stir frying the argument of laboratory leaks, stop vilifying China and stop politicizing the issue.

So that tells you, China's done with this. It believes at least in its view, it's answered the questions, no more. From a public health perspective, which is really planning for the next threat. Does it matter if it was a lab leak or human transmission from the market?

DR. MEGAN RANNEY, DEPUTY DEAN OF BROWN UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH: It matters because it can inform our steps for the prevention of the next pandemic. But we're not going to know likely perhaps ever, but certainly not in time for things like H5N1, which we're already facing down.