Return to Transcripts main page

Inside Politics

Russian Mercenary Chief Threatens To Withdraw From Bakhmut; Ukrainian Official Slams "Lying" Russian Mercenary Group; CDC Director Rochelle Walensky Leaving Biden Admin; NYT: Mar-a-Lago Insider Cooperating With DOJ In Docs Case; WAPO: High-Powered Activist Directed Thousands To Ginni Thomas; Feinstein Says She Intends To Return To Senate. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired May 05, 2023 - 12:30   ET




JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Russian in-fighting, playing out in plain public view. The leader of a ruthless Russian mercenary group, now threatening to pull his troops out of Bakhmut, a key Ukrainian city on the eastern front. The Wagner Chief Yevgeny Prigozhin posting a series of gruesome videos on social media, claiming to be standing next to a mountain of dead mercenaries, blaming those deaths on Moscow's military leaders.

A warning, the video you're about to see is blurred, but it is still graphic and disturbing.


YEVGENY PRIGOZHIN, CHIEF, WAGNER PRIVATE MILITARY COMPANY (through translator): These men here who died today are Wagner, PMC. Their blood is still fresh. Do you think you are the masters of this life? Do you think you can dispose of their lives? Do you think because you have warehouses full of ammunition, that you have that right?


KING: Let's get the CNN's Nic Robertson. He's live on the ground for us in Eastern Ukraine.

Nic, that's quite remarkable. Essentially, Putin's mercenary chief in Ukraine, mad at Putin and the Kremlin.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes, not the first time, but it seems to be getting serious. He's taken target at Sergei Shoigu, the defense minister, Valery Gerasimov, the defense chief of staff. So these are really senior figures and he's calling them out by name.

He's saying that they're responsible for the deaths of 10,000 -- or as many as 10,000 of his fighters, and he'll hold them responsible. It is, if you will, a bizarre thing to happen because for so long, Prigozhin and Wagner have been sort of a behind the scenes extension of the Kremlin overseas doing their bidding.

But when it comes to Bakhmut here, they've been an absolutely indispensable bit of the Russian military taking that city. They've recruited people, fighters from jails. Sent thousands to their deaths, sort of just waves of fighters just out of prison handed kalashnikov and put in the front line.

But they've actually given the Kremlin gains. But here you have him now saying, you're not giving us enough ammo and we're going to pull out of the fight. This is a massive public rift. And I think one other detail that can't be ignored in this, Prigozhin has just hired the deputy defense minister who was only fired by the Kremlin last week, and he has hired this guy to be his deputy. What kind of message does that send? That just doesn't happen in normal scenarios in any government.

KING: Nic Robertson live for us on the ground in Eastern Ukraine in this key moment. Nic, thank you.

Let's get some more insights now from the Retired Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton. So Colonel, let's just bring up the map. Nic was making the point. We've been talking for months about Bakhmut and the Ukrainians. Remember, months ago, the advice of the Ukrainians was, get out.

The Russians are going to steamroll, you get out. Well, they have stayed and they have fought. If this is true, and let's add the giant, if, as Nic knows, the Wagner group says things just about every month, some kind of a threat or some kind of a demand, we will see what happens.

But if the Wagner group was to pull the Russian mercenaries out here, what would the impact be on the battlefield?

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: So this could be potentially quite significant, John, if it actually happens, because what happens with the, you know, with the Russians, what they're going to do is, if the Wagner group was withdrawn, they'll have to replace all the Russians they have in here with their own military forces, with their own army.


Do they have enough men to do that? Probably not. It could also potentially weaken everything that you have here along the Eastern and southern fronts. And so every time that the Russians go into these areas, they're going to have far fewer troops to deal with. And that could be a significant shortfall for the Russian Army and could potentially result in the Ukrainians being able to move this way. And perhaps, perhaps, take out more Russian territory.

KING: Now, if you look at the Ukrainian government again, they've been -- they've seen this movie before, if you will. They say there's no shell fairman. They say this 522 Rocket Lodge. So they essentially say that, you know, Prigozhin is making this up. It's some part of his politics with Putin, but that it's not true. Is there though -- do we have evidence? Have we seen on this battlefield proof that the Russians are having a hard time supplying their frontline forces, whether they're regular Russian forces or the Wagner group?

LEIGHTON: Most of the time what we've seen on the battlefield is really the result of supply chain issues within Russia itself. We know also that the Russians have ordered their factories to double production for certain munitions. So there is some kind of a shortage of weapons, but it may not be seen on the battlefield.

One thing that I'm suspicious of, John, is the Western estimates of the Russian stockpiles. I think they are -- the Russian stockpiles are far greater than what the West says right now.

KING: And the timing. He's -- Prigozhin says next week.


KING: Does that make any difference?

LEIGHTON: So there's a lot of symbology here because the 9th of May is the victory celebration for the victory in World War II 78 years ago, when the Russians defeated, Soviets defeated the Nazis in World War II.

The issue here with that timing is, you know, Prigozhin very specifically says that he doesn't want to dishonor Russia by moving before that date or on that date. But right after that date, he wants to move out and either let the Russian army come in or let Bakhmut fall back into Ukrainian hands.

KING: Again, credibility issues, but something important to watch on the battlefield next week.

Colonel, appreciate your time helping us understand that better.

And next for us, some new inside details of the Special Council Trump classified documents investigation. A new report says, get this, prosecutors are getting help from Mar-a-Lago insider.



KING: Some important news just in to CNN, a key pandemic figure is stepping down from the Biden administration. Let's get straight to the White House. CNN's Jeremy Diamond is there. Jeremy, what are we learning?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, John, we've just learned that CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, she is set to step down from that post at the end of June. President Biden announcing her departure in a statement in which he says, that Dr. Walensky has saved lives, with her steadfast and unwavering focus on the health of every American. He notes that she has led a complex organization through this once in a generation pandemic. He says he did -- she did so with honesty and integrity. And he also notes that he believes that Dr. Walensky has left CDC a, quote, stronger institution, better positioned to confront health threats and protect Americans. And he wishes her the best in her next chapter.

In a statement of her own, Dr. Walensky, says, "While at CDC, I had the true gift of meeting, working with and giving voice to thousands of people at the agency who work 24/7 to worry about health and public health so that the rest of the nation does not have to." And she says that she's never been prouder of anything in her career.

She has been in this role, John, for nearly two and a half years, steering this agency through a slew of public health challenges. Not only the coronavirus pandemic and the evolving variants, the rollout of vaccines and so much more, but also, of course, monkey pox and other public health challenges that this country has confronted in the last two and a half years.

Obviously, a role not without controversy, not without criticism from the outside, as a various public health guidance was rolled out during the pandemic. But now set to depart the CDC at the end of June, Dr. Rochelle Walensky. John?

KING: Personnel challenge for the administration going forward, Dr. Walensky to leave.

Jeremy Diamond, appreciate the hustle on that breaking news.

Now let's move on to a significant development of the special counsel's investigation into Donald Trump's handling of classified documents. The New York Times Today reporting federal prosecutors have obtained the confidential cooperation of a person who has worked for him at Mar-a-Lago.

The report ads investigators are looking into whether the former president ordered a box of sensitive material, moved out of a storage room. Let's break this down.

With us, CNN's Evan Perez and the Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Elie Honig. Evan, let me start with you. You were here just yesterday. We have talked about this and our team has done some great reporting on this --


KING: -- about the question, the surveillance video about aides (ph) being brought into the grand jury. Now, the New York Times saying essentially that somebody internally is cooperating with them What's the significance?

PEREZ: Well, you know, again, if it's -- the Times didn't seem to know much more than what they printed in that story. And, you know, it's been a bit of a parlor game inside Trump world about whether there is a cooperator. A lot of people believe that there is one. And there's a lot of suspicion as to who that is and what do they know.

There's also a group of them that also say that there is nobody cooperating and that they're just using this to pressure different people. So there is a lot of anxiety inside Trump world. The importance of a cooperator, though, is that, you know, if there is someone who has information, perhaps, you know, photographs of things that the prosecutors want to know about, that's a big deal for the president and, you know, what he may have to face when prosecutors finally make a decision.


A cooperator is a key to, you know, getting, you know, especially in Trump world, where as you know, John, you know, the former president has been very successful in batting away all of these investigations simply because people have stuck by him except for Michael Cohen. So we'll see whether this person has -- is significant enough to make a difference to this investigation.

KING: He also has a history of saying things that turn out to flatly be not true. He's not a witness here at the moment.

Elie Honig, continue that conversation from your perspective as a prosecutor and you're inside your war room, if you will, trying to build your case, then you have some videotape, maybe, you have this witness, that witness, and another witness. How important is it to have a cooperating witness, somebody you can circle back to after each new witness comes in, each new documentary piece of evidence comes in, as a sounding board, if you will?

ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it's vital, John. The number one way that federal prosecutors make cases is through cooperating witnesses. If you want to get inside, you need someone who's been on the inside. But I think the times is reporting while vital here leaves open a very important question of, what exactly do they mean by a person who's cooperating?

Because the way that term is used by federal prosecutors means somebody who has been charged with a crime, who's agreed to plead guilty and in exchange get a sentencing reduction. Now, that's one thing, but it also could mean just a person who's a bystander, who's a witness, who's providing information.

Those are two very different things. But either way, if you can get someone on the inside who can guide you through this, then they could be a linchpin of your case.

KING: Elie, before I let you go, I want to come back to another piece in The New York Times story is, interesting to say the least. "One of the previously unreported subpoenas to the Trump organization sought records pertaining to Mr. Trump's dealings with a Saudi-backed professional golf venture known as LIV Golf, which is holding tournaments at some of Mr. Trump's golf resorts."

What might this be about? I ask in the context of somebody who covered Bill Clinton back in the day and Ken Starr's investigation of a real estate transaction in western Arkansas called Whitewater, became Monica Lewinsky and more.

HONIG: Yes. So the question here is, are we looking at sort of the inverse of that, something that started with documents and will expand out into the financial universe? Or is this request to LIV Golf sort of confined to the ongoing Mar-a-Lago investigation? Are there documents that were found in Mar-a-Lago that might somehow relate to LIV Golf?

But you're right, John. I had the same reaction. Are we looking at a substantial expansion here, like we saw several times with Ken Starr? Or are we looking at some nuance, some important nuance that falls within what they're already looking at down in Florida?

PEREZ: For me, one of the most important parts of that story was the discussion of the surveillance tape. The time says it's possible that there's tape -- that there's parts of the tape or parts of surveillance video that might be missing, that is a big deal potentially, for the investigators. How did that happen? And was it intentional?

KING: Right. Because as you have said repeatedly, they're looking at how the documents are handled, but they're also looking at the obstruction question --

PEREZ: Which is the biggest part of this, right?

KING: The biggest --

PEREZ: The biggest problematic part of this, right?

KING: All right. We'll continue to bring you more as we get it.

Evan Perez, Elie Honig, grateful for that new reporting and insights.

And when we come back, a stunning new report. A prominent conservative activist paid Justice Clarence Thomas's wife big money and tried to keep it quiet. Plus, Senator Dianne Feinstein on defense. The 89-year- old Democrat says she's not holding the Senate back with her extended absence.



KING: $80,000 for just what exactly? Well, that's the big question today after the Washington Post uncovered payments from the godfather of the conservative judicial activist network, Leonard Leo, to the wife of sitting Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The documents show Leo instructing pollster Kellyanne Conway to ferry thousands to Ginni Thomas and curiously, to leave Thomas's name off any paperwork.

Our CNN Senior Supreme Court Analyst Joan Biskupic joins us now with the details. Joan, explain.

JOAN BISKUPIC, CNN SENIOR SUPREME COURT ANALYST: OK. Yes, that's right. You know, another day, another one of these instances, John, and they all add up collectively to show how much, you know, money and influence is flowing towards certain justices namely Clarence Thomas. He's been the subject of so many of these issues that raise questions about whether, why wealthy people are directing so much money to Clarence Thomas and what are they getting in return, how it could be in influencing cases.

Now you referred to Leonard Leo, who arguably has had more effect on this Supreme Court than anyone outside the White House and the Congress, he helped hand choose the three Trump appointees. And this is what he said to the Washington Post report. "The work Ginni did here did not involve anything connected with either the court's business or other legal issues. And knowing how disrespectful, malicious, and gossipy people can be, I have always tried to protect the privacy of Justice Thomas and Ginni."

That's what he said. But let me just tell you, John, that, you know, privacy, secrecy? No. This is all showing how difficult it is for anybody in Congress who wants a code of ethics, any watchdog groups, any media to get a handle on the money that justices have been accepting, either as gifts and travel and, you know, money for education that Justice Clarence Thomas took from Harlan Crow to help with his own travels, but then also to help his a young grandnephew who was living with him.


Those were, you know, earlier reports this week. But this one just adds to that also making us wonder, why are these people giving so much money to the justices? What are they expect in return? And how could that possibly be affecting cases that go to, you know, this is the nation's highest court, this court decides the law for all of us, John. And this just points up why so many people think the justices should have a formal code of conduct.

KING: Amen. A full transparency, disclose where your income comes from, and people can debate whether they think that's right or wrong, but at least it's out there for the public to see.

Joan, appreciate those important insights.

Now to some aggressive pushback direct from Senator Diane Feinstein after more Democrats say her legacy is not more important than getting things done. Feinstein in a new statement says she intends to return to the Senate from which she's been absent for a few months now. And she says her lengthy hiatus from the Hill has not cost Democrats anything when it comes to confirming judicial nominees. Feinstein says quote, "There has been no slowdown."

Our great reporters are back at the table with us. Technically correct in that the committee had passed a number of nominees and they're on the floor and they are being dealt with on the floor. But technically incorrect in the sense that the committee has not been able to get a new line of nominees to the floor because she's been gone.

The question about that statement where she pushes back essentially says, go away. It doesn't say when she's coming back. JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, CONGRESSIONAL EDITOR, THE NEW YORK TIMES: It does not. And we've heard whispers that it might be next week. I haven't heard anyone say that or commit to that. And it certainly seems like this has been a very long illness for her. So it -- they're not committing to any timetable.

Of course, it's important for her, I think, to push back on this narrative that she's harming her party and being gone, and that this is somehow undermining the President's agenda and their agenda. But it's true, like you said, they could be processing more nominees now if they had her present in the committee to vote for them and to discharge them out of the committee. And that is one of the only things that Democrats really can do in the Senate, given that the majority is so small right now and that Republicans hold the House.

So yes, technically correct that she hasn't blocked anything from happening yet, but if they're going to get to that business, then she's going to have to come back. And if she can't come back in the short term, that re-raises the question of, what are they actually doing?

KING: And so I guess the question is how do we define short term?

DAVIS: Right.

KING: And that Chuck Schumer had some notes earlier this week and he didn't say it at one press conference, said he did say it the next thing, he thought it would be next week. They thought she'd be back as early next week.

The New York Times editorial board, joining a number of progressives, who have said this, "Her absence is a failure that deprives American voters of full representation on legislation and appointments that will affect them for decades to come. Mr. Schumer should turn up the public pressure on her to return or resign, setting aside the antique Senate gentility that can hobble common-sense decision making there."

Is the senator prepared to do that, Senator Schumer?

MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: No, not right now. They are standing behind her at this moment, anyway. They tried to move her off the committee temporarily. That didn't work. We'll see how long she actually is out.

I think, a, this wouldn't be a big issue if they didn't have such slim margins in the Senate and if she didn't sit on the judiciary committee. But the other element here is there's a transparency issue. I think people can be understanding and forgiving when it comes to health issues.

John Fetterman, for example, he was out because of mental health, but he was very transparent about it after being not so transparent on the campaign trail about his stroke. But we just have no information. We have no real sense. We're going off of notes that were photographed from Chuck Schumer to try to read the tea leaves about when she's coming back, and I see -- I think that is also driving some of the anxiety right now.

KING: The President the other day nominated several more candidates for federal judgeships. I took that as the White House saying, we need to move on. So please, respectfully, please, let's make a decision one way or the other.


KING: Right.

OLORUNNIPA: They'll never try to nudge her in any public way, in part because the President has his own issues with age and the idea that, you know, at a certain age, you just step to the side. And so, they'll never do that in public. But there is angst and as we talked about the transparency as a question that they are also feeling at the White House.

They also feel like they don't have transparency into her condition and how long it'll take for her to get back. So I do think that'll be something that they'll be watching very closely.

KING: Is this a question to her Senate staff, or is this a question to her family at this point?

DAVIS: You know, I -- when the Times reported on her ill health before she came down with shingles and how she's had cognitive issues and she's, you know, really showing her age in the last few years and was often confused in the Senate and not seeming to know where she was. And then at other times she was fine.

We found that, you know, people in her family had tried to talk to her and she has really dug in, in a lot of key moments, and it seems like this is one of them to say, you know, I'm Dianne Feinstein. I'm a -- she was -- she's a groundbreaking woman in politics and she has really resisted the idea that she needs to step aside.

And it is true that many men who came before her, who had profound illnesses and incapacities, served in the Senate, and nobody asked any questions about the fact that they were often gone. They often seem like they didn't know where they were, their staff was, you know, steering them around. Times have really changed.

And that doesn't mean that the questions aren't -- and the pressure is misplaced, but it makes it, I think, more difficult for the senator to accept.

KING: So another one of the big issues, I think that will be front and center next week. You have the meeting on the debt ceiling. You have the question of whether Senator Feinstein returns. You have more.

Big week ahead for us after a big week in the rearview mirror. And thank you for your time today and throughout this week for INSIDE POLITICS. Stay with us. Big news day. "CNN NEWS CENTRAL" starts right now.