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Ominous New Signs Russia is Preparing for Ukraine Invasion; Senate Dems to Forge Debate on Voting Rights Bills; Virginia Schools Defy New Governor's Ban on Mask Mandates; Rams Beat Cardinals in Wild Card Weekend; NBA Star Says Peng Shuai in 'Good Condition'. Aired 6- 6:30a ET

Aired January 18, 2022 - 06:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to our viewers here in the United States and all around the world. It is Tuesday, January 18. I'm John Berman. Brianna is working nights this week. Kasie Hunt is back with me.



BERMAN: Great to have you back for day two.

HUNT: It's great to be here.

BERMAN: We have a lot of news this morning. Developing overnight, reports that Vladimir Putin is making a move in Ukraine. That much we know. But why he's doing it, that's the question and the major concern in western capitals this morning.

It appears the Russian leader is emptying out his embassy in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. According to "The New York Times," dozens of people, mostly the children and wives of Russian diplomats, have been boarding buses for a 15-hour ride back to Moscow.

"The Times" also reports diplomats of two other Russian consulates in Ukraine have been told to prepare to leave. "The Times" report it's being done so overtly, so out in the open, it seems designed to show the world it is happening.

U.S. intelligence officials are now trying to determine whether the thinning of the embassies is propaganda, or maybe a precursor to some kind of invasion.

HUNT: Meanwhile seven U.S. senators met on Monday with Ukraine's President Zelensky. The bipartisan delegation reaffirming America's commitment to Ukraine as tens of thousands of Russian troops stand ready to invade along the country's border.

Zelensky telling the senators, It's very important for Ukraine that you are with us today.

CNN's Matthew Chance, live from Kyiv with our top story. Matthew, let's start with Russia's latest moves, including sniper drills. What's the latest?


HUNT: All right. I did just --

CHANCE: -- tens of thousands of troops that have gathered --

Can you not hear me?

BERMAN: Matthew is talking. Let's listen to Matthew.

CHANCE: Yes. So Kasie, to answer that question, Russia has got tens of thousands of forces that it's been gathering near the border of Ukraine. There are sniper drills that have recently been announced. There are tank drills. There are infantry drills.

All of that sending a very powerful message that at any moment, if the Kremlin gives the order, Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin says so, they can go in; they can invade Ukraine once again.

Obviously, that's created an incredibly tense situation here in Kyiv, with all sorts of speculation about Russian moves. That issue you mentioned about the evacuation of the Russian embassy here in the Ukrainian capital. There's actually no confirmation of that here.

The Ukrainian foreign ministry, who I've spoken to within the past few minutes, say that they've not had any information from the Russians that this is actually taking place.

But obviously, there is a sort of febrile, feverish atmosphere here, as everybody is bracing themselves in this country for the possibility of some kind of Russian incursion, some kind of Russian attack.

Now, Ukraine has been getting assurances, most recently from a group of seven bipartisan senators that came over from Washington to offer their support for Ukraine; look at taking back recommendations to boost sanctions against Russia and boost military aid for this country as it faces the Russian threat.

Also, NATO has been deepening its relationship with Ukraine, as well, saying it's going to be passing on technological information and data to help it ward off cyberattacks of the kind that Ukraine suffered, possibly at the hands of Russia, just a few days ago.

And then finally, Britain has announced that it will be supplying the Ukrainian military with short-range anti-tank weaponry.

So everybody at this stage, lots of actors sort of in -- on the western stage and the international stage are now gathering behind Ukraine to show it some kind of diplomatic support and material support, as well, as it continues to face this Russian threat.

HUNT: Matthew --

CHANCE: Kasie, back to you.

BERMAN: Matthew, I'm sorry. If you're still with us, I'm seeing reports this morning that the Ukrainians believe that the Russians are training occupation forces, forces that could occupy Ukraine after some kind of invasion. With that level of belief or that level of provocation, what are the Ukrainians doing for, perhaps, a corresponding move?

CHANCE: Yes. I mean, you're right. Look, Ukrainian intelligence this morning put out a statement saying that they've observed that the rebels in Eastern Ukraine, who are controlled and backed by Russia, are actively recruiting civilians from that area into their ranks and putting them on sort of contracts. They're also training people. Those -- those rebels training them up, those volunteers, to fight, potentially, against the Ukrainian forces.

You know, it's a good question about what Ukraine is doing in response. Obviously, they have a big standing army. They've got their front lines, which are on a sort of state of high alert near those rebel-controlled areas and near the Russian border, as well.

They've also started the process of calling up civilian volunteers around this country, and the process of sort of training them up, potentially with a view to giving them weapons. They haven't done yet. And there's some criticism in the country that the Ukrainian government is not moving quick enough to tackle and to prepare for this -- for this Russian potential invasion.

But nevertheless, there are sort of measures that are under way -- John.

BERMAN: Matthew Chance, thank you very much for that. Please keep us posted.

You know, the thing is, with this level of rhetoric and this level of apparent provocation, I just don't know how long this can be sustained. It seems unsustainable for the long duration.

HUNT: Well, I think if you look through "The Times" story that was written by David Sanger, who we're going to speak to later on in the program, as well, it sort of sets up this idea that Vladimir Putin may not yet know exactly what he wants to do. So there is an element of let's drag it out a little bit, let's see how this plays out.

But clearly, they are setting the stage for something very, very provocative. And they've already said, Hey, diplomacy has failed here. We don't want to do that anymore. We're waiting on that letter, obviously, that's going back and forth between, potentially, Putin and the White House. But the long-term goal really seems to be to break the spine of NATO. That seems to be what Putin is looking for here. And you know, it seems like he's willing to go pretty far to get it.

BERMAN: And every day, it's a dangerous situation. They've created such an environment of danger, anything could happen.

HUNT: Yes.

BERMAN: This morning, Senate Democrats begin the formal floor process of trying to pass voting rights legislation, a centerpiece of President Biden's agenda. And unless there was some gargantuan secret development in the last few minutes, this is not going to pass. This is not going to pass. But they are going through the motions.


First, in a few hours, debate begins on legislation that combines two bills already passed by the House: the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. This would allow the Senate to avoid a -- well, this would allow the Senate to put the bill on the floor directly.

HUNT: And at this point, of course, it is largely theater, as John just underscored. And that's because of two people that we've talked quite a bit about: Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. They both say that they don't support changing Senate rules that would let them pass this bill with only Democrats. And that makes this effort basically loomed from the start.

Lauren Fox is on Capitol Hill for us.

Lauren, great to see you, as always. Walk us through why and how the stage is set for this to unfold today and what Democrats hope to accomplish. What does Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, hope to accomplish, considering we know that Manchin and Sinema aren't moving?

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kasie, that's the million-dollar question up here, in part because this really is going to, once again, direct attention to the fact that the Democratic Party is really divided on this issue of whether or not to change the Senate rules.

Debate is going to kick off today over these bills that passed out of the House of Representatives, but we don't expect a vote until tomorrow at the earliest.

And once again, when that vote takes place, there aren't going to be ten Republican senators to support it. That means that Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, will then have to move to change the Senate rules.

However, this is the moment that we expect both Senator Sinema and Senators Manchin are not going to vote with the rest of their party. You need all 50 Senate Democrats to change the Senate rules. This is the moment that the president, that the majority leader, the

advocacy groups, have argued is necessary in order to preserve democracy, and, yet, both Sinema and Manchin remain unmoved by those arguments.

Now, there's going to be another opportunity. Tonight, at 5 p.m. the Senate Democratic Caucus is going to meet once again, and Chuck Schumer is going to try to make the argument again to his caucus, that this is the moment to change the Senate rules. This is the moment to move.

Again, we just don't expect that that is going to change the minds of Sinema or Manchin -- Kasie.

HUNT: And especially with Senator Manchin's relationships with the White House seem to be a little bit icy in the wake of his decision to essentially sink Big Back [SIC] -- Build Back Better. It doesn't look good for Democrats.

Lauren Fox, thanks very much, as always, for your reporting.

BERMAN: Let's bring in CNN senior political analyst and senior editor at "The Atlantic," Ron Brownstein.

Professor, you just wrote an article, a piece titled, "How Manchin and Sinema Completed a Conservative Vision." It's going to play out before our eyes today. What do you mean?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. Well, look, I mean, it's a mistake to believe that Republican efforts to make it harder to vote just arose with Donald Trump and the big lie.

In fact, if you look at the chief justice, John Roberts, at the Supreme Court, he has been on a four-decade quest to roll back federal protections of -- federal guarantees of voter protections, all the way back to the Reagan administration, when he served as a young assistant in the Justice Department and opposed the bipartisan -- a key element of the bipartisan extension of the Voting Rights Act in 1992. He wrote that it should be very hard for the federal government to intervene in what states do, because it's the most intrusive interference imaginable, his phrase, in state prerogatives.

Fast forward to 2014. The Supreme Court, on a party-line 5-4 basis, with all the Republican-appointed justices outvoting all of the Democratic-appointed justices, passes the Shelby County rule, undermining Section 5, the preclearance provision, the centerpiece of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

That bangs the gong, John, for what happens in the states, both in terms of the states that were directly covered and in other Republican-controlled states, by signaling the Supreme Court wasn't going to get in their way.

And we saw, initially, more voting purges, more poll closings, more voter I.D. laws. And after 2020, this wave of 19 states that have passed 34 laws making it harder to vote, all on a party-line, majority rules basis. There is no state that has a filibuster.

So all of the efforts to make it tougher to vote have unfolded on party-line, majority-rule votes. But because of Manchin and Sinema's refusal to exempt voting rights from the filibuster, the one place where you now need a bipartisan supermajority to protect voting rights is the Senate.

And that structural imbalance is the wall that Democrats are going to run into today and, in fact, is the wall that makes it very difficult to imagine that there will be meaningful constraint on what states do throughout this decade, to make it tougher to vote, tightening the tourniquet.


HUNT: So Ron, you've -- I mean, you've covered our politics and been such an astute watcher of it for so long. And you've looked at demographics and how those have shifted for Republicans, for Democrats, throughout.

Why do you think Democrats are doing this right now? I mean, in some ways, I wonder, why didn't President Biden do this right out of the gate, when maybe he would have had a little bit more leverage to convince Manchin and Sinema to tweak the rules of the Senate, when he was first freshly elected?

And now, we're still pretty far out from midterm elections. This obviously is an issue that could potentially animate the Democratic base. But it's January. What's your sense of why now, and why do it this way?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, I think it's very clear that the president decided that he was going to prioritize the economic parts of the agenda, the Build Back Better first, and he didn't -- and he knew that was always going to be a tough lift to get Manchin and Sinema. So he didn't want to roil the waters by initially also having a big argument with them over ending the filibuster or exempting voting rights from -- from the filibuster.

I think even the president has second-guessed that decision in recent weeks. Kasie, it's not clear to me that, if they had done this earlier, that it would turn out any differently.

HUNT: That's fair.

BROWNSTEIN: Because Manchin and Sinema are centering so much of their political identity on being the Democrats who say no to other Democrats.

But I will say that I think that they are the last two Senate Democrats who will oppose ending the filibuster, at least for voting rights. I mean, I can't see anyone winning a Democratic primary and getting elected to the Senate without supporting that position.

Given what I just said, that at every other step in the process, we have a partisan majority rules kind of decides. You know, whether it's the state legislatures, where on the most -- last summer, I did a piece with the Brennan Center at NYU, and we looked at the most restrictive bills that have passed in the states.

Just three of 806 state legislative Democrats who have voted on them have voted yes. Just 19 of 1,600 Republicans have voted no. They've been total party-line affairs. And yet, all of them have been able to pass, because there is no filibuster in the states. It's only at the Senate where you see this requirement.

And I do think that Manchin and Sinema are probably the last two Democratic senators who will -- who will insist that -- insist on, in effect, giving Republicans in the Senate a veto on what Republicans in the states and Republicans on the Supreme Court have already done.

BERMAN: Ron Brownstein, Kasie said you've been following this for decades, which I think is remarkable, because you are so incredibly young. You're so young. It's almost physically impossible that you've been doing this as long as you have.


BERMAN: We appreciate you being with us this morning.

BROWNSTEIN: Thanks for having me, guys.

HUNT: Thanks, Ron.

BERMAN: Later, Congressman Tim Ryan is going to join us. He is frustrated, yes?

HUNT: That is one word for it, yes. We're going to see just how frustrated in a few minutes.

BERMAN: Frustrated with the direction the Democratic Party is going. And he's going to tell us what he thinks Democrats should be doing. That's coming up.

Also, Virginia's new governor, Glenn Youngkin, met with resistance over ending mask mandates in schools. Actually, what he did is he says schools cannot have them. Schools cannot require masks. How one parent is reacting, next.

Plus, Yao Min weighing in on tennis player Peng Shuai, who vanished from the public eye. He says he spoke with her last month, and what he said about the encounter.

HUNT: And the FBI and DHS warn that faith-based communities will likely continue to be targets for violence. We're going to have more on that reporting ahead.



HUNT: Several school districts in Virginia are vowing to defy the order from the state's new Republican governor to end mask mandates in schools.

The order, which takes effect next Monday, dictates that children should only wear masks if their parents want them to do so.

Joining me now is Rasha Saad. She's a Virginia parent who wants the school district to maintain its mask mandate.

Rasha, thanks so much for joining us this morning. Tell us a little bit about why you feel this way, what your own personal circumstances are, and how your children feel about wearing masks to school.

RASHA SAAD, PARENT: Absolutely. I mean, my children -- I'll be honest, they don't like wearing masks, right? Nobody likes wearing masks. But we do it, because we have immunocompromised people in our family. We have a new baby who is unvaccinated, can't be vaccinated. And we know that we can't see them unless we're careful.

So those are our whys, you know? And then on a larger level, the community is our reason. We want to, you know, slow the spread as much as possible.

HUNT: So what do you say to parents who are on the opposite side of this debate from you? If you're having a conversation with a neighbor who says, Hey, I don't want my kids to have to do this, what do you say to them about why you think that these mandates should stay in place?

SAAD: Because I want my kids to stay in school, right? I feel like we have multiple layers of mitigation already our schools, and one of them is the mask mandate.

And so when we take away even one layer of mitigation, then we run the risk of being so short-staffed, we can't keep schools open. Or infection rates going, you know -- running rampant, and we won't be able to control it. And we'll have to go virtual.

So, you know, that's really the choice that I see here, is do we keep masks, or do we run the risk of going back to virtual learning?

HUNT: How do you think your school district has done in terms of balancing the needs of children versus the needs of adults in the classroom?

Because we have had a lot of conversation that, in a lot of cases, kids have gotten lost in all of this, in favor of protecting adults who may be more susceptible to the virus. Do you think the right balance has been struck?


SAAD: I feel it has. I mean, I feel like our kids are in school. They're doing afterschool activities. They're in sports. I feel like we absolutely have struck a great balance in protecting the wider community and, at the same time, ensuring that our kids are in school.

My kids are insanely happy to be back in school. Their mental health is so much better than it was last year. They're so much happier. They're so much healthier.

I think that it's not perfect, but nothing ever is. We're in a pandemic.

HUNT: You've worked a lot on this issue. You've organized others on this issue with the group that you have. What are you going to try to do to push back against the -- the removal of the mandates by the governor? Is there anything you can do?

SAAD: Absolutely. So we have organized, actually, a group called Loudoun for All, and we are organizing a rally today, actually.

We heard that the board of supervisors is putting through a resolution to kind of uphold that it is the school board who should decide about the mask mandate. And so we are rallying at the board of supervisors, at the government building today, in order to support this resolution and, hopefully, get it passed. We would be at the school administration building, but, unfortunately, there's no chance for public comment before the decision has to be made.

And it looks like the superintendent might be making a decision tomorrow with regards to our district, so we want to make sure that our voices are heard before then. And that, you know, they understand that the vast majority of Loudoun wants masks.

The -- you know, Loudoun -- Loudoun voted blue. We -- Youngkin did not win Loudoun. And that shows me that most of our community, they want masks. They are for science, and they know the evidence. And they understand that, without masks, our kids are going to be home.

HUNT: All right. Rasha Saad, Virginia parent, thank you so much for joining us to explain your side of the story.

And John, this is just such -- has become such an emotional and political issue across the country, something that I think is going to be central -- central to the midterm elections, as parents grapple with this.

BERMAN: Yes. Look, parents are frustrated, but they also want their kids in school. So it seems to be that that's the imperative. You should do whatever it takes to get them there.

HUNT: Right.

All right. Coming up next here, an NBA co-owner is under fire after comments he made about China.

Plus, why tennis star Novak Djokovic may be banned from more tournaments around the world.

BERMAN: And you will never guess who struck it rich the last two years during this pandemic. Or maybe you will. Trillions of dollars into the pockets of the wealthy.



HUNT: Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford got his first career playoff victory to wrap up Super Bowl Wild Card Weekend. Andy Scholes has this morning -- morning's "Bleacher Report."

Andy, always good to see you.


The Super Wild Card Weekend actually wasn't that super. Rams/Cardinals last night keeping up with the theme of blowouts in the opening round.

The celebrities were out in L.A. for this one. You had Jay-z, Will Ferrell. The Clippers had their own suite. And they all watched Los Angeles just completely dominate this game from the start.

First quarter, Matthew Stafford to Odell Beckham Jr., put the Rams on the board.

The Cardinals offense just couldn't do anything against the Rams defense in this game.

Second quarter, Kyler Murray throws the interception from his own end zone. The three-yard pick six, the shortest pick six in playoff history. The previous record was five yards.

Arizona had just 40 yards of offense in the first half.

Rams win in a rout, 34-11. And Stafford gets his first ever playoff win.

So the Rams now going to head to Tampa on Sunday to play Tom Brady and the Bucs. Here's a look at this weekend's schedule. Chiefs also host the Bills on Sunday.

Titans and Bengals going to get the divisional rounds started on Saturday afternoon. That game followed by the Packers hosting the Niners.

And you know, Kasie, all of those games on paper, they look great. Let's hope it plays out that way.

HUNT: I hope it's better.

SCHOLES: We're due some good games after -- after the ones we saw this past weekend.

HUNT: Yes, we sure are.

BERMAN: Look, I know it sounds like sour grapes, because the Patriots lost, but these games stunk this weekend.

SCHOLES: Yes. That's true.

BERMAN: I'm not sure the NFL is getting what it wanted with the expanded playoff situation here. Because there are a lot of teams -- and maybe the Patriots were one of them -- that just shouldn't have been there at this point. Not good games so far.

SCHOLES: Yes, let's hope it turns around.

BERMAN: That's right, Andy. Until then, I'm going to blame you.


BERMAN: For the first time, basketball legend Yao Ming, one of China's most recognizable athletes, is speaking out about his encounter with tennis star Peng Shuai, saying she is in pretty good condition.

This as Peng's well-being has become a global concern since making allegations of sexual assault against a former national leader.

Joining me now, CNN contributor and ESPN tennis commentator Patrick McEnroe.

Patrick, great to see you this morning. Yao Ming is a huge figure around the world, even bigger inside China. So how do you interpret his speaking out about Peng Shuai's condition?


I guess I sort of interpret it the same way I interpreted Peng Shuai's, quote unquote, "video visit" with the IOC. In my mind, he's basically become a pawn now of the Chinese government, Yao Ming, which I'm really surprised and, quite frankly, very disappointed about. Because he was a great NBA player. Certainly, arguably, the most recognizable Chinese athlete all around the world.

So it seems to me that he's being played for a pawn for the Chinese system, for the Chinese government. It's very worrying to me that he's said this and made these comments.