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Russia Claims Some Troops Returning to Bases, But Drills Continue; Accounting Firm Cuts Ties With Trump Biz Over Unreliable Info; Skater Blames Failed Test on Mix-Up with Grandfather's Medication. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired February 15, 2022 - 07:00   ET



BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN NEW DAY: Ukraine, for its part, says that it is skeptical of the Russian claims but they do believe that diplomacy is working.

We are expecting to hear at any moment from Vladimir Putin, as well as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. They're going to have a joint news conference following their meeting in Moscow.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN NEW DAY: So, Putin says he is willing to negotiate with the west, at the same time major Russian military exercises do continue and there is new evidence of an equipment buildup at the front. Satellite images show at least 60 helicopters have landed in the past few days at a previously vacant air base in Crimea. Then there's this, a source tells CNN that an attack by Russia sometime this week is more likely than not.

The United States shut down its embassy as Kyiv as invasion precaution and relocated the remaining few diplomatic personnel to a city in western Ukraine.

CNN's Sam Kiley is live for us in Kharkiv in Ukraine, but we want to begin with CNN's Frederik Pleitgen in Moscow.

With these breaking developments, Fred, and word that Russian forces are returning to their bases at the same, the Russian officials are saying they're willing to talk, what would you make of it all?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it certainly does seem as though at least it could be a positive sign, although it's probably far too early to tell at this point, John. What the Russians are saying is that some of the forces who have been involved in those massive drills that have been going on not just there to the south of Ukraine, in the Black Sea, Crime, and then, of course, also to the east and to the north, that some of them are returning to their bases.

Now, we have to keep in mind that there are currently, as far as the U.S. says, a lot of troops, of Russian troops around Ukraine. So, some of them pulling back certainly in itself, could be a positive sign, but doesn't necessarily say that there is any sort of de-escalation. At this point in time, it's also, of course, impossible to independently verify that it is actually the case that some of those troops are pulling back. The U.S., of course, says that they still very much believe that the Russians are poised for an attack on Ukraine and that could happen any time that Vladimir Putin should order it.

I was, however, able to, last night, actually get in contact with Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, and he, once again, told me that Vladimir Putin wants to continue to negotiate, that he's wanted to do so from the very start. And as far as the Russians are concerned, Ukraine is only one of several topics that they are concerned about as far as it comes or when it comes to this European security structure. So, the Russians want broader talks, like, for instance, the kind that they had between Vladimir Putin and President Biden in the phone call on the weekend.

And so today, the diplomacy continues. You just mentioned it, Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, he touched down here, he is actually currently in talks with Vladimir Putin. And Putin, as those talks started off, already said obviously those talks are going to center around the issue of Ukraine and then, of course, also around the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that runs between Germany and Russia.

So, we do see some signals that might be promising. It's still too early to tell. Again, the U.S. says the situation there remains extremely dangerous and attack could be ordered at any time, John.

BERMAN: And, of course, we are waiting to hear from Vladimir Putin himself and the German chancellor as soon as this meeting breaks up. Although I do have to say sometimes the words that Putin speaks out loud are more like riddles. But we'll do our best to understand what he will say.

Frederik Pleitgen in Moscow, thank you very much.

KEILAR: And let's go now to Ukraine where CNN's Sam Kiley is live for us in Kharkiv, near the Russian border. It really does seem, Sam, that Russia is a riddle, as John Berman, said but also perhaps playing games. What is the view from Ukraine?

SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's very striking, the difference in view from Ukraine compared to what we've been hearing coming out of the Pentagon, and briefings, for example, the latest briefings to CNN, suggesting that an attack could be imminent, could happen this week or in the not too distant future.

Now, just 30 miles north of here is the Russian border. Belgrod, a significant Russian town beyond that is now hosting, according to the images that we have collated from satellite and social media and indeed the Russian ministry of defense, the first guards tank regimen, a vast armed force that on paper at any way is almost the size of the British Army. And then in the south, we have got the arrival of 60- plus helicopters to unseen in the Crimea, all adding up to an indicator that the Russians may be poised for battle.

Here in Ukraine, 30 miles from the border, you wouldn't know it. There is no visible preparation for an invasion. The people here are extremely relaxed. The government, whilst acknowledging that they are cynical about the claims of Russian withdrawal, the foreign minister here saying essentially we'll believe it when we see it.

They're also saying they don't see the sort of battlefield indicators from imminent attack that the Americans and their allies are seeing. They're often dipping into the same intelligence, and certainly interpreting it perhaps in a different way. But the atmosphere here in Eastern Ukraine, which is, remember, not far from the line of conflict with Russian-backed rebels in the Donbas region and indeed from Crimea.


So, they're used to a steady state of a war essentially with Russian- backed rebels is, I have to say, completely relaxed on this very sunny winter's day, Brianna.

KEILAR: Very interesting. Sam, thank you so much for that report.

BERMAN: All right. Joining me now, CNN Military Analyst, retired Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton. He was a member of the joint staff in the Pentagon, and former deputy director for training at the National Security Agency. Colonel, thanks so much for being with us.

The word from the Russians that some, maybe a small number of troops, are returning to their bases, how does that affect the situation at the front?

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, John, that's a great question because what you see here on this map is you have 100,000 Russian troops that are on the border between Russia and Ukraine. Plus, you have somewhere around 30,000 or so Russian troops that are in Belarus conducting military exercises. So, withdrawing these forces is, in essence, something that they could do by just moving a little bit back into the hinterlands.

So, if we go to the next slide, we can see that some of the things that the Russians have been doing actually indicates that they're going from their permanent bases to some of their new bases. And then they're reversing that process by going back to some of these permanent bases or in some cases going even further back into the country side. So, when you look at what's happening in this area, plus the Russian-backed areas around the Donbas here and in Crimea, you see that Ukraine is still surrounded on three sides by all these Russian activities. And that really creates a bit of a problem.

If we go to the next slide, we can see some other things here because what we can ascertain, I don't think the Russian plans have changed very much at all in spite of this troop withdrawal. This is Kyiv. And the arrows here are pointing to a potential Russian invasion route, even through the Chernobyl area, which you see right over here. That area is, yes, it has radiation in it, but it is radiation that is not going to contaminate troops if they aren't there for a very long time. So, all of this stuff, all of these different areas here still indicate that Ukraine is in grave danger. If we go to the next slide, what we can see here is the relative strength of the different militaries. Ukraine spends about a tenth of the Russian defense budget on its defense. So, between that and then you have the difference in personnel everywhere from 219,000 on the Ukrainian said to 840,000 on the Russian side, look at the difference in combat aircraft and the difference in tanks and in anti-aircraft guns and self-propelled artillery, there's a vast difference between these two armies. And it's going to be very difficult for the Russians to move forward, but it's also going to be much more difficult for the Ukrainians to actually hold this area and defend their country the way they want to. They'll have to use unconventional means to do that.

And if we go to the next slide, there's something else that I wanted to point out here, and that is the power grid in Ukraine. What you're dealing with here, John, is all the different power plants that you see are including nuclear power plants and more standard plants, including hydro electric plants, the Russians are going to use cyber to try to attack some or all of these installations. That's going to be part of the unconventional forces that they bring to bear on this problem, what they consider to be a problem. In essence, what we're talking about is a combination of kinetic and non-kinetic means to go after Ukraine and cease Ukraine's functioning as an independent entity.

BERMAN: A lot of problems the Russians can create for Ukraine in an instant. Colonel, thank you so much for laying that out for us and setting the scene. I appreciate it.

LEIGHTON: You bet, John.

KEILAR: The Trump Organization's long-time accounting firm cutting ties with the former president and saying that his company has nearly a decade of financial statements that can no longer be trusted. In a letter, the firm Mazars says it cannot stand behind statements that it prepared for Donald Trump from all the way back in 2011 up until 2020.

CNN's Kara Scannell is joining us now. This is extraordinary. Tell us what's happening here.

KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: Yes, Brianna, a significant development overnight. Just yesterday, there was this new court filing in the New York attorney general's civil investigation where they provided this letter that Mazars had sent to the Trump Organization last week. And in this letter, Mazars says that the Trump Organization should no longer rely on ten years of financial statements. They also said that they quit.

So, in this letter, they cite three reasons, they say their own internal investigation, they say internal and external sources, and they point to some of the public allegations that the New York Attorney General's Office has made.


They said that there were numerous multiple misstatements in these financials, including the amount cash that the Trump Organization said it had on hand, the value of some golf courses and even the size of Donald Trump's apartment at Trump Tower.

Now, in this letter, Mazars writes, while we have not concluded that the various financial statements as a whole, contain material discrepancies, based upon the totality of the circumstances, we believe our advice to you to no longer rely upon those financial statements is appropriate. They also said that the Trump Organization should tell that any lenders, bankers, insurers that they should no longer rely on these financial statements, so, big development.

They also said that they would no longer do any additional accounting work for the Trump Organization, citing unwaiverable conflict of interest and we have been reporting that Mazars has been cooperating with the New York Attorney General's investigation as well as the Manhattan district attorney's criminal investigation. One of their top accountants has been cooperating. He even testified before the grand jury.

So, again, this is a big significant development here, and it comes as part of the New York attorney general's office to try to get testimony from the former president, Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump under oath. Brianna?

KEILAR: Yes. Kara, thank you for that report, Kara Scannell.

BERMAN: I want to bring in Investigative Reporter and the author of The Big Cheat, How Donald Trump Fleeced America and Enriched Himself and His Family, David Cay Johnston. David, thanks so much for being with us this morning.

Mazars dumped the Trump Organization. What's the significance of that?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON, AUTHOR, THE BIG CHEAT, HOW DONALD TRUMP FLEECED AMERICA AND ENRICHED HIMSELF AND HIS FAMILY: Well, it's very important in Donald's case because he's facing questions about running a racketeering enterprise and running a fraudulent company is at the very center of that. So, that his accountants have turned against him and disavowed these compilations they put together where they said, well, here is what our client, Donald, said these things are worth. Here is how much money he said he had in the bank without checking it, which is what we expect accountants to do, indicates Donald is more and more being separated from people who can do him great harm by simply telling the truth.

BERMAN: What happens if Mazars cooperates with investigators, which, by all accounts, it does seem that they are?

JOHNSTON: Well, Donald Bender, the Mazars accountant who prepares Trump's tax returns, testified before the Manhattan grand jury. And New York has this very unusual law, if you testify before the grand jury, you are granted immunity. That's not true at the federal level and in other states. So, he no longer is in concern personally for anything he may have done from the Manhattan prosecutors. But it does mean that Mazars is helping the prosecutors put together the, what I expect, will be a racketeering case, a New York State racketeering case, against Trump, the Trump Organization, Allen Weisselberg and probably Donald's three oldest children. BERMAN: Well, there are two separate cases going on here, right? There's the civil case which is from the attorney general, Letitia James, and the Mazars letter where they dumped the Trump Organization pertains directly to that. But you are saying you believe this also has criminal implications?

JOHNSTON: Oh, absolutely. But the attorney general's case, while a civil matter, very clearly is aimed at trying to flush out how Donald cheated banks, insurers, investors. And, of course, this is in the context of Donald and Don Jr. and Ivanka saying, we shouldn't have to testify before you. There's no reason for you to testify. In fact, they actually asserted that the statement by Mazars makes the criminal and civil investigations moot, which is utter complete nonsense.

BERMAN: I do think -- when accounting firm says that ten years worth of numbers can't be trusted, and announces that to the world, what does that do to your business?

JOHNSTON: Well, Donald is going to have a very hard time doing business if, A, he doesn't have someone to prepare his tax returns and to vet him on behalf of banks. He may find banks who are unwilling to do business with him even at the level of a checking account because of their concerns that they will be drawn into this widening investigations of Trump and his businesses.

And, by the way, I think that the accounting profession needs to reform itself and say no more of these compilations where we put our name on a document that we have not checked out the numbers behind it. That's an utterly corrupt practice that should have been ended a long time ago.

BERMAN: Where do you think this ends for Donald Trump and the Trump Organization?

JOHNSTON: Well, the civil case -- the civil matter by Letitia James is going to result in a civil suit, making numerous charges of falsification of documents, false claims and obtaining benefits as a result.


The Manhattan grand jury is eventually going to indict Donald Trump. They got 5 million pages of documents, John, and they have to go through every one of them before they can finish their work.

But Donald Trump will be indicted on a state racketeering charge. I'm confident of that. And perhaps in Westchester County by Mimi Rocah, the new D.A. there, and in Fulton County, Georgia, by Fani Willis, who's looking into voter fraud and now has a grand jury just for the purpose of investigating Trump's effort to interfere with the Georgia vote count.

BERMAN: And, again, they're going to be people who watch this and say, David Cay Johnston is saying this, but Trump has, in their minds, gotten away with so many things in so many different areas over the years, why is this different? And why does this new piece of information with Mazars bode particularly ill?

JOHNSTON: Well, Donald has learned very well from the notorious Roy Cohn how to evade and denounce law enforcement. And he's gotten away with stuff I've been writing about since the late '80s. But what's different here is you now have seasoned teams of prosecutors and civil investigators from the attorney general who know what they're looking for and they have lots of witnesses who have come in and testified about what Donald is doing and his web of lies is catching up with him finally after all these years, after the New Jersey casino authorities failed to do their job and regulate him to the point that he actually cheated customers at one of his casinos, the only time that it ever happened in Atlantic City.

Finally, you're having focused law enforcement on Donald Trump, which never would have happened if he hadn't become president.

BERMAN: And I will say, you know, everyone we have spoken with says an accounting firm to do a break like this is a very rare thing. David Cay Johnston, thank you.


BERMAN: See, there you go. This does not happen every day. So, this is significant in and of itself. I appreciate it.

The teenage Russian ice skating star about to return to the ice this morning, who Russia is now blaming for her positive drug test.

Plus, an assassination attempt against a mayoral candidate in Louisville, Kentucky. The suspected shooter a local activist. We have new details ahead.

KEILAR: And why Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calls Congress the S-show and why she says the U.S. may not be a democracy in ten years.



KEILAR: 15-year-old Russian Figure Skater Kamila Valieva is set compete later this morning in the women's singles event even though she tested positive for a banned substance back in December. New this morning, an Olympics official says her legal team is blaming her failed drug test on a mix-up with her grandfather's medication.

Joining me now is the 2012 Olympic gold medal winner in the high jump, Erik Kynard. He originally lost the gold to an Russian athlete who then later tested positive for steroids.

First off, Erik, congratulations on your own sort of personal gain there, although I do know you're awaiting your gold medal. But I just wonder what you think about this excuse of her legal team that her medication got mixed up with her grandfather's.

ERIK KYNARD, 2012 OLYMPIC GOLD MEDAL WINNER IN HIGH JUMP: I mean, I think mix-ups happen, but I don't think it's just coincidence that the mix-up of medication is a medicine that would directly affect her performance. It would actually directly improve her performance, if my research is correct. And that is -- it is a heart medication that improves stamina and cardiovascular health.

I think CAS' decision lies solely upon the fact that she's a 15-year- old. And she is what I would believe to be underage athlete. But, I don't think the legal team's excuse should hold up. And I think if she had or her legal team or team had any respect for the Olympic movement, they would withdraw her from the competition.

KEILAR: Do you think -- I understand this rule about her being a minor. Obviously, minors should be protected. But in this regard, Russia is also protected. Does it encourage, say, Russia to do this in the case of a younger person versus someone who is an adult?

KYNARD: Without a question. I think the case of Russia and its motivation behind doping is financial. I think its participation, it's financial. If I'm not mistaken, I believe Russia paid a $25 or $26 million fine to reinstate its NGB to be able to compete in the Olympics and allow athletes to compete under an Olympic flag. So, I think it's a pay to play thing as it relates to Russia's participation in the games. I think it is extremely politically motivated and financially motivated. So, things are black and white, but the gray area is finance as it pertains to the Olympics. And I don't think that they can go on maybe without Russia's, I guess, money, so to speak.

KEILAR: Erik, can you tell -- what was it like for you to learn that you had been competing against someone who was using a performance- enhancing drug?

KYNARD: It wasn't something that I learned, you know, eight or ten years later. It was something that was kind of known to me during my participation. As an athlete, if you feel like you've done an injustice, especially as a competitor at a high level, you can't really speak upon those things because the facts of sore losing come into play and whether you're a good sport because you're trying to tarnish the reputation of another athlete. So, you literally have to wait until the proof is in the pudding as it relates to doping because you just don't know.

There are great doping control agencies that exist and these national governing bodies and these world bodies and there are also not so great doping control agencies.


So, there's a fine line of jurisdictions that exist as it relates to doping. And as it relates to drugs and what drugs are allowed by athletes and participation of competition, outside of competition, et cetera.

So, there are many lines that can be blurred and misconstrued rules and things can be told. And I think that's what we see. And I think we see financial backing as it relates to those things as well.

KEILAR: I'm sure that you've seen Sha'Carri Richardson, another Olympic athlete, who is saying that there's a double standard, because we know she was suspended for having used marijuana because there was THC in her test. And she said, can we get a solid answer on the difference of her situation and mine. My mother died. She was saying she took marijuana to deal with that. My mother died and I can't run. It was also favored to place top three. The only difference I see is I'm a black young lady.

I do want to point out, Erik, that the governing agency over these decisions is different for these two women. But this idea that we saw one who has so much promise in its marijuana and another with a performance-enhancing drug and she's allowed to skate, what do you think about that difference?

KYNARD: I think that that bias exists solely on the ignorance of the benefits of marijuana. As far as Sha'Carri is concerned, I think she was done an injustice in not being able to compete. Did she break a rule? Yes, in having THC in her system, but she did serve a ban and would have been allowed to potentially be used on a relay during the games in the rounds or in the finals. She was one of the fastest athletes out there. I think that she was done an injustice based on bias and unfair bias towards marijuana.

As far as her experience as a young black woman in America, I cannot speak to that because I'm not a woman, firstly, and I'm not her. I do know that great injustices exist against brown and black people and especially great injustices exist against people of different diversities and minorities in the United States of America and around the world.

So, I can't speak to that experience. But I do believe her not being allowed -- she wasn't offered a fair shake as it relates to the marijuana, you know, deal just because there's a bias towards marijuana. I mean, I believe the world -- global medicine has deemed marijuana to be a medical drug.

So, as far as athletics, we're kind of just archaic in that sense in the Olympic movement that it's something that should not be used or, you know, and, obviously, can be used in track and field as it relates to U.S. Anti-Doping.

It's not prohibited in competition. You can't use it in competition. It's something if you're out of competition, we heard stories about doping control agents showing up and people are smoking marijuana before they take a doping test.

And you hear those stories from doping control agents as jokes in knowing you should know the rules. Like if you refuse a test based on out of competition and using marijuana, you would actually face a ban for refusing to test but you wouldn't face a ban for smoking marijuana.

So, it's a fine line. She did break a rule. I think the differences are in empathy and accountable. One is using an excuse of human error, another error solely falls upon her. So, I think that she has been accountable and that she served her time, but a bias obviously there's a double standard that exists. We know that injustice and racism is real in the world.

KEILAR: Erik, thank you so much. And I know you've turned in your silver medal, so get the man the gold medal he deserves. I will just put that out there. Erik, thanks for being with us this morning.

KYNARD: It's been a while.

KEILAR: Yes, it's been a while, needs to be rectified. Thank you.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with a stark warning, democracy, as we know it, could disappear sooner than later.

KEILAR: A scary moment in Louisville happening, a man opening fire on an mayoral candidate at his campaign headquarters and missing him by just inches. We'll speak to the candidate ahead.