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New Day

U.S. Ditches Mask Mandate; Andy Slavitt is Interviewed about the Mask Mandate Ruling; David Petraeus is Interviewed about Russia's Invasion of Ukraine; Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Democracy. Aired 8:30-9a ET

Aired April 19, 2022 - 08:30   ET



PETE MUNTEAN, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Half the people passing through here wearing masks, half the people not wearing masks.

What's so interesting is that even the signage here at the TSA checkpoint going into the terminal here at Reagan National Airport has disappeared that would have mandated that folks wear this mask. You know, this is after this court ruling by Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, a U.S. district judge of Florida, she said that mask mandate exceeded the CDC's authority. Initially after that it threw the travel industry into disarray. Then the White House said the mask mandate would not be enforced pending a federal review of that court decision. The TSA then said that it would not be enforcing the transportation mask mandate.

In fact, you heard on the lead-in that even some airlines announced midflight that they would no longer be enforcing the transportation mask mandate to some celebratory cheers from on board planes. We've seen that over and over again.

I just want you to listen now to the reaction of some passengers at LaGuardia Airport in New York late last night.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And I'm super excited.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm more comfortable without a mask. I feel very safe, especially since airplanes are one of the safest indoor places, you know. I don't think masks are necessary.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Even in traveling here and being in downtown in New York and everybody not wearing -- able to not wear masks and things, I felt much more comfortable keeping mine on.


MUNTEAN: No major airline has said they will not follow this new court order and the edict from the White House, and the TSA. They're saying that masks are now optional, not only for passengers, but also their employees. Remember, it is flight attendants and flight crews who had been on the

front lines of enforcing this transportation mask mandate. The latest FAA data says about 70 percent of all unruly passenger incidents had to do with masks.

By the way, this is not just on commercial flights. Planes, trains, buses, boats, also in terminals, that includes Uber. We have just heard from them. They will not be enforcing this for their passengers and their drivers. And also on Amtrak as well, Kaitlan.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, it's going to be such a strange feeling to be in that place and not see everyone wearing a mask like they have been for over a year now.

Pete Muntean, thank you.

Now, let's bring in Andy Slavitt, who is the former White House senior advisor for the Covid response under President Biden.

Andy, we saw the judge say that they believe that the CDC had exceed its authority with this ruling. What do you make of all of this?

ANDY SLAVITT, FORMER WHITE HOUSE SENIOR ADVISER FOR COVID RESPONSE: Well, it's a pretty shaky legal ruling from a young and I think I would say probably idealistic judge, a former Clarence Thomas clerk. But be that as it may, we're seeing today people have to reacted to it (ph).

I'm going to get on a plane in about an hour. Thankfully, I'm vaccinated and boosted and have a good quality mask. So should feel reasonably good.

But, you know, I think usually we would like to see the CDC, which has the authority to make these decisions, make this decision, not a judge. The CDC had asked for 15 more days to review data. I think it's important that we see that. We have to remember there are cancer patients and four-year-olds that are not vaccinated or are vulnerable. So hopefully people will continue to show good judgment and protect themselves and protect others where possible.

COLLINS: Do you think that the Justice Department will try to appeal this decision because the White House didn't say either way last night. They just said they're still reviewing the decision.

SLAVITT: Yes, it's under review, and it's a tricky question because on the one hand you'd want to appeal a bad ruling. On the other hand, if they appeal and lose, they put themselves in a position where let's say, Kaitlan, that in the winter or the late fall we have a really bad wave, they could put themselves in a position where they're not able to require masks at a point where they really need it.

So, right now this ruling, my understanding is, is not precedential because of some of the language and because of the district court. If they appeal it, they could lose that ruling. And I think they should do everything they can to try to preserve their power to put a mandate back under more trying circumstances. So, I'm sure that's what they're talking about.

COLLINS: We saw some happiness as a result of this decision. People were happy to finally take their masks off in the airport, on planes, which is really what people think of when they think of this decision. But the former surgeon general under former President Trump, we should note, Jerome Adams, tweeted, this isn't just about planes. He said, this means a four-year-old kid who has cancer whose parents might not have a car might be forced to sit next to a sick coughing patient with no mask on a bus while going to get chemotherapy treatment. He said great -- he said, tell me about the great ventilation systems on those.

Do you think he has a point? Do you agree with what he's trying to say there in this tweet?

SLAVITT: Yes, I agree with Jerome.


He and I were in a little bit of contact this morning, and the former surgeon general is right. We have to think about others, not just ourselves.

And, you know, of course, nobody likes the pandemic. Nobody likes wearing masks. And so the mask has become the symbol of the pandemic. You know, people, you know, can cheer, be happy if this feels like a symbol of the pandemic being behind us, but it's certainly, for many people, the pandemic is not over, particularly people at high risk. And the pandemic -- and cases, of course, are rising.

So, we shouldn't confuse this and we -- quite honestly, shouldn't allow people who are uncivil on airplanes, and put a lot of pressure unfairly on flight attendants, to rule the day. So, you know, people, understandably, don't like masks and cheer and be happy, but we need to make our decisions and our judgments with public health in mind, and the law. And the law in this case is on the side of the CDC.

COLLINS: Yes, big questions here for the White House. And it will be this strange feeling going to an airport and seeing people that before were all masked. Maybe some of them won't be as much as Pete said earlier, it's about 50/50 at the airport in Washington, D.C.

Andy Slavitt, thanks so much for joining us.

SLAVITT: Thanks.

COLLINS: We have breaking news this morning out of Afghanistan, where we are getting word of multiple explosions at schools in Kabul. We have new video coming in of what's happening on the ground.

Plus, what the Kremlin just said moments ago when asked about using nuclear weapons in Ukraine. General David Petraeus will join us live.


[08:40:38] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: This morning, Russia is launching an even further, more expansive offensive in the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine as a senior U.S. official warns that the Russian military is actually learning from its failures in the north, shifting its focus and its tactics.

Joining me now, former CIA director and retired Four Star General David Petraeus.

Good to have you on this morning, sir.


SCIUTTO: So you heard the U.S. assessment there. I wonder if you agree. Do you see such a change in tactics and do you believe that could make a difference in these, that Russia may be more likely to win territory there?

PETRAEUS: Well, I think it's a bit premature still, Jim. Certainly, the idea that they have massed their forces instead of spreading them all over the country is significant. The fact that they are attacking in terrain that is a bit more advantageous for the offensive rather than the defensive, it's much more open, less municipal areas, less urban sprawl than they ran into, obviously, when they were trying to go into Kyiv from the north and the east.

But we still need to see, I think, whether they can achieve combined arms effects, in other words, not just tanks coming at the enemy, but with infantry to support them, to strip away the Ukrainian infantry and the ambushes that they plan for them with the javelin anti-tank guided missiles and so forth, if they can integrate their artillery, their close air support, use their engineers wisely.

And then on the other side, the Ukrainians are learning as well. And I'm sure that they have a very complex, comprehensive set of obstacles, overwatched by reconnaissance in the form of drones, as well as eyeballs. And then also overwatched by fire, again with the javelins, with the variety of other systems. Their artillery, which has been surprisingly accurate, in large measure because they're using drones as forward observers.

So, I think on both sides we need to see what the dynamics will be as this plays out. And there's one other unknown at least until now, and that is how well will the fields, the off-road traffic ability be. Will the Russian tanks get mired in the mud, as they did often in the north, and have to stay on the roads, or will it dry out a bit and they'll be able to get off?

I'm not sure we've seen their full offensive yet. This could be really the sort of the shaping attacks, the reconnaissance by fire, as it's termed and so forth, to figure out where they should reinforce, how they should try to breakthrough and perhaps envelop, encircle some of the Ukrainian forces that are defending in the southeast.

But this clearly is going to be a pivotal moment without question. The Russians have repositioned a large number of forces. You know, it's also unclear, Jim, whether those forces will truly be

combat effective or not because a number of them were pulled off the line in the north and the northeast, additional forces shoved into them, additional weapons systems provided to make up for the losses of personnel and track vehicles and so forth. You know, that's not the ideal way to develop a cohesive, well-trained, well-oiled machine, if you will.


PETRAEUS: And so my sense is that there may be areas in which the Ukrainians are pushed back. They'll have to give up some ground. But I suspect that over the long run the Ukrainians are going to be able to hold them. And, of course, the longer the supply lines get for the Russians, we'll see other shortcoming, which is, obviously, their logistical capabilities.


PETRAEUS: So, a lot to be seen on the days that lie ahead, I think, Jim.

SCIUTTO: OK. Let me ask you this.

Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister, said today that Russia will use only conventional weapons in Ukraine. There's been a lot of speculation about the possibility of Russia using battlefield nukes. I've been told by U.S. officials that they've been monitoring the movement of Russian nuclear weapons and have not yet noticed any unusual and new movements of those weapons.

But do you believe the foreign minister when he says that? I mean he lied about the invasion.


SCIUTTO: Should we take some comfort in those words?

PETRAEUS: Well, I think perhaps. Again, as you note, I mean they've lied about an awful lot, including that they weren't going to invade whatsoever.


PETRAEUS: And repeatedly about other activities that then transpired.


I do think, though, that this does reflect a Russian sensitivity, if you will, to the threshold that would be crossed if they used tactical nuclear weapons or any nuclear weapons, noting that they have a lot of options in the smaller yield nuclear weapons that they could use. But I think that this is a recognition that that would really be an extraordinary threshold to cross. Those countries that are wavering or, you know, abstaining from votes in the U.N. and trying to avoid having to observe all sanctions and so forth, I think would then be forced to acknowledge the pariah status of Russia and forced to honor all of the sanctions against Russia.


One question before we go. We are watching another episode unfold now in Mariupol. A thousand civilians taking shelter, surrounded by Russian forces, getting shelled by Russian forces. We don't have to imagine what the Russian military is willing to do. They shelled another shelter, a theater, which had children inside and killed hundreds there. And every day we're seeing civilians targeted. And yet the west complains but lets it happen.

Has there been a failure of imagination here in terms of stopping the deliberate targeting of civilians, including with more direct intervention?

PETRAEUS: Well, I'm afraid this is their culture. You know, we work very hard in the U.S. and other western militaries to embrace a culture that observes the Geneva Convention and the law of land warfare. And when there are violations, and there have been, and they were reprehensible, we take action on it, we try to figure out how to mitigate the risks of doing that again.

That's not the case in the situation with the Russians. Repeatedly, again, it's almost as if it is a culture of their entire army. They completely disregard the norms for the conduct of warfare that were adopted in the wake of World War II. So this shouldn't be a surprise.

What is, I think, a surprise to the Russians, perhaps, because their own forces have not done a great deal of combat in cities without just blowing up the city, as they did in Grozny or in Aleppo or some of these other situations, is just how hard it is to root out an enemy who is determined, resourceful, capable and just not going to surrender.

And, again, combat (INAUDIBLE). We validated in battles such as Ramadi, and Fallujah, parts of Baghdad, Baqubah (ph), all just in that one and a half year period of the surge, it is incredibly intensive in terms of using soldiers to avoid just blowing up buildings and to root out the bad guys.


PETRAEUS: And that's what they're finding. And this has become the alamo for Ukraine. Their defenders just fighting literally to the last soldier. Truly extraordinary.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Well, let's hope it doesn't end like the Alamo.

General David Petraeus, thank you so much.

PETRAEUS: Thanks, Jim. Good to be with you.

SCIUTTO: Coming up next, the heart-breaking story behind the moment a mother in Ukraine sees the body of her teenage son killed by Russian attacks.



COLLINS: Newly obtained text messages paint a picture of just how far some Republicans were willing to go to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

John Avlon has our "Reality Check."

JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Here's a civic riddle, how can a self-styled constitutional conservative rationalize trying to overturn an election? Well, that's what CNN's exclusive reporting reveals in those text messages between Republican Senator Mike Lee and Trump's chief of staff, Mark Meadows.

The messages show that just days after the election, the senator from Utah was trying to work with the White House to overturn the will of the people. But you see, Lee is the son of President Reagan's solicitor general, and so he was desperately trying to find a fig leaf of constitutional credibility to do it.

In fact, get this, Lee texted Meadows at least seven times about possible slates of alternate electors from key states, doing it as late as January 4th. And we know now that those efforts to corral phony electors were occurring in a handful of states, but after the attack on the Capitol, Lee didn't vote with the eight Republican senators who refused to certify the election. But he did talk about that alternate elector's scenario.

Take a listen.


SEN. MIKE LEE (R-UT): In moments Congress has to make a choice. It has to decide which of the electoral votes will be counted and which will not. That did not happen here. Thank heavens. And let's hope that it never does.


AVLON: Thank heavens. And let's hope that it never does. Except that that's what Lee was trying to do.

Now, the contradictions all start to make sense, though, when you start looking at the context of a tweet storm that Lee fired off in October 2020 saying that America is not a democracy. And he clarified, tweeting, the word democracy appears nowhere in the Constitution. Perhaps because our form of government is not a democracy, it's a constitutional republic. That should matter to anyone who's worried about the excessive accumulation of power in the hands of a few.

Now, we're also a democratic republic, right? So, why is that so hard to say, senator?

But it's the last line that really seems ironic now, right, warning about the excessive accumulation of power in the hands of a few, because that's, of course, what a plot to overturn the election would do.

Then in a press release a couple weeks later, Lee doubled down by explaining that his problem with democracy is that, quote, it's often used to describe rule by majority, which is, in fact, right there in the dictionary definition of democracy, government of the people, especially rule of the majority.

And that seems to be the real underlying issue here. A discomfort with majority democracy among the Trumpist right.


It's a definitive example of putting party over country. And, by the way, props to NYU historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat, who immediately recognized the danger of Lee's logic, saying, such talk often precedes exceptional and authoritarian government actions. Look for more of this in the future. We sure did.

So, if you need a reminder of why this isn't just a rear view mirror exercise, remember that the ex-president's lackeys are still pushing the big lie and trying to have the election decertified.

And if you're still not convinced, listen to what retired Federal Judge J. Michael Luttig, conservative icon, told "The New York Times," quote, this is the clearest and most present danger to our democracy. Trump and his supporters in Congress and in the states are now preparing to lay the groundwork to overturn the election in 2024 were Trump or his designee to lose the vote for the presidency.

Those are the stakes. And that's why we need truth and accountability for Trump's plot. Because, don't forget, defending our democracy should be something that unites us across partisan lines.

And that's your "Reality Check."

COLLINS: John Avlon, thank you.

Moments from now President Biden will hold a call with allies on potential new punishments for Russia.

This is CNN's special live coverage.