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Conflicting Reports Emerge over Role of U.S. Intelligence in Ukrainian Sinking of Russian Warship in Black Sea; Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper Publishes Book about His Time in Trump Administration; U.S. Denies Involvement in Ukraine's Sinking of Russian Warship; Interview with Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired May 06, 2022 - 08:00   ET



BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Major blow to the Russian military in Ukraine. Sources tell CNN the U.S. provided intel that helped Ukraine sink that flagship of the Russian navy, the Moskva, last month in the Black Sea. But overnight, defense officials denied giving Ukraine any targeting information about the warship, and they said they were not involved with the decision to carry out the strike.

So how will Russia respond to all of this? We'll ask Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby here in a moment.

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: And in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov this morning, Russian shelling of the Azovstal steel plant, that has not stopped. It's believed that around 200 people are still sheltering in that plant. Right now, the next stage of evacuations is reportedly underway. A medic inside the steel plant says that people are dying and in agony from bullets, from hunger, and from lack of medicine.

The Pentagon says that Russian forces have made some small progress in parts of the eastern Donbas region right there on the screen, but not as much as the Kremlin clearly expected or hoped. CNN's Nick Paton Walsh joins us now live from southern Ukraine. Nick, what progress, if any, have the Russians made in this second phase of their campaign?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: Well, certainly it is unclear if they are seeing that dramatic change in pace and territorial gains that they had advertised ahead of this regrouping and pushing to the Donbas. In fact, Ukraine seems to be on the counteroffensive in some areas. And still in this city of Mariupol, predominantly under Russian control, Azovstal steel plant is holding out relentless bombardment, civilians caught inside, and I think a sense of this being so symbolic now for Ukraine's tenacity here.

We spoke to a Ukrainian marine who served in the same city at a different steel plant taken by the Russians, and he talked to us about what he endured in the fight there and after he was taken prisoner, injured there.


WALSH: This is how Hlib's war ends. But if you told him he was lucky, he'd probably would agree. He fought for Mariupol in the other steel factory since the war began, put tourniquets on friends, felt the heat of Russian tanks blasting his building from just meters away. He survived, but only just, here after 17 days, as a wounded prisoner in Russia.

HLIB STRYZHKO, INJURED UKRAINIAN MARINE (through translator): Very often when I close my eyes, I see that moment when the tank was firing at me and my side getting injured. On the day of my injury, one of my boys, a machine gunner, was killed. Every time it's personal. Every time I heard it over the walkie-talkie or in person that someone was dead, it would conjure memories of him.

WALSH: His mind also in pieces, left grappling with fragments of the worst fighting in Europe for decades.

STRYZHKO: There is a point when the brain accepts it. Seeing the phosphorous missiles, seeing aviation flying in. When this became normal, that was scary. We learned how to fall asleep with this accompaniment. Instead, it became scary to fall asleep in the silence.

WALSH: Two moments, though, haunt him here.

STRYZHKO: The first time I used tourniquets on my friend, and the second scene is this -- we saw aviation destroying whole hangars, watching a huge hangar to have nothing left in just seconds. This has really been engraved on my memory.

WALSH: Wounded on April 10th, when he regained consciousness, he was not where he thought he was.

STRYZHKO: First time I found out I was held captive was when we were inside an ambulance, me and another guy with similar injuries. He asked, are you ours? And they replied, it is unclear now who you mean by "ours" now. They said I was under the guard of the ministry of state security of the separatist DPR. But it was scarier when I got to the separatist hospital. I was told by a Russian soldier, you'll have to forget Ukrainian now. You will only get help if you ask in Russian.

WALSH: The Russians kept him alive, he says, so they could exchange him for their own.

STRYZHKO: There were two of us bedridden. So we had to be fed by nurses. So they would say, because of you my son got killed. I tried to be understanding, but they were accusing us of things we never did. And we had Russian news read to us all the time, in the morning and evening. That was a lot of pressure on the mind, a distortion of reality.

WALSH: On April the 27th, they exchange happened, and he was put on a plane. His pelvis crushed, his lower jaw broken, brain concussed, but he can still feel his legs.

[08:05:03] STRYZHKO: And I also have problems with my eyes because of constant bright flashes and dust. So at first they were glazed. Then they opened. For now, I still can't see with my left, and my right only silhouettes. My body was broken, but not my spirit. My doctor says that I would be able to pick any new balance sneakers by autumn. That makes me happy.


WALSH (on camera): It is important to point out that while we've heard multiple reports and even seen Russian bodies discarded around the battlefield, he pointed out Ukraine will always try to get back its own, very much speaking from the sort of textbook there of the Ukrainian military.

But still, the focus today on how and who can be got out of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, hundreds you say still trapped there. And the evacuations that have been getting under way in the last 24 hours, it seems more focused on getting the other civilians out of Mariupol, rather than those specifically in that heavily besieged fortified area. Back to you.

MARQUARDT: All eyes still on Mariupol. Nick Paton Walsh in southeastern Ukraine, thank you very much.

And a reminder that in just a few moments we'll be speaking with the Pentagon press spokesman John Kirby about the U.S. sharing intelligence with Ukraine and the implications of that.

KEILAR: Chilling new revelations from Trump's former defense secretary Mark Esper. According to "The New York Times " in his upcoming memoir, Esper claims that former president Trump asked him about secretly launching a missile strike on Mexico to destroy drug labs, writing that "They don't have control of their own country. When Mr. Esper raised various objects, Mr. Trump said that we could just shoot some patriot missiles and take out the labs quietly, adding that no one would know it was us."

Joining us now, CNN chief political correspondent and STATE OF THE UNION co-anchor Dana Bash, and CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger. Always a treat to have both of you join us here in the morning. No one will know it is us. What do you think about this revelation?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: First of all, everyone will know. And I think it's just one more thing that you can't believe that you've heard. And the question that I have really after learning of these revelations in this book is why Esper didn't say anything. This is dangerous. And I know that he writes in the book that he felt that he was last defense, and he had to stay there for the good of the American public. But there has to be some way beyond that to kind of hold a president in check and go to the Congress. He says one of his staff or someone investigated the 25th Amendment to get rid of the president potentially. But when you look at these stories, you have to say, wait a minute, this is crazy. And we didn't know, and what could someone have done? DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, he says this is a

public -- he considered it even more important as a public service to stay and not quit and protest. We should note that it is these kinds of books that are revelatory of what went on behind the scenes, but also perhaps a bit of rehab going on here with not just the Mark Espers of the world, but Bill Barr. Name your former official who comes out and reveals some things that we have never heard.

But I do -- it does appear that for the most part it is an attempt to show the world, show whomever might be potentially thinking about voting for Donald Trump again, if he does run, this is what you will be getting. I was there. I was in the room. I was the defense secretary, and I witnessed these -- from his perspective, the way he wrote it, not just ridiculous attempts at breaching the public trust, but actually dangerous attempts.

MARQUARDT: Some of the most outrageous episodes in this book, Gloria, were not just about President Trump, but senior adviser Stephen Miller, including one where after the raid that took out Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi, the head of ISIS in Syria, he allegedly proposed parading the head of Baghdadi around smeared in pig's blood.

BORGER: You can't even believe this. Miller denies it, of course. He called Esper a moron. What do you expect? But there is so many stories, this is a president who publicly suggested that people drink Clorox during COVID. So in a way it's not surprising what went on behind the scenes, because we saw enough stuff that went on in front of us. But you'll have to ask yourself a question, the 25th Amendment to get rid of a president is very difficult thing to do, needs cabinet approval, excuse me, vice presidential approval, et cetera.


And you read this, and you go, where is the protection here? Where is the protection for the American public? And there seems to be really none.

BASH: He argues that he was part of the protection, which is yes stayed even though --

BORGER: That's the rational, right?

KEILAR: One of his examples, I think, that goes to that is this example where he says he was worried that Trump could use the military, because obviously Trump's the commander in chief. he could use the military to seize ballot boxes. And that goes to Esper's talk about people staying trying to preserve control, trying to sort of run interference on that stuff. What do you think about that revelation?

BASH: It is not surprising. He wanted to use the military for a much more aggressive way during the Black Lives Matter protests, according to not just this book, but others, and didn't understand why the chairman of the Joint Chiefs was saying, no, that's not what we do in the United States of America. We don't do that. You have the National Guard, and that's decided based on a specific set of criteria. But this is a different story when you're talking about the United States military.

And I think if you -- when you boil down to the message that Mark Esper was trying to get across in this book, what he says is that he believes that Donald Trump is out for one person and one person only, himself, for his own political future, for his own reputation, and that he doesn't have what it takes to be a public servant, to put even one iota of the public good over anything else. And I think if there is one takeaway, that is probably it. Again, what we need to do is remember that this is also a man with a reputation who wants it try to keep it intact, and he clearly feels like his reputation was tarnished having gone through --

BORGER: I think there are a lot of people who worked in that White House who I've spoken with and you've spoken with, who are kind of going through a little bit of personal therapy here, because they're trying to figure out what they saw, exactly what they saw, what they did, and what they didn't do. And we have seen that in Stephanie Grisham, for example, who has written about this, now Mark Esper has written about this.

And there seems to be a need -- yes, they want to sell books, but there seems to be a need to kind of lift the veil and tell the American public, look, this is what we went through, and this is why it cannot happen again. And I think we ought to take that message, and members of Congress ought to figure out what they ought to be able to do about that. And I think that, in a way, is what the January 6th committee is going to be talking about.

BASH: And if I just might add, we should not in any way think or predict or expect that this kind of book, just like the Bill Barr book, just like pick your book, will change the fundamental loyalty that that very small, but very real part of the Republican base has to this very minute for Donald Trump.

MARQUARDT: Such an important point, they're not budging.

Fast-forward to now, we're seeing dueling comments between Vice President Kamala Harris and her predecessor Mike Pence over the prospect of this Supreme Court striking down Roe versus Wade. Let's take a quick listen to what Vice President Harris had to say.


KAMALA HARRIS, (D) VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In 13 of those states women would lose access to abortion immediately and outright. Those Republican leaders, who are trying to weaponize the use of the law against women, what we say, how dare they? How dare they tell a woman what she can do and cannot do with her own body? How dare they?



MARQUARDT: And then last night, we heard former vice president Mike Pence say "I say with the lives of 62 million unborn boys and girls ended in abortion since 1973, generations of mothers enduring heart breaking and loss that can last a lifetime. Madame Vice President, how dare you?"

Dana, it shouldn't be a surprise that Mike Pence wants to weigh in on an issue like abortion, but how much of this is having his voice out there and getting out there politically?

BASH: It shouldn't be a surprise, but given the silence, largely we've heard nothing from Republican leaders, even the former president, who effectively made this happen by putting three justices -- well, we expect to happen, it's just a draft opinion, on the court who look like they will vote this way, Mitch McConnell, who also helped make it happen, given what we know he did or didn't do with the Supreme Court, and it goes on down.

These are Republicans who have been running on some shape -- in some way, shape, or form on getting rid of Roe v. Wade for generations.


And now that it looks like it might actually be happening, the sound of silence is deafening, and so it is noteworthy that Mike Pence is saying what he said, because he's a true believer on this issue.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right. And if you look at the polling, 70 percent of the public says we don't think Roe v. Wade should be removed, which is why there is this sound of silence, and all this discussion about the leak, and wasn't the leak terrible.

But it is so remarkable, I'm going to echo what Dana is saying, it is so remarkable we don't see press conference after press conference on Capitol Hill saying this is what happens when you elect conservative Republicans, and the former president himself said, some people are giving me credit, and some people are mad at me, but kind of didn't really go beyond that, because they understand that this could affect suburban women, younger voters, women and men, not popular. So they kind of have been quiet, which as Dana is saying is so telling.

ALEXANDER MARQUARDT, CNN ANCHOR: Just talking about the leak.

BORGER: The leak. It's all about the leak.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: They caught the bus and now what do they do with it, right?

BORGER: Right.

KEILAR: Gloria and Dana, lovely to have you guys on.

BORGER: Good to be here.

KEILAR: Thank you so much.

BASH: Good to see you guys. MARQUARDT: All right. Next, we're going to be joined by the Pentagon

Press Secretary John Kirby with more on the American denial about helping Ukrainian forces sink Russia's prized warship.

KEILAR: And we're waiting the release of the highly anticipated April jobs report.

MARQUARDT: And getting antsy as a plane pulls into the gate, that's one thing. But a Chicago passenger got creative. Wait until you see what he did.


KEILAR: New this morning, the Pentagon denying that it provided specific targeting information to Ukraine to sink Russia's prized warship, the Moskva, last month. Ukraine claimed to have hit the flagship of Moscow's fleet in the Black Sea with anti-ship cruise missiles.

Joining me now is Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby.

John, CNN confirmed that U.S. intel shared with Ukraine was used to sink the Russian flagship Moskva.

I just want to get you on the record here, you say what to that?

JOHN KIRBY, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: What I say, Brianna, is that we routinely and have now for weeks been sharing information and intelligence about Russian units, both at sea and ashore, to help the Ukrainians defend themselves against this invasion. And we're going to continue to do that. And it's manifestly unhelpful for sources to be out there talking about the specifics of that intelligence.

So unlike them, I'm not going to do that today. What I can say is what I said last night. We did not provide specific targeting information about the Moskva to the Ukrainians. We weren't involved in their decision to conduct that strike. And we certainly weren't involved in the actual execution of that strike.

And, again, I want to just stress that in order for us to be able to help Ukraine defend itself, it's not just about the weapons, it's not just about the training, it is about some of the information. And we want to be able to protect that information, and rightly so.

And so leaks like this and stories like this, they're unhelpful to the effort to help Ukraine defend itself.

KEILAR: But the U.S. is not supposed to be complicit in the killing of generals or the sinking of Russian ships. So let me ask you this, has U.S. intel resulted in Russian deaths?

KIRBY: I am not going to get into the specifics of the intelligence that we provide, Brianna. And we talked about this Russian general story as well. We're not providing specific targeting information to help Ukrainians go after senior military leaders on the battlefield. We give them information, other partners give them information, and

oh, by the way, they have terrific intelligence of their own. They corroborate all that together, and then they make the decisions they're going to make and they take the actions they're going to take.

It's not just about the United States and providing a specific piece of data. They pull all these things together and they make their own decisions and take their own actions. And let's not forget, they're under an invasion right now. They have been invaded by Russia, Russia is the aggressor.

So when we talk about these operations, and frankly I don't wish we would, but when we do, let's remember who the aggressor here, it's Russia.

KEILAR: Yeah, but the U.S. abides by lines, right? The U.S. does. Our sources told my colleagues that the U.S. confirmed for Ukraine that that was the Moskva. So, I ask you, where is the line? And what do you do when the line becomes so thin that it almost appears to be imaginary?

KIRBY: Well, I wouldn't describe any line as thin or imaginary, Brianna. I would actually disagree with you on that.

I will tell you this, the intelligence we provide to Ukraine is legal. It's lawful. It's legitimate, and it's limited. And we're very careful about what we share and when we share it.

But my goodness, Brianna, I mean, a few weeks ago, the criticism that we were getting was, well, you're not giving them enough intelligence. It's too slow. It's not relevant enough.

And so, we have continued to provide them intelligence and information, and we're going to continue to do that going forward. And it is not helpful to that effort to be talking about these kind of things in the open press.

KEILAR: Are you sensitive to Russian retaliation on this?

KIRBY: We have been concerned about escalating this conflict with Russia since the very beginning. That was another thing we got criticized for in the early days.

I mean, it would be irresponsible if we weren't thinking about the escalatory possibilities here because it is not in Ukraine's interest, believe me. Certainly not in ours or Russia's interest for this to become a war, a conflict between the United States and Russia.


KIRBY: The other thing, the other thing you asked about what we're concerned about, the other thing we're concerned about is the ability to continue to have this information flow. And the more information that gets out there, the more leaks there are, it makes it harder for us, actually makes it more difficult for us to provide Ukraine the kind of information they need to conduct operations. KEILAR: I want to ask you about resources just turning here the

little bit, the U.S. is supplying to Ukraine. We were speaking with a former green beret, not active duty who has actually been in Ukraine training forces there on Javelins and he was there on the ground. He said they don't have enough batteries so -- to train.

So what they did was they jerry-rigged an adapter to use four motorcycle batteries per Javelin to charge it.

Here is how he described it.


MARK HAYWARD, RETIRED U.S. SPECIAL FORCES OPERATOR: And we crossed our fingers and took a $100,000 piece of equipment that the U.S. had shipped over and we plugged in this jerry-rigged battery system to it.


And it didn't blow up. And then we had the ability to turn on the clue for training, to run it for eight to ten hours, as a stand alone.


KEILAR: It is actually quite ingenious. But I wonder where the disconnect here. Is it the U.S. not sending enough batteries or is it Ukraine not allocating them correctly per Javelin system?

KIRBY: Yeah, I saw that report, I saw his appearance on your show earlier today. It is very interesting. Fascinating. And I think we're going to have to take a look and see.

I can't speak to that specific issue. I know that we have been providing thousands and thousands of Javelins as well as training materials and items to help keep those Javelins going, but I can't speak specifically to the battery issue.

I found the report interesting and I'm sure others here at the Pentagon will look at that. If there is a disconnect, then we obviously would want to try to solve that as quickly as possible.

KEILAR: I do want to ask you about the USS George Washington now. As you're aware, the Navy moved more than 200 sailors off the carrier after we saw three suicides in just a week last month. And those aren't the only suicides. We've seen over recent years as well.

Really tough living conditions on this nuclear carrier after -- as it was refueling and doing overhaul.

I spoke with the father of a 19-year-old sailor Xavier Sandor who died by suicide last month and he told me this.


JOHN SANDOR, FATHER OF NAVY SAILOR WHO DIED BY SUICIDE: Knowing what was going on with the crew before him, this could have happened a long time ago and my son would still be alive. I don't know why it took so long for the Navy to act on it. They had to wait until the seventh to actually make changes. It's ridiculous.


KEILAR: John, could the Navy have saved lives if they acted sooner here?

KIRBY: Well, I think that's what the investigation is going to try to look at here. The Navy is looking at this really hard. As you said, they have been moving some sailors off the ship, and now, they got a command investigation under way and I don't want to get ahead of that.

But I think they'll probably be taking a hard look at their own decision-making here and try to derive lessons learned. I saw that interview live. It broke my heart. I'm a navy dad too, and just a gut punch for the family, and can't even imagine the kind of grief they're going through.

It's important that we continue to try to -- I mean, to take mental health seriously here. There is still a stigma in the military about seeking help when you -- when you're struggling. And we got to do a better job getting rid of that stigma.

This is Mental Health Awareness Month here. The secretary is going to be talking about that throughout the course of May. But it can't just be in May, it's got to be all throughout the year. And we've got to do a better job at this and we're going to try.

I mean, we stood up an independent review committee now on suicide prevention, it is going to take a hard look at what we're doing right, what we need to improve, but clearly, we got more work to do and we're going to take it seriously. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family, all the families of those who are affected by the recent suicides.

One suicide is one too many and mental health, as Secretary Austin says, is health, period. And that's the way we got to treat it.

KEILAR: Can I ask you about that? Because that's -- this is one of the most frustrating things for me as a military spouse, hearing my husband on the phone trying to talk people off of limbs, and I just wonder, sometimes I think that these problems could be dealt with when they're small. But there is this stigma against asking for help, because rightfully so, you have service members who think their career is going to be negatively impacted.

KIRBY: That's right.

KEILAR: Why hasn't the military after years and years and years made more progress on that? Why can't they convince service members or take action to say, your career will not be negatively impacted, you need to take care of yourself?

KIRBY: I think one of the reasons we're standing up this IRC, this independent review committee, is to help us answer that exact question, why? Why is this happening? Why aren't we better at it? What do we need to do to improve?

We know we got work to do here. You're right about the stigma. I mean, there is also this can-do attitude in the military.

You know, I grew up in the military. And it's -- you know, it's about mission accomplishments. It's about getting the job done. It's not letting your teammates down.

We put a lot of pressure on ourselves and our units, and so, it becomes hard when you have that sort of mindset, that mission accomplishment focus to be able to take a knee and say, you know what, I'm hurting, and I've got some issues I got to deal with.

It's difficult because you could be ridiculed, or like you said, perhaps maybe your next set of orders will be canceled because they don't think you're up for it. We've got a lot of institutional work to do here and we're going to take it seriously.

I can tell you, Secretary Austin is laser-focused on this, and we're going to stay at it for as long as we can.

But I wish I could tell you, Brianna, there was an easy answer to your question why. We don't know exactly why, but we got to find those answers. And I suspect it's going to be a multitude of responses that we're going to have to take across the spectrum here of mental health.