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Putin Escalates War on Day Biden, Zelenskyy to Address U.N.; Protests Spread in Iran Over Death of Woman in Police Custody; Massive Cleanup in Puerto Rico after Fiona; Markets Brace for Today's Fed Decision on Rates; Special Master Skeptical of Trump's Declassification Claims. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired September 21, 2022 - 06:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: The most significant Russian escalation since the invasion of Ukraine. Vladimir Putin mobilizes new forces. I'm John Berman with Erica Hill today.


And it all comes with ominous new nuclear language. Just a short time ago in a rare and highly-anticipated address, Putin announced a partial mobilization in Russia, which is set to begin today: 300,000 additional troops will be called up to fight.

This comes as Russia has suffered humiliating losses to Ukraine, with Russian troops retreating from occupied territory.

In the speech overnight, which was riddled with false claims, Putin used his most direct language to date regarding the possible use of nuclear weapons.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): This is not a bluff. The citizens of Russia can be sure that the territorial integrity of our homeland, our independence and freedom will be ensured. And those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the prevailing winds can turn in their direction.


ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Putin's comments come across the backdrop of the U.N. General Assembly here in New York, where the war in Ukraine will dominate. President Biden set to speak just hours from now.

And all of this as multiple Kremlin-backed authorities -- in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia -- announced referendums on joining Russia this week. Ukraine and its allies dismissed the move as a sham driven by a fear of defeat.

BERMAN: All right. I want to bring in CNN's Kylie Atwood, here in New York for the General Assembly. And Nick Paton Walsh is standing by, live in Ukraine for us. Kylie, first to you. This speech, initially we thought it was going to

happen yesterday. It was delayed. It happened overnight, a big announcement from Vladimir Putin.

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: A major announcement. And these aren't small numbers either, right? I think it's key to note that he's not only mobilizing Russians here, President Putin, but we've heard from the Russian foreign minister that it is 300,000 reservist troops that are now being put into this mobilization as this ongoing war in Ukraine is happening.

There's a few things we should note. President Putin said that he's doing this because the West has crossed all lines in terms of continuing to support advanced weaponry to the Ukrainians.

But the context here is key. And that's that this comes as Russia has suffered these major losses on the Ukrainian battlefield and also because this is the week when all of the other world leaders are gathered here in New York City for the United Nations General Assembly.

And I think it's key to note that Putin made the point to make this announcement while that is happening. And we heard yesterday from the secretary of state, Tony Blinken, who talked about the fact that this announcement was expected and also these new referenda that were announced just in recent days by these Russian proxies in Ukrainian territories. And here's what he said about what these announcements tell you about what Putin thinks of the United Nations.


ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: That both of these things are happening this week as we're at the United Nations shows his utter contempt and disdain for the United Nations, for the General Assembly, for the United Nations Charter.

The very principles that we're here to uphold this week in the Charter -- sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity -- are what are being violent aggressed by Russia, including through the attempts to proceed with these referenda and putting even more forces into the effort to seize Ukrainian sovereign territory.


ATWOOD: The secretary of state also said that these announcements demonstrate Russia's failure. Essentially, that Putin is making these announcements because he's not doing well.

And we heard similar comments to that effect from the British defense secretary this morning.

So there is a lot of response coming out that's saying that Putin is doing this, essentially, because he's backed into a corner. But that still doesn't explain exactly what this is going to look like on the battlefield, and that's what we'll, of course, watch for. HILL: And that's a big question, right? And it's fascinating to hear

Putin say that "they're trying to blackmail us," right, with their threats of -- of -- and yet we're seeing these -- these are the threats, right, that Putin is putting out there.

ATWOOD: That's right. And the other thing about what he said is that he is once again threatening the potential use of nuclear weapons. We have heard that from President Putin in the past.

But I think it's important to note that he's coming out and saying it again. And we heard from the Dutch prime minister this morning, saying that their response to what Putin is saying is that he is in a moment of panic. And when a world leader is in a moment of panic and also saber-rattling nuclear weapon potential use, that is a really scary moment.

And so, of course, President Biden today is going to speak to the United Nations. So we know that he was going to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine. We'll watch to see what he has to say in response to this incredibly new announcement.

BERMAN: Pay attention to the linguistic games that Vladimir Putin is doing here. They're having these referenda in these four territories to annex, potentially, these regions. And then he's also saying Russian territory is sacrosanct.

So you add that territory. Then you say it's sacrosanct. Then you put the specter of nuclear weapons over it. He's trying to do a lot here all at once.

Kylie Atwood, thank you so much.

HILL: Let's also bring in CNN's Nick Paton Walsh, who's live in Kramatorsk in Ukraine. Nick, there on the ground, how are these comments being received?


NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: Yes. The key issue is how they actually put into application these large rhetorical announcements.

Three hundred thousand reservists, people with military experience. That's a big ask, frankly, for a Russian military to select them, train them, and most importantly, equip them, move them to the front line. They've been struggling to do that with their normal army over the past six months.

So there's a lot of messaging here, certainly. And it will be key as to whether they'll able to actually put together numbers on the front line here. They've been having manpower issues for months. And it's very likely the people they're going to here or announcing they're going to go to have already been impacted by that manpower shortage. So that is important.

The nuclear announcements, everybody on edge about that. I should put a few qualifications in there, though. What he said about attacks against Russia territorial integrity might lead to weapons of mass destruction being used. That's not massively different to Russia's previous nuclear doctrine.

In the context in which he's saying it in this war, it's troubling. But he didn't say that if freshly-occupied areas here by Russia were attacked, that might lead to nuclear weapons.

So some nuances here, certainly. But the key issue here is does this affect the front lines? Russia has been losing dramatically around Kharkiv, but in some areas, they're managing to overcome that manpower crisis by using mercenaries, including Russian convicts, to attack a town near where I'm standing, in Bakhmut. But we saw over the past few days, they're seeing some success.


WALSH (voice-over): The mood here is black and old from a time past Ukraine didn't feel like it was winning, taking heavy losses and struggling to hold on.

But the Russian enemy is something new.

WALSH: This is the very front line, with Russian positions literally 100 meters away from where I'm standing.

WALSH (voice-over): The Kremlin really wants the city of Bakhmut, so here, on its edges, it sent ruthless mercenaries from the Wagner Group to fight. The shelling endless.

We are taken up to their vantage point, from where they see the Wagner fighters rush at them, leading the Ukrainians to open fire.

WALSH: It is just over there. They say that Russian Wagner mercenaries appear to try and run at them, exposing the Ukrainian positions, so the Russian artillery can hit where they are.

WALSH (voice-over): The field between them charred, pock-marked. They are almost eyeball to eyeball. The next attack is imminent.

"We can see a mortar unit," the drone operator says. "They're preparing to fire us."

Down in the shelter, the commander says they've captured Russian convicts who were recruited to fight.

"It was get shot or surrender for the convict," he says. "Wagner act professionally, not like usual infantry units."

Shells continue to land all around them.

Bakhmut is a mess. Russia edging towards it, but not inside. Prepared for street-to-street fighting and meanwhile, torn to pieces. The losses are heavy and expose positions around the city, particularly here.

Russia's invasion tearing through the green treasured land it claims to covet.

WALSH: Why do they want Bakhmut so much?

"They retreated elsewhere, and they need a victory, something significant," he says. "So they throw forces here. Of course, we have casualties. Not today in our unit, but you can't avoid dead or wounded. I lost my close friend five days after we came here."

There are still many people here buying a lot of Natalia's potatoes. "We sold half a ton today," she says. "Who knows where the shooting is coming from or going."


"Don't be scared," she said.

Twenty-four hours later, and Ukrainian artillery is hitting positions on the city's edge amid reports Russia has gotten closer. Much fresh smoke, but it's always hard to know what Moscow thought it was hitting.

Walking home with a squeaky wheel and food is Maria, back to her son.


GRAPHIC: With God you have no fear. And on your own land you cannot feel fear either.

WALSH (voice-over): Silence and terror, in turn enveloping the city.


WALSH (on camera): A very tense week ahead. We know for almost for sure that these four newly-occupied regions will pretty much Monday or Tuesday declare that their votes -- ridiculous to hold something like that, even farcically, during wartime -- will say they want to be part of Moscow. Moscow is likely to accept that.


But does that change the dynamic on the battlefield or the things that Moscow is able to bring to the fight here? They have a huge challenge, and Ukraine now has to move fast to alter, perhaps, the territory it holds and try and disrupt these sham votes to show them for what they really are -- Erica.

HILL: We'll be watching that. Nick Paton Walsh, appreciate the reporting, as always. Thank you. We'll have much more on that throughout the morning.

BERMAN: In the meantime, we have dramatic new video this morning of protests across Iran after a 22-year-old woman died in police custody.



BERMAN: What's going on there is the crowd is cheering on a woman as she cuts her hair in protest. The chants seem to be "Death to the dictator."

An aide to Iran's supreme leader reportedly promised the woman's family, the woman who died in police custody, that there would be a thorough investigation into her death.

CNN's Jomana Karadsheh has been following these rapidly-moving developments inside Iran. Jomana, what's the latest?

JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: John, truly incredible images that we've been getting out of Iran overnight.

We're seeing thousands of protesters taking to the streets of dozens of cities and towns across the country, from the Northwest Kurdistan region; to the capital, Tehran; to cities that are considered more conservative, like Qom and Mashhad.

And really, this -- the scope of these protests, John, are rare. But also unprecedented in their feminist nature, where you're seeing women at the forefront of these protests, leading these protests, taking to the streets, removing their head scarves, setting up bonfires, burning their head scarves, and chanting "Death to the dictator," in reference to the supreme leader. These are acts of defiance that could cost them a lot.

This could mean that they could end up in jail or face the punishment of flogging.

This was all sparked, as you mentioned, by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini last week while she was in the custody of the morality police. Of course, the circumstances surrounding her death remain disputed.

But this seems to be, at this point, spiraling into something much more than that. We are seeing women who are saying enough is enough to decades of repression. We are seeing Iranians questioning their religious authority right now, questioning the morality police, their role, their very existence in the country.

And despite the crackdown that we have seen reported by activists, eyewitnesses on the ground, human rights groups that are documenting what is going on, with reports of people killed and injured in these protests, that does not seem to be stopping people from taking to the streets, with reports of more protests today, this morning in Iran, John.

BERMAN: And every one of those people you see in the streets there, it takes an enormous amount of courage to do what they are doing. Jomana Karadsheh, thank you so much for your reporting.

HILL: Overnight, Fiona strengthening to a Category 4 hurricane, with 135-mile-an-hour winds. The storm now moving away from Turks and Caicos, setting its sights on Bermuda.

Meantime in Puerto Rico, the island is still reeling after the widespread devastation caused by Fiona. Much of the island still without power or running water. CNN's Leyla Santiago is on the ground.


LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The cleanup continues on the island of Puerto Rico. You can see the mud that was left behind by Hurricane Fiona, that residents will have to be cleaning up here and the Southern part of the island.

And you know, it's not just the cleanup. Power still a major issue. The governor saying that he believes by the end of today, a good chunk of the island will have power restored, with one exception, where we are right now.

This is Bornsa (ph), and that is not expected to have power or water restored any time soon.

And we went to the interior part of the island, where the National Guard showed us how mudslides have limited access in those areas. They're trying to clear those out to get in any sort of relief supplies that they can get to those who still don't have power and water.


CARLOS VARGAS, CAYEY, PUERTO RICO, RESIDENT: Very rough, very difficult. We have some roads that got blocked. Part of the road in the beginning when you coming up collapsed. So now we have only a little pass to come up and to come down.

Power, we know that, you know, we're going to face that; and we can deal with that, but the biggest concern is water. Can't live without water.


SANTIAGO: And more help is on the way. New York has said that it will be sending 100 troopers to help in relief efforts on the island -- John, Erica.

HILL: Leyla Santiago on the ground for us there.

And just a programming note for you. Just ahead, FEMA chief Deanne Criswell will join us, live from Puerto Rico, to talk about those ongoing recovery efforts.


BERMAN: So later this morning, the Federal Reserve expected to announce an increase in interest rates as it tries to slow inflation. The question really isn't if the Fed will raise rates, by how much. And the answer is maybe a lot.

HILL: Could be a lot.

BERMAN: So CNN's Rahel Solomon, part of our A-team on the economy, is here with us right now. Good morning to you.


Yes, how much, right? Three quarters of a percent, which if it feels like we've said this before, it's because we have. This would be the third consecutive rate hike of that magnitude.

But prior to recent history, the last time we saw a single meeting of a rate hike of that magnitude was 1994. So that just gives you a sense of sort of how historic these times are that we're living in.

So as the Fed raises rates, well, what does that do for us consumers? It makes the cost of borrowing more expensive. If you're carrying a credit card balance, for example, and you pay the minimum payment, it's going to take you longer to pay it off, as you pay more in interest.

If you are looking for a home right now, those monthly payments have gone up, as opposed to earlier this year, when rates were much lower, closer to 3 percent.

I should say, this is the point. The Fed wants to cool demand. It wants to cool spending. The thing is, it wants to do it so precisely that it cools demand just enough that you get demand back in balance with supply, and inflation starts to ease.

If it overdoes it, well, then we're talking about perhaps joblessness and we're talking about the "R" word.

BERMAN: Recession.

HILL: Recession.


HILL: Yes. Which nobody wants to talk about. But that delicate balance, still not clear if everybody has the formula figured out. That's the hard part, right?

BERMAN: All right. Rahel Solomon, we'll see you in a bit. Thank you.

So you can't have your cake and eat it. The special master calling out the Trump team as the Trump team dances around whether the former president ever declassified documents seized from Mar-a-Lago.

Also --


ALEX JONES, TALK RADIO HOST, "INFOWARS": This is a travesty of justice, and this judge is a tyrant.

(END VIDEO CLIP) HILL: The latest rant there from conspiracy theorist Alex Jones as he prepares to testify at the trial to determine just how much he'll pay the Sandy Hook families. How much he'll pay in damages.



HILL: Donald Trump's attorneys have so far declined to provide evidence to the special master in the Mar-a-Lago case to show which documents the former president claims to have declassified.

Judge Raymond Dearie, though, not mincing words, telling the former president's legal team, quote, "My view of it is you can't have your cake and eat it."

New this morning, the Justice Department responding in a court filing to the appeals court, calling Trump's declassification claims a, quote, "red herring."

Joining us now, law professor Jennifer Taub and criminal defense attorney Andrew Cherkasky. Good to have both of you with us this morning.

So let's start on what we saw yesterday in the courtroom. You were in the courtroom there when the special master, Judge Dearie, made this comment saying you can't have your cake and eat it. I mean, just take us inside that moment. What was the reaction?

JENNIFER TAUB, LAW PROFESSOR: I guess, but I tend to be a little dramatic. But he didn't just say it once, that's what was so important. He hammered that point home several different times.

And what he was trying to say is, listen, the former president brought this case, and he's trying to say that he is entitled to get these documents back, to see these documents.

And the judge said, OK, well, I'm going to start with a presumption. They're marked classified. I'm going to go with that unless you can provide some evidence to me that they're not.

And this is when Donald Trump's lawyers said, Well, you know, sorry. I can't provide that evidence to you have, because I'm holding onto that for our later defense.

And that's when it comes in. He said, Look, I'm not going to force you to blow your -- your defense strategy, but you can't have your cake and eat it, too. Make a choice. And he made that point several times.

BERMAN: And of course, a distinction this whole time has been that Donald Trump and his allies have been willing to say one thing in public. They've been saying, Oh, there was a blanket declassification of all the documents. But in no legal documents, and still to date, no legal arguments has his team asserted, definitively, they were declassified, correct? ANDREW CHERKASKY, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: That's right. And it's --

really, it's a case of be careful what you ask for. Because as this is processed as a criminal case, I as a criminal defense lawyer would always tell my client, you remain silent. You use that burden to your benefit. You make the government prove beyond a reasonable doubt all of the elements, to include the idea that these documents are actually classified and that they were not classified.

But when Donald Trump came forward and brought this special master action, asking for these documents back, it turned into a civil case. He became the plaintiff, and now he has a burden. Something he would have never had to do, had they just kept their cool and let this process through the criminal system.

HILL: So is it all -- I mean, is it all backfiring, then, at this? Right? This is what the Trump team pushed for, and now here they are sort of backing themselves into a corner.

TAUB: It's so true. And what exemplifies their confusion as to whether this is a criminal case, where the government has its burden, or a civil case, where they do, is they actually sat at the wrong table at the courtroom before things started and someone quietly had them move. I was there early, so I noticed these things.

BERMAN: They sat at the defense table when, in fact, they're the plaintiffs here.

TAUB: Yes.

BERMAN: That's the issue.

Who's got the final word in this? This is where it gets interesting. Because it's Judge Dearie, who is a special master appointed by federal Judge Cannon. But if the Trump team continues to dispute what the special master is pushing for here, that I'm just going to decide whether things are classified or not, can they then go back to Judge Cannon, who seems to be very favorable toward them?

CHERKASKY: Well, all along, I have identified the key issue as being whether these documents are classified. And that could be a question of law. It could be a question of fact.

It is going to be something I think the appellate courts and probably the Supreme Court will decide.

The question is the path to getting there. So they could appeal rulings from the special master. I don't think that's as advantageous to the Trump team as if they did it through the criminal process, where there's a different burden.


So they've got to get this up to the appellate courts. Which process they choose to do that through, or which courts they choose to do that through, that's the question.

I think we're -- I think that's way down the line at this point, if they're doing their best work, I think.

HILL: I just got a wrap in my ear, but I do have a quick -- I mean, quick question about, like, if -- with the DOJ signaling they could bring this to the Supreme Court, right, could go that way, as this all drags out, how long could it all drag out?

TAUB: You know, it could be a matter of months or more. I mean, I don't think there's any chance that this is going to move before the midterms. And it could be into early next year.

But I think it's going to be a bit faster, because the DOJ just responded to the 11th Circuit. And they're asking the 11th Circuit to find jurisdiction to let them actually continue working with these documents. And that's what we need to watch, what happens in the coming days or weeks at the 11th Circuit.

BERMAN: And Judge Dearie seems to have a little bit of hustle in him, too. He wants to get this done pretty quickly.

TAUB: Oh, absolutely.

BERMAN: Based on what we saw yesterday.

Thank you both so much for coming in this morning. Really appreciate it.

HILL: A new book details just how close Mitch McConnell came to voting to convict Donald Trump at his second impeachment trial. The two authors are with us next.

BERMAN: And Florida Governor Ron DeSantis hit with a lawsuit by the migrants that he shipped to Martha's Vineyard. How he is responding, ahead.