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U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin Gives Speech about Russian President Vladimir Putin's Failed Attempt to Conquer Ukraine; President Biden Answers Questions in Interview about Whether Vladimir Putin is a Rational Actor; Penn State to Allow Controversial Comedy Event Featuring Proud Boys Founder Gavin McInnes; McConnell: Midterms & Fate of Senate Will be a "Cliffhanger". Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired October 12, 2022 - 08:00   ET



BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Dueling speeches this morning amid revenge strikes from Russia. I'm Brianna Keilar with John Berman. Vladimir Putin and Secretary of State Lloyd Austin both speaking this morning -- sorry, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin -- as the Russian president ramps up his attacks on Ukraine. Putin speaking at a Russian energy forum in Moscow while Secretary Austin addressed a NATO defense meeting in Brussels.


LLOYD AUSTIN, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Putin assumed that his forces could quickly conquer all of Ukraine. He assumed that he could roll into Kyiv. He assumed that Ukraine could never mount a counteroffensive to retake its sovereign territory in Kharkiv and beyond. Ladies and gentlemen, if you want to see how mistaken all of those assumptions were, just look at the battlefield today.


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: There was a new round of missile attacks in Ukraine this morning. At least seven people were killed and eight others wounded when Russia targeted a market in eastern Ukraine, and the city of Zaporizhzhia and its suburbs were struck overnight. CNN's Frederik Pleitgen is live in Kyiv. Fred, what can you tell us about this new round of Russian attacks?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It certainly doesn't seem as though these attacks are letting up in any way, shape, or form. Once again, throughout the entire night here in the Ukrainian capital in Kyiv, we heard those air-raid sirens that kept going on. So far, as far as here is concerned, it seems as though the Ukrainians take down most of the missiles that were shot at the Ukrainian capital.

But you just mentioned it John, Zaporizhzhia once again hit by Russian missiles. The Ukrainians, interestingly, saying that it was actually surface-to-air missiles, so missiles that normally used to shoot down planes that the Russians are now using to shoot at that town. They're highly inaccurate and obviously extremely dangerous for the civilians that are on the ground there.

Also, that market in Avdiivka which is in the east of the country, seven people were killed there alone. At the same time, John, you have a lot of defiance coming from the Ukrainians. In fact, where I'm standing right now, which looks like your average intersection at a moment, a rocket struck here on Monday. It was one of the first strikes that the Russians conducted. Five people were actually killed in that area behind me. When we got here Monday morning, it was an absolutely sea of carnage. And there were destroyed cars, burning cars, there were bodies still strewn across the roadway. It took the Ukrainians only about a day to patch things up and get traffic rolling again. That, of course, also a sign of defiance from the Ukrainians as well. I was able to speak to Ukraine's national security adviser yesterday, and he told me that the Ukrainians will prevail in the war despite these missile attacks that are ongoing, John.

KEILAR: And Fred, Vladimir Putin spoke here just moments ago. What did he say?

PLEITGEN: Yes, so Vladimir Putin, obviously we were waiting to see whether or not he would react to some of the comments that President Biden made in that interview with Jake Tapper last night. One of the things that Putin did say, however, first of all, he condemned the attack on the Kerch Bridge, which he blamed the Ukrainians for, obviously that happened on the weekend, crippling that very important artery for Russian logistics, for their forces in the south of Ukraine.

But then he talked about the Nord Stream One and Nord Stream Two pipeline. Of course, we have been talking about the explosions that took place there. It certainly sounded like he was trying to insinuate that it might have been the U.S. that was behind it, saying that there is only one country that has an interest in weakening Europe economically, and trying to bring Russia out of the game as far as energy is concerned. Obviously, European countries, Ukraine and the U.S., have said that's absolute nonsense, and they, or many of them believe, that it could actually have been the Russians who were behind all of that. But definitely we don't get the sense that Vladimir Putin in any way, shape, or form is backing down from any of the positions, and it certainly doesn't seem as though the war that's going on here, that he is going to change course, and not anytime soon, guys.

KEILAR: Fred, thank you for that report live for us from Kyiv.

BERMAN: A new CNN poll this morning shows President Biden's approval rating is improving, 44 percent of people say they now approve of the way he is handling his job as president, 56 percent disapprove. It's not high, but it is up from a low of 38 percent this summer. On handling of the top issues, 55 percent approve of his handling of coronavirus, 42 percent foreign affairs 36 percent the economy.

In the midst of all this, President Biden sat down with Jake Tapper, and in the exclusive interview, the president spoke about Russia's nuclear threats.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JOE BIDEN, (D) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What I'm talking about, I'm talking to Putin, he, in fact, cannot continue with impunity to talk about the use of a tactical nuclear weapon as if that's a rational thing to do. Mistakes get made, and the miscalculation could occur, no one can be sure what would happen, and it could end in Armageddon.

I think he is a rational actor who has miscalculated significantly. I think he thought he was going to be welcomed with open arms, that this is the home of Mother Russia in Kyiv, and therefore he was going to be welcomed. And I think he just totally miscalculated.


Look, I have no intention of meeting with him, but, for example, if he came to me at the G20 and said I want to talk about the release of Griner, I would meet with him. It would depend.

Let's get straight where I went. I didn't go to him about oil. I went about making sure that we made sure that we weren't going to walk away from the Middle East and what was going on. When this House and Senate get back, there's going to be consequences for what they have done with Russia.


BERMAN: Nina Khrushcheva, she's also the author of "In Putin's Footsteps," and she's the great granddaughter of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Professor, great to have you here.


BERMAN: President Macron of France says he believes that Putin is irrational. President Biden said no, not irrational, just made bad decisions and has been surprised. What do you think, and why is this an important question?

KHRUSHCHEVA: I don't think it's that important for us, because I think the war escalating and Putin is not going to back down. And I think your reports are completely right. He's both rational and irrational. I think he made this decision, as Joe Biden said, thinking that he -- the geopolitical map, I think you and I discussed it at the beginning of this, that it is entirely different from reality is, and it continues to be different despite all the Russian setbacks. So you can say that's irrational.

On the other hand, from his own dictatorial point of view, he does a very rational way of going. He decided he's going to do this. Putin cannot lose. That's not part of his DNA. He's a KGB man. He has all the KGB around him are only looking for blood. So in many ways he just determined to go for as long as he has to, and have a win, whatever that win may be. So it's both rational and irrational.

BERMAN: A mix of both. You heard in that interview President Biden said he has no plans to meet with Vladimir Putin, but if they could talk about Brittney Griner, maybe. What would Putin get out of a meeting?

KHRUSHCHEVA: That's a signal.

BERMAN: It is a signal.

KHRUSHCHEVA: It is a signal. And the same thing, it's interesting, because Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said that if Biden asks us to meet, asks Putin to meet at the G20, he may consider it. So it does seem that they are sending each other signals they are not going to give up their upper hand, so to speak. But at the same time, they're saying, well, we are not really against randomly running into each other or some five minutes somewhere on specific subjects.

BERMAN: You think Putin wants an offramp?

KHRUSHCHEVA: I think he does. I actually think he has been wanting an offramp for a long, long time. But the problem is, as I said, he swirled all these other sharks that he created, those KGB clans around him he created, military clans, KGB clans and whatnot.

BERMAN: Talk about things that he's created, there's this draft now. Now you have recently returned from Russia.


BERMAN: Talk to me about the reception to that you saw, the atmosphere in the country.

KHRUSHCHEVA: When I was getting in, it was, I think, end of June. I got in, it seemed, oh, you know, Putin says we're not going to be European country anymore. The public clearly not responding to this well because all the restaurants, all the Italian and French and whatnot, there was no Chinese signs of any kind. So I thought, OK, well, it can continue, and one way or another the war will fizzle out in a way. They will figure out how to sort of negotiate something.

And then every week it was getting worse and worse and worse. It really was turning more and more dictatorial. For example, I was at the Novaya Gazeta, the new newspaper, the one that just recently closed, and its editor got the Nobel Peace Prize, and they were having an event for Anna Politkovskaya, the former journalist who was killed there, the prize for freedom of reporting, and we're sitting there almost in a dungeon in the Novaya Gazeta with a Nobel Prize winner, and kind of hiding from the rest of society. Two weeks later Novaya Gazeta was closed. It was all that.

So it was getting this pressure, pressure, and so people were pretty much ready for mobilization. And so those 50 percent who pretended that they live in a world that the war is elsewhere, because what they say is that 70 percent support Putin, it's not true. Twenty percent support, 30 against, 50 percent are saying, well, leave us alone. So he did not leave them alone. And as you saw, about a million people if not more sped away.

So the level of despair now by the time I left, which was about five days ago, was indescribable. It was George Orwell, 2022. People just couldn't breathe because everybody is terrified what's going to happen. When Putin talks about the historical future, which, by the way, is an oxymoron, because there is no such thing, when he talks about the historical future, everybody understands that Russia has very little future.


And people are fleeing, and at the same time, the rhetoric from the Kremlin, very Orwellian, say war is peace, ignorance is strength. And Russians are just almost frozen, don't know how to move forward.

BERMAN: That is something to hear from you, having just returned, the level of despair, indescribable. Nina Khrushcheva, we look forward to continuing this conversation. Thank you.


KEILAR: Back here at home this morning, Penn State is facing growing calls to cancel one group's plan to host Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes for a comedy event. The school says while it does not support the event, it is not cancelling in order to uphold the First Amendment. CNN's Whitney Wild joins us now. OK, first off, Whitney, just tell us, how did this event even come to be in the first place?

WHITNEY WILD, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT CORRESPONDENT: There's an organization that is putting this together. Again, it's a comedy event. This event is organized by a group called Uncensored America. It's a registered university organization, three chapters nationwide. It's scheduled to take place on Penn State's campus on October 24th, and it's being billed as a, quote, politically provocative comedy night. Gavin McInnes is one of those headliners, he founded the Proud Boys in 2016 in New York, and the group has since spread across the United States, as well as to countries like Australia and Japan, Brianna.

KEILAR: So what is the university saying about the pushback here?

WILD: They're trying to sort of toe the line. What they're saying is that they don't support the language or the messaging of the speakers at this event. The university is saying this, "Our university neither supports nor condones the vitriolic and hateful language targeting particular groups that has been used by these speakers in the past. While the past statements and actions of these speakers are alarming and can elicit strong reactions from our community, we must continue to uphold the right to free speech, even speech we find abhorrent, because Penn State fully supports the fundamentally right of free speech."

The school is also saying you can do other stuff that night, and encouraging people to go to other events that same day, events that aim to educate students on disinformation while promoting belonging and community. Uncensored America says its mission is to empower young Americans to fight for free speech in order to make American culture free and fun again. CNN has reached out to Uncensored America and Gavin McInnes for comment. We have not heard back yet. But if you have heard of this group before, it's because we have talked about them a lot because the Proud Boys role in the January 6th riot has elicited a lot of attention. It was just last week that a member of the group actually pleaded guilty to a seditious conspiracy charge. But I want to make absolutely clear there is no connection between Gavin McInnes and that case, but that's why that name is familiar.

KEILAR: I do find their statement interesting that they're saying we neither condemn nor support, what does it say, the vitriolic and hateful language. I wonder if that's almost like a misstatement, as they put it. Very curious. We have not heard the end of this, Whitnet. Thank you so much.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell addressing racist comments about his wife, and Republicans chances of retaking the Senate in an exclusive interview with CNN's Manu Raju. Manu is going to be with us to discuss next.

BERMAN: Charges dropped, what Baltimore prosecutors say they have now decided about Adnan Syed in the killing of his ex-girlfriend. We're going to get reaction from the victim's family ahead.



BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: With less than four weeks to go before the midterm elections, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in an exclusive interview with our Manu Raju says it is still uncertain whether Republicans can take back the Senate, and he called it a cliffhanger, he called these cliffhanger elections ahead of us here.

Joining us now with his exclusive report, CNN chief congressional correspondent Manu Raju. So fascinating to hear him describe it like this, Manu because it's a different tone from other Republicans who are pretty optimistic heading into the midterms.

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, you hear from Rick Scott on the Republican side saying they think they'll get a couple of seats and be in the majority.

Not Mitch McConnell because he has seen what has happened in elections past, namely two bad election cycles for Senate Republicans, 2010 and 2012 when they nominated flawed candidates and in the general election, those candidates in states like Delaware and Nevada, Indiana, they petered out. They lost those races and as a result, McConnell was in the minority until they retook the majority in 2014.

So, when I asked about this midterm environment he made very clear, it is uncertain, the flaws that have been exposed by these candidates will be, quote, fatal or perhaps this will be problem, we can get there at the end of the day. He said it's uncertain, a positive one for the Republicans, one that can end up in a debacle, the way it has in the past.

KEILAR: Despite what he has said about candidate quality, he's sticking by Herschel Walker in Georgia. RAJU: This is how we started talking about this. I asked him for the

first time about his allegations that have come out about Herschel Walker paying for an abortion for a girlfriend 13 years ago, allegations walker has denied. I asked if he was concerned about that in any way, he said we are, quote, sticking by Herschel Walker.

But he -- McConnell, at first, was nervous during the primary season about whether to get behind Walker because he recognized all of this baggage. He told me he has been speaking with him throughout this process. Now, what will happen here for McConnell is that most elections he will be the leader again for his party. He told me that he has the votes to continue on as the Republican leader and if he does do that, that will be significant because he will eclipse the record for being the longest serving is that the party leader in history.

So despite the concern pushed by people like Donald Trump to get him out from his leadership position, he will be the Republican leader once again, he told me, he has locked up votes, and still question the majority or minority he doesn't know yet.

KEILAR: Earlier this month, former president Donald Trump really attacked McConnell on social media. He said that McConnell had a death wish, kind of raising the specter here of violence, and he also made a racist remark about McConnell's wife, Elaine Chao, who is Trump's former candidate member, right?

You got his first reaction to this. What did he say?


RAJU: You know, he didn't want to get into this at all. I asked about the death wish comment. I'm not going to talk about it, I don't have anything to say about. I pressed him specifically about the Elaine Chao comment about his wife, who is a Taiwanese immigrant, nationalized American citizen, a cabinet secretary under Donald Trump, and I said, is it acceptable to have a racist attack against your wife from the former president, and he said I don't have anything to say about that.

And he said the only time I responded to the president, I think, since he left office is when he gave me my favorite nickname, Old Crow, which I considered a compliment, he was Henry Clay's favorite bourbon.

He recognizes full well if he were to get into it tit for tat with Donald Trump at this time it would be a distraction for his candidates on the campaign trail. He says he wants to keep this election focused on Joe Biden. That's what he believes the Republicans can take back the senate, win in races with those flawed candidates who have had problems, not talk about the issues with Donald Trump.

And when I asked him, do you want a Republican Party that is more in line with Donald Trump, more in line with Liz Cheney, the ousted Republican who fought Donald Trump. He said, I don't have a litmus test. All I care about is Republicans who can win the nomination, and who can win their races. KEILAR: It's an interesting interview, Manu. Thank you so much for

sharing some of it with us. We appreciate it.

RAJU: All murder charges have been dropped against Adnan Syed for the 1996 killing of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. We'll get reaction from they are family attorney as well as the state attorney for Baltimore City. They will both be joining us life next.

BERMAN: And we're live on the ground in Fort Myers, Florida, as the state works to rebuild after Hurricane Ian.


BERMAN: This morning, charges have been dropped against Adnan Syed, prosecutors in Baltimore dropped all charges against him for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. The case against Syed who was freed from prison last month and placed in house arrest gained national attention after it was featured in the popular true crime podcast "Serial".

Baltimore state, Baltimore city's state attorney, Marilyn Mosby, says DNA results ruled out Syed who served more than 20 years behind bars.


MARILYN J. MOSBY, STATE'S ATTORNEY FOR BALTIMORE CITY: There was a DNA mixture of multiple contributors on both Ms. Lee's shoes. The same multiple contributor for both of Ms. Lee's shoes. And most compellingly, Adnan Syed, his DNA was excluded. Today, justice is done.


BERMAN: We're going to speak to Marilyn Mosby ahead.

Joining me now is Steve Kelly. He is the attorney representing Hae Min Lee's family.

Steve, thanks so much for being with us. Look, Syed was released from prison several years ago. Now, this is a new step dropping all charges, what is the reaction of the family?

STEVE KELLY, ATTORNEY FOR HAE MIN LEE'S FAMILY: They feel excluded. You know, Young Lee, his brother said in court that he felt blind sided and betrayed. The feeling has only deepened here.

You know, the family on behalf of Hae feels that in order for her voice to be part of the process, you know, you need to ask hard questions about what happened here, and whether or not it was supported by the evidence. And so, the family, you know, quite frankly, they are taken aback. They feel that they were excluded from this process and they feel that, you know, there are a lot of questions out there that need to be asked that are not being asked.

And so for them, this is not over. They really intend to do everything possible to really get behind what happened here, to understand it from soup to nuts, and to continue to ask the hard questions in terms of this evidence. For instance, the DNA evidence.

BERMAN: Yeah, the DNA evidence, Marilyn Mosby in the press conference we just played said the DNA evidence excludes Syed, do you not believe her?

KELLY: Well, I don't know that she's a DNA expert. I'm certainly not a DNA expert. From what I do understand, the DNA was recovered from shoes, which, you know, items of shoes are not generally tested by most respected labs. I understand the lab that was used was a fringe lab. It wasn't the Maryland crime lab or an established, you know, facility.

So, you know, we're not -- all we want to do is ask the hard questions. We're not saying one way or another. But based on what's been provided to us, and we don't have the DNA results. So I understand that Mr. Syed, his family members, all of his supporters have that information and had it, you know, in advance whereas the victim was never provided with a copy of that.

So, we can't evaluate them. What we can do is say questions need to be asked and the family is not going to let this go. They're really going to continue to ask the questions and press for this information.

BERMAN: Based on the statements that the state attorney, Marilyn Mosby, about the DNA, based on the other evidence that has come to life over the last few years, do you and the family still believe that Adnan Syed was correctly evicted?

KELLY: Well, I think the term there is evidence. I think what we have seen is vague illusions to potential evidence. I'm not a criminal law expert. I'm a victim's rights lawyer.

And when you talk about evidence to me, you talk -- I'm talking about witness testimony, documents, admissible evidence. And what has been presented to the public is thus far is not evidence. It's characterizations of evidence.

And the problem there is that no one is in this process there to ask the hard questions, to be the independent arbiter. You know, from my perspective and the family's perspective, if Mr. Sayed did not kill Hae, then he should not be in jail, and a grave injustice has been here, but they don't feel they have enough information to make the judgment.