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Russia Tightening Its Military Grip Around Ukraine; Harris: "We're Talking About The Real Possibility Of War In Europe"; Biden To Meet With National Security Council Today; Harris: "We Believe That Putin Has Made His Decision". Aired 6-7a ET

Aired February 20, 2022 - 06:00   ET



CHRISTI PAUL, CNN ANCHOR: Well, it is so good to have you with us this morning, 6:00 a.m. is the time. Welcome to your NEW DAY. I'm Christi Paul.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Boris Sanchez. This morning there are dire warnings out of Ukraine, a looming invasion could begin at any moment. Vice President Kamala Harris has a fresh new warning to Russia, though she is reiterating that diplomacy is still possible.

PAUL: Also a shocking sight in Florida. Can you imagine a helicopter plunging into the ocean near dozens of swimmers? What we're learning about the accident this morning.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I take it as a slap that -- that they are insinuating that we are not following the law.


SANCHEZ: Plus, officials and voters speaking out on one Florida group's baseless demands to purge voter rules and change election laws in the wake of the 2020 election.

PAUL: Also, the closing ceremonies, yes, we are there, the Beijing Olympics kicking off this morning. We have got more of the defining and history-making moments for you.

Take a nice deep breath as we head into Sunday together here, February 20th is the date. Thank you so much for sharing your time with us, we appreciate it. Good morning to you, Boris.

SANCHEZ: Good morning, Christi. We are grateful to have you, though we wish we were starting with better news. Eastern Europe is on the brink of war and the world is on edge as the crisis in Ukraine intensifies with Russia tightening its hold on that country's border.

President Biden meets with his National Security Council this morning. The United States reiterating its support for Ukraine, warning of swift and severe consequences if Russia launches an invasion. Just moments ago Vice President Kamala Harris talked about the gravity of the situation. Listen to this.


KAMALA HARRIS, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're talking about the potential for war in Europe. I mean, let's really take a moment to understand the significance of what we're talking about. It's been over 70 years and through those 70 years, as I mentioned yesterday, there has been peace and security. We are talking about the real possibility of war in Europe.


PAUL: Ukrainian President Zelensky says his country is preparing for whatever comes and he says he's grateful for U.S. support but he is calling for proposed sanctions against Russia to be made public now because he says they would be less effective after an invasion.




SANCHEZ: This is an example of how tense the situation is in Ukraine. A CNN team and other journalists that were accompanying Ukraine's interior minister on a tour of the front lines in the eastern part of that country came under mortar fire yesterday. Fortunately we're glad to report that no one on that team was injured.

PAUL: Very glad to be able to report that no doubt. White House reporter Jasmine Wright is with us now. Jasmine, always good to see you this morning.

Hey, we know that President Biden is meeting with his National Security Council this morning. We heard some very strong words there from Vice President Harris. What can you tell us about potential decisions that might be being made behind closed doors this morning?

JASMINE WRIGHT, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, that's right, Christi. There is going to be a closed-door meeting with the president today in the situation room and official tells us -- and an official told me that he has all throughout this weekend been regularly updated about this ongoing situation, the high tensions over there in Ukraine and that's been happening as he spent his weekend here in D.C. ditching plans to go somewhere else, instead staying to the bone here, really trying to watch what's happening, keeping in touch with those national security officials. And now just yesterday he received an update, the White House told us, getting updated on the vice president's trip while she spends in Munich as she's been meeting with several different world leaders. And, of course, we just heard from the vice president talking about what's at stake here if the world -- if Ukraine -- if Russia does invade Ukraine. And she also spoke largely about her trip, saying that it was a productive one where she was able to reinforce the U.S.'s commitment to NATO, to Ukraine and its sovereignty.

And, of course, she reiterated that major, major shift from President Biden when he said on Friday that he was convinced that President Putin has decided to invade Ukraine. And, of course, we know for weeks that President Biden hadn't gone that far. He said that they were not able to make that decision yet, but of course officials tell us that new updates in U.S. intel has allowed the president really to come to that decision.


So I expect that we will hear more from the White House as the morning goes on after they convene that very, very serious meeting here at the White House. One of the reasons why he stayed this weekend, to keep on top of things as the day goes on. Boris, Christi.

SANCHEZ: We know you will keep us updated with the latest developments, Jasmine Wright reporting from the White House. Thank you so much.

Let's go now to CNN's Michael Holmes. He joins us from Lviv, Ukraine. Michael, obviously the situation there extremely uncertain. The Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky saying yesterday that Ukrainians would not panic. How are people there preparing where you are?

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR AND CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I've been here for over a week now, Boris, and it's been really interesting and a little humbling in a way to meet ordinary Ukrainians and see how they're dealing with this.

They hear the U.S. and others pretty much every day say, it's happening. I mean, the Russians are coming. It's imminent. Put yourself in their position. Imagine how they feel.

But it's remarkable, too, how stoic everyone is. They're getting on with daily life but fully aware too that that life could be upended any day. They are concerned but they are not panicking at all. They are preparing.

I spoke to the mayor of this city, a beautiful historic city in the west of Ukraine, and I asked him if Russia's leaders if they were listening to him what he would tell them. Here is what he said.


MAYOR ANDRIY SADOVYI, LVIV, UKRAINE (through translator): If they attack us then they will suffer from big losses in both military personnel and equipment. This is our free land and we will never give it to anyone. Never give up.


HOLMES: Yes. So you see there the defiance in the face of a formidable foe. They are unafraid, Boris.

PAUL: So I want to ask you, Michael -- Christi here. Do you get the feeling that this is not and if, but a when situation right now for the Ukrainians, that they expect this attack from Russia? And, if so, how capable is the Ukrainian army?

HOLMES: That's a fair question. I mean, certainly the imminence of it is the view of the U.S. and other western nations as we've heard. Ukrainian leaders they are a little bit more optimistic. Although as they say, we are prepared for anything.

In terms of the capability of the Ukrainian military it is interesting. They have come a long way. I was actually talking to CNN military analyst Lieutenant General Mark Hertling earlier in the day and he said that he was with the Ukrainians in Iraq in 2004 and was in command of units of theirs. And he said, they were underwhelming, they were not good in the field.

However, since then a lot has changed. They are better trained, far better trained. They are better equipped, far better equipped. And importantly, they're better led.

You've got to admit, though, that it's going to be the Ukrainian military versus the Russian military, it is not going to be a fair fight in that sense. But I think what you will see, and I spent a lot of time in Iraq with Mark Hertling, I think what you will see as it goes on, if it happens, is it will become an insurgency. It won't be sort of, you know, main force versus main force. It would quickly become a hit and run thing for the Ukrainians and they've been training for that.

And you'll see something like we saw in Iraq and what we saw in Afghanistan when the Soviets were in there and the mujahideen, it will become an insurgency. And that is never pretty, but they are capable. They say they are ready. And, of course, we all hope it doesn't come to that.

PAUL: Michael Holmes, great information and great job over there. Thank you so much, Michael. Take good care.

I want to get some insight from CNN correspondent Natasha Bertrand and CNN political and national security analyst David Sanger. Thank you both so much for being with us. We certainly appreciate it.

Natasha, I want to ask you about the White House because they contend that they are committed to diplomacy as we heard there from the vice president this morning, that there is always time to talk. We also heard from Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, though, yesterday asserting that Russia is -- quote -- "moving into the right positions to conduct an attack." This does seem, as Michael Holmes characterized it, as imminent. Does anyone truly believe in this administration that an invasion is not going to happen?

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, they certainly seem to think that it is more likely than not that it is going to happen. And Vice President Kamala Harris did tell us -- did tell reporters earlier this morning that she believes the diplomatic path here is narrowing considerably. She actually reiterated to me when I asked whether the U.S. still believes that Russia has actually given that order to invade Ukraine, that she reiterated that this is something that the U.S. believes Putin has actually made his decision on.


Take a listen.


HARRIS: As the president has said, we believe that Putin has made his decision. Period. And -- but I will also say that as part of our relationship and partnership and in the context of the alliance, we do share information, certainly, because we want to make sure that we are all working with the same information when we make these very critical and meaningful decisions.


BERTRAND: So I also asked her whether she believes that the U.S. and Ukraine are actually on the same page about this intelligence. Because as we know Ukraine has been expressing skepticism over the last several weeks and months that Putin is actually about to order an invasion of their country and Zelensky has accused the west of kind of overhyping this, suggesting that they are causing panic inside of his country, and that saying every day that a war is imminent is not necessarily helpful for the country.

And Kamala Harris would not directly respond to that question. She said that there is intensive intelligence sharing going on between the U.S. and Ukraine. And she is confident that the U.S. and allies have been sharing intelligence and information as well in order to all get on the same page about the severity of the threat.

She also addressed the sanctions question. We saw yesterday that Volodymyr Zelensky said, why are we not having sanctions issued right now on Russia knowing that they are potentially about to launch this invasion? Harris said that the U.S. and allies still believe that these sanctions are going to have a deterrent effect even if they are imposed after Russia orders that attack.

PAUL: So, David, expand on that for us, would you? That is one of the biggest questions that I have heard a lot of people posing is, why would we, the U.S. and others, not impose sanctions on them now before there is an invasion? As President Zelensky said, after the invasion it would really be a watered-down version. What is the reality of implementing sanctions prior to an invasion? DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, it's a really good question and the answer is thinking this out two or three chess board moves ahead. If you do the sanctions now, Putin could come to two conclusions. First, he could say that's a provocation, we haven't gone over anybody's borders, we haven't done anything yet, all you're really looking for is an excuse to sanction us.

The second thing is when they do go over the border, what is it that you do then? Because you're in the situation where you may not have the best sanctions left to go -- to go execute. So it's really a question of the credibility of sanctions.

Now, you heard yesterday here in Munich President Zelensky asked the entire crowd at the Munich Security Conference to go and vote sanctions now. He made the same case on a private meeting with Vice President Harris, but the thing is the sanctions are supposed to be a deterrent to prevent an attack and if you do them preemptively you've lost your deterrent.

PAUL: Very good point. So let me ask you this, because we heard U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Natasha, yesterday say that Russia is planning -- quote -- "the biggest war in Europe since 1945." We heard similar language about war in Europe from Vice President Kamala Harris and how we need to be cognizant of really what that means.

Do you see any evidence as we lead up to this what the White House and this administration plans to do if this happens to avoid all out war? Can we do so if Russia invades Ukraine?

SANGER: That's a really great question here and Natasha said that the -- my sense of it is from talking to the people in the administration that they will do the sanctions right away, but there's nothing they're going to do to put U.S. forces in because they don't want it to escalate out of control.

BERTRAND: That's exactly right. And they have yet to really lay out how much they're willing to do to subvert Russia in the event that they do actually invade. Sanctions are obviously one option and they are going to put more forces on that eastern flank of NATO in order to deter Russia from potentially making a move on NATO countries. Those eastern flanked NATO countries are extremely nervous about Russia's aggression at the moment but right now that's really all we have been told, is that this is not going to be something that the U.S. gets entangled with.

And that is actually something that Kamala Harris said today. She said, we do not consider ourselves entangled in this conflict between Russia and Ukraine, but we consider it an extremely important moment for the future of European security and that is why we are so engaged.

And so with the situation that we saw last year in Afghanistan, with this president, obviously, intent upon not getting American forces into another conflict, I do not think that we are going to see U.S. troops on the ground.


That is something that they have said is really not on the table at this point. However, the bolstering of those NATO forces is likely something that we are going to see, direct conflict with Russia, that could lead to a conflict that could really upend the world.

PAUL: So, David, Ukrainian President Zelensky also asserts that the west has appeased Putin for years and that that led to this crisis. A lot of people would argue it's not the job of any one country to police the world by any means, but what evidence do you see to support or not that assertion from President Zelensky? And if you do agree with it, do the U.S. and other countries, do they hold -- I don't know that responsibility is the right word, but do they hold some sort of engagement here in terms of when we look at the picture we're in the position that Russia is in right now?

SANGER: Well, I think it's certainly fair to say that in the 15 years between the time that the U.S. was still talking about bringing Russia into NATO, the time that the U.S. was actually encouraging Russia to enter the World Trade Organization, basically do all the things to bring it into a European nation, the two countries have really talked past each other. The U.S. vision of this has been that Russia will become more and more European and that its impulses that historically have been so troublesome to the world would be tamed by the fact that it would be treated like any other European nation.

As Putin has gotten more and more confident over the years, he has moved more and more towards seeking to address his grievances. And his chief grievance is that Ukraine and other former Soviet states are integral to the Russian state. And if you believe that this is sort of his legacy move to begin to try to reconstitute parts of the Soviet Union, there is nothing about integration with Europe that I think he would find particularly appealing right now. And he would say that the Americans and the Europeans were never really interested in making Russia anything other than a very junior partner to that -- to Europe. So, yes, I think you can certainly say that there are things that both sides should have and could have done differently.

PAUL: David Sanger, Natasha Bertrand, we so appreciate your insight and your perspective today. Take good care and thank you so much.

SANGER: Thank you.

PAUL: We have more, much more ahead, by the way, later this morning on "STATE OF THE UNION" at 9:00 a.m. Eastern. Dana Bash is speaking with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

SANCHEZ: And still to come, imagine you're enjoying a sunny day off Miami Beach when suddenly a helicopter falls from the sky, landing in the water. What could make it go down? We are going to discuss with an expert after a quick break. Stay with us.



PAUL: Twenty-one minutes past the hour. So glad to have you here.

Listen, I want to tell you about a police officer who is dead and another seriously injured after the helicopter they were piloting crashed in the waters off Newport Beach, obviously in California there. Investigators say the officers were responding to calls of a fight when the helicopter crashed last night.


ERIC PARRA, HUNTINGTON BEACH CHIEF OF POLICE: The helicopter crashed for reasons that we're not certain of. One of the officers, a 16-year veteran, was extricated and he went to a local hospital or nearby hospital, where he is in critical condition, but he is doing OK. The other officer, a 14-year veteran, unfortunately and tragically passed away as a result of injuries sustained during the -- the crash.


PAUL: We do have an update for you here. The injured officer is in stable condition this morning at the hospital. That officer who died has been identified as 44-year-old Nicholas Vella. We thank him for his service. He leaves behind a wife and a daughter.

SANCHEZ: Federal investigators are also looking into a helicopter crash in Miami Beach. Here is the video they're going to be watching. You can see the helicopter near the top of your screen. It slams into the ocean near the shore yesterday afternoon. Beachgoers and swimmers were only a few feet away. Three people were pulled from the helicopter. Two of them had to be taken to the hospital.


SEAN ADAMS, WITNESS: We were literally just sitting down over there and -- you know, we had seen that helicopter go back and forth over the deepwater several times, but then as it got closer -- you know, we -- I'm an aircraft mechanic so I noticed it didn't actually even have a chance to auto rotate when it came down. It just -- whatever he did he just lost it, came down, smashed, blades went -- going that way, helicopter started tipping. Everybody -- I mean, the whole beach ran to the scene.


SANCHEZ: Joining us now to discuss the accident is CNN transportation analyst Mary Schiavo. She is a former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation. Mary, we're glad to have your insight this morning, as always. What do you make of, first, the video and then what we heard from that witness describing the crash saying the helicopter didn't auto rotate? What does that mean?

MARY SCHIAVO, CNN TRANSPORTATION ANALYST: Well, auto rotation is a skill that pilots must be trained in and must know how to do before they can get their helicopter license. And what that is is if you have a problem with the helicopter, usually a loss of power from the engine or a problem with your tail rotor, the blade and the tail that helps you control the helicopter, then one way to get that helicopter on the ground is literally -- you can think of it as power off landing. What the pilot does is allow the wind, the air rushing up, to turn the blade rather than the engine, and you bring the aircraft down towards the ground.


Obviously, you only get one chance because you're coming down basically as a -- you know, layman's term the power off landing but the blade is turning and then you settle it down on to the ground by using the blade's own auto rotation from the winds to get the plane down.

Now, this person at the beach said -- and he was familiar with the aircraft or the operation of helicopters -- he said, he didn't have a chance to get to auto rotation. And it does take a while to set up. Like to be trained to do it you have to get it positioned, get your glide set up, but the beachgoer said it didn't look like he could do it. So that was one way you could bring the aircraft down controlled if you are having a problem.

The reports of them -- at least this person was that it came down very quickly from the video, though, it looks like they maintained some control. It came down in an upright position, was able at least -- or maybe it was just luck to get away from people, but there are many reasons you can have a problem in a helicopter. This appears to be what's called a Robinson 44. It's made in Torrance, California.

People like it because it's very affordable. You can buy one for -- you know, for under half a million dollars, a used one for very less. But over the years the NTSB has had criticisms for various things such as something called rotor bumping, meaning the rotor -- the main rotor can hit the housing of the helicopter in extreme conditions.

It does have one thing to that that didn't happen here, there is a fire danger upon a crash landing. Over the years there have been many criticisms but that's impossible to tell from the video what really brought it down.

SANCHEZ: And, Mary, the people on the helicopter were lucky that there were beachgoers and lifeguards that quickly responded to get them out of the water. Walk us through the challenges of crashing into this sort of area, this kind of shallow water, a beach front.

SCHIAVO: Well, you're absolutely right. A lot of really good and fortunate factors came together for the occupants of this helicopter. First of all, you know, aircraft of any kind do not float very long if at all, and a helicopter sinks very quickly. The beachgoers being very brave, you know, they didn't know what they were going to approach when they got out to the helicopter went out and got the people out. And that's one of the biggest risks on a water landing or a water crash is people drown.

Many times I have worked accidents from water crashes where people had water in their lungs and didn't make it out and the water killed them not the crash. So here they got them out, kept the helicopter upright long enough to get the people out, it was starting to turn and that would have made rescue much more dangerous.

Now, people aboard a water sightseeing helicopter they are supposed to be provided inflation devices. Usually they're belts around the middle and they will inflate if you need to get out, you need to put -- if you need to get out of a plane in water -- the helicopter in water but, you know, certainly there wasn't time for any of that. So the beachgoers I think get a big, you know, big vote of credit for getting these people out and probably saving at least one or two of their lives.

SANCHEZ: Yes, they deserve some credit, no doubt. And investigators clearly will be looking into exactly what caused this wreck. Mary Schiavo, thank you so much for the time this morning. Always appreciate it.

SCHIAVO: Thank you.

SANCHEZ: Of course.

PAUL: Well, closing arguments are set to begin tomorrow in the hate crimes trial for the three convicted killers of Ahmaud Arbery. We'll talk to you about the prosecutors in this case, that's next.



CHRISTI PAUL, CNN ANCHOR: Closing arguments begin tomorrow morning in the federal hate crimes trial of Ahmaud Arbery's killers. Gregory McMichael, his son Travis, and their neighbor William Bryan were convicted last year of killing Arbery as he jogged through their South Georgia neighborhood.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN ANCHOR: The prosecution called some 20 witnesses before resting its case. And notably, neither the McMichaels nor Bryan testified in their defense. In fact, the defense only called one witness. CNN's Nadia Romero reports.


NADIA ROMERO, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (on camera): Boris and Christi, throughout the trial, we heard the prosecution lay out their case saying that this was all racially motivated. 20 witnesses took the stand to testify one after another, who say they had personal conversations one on one with the defendants.

The prosecution even show text messages and social media posts with the defendants using racial slurs and saying negative things about black people as a whole. The prosecution says it's quite simple. They targeted attacked and killed Ahmaud Arbery because of the color of his skin.

Now, all three defendants are already facing life in prison. But Ahmaud Arbery's mother says if they are convicted in the federal hate crimes trial, this will send a message. Take a listen.


WANDA COOPER-JONES, ARBERY'S MOTHER: They killed Ahmaud simply because Ahmaud was Black. And what we heard over the last two days, these guys was racist. And these -- and these charges, they needed to be tried. And the world needed to know what type of people the McMichaels really were.


ROMERO: Now, the defense says that the prosecution has this all wrong. The only reason why they went after Ahmaud Arbery was because the men had known about a Black man who had been going through a home that was under construction. They knew things were stolen from that home and stolen from vehicles in the neighborhood. And they believe that Ahmaud Arbery was the person responsible.

They say they were trying to do a citizen's arrest. But when he resisted, they ended up killing him but it was only in self-defense. Closing arguments are set for Monday morning. Boris, Christi.

SANCHEZ: Nadia, thank you so much.

So, after the break, we're going to bring you the incredible story of a family in Ukraine who chose to flee their home in Kyiv out of fears of a Russian invasion. That's up in just a few minutes.



PAUL: It is an evolving situation this morning at Ukraine's border with Russia. And we know White House officials say President Biden will meet with his National Security Council this morning in the Situation Room to discuss what's happening.

SANCHEZ: Yes. And later today, sources say that French president Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin will speak by phone as diplomatic efforts to avert invasion continue.

Amid growing fears that Russia could invade Ukraine, many living in the capital of Kyiv are now fleeing their homes and their moving west away from Moscow's military buildup. One place that's become a refuge for Ukrainians is Lviv, a western city near the border with Poland, where most U.S. government officials have already been relocated.


PAUL: Well, CNN's Michael Holmes went to Lviv. He spoke with one family who did just that. They left Kyiv because they wanted to stay away from what they believe is going to be some serious violence.


MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voiceover): In an apartment in Lviv in western Ukraine, Natalia and Dmytro Kolesnyk play with their three young children. This is where they live, but it's not their home. That's because until just a few days ago, home was the capital Kyiv, 600 kilometers to the east, now a potential Russian target.

DMYTRO KOLESNYK, LEFT KYIV FOR LVIV: Kyiv is also could be attacked by missile or maybe some Kyiv factory or Kyiv energy base.

HOLMES: According to American intelligence, Kyiv would be a primary target if Russia invades. And that's why the Kolesnyk family decided they couldn't risk staying.

NATALIA KOLESNYK, LEFT KYIV FOR LVIV: It was never in my head this could happen. But having this experience right now, talking about the -- it's part of Ukraine. I can think that this basically could be the situation. That's why I'm considering the fact that we're not sure and safe anyway.

HOLMES: Lviv is a vibrant, historic city. It's close to Poland, Slovakia. It feels very European. It's also, thanks to Russia, become a refuge for Ukrainians fleeing their homes. And not just from this crisis.

They've come to from the Donbas in the east where Russian-backed separatists have for eight years waged war on the Ukrainian government and from Crimea annexed by Russia in 2014.

Oksana Novikova and her family know well how the Kolesnyk feel. In 2014, when the Russians came to Crimea, she knew she had to leave, and now runs this bakery in Lviv.

Many people went missing or were imprisoned when Russia occupied Crimea, she says. I didn't want to end up like them, so I left.

The notion that the massive and powerful Russian military might actually cross the border again is almost surreal for Ukrainians. But while they might be concerned, they're defiant too.

Oksana says, right now, I feel calm because we Ukrainians have more confidence in ourselves. We are a united country.

For the Kolesnyk family, they'll stay here and Lviv until this standoff, the threat of war recedes. Then they say they'll head home to Kyiv. Michael Holmes, CNN Lviv, Ukraine.


PAUL: Michael, thank you.

A group in Florida is pushing for eligible voters to be removed from the rolls. So, what's behind the group calling itself Defend Florida? We'll explain.

And tonight, do not miss CNN all-new series. It focuses on the 36th President Lyndon B. Johnson. And in this preview here, veteran journalist Bob Schieffer talks about seeing Johnson running for office. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BOB SCHIEFFER, JOURNALIST: Politician I ever saw or had any consciousness of was Lyndon Johnson. That would have been 1948. He was running for the Senate. I was 11 years old. We heard he was coming to the vacant lot where we played baseball in Fort Worth. It was a big event in the neighborhood because we heard he was coming in a helicopter and we have never seen a helicopter

He had a bullhorn. And he would say out in the loudspeaker, come to speak with him at the football field.

Finally, the things settled down. It landed there. And then he stepped out. He waved and everybody. He would sometimes make as many as 16 stops a day as he crossed Texas in that helicopter.


PAUL: It's so interesting, isn't it? Be sure to watch CNN's new series LBJ: Triumph and Tragedy. It's tonight at 9:00 p.m. We'll be right back.



Well, good morning to you. It's 6:48 here. There is a powerful pro- Trump group pushing false claims about voter fraud and calling for new restrictions on voting in Florida.

SANCHEZ: The group is called Defend Florida and they've yet to produce any evidence whatsoever of voter fraud. But still, some Republican lawmakers are rushing through proposed changes that could see thousands of people pushed off of voter rolls. CNN's Leyla Santiago has the story.





SANTIAGO: Roger Stone.


SANTIAGO: Mike Lindell, they're all promoting Defend Florida, a self- described citizens' organization touting false claims about widespread election fraud.

CAROLINE WETHERINGTON, CO-FOUNDER, DEFEND FLORIDA: That happened thousands and thousands of times in 20 -- in the 2020 election. SANTIAGO: Caroline Wetherington, the once president of Women for

Trump, Florida is a co-founder of Defend Florida. The group recently released a report that calls for the purging of voter rolls and changing Florida election laws even though in November of 2020, Florida's Governor Ron DeSantis said this.


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): We're now look being looked at as the state that did it right.

SANTIAGO: Defend Florida's co-founders told reporters they found more than 5000 instances of voter or voting irregularities in Florida and they say they have signed affidavits to prove all of them.

WESLEY WILCOX, SUPERVISOR OF ELECTIONS, MARION COUNTY: The group has not provided me with any actionable data.

SANTIAGO: Marion County Supervisor of Elections Wesley Wilcox, a registered Republican, is the president of the Florida Supervisor of Elections Association which represents supervisors in the state's 67 counties.

WILCOX: I take it as a slap that they're insinuating that we are not following the law.

SANTIAGO: The group is asking election officials to remove inactive voters from the registration list, voters like 78-year-old Sally Davidson.

Did you know you're on that list?


SANTIAGO: We tracked her down to find out if she was aware Defend Florida had deemed her voter registration problematic.

DAVIDSON: They cannot take my God-given constitutional right away from me. Because as the Constitution is written now, it doesn't say failure to vote.

SANTIAGO: She hasn't voted in decades but remains active in the electoral process by signing petitions. Defend Florida also claims it discovered tens of thousands of people registered at locations that are not residential addresses. At the top of their list of examples, over 9100 registered at the Crestview Courthouse.

We've reached out to Okaloosa County where the courthouse is located. They tell us there are actually 7,670 registered voters at the courthouse. It's an address the county assigned to them because about half our active military or their family members.

WILCOX: They may literally be in Afghanistan, Germany. They still are eligible to vote.

SANTIAGO: The others are those without a physical address, the voter living in a boat or an RV. This month, Florida Republicans introduced a new bill that aims to put in place many of the measures Defend Florida is pushing.

It's calling for an office of election crimes and security, more voter ID requirements, adding steps to more limits on vote by mail, and requires county supervisors of elections to update voter registration lists more often.

WETHERINGTON: We didn't have a totally clean election because we got really dirty voter rolls. But at least the people of Florida came out and voted.

WILCOX: I have yet to see something that is factual that we -- that needs to be addressed.


SANCHEZ: Leyla Santiago, thank you so much for that.

So, the Winter Games are about to wrap up in Beijing. And one American Olympian is leaving without a medal. She's not too disappointed about it though. You'll hear from her next.



SANCHEZ: The former head coach of the Miami Dolphins who's suing the NFL and three of its teams for racial discrimination has a new job. Brian Flores has been named the senior defensive assistant and linebackers coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He's going to coach under Mike Tomlin, one of only two black head coaches in the NFL.

Flores' attorney says that while he's focused on the new position, he's going to continue his lawsuit against the league pushing for change in the way that coaches are hired.

PAUL: Listen, we are just minutes away from the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. That's after of course two weeks of competition. I'm sure you've watched hundreds of medals were handed out. The U.S. finishing fifth in the medal count, 25 medals, eight of them gold. Norway came out on top, 37 medals, and a record 16 of them were gold.

SANCHEZ: But one of the big stars of these games, Skier Mikaela Shiffrin will not be going home with a medal at all. She's not too beat up about it though. Coy Wire has more from Beijing.

COY WIRE, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: Christi, Boris, many were expecting a huge medal hall for Mikaela Shiffrin here. The two-time Olympic champ has six medal opportunities at these games, but she'll leave with none.

In the alpine mix team event, Shiffrin, Paula Moltzan, River Radamus, and Tommy Ford finishing just off the podium and forth. Shiffrin earlier crashed out of three of her individual events, finishing ninth and 18th and the others. And she could have coward amid those struggles but instead she showed strength and marched on to become just the second woman in Olympic history to race in all six alpine skiing events.

And Team USA's Jessie Diggins continuing to blaze new snow-covered trails taking silver in the 30k mass star. She's the first American woman to medal in an Olympic long-distance cross country race. She said her legs were cramping in the last few laps, had food poisoning and a couple of days ago, but Jessie Diggins becomes now the first American to win more than one Olympic medal in cross country skiing.

Team USA bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor is an icon, a legend of the sport, now even more historic. She is the most decorated Black winter Olympian ever and the most decorated woman in Olympic bobsled history.

Her bronze in the two-women bobsled with teammate Sylvia Hoffman and her silver in monobob earlier here give her five medals overall. Afterwards, she talked about making history despite spending a week in isolation here after a positive COVID test. Listen.


ELANA MEYERS TAYLOR, OLYMPIC BOBSLEDDER, TEAM USA: This has been incredible Olympics. You know, starting out in isolation, I had no idea what was possible. But fortunately, I had a great team behind me who believed in me, who believed that this was possible. And I couldn't have asked for a better outcome. I couldn't have asked for a better Olympics.


WIRE: Elana Meyers Taylor was set to be flag bearer in the opening ceremony but was forced to miss it due to COVID. But now, she's been named flag bearer for the closing ceremony as well. And she'll be able to take part in that honor.

So, Christi, Boris, just like that, these Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics come to an end. Nearly 3000 athletes from about 90 nations through extraordinary circumstances inspire and unite through sport in what have been one of the most truly unique games in Olympic history.

SANCHEZ: Coy wire, thank you so much.

Stay with us. The next hour of NEW DAY starts right now.