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Russian Generals Accuse Wagner Leader Of Attempting Coup; Sources: Special Counsel Gives Fake Electors Limited Immunity In Exchange For Testimony; Abortion Politics Takes Center Stage For Both Parties In 2024 Presidential Race. Aired 9-10p ET

Aired June 23, 2023 - 21:00   ET



JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: While providing them with food, water, and sometimes, fuel, and pushing them onwards, to Italy that is dealing with a serious increase, in arrivals, this year, because these countries don't want to deal, with rescues and arrivals.

And, of course, the concern is that this is also putting these vulnerable people, putting their lives, at even more risk, at sea, Anderson.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Yes. Jomana Karadsheh, appreciate it, thank you.

Before we go from here, in St. John's, I just want to thank the people of St. John's, who have welcomed us here, and helped us, in our work, in the last few days, and all week. I've traveled all over the world, but I've rarely ever met such kind and decent and concerned people, as I have, in just the last few days, here, in St. John's.

The news continues. CNN PRIMETIME with Kaitlan Collins starts now.


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN HOST: Yes. Anderson, of course, we've been watching your reporting all day.

And what happened earlier, when you spoke to that sub expert, who was on the Titan, actually, in 2019, and then later emailed the CEO of the company, of course, Stockton Rush, who was on this, this time, of his concerns, with the vessel, and just how clearly they were trying to basically alert him, of what their worst fears were, which is what we saw play out, this week.

COOPER: Yes, it was interesting, Stanley (ph), he was talking, also about the pressure that he felt that Stockton Rush was under from whether it was investors, or even, wealthy people, who wanted to be passengers, and had the chance, to go down, and see the Titanic, to get a vessel, in the water.

In the case, the concerns that he raised, apparently Stockton Rush listened to, because that vessel, that version of the Titan that he went in, he says, Stockton Rush, basically dismantled it, redesigned it, and came out with a new one. But again, he didn't have any information, about what sort of testing that new vessel went under.

COLLINS: Yes. I mean, just amazing to learn that. And we'll see what happens as these investigations continue.

Anderson, thank you.

And we will of course, return to more on that story shortly.

But first, we have breaking news, tonight.

There are extremely troubling developments, happening in Russia, which have been playing out, and seemingly escalating, throughout the day, today. Tonight, as you can see, there are armored vehicles, on the streets of Moscow. Security has been tightened.

And the White House, we are told, is monitoring these developments closely.

All of this is happening, after Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was the leader, of the mercenary group, known as the Wagner Group, accused Russia's Military, of their generals, of attacking his forces, earlier.

Now, Russia's Internal Security Agency has launched a criminal investigation, of Prigozhin. And Russian generals are accusing him of trying to start a coup.

As you might imagine, given that this is Russia, we're talking about, there are still a lot that we don't know a lot that is not confirmed, because these are not trustworthy sources that this is coming from, whether it is the Wagner Group, or the Kremlin itself.

For more on what we do know, tonight, let's go first to CNN's Matthew Chance, who is live for us, in Kyiv.

Matthew, obviously, I mean, this is a remarkable scene that's playing out, what we're seeing, on the streets of Russia. And I know officials there, in Ukraine, are watching this closely. What is the sense of what started this? Because Yevgeny Prigozhin is someone, who is a very close, Putin ally.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, he certainly has been a close Putin ally, supplying mercenary forces, for Putin's war, in Ukraine, for a start, but also, engaging in other sort of helpful activities, as well, over the years.

But, over the past couple of months, tensions have really been sort of boiling over, between Prigozhin, and the Russian Defense Ministry, and the High Command of the Russian Military, with Prigozhin, accusing them of mishandling the war, of not supplying sufficient ammunition, and basically being incompetent.

And we've seen a situation, where Prigozhin has taken to social media, with these furious tirades against the Russian Military leadership. And we saw one earlier tonight, in fact, when he was accusing the Russian Defense Ministry, of misleading President Putin, in pretending basically that Ukraine represented a much bigger threat than it did before Putin's decision, to invade the country, back in February, 2022. So, challenging the sort of basic motivations, if you like, for the war.

It was shortly after that tirade that Prigozhin once again appeared, with video, that was posted by Wagner, on its Telegram channel, of what he said was a Wagner Military camp, in a forested area, we assume in eastern Ukraine, but it could have been just across the border, it had been destroyed, in what Prigozhin said, was a strike, by the Russian Air Force, by the Russian Military. So, the Military moving against Prigozhin.

And he vowed to kill Russian soldiers, in retaliation, for the deaths of, what he said were large numbers of his own paramilitary forces.


Since then, Prigozhin has gone on social media, again, saying that his forces have entered the Rostov region of Southern Russia. There's even been a report, by Yevgeny Prigozhin, over the course of the past few minutes that they've shot down a Russian helicopter, somewhere in that region, as well.

And so, while there's a high alert underway, in the Russian capital, in preparation for whatever's coming next, it seems to be a bit more kinetic, a lot more kinetic, in fact, in Southern Russia, just across the border, from Ukraine, where Prigozhin's Wagner forces are currently concentrated.

COLLINS: The difficulty here is that you don't know which -- who's telling the truth, and what's actually happening here.

Is there any evidence that these Wagner forces are actually going into Rostov, or what he is saying, in these videos, is happening? Is there any evidence that that is actually happening on the ground?

CHANCE: Well, I mean, not evidence that we can independently verify, as they say.

But certainly, look, there's been a lot of months of tension, months of, infighting, and a war of words, between Prigozhin, and defense officials. That feels very real.

But you're right. I mean, there is an element of what's happening, inside Russia, at the moment that we don't know, whether it's orchestrated, whether Prigozhin has the green light, to do the things that he's done, from the Kremlin.

In fact, there's been a big kind of debate, in Russia, when I was last there, just a week or so ago. A lot of people questioning which side, Vladimir Putin would come down on. Would he come down in support of the Defense Ministry, and his Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, or would he come down on the side of Yevgeny Prigozhin.

At the moment, it looks like he's coming down on the side of his own Defense Ministry. But, I mean, you're absolutely right. That could be, as the Russians say, maskirovka. It could be just a ruse, to divert attention, from some other plan.

Look, I mean, certainly, the Ukrainians, from the people I've spoken to here, say that they're watching this situation closely. You get the impression they're watching it with relish as well, in the hope that this is Russia, sort of imploding on itself. But of course, it may be something quite different to that.

COLLINS: Yes. Matthew Chance, stay with us.

I also want to bring in, for more on this remarkable scene, CNN's Political Commentator, Adam Kinzinger, a Republican former Congressman, who sat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and also a Lieutenant Colonel, in the Air National Guard.

Also joining us, CNN Contributor, Jill Dougherty, a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center; CNN National Security Analyst, Steve Hall, the former CIA Chief of Russia Operations; and retired Army Major General, James "Spider" Marks.

All joining us, tonight, for this remarkable scene, playing out, on the ground, in the streets of Moscow.

Steve, can you kind of just put this in perspective for us? How significant is it, that the founder of Wagner, this private mercenary group that Russia has been using, in Ukraine, to capture Bakhmut, obviously, using these convicts, basically, on the ground, in Ukraine, and he's now essentially declaring war, on the Russian Ministry of Defense?

STEVE HALL, FORMER CIA CHIEF OF RUSSIA OPERATIONS: Yes, I think that the stuff that's happened, up to this point, we could have said, well, this could be one of these well-known Putin tactics, where he sort of turns people against each other, even inside of his own governments.

But this is clearly, in my view, at least, in a different league. When you've got somebody, like Prigozhin, saying, first of all, everything that Putin said it, with regard to the reasons as to why they invaded Ukraine are not the case, then he's claiming that the Russian Ministry of Defense is actually bombing and killing his own people.

And of course, last, and I think most significantly, and probably most worrisome, for the Kremlin, is this promise of "OK, we're all going to march, there's 25,000 armed guys, and we're going to march, to Moscow." That sounds very much like a push, like a coup. And I think that's what you've got -- what you see going on the streets of Moscow, right now.

It's certainly why the FSB is involved, one of the most capable internal security services. And also, I would add, probably a direct link to Putin, there. He would have been the one who said, "OK, FSB, you got to go and do something."

So, this is, really, I think, in a different league than some of the stuff that we've seen from Prigozhin, previously.

COLLINS: Yes. And they've said Putin is being kept updated. We haven't actually heard from the Russian leader.

But Jill, we are seeing, on the streets, as he noted there, these armored vehicles, going out into the streets. It's the middle of the night. Have you ever seen anything like this?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR, GLOBAL FELLOW, WOODROW WILSON CENTER, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY ADJUNCT PROFESSOR, WALSH SCHOOL OF FOREIGN SERVICE: Well, of course, years ago, when there was a coup, in Moscow, a time like that. But this is really extraordinary.

And I think, not only do you have the possibility that there actually could be thousands, if you believe Prigozhin, Wagner fighters marching, against the Russian Military. This is unheard of.


And I tend to agree with what Steve is saying. This could be fake. But I don't think it is, because it is so embarrassing, and even more extraordinary, for Putin, to have this happening, and especially when Prigozhin is saying, President Putin was misled by his Military. That makes Putin look like a gullible person, who is mishandling the war.

So, I think, just that that, to me is one of the most important things, the movement of soldiers, and then the undermining of the essential reason that Putin has given, for invading Ukraine. So this, I think, is very serious.

And I would love to know, right now, where is Prigozhin, and what happens if they try to arrest him? Because if he really does have fighters, and he's saying, he shot down a helicopter, this could be a real battle, could be a real battle, if he is not blowing smoke, let's say, on what's happening.

COLLINS: And Jill, it's also just I mean, the stunning collapse, in the relationship, between Prigozhin, and Putin, because it was just a few months ago, that Putin was issuing a statement, congratulating his assault units, on their role -- on the role that what they did play, in Bakhmut, against those Ukrainian forces.

And now, you're seeing him, coming out and saying, actually, the reason that they've been telling you, Russia is conducting this war, that it's about NATO, is fake, and it's false, and it's, something put out there by Russian elites.

DOUGHERTY: Yes. Well Prigozhin is a huge egomaniac. So, he's wanting to -- he has wanted all the time, especially with Bakhmut, to take the credit for taking Bakhmut.

And, I think, probably, I mean, maybe this is Psychology 101. But I think he felt that he was not respected by the Military, that, his men were used, essentially as cannon fodder, which they were, and a lot of them were taken out of prison, to fight, as we've been reporting, for a long time.

So, I think, for the actual men, who are fighting, the question will be, for Prigozhin's people, will they support him? If he is actually serious about marching, either to Rostov or to Moscow, will they support him?

Because, right now, another extraordinary thing is that you have the Russian Military, the General, Surovikin, who's in charge of the Military, in Ukraine, saying, "Hey, guys don't support Prigozhin. We're on the same side. This is only helping the Ukrainians. They're taking advantage of this." This is another really, really important moment, to be watching.

COLLINS: And Rostov, obviously, for those watching, a key city, where there are key Military units, there are Russian Military units.

Congressman, I've been talking to people, at the Pentagon, and the White House tonight, as they are watching this incredibly closely.

If you're in a situation, you're at the National Security Council, you're at the Pentagon, and you're watching all this play out, how do they respond to this beyond just simply watching and waiting?

ADAM KINZINGER, (R) FORMER U.S. REPRESENTATIVE -- ILLINOIS, AIR NATIONAL GUARD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think you have to start thinking through every worst-case scenario.

So obviously, Putin, out of the picture, I think, generally would be great for the world. But you think about the instability, in Russia that will inevitably come from that. Even if he's -- even if this whole supposed coup fails, there will be some instability in Russia, which has nuclear weapons. There's concern about proliferation, if the Russian Republic falls apart, in the even more pieces.

I think, on the other hand, too, this is extremely good, for the war, in Ukraine, because even if as Prigozhin is marching on Moscow, even if that fails, Wagner is out of the fight. And they were a significant part of this effort against Ukraine. Not to mention that all around the world, Wagner protects Russian interests, whether it's in Africa, Libya and other places.

This is a massive blow to the Russian Republic, a massive blow, to their Military effort.

And I'll also say, it's a massive blow to the people, here, in the United States, like, say, Tucker Carlson, who have been parroting Putin talking points, to have Prigozhin, the head of Wagner himself, say, "Those have been lies." There have been a lot of people parroting those Putin lies, and the head of Wagner even just said, those are lies.

COLLINS: Yes. And he's the Russian oligarch that Putin would kind of turn, to do his dirty jobs.

Steve, the videos that we did see, of the generals, in the Russian Military, earlier today, it's, these videos of them kind of against a concrete wall, telling the Wagner fighters, "Don't obey Prigozhin's orders," what does that say to you about how concerned the Kremlin is, as they're watching this? How unusual is it to hear from them, in a video, like that?


HALL: Yes, it's very unusual. I mean, anytime the Kremlin has got this kind of potential instability?

And you have to remember, in Russia, there's this sort of really interesting social contract, between the Russian government, and the Russian people. And it goes something like this.

The Russian people say, "OK, we will surrender many of our basic rights," or at least what we consider here in the United States to be, our basic rights, "in order for you guys to provide us with stability." In other words, in order to make sure that the things that are being rumored to happen, right now, don't happen.

And so, the breaking of that social contract is extremely problematic, for the Kremlin, and for Putin, specifically, because he's the guarantor of the one, you know, he's the one, who makes sure that that happens. So yes, there's got to be a lot of concern, a lot of worry, in the Kremlin, tonight is, if this is actually developing, is the way -- in the way that it seems to be.

COLLINS: Yes, which is, is not really what they're telegraphing. I mean, we saw Russian state media breaking in, for emergency reports, earlier, saying, "Don't listen to the misinformation coming from Prigozhin, here."

And I should note what we were saying earlier, the videos, of the armored vehicles, that's according to Russian state media.

But General Marks, what Congressman Kinzinger was just saying there, from a Military perspective, what's the impact this could have, on Russia's war, in Ukraine, as this counter-offensive that Ukraine is conducting, is happening, right now?

MAJOR. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), U.S. ARMY, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, I think what I've heard from all the contributors is absolutely spot-on. Look, this is the struggle between two titan egos. And let's be frank, most leadership, in Russia, is a body of egos.

I think from the soldier perspective, in Ukraine, this doesn't matter. It's incredibly important. It's strategically significant. But as a soldier, on the ground, I'm concerned about what's in front of me, and am I prepared, to execute my missions? Am I conducting intelligence? Do I have my fires prepared? Can I conduct maneuver? So, a lot of this really won't impact the soldiers on the ground.

But as indicated, the Wagner Group apparently now is out of the fight. And if I was part of the Wagner Group, here to say this a tad flippantly, I wouldn't worry about the Russian Military trying to attack me, if I'm en route Moscow, right? They haven't, the Russian Military, haven't been able to hit much of anything, if it's a mobile target.

So, if I'm in the Wagner Group, I think the safest place for me to be is on the road, en route Moscow. I don't know exactly how this is going to play out. But, on the ground, this is a great opportunity, for the Ukrainian soldiers, to continue to do what they are doing, which is being very cautious, very aggressive, find out where the Russians are incredibly weak, and then exploit that because the Russian Military, right now, is distracted.

COLLINS: Distracted. That's exactly the perspective of what the Kremlin obviously doesn't want here.

And Jill, we should note we're getting breaking reporting in, right now, which is we have learned the Kremlin, and the Presidential Administration, the presidential palace, there, have been cordoned off.

What does that say to you about how they're viewing the threats, to the Kremlin, directly, tonight? And if this is, the questions over how real this is, how legitimate this is?

Clearly, I mean, you can see this video of it, right now, as they are taking these security precautions. Remember, of course, it was just a few months ago, we saw those drone attacks, on the presidential palace, while Putin was not there.

But what does it say to you that they are taking these steps, in the middle of the night, in Moscow, right now?

DOUGHERTY: I think it probably indicates that there's a lot of chaos, behind-the-scenes. President Putin has essentially disappeared. We hear from the Russian media that he is being informed, et cetera. Essentially, he's out of the picture, which means that he does not want to be associated with what's going on, right now.

So, the picture then turns to the Russian Military, and they are saying -- they are showing, I think, or they're attempting to show that they are united, that all of these generals, including Surovikin, who was kind of a buddy of Prigozhin, they're all saying, "Don't do this. Do not march," et cetera. So, I think they're trying to show the Military, are trying to show that they're very organized.

And then, you have other weird pictures, like, pictures of people, on the streets, in Moscow, not paying attention to much of anything, and Russian TV going back to kind of, idiotic entertainment shows.

In other words, it reminds me kind of, Swan Lake. When they had the coup, back in the early 90s, they played Swan Lake, on TV. And this is kind of like, "Everything's OK." But of course we know everything is not OK.

And -- but I guess the culmination of all of this would be, nobody knows what's going to happen. Nobody knows whether Prigozhin really does have 25,000 men, who are going to march. So, the Kremlin is taking no chances.


Putin is very concerned about what the elites are going to do. I think we should also talk about them, the elites, who will look at this, and say, "What is going on with this war that the President started (ph)? We thought it was going to end in a few days. And now, we have a coup brewing."

COLLINS: Yes, nobody knows. And that includes the White House, the Pentagon, Ukraine. They're all watching this closely.

Adam Kinzinger, Steve Hall, Jill Dougherty, "Spider" Marks, thank you all, for joining on that.

Up next, we will go, and get live reports, from the White House, and the Pentagon, of what they do know so far.

We'll also be joined by the former Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, for his take.

Plus, tonight, we are learning that Special Counsel, Jack Smith, has taken a new effort, to obtain testimony, an aggressive one, and the new witnesses he apparently got, as a result of that.


COLLINS: It is nearly 4:30, in the morning, in Moscow. And, as you can see here, troops are cordoning off the Kremlin, and the Presidential Administration.

This is just the latest, in a series of troubling developments that have been happening, over the last several hours, in a clash that has escalated, into an all-out confrontation, between the Wagner Group leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and the Russia's top Military generals.


Tonight, as Matthew Chance just touched on, a moment ago, from Ukraine, Prigozhin is claiming that a helicopter that was firing at civilians has been downed, by his mercenary forces.

He said this in a taped audio message that was posted, on Telegram, where he has been posting most of his updates. He did not give any further details. And I, of course should note, we can't verify his claim, tonight. Neither he nor the Kremlin are exactly trustworthy sources of information.

In a moment, we are going to speak, to the former Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, for his take, on what is happening, in Russia.

But first, we're going to check in with CNN's Oren Liebermann, who is at the Pentagon.

Oren, I imagine officials there are watching this incredibly closely. Have they learned any more? Have they been able to verify any of these claims that we are seeing Prigozhin make?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Not as far as we know, at this point. As you pointed out, in your conversation, with Matthew Chance, and you just touched on it, a second ago, it's very difficult to know for sure what's really happening.

You have essentially three bodies here, right? You have Yevgeny Prigozhin and Wagner. You have the Russian Ministry of Defense. And then, you have the Kremlin, whose arm, at least for information, is Russian state media. And all of those are notoriously unreliable sources of information.

Prigozhin himself will either lie or exaggerate. Russian state media, as we've seen multiple times, over the past, is not to be trusted. And the Ministry of Defense is not reliable at all, in terms of information, it's putting out, whether it's on the war, in Ukraine, or otherwise.

But, of course, the U.S. has tracked carefully and closely this power struggle that we're watching, perhaps play out in real-time, right now, between Prigozhin, and the Ministry of Defense, a power struggle about who has more influence with Putin, who can get resources, for the war, in Ukraine, and in the end, of course, who comes out on top.

Ever since this emerged, as a more clear conflict, earlier this year, the U.S., according to officials, has been trying to gather Intelligence on it, and collect as much as possible, to try to find out where this is going. But in terms of what's happening, right now, and where this leads, that's something the U.S. is watching very closely.

There was a sense, and there has been a sense, I should say, over the course of the past couple of hours that this is something different than what we've seen before.

Prigozhin has complained repeatedly about the ineptitude of the Russian Ministry of Defense. Normally, that has followed some sort of Ukrainian breakthrough, or tactical success, on the battlefield. Not anymore. There wasn't any apparent Ukrainian success that would lead to this.

This is Prigozhin openly complaining, and perhaps acting. And that's why the U.S. is watching how this plays out, so closely, Kaitlan. The question, of course, where does this go from here, as we watch these videos from the Kremlin of it being cordoned off? Remarkable in many ways.

COLLINS: Yes. And the fact that it's all happening in the middle of the night there.

The conversations, the correspondence, as we both know, is between Russia, and the U.S., has been pretty sporadic, when it comes to Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin, and top Russian generals. How did they -- how are they assessing how to verify these claims of what that looks like?

LIEBERMANN: That's an excellent question. The U.S. has its own sources of Intelligence, whether it's SIGINT, collecting signals intelligence or human intelligence, to try to get a better sense of what's really happening here. And as valuable as that's been, over the course of the past year and a half, as this war has played out, at a moment like this, it becomes even more valuable.

The conversations between top Military leaders, Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley, and their Russian counterparts have been incredibly sporadic. But there has been repeated, if not truly regular outreach, here, to try to keep those lines of communication open.

I would speculate or imagine that this is one of those cases, where you try to reach out, to try to talk to your counterparts, to at least get a better sense, of what's happening there. I can't really imagine the Russians would answer the phone, right now, to try to explain what's happening, until they have a better handle on this.

COLLINS: Yes. It seems like they're a little busy.

Oren Liebermann, thank you.

COLLINS: I'm joined now by the former Defense Secretary, under former President Trump, Mark Esper.

Mark, thanks for joining us, tonight, so abruptly, as we are tracking these breaking developments, out of Russia. What is your sense of what's going on?

MARK ESPER, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Well, who knows, and who knows what's real and what's not real. I mean, this is inevitable, in some ways.

As your previous commentators have said, this has been building for a long time. Prigozhin has been very critical, with the Russian Military, particularly Sergei Shoigu, the Defense Minister. So, this has been building up for some time.

If you recall, a few weeks ago, after the siege of Bakhmut, if you will, ended, there was a confrontation, between Wagner, and regular Russian troops, on the ground, in that area. And now, we have, today, Prigozhin saying that his forces were attacked, where the airstrikes were conducted upon him. So, this has been building, for quite some time. And if it is indeed real, it has a number of implications.

COLLINS: Yes. I mean, they are straight-up, accusing him, of trying to carry out a coup, maybe a Military coup. I mean, it's not the actual Military that would be doing it. This is the mercenary group that was doing it.


But do you believe that they are, that Kremlin's taking this very seriously, given it's 4:30, in the morning, there, and they're cordoning off, the Presidential Administration?

ESPER: Yes, look, I think they absolutely are taking it very seriously, given what we're seeing, on the ground. But I don't see this as a coup in the sense that he is trying to topple Putin. He and Putin go back to St. Petersburg, in the 1990s, when their relationship first formed. And Putin has tolerated Prigozhin's outspokenness, now, for nearly a year. So, there's that in play. This is fairly between him and Defense Ministry.

But I think the tricky thing here that we all need to keep in mind is this is more than just a drama, between Shoigu, and Prigozhin, or between Wagner and the Russian Military.

There are other players here that are affected, and may be looking for opportunities. You have within Russia, pro-Ukrainian elements, you have anti-Putin elements, you have the far-right, who believes in many things, that Prigozhin is saying, about the ineptitude, of the Russian army, and how weak it's performed, on the battlefield.

So, you have any number of players out there, who are looking for an opportunity, here, or trying to assess what may happen next. And then, you have the Russian soldiers, who are on the frontlines, right now, in Ukraine, and asking, they got to be wondering "What is going on with my leadership."

And when you're dealing with a force that is, a fair number of conscripts, who don't want to be there, in the first place, you really got to ask yourself, what does this do to their morale?

Particularly, since what I think has been the most -- could be the most damaging part of this, right now, is the fact that Prigozhin has belied the claim, by Putin, early in the war, beginning of the war that this is all about threats, from Ukraine, that this was denazification, et cetera, et cetera.

Prigozhin has undermined all that by saying "It's not real. Putin was lied to by his generals. This is about senior officials, and oligarchs, wanting to plunder the rest of Ukraine." I think that does incredible damage well beyond what happens in the next 24 hours, 48 hours, when it comes to the war effort, and Putin's credibility.

COLLINS: Yes, because that's not coming from a U.S. president, or some leader in Europe. He's basically saying, this idea that it was the threat of NATO aggression, was made up, by the top brass, and Russia, and their corrupt elites, and he said it was, quote, "Needed for a bunch of scumbags to triumph and show how strong of an army they are."

Mark, you've been in the --

ESPER: Yes. So --

COLLINS: Well I just -- you've been -- you've been in this --

ESPER: So, I was just going to say, just think if you're a Russian mom and dad, asking yourself, "What? I thought this is about defending Mother Russia. And all of a sudden, we realize it's not that it's, Prigozhin is telling the truth?"

And again, if you're a Russian soldier, on the front line, trying to beat back the Ukrainians, right now, you got to ask yourself, "Is it worth giving my life for these clowns at the top?"

COLLINS: Yes, and that had already been an issue they were dealing with.

You have been in the seat that Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin, is in, right now. What would you do? How do you monitor this?

ESPER: I would be calling our Intelligence Community, to get the best assessment I could, of what's happening on the ground. There would obviously be talks with the State Department, and the NSC, at the same time, going on, continuously.

I'd be reaching out to the European Command Commander, General Cavoli, who's also the SACEUR Commander, finding out what his assessment is. Certainly, Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO Secretary General.

And then, I think, you have to look at your, some of your NATO allies, the frontline States, like in the Baltics, Sweden, Romania, people who really understand Russia well, and know what's going on. See if they have any interesting insights, about what may be happening.

I would try and tap as many sources as possible to find out what's going on, and how the United States, NATO, and others, may play a role, may help Ukraine, make their way through this next 24 hours, 48 hours, as this situation develops.

COLLINS: Former Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, thank you, for hopping on with us, tonight.

ESPER: Thank you.

COLLINS: And now, we go to the White House, where CNN's Jeremy Diamond is.

Jeremy, I know you've been talking to your sources there. What are they saying about this so far?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kaitlan, at this hour, I can tell you that President Biden has been briefed, on this unfolding situation. And it's so important to note how fast-moving this situation is inside of Russia.

And just like us, the White House is also seeing a lot of this open source intelligence, a lot of what is coming across on the internet. And they're also of course, adding to that what U.S. Intelligence agencies are actively gathering.

Now, I'm told that the White House is actively monitoring this situation. The National Security Council spokesman, Adam Hodge, he said, quote, "We are monitoring the situation and will be consulting with allies and partners on these developments."

Now, it's important to note that not only what the White House is saying, but what they are not saying. And what they are not saying right now is they are not calling this a coup. They are not confirming how serious of a situation this is. And they are not confirming any of the footage that we are seeing on the internet, any of that open source intelligence.


What I can tell you, Kaitlan is that the White House has long been monitoring the tensions, between the Wagner Group, and the Ministry of Defense. This is something that they have talked about, as early as January, where they called the Wagner Group, a rival Power Center, to the Russian Ministry of Defense.

All of that of course because of this central role that that mercenary group has been playing, in Russia's war effort, in a side of Ukraine. And so, this is a situation that's going to have so many implications, the war in Ukraine, of course, foremost among them.

But even if you take that out of the picture, just keep in mind, the fact that Russia is a nuclear power. And so, any kind of power struggle, inside that country, is going to be hugely significant, for with a number of geopolitical implications. Certainly something that I'm told the White House is going to be monitoring, all night long, and I'm sure the same is happening, in key capitals, around the world.


COLLINS: Yes, instability with a nuclear-armed power.

Jeremy Diamond, keep us updated, as you learn more, tonight.

We will obviously continue to monitor this situation in Russia.

Up next, we're also going to return to the Titan submersible disaster, a man who once warned OceanGate's now-deceased Co-founder, about the dangers, of his design, and why those warnings were ignored.


COLLINS: The ongoing investigation, into the implosion, of the Titan submersible, has now led to experts, who say they were sounding the alarm, about the sub's design, and its construction materials, well before the tragedy that happened this week.

One sub expert wrote to the Co-founder, and CEO, Stockton Rush, back in 2019, about a flaw, in the design that might not withstand the intense pressure of deep sea water, just where the Titanic sank.


A year before that, my next guest also emailed the Founder -- the Co- founder, saying the dangers of this design. Despite that, his warnings went unheeded, they were dismissed, by Rush.

Rob McCallum is an expedition leader, and consultant. He joins us now from Papua New Guinea.

Rob, you told Stockton Rush in an email that he was wanting to use, basically, an uncertified technology, in a hostile place, and you said he was putting the entire industry at risk. What is it that made you take these concerns directly to him?

ROB MCCALLUM, EYOS FOUNDING PARTNER, EXPEDITION LEADER & CONSULTANT: I was deeply concerned that the organization was running on a culture that made innovation, the centerpiece, even at the expense of basic engineering principles, and occasionally the laws of physics.

COLLINS: I mean, I was haunted by one of the emails that you sent to him. You said, "In your race to the Titanic you are mirroring that famous catch cry: 'She is unsinkable.'" I mean to see the parallels between that which, multiple people, including Jim Cameron, have noted in recent days.

MCCALLUM: That's right. I mean, as humans, we are remarkably intelligent creatures. We love to innovate. We love to advance technology. But we're all subject to the laws of physics.

And many of these have been explored by engineers, for centuries. And we've learned valuable lessons, along the way. Those lessons are available for everybody. And they must be adhered to. Because if they're not adhered to? There's a price to pay. And, in this case, it was a very terrible price, indeed.

COLLINS: And when you brought this to Stockton Rush's attention, he said he felt personally insulted by that. He said that he was essentially tired of hearing of industry players, who were trying to use a safety argument, to stop innovation.

I mean, how does that make you feel, looking back, on that exchange, now that we've learned what's happened?

MCCALLUM: Makes me feel sick to my stomach. I mean, I knew three people, on that sub. One of them had been a shipmate, for over 20 years. I mean, this was as predictable as it was preventable.

The guy I feel sorry is for is now being outed as the whistleblower, David Lockridge, who put his professional career, on the line, and actually lost his job, in order to blow the whistle, and raise alarm. And not only was he not listened to, by the authorities, he was actually taken to court, and silenced, legally. That is the sign of a broken system. That needs to change.

COLLINS: I mean, they even threatened you with legal action from OceanGate, after you were voicing these concerns, in emails to them.

What should Rush -- what should Stockton Rush have done differently, looking back on this, to make it safer? Is there anything that could have been done, to make it safe? Or is this just simply something that shouldn't have been diving, to those depths?

MCCALLUM: Well, this particular vehicle should not have been diving at all.

I have to stress that in the entire world fleet, of commercially- operated submersibles, this is the only one that is not classed, that is that it's not independently certified. So, I don't think that the general industry is doing the wrong thing. It's just the case that this outlier, a maverick, if you will, was not willing to go through the rigors of getting a vehicle classed and certified.

Comparing Titan to professionally-built subs is like comparing a home- built aircraft with a Boeing. There is no comparison. The engineering rigor between the two is profound.

COLLINS: Your email exchange is from back in 2018. In the years since then, have you continued to follow the company? Is there anything that OceanGate ever did, in the years then that changed, or improved, in your view?

MCCALLUM: Various members of the industry have been trying, over the years, to change the dynamic. But it had become fairly cast in stone. I mean, it was clear that Stockton was not going to change the path that he was on.

When you want to build a new vehicle, a new submersible, you have to make some decisions very early (ph) in the design phase. And then, you have to make more decisions, as the build comes together. And finally, you have to make the final decision, is this craft safe to operate.


The time for making decisions about Titan was some years ago, back during the design phase. And Stockton has never once sorted (ph) his path.

COLLINS: What needs to be changed? I mean is there -- given the fact that it was unclassed, which means uncertified, for people, who aren't familiar with the industry, what standards and regulations, do you believe, can come out of this?

MCCALLUM: Well, again, the industry only operates classed vehicles. We only operate in vehicles that have been certified by a Classification Society. And that's a hugely rigorous and expensive process. It adds 20 percent to 30 percent to the cost of a boat. But most professional operators do that, because it's the only way of making sure that there is some independent oversight and cross-checking.

And I've been asked many times, should all industry vehicles be certified. And the answer is yes, they are. They should be. This was an outlier.

COLLINS: Rob McCallum, thank you for your time tonight.

MCCALLUM: Thank you.

COLLINS: And next, for us, tonight, we have new developments, in the Special Counsel Jack Smith's investigation, how he got two more witnesses, to tell what they know, about efforts, to overturn the 2020 election, and the aggressive efforts that he took.


COLLINS: Tonight, CNN has exclusive reporting, on the Special Counsel's January 6 probe. Jack Smith is now offering limited immunity, to fake electors, in exchange for their testimony. CNN's Katelyn Polantz has all the details, on this exclusive reporting.

And Katelyn, we'll get to your reporting, in a moment.

But we did just get some new filings, from Jack Smith's team, in his other investigation, the documents investigation. What did these filings say?

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Kaitlan, a lot of these are procedural still, at this point, just some checking in, with the judge, and setting some timelines.


So, we had the judge previously setting an initial trial date for August. But the Justice Department has piped up, tonight, saying that actually is not going to be enough time, for the defense side, to prepare, for this case, or for either of side, to work through all of the issues that will arise, around classified materials.

So Jack Smith, and his team, the Special Counsel's office, they now are asking for the trial date, to be set, in December, December 11, in fact. We'll see what Trump's team says, whether they're going to agree with that, and what the judge will do there. But that's now where that stands, as far as timeline.

The other thing that happened tonight is that the Special Counsel's office told the court that they did turn over that list of people, witnesses, that both Donald Trump, and his co-defendant, Walt Nauta, should not be discussing, the facts of this case with. And if they do discuss the facts of this case, that, there could be consequences, because they're out on release, awaiting trial, as they're pleading not guilty.

That list, according to Donald Trump's side of things, is 84 people long, at this point in time. That's according to the court filing. We don't have much more information there.

But there are a lot of moving parts, in this, especially as we head into next week, when defendant, Walt Nauta, so Donald Trump's co- defendant, and his attorney, Stanley Woodward, are expected to be in court, in Miami, again, so that they can just get started, with a not guilty plea, being entered. That hadn't even happened yet.

So, a lot of pieces there, with filings, and this upcoming hearing.


POLANTZ: Kaitlan?

COLLINS: 84 people, I mean, it just gives you a sense of how many people in his orbit had been brought before the grand jury.

Quickly, on your other reporting, on the other investigation, into January 6, we now know that Jack Smith has offered some of these fake electors, limited immunity. What's the sense of why?

POLANTZ: Well, why, is that the people that the Justice Department wanted to testify, in this fake electors probe, apparently were not willing to talk, unless they had some sort of protection.

So, these are two witnesses that appeared before the grand jury, in Washington, D.C., around the January 6 investigation, the 2020 election investigation, being led by the Special Counsel's Office.

Two men, who were fake electors in Nevada, in 2020, for Donald Trump, previously, they had declined to answer questions, in the House investigation, saying that they wanted to maintain their Fifth Amendment rights.

And then, when they showed up to the grand jury, the Special Counsel's Office said "No, you actually need to tell us what you know. We're going to take your testimony. Here's some immunity," with a letter that they had provided from the court. And so, that gets those witnesses in.

And it comes at a time where there are a lot of witnesses, going in to the grand jury that we have observed, especially people, who would know about this fake electors' situation that the Trump team had used, in 2020. And so, all of that put together, is a moment of quite a bit of activity, in this investigation. Maybe charges could be near.


COLLINS: Katelyn Polantz, thanks for that update.

And now, to Roe versus Wade, which the Supreme Court overturned a year ago, tomorrow. And now, we've seen abortion rights playing a critical role, in the midterm elections, but also shaping up to be a defining issue, in the 2024 race.

Both sides Democrats and Republicans have marked the anniversary of Roe's fall, today.


MIKE PENCE, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Every Republican candidate for president should support a ban on abortion before 15 weeks, as a minimum nationwide standard.


SEN. TIM SCOTT (R-SC), (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Thank God Almighty for the Dobbs decision.


SCOTT: Absolutely.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL), (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We have also delivered in Florida on promoting a culture of life. And that means signing the heartbeat bill into law. JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: We'd fight -- we'd fight to restore these protections of Roe v. Wade and make it the law of the land once again.


COLLINS: And Republican congresswoman, Nancy Mace, of South Carolina, says her party can win on this issue, in 2024.

I spoke with her just before air tonight.


COLLINS: Good evening, Congresswoman. Thanks for joining us.

It has been nearly, a year, a year tomorrow, since the Supreme Court overturned Roe versus Wade.

As you can see, Democrats are clearly planning to make this a major campaign issue, in 2024.

But why does your party still not have a consistent message on abortion?

REP. NANCY MACE (R-SC): Well, I will tell you, Kaitlan. And thank you for having me on again.

In the 2022 cycle, I made this issue, a cornerstone, to my campaign as well. I am a victim of rape, raped at the age of 16.

And I think it's really important, as a Republican, especially, that we let women know that this is an important issue to us, because we want to let women know that we care about them. We want to support women, who are in difficult positions. And at the same time, we want to reduce the number of abortions.


And so, my goal has been to show folks, after 2022, the great success that we had, in a swing district, on this issue, is show a roadmap, on how we can communicate with women, to show them that we care, communicate with rape victims, to tell them we're going to be there for them. And that's really going to be important in the 2024 cycle.

Because, I'll tell you, coming from a very purple district, the number two issue that voters, and constituents, of mine, care about is the issue of abortion. And I represent a pro-choice district.

And I've tried to show this is a way that we show that we care about women, legislatively. You can't just say it and talk about it. You have to show it in more than words, and I'm trying to show that path for Republicans for 2024.

COLLINS: But is your party showing that? I mean, you're kind of an anomaly there.

MACE: I am, bit of a unicorn, which is surprising to me.

But I think, when I talk to voters, and I represent a district that's, that has a lot of Independent voters, and Republicans and Democrats alike, I will tell you that the number one thing that people agree on?

There's so much that we agree on here. I think most people are not surprised. But number one is that we want to support women. Everyone wants to see women supported, who are facing a difficult position, or difficult decision.

The second thing, whether you're Republican, Democrat or Independent, is that all of us don't want to see the number of abortions increase. Everybody, I think, can agree the humane thing is to see how do we reduce the number of abortions, in this country, one way or another?

You can do that by providing greater access to birth control, particularly to women, who are in rural areas, or poorer areas. You can support women, who have been raped, by ensuring that their rape kits are processed, in a timely manner, and put into a database, where their rapists can be found, prosecuted, charged and prosecuted with a crime.

Those are some things that we all agree on, and we should be talking about. I'm talking about it a lot because I want to show my party how we can win in 2024, on this issue.

COLLINS: But even when we look at the 2024 field, and how it's shaping up, right now, there is no clear position on abortion. And do you believe that these Republican candidates, who are running, need to make clear where they stand, how many weeks into a pregnancy, should abortion be banned?

MACE: I do believe we need to address this issue head-on. And I would agree that some candidates don't want to answer the question, or they've answered it, different ways, depending on what day of the week it is. That is problematic for us.

I would like us to show the country that our policies are compassionate, that our policies show we care about women, that it's about life, but it's also about protecting women, who are sometimes, if you've been a victim of rape, or a child, who's been a victim of incest, forced into these decisions.

And we need to show women that we care. And I've got a number of bills addressing this. I've got a rape kit bill that I will be dropping, this summer. I've had a bill on access to contraceptions that cut a lot of red tape, at the FDA, for example. These are just some of the small ways.

Helping women, get through an adoption program, if that's what they decide to do, they don't want to have an abortion that maybe give their baby up for adoption, giving them the financial and legal resources to do that. Those are the things that we should be talking about, because whether you're Republican or Democrat or Independent, we all can agree on that. COLLINS: Congresswoman, you're on Capitol Hill, right now. There is a new resolution, a symbolic one, I should note, that is now been offered that is being backed by Speaker McCarthy that would essentially expunge Donald Trump's two impeachments, from the last Congress. McCarthy says he supports it.

Do you support that?

MACE: I haven't had a chance to read it. I saw a headline about it, yesterday. I haven't had a chance to read it. Before I comment on any legislation, I want to take a look at it and understand it.

I can tell you, I wasn't in Congress during the first impeachment. But we know that the basis for that impeachment was based on a bed of lies. And I think that's hugely problematic.

Impeachment should be the very last worst-case scenario for any president, regardless of party.

And then with the impeachment, the second one, there was a lack of due process, lack of investigation, in the House side.

So, I just want to make sure I read it before I make a decision on, if and when we vote on it, how I'm going to vote.

COLLINS: Well, the first one, we should note, was based on him withholding money, from Ukraine, in exchange for an investigation that he wanted.

But when it comes to January 6, you voted no, on that impeachment. But you did say you believed what happened that day wiped away Donald Trump's legacy. He spoke at a fundraiser, yesterday, on behalf of January 6 defendants. It was posted at his private club in New Jersey.

Are you OK with that? Do you think that's appropriate?

MACE: Well, I think it would depend on who those individuals are. If you were violent against the Police officer, towards the Capitol Police, if you did the crime, you should do the time.

We support law enforcement in this country, especially as Republicans. We don't want to defund the Police. So, I would want to make sure that violent offenders aren't pardoned, for committing violence, against law enforcement. That's really number one, would be the number one question that I would have.

COLLINS: You have also criticized the Hunter Biden plea agreement that we saw, of course, generate so much reaction, on Capitol Hill, this week. Do you believe that Trump-appointed U.S. attorney, who handled that investigation, David Weiss, should come to Capitol Hill and testify?

MACE: Well, I will tell you, after seeing some of the evidence I've seen, on a bribery scheme, potentially, money laundering, racketeering, et cetera? I have more questions than answers.


And I would welcome anyone from the DOJ or the FBI, to come to the Hill, and even if it's in the closed-door setting, answer some of the questions that we have. Because, some of this evidence has been corroborated, not only in the 1023 documentation, but then it's been corroborated in emails, and other investigations.

And when you put it all together, there's a lot of smoke. And when there's smoke, there's fire, sometimes, Kaitlan. And it ought to be investigated, to the fullest extent, of the law.

COLLINS: Well you say corroborated. I mean, there are still questions about these allegations. They have not been confirmed. But they are still being investigated.

MACE: Well, for example --

COLLINS: But you do want David Weiss to come and testify?

MACE: Yes, I would like that.

But, for example, in the 1023 form?


MACE: There was a payoff alleged about $5 million, from Ukraine. There were also emails, in Hunter Biden's laptop that also potentially corroborated that $5 million payment. So, that's why I'm saying that this ought to be investigated. And we're going to follow the facts, where they lead us.

COLLINS: Yes. I just think the keyword there, is "Alleged." And, of course, a reminder, this was a Trump-appointed U.S. Attorney, handling this investigation. We'll see if he comes to the Hill. Merrick Garland says that he's fine with that.

MACE: Yes, ma'am.

COLLINS: Congresswoman Nancy Mace, thank you for your time, tonight.

MACE: Thank you.


COLLINS: And the news continues, as we are tracking major developments, out of Russia.

"CNN TONIGHT" with Alisyn Camerota starts, right now.