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Putin Orders Russian Forces Into Separatist Regions In Ukraine For Peacekeeping; U.S. And Allies Scramble To Respond To Putin's Provocation; 95-Year-Old Queen Elizabeth Isolating After Positive COVID Test; Jury Deliberations Begin In Hate Crimes Trial Of Arbery's Killers; Errors, Waitlist Plague Launch Of Trump-Owned Social Media App. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired February 21, 2022 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: CNN is on the scene in Russian, in Ukraine, and here in the U.S. as we cover this major breaking story.
We want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. This is a SITUATION ROOM special report.
Let's get right to the breaking news on Vladimir Putin ordering so- called peacekeeping forces into separatist-held parts of Ukraine.
Our Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward is in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv for us. Clarissa, Russian troops could be arriving in Ukraine very, very soon.
CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. And President Volodymyr Zelensky is expected to address the nation sometime in the next hour. His foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, has also tweeted that he has requested an immediate urgent U.N. Security Council meeting to deal with this issue as everyone tries to grapple with how to respond with this fast-breaking story.
Essentially, what we know, according to this decree, the sort of friendship agreement between Russia and the independent or they would argue the independent republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, they have a ten-year mutually binding security decree which allows and invites Russia in to protect borders, to offer defense and to offer also financial and economic support.
That could start to unfold any moment now. We could start to see Russian troops pouring across that border or trickling across that border. We simply don't know exactly what to expect yet. There have already been a number of reports popping up on social media, none of which we have been able to confirm. But the real concern here becomes, Wolf, does this constitute an invasion?
Of course, Russia will try to frame this within the narrative that they have set out now, saying that these are independent republics requesting our help but that is, of course, not going to be the understanding of this by the international community and certainly not by the government here in Kyiv. But it remains to be seen how exactly they will respond because, obviously, there's a very real concern that if they respond with force of any kind, that could ignite and escalate an even worse military conflict. Wolf?
BLITZER: Clarissa, I want you to stand by. We'll be back to you in a moment. But right now, I want to go to the White House, our Chief White House Correspondent Kaitlan Collins, she's getting new information for us. Kaitlan, what are you picking up as far as the Biden administration's response to Putin?
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we have seen President Biden signed this executive order imposing limited economic sanctions on these two territories that Putin is describing as independent now.
Nothing on Russia directly or Putin yet, this is not triggering the unleashing of the full sanctions package that the White House has been talking about for some time now, saying that that's what would happen and that's what they would do in coordination with allies if this full-scale invasion were to occur.
And a senior administration official who just briefed reporters describe that as saying, because Russia has had forces in these area since 2014, they don't consider this to be a new step. Though, of course, you are seeing the changes that have been made today with the steps that Putin took, which the White House has described previously as would be in violation of these international agreements.
Now, they say there is more to come. They expect more sanctions activity to happen tomorrow. Officials have not detailed, Wolf, what exactly that would look like or what those steps would be, though, of course, is something will be waiting to see what exactly it is.
And when it comes to what Clarissa was just saying about these reports to these troops actually going in with the blessing of Putin, the White House says they are going to monitor this over the next several hours and look at what Putin actually does, not just what he is saying.
Though, what it comes to what he saying, they reference that speech that he gave today, of course, that angry diatribe against Ukraine, saying they have never been a true nation in and of themselves. They said that they believe that was a speech to the Russian people to justify a war.
And, of course, they have been warning about the imminent of an attack here with Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, saying this morning they could -- they believe it would be happening in hours or days and, of course, that's a big question here of whether or not they would use this as a definition of an invasion.
It doesn't appear that they are ready to take that step, though they say they will be watching closely to see what it is that Putin does over the next several hours and overnight, Wolf.
BLITZER: We shall see. Kaitlan, I want you to stay with us as well. Clarissa Ward is re-joining us from Ukraine. Also with us, CNN Contributor Jill Dougherty, she's in Moscow, and our Pentagon Correspondent Oren Liebermann.
Oren, the U.S. expects Russian troops could move into the Donbas region of Ukraine as soon as tonight or tomorrow morning. Are we seeing the start of what could be the biggest war in Europe potentially since World War II?
OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: It's certainly possible, and that is the fear not only here in the Pentagon but throughout the U.S. government and, of course, many European officials with that exact same fear.
I spoke with one official who said this was the play they expected from Vladimir Putin, and it's when they expected it. Now the question is where does this go from here. It's clear that many believe this is the justification he's using to create the reasoning for an invasion.
It's worth remembering you don't need 190,000 troops to declare that you've recognized two parts of Eastern Ukraine as independent. You need that level of troops if not only you're going to destroy Ukraine's military but also even go beyond that for a full-scale invasion.
It was Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin who said over the weekend that the possibility of Russian tanks rolling into Kyiv is highly likely. And that's not just an opinion of the defense secretary. That's the fear here that Putin will go all out here in his attempt for regime change and control over Ukraine.
BLITZER: Yes. It's an enormous fear that's growing and growing.
You know, Jill, you're there in Moscow. How do you interpret these moves from Putin, the dramatic announcement today? Just how dangerous is this situation.
JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR, RUSSIAN AFFAIRS: I think it's dangerous because it's incremental and you can kind of break it into little pieces, very carefully choreographed.
You know, let's go back a few days ago. The Duma, the lower house of parliament, says, Mr. President, please recognize these regions. President Putin sits down with his security council usually behind doors, this time in front of the cameras. They debate it. They discuss it. Then he makes the decision. Then he has that dramatic speech. And the chilling point to me was when he said any further bloodshed will be on the conscience of the Ukrainian regime.
And then looking at the fine print, and you'll always have to look at the fine print with President Putin, in those agreements with friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance, what they are talking about is the president ordering the armed forces of Russia to ensure peacekeeping functions, so they could very well open the door to peace keepers, in quotes, going in, with, of course, the intent to protect the people there.
So it would not be -- obviously, the Russians wouldn't say it's an invasion, it would be a peacekeeping protected function.
BLITZER: That's what they would say.
You know, Clarissa, how are Ukrainian civilians bracing for what's likely to come?
WARD: Well, I think there's been a real shift here. Make no mistake, Wolf, for days now, we've been talking about relatively calm people are, but tonight, through conversations I've had on social media and talking to people, it's clear that there's, you know, a real sense of palpable fear, that this could potentially constitute the beginning of an invasion.
And I would say the recognition of these two breakaway republics is almost less frightening to people than that 57-minute speech that president Putin made, where he basically dismissed the notion of Ukraine as a sovereign nation and essentially outlined what could be the pretext or groundwork for a much more extensive military incursion.
And so I've heard reports of one woman saying that the children and her daughter's school, their parents are now thinking of putting stickers on their backpacks saying what blood type group they are.
Again, this is just anecdotal. I can't speak to what every Ukrainian citizen is saying, but what we're seeing on social media and hearing from people is that there is now a very real concern that what they had imagined really only as a worst case scenario and had not believe could happen after hearing that speech, many describe the feeling of a pit in their stomach with this realization that, oh, my God, this actually could really happen
BLITZER: You know, Kaitlan, as far as diplomacy is concerned, over the weekend we were told that the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, would be meeting with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, in Geneva on Thursday. That potentially could be followed with a summit meeting between President Biden and President Putin somewhere in Europe, all assuming there was no Russian invasion of Ukraine. Where do -- where does diplomacy stand now?
COLLINS: Well, the idea of that summit happening only looks increasingly less likely, Wolf, and they were already pretty down on the prospect that have last night when the French had first put this idea out there in the readout of the call that they had between the French president and the Russian president and President Biden yesterday. They were saying, yes, we're fine to meet with Putin but only if there's no Russian invasion.
And what we've been saying is that one could happen in hours or days. So, likelihood of that happening has only gone down, it appears, since Putin has made these steps -- taken these steps today, but the White House is not ruling it out completely.
They are not saying whether or not that meeting between Secretary Blinken and the Russian foreign minister is going to still happen on Thursday in Geneva. [18:10:01]
That is kind of what everyone had been looking ahead to. And then I think also the big question is are they still able to pursue a path of diplomacy based on what has happened today, based on the speech that Putin gave that made it pretty clear how he feels about Ukraine and that things are not going to change, in his view, of how he believes that this should end up.
And a senior administration official who was just talking to reporters said that they are going to continue to pursue diplomacy until the first tanks roll. That is the way that they are viewing this, Wolf, saying that up until the last minute, they are going to try to go down this path, though you've seen the extensive efforts that the U.S. has been taking, that the French have been taking on that matter. They haven't changed much. Russia has only continued to build up its forces. So, of course, the idea of that window closing on when that's going to happen seems to be getting shorter.
BLITZER: You know, Oren, you're there at the Pentagon. Earlier today, the president's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, warned that this would be, in his words extremely violent and that Russia would seek to crush the Ukrainians if all of this unfolded. How brutal could this get?
LIEBERMANN: If Russia goes for an all-out invasion using the forces its amassed on Ukraine's border, on the north, in Belarus, in Crimea and in Russia on the east of Ukraine, it would be horrible, if not, far worse than that. The combined power of those forces, from aircraft, artillery, missiles, tanks, ground troops against Ukraine, not only against the military, but U.S. officials have said they wouldn't be that discriminatory in their targeting in civilian population, population centers would almost certainly be hit.
On Friday, CNN reported that the Kremlin has lists of people it wants in power in Kyiv and then lists of people it wants removed from positions of power. So, that would be at the state level, at the national level, and that, in and of itself, is terrible enough.
But on the human level, U.S. officials here say there might be somewhere between 1 million and 5 million refugees forced out of their homes in Ukraine and basically headed west into Poland. U.S. military is set up in Poland to begin handling those evacuees, U.S. citizens and others. Those refugees, that wave hasn't started yet, but officials say it would if the tanks roll.
BLITZER: All right. Everybody stand by. We're continuing to follow the breaking news as Russian troops are poised to move into parts of Ukraine as soon as tonight. I'll speak to a key member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee about the U.S. response.
This is a Situation Room special report.
[18:15:00] BLITZER: We're following breaking news, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, giving the order for Russian forces to move into separatist regions of Ukraine for what he's calling, a, quote, peacekeeping mission.
Joining us now from Brussels, Congressman Gerry Connolly, he's a key Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Congressman, thanks for joining us.
REP. GERRY CONNOLLY (D-VA): My pleasure.
BLITZER: As you know Russia is claiming this is simply for peacekeeping, his words, peacekeeping, but to be clear, if Russian troops move into Ukraine for any reason, do you view that as an invasion?
CONNOLLY: I do. This is not a peacekeeping operation, and we need to stop enabling Putin with even the use of that word. These are units of the Russian military who are using the pretext of the independence of Russian-occupied sovereign territory of Ukraine to further that occupation and to expand it.
Right now, Russia's surrogates and Russian troops occupy about a third of Donetsk to Luhansk. What he proposes to do immediately is to extend that to the remaining two-thirds. That is an invasion by any sense of the imagination.
BLITZER: Well, what do you think the U.S. should do about that? If you regard that moving into these areas as an invasion, what should the U.S. do?
CONNOLLY: There are three immediate things we should do. We should impose some of the most consequential sanctions ever contemplated by an alliance like ours that will cripple the Russian economy in virtually every critical sector, making it almost impossible for Russia to function in the modern economy certainly through a financial sector and to trade, investment and exports and imports.
Secondly, we need to shore up our NATO borders to make it very clear to Putin that we are prepared to protect NATO members from any incursion on the part of Russia. And, thirdly, we need to help the Ukrainians defend themselves, and that means providing military equipment, training and the like to help them defend their own territory against the Russians.
Remember, there are 41 million Ukrainians, and they have yet to be heard from with this action today by Russia.
BLITZER: Yes. The White House saying, what, Putin announced today is a blatant violation of Russia's international commitment. But, so far, the White House is declining to specify whether this, quote, peacekeeping forces sent from Russia into Eastern Ukraine would constitute a further invasion of the country. Is that a mistake? Should the White House be blunt to say, yes, this is an invasion?
CONNOLLY: I think, Wolf, I think the White House gets a lot of credit so far in how it's managed the situation in calling out the disinformation in advance of Vladimir Putin, and anticipating the pretext he might use to justify an invasion. And as a result, he hasn't had of maneuverability to do what he was planning to do.
But at some point we need to throw a flag down and call it what it is. And in my view this is an invasion.
This is different than, you know, quote, a peacekeeping operation. It's no such thing. And we should not cooperate with Vladimir Putin's fiction for any time at all. It's time to react. It's time to show him that there are consequences for his reckless behavior.
BLITZER: These next few hours are going to be really, really critical.
Congressman Gerry Connolly, thanks, as usual, thanks very much for joining us.
Coming up, inside Vladimir Putin's moves against Ukraine, why he's so personally invested and moves towards war.
And we'll also going to get an update on Queen Elizabeth's health, now that the 95-year-old monarch has tested positive for COVID.
BLITZER: More breaking news on Russia's military moves into Ukraine. Multiple U.S. and western officials tell CNN that Vladimir Putin's decision to order what he calls peacekeepers into separatist regions could be an opening salvo to a possible large-scale invasion. The world clearly watching Putin's next move.
Brian Todd is joining us right now. He is following the breaking story. Brian, we've got to look into Putin's mindset during his fiery address to the Russian people earlier today.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We indeed did, Wolf. But we also knew already that Vladimir Putin has long viewed Ukraine as essentially part of Russia. He's wanted it back in his sphere for influence for years. But this action today, analysts believe, is also about Putin's view of his and his country's places in history.
VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT: Ukraine is not just our neighboring country, it's an integral part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space.
TODD (voice over): Analysts say, for Vladimir Putin, Ukraine is personal. To hear Putin tell it today, Ukrainians are really Russian, hardly even their own nation.
PUTIN: Ukraine has never had a consistent tradition of being a true nation.
SUSAN GLASSER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: I think for Vladimir Putin, he is essentially denying the legitimacy of Ukraine as an independent state.
TODD: His speech today a window into his thinking on history.
JOHN SIPHER, FORMER CIA DEPUTY CHIEF OF RUSSIA OPERATIONS: He's got all of these grievances that are buildup and he's trying solve them all in one sort of very brutal attack on Ukraine.
TODD: Early in his presidency, the former KGB colonel told his nation, the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century and there was one Soviet republic he specially regretted fit loosing.
GALSSER: For him, Ukraine is the crown jewel that was loss. Ukraine is a sister country.
TODD: Experts say Putin has always had the view that countries on the Russian periphery has to be pro-Russian, and he sees a western firmly Ukrainian government as a threat to that ideal.
MARC POLYMEROPOULOS, FORMER HEAD OF CIA CLANDESTINE OPERATIONS IN EUROPE, EURASIA: He doesn't fear NATO. He fears democracy. And Ukraine, which is a fledgling democracy in Europe, that's something that he fears because it's an example for his own people to see.
TODD: But they also the man born and raised in what is now St. Petersburg, the seat of the czars, has his own legacy in mind when it comes to what happens in Ukraine.
SIPHER: He wants his legacy to be like the great czars of the past or the heads of the Soviet Union. He left Russia a great power to be feared, respected and treated seriously on the world.
TODD: Analysts say Putin has chafed at what he's perceived as past U.S. administrations treating Russia like a lesser power, and that flexing his muscle with Ukraine is a way to keep his country relevant.
SIPHER: He wants people to be coming to Russia, to solve world problems than being a threat to others. That's better than being disrespected or ignored.
TODD: But Kremlin watchers say the man viewed as the ultimate strategy may have overplayed his and have this time.
GLASSER: Look, it could be a terrible miscalculation. War leads to unpredictable consequences, the economic consequences of an invasion would be massive on Russia.
TODD (on camera): Now, as powerful as Vladimir Putin is, analysts say a drawn-out bloody war in Ukraine, if that's what we see, would harm his legacy and could even threaten his hold on power. As one expert points out, significant losses from the war in Afghanistan did contribute to the dissolution of the old Soviet Union. Wolf?
BLITZER: Yes, it did. All right, Brian Todd reporting, thank you very much.
Let's discuss what's going on with the former director of National Intelligence, retired General James Clapper, he's a CNN National Security Analyst.
General Clapper, are these moves from Putin today a step towards making his long-held desire a reality of regaining a Russian hold over Ukraine?
JAMES CLAPPER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Oh, yes, Wolf, I do. I think, you know, this thing about great Russia has, I think, eaten at him since the demise of the Soviet Union. And I think he is a throwback to the czar era and he thinks of and refers to Ukraine as little Russia. And so this is a first move. I can't believe he's just going to stop with the two so-called people's republics in the Donbas region. And what worries me what happens after Ukraine. I think we've got real questions on our hand here.
BLITZER: What do you mean when you say what happens after Ukraine? Do you think he is ambitious enough to go after other countries in Eastern Europe, including NATO allies?
CLAPPER: Well, I wonder. You know, I wouldn't -- I wouldn't bet my paycheck that he wouldn't do that. I mean, you know, he's not getting a lot of advice from people that are telling some of his ideas are bad. He's surrounded by sycophants that are yes men.
So, he's not getting opposing opinions or opposing views. So, I think we need to -- we need -- as the United States, we need the worst case of this and do what we can to reinforce NATO and start those sanctions, turn them on right away pause they won't take effect in the next few days.
BLITZER: But he knows -- I was going to say, General Clapper, sorry for interrupting, he knows, Putin, if he were to attack one NATO country, he's attacking all 30 NATO countries. They are all committed to responding.
CLAPPER: That's correct, and this may not take the form of an overt invasion. There are other, as we've seen, there are other forms of attack that Putin could use, and all of it in the cyber realm. So, I think -- and the general information operations, misinformation, disinformation, those kinds of things that I think he would employ against former orbit -- countries that were formerly in the Soviet orb, which he also feels very defensive about because he views them as unfriendly.
So, I don't think just because of whatever happens in Ukraine, I don't think it's going to be the end of it. And I certainly don't think that if he incorporates these two people's republics into the larger Russian orb that he's going stop. BLITZER: Yes. This is very sensitive, delicate moment. At this point, General Clapper, the White House isn't publicly saying whether they view this so-called, quote, peacekeeping force sent from Russia to Eastern Ukraine as an invasion. If Russian troops cross the border into Ukraine, whether they call it peacekeepers or anything else, it's clearly an invasion, right?
CLAPPER: Well, that would be my view, but I think the White House, the administration has done very well through this, has played not the greatest hand pretty astutely, so they want to keep their options open. But for me, when any Russian troops march into any part of Ukraine under any pretense, regardless of what it's called, that, to me, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it's an invasion.
BLITZER: Yes. that's what most people would say.
As someone who led the nation's key intelligence agencies, you've studied Putin clearly for a long time. What do you see is his calculation here?
CLAPPER: Well, you know, I took note of what the Finnish prime minister said about the change in Putin. He has a lot of interactions, a lot of meetings with him. And I think that this has reached the point of anger and aggrievement on Putin's part that I'm not sure he's thinking rationally anymore. And that's what I find very disturb about trying to predict or anticipate what's he going to do next, and I find it very disconcerting.
BLITZER: Because the price he's about to pay, the economic sanctions, the economic price, the political price and maybe the price in lives, casualties, if the Russians move full scale into Ukraine would be horrendous. I don't understand what he's trying to do either, but we will see what he does. General Clapper, thanks, as usual, for joining us.
CLAPPER: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: Coming up, Buckingham Palace says Queen Elizabeth is experiencing mild symptoms after testing positive for COVID.
BLITZER: Breaking news. The world is on edge right now as Vladimir Putin threatens to send in what he's calling, quote, peacekeeping troops into separatist regions of Ukraine as soon as tonight.
Also tonight, Queen Elizabeth is experiencing mild symptoms after testing positive for COVID-19. Buckingham Palace says the 95-year-old monarch is receiving medical attention and will continue, quote, light, light duties as she recovers.
Let's discuss with the former CDC director, Dr. Tom Frieden. Dr. Frieden, thanks for joining us.
How risky is COVID for the queen as a 95-year-old, she's almost 96, even though she's fully vaccinated?
DR. TOM FRIEDEN, FORMER CDC DIRECTOR: Because she's fully vaccinated, meaning primary series and boosting, the risk of severe illness is drastically lower. These vaccines are remarkably effective, even in someone who is 95 years old. So, we think that she and other people who are up to date with their vaccination series are likely to do quite well, but, of course, at 95, you do have to be careful and we'll have to see how the next two days ago.
BLITZER: And I think I speak for all of our viewers in the U.S. and around the world, we wish her only the best, a speedy, speedy recovery.
Other COVID-related news, Dr. Frieden, here in the United States, the FDA says it's looking at data on whether a fourth COVID vaccine dose might be beneficial for healthy adults, potentially as soon as this fall. Do you think that's necessary, and is this fall the right time for most people to receive yet another shot?
FRIEDEN: Time will tell. One thing that is good is that it should be the FDA and scientists discussing this openly rather than CEOs or companies that stand to benefit from this, guessing that they're going to need an annual vaccine, which would be great for their shareholders. But we're just going to have to see. We're going to have to see what happens with our immune response, what happens with the virus itself, do new variants emerge? Does it have more immune escape as some of the new variants do, the newer variants do?
We already do recommend four doses for people who are immunosuppressed, a primary series of three doses plus a booster.
We're learning more about the right vaccination series, the schedule and the dosing, but the bottom line is really clear. If you're up to date on your vaccinations, you're much safer and much more likely to end up in a hospital or severely ill.
BLITZER: Do you think eventually, Dr. Frieden, we're all going to be taking a COVID shot once a year, every year, around the same time, just as we do with our annual flu shots?
FRIEDEN: That's one possibility. Another possibility is that after three doses, we'll have long-lasting immunity. So, really, the bottom line here is we need to be adaptive. The virus is adapting, and we need to adapt. As we learn more we'll have new recommendations. Those will be based on science, not on what the companies are pushing, and they'll be based on what we learn. Because, so far, we just don't know enough. Not enough time has passed with enough people who have gotten three doses to determine if a fourth dose is required.
But the good news, Wolf, is that the flashflood of omicron is fast receding and we're looking at much brighter days coming forward in 2022.
BLITZER: Yes, I hope so, indeed. Dr. Frieden, as usual, thank you so much for joining us.
Coming up, we're staying on top of the breaking news out of Ukraine, very worrisome developments, as Vladimir Putin threatens to move what he's calling, quote, peacekeeping forces into separatist regions of Ukraine as soon as tonight.
Also ahead, jury deliberations begin in the federal hate crimes trial of the three white men who killed Ahmaud Arbery. Details of the dramatic closing arguments, that's next.
BLITZER: The breaking news we're following. Ukraine is bracing for aggressive new moves from Vladimir Putin. The Russian president says he's sending in what he's call peacekeeping forces into separatist- held areas. We're following that. Much more of that coming up.
Also tonight, the federal hate crimes trial of the men who killed Ahmaud Arbery is now in the hand of the jury which has just finished for the day after more than two hours of deliberations.
CNN national correspondent Ryan Young is in Brunswick, Georgia, with the latest.
RYAN YOUNG, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The jury now has the case in the federal hate crimes trial for the three men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery. Arbery's mother says she hopes to have guilty verdicts by Wednesday which marks two years since her son was murdered.
WANDA COOPER-JONES, MOTHER OF AHMAUD ARBERY: I think that the DOJ presented the case well. I think we're going to get a good verdict at the end. The anniversary date is the 23rd, and hopefully we'll have a good verdict by the 23rd.
YOUNG: Travis McMichael, his father, Gregory McMichael, and William Bryan are charged with interference with right, a hate crime and attempted kidnapping. The McMichaels also face a weapons charge. Convictions in this trial could bring steep fines and add on more life sentences.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We, the jury, find the defendant Travis McMichael guilty.
YOUNG: In November, during a state trial, all three men were sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Arbery. Only Bryan is eligible for parole after 30 years. Arbery's murder caught on camera leading to outrage across the country.
COOPER-JONES: Ahmad was chased down for like five minutes.
YOUNG: During closing arguments today in the federal trial, government prosecutors said Arbery's murder was about racism, going on to say the men hunted him like an animal. Arbery's parents agreed saying this on Friday.
COOPER-JONES: They killed Ahmad simply because Ahmaud was black, and what we heard over the last two days, these guys was racist.
MARCUS ARBERY, SR., FATHER OF AHMAUD ARBERY: There's too much to say, but just know that he just would kill racial.
YOUNG: The defense disagreed during closing arguments acknowledging their clients used racist language in the past but denied Arbery's race motivating his killing or their actions toward him. The defense pointing the men did not belong to any hate groups. During this trial, jury heard testimony from more than 20 witnesses, several of who spoke about racial language used by the defendants including the "N" word. The defense only called one wins who talked about the Georgia neighborhood Satilla Shores where the men lived and where Arbery was killed. She had never met the McMichaels or Bryan.
YOUNG (on camera): Yeah. Wolf, I was really watching the jury during the closing arguments. They were really paying attention to how the prosecution was hammering home their point. Something that was brought up today, the prosecution said at point, imagine if three black men chase a while man through the neighborhood with guns screaming stop or we'll blow your head off or also scream racial epithets.
She said the case would be a lot different. You could see the jury lean in during this, and another thing I noticed is one of the defense attorneys nodded off during the instructions to the jury. A lot of people who were focused on this case believe they will get justice in this, but at the same time, they are watching and waiting almost two years after the day that Ahmaud was shot and killed -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. Ryan, thank you. Ryan Young in Brunswick, Georgia, for us, thank you.
Let's get more on this closely watched trial. Joining us now our legal analyst Elliot Williams.
Elliot, did prosecutors from what you know prove beyond a reasonable doubt that these defendants were motivated by race when they killed Arbery?
ELLIOTT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yeah, look, Wolf, the challenge here is very different from the regular homicide trial where they have already been convicted of murder because here, prosecutors had said it occurred but occurred because of the victim's race.
Now, if the prosecutors' charge was to prove that these men are virulent racists who each had long story of using the N-word and other ethnic slurs and text messages and so on, yes, they prove that their bigots.
[18:50:09] Now, the question is, did they prove that the killing happened on a count of race? That's just a higher burden and higher bar, Wolf. I truly could see this going either way, on account of the challenge the prosecution has here.
BLITZER: Did -- you heard Arbery's mother say she hopes to have a guilty verdict by the two-year anniversary of her son's killing. That would be this Wednesday.
Do you think a jury could return a verdict that quickly?
WILLIAMS: They could. It just so hard to know what goes on in that room. Juries have surprised me. Now, look, when we start seeing, if we start seeing questions come back from jurors about particular aspects of the case or use of the N-word and other ethnic slurs or other bits of evidence, we might get some insights as to what they're thinking, but you just don't know and we'll have to wait and see.
BLITZER: The three defendants as you will know, Elliot, are already serving life in prison sentences because of their conviction at the state level. What kind of sentences will these three men be looking at if they're also found guilty in this federal trial?
WILLIAMS: Well, most importantly, the McMichaels are charged with the firearm offense, Wolf, that would carry a mandatory minimum 10-year sentenced, consecutive to any other sentences. That's just the minimu.
It could be enhanced based on the fact that there was a death involved, and a firearm, the crime happened in public, and was carried out as a group and so on.
Now, part of why the Ahmaud Arbery's family rejected a plea bargain early on was that there was a possibility of them serving the federal sentence first, which was less than ideal. What they would usually do is serve their state sentences first. They're tougher, harsher conditions. So, in all likelihood, they will serve their state sentences and any federal sentences that come after that.
BLITZER: Elliot Williams, as usual, thank you very much.
WILLIAMS: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: Coming up, stay with CNN for all the latest breaking news out of Ukraine, where the crisis is growing more dire by the hour. And former President Trump just launched a Twitter copycat app. Some users are surprised they can't use it right away. We'll have details when we come back.
BLITZER: There's more breaking news we're following. CNN has just learned that the United Nations Security Council is now expected to convene what's been called an urgent meeting tonight, 9:00 p.m. Eastern, 9:00 p.m. Eastern, as Vladimir Putin threatens to send Russian forces into separatist held areas of Ukraine, what he's calling a, quote, peacekeeping mission. We're following all these late-breaking developments.
There's other news we're following as well. The former President Donald Trump used this Presidents' Day here in the United States to launch his new app, Truth Social. It's a carbon copy of Twitter and backed by Trump media and technology group as an alternative to the big tech social platforms that famously banned the former president in the wake of the insurrection.
Let's bring in CNN's chief media correspondent Brian Stelter.
Brian, tell us about the response to this new app on day one.
BRIAN STELTER, CNN CHIEF MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: It was slow going on day one. I suppose, Wolf, Rome wasn't built in a day, Facebook wasn't built in a day. These platforms usually take time to grow.
But on day one, the site, the app did struggle to log in new users, did have a hard time registering people. Apparently there is a long wait list. We'll see how long it takes to fulfill all those people who want to sign up.
Devin Nunes who quit Congress in order to run this social media company says he believes it will all be up and running by the end of March. So, you got to give it some weeks or some months to get this fully online. But it's a big bet by Trump that he can bring people back together on a Twitter-like website that is not Twitter.
And the name Truth Social is a remarkable name. I mean, it's like Joe Biden launching the club for the millennials. It's like Hillary Clinton launching an app for Fox News fans.
Donald Trump and truth, the words don't normally go together well, but I think in some ways this is a rebranding campaign. He's trying to say he provides the truth, he brings the truth to people through this app, his version of the truth.
And the test now is whether he can sign up millions and millions and millions of users. Normally, we see big platform user fads come and they go, fads like TikTok -- well, not TikTok. Fads like club house, they don't stick around very long.
But every once in a while, there is a big new app that emerges and becomes a big deal. Instagram and TikTok are two examples.
So, Will Donald Trump's new service become more like TikTok? Or more like club house. Time will tell.
BLITZER: Yeah, remember, Twitter, he used to have tens of millions of followers on Twitter that was shut down. Is Trump bankrolling this new venture himself?
STELTER: He is not. And some of the money behind it is mysterious. He launched Trump media and technology group, $1 billion investment according to reports. But we don't know what the investors are. Further, they're playing a merge that with SPAC, which is publicly
traded, so Trump fans can be part of the company. But there's a lot of mystery around the ownership. We do know Donald Jr. and other allies are promoting this already, Trump Jr. writing on new service: get ready, you're going to hear from your favorite president very soon.
So they were taking advantage of the Presidents' Day timing to launch the service, at least the beginning of the launch, but it's going to take a while, Wolf. I think we need to check in a year from now and say how forward has this been for the president? Has he been able to reconstitute the MAGA movement on a new platform, or people unwilling to leave the Facebooks and Twitters and go find him in this new neighborhood? That's going to be a test of his popularity heading into 2024.
BLITZER: So, if somebody wanted to sign up today, there were some initial problems. We'll see how long it takes to fix those problems.
STELTER: That's right.
BLITZER: Brian Stelter, thanks as usual for joining us.
And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. You can always follow me on Twitter and Instagram @WolfBlitzer. You can always tweet the show @CNNSitRoom.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" live from Ukraine starts right now.