Return to Transcripts main page

The Situation Room

Biden On Putin Remark, I'm Not Walking Anything Back; Mariupol Mayor Says, We Are In The Hands Of The Occupiers; 2 Million-Plus Ukrainian Refugees Have Fled To Poland; Biden: Saying Putin Can't Stay In Power Was "Personal," Not Policy; Film Academy Condemns Will Smith Slap, Opens Formal Review. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired March 28, 2022 - 18:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: It's going to be available at midnight Eastern tonight.

Our coverage continues now with one Mr. Wolf Blitzer who is in THE SITUATION ROOM. I'll see you tomorrow.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news. President Biden refuses to walk back his remarks that Vladimir Putin cannot stay in power while also insisting there is no change in U.S. policy. Stand by to hear the president defend the adlib that caused diplomatic shockwaves around the world.

Also breaking, growing fears about the faith of key city of Mariupol as the mayor declares, and I am him quoting now, we are in the hands of the occupiers. This as President Zelenskyy is suggesting Ukraine might agree to declare its neutrality as part of a peace deal with Russia. I speak live with the top Zelenskyy adviser. That's coming up this hour.

Our correspondents are standing by on the frontlines in Ukraine and other locations in Europe as well as here in the United States for CNN's global coverage of Russia's war against Ukraine.

We want to welcome our viewers in theist United States and around the world. I am Wolf Blitzer and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Let's get right to President Biden trying to explain what he meant and why he said that Vladimir Putin cannot, repeat, cannot stay in power. He took questions today about his unscripted, ja- dropping remark during a pivotal speech in Warsaw.

Our White House Correspondent M.J. Lee is following the story for us. M.J. the president says he was expressing his personal outrage and not making new policy.

M.J. LEE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf, President Biden tonight taking the opportunity to explain for himself what exactly he meant when he said over the weekend that Vladimir Putin cannot stay in power. Those comments had raised a series of concerns, including the perception that he may have been endorsing U.S. support for regime change in Russia that they were escalatory, that they may hurt diplomatic efforts to try to stop this war. Well, President Biden saying tonight that he is not going to back down from those comments.


JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: I'm not walking anything back.

LEE (voice over): Tonight, President Biden standing by his off-the- cuff remarks about Vladimir Putin that sent waves across the globe.

BIDEN: The fact of the matter is I was expressing the moral outrage I felt toward the way Putin is dealing and the actions of this man, just brutality, half the children in Ukraine. I just come from being with those families.

LEE: Biden fielding numerous questions from reporters at the White House about this unscripted comment in Warsaw, Poland, that came on the heels of an emergency gathering of global leaders amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

BIDEN: For God's sake, this man cannot remain in power.

LEE: The president emphasizing that the one thing he was not referring to was U.S. support for regime change in Russia.

BIDEN: I want to make it clear, I wasn't then nor am I now articulating a policy change. I was expressing the moral outrage that I feel and I make no apologies for it.

LEE: Biden also downplaying the numerous concerns that his unplanned comments raised, including that they would complicate diplomatic efforts.

BIDEN: No, I don't think it does.

LEE: And that they are escalatory.

BIDEN: Others government who suggest that this is a problem, I am escalating things, no. And weaken NATO, no, I hadn't. NATO has never, ever, ever, ever, ever been as strong as it is today, never.

LEE: Both at home and abroad, those nine consequential words from the president of the United States had already triggered intense criticism. Some frustrated Republican lawmakers urging the president to choose his words more carefully.

SEN. ROB PORTMAN (R-OH): I think all of us believe the world would be a better place without Vladimir Putin, but, second, that's not the official U.S. policy. And by saying that, that regime changes our strategy, effectively, it plays into the hands of Russian propagandas and plays into the hands of Vladimir Putin. So, it was a mistake and the president recognized that and the White House has walked it back.

SEN. JAMES RISCH (R-WI): There's not a whole lot more you can do to escalate than to call for regime change. That is not the policy of the United States of America, please, Mr. President, stay on script.

LEE: Throughout Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Biden often not holding back his words when discussing his Russian counterpart, sometime his language different from official White House positions.

BIDEN: Standing together against a murderous dictator, a pure thug who is waging an immoral war against the people of Ukraine.

REPORTER: Is Putin a war criminal sir? Are you ready to call Putin a war criminal?

BIDEN: I think he is a war crime.

He is a butcher.

LEE: French President Emmanuel Macron saying that, that last comment is not helpful for diplomacy.


EMMANUEL MACRON, FRENCH PRESIDENT: I wouldn't use this type of wording because I continue to hold discussions with President Putin.


LEE: One question that President Biden was asked tonight was whether Vladimir Putin might see those comments from over the weekend as escalatory. President Biden saying, I don't care. He said that Putin is somebody who will do whatever he wants, regardless of what he is hearing from even his own advisers, that basically he is an irrational actor. On whether he is willing to meet with Putin, President Biden saying that entirely depends on what exactly he wants to talk about. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, M.J., thank you very much, M.J. Lee at the White House.

Let's go to the war zone right now. Our Senior International Correspondent Fred Pleitgen is standing by. Fred, give us an update from your location in the Ukrainian capital. What's the latest?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, the war is still full-on in here in Kyiv. In fact, I would say, over the past 24 hours, things escalated rather than de-escalated around the Ukrainian capital.

What I am actually hearing right now and happened here within the past couple of minutes was sort of outgoing multiple rocket launching systems, something that the Ukrainians have been using also quite frankly in the suburbs of Kyiv that's been incoming as well. And that really is something that we have heard and seen over the entire course of the day with a lot of plumes of smoke coming from the outskirts of Kyiv as some very heavy fighting was going on there. Now, a lot of that, Wolf, is concentrated towards the east of the city, but especially towards the northwest of the city. And there, the Ukrainian military now says that it's made some pretty important gains. It now says that it has 100 percent full control of the suburb called Irpin. That's the place that was highly contested, fought over for an extended period of time. The Ukrainians now say that they fully control that. However, what's coming back in return is some pretty heavy shelling from the Russians as the Russians also are trying to make moves back to gain some territory.

Now, the Russians really haven't been able to gain much apparently over the past couple days, even though over the past week or so, but a lot of civilians have been injured and wounded and hit in the process. We actually managed to get to a place that's north of Kyiv, also very, very close to the actual frontline, and we did see a lot of destruction there and a lot of civilians that were hurt as well. Have a look.


PLEITGEN (voice over): We drove to a village Novi Petrivtsi, north of Kyiv, only a few miles from the front line. Even the streets here are pock-marked with shrapnel and massive impact craters, whole buildings laid to waste.

I mean, just look at the utter destruction caused by this massive explosion. There's some really thick brick walls that even they were annihilated by the force of whatever landed here. The people here tell us they only felt one really large explosion and it wounded several people and killed a small child.

That child was a two-year-old Estefan, killed while in his bed when the house came under fire.

These videos given to us by local authorities show the chaos and aftermath as the wounded appear in shock. Residents and rescuers tried to save those that were inside. Estefan pronounced dead on the scene.


PLEITGEN: So as you can see an awful situation in some of the suburbs around Kyiv. Again, that was towards the north of the capital city. And we heard today from the Ukrainian authorities that that's actually one of the most dangerous places, considered one of the most dangerous places around this area.

Nevertheless, Wolf, the Ukrainian military continues to say that it is pressing that counteroffensive. They have said they made gains, even though they understand those gains are very fragile. And so as you can see all of these ongoing, while, at the same time, of course those negotiations set to continue between Ukraine and Russia very soon as well, Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll see what happens in that front. Fred, stay with us. I also want to bring in CNN International Diplomatic Editor Nic Robertson and CNN's Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger. Gloria, President Biden says he is, quote, not walking anything back after declaring Putin cannot remain in power. The White House certainly tried to walk that back. Is Biden's position any clearer today?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think Biden isn't walking anything back. His position on Putin is very clear, which is that he thinks he is a murderous thug, that he doesn't care what Vladimir Putin thinks about what he says, and that he is not going to mince words.

Now, he also said that doesn't mean I was promoting any kind of regime change and he said nobody believes I was talking about taking down Putin. Well, obviously some people did, but I think he put that to rest today when he said, okay, I'm not, I'm not talking about that. As for the relationship between Putin and Biden, it is terrible, and Biden doesn't care either.

BLITZER: You know, Nic, the president says this doesn't mean the U.S. has a policy to take town Putin down in anyway. That's the president. How does all this get interpreted in Russia? You recently spent a lot of time there.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: We've already seen, Wolf, I think, the Kremlin spin this right back at the White House and right back at the Ukrainians. Today, for example, they were saying, because we hear that the Russian military is sort of readjusting perhaps, perhaps its goals and targets, indicating it may not be going after Kyiv, that it might just be going after the Donbas region and the south. The Kremlin saying we're not after regime change, saying they wanted to demilitarize and de-Nazify the country, every indication in the early phases of the war that they wanted to change the leadership in Ukraine.

So, they're spinning it back when they say something like this, the obvious audience is here in the European Union. We've heard from Emmanuel Macron, the French president, saying that this is counterproductive for him because he is still trying to negotiate.

But I think it is important to understand here the U.S. position, the French position, although there's unity, has been different. From the get-go, the White House said that diplomacy would end the day Russia invaded. The French president continues to say, I will continue with diplomacy until the last moment. He frames that as trying to bring about a big piece. But in the short term, the important term, he says, trying to bring about release for humanitarian corridors to open for cities like Mariupol, where he says there are up to 150,000 people. So, I think that is what gets under the French president's skin about this.

But there was a meeting of ministers here today, Wolf, the issue of what President Biden was saying about President Putin was not big on the agenda. So, it is not creating big waves here at this moment. That unity he talks about, I think, is still there.

BLITZER: At the same time, Gloria, the president was pressed on whether his comments complicate the diplomacy. He said what complicates the diplomacy, he said, is Putin, Putin engaging in carnage. Does he have a point that no matter what the west says, it is Putin who has the power to stop the war?

BORGER: I think at this point, Biden does have a point, but I also believe, like Nic believes, that Biden's words can be thrown right back at him from Putin. And I think it is a problem. However, for American consumption today, he made it clear that he was talking about his own personal moral outrage.

I mean, don't forget, he is an emotional guy, as we know, and he had come from meeting families and small children who had been separated from their families and he was quite emotional about that. He is not going to be the person they're going to say you know, I think Joe Biden is the person who will have a sit down with Putin because maybe he has the best relationship with him. I think that's not going to be the case. Maybe it is Macron, maybe it's Turkey, maybe someone else. Biden has given that up and he doesn't want to play into Putin's misinformation.

But on the other hand, he was being honest. He has called Putin a murderous thug, so it wasn't all that surprising that he thinks he shouldn't be running the country.

BLITZER: Called him a butcher too, a war criminal among other things. All right, guys, thank you very, very much.

Just ahead, President Zelenskyy is floating the possibility of Ukraine declaring its neutrality. Just ahead, new negotiations with Russia, could it help achieve a peace deal? I will speak live with a top Zelenskyy adviser. That's next.



BLITZER: We are back with breaking news. President Biden is insisting he is not walking anything back after declaring that Vladimir Putin cannot stay in power.

Let's discuss with the chief diplomatic adviser to President Zelenskyy, Ihor Zhovkva. Thank you so much, Ihor, for joining us. We have a lot to discuss, but let me get your reaction to President Biden just now doubling down on his comment that Putin cannot remain in power. What do you think?

IHOR ZHOVKVA, CHIEF DIPLOMATIC ADVISER TO PRESIDENT ZELENSKYY: Well, if you ask me personally, I like the statement of President Biden, which was very impressive but, again, it is no use to speculate whether he is still in power or not. I mean, if Russia would become a democratic country, he would not probably stay in power. But since Russia is far away from democratic country, unfortunately, we all have to witness probably for some period of time him being in power. But the victory of Ukraine in the war may change things significantly.

BLITZER: Well, see how that unfolds. Ahead of talks between Ukraine and Russia, they are scheduled for tomorrow, President Zelenskyy says Ukraine is ready to accept what's described as neutral status. What exactly does that mean? Does that mean agreeing, for example, never to join NATO?

ZHOVKVA: Yes, it is possible, according to my president, to discuss neutrality status combined with the street security guarantees, legally binding security guarantees and international treaty signed by major powers, such as the U.S., U.K., Germany, France and Turkey, for instance.

But, yes, neutrality in this case would be possible and neutrality means only non-adherence to military blocs, such as NATO, for instance, but it does not absolutely mean any demilitarization of Ukraine. So, Ukraine will stay as a huge power with armed forces, which you can see are one of the best in Europe, if not, the world, well equipped or should be equipped with the support of our partners, should be ready to defend the country any similar cases of potential Russian aggression in future.

BLITZER: Ukraine says it won't accept any territorial losses, but will some territorial losses be inevitable, Ihor, to bring the violence to an end?


ZHOVKVA: Well, I would not speculate. You know, the general position is, really, we do not trade any inch of Ukrainian territory. But yesterday, my president acknowledged to immediately stop the war and to have an immediate cease-fire and immediate withdrawal of Russian troops. We are ready to agree to withdraw Russian troops to the positions they had before February 24th. That means some parts of occupied Donbas and occupied Crimea, because some of Russian troops came from these areas, besides breaking the Russian border, breaking the border with Belarus.

So, yes, in order to stop the war, and my president told that it's absolutely of necessity for him stop killing people, to stop people dying, it's much more important than any other matters else. So, yes, theoretically, it's possible again. But, again, immediate cease-fire should be at the beginning of any possible negotiations, any serious negotiations.

BLITZER: As you know, Ihor, a video did emerge on Sunday, a video that CNN has chosen not to air appearing to show Ukrainian soldiers shooting Russian prisoners in the knees. Ukraine has promised an immediate investigation. What is your message to any Ukrainian who retaliates against the invading Russian soldiers like this?

ZHOVKVA: First of all, I think this video has already been proved to be a fake, this exact video. Secondly, definitely, Ukraine is a civilized country unlike Russia and we will be treating war prisoners according to international norms, unlike Russians that treat Ukrainian citizens awfully, having genocide in many cities they are managing to occupy or at least to encircle. Look what they are doing in Mariupol with the civilian citizens. Look what they are doing in Kyiv with the civilian citizens. But Ukraine will never be such a barbaric country as Russia.

BLITZER: Ihor Zhovkva, good luck to you and good luck to all of the people in Ukraine. We'll continue our conversations clearly down the road. Thank you so much for joining us.

ZHOVKVA: Many thanks.

BLITZER: The breaking news continues next. CNN goes inside the largest of the Ukrainian refugees in Europe to see where they are now and what happens next.



BLITZER: The breaking news tonight, the desperate exodus from the Russian invasion of Ukraine now nearing 4 million people, about half of them fled to Poland.

CNN's Kyung Lah is in Warsaw for us.

KYUNG LAH, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You are looking at the largest refugee hub in all of Europe. All of these are cots, places where people have basically taken everything that they could carry and turned into their home. You can see that there are these little pods of blankets, children laying on some of these cots. There are cribs here.

95 percent of the people in this place in Warsaw are women, children and the elderly. They're the ones that have left safely out of Ukraine. But emphasis here is that this is a hub. If you look at other parts of this expo center, there are places for you to get paperwork sorted, to get a bus ticket to travel to other parts of Europe, to stop, have a place to sleep, to eat consistent meals, to get health care. It is something that this expo center, which is privately and jointly run by the city but privately owned, says it will do as long as it can.

TOMASZ SZYPULA, PTAK WARSAW EXPO: How long? I don't know. We should call Putin. I don't know. We will be helping them as long as possible. But it is not the accommodations for the human beings, you know? So, that's why we must replace them very fast because this is temporary place. It's not good for the children and for those women, you know, it's not good to live there in such accommodation for a longer time.

LAH: The city of Warsaw itself has taken in some 300,000 refugees, the country of Poland, more than 2 million refugees. We spoke to the mayor of Warsaw who says the generosity of the Polish people is endless but the reality is that there's only so much that the city can do sustainably without this type of care starting to drop.


BLITZER: CNN's Kyung Lah reporting from Warsaw for us, Kyung, thank you very much.

And joining us now, the Polish ambassador to the United States, Marek Magierowski. Ambassador, thank you so much for joining us.

As you know, Poland is now hosting, as you just heard, more than 2 million Ukrainian refugees. Will Poland's border remain open to accept Ukrainian refugees as long as these desperate people continue to flee?

MAREK MAGIEROWSKI, POLISH AMBASSADOR TO THE U.S.: We are remaining open to our Ukrainian brethren and we will remain open to them. I will give you a figure. About 170,000 Ukrainian children have already been incorporated into the schooling system, which is quite an achievement. Almost 20,000 women who fled the war in Ukraine and who crossed the border with Poland over the last couple of weeks have already been officially employed in Poland.

President Biden during his recent visit visited the reception center at the national stadium and also where he met Ukrainian refugees.


And at that reception center, all those refugees, people who came from Ukraine, can apply for a Polish I.D., which essentially facilitates integration into Polish society. So, it is a very arduous and very slow process but we are, I think, we are on the right path, on the right track, trying to accommodate all those people who fled the war in their homeland.

BLITZER: And they're eligible for national health insurance. Polish people deserve enormous credit for what they're doing.

As you know, ambassador, President Biden says he makes no apologies for declaring that Vladimir Putin cannot remain in power. Does Poland support President Biden's position or does this make it more difficult potentially to achieve peace?

MAGIEROWSKI: Well, it was an expression of moral indignation. I have no doubt, whatsoever, about that, totally justified considering the current circumstances and also the emotional character of both his trip to Poland and the speech itself.

I want to remind you that just a few hours before his appearance at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, he had met with Ukrainian refugees at that reception center that I have just mentioned. And he had appalling stories of people that lost loved ones, who were deprived of their property, who were essentially driven out of their homes. I can only suspect how agitated President Biden felt delivering his remarks at the Royal Castle after hearing about the plight of the Ukrainian refugees who fled the war in their own country.

Putin caused immense suffering to the Ukrainian people. And even if he remains in power, he must not remain impugned. And there is a plausible scenario that I personally fear most. Many European politicians are already contemplating possibility of offering Vladimir Putin an off-ramp, a face-saving solution just in order to return to normalcy in political and trade relations with Russia. Once the war ends, we'll hear lots of arguments in this vein. Let's broker a compromise with the Kremlin, let's try to persuade Mr. Putin that he should just make a few concessions. I will tell you, to be honest, what concessions I would expect from Russia, withdrawal from Ukraine proper and all territories annexed and occupied since 2014, war reparations paid to Ukraine after the war, and all the war criminals justly tried and sentenced before an international tribunal. Then we can start thinking about lifting the sanctions imposed on Russia.

BLITZER: Does that include Putin?

MAGIEROWSKI: I don't know, hard to predict.

BLITZER: As a war criminal, I mean.

MAGIEROWSKI: Well, we heard President Biden and many other political leaders both in Europe and the United States defining him as a war criminal, and I believe we have overwhelming evidence of war crimes of various types committed by Russian troops in Ukraine.

BLITZER: Marek Magierowski, thank you so much for joining us. Thanks for all you are doing as well. We really appreciate it.

MAGIEROWSKI: Thank you very much.

BLITZER: And for information how you, our viewers, can help humanitarian efforts in Ukraine, go to and help impact your world.

There's more breaking news we are following with the latest on the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol. How close is Russia to claiming this critical port?



BLITZER: The breaking news this hour, Russian forces now in control of parts of the critical Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, according to the mayor. That follows weeks of shelling that's left the city in ruins.

CNN's Phil Black has the latest.


PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Russia is so close to taking the prize of Mariupol, these soldiers are already celebrating. The flag going up on this local government building is from one of the Russian-backed separatist regions in Ukraine's east.

The Ukrainians peeled off, praise the almighty, this soldier says. The guys are in a good mood and we are working according to the order of Putin.

We get rare glimpses of Russia's efforts to take the city street by street. These soldiers are from the Russian republican of Chechnya. It's propaganda video from their leader, which CNN has geolocated to Mariupol.

Mariupol's mayor, Vadym Boichenko, tells me the fight isn't over.

What happened or what has happened to Ukrainian soldiers defending Mariupol? Are there any left?

They hold the line, stand to the end, he says, to the last drop of blood.

It is not only Ukrainian soldiers trapped here. The city council estimates there are still around 170,000 civilians in this devastated city and 90 percent of homes have been damaged or destroyed.

Valentina enters what's left of the only home she's ever known, the place she raised her family. She wasn't here when the shell hit. She's been hiding in the basement. She doesn't want to leave. She knows she can't stay. But many will never leave. The council says almost 5,000 people have been killed during the four-week siege, including more than 200 children. Russia is so close to taking its prize, but it will be a blackened shelf a city and it is unlikely the people they're conquer will ever forgive them.


Phil Black, CNN, Lviv, Western Ukraine.


BLITZER: Horrible situation indeed.

There's more breaking news we are following, a truly startling acknowledgment by a federal court that former President Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election could be considered criminal.

CNN Senior Legal Affairs Correspondent Paula Reid is working the story for us. So, Paula, update viewers what you are learning.

PAULA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, today, a federal judge ruled that conservative attorney John Eastman must hand over some of his emails to the House select committee investigating January 6th. What's notable about this litigation is that lawmakers have really used it to publicly layout their theory of possible criminal conduct by former President Trump.

In a filing in the same case earlier this month, lawmakers accuse former President Trump and Eastman of engaging in a criminal conspiracy to defraud the American public by trying to undermine the outcome of the election. And here today in this decision, you have a federal judge is saying, yes, it is more likely than not that these two were planning a possible crime.

So, Wolf, this is a real boost for the House select committee as it weighs whether or not it wants to make a criminal referral to the Justice Department about former President Trump. BLITZER: Paula, this comes as the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is expected to appear before the committee this week, and there's someone else they want to speak with as well, right?

REID: That's right, Wolf. We've learned that the committee intends to seek an interview with Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Sources tell CNN that she has been a topic of discussion since the committee has in its possession these 29 text messages between her and former Trump White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.

Now, Mrs. Thomas is a long time conservative activist, but here you see she is using her direct line to one of the most powerful people in the Trump White House to advocate overturning the election while she's married to a Supreme Court justice.

Now, she has long tried to distance her work from that of her husband, but in these text messages, she refers to discussing this matter with her, quote, best friend. Both she and Justice Thomas have referred to one another as such publicly. But, at this point, Wolf, it is not clear if Justice Thomas was aware of his wife's advocacy.

Now, interestingly, Meadows may not be the only person in the Trump White House that Mrs. Thomas was talking to. She also references in one of her messages sending a message to Jared, which could potentially be Jared Kushner. And lawmakers will have a chance to ask him about that when he appears virtually before the House select committee later this week.

BLITZER: Very interesting. All right, Paula Reid on Capitol Hill, thank you.

There's more breaking news just ahead. Could Russian President Vladimir Putin's paranoia about regime change lead to a nuclear standoff? I'll ask the former director of national intelligence, James Clapper.

Plus, new fallout from the slap seen around the world, the motion picture academy now investigating Actor Will Smith's violent outburst.



BLITZER: More on the breaking news. President Biden trying to clarify remarks he made about Russian President Vladimir Putin and his invasion of Ukraine that sent shock waves around the world.

Let's dig deeper with CNN national security analyst, former director of national intelligence James Clapper.

Director Clapper, thanks for joining us.

As you know, the president says his declaration that Putin cannot remain in power, he says that was personal, not policy, and that he makes no apologies for saying it. How do you think Putin will interpret that message?

JAMES CLAPPER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, first of all, Wolf, I want to say I would like to take a contrarian view about what the president says, which I think was visceral and emotional reaction, and he was saying out loud what a lot of people think. And this came on the heels of his visiting with refugees from Ukraine.

So, this cannot come as a big shock to Putin at all. I think he already knows there's not a warm and fuzzy relationship between the two of them anyway. So I think a lot of this furor is just so much hyperbole. I don't think it is going to change things.

BLITZER: Let me interrupt you, Director. Let me ask you, was it a mistake for the White House to immediately try to walk back his remarks within a matter of what, a half hour or so?

CLAPPER: I think it would have been better had they not done that. I thought it was actually a little silly and ineffective and unnecessary. I think to me it was a message to the Russian people maybe or as I said a personally expression of what the president felt and as I said, he is saying out loud what a lot of people think.

And I think one more thought here, the influence of walking back the president's statement implies we're okay with sustaining a war criminal as head of state in the Russian Federation. So think back 80 years ago and I guess we wouldn't be an advocate under this rationale for regime change in Germany with Hitler. It is almost the same thing to me.

BLITZER: He calls him a murderous dictator, a butcher, a war criminal. Should it be any surprise he doesn't think he should be the leader of Russia?

CLAPPER: Yeah. Well, it isn't to me and I'm certain it was no big surprise or shock to President Putin himself.

BLITZER: Well, you know, some of the speculation is that the language that the president used could further Putin's paranoia about regime change and he could escalate it to some sort of nuclear stand-off.

CLAPPER: Well, I think -- I think Putin has concerns about regime change, but it's -- I think what he's doing right now is looking over his shoulder constantly. The threat here is internal and among, I think, his inner circle, if there's to be a change like that.

So I don't think this statement really had that much impact, and I certainly don't think that this would heighten nuclear tensions or cause a nuclear stand-off. I just -- I just don't see that.

BLITZER: President Zelenskyy says he's willing now to accept some sort of neutral nonnuclear status as part of a peace deal. How vulnerable would that leave Ukraine?

CLAPPER: Well, it would depend on if that were acceptable to the Russians. It would depend on the language of the agreement and all this sort of thing. There is some precedent for this, although we forget about it and ignore it, which was the Budapest memorandum of 1994, the spirit of which sort of guaranteed, if you will, or assured the neutrality of Ukraine and other former Soviet republics.

But I think right now both sides, at least at this point, are sort of intractably dug in, in their respective positions. So I think it was a good faith offer, but I don't see much prospect for it eventuating in anything, at least right now. Hope springs eternal, so we have -- if there's an opportunity for diplomacy, you've got to make it work.

BLITZER: Let's see if that works. The former director of national intelligence, James Clapper, thanks so much for joining us.

Just ahead, new information about what went on behind the scenes after Will Smith slapped Chris Rock on live television during the Oscars. Will the best actor award winner pay a price?



BLITZER: Breaking news tonight, the Motion Picture Academy has issued a stronger response to the drama witnessed by millions of people who watched the Oscars. The actor Will Smith slapping comedian Chris rock over a joke he told about Smith's wife.

Brian Todd is working this story for us.

Brian, this ranks as one of the most controversial moments in Oscar history. What are you learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there's condemnation of Will Smith tonight from the Academy and a review is under way but a key question remains, will the star actor be disciplined in any meaningful way.


CHRIS ROCK, COMEDIAN: I'm out here -- uh-oh, Richard.

Oh, wow! Wow!

TODD (voice-over): Tonight, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is launching a formal review to determine whether star actor Will Smith will be disciplined for the slap heard round the world. In a new statement, the Academy says it condemns Smith for slapping comedian Chris Rock during the Oscars telecast.

The incident was touched off when Rock while presenting an award made a joke about smith's wife, actress Jada Pinkett Smith and her shaved head.

ROCK: Jada, I love you. "G.I. Jane 2", can't wait to see it, all right?

TODD: Jada Pinkett Smith who rolls her eyes of the joke, suffers from alopecia, an autoimmune disorder that causes hair loss. ROCK: That was a nice. Okay. I'm out here, uh-oh. Richard.

Oh, wow! Wow!

TODD: Just after the slap, censors muted the telecast, but an uncensored Japanese feed shows Smith yelling the same phrase at Rock twice after slapping him.

ROCK: Will Smith just smacked the shit out of me.

WILL SMITH, ACTOR: Keep my wife's name out your (EXPLETIVE DELETED) mouth!

ROCK: Wow, dude.


ROCK: It was a "G.I. Jane" joke.

SMITH: Keep my wife's name out your (EXPLETIVE DELETED) mouth!

TODD: After the ceremony, the Academy tweeted a short statement saying it does not condone violence of any form. But Smith was allowed to go onstage and speak after winning the award for best actor for "King Richard" where he tear fully apologized but not to Chris Rock.

SMITH: I want to apologize to the Academy, I want to apologize to all my fellow nominees. Art imitates life. I look like the crazy father, just like they said. I look like the crazy father, just like they said about Richard Williams. But love will make you do crazy things.

TODD: A source close to the situation now tells CNN the Academy leadership strongly considered removing Smith from the telecast after the incident, but that the decision-makers were seated in different places and couldn't mobilize to make a decision before Smith received the award.

Later that evening, an editor from "Variety" posted this video of smith dancing at an after-party.


TODD (on camera): CNN has reached out to the academy to see what discipline may come. We have reached out to Will Smith's publicist for comment and to Chris Rock's representatives. The LAPD says Rock declined to press charges -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Brian Todd, thank you very much. Brian Todd reporting.

I'll be back later tonight in two hours, 9:00 p.m. Eastern for the latest on the war in Ukraine and day's other top stories.

Until then, thanks very much for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.