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Deadly New Russian Shelling In Ukraine As War Nears One-Year Mark; Five Fired Officials Charged In Tyre Nichols' Death Plead Not Guilty; GOP's Scott Drops Social Security, Medicare From Plan Biden Attacked; Court Docs: Fox Reporters' Fact-Checks Of 202 Election Fraud Claims Sparked Rebukes & Calls For Retribution; Firsthand Look At Chinese Manufacturing Plant Linked To Spy Balloons. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired February 17, 2023 - 17:00   ET




PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Happening now Ukraine fires back at new Russian attacks in a pivotal battle of Vladimir Putin's brutal war nears the one year mark. CNN is on the ground in Kyiv and in Moscow, amid new estimates of Russia's losses, the bodies said to be piling up.

Also tonight's, five former Memphis police officers plead not guilty to second degree murder and other charges in the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols. Nichols' mother at the arraignment, saying the defendants could not look her in the eye. I'll speak with the Nichols family attorney, Ben Crump, this hour.

And Republican Senator Rick Scott backing down from a controversial plan dropping Social Security and Medicare provisions after bipartisan backlash, including President Biden's direct attack during his State of the Union address.

Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. Wolf Blitzer is on assignment today. I'm Pamela Brown. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And we begin this hour on the front lines in Ukraine. A new round of Russian shelling adding to the mounting toll of death and destruction after nearly a full year of war. CNN Senior National Security Correspondent Alex Marquardt is in Kyiv.

Alex, tell us what's happening there on the battlefield at this critical moment in the war.

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Pamela, you're absolutely right, it is a critical moment in this war. And we have seen the beginning stages of a new Russian offensive, and that offensive is not going well.

A senior State Department official on Thursday said that what they are seeing is very pathetic. And just earlier today, Pam, we did get an update from the White House about one area where the Russians have been trying to push forward for months in Bakhmut, where Ukrainian forces have been facing off against mercenaries and convicts from the Wagner mercenary group. The White House, the National Security spokesman, John Kirby, says that they have suffered tremendous losses. They've had some 30,000 casualties, including 9,000 death in this brutal, grinding fight in Bakhmut.


MARQUARDT (voice-over): Just a week from the first anniversary of the Russian invasion, this is, according to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the toughest fight in Ukraine right now in the eastern city of Bakhmut. Called a meat grinder by both sides, Russian troops from the Wagner mercenary group, most of them convicts, continue to be sent in wave after wave to their deaths.

JOHN KIRBY, NSC COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS: Men that he just plucked out of prisons and threw on a battlefield with no training, no equipping, no organizational command, just thrown them into the fight, 90 percent killed were convicts. We believe the Wagner continues to rely heavily on these convicts in the Bakhmut fighting. And that doesn't show any signs of abating.

MARQUARDT (voice-over): The battle, laying bare the stark divisions on the Russian side. With Wagner chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin openly blasting Russia's official military leadership, saying they managed soldiers from beauty salons and country clubs. Arguing that if there were more of his private troops, they would be halfway across Ukraine by now.

The toll has been so severe on the Russian side that according to Ukrainian officials, regular troops have been backfilling Wagner to mechanized infantry and tank units supported by artillery and aircraft. If Russia were to take Bakhmut, it would change little, but be a symbolic victory as Ukraine struggles to keep them at bay.

President Zelenskyy today urging world leaders at the Munich Security Conference to speed up their military aid, comparing the fight to Goliath taking on David and his sling.

PRES. VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINE: We need to hurry up. We need the speed, speed of our agreements, speed of our delivery to strengthen our sling, speed of decisions to limit Russian potential.

MARQUARDT (voice-over): That Russian potential is still significant with hundreds of thousands of mobilized troops believed to be in reserve and Russian President Vladimir Putin able to call up more to offset his enormous losses. Now, according to the U.S. State Department, numbering over 200,000 Russian dead and wounded.


MARQUARDT: And we should also note that, of course, Ukraine has suffered tremendous losses as well, both in Bakhmut and over the course of the past year all across the country.

[17:05:00] Pam, the U.S. is hoping that Ukraine will soon turn its focus from Bakhmut to mounting a counter offensive in the southern part of the country, with newly trained troops, as well as new weaponry, including armored vehicles, that have been given to Ukraine by the U.S. and other Western countries. We did learn today that 635 Ukrainian troops have just graduated from a newly formed U.S. training program in Germany that lasts five weeks. Another 710 have just started the second phase. And there they're learning both combined arms and maneuvers with those armored vehicles that the U.S. says will be crucial in the next offensive. Pamela.

BROWN: All right, Alex Marquardt, thank you so much for that.

And turning now to Russia where President Vladimir Putin met with a key ally today preparing for the next phase of the nearly one-year-old conflict in Ukraine. CNN Senior International Correspondent Frederik Pleitgen joins us live from Moscow.

Fred, tell us about Putin's meeting with the president of Belarus.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Alexander Lukashenko. And he certainly is a key ally for Vladimir Putin. Probably right now, he's the most important and most loyal ally that he has anywhere. And Lukashenko, of course, is also so important because Belarus has such a long border with Ukraine, and the Russians have been using that border to mount attacks towards Ukrainian territory. Of course, it was one of the main points that the Russians used to get their invasion going into Ukraine when this war started, and now they're still launching missiles and drones towards Ukrainian territory as well.

So, Lukashenko extremely important for Vladimir Putin. Now, Lukashenko, he said yesterday at a press conference where were present that he would continue to allow Vladimir Putin to mount such attacks, but he would not use his own forces unless he is attacked from Ukraine. Now, of course, we know that right now that is not in the cards.

We also have to mention, Pamela, that of course, Lukashenko is also very dependent on Vladimir Putin, he was telling Vladimir Putin that the cooperation between the two countries was going very well and was being expanded.

But the one thing that really caught our eye is that Lukashenko also said that he believes soon the Belarussians could start making combat jets. They're called the SU25. It's a strike aircraft. It's pretty much like the A10 of the Soviet bloc, although it is a lot less capable than the A10 is. But it's certainly a jet that the Belarussians think they can start manufacturing, Lukashenko says, if they get of help from Russia. Because one of the things that we have to point out and I think Alex just mentioned that, as well as the Ukrainians, of course, having some trouble with munition, running low on some munitions, the Russians also having some problems as well, and they have said that they need to ramp up some of the production of munitions but for other war inventory as well, like, for instance, jets, but also howitzers as well. So, very important that cooperation, two leaders had said.

And you know right now it's also a pretty pivotal time here in Moscow as well. We're already looking towards next week when Vladimir Putin is going to hold a key speech right before the one year anniversary of this war. And then we'll really see whether the Russians escalate even further. Pamela.

BROWN: We shall see. Fred Pleitgen, thank you.

Joining us now, our CNN Military Analyst, Retired General Wesley Clark, the former NATO Supreme Allied Commander and Retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, the former U.S. Army commander in Europe. Also with us tonight, our contributor on Russian affairs, Jill Dougherty, CNN's former Moscow Bureau Chief. Great to have you all on.

General Hertling, starting with you, President Zelenskyy is again urging allies to speed up their weapons delivery. He has done this many times before. But what makes this moment different in your view?


BROWN: Sorry, General Clark, I'll be with you in just a second. Go ahead, General Hertling.

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes. Pamela, I was going to say, this is a race. Russia has to commit mobilized forces, and Ukraine is trying to train and integrate western weapons into their formation. Putin's army is not ready for a large scale offensive, but Putin is forcing them to go on this offense because of their fear of the new weapons being delivered to the battlefield.

You heard Fred just mentioned right now that -- or I think it was Alex that said they just graduated close to a battalion of mechanized soldiers at Grafenberg, Germany. There's going to be another one. So Putin is very worried about this. So he is pushing these conscripts into the fight, and is being reported they are being mauled.

Again, it's a race between the two armies to see who can get an advantage. And I think Ukraine is going to have that advantage if they can hold on the defenses for a few more weeks.

BROWN: General Clark.

GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I think from the Ukrainian perspective, first of all, they're constantly saying that they're short of ammunition and short of artillery tubes, and I think that's true. I hear from a lot of people over there that they have been restricted. They are also short of tank main gun rounds, and we've known that for months, but we can't supply the 125 millimeter main gun rounds. So, the assistance coming from the west is really important for them.

In the meantime, Putin has maybe 300,000 thousand troops there. He doesn't care about the lives of his soldiers the way we do in the west. He's pushing them forward. He'd like to inflict attrition warfare on the Ukrainians. He'd like to have them consume their own brigades that are in the defense up there in Bakhmut in places, and take the mobile reserve that's preparing to do the counter offensive and have to plug the gap with that. So, that would freeze everything up.


So, there's a real concern here that if Ukraine miscalculates to go into the offensive in the south, got to hold in the north around Bakhmut, and it's stretching its forces really thin. They need everything we can get them sooner than we can get it there.

BROWN: And I think you made an important point as well, General Clark, about he doesn't care about his soldiers and their lives like we do here in the west. And Jill Dougherty, to add to that perspective, we heard from Alex Marquardt there, there have been more than 200,000 Russian dead and wounded so far in this war. But that is not going to stop Vladimir Putin, will it?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR, RUSSIAN AFFAIRS: At least at this point, I mean, that, you know, that is the question. Because if you have that many people going back to Russia in body bags, you begin to wonder whether there will be some type of reaction. But it appears at this point, and I've been looking at this, you know, polling and questions and trying to figure out what Russians actually feel about this, I think at this point, they still have a very passive idea, which is, you know, the people at the top probably know better than we do. And there is the, you know, Putin people have been definitely trying to inculcate as much patriotism and war fever and all of that in people to support Putin and his war.

So, yes, whether they will be turned in the end against this war, it's very hard to say. But at this point, it does not appear to be changing, at least Putin's mind.

BROWN: Well, that is clear. And we're almost to that year mark, General Hertling, really sad to think of it that way. Almost to a year of this, it continues to drag on. How desperate will Putin be for some symbolic victory ahead of next Friday's anniversary of his invasion?

HERTLING: Yes, he certainly wants something to claim as a victory. And he was assuming that Bakhmut would be that. Volodar would be another place where the Wagner group has been active.

But you know, Pamela, it's been fascinating, we've been talking about Bakhmut for about three months now, and the Ukrainians continue to hold. They have been desperate in their attempts to hold that city as a counter propaganda tool against Mr. Putin, and they don't want to give up any part of their territory in this phase of the operation. So, Putin will, no matter what happens, will declare that he's had multiple victories, as Jill will probably say, but he hasn't. He has killed a lot of his forces. He has destroyed his army, and he has become a pariah on the world stage as an individual and as a culture.

BROWN: All right, thank you all so much. Generals Wesley Clark, Mark Hertling, Jill Dougherty, appreciate it. And coming up tonight, the five former officers charged in the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols appear in a Memphis courtroom with Nichols' mother watching on. Alas and Nichols family attorney, Ben Crump, about his client's reaction as the defendants pleaded not guilty.

And a CNN exclusive, a firsthand look at a Chinese facility that may be linked to Beijing's spy balloon program. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BROWN: In Memphis today, the first court appearance of the five former police officers charged in the fatal arrest and beating of Tyre Nichols. Nichols parents were there, too, as the defendants pleaded not guilty. CNN's Nick Valencia is following this story for us.

Nick, tell us more about what happened in the courtroom and the latest on the investigation.

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Pamela, today was a big day. It was a big day for the family and for the community. It's the first time that we see these officers publicly since the video, the brutal beating of Tyre Nichols was released. And it's also the first time that the parents of Tyre Nichols were in the same room as the men accused of murdering their son.

And we've seen the Nichols family really navigate this unimaginable situation with such courage and grace, leaning into their faith with the mother going so far as to say that she believes her son was here for a higher purpose and a higher mission. She was on a mission today. And listen to what she had to tell reporters after this arraignment was done as to why it was so important for her to be there today.


ROWVAUGHN WELLS, MOTHER OF TYRE NICHOLS: I want each and every one of those police officers to be able to look me in the face. They haven't done that yet. They couldn't even do that today. They didn't even have the courage to look at me in my face after what they did to my son.

So, they're going to see me at every court date. Everyone.


WELLS: And until we get justice for my son.


VALENCIA: After the arraignment, we also got a glimpse into what the potential defense would be for some of these officers. With the attorney for Tadarrius Bean saying that his client was never seen at any point in the video that we've seen publicly released. That he was not seen at any point beating Nichols, that he was actually offering him some help. There was also the attorney for another officer who seemed to allege that the race of his client may play a role in his due process.

Meanwhile, Pamela, the investigation is ongoing. We know at least 13 officers have either been disciplined or will face discipline for their role and involvement in Nichols death. And we're also learning that the district attorney's office is now looking into the cases both pending and past cases of these officers that have been dismissed from the police department. So about 100 cases so far. And meanwhile, we also are waiting for the release of additional video, about 20 hours of video and audio from the scene that day that's expected to be released in the coming weeks. Pamela.

BROWN: All right. Nick Valencia, thank you.

And we are joined now by the attorney for Tyre Nichols family, Ben Crump.

Thanks for coming on, Ben.

Tyre Nichols family as we know his mother there, but they were in court today as these five fired officers pleaded not guilty. First off, how is the Nichols family doing?


BEN CRUMP, TYRE NICHOLS' FAMILY ATTORNEY: Well, Pam, as Ms. RowVaughn Wells in a court, she said that she just feels numb knowing that she's going to be in the same room with the people who murdered her son. And she was like in a nightmare, like she was doing her best because she wanted them to look at her in her eyes. That's what she wanted because she said, without yelling or screaming at them, looking in the eyes, she was going to be asking them, how could you do this to my son?

BROWN: Took a tremendous amount of courage for her to go there and be there in the same room with those officers. Let's turn to the decision by all five of these former officers to plead not guilty to these serious charges. What do you make of that?

CRUMP: Well, Pamela Brown, we expect that that, you know, is the process. And as we are champions for civil rights of everybody, you're innocent until proven guilty in the court of law. So, we want those officers to be able to have their day in court. But we also want Tyre Nichols' family, his mother and father and their family to be able to have their day in court. So we are continuing to push, as Chief David (ph) said, that this matter moves swiftly towards justice.

BROWN: I'm curious, you know, you talk about due process and what an important part of our criminal justice system that is. A lawyer for one of the fired officers suggest that his client's race is relevant to his due process, saying, let's not forget that my client is a black man in a courtroom in America, which is a country where black people are incarcerated at five times the rate of white people. What is your response to that?

CRUMP: Well, it rings hollow when you look at that video, Pamela Brown, because that video is so revealing to the lack of humanity that they offered to Tyre Nichols as they brutalized him. They literally beat him to death. And there is no way to justify that.

He can and all of them can make whatever defenses they want, but you cannot unsee that video once you see that video of Tyre Nichols being brutally killed by police officers. It's a watershed moment for America like the Rodney King video was that nobody will forget once they see it.

BROWN: You heard Nick Valencia talk about another attorney saying his client actually was trying to help Tyre Nichols, that he wasn't even seen in the video that was released. What do you say to that?

CRUMP: Well, I think that is going to be the defenses that they offer that, well, my client only punched him, he didn't kick them. My client never hit him with a police baton. And so they're going to come up with all kind of defenses.

We pray that the judge have the trials jointly everybody at once so we won't have any jury verdicts that contradict one another, Pamela Brown, and that they are all tried by one jury in one trial. And the jury can determine if all of them are guilty of every charge or some of them are going to be guilty of second degree murder, which is the highest charge, and some of them be convicted of official oppression or obstruction of justice of those things. So, we fully expect they are going to point the fingers at each other. But based on what we see in that video, all of them are guilty of inhumanity.

BROWN: All right. Ben Crump, thank you.

And now to another --

CRUMP: Thank you.

BROWN: -- fatal encounter with police, this one in Tree Port, Louisiana. An officer has now been charged after body cam video captured the shooting of an unarmed African American man named Alonzo Bagley. CNN's Ryan Young has more on this case. And we do want to warn you, some viewers may find this video difficult to watch.


RYAN YOUNG, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Two officers arrived at the home of Alonzo Bagley responding to a 911 call regarding a domestic disturbance.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hey, what's your name?





UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not going, sir. He's disturbing the peace. The people (INAUDIBLE) BAGLEY: I'm coming down.


BAGLEY: I'm coming down.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let her -- hey, come here. Come here.

BAGLEY: I'm putting my dog up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She can put the dog up.

YOUNG (voice-over): The first officer follows Bagley down the hallway as his wife continues to yell in the background.



YOUNG (voice-over): The officer realizes Bagley is heading out the door of a balcony and sees him jump from the second floor to the ground below. He then turns back to run through and out of the apartment downstairs to chase after Bagley. Once outside, you hear one officer yell to the other.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He went that way.

YOUNG (voice-over): About five seconds later you hear a single gunshot.


YOUNG (voice-over): It's been 1 minute and 25 seconds since officers first knocked on the door.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Dispatch, send EMS right. shot fire. Shot fire.

YOUNG (voice-over): For the next two minutes, you hear the officers distraught in administrating CPR.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hey, you're good? Hey, keep breathing. Keep breathing. Keep breathing. Keep breathing. Keep breathing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Stay with me, man, stay with me.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Bleep) breath. (Bleep). Are you good? Keep breathing. Keep breathing, dude.

Keep breathing. Keep breathing. Keep breathing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Fuck (bleep), dude.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hey, go to the front of the building. Go to the front of the building. Wave them down. Wave them down with their flashlight. Come on.

Run, run, run, run. Hey. Hey, dude. Hey, you're going to be alright. You're going to be all right.

Look at me. Hey, look at me. Look at me. Look at me. Look at me.

Look at me. Hey, wake up. Wake up. Look at me. Look at me.

Hey, respond. Come on. Come on. Come on.

Wake up. Respond.

YOUNG (voice-over): Bagley was unarmed during the encounter according to Louisiana State Police. The officer who fired the shot, Alexander Tyler, has been charged with negligent homicide.

In court Thursday, a Louisiana State Police investigator told the judge in the split second after the shot is fired, you can see in the body camera footage Bagley's hands are up.

On cross examination, the investigator acknowledged the view from the body camera is obstructed by the way the officers turned in the moment the shot is fired.

DHU THOMPSON, LAWYER FOR OFFICER ALEXANDER TYLER: Officers are always faced on a day to day basis with dangerous situations like that and at times where they have to make split second decisions where they're in a potential life threatening situation. The mere fact that an argument is being made by the investigator in court that he was unarmed does not necessarily mean he's not a threat to the officer.


YOUNG: A very rough video to watch. And I tell you, community members are asking for the police to make wholesale changes when it comes to policy and how officers chase suspects.

You won't see the officer's orange jumpsuit when he was doing his first court appearance before receiving his $25,000 bond because of this date, you can't film first court appearance. His mugshot also will not be released.

The family though, is also joining the community and asking for changes at the police department and they are moving forward with a lawsuit.

Reporting in Shreveport, Louisiana, Ryan Young, CNN.

BROWN: Ryan Young, thank you.

Coming up tonight, a major reversal from Republican Senator Rick Scott in the face of widespread criticism over a plan that drew an attack from President Biden during his State of the Union address. That's next. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM. We'll be right back.



BROWN: Republican Senator Rick Scott is backtracking now on his controversial plan that President Biden repeatedly hammered during last week's State of the Union address. This after Scott had previously doubled down in an interview with CNN just last week.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm not politely not naming them, but it's being proposed by some of you. The idea is that we're not going to be moved into being threatened to default on the debt if we don't respond. So, folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now, right?

SEN. RICK SCOTT (R), FLORIDA: First off, nobody believes that I want to cut Medicare or Social Security. I've never said it. I want to make sure we balance our budget and preserve Medicare and Social Security. And I've been clear all along.


BROWN: CNN Chief Congressional Correspondent Manu Raju is live on Capitol Hill with more on this. So first off, in his original plan, it did talk about sunsetting for Social Security and Medicare. Just to add to context of what we just heard there from Rick Scott, that was a week ago. Now there is an about face from Rick Scott, right, Manu?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, really because of unrelenting criticism he was getting from Democrats and some Republicans alike. Remember, this plan was one senator's plan Rick Scott released this last year in defiance of Republican leadership in the Senate.

Mitch McConnell did not want to have anything to do with this plan because he knew Democrats would seize on it. And they have done just that. And it's gotten more intense over the last several weeks as the debate in the Capitol has raised over exactly how to raise the national debt limit to avoid a debt default.

Republicans say they want spending cuts, they are saying that it should not come from Social Security, Medicare. That is a posture of the Republican leadership. But Joe Biden has pointed to Rick Scott's plan, is saying, yes, the Republicans do want to cut Social Security and Medicare because of its highlighting of every five years federal programs, according to Rick Scott and his plan, they should be sunsetting.

That's what he proposed in that one proposal. But he had said that he never intended this to include Medicare and Social Security. He said he doesn't need to say it, he didn't need to specify it. He has defended that all along. But today a change. He included that language in his plan saying that, "All federal legislation sunset in five years with specific exceptions of Social Security, Medicare, national security, veterans benefits and other essential services."


He went on to say in that plan, "Note to President Biden, Senator Schumer, and Senator McConnell. As you know, this was never intended to apply to Social Security, Medicare, or the U.S. Navy." So a move by Rick Scott to try to defray criticism. And Rick Scott himself facing reelection next year, undoubtedly this will become an issue in his race.

But trying to make clear, Pamela, he never meant touch entitlement programs as Republicans are calling for spending cuts. And Rick Scott saying that's not what he was talking about entitlements and making it clear there in this change today.

BROWN: All right, Manu, stay with us. I want to bring in CNN Political Director David Chalian. So, David, what does it say to you that Senator Scott is changing course now?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: That he realizes it was a political loser of a position to be in and he needed to reverse course here. Remember Rick Scott when Manu was saying he introduced his plan last year to the chagrin of Republican leadership, he was part of Republican leadership last year as the head of the campaign arm last year for Republicans.

And yet Mitch McConnell, the party leader in the Senate, still was stiff arming him and totally distancing from this plan. Mitch McConnell did so again as recently as last week, saying that this is the plan of one senator, not the Republican plan. And finally, Rick Scott does this complete caving to the political pressure from the President and from those in his own party in clear recognition that this was not going well for him.

BROWN: And yet you're seeing now Senator Scott take a shot across the bow to McConnell right, Manu, as you just pointed out, saying, hey, Senator McConnell and Schumer, this was never about Medicare and Social Security. What do we make of that?

RAJU: Yes, it's really been a sharp divide between McConnell and Scott ever since the release of this plan last year. As David noted, Scott was in charge of the Senate GOP campaign arm. Mitch McConnell, of course, had a vested interest in making sure, trying to get back into the Senate majority.

They had a disagreement about this issue. McConnell did not want to have an agenda in which Democrats could attack. Instead, he wanted to focus squarely on Joe Biden. But when Scott put out this plan, it gave Democrats something to seize on. But it wasn't just that. It was about certain tactical disagreements that the two men had.

McConnell wanted to get more involved in some Senate primaries. Scott's decision to stay out of Senate primaries did not go over well with some of McConnell's allies, who wanted them to take a more assertive posture. And of course, ultimately, Senate Republicans fell short, did not take back the Senate majority, and it's been a blame game all along.

And things have only intensified, including after the elections, when Rick Scott decided to mount a challenge and try to knock off McConnell. Blaming McConnell for not embracing this plan is one reason why the party took a drubbing in the Senate races. McConnell, of course, defeated Rick Scott, but that was the first challenge to his leadership he has faced as he became the longest serving party leader in Senate history.

But real tension between these two men as their disagreement still is pretty intense heading into the next election cycle.

BROWN: The saga continues with them. David, no surprise here, the White House is chiming in saying Scott's updated plan acknowledges, quote, that they have in fact been attempting to put Medicare and Social Security on the chopping block. So did Scott just hand Biden a victory?

CHALIAN: Well, Biden clearly scored a victory with this talking point. Look at what Scott did. He had to sort of cut and run on this particular issue. But now what you see is Scott is trying to sort of take away that victory in the White House is saying we don't care that he now no longer says or has this exception for Medicare and Social Security.

We're still going to proceed with hammering on this because he did at one time propose this and now he's owning up to the fact that he did not have this exception. So just the fact that Scott is now reversing course, Pamela, does not mean we're going to stop hearing Democrats from trying to paint Republicans with a broad brush on this issue.

BROWN: Right. I mean, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is already weighing in, posting a link to actually CNN's article saying when people show you who they are, believe them the first time. So, I mean, like we just heard from David, Manu, it's safe to say we haven't heard the end of Democratic criticism of this plan.

RAJU: Yes, no question about it. It's really a sea change in how the two parties have dealt with this issue. The issue of entitlement over the last several election cycle, Republicans recognizing it is not a political winner to deal with these programs, even though they are facing insolvency and some changes need to be made, either cutting benefits or raising taxes in order to ensure their solvency going forward.

But Republicans don't want to deal with this. They saw what happened after Paul Ryan then the House Budget Chairman proposed changes to Medicare. Democrats hammered them on that issue.


Remember George W. Bush. He proposed changes to Social Security, privatizing some elements of Social Security that failed. And also Democrats used that as a cudgel in the next election cycle. Now, Republicans do not want to talk about this at all, but still, big questions, Pamela, because there is going to be a major debate here in the Capitol about how do they cut spending with more than $30 trillion in the national debt as they try to get an agreement to raise the national debt limit.

And if they keep entitlements off the table, what other programs could be on the chopping block? That is a big debate that will play out here over the next several months.

CHALIAN: And as Manu notes, Pamela, the actual solvency crisis still exists. Like we're not hearing a solution to that.

BROWN: Exactly. I think that's super important to emphasize. All right, David Chalian, Manu Raju, thank you both.

Just ahead tonight, Fox News top stars repeatedly broadcast and hyped Trump's election lies. But off the air, they blasted the former president's baseless claims. A revealing look behind the scenes at Fox News from a new court filing. That's next.



BROWN: A damning new court filing reveals how top executives and some of the biggest names at Fox really felt about Donald Trump's lies around the 2020 election, even as they hyped his bogus claims on air. And as CNN Sunlen Serfaty reports it's all coming to light as part of a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit brought by Dominion Voting Systems.



SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It is a damning indictment of Fox News.

TUCKER CARLSON, HOST, "TUCKER CARLSON TONIGHT": The outcome of our presidential election was seized from the hands of voters.

SERFATY (voice-over): As a network publicly and repeatedly promoted former President Trump's 2020 election fraud claims to millions of their viewers.

SEAN HANNITY, HOST, "HANNITY": Every American should be angry. You should be outraged. You should be worried. You should be concerned at what has happened in the election and lead up to this election.

SERFATY (voice-over): Privately, top anchors and executives mocked Trump's lies, calling them ludicrous, really crazy stuff and totally off the rails. The revelations coming from hundreds of pages of newly released evidence in the legal filing as part of the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit against Fox News.

In this text, exchanged two weeks after the election, Tucker Carlson texting other Fox News host. "Sidney Powell is lying, by the way. I caught her. It's insane." He says about Trump's lawyer, Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani's unfounded claims. "Sidney is a complete nut. No one will work with her. Ditto with Rudy." Laura Ingraham wrote back.

Tucker responds, "It's unbelievably offensive to me. Our viewers are good people, and they believe it." Even as those same hosts went on the air arguing completely otherwise.

INGRAHAM: All right, these election challenges are still going on, and disturbing irregularities have been found and must be investigated to the fullest.

SERFATY (voice-over): On election night, the network first to call Arizona for Biden.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Fox News decision desk is calling Arizona for Joe Biden. That is a big get for the Biden campaign.

SERFATY (voice-over): As Trump's baseless conspiracy theories started to take hold.

DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is a fraud on the American public, so we'll be going to the U.S. Supreme Court.

SERFATY (voice-over): Carlson wrote his producer, warning that Trump could easily destroy us if we play it wrong. The court documents showing a scramble behind the scenes as viewers rebelled against Fox for calling the contest in Biden's favor. And, of course, correction internally to prioritize profitability over the truth.

After Fox News reporter Jacqui Heinrich fact checked a Trump tweet about votes being destroyed, Tucker Carlson texting his colleagues, "Please get her fired. Seriously, what the f? It's measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down."

Fox News, in a statement, argues the court filing contains cherry- picked quotes lacking context. As Fox News hosts continue this week to sow doubt.

CARLSON: Was the 2020 election a miracle? Honestly, we don't know. We don't expect to get answer to it tonight.

SERFATY (voice-over): And the documents also revealing on January 6, Trump tried to call into Fox Business to get on air. But the network refused, saying it would be irresponsible and could impact a lot of people in a negative way.


BROWN: That was Sunlen Serfaty reporting there.

Coming up, a CNN exclusive. Our team trekked to a shadowy Chinese facility with possible ties to Beijing's spy balloons.



BROWN: Tonight, a CNN exclusive. Our team got a first-hand look at a Chinese facility that may be involved with developing Beijing spy balloons. CNN Senior International Correspondent Will Ripley is in Taipei, Taiwan. Will, this is a facility that China does not want anyone to see. What did CNN cameras capture?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the reason why it was important for us to go there, and CNN was the first international news organization in the world to actually go there and capture these images. But we need to know more about the place where the balloon was made to decide whether there is any credence at all to this Chinese argument that they give over and over again that this balloon was a weather balloon.

But when you fly 300 miles southeast of Beijing to this facility, it's one of six Chinese entities that have been sanctioned by the Biden administration, you know, for possible links to the suspected spy balloon. You see very clearly military activity. They had attack helicopters under stealth hangers.

They had this giant dome where they test high altitude balloons similar to the suspected spy balloon that flew over the U.S. for seven days. And then we did some research. We searched corporate records that suggest that this company, which is known by the acronym EMAS, they actually have permits to develop and manufacture products for the Chinese military. Pamela?

BROWN: Wow. So let's talk more about that and any more proof that this facility is, in fact, tied to the Chinese military?

RIPLEY: Oh, absolutely. Even when you fly in, when our team flew in, they had to close the, you know, their airplane window shades as they were flying over this facility. And it also sits a very short distance from a large Chinese military base.

So, you know, while we cannot definitively prove that the spy balloon was made at this particular factory, even though state media reports talked about the fact that it can carry communications equipment used for military surveillance and reconnaissance, you know, because China is so obscure and secretive about these sorts of things, we don't know for sure.

But what we do know is that balloons that are manufactured there, very similar to the Chinese spy balloon, sitting very close to a military base, and this facility is permitted to develop and manufacture products for the military.


BROWN: Will Ripley, thank you so much. Fascinating look at that facility. We appreciate your reporting.

Coming up tonight, we're going to go live to Memphis, where the five former police officers charged in Tyre Nichols death pleaded not guilty. More on where the case goes from here up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BROWN: Happening now, a tense court appearance for the fired officers charged in the fatal arrest and beating of Tyre Nichols. CNN is on the scene in Memphis, where Nichols' mother has been speaking out after she says the defendants refused to look her in the eye.

Also tonight, new court evidence that Fox News anchors and executives privately trashed former President Trump's claims of fraud in the 2020 election, even as they promoted them on air.

And we'll go live to eastern Ukraine, where a critical battle is unfolding nearly a year after Russia's invasion. And we'll hear from a key ally who was warning the world to promote prepare for the war to drag on a lot longer.

Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. Wolf Blitzer is on assignment tonight. I'm Pamela Brown and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.