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The Situation Room

Unidentified Noises Heard Again Today Amid Sub Search; Hunter Biden Plea Deal Hearing Set for July 26; China Lashes Out After Biden Calls Xi a Dictator; Justice Alito's Ethics Under Scrutiny After New Report; Zelenskyy: Ukraine Faces "Difficulties" on Battlefield, Wants "To Make Bigger Steps" in Counteroffensive. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired June 21, 2023 - 18:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Lewis was known for advocating people to get into good trouble to make positive change in society.

Our coverage continues now with one Mr. Alex Marquardt in for Wolf Blitzer in The Situation Room. I'll see you tomorrow.

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, the search for a missing under water tourist vessel intensifies as banging noises are heard in the area again today. We have experts standing by. They're tracking the desperate hunt for survivors of the expedition. This hour, the supply of oxygen in the submersible is rapidly running out. We'll show you what conditions are like inside the small, cramped sub that left with five people on board.

And China is now lashing out at the United States after President Joe Biden referred to Chinese leader Xi Jinping as a dictator. This as CNN is getting an exclusive look at military drills preparing for a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and all around the world. Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Alex Marquardt and you're in The Situation Room.

And let's get right to the massive search for the missing submersible. The source of banging sounds in the area, that remains a mystery at this hour. But as CNN's Jason Carroll reports, they are giving rescue crews hope.


CAPT. JAMIE FREDERICK, U.S. COAST GUARD: When you are in the middle of -- that's why we're doing what we do.

JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): With what could be less than 24 hours of oxygen left onboard Titan, hope at this point may rest on banging noises detected by sonar. The Coast Guard revealing more noises were picked up this morning after a Canadian aircraft dropped a sonar buoy.

FREDERICK: With respect to the noises specifically we don't know what they are, to be frank with you. The P-3 detected noises. That is why they're up there. That's why they're doing what they're doing. That's why they put sonar buoys in the water.

CARROLL: The sounds described as banging first picked up by a Canadian plane yesterday, according to a government memo. All the acoustic information sent to the U.S. Navy for analysis. Additional resources sent to search the area where the sounds were detected. The Coast Guard cautioned about drawing conclusions before experts can weigh in.

FREDERICK: We moved assets and we're searching there and we'll continue to do so.

CARROLL: Time is crucial. The rescue window continues to shrink.

SEAN LEET, CO-FOUNDER AND CHAIRMAN, HORIZON MARITIME SERVICES: We are very aware of the time sensitivity around this mission.

CARROLL: Experts still hoping those sounds are from those trapped onboard and the resources deployed can effort a rescue.

TOM DETTWEILER, OCEAN EXPLORER: It is encouraging there did seem to be a pattern to it and we're going to continue to hold out hope.

CARROLL: The vessel was headed to view the Titanic wreck that sits nearly 13,000 feet deep but lost contact on Sunday just 1 hour and 45 minutes into its descent.

Five onboard including OceanGate CEO and Founder Stockton Rush.

STOCKTON RUSH, CEO AND FOUNDER, OCEANGATE: I'd like to be remembered as an innovator. I think it was General MacArthur said you're remembered for the rules you break. And, you know, I've broken some rules to make this. I think I've broken them with logic and good engineering behind me.

CARROLL: Now questions surrounding the safety of the vessel, which was not inspected and classed by an independent group that sets safety standards. Most charter vessels are carefully inspected, reviewed then classed.

OceanGate argues the Titan is not due to the technology being so new that it is not incorporated into existing standards. Two former employees of OceanGate separately brought up safety concerns about the vessel and the thickness of Titan's hull. There was additional testing since the time the employees left the company in 2017 and 2018. So, it is unclear if their concerns were addressed.


CARROLL (on camera): And, Alex, even as we speak, more assets are being taken into the area, an area, a search area twice the size of Connecticut. We are also being told the planes that are there, the search planes, they will be searching day and night. The captain here of the U.S. Coast Guard saying they're going to work as hard as possible and, quote, as quickly as possible, doing everything that they can to try and find the Titan. Alex? MARQUARDT: That speed, of course, is of the essence. Jason Carroll, thank you very much for that report.

I now want to bring in CNN's Gabe Cohen who has been inside this very same submersible. Gabe, as Jason Carroll noted right there, experts have said that this submersible wasn't quite certified to meet these industry standards. So, what have you learned?

GABE COHEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. So, we now have this 2018 letter that was sent by the head of a submersible organization and co-signed by more than three dozen specialists, according to a New York Times report.


And they were warning that a potentially catastrophic consequence because of the way OceanGate had handled what they called an experimental sort of design and implementation of this vessel right here, Titan.

And the big concern was that they felt like OceanGate hadn't followed the same safety standards with this vessel that other companies in the industry were following. It wasn't they said tested in front of independent industry specialists and a key point that they made is that it wasn't certified by an industry group.

The author of that letter, Will Kohnen, he told me today in an interview that without those certifications, it would not be safe to take a vessel all the way down to that Titanic. As he put it, he said there are only ten submarines in the entire world that can handle that type of dive more than 12,000 feet. He said that Titan is the only one that's not certified.

Now, he says he brought the concerns to Stockton Rush. The two of them talked over the phone, and he said, in his words, the two just agreed to disagree. And we do know that in 2019, OceanGate put out a blog post really defending their decision, saying that the certification process for Titan could have taken years. It could have stifled innovation. And they really didn't feel like the safety benefits outweighed what it could cost them.

MARQUARDT: And it wasn't just the experts who had concerns. It was former employees as well. What did they say?

COHEN: Correct. Jason referenced it there, our colleague, Selena Tibor (ph), has confirmed that two different former OceanGate employees had raised concerns during their time employed there specifically about the thickness of the hull. The first one, that first concern that was brought was that the company hadn't performed adequate testing on the hull to make sure a nondestructive testing, as they put it, to make sure the structure was sound and safe for that type of dive.

The other employee said that when the hull arrived, it was only five inches thick, that carbon fiber hull, which is so critical at that pressure point, that it was only five inches thick. They expected it to be seven inches thick. And both of those employees said they brought those concerns to OceanGate management and were largely dismissed.

MARQUARDT: Significant concerns and, of course, potential red flags, all this can be examined for quite some time to come. Gave Cohen, thank you very much, I appreciate it.

And joining us now, experts on submersibles and deep sea exploration, Jeff Eggers is a former Navy commander who spent four years piloting military mini submarines, John Ismay is a former deep sea diving and salvage officer who is now a Pentagon reporter for The New York Times, and Rachel Lance is a biomedical engineer who studied submarine disasters. Thank you all for joining us on this incredibly important story.

Jeff, to you first. These safety issues that we've been talking about, do you see any of them as a potential explanation for why this submersible has gone missing?

JEFF EGGERS, FORMER NAVY COMMANDER: Well, thanks, Alex, and it's good to be with you. I mean, it is certainly going to be an issue. I am not sure it's the right issue to focus on right now. We are still very much in the search and rescue phase of this. So, I think those questions will inevitably come up and they need to be addressed. But right now, I think all efforts and resources should be focused on the task at hand, which is exhausting every opportunity and effort to potentially recover the crew here.

MARQUARDT: Yes. Jeff, let's talk about some of the most promising signs, those banging noises. The Coast Guard has said those noises are inconclusive, but do you see it as a real positive sign here?

EGGERS: I think it could be and certainly there has been some indication this could be not only a manmade signal but a manmade signal from the Titan. Sonar buoys are deployed passive hydrophones that can pick up all of the dynamics that you hear under the sea.

And it is quite a dynamic environment with lots of noise. And it requires very specially trained technicians to analyze those recordings to understand what is a marine biologic noise from a manmade noise. But it certainly does provide some opportunity for optimism here.

I think that is what the Coast Guard has got to do, right. A search and rescue mission to be successful has to work with not only a sense of urgency but a sense of optimism and they really got that.

MARQUARDT: And those noises coming at regular intervals.

Rachel, of course, we've been keeping a very close eye on the clock. The company had initially said that the vessel started off with 96 hours of oxygen. That, of course, is not a perfect science. So, what factors are at play here when passengers, and there are five of them in this small space, are all breathing this air?

RACHEL LANCE, ASSISTANT CONSULTING PROFESSOR, DUKE UNIVERSITY: There are multiple factors in play any time people are trying to survive in an enclosed environment. The biggest one and the one that's most concerning to me is that the factor that actually limits people's survival in a scenario like this is carbon dioxide, not oxygen.


So, the fact that this 96 hours of oxygen number keeps being cited is a little bit alarming because, in my opinion, it displays a lack of awareness about the tenets of respirator physiology that are necessary in order to design a system like this for survival under water.

MARQUARDT: Yes, of course.

LANCE: So, some of the factors -- yes.

MARQUARDT: Sorry, keep going. I apologize.

LANCE: Oh, absolutely. Some of the factors that would really make a difference in a case like this, the biggest one is how well these people are able to stay calm and control their breathing. The more we get anxious or excited or the more we exert ourselves in physical work, the more oxygen we consume. But more importantly, the more carbon dioxide we produce and the shorter that clock gets.

MARQUARDT: In terms of the assets on site, John, my Pentagon colleague, Oren Liebermann, has reported a Navy salvage system arrived at St. John's in Canada to prepare for mobilization. It can retrieve objects up to 20,000 feet under the water. What can you tell us more about the logistics going on here for this huge underwater search?

JOHN ISMAY, PENTAGON REPORTER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Well, the first thing that has to happen is the Navy has to find what they usually call a ship of opportunity, some sort of platform that has enough open space on its deck to load all this gear to set it up to make sure it is working correctly and then some sort of crane that is rated to an appropriate weight that can lift an object this heavy off the bottom.

From there, you're looking at just sort of the brutal math of the transit time. Most of these ships generally don't go faster than 20 miles per hour. So, if you have a transit of either 900 nautical miles or 370 nautical miles, you are talking many hours to get on to the site itself.

MARQUARDT: Yes. And those figures you just quoted, those are the distances between the site and the coastlines of Canada and the United States.

Jeff, I want to show our audience the seating configuration of this submersible. It's called the Titan. As you can see there, it is pretty cramped. I mean, obviously, they are not supposed to have been down there for this long. But, Jeff, you have been on similarly-sized vessels. What is it like down there?

EGGERS: Well, it is not for the claustrophobic, that's for sure, Alex. You get used to it after a while but you have got to be comfortable in confined spaces. You know, unfortunately the design criteria that are really engineered around withstanding the pressure at these depths means that you are not going to have a lot of space and be comfortable with these things. MARQUARDT: All right. Well, it is certainly not for the faint of heart, as you said. We really appreciate all of your perspectives as the hours count down on this very troubling story. Thank you very much.

And just ahead, four more on the search for the submersible. I'll be speaking with a veteran explorer who knows two of the missing passengers.

And a date was just set for Hunter Biden's plea hearing, this as Attorney General Merrick Garland is distancing himself from that deal.



MARQUARDT: Hunter Biden's plea agreement with the Justice Department is moving forward tonight. A date has been set for the president's son to make an initial appearance in court.

We are joined now by CNN Senior Justice Correspondent Evan Perez. So, Evan, what is the latest?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the official date now for Hunter Biden to come to court is July 26th, just over a month from now. He is going to be making an appearance before Judge Maryellen Noreika, who is a Trump-appointee. She was appointed in 2018, had the support, bipartisan support approved by a voice vote when she came up for a vote back in 2018.

And, look, I mean, she is going to be making the decision on whether to accept this plea agreement and also key, of course, will be this diversion program, which will decide whether Hunter Biden has to deal with the gun charge, right, whether he can go into a diversion program and avoid having any issues at all on his record with regard to the gun charge.

And all of this, of course, is coming as you hear from Republicans making accusations about how this deal went down. The attorney general, Merrick Garland, is traveling overseas and he pushed back against those accusations.


MERRICK GARLAND, ATTORNEY GENERAL: As I said from the moment of my appointment as attorney general, I would leave this matter in the hands of the United States attorney who was appointed by the previous president and assigned to this matter by the previous administration, that he would be given full authority to decide the matter as he decided was appropriate. And that is what he's done.


PEREZ: That, of course, will not be the last word. We expect that we're going to hear from Republicans some more in the coming days about how they believe parts of this investigation were handled improperly and whether they want to do more investigation of Hunter Biden.

MARQUARDT: Despite the fact that it was a Trump-appointed prosecutor and now a Trump-appointed judge.

PEREZ: Exactly.

MARQUARDT: Evan Perez, thanks very much.

Let's get more with our CNN Senior Legal Analyst Elie Honig. Elie, thanks for joining me.

I want to pick up where Evan left off there, this court appearance next month. Tell us how this hearing is going to unfold and how much discretion is this Trump-appointed judge going to have.

ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: So, these hearings, Alex, usually are fairly routine but the judge always does have the final say. A couple important things will happen. First of all, Hunter Biden will do what we call, allocute. Meaning he will go on the record, go under oath and explain, yes, I am guilty of these tax misdemeanors, here is what I did that makes me guilty, I accept my guilt.

The judge will then have to decide whether she wants to accept that guilty plea, which happens in virtually every case unless there is something fundamentally wrong with the guilty plea. Eventually, the judge will have to set the sentence.

Now, in this case, the parties have agreed the appropriate sentence is probation. The judge does not have to follow that. But in a misdemeanor case, virtually, every misdemeanor gets resolved by probation.


And the judge's question here is not just do I think the punishment should be a little more or less severe but is this a reasonable outcome in virtually every case where the parties have agreed the judge will impose that sentence that they've agreed upon.

MARQUARDT: In terms of the pushback that we heard Evan just played from Attorney General Merrick Garland today, what did you make of that?

HONIG: Well, I think it is an important statement by Merrick Garland and he is stressing this crucial fact about the investigation. The decision about whether and with what to charge Hunter Biden was made by the U.S. attorney, David Wiess, and it is so important to understand who David Weiss is. He is a veteran DOJ prosecutor. He served under both political parties and he was made the U.S. attorney for the district of Delaware by Donald Trump in 2018.

When Joe Biden took over in 2021, he left David Wiess in place intentionally. And it is such a crucial point, because for all the criticisms and second-guessing that have been lobbed at this plea deal, I have not heard anyone offer up a coherent answer to this question. Why on earth would David Wiess have any reason or any incentive to tilt the field in favor of Hunter Biden?

MARQUARDT: All right. Elie Honig, thank you very much for breaking that down for us.

HONIG: Thanks, Alex.

MARQUARDT: And coming up, firsthand accounts of the cramped and even crude conditions inside the missing submersible. Why would tourists endure that to explore the depths of the sea?



MARQUARDT: U.S. Coast Guard officials are stressing their continued hope that passengers on board the missing tourist sub will be found alive.

Brian Todd is getting new insight into what it is like to be inside that vessel deep beneath the sea.

So, Brian, the Titan expeditions are considered luxury tours but those conditions are anything but luxurious.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anything but luxurious. Alex, one person who traveled on the Titan submersible last year says when he got on board the vessel, he felt like a mercury astronaut. Tonight, there are fascinating new narratives from people who have been onboard the sub about the conditions inside.


TODD (voice over): New accounts from those who have been inside the missing Titan submersible depict a vessel that is alluring and surprisingly rudimentary.

RUSH: Take your shoes off. That is customary.

TODD: CBS Correspondent David Pogue was on board the Titan last year. He climbed into the vessel with Stockton Rush, CEO of OceanGate Expeditions and a pilot of the Titan. Pogue's report describes the inside as having about as much space as a minivan. There are no chairs or seats. Passengers sit cross-legged on the floor. There is just one button on the wall, one video screen and only a single port hole.

And maybe the most surprising feature that Rush showed David Pogue --

RUSH: We run the whole thing with this game controller.


TODD: A handheld controller that looks like a gaming console.

POGUE: I didn't know at that point that you drive the thing with an Xbox game controller. I didn't know the ballast was used construction pipes. You get there and then you start seeing this stuff and now your mood crashes and get a little worried, like is this the level of polish and sophistication we're talking about?

TODD: Adventurer Mike Reiss, who traveled to the Titanic on the Titan last year, also spoke about the gaming console and other components.

MIKE REISS, TRAVELED WITH OCEANGATE TO THE TITANIC SHIPWRECK: Once you reach the ground, the ship is sort of piloted by two things that just look like a fan you would have on your desk, very simple, and it is controlled by a joystick from a gaming console, so that even I was able to steer and navigate the submarine for a while.

TODD: According to an OceanGate webpage that's no longer available online there, is one small toilet in the front of the vessel which, quote, doubles as the best seat in the house. It says when the toilet is being used, they put up a privacy curtain and turn the music up loud. The website recommends that passengers restrict their diet before and during the dive to reduce the chances of having to use the toilet.

Mike Reiss says he fell asleep during the 2.5-hour trip down to the Titanic. Pogue mentioned another feature that he had some trepidation about.

POGUE: You were bolted in from the outside. There are 18 bolts in a circle around the hatch. And, by the way, they only fastened 17 of them. The 18th is way up high and they say there is no mathematical difference.

TODD: Reiss says the sense of what he was getting into was evident early on.

REISS: Before you even get on, you sign this long, long waiver that mentions possible death three times on the first page. When I stepped on to the sub, I just knew, part of my mind was going, well, this could be the end.


TODD (on camera): And, again, we have new images coming from OceanGate's past promotional materials showing how cramped it is inside the Titan submersible. Check out the seating configuration. You can see how tightly packed they are, people facing in different directions. Mike Reiss says he took four different dives on OceanGate's submersibles, one to the Titanic on the Titan, the other three in the waters off New York City. He says communication was lost at least briefly every single time he got onboard but says he does not blame the submarine as much as the deep water. Alex?

MARQUARDT: Brian Todd with that great look inside the Titan, thanks very much.

And joining me now is a veteran adventurer who's explored the deepest oceans, both poles, and orbital space. Richard Garriott is the president of the Explorers Club and he knows two of the passengers on board the missing Titan submersible. Richard, thank you so much for joining us.

You are friends and colleagues with Hamish Harding and Paul-Henri Nargeolet. What do you think they would be doing right now inside the Titan to help all of these rescuers to find them?


RICHARD GARRIOTT DE CAYEUX, PRESIDENT, THE EXPLORERS CLUB: Well, first of all, Alex, thank you for having me here with you today in support of the rescue of all five of these crew members. But, yes, as you say, Hamish Harding and P.H. are both extremely experienced explorers.

When you're down there alone at these depths, they are well aware of things they need to do as a crew, staying calm being the first, but also minimizing consumption of those resources, keeping everybody cool so that your physiological aspects are slowed down a little bit, but also calm, and then the periodic potentially knocking that we're hearing. They know they need to find a way to signal the outside world that they are there.

So, if there are people well prepared to go this distance, I know that at least these two and, frankly, the others are also probably prepared as well, but at least I know those two well and they are well prepared to tackle this task.

MARQUARDT: Those noises, that banging at this intervals that was picked up yesterday as well as this morning, how are you interpreting that?

GARRIOTT DE CAYEUX: Well, as some of your Coast Guard and other specialists have said, it really does need a final analysis. Unfortunately, it's in the fog of war. It is very difficult to interpret what you hear as rumor. We have lots of friends and colleagues from the Explorers Club, which is, by the way, a professional association of explorers, about 3,500 strong. And so we have members on board a lot of the vessels at sea right now. And so we get both official data and a bunch of unofficial data, which, in many ways, creates additional confusion versus clarity as to how to interpret those signals. So, we do need to wait for official word.

MARQUARDT: There was a report in The New York Times that submersible industry leaders wrote a letter back in 2018 to this company, OceanGate, warning of their experimental approach, they called it, and said that it could result in negative outcomes from minor to catastrophic. You've gone all the way down to the Mariana Trench. So, how are these subs regulated to keep them safe?

GARRIOTT DE CAYEUX: Well, you know, I can't speak to OceanGate. I've never seen the vehicle myself. But I have been both in spacecraft to space and a variety of submersibles down to the very deepest point at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

And what is interesting about both spacecraft and submarines is that many of the issues are almost identical. For example, on life support, you have to add oxygen, you have to scrub out the CO2. You have to manage the total pressure of about one atmosphere. You want to keep the temperature within livable range, that sort of thing.

But then when you get to the pressures involved, the two types of vehicles deviate dramatically. In the case of a spacecraft, you're only having to hold in one atmospheric pressure compared to the vacuum of space. When you are going down, down to the Mariana Trench, it is a thousand atmospheres of pressure. Here at the Titanic, it is merely about 500 times the surface pressure of air, which is still obviously an enormous amount of pressure.

And that is why a spaceship hull is very thin, not much more than a coke can, but it takes numerous inches of steel or, in this case, carbon fiber to hold out the enormous pressure. Plus, the design is, you know, a spacecraft has often a more complex shape, a submersible, the hull of that pressure, is almost always a cylinder or a sphere.

MARQUARDT: Richard, you mentioned your many members, thousands of them who may be getting informal updates. Are you hearing anything more specific about what is going on in this search?

GARRIOTT DE CAYEUX: Well, the good news about the Explorers Club is that, as I mentioned, we are a professional association of field explorers, and 25 percent of them or so are deep oceanographic research professionals. And so we have a very unique perspective on exactly this type of work that exceeds, frankly, any other general type of body. Even the military, you know, Coast Guard and Navy are generally working close to the surface and it is only, as I heard earlier, on your program, there's only a handful of machines that are capable of reaching down to these enormous depths.

But because our members have this expertise, not only have we put a call out and we have, you know, a wide array of people, including myself, all of us, the board of directors, all of us, they're meeting together, the Global Exploration Summit recently, providing as much information as we can to the field work and also bringing information out.

MARQUARDT: All right. Richard Garriott, president of the Explorers Club, thank you so much for joining us. Of course, our thoughts are with your friends today.

GARRIOTT DE CAYEUX: Thank you kindly.

MARQUARDT: And just ahead, how the White House is handling President Biden's surprise remark about China's president, referring to Xi Jinping as a dictator.


And an exclusive look at preparations for potential war with China. CNN goes inside Taiwan's military drills.


MARQUARDT: Tonight, China is lashing out at the United States after President Biden referred to Chinese President Xi Jinping as a dictator, Beijing calling the remark absurd and an open provocation. Let's bring in CNN White House Correspondent Jeremy Diamond. Jeremy, is the White House standing by the president's unscripted remarks about Xi and what are the potential impacts that these comments could have on this extremely tense relationship?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is obviously a very delicate moment, Alex, in the U.S./China relationship, but the White House is not walking back the president's comments at all. In fact, a senior administration official told me that it should come as no surprise that the president is candidly about China and the differences between the two countries.


But, look, there is no question that inside other parts of the U.S. government, there was some surprise, some consternation about the fact that the president would make these comments publicly. Remember, these came at a fundraiser where there were reporters in the room, no cameras.

But there were reporters in the room, and the president not only referring to Xi as a dictator but also essentially undermining how Xi presents his strength to the world, presenting him as weak essentially, noting that Xi, according to U.S. intelligence, did not know that that spy balloon was over the United States, drifting over the United States before the U.S. shot it down. The president even saying Xi was embarrassed, and so, again, a very delicate moment in the relationship between these two countries.

Secretary of State Tony Blinken just left Beijing, where he had a meeting with the Chinese president, which was aimed at trying to get that relationship back on track. Now, there are questions about whether these comments by the president will upend the progress. That senior official I referenced to earlier, Alex, tells me that they don't believe it will, that they believe that progress will continue and is sustainable going forward.

MARQUARDT: And, Jeremy, there is a meeting at the White House tonight with someone else who is often accused of undemocratic tendencies, the prime minister of India, Narendra Modi. He is visiting Washington. You have some new reporting on that.

DIAMOND: Yes, that's right, Alex. I am told that these two leaders will indeed hold a joint news conference tomorrow at the White House, but that was no small feat. In fact, it was the result of intense and lengthy negotiations between the U.S. and Indian officials. I am told that Indian officials initially balked at the idea of having a joint news conference for the two leaders.

The Indian prime minister, keep in mind, he has never held a news conference where he is taking questions from reporters. So, ultimately, the U.S. was initially pushing for a two and two, two American reporters, two Indian reporters getting to ask the two leaders questions. Instead, it will be a one and one. But U.S. officials here are certainly seeing that as a victory to get the Indian prime minister to take questions, a sign of democratic values and, of course, press freedoms, which we know have eroded under Modi's tenure as Indian prime minister. Alex?

MARQUARDT: Yes. It's going to be a very delicate visit for Biden to navigate. Jeremy Diamond at the White House, thanks very much.

Now, we have an exclusive CNN report on one of the major sources of tension between the United States and China, the future of Taiwan.

CNN Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto got an inside look at how Taiwan's military is preparing for potential invasion by China.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Commanders of a Taiwanese mechanized infantry combat team lay out their battle plan. Today's mission, defending the Penghu islands situated right in the middle of the Taiwan Strait from a Chinese paratrooper assault.

In rapid succession, infantry units storm a captured airfield. A column of tanks quickly follows. This maneuver is just a training exercise but with the very serious goal of readying these forces to defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion.

COL. CHANG CHI-MING, CHIEF OF OPERATIONS, FIRST COMBAT ZONE: In the event of a paratrooper assault on the Magong Airbase, our troops will be able to respond instantly and defend the territory.

SCIUTTO: Exercises like this one are almost daily events on Taiwan's Penghu Islands. Less than a hundred miles from Mainland China, they are a first line of defense for Taiwan against a Chinese invasion, home to Taiwanese army, air force, and naval bases and not all operations for the forces are simulations.

In fact, as I visited Penghu, four PLA Air Force fighter jets entered Taiwan's air defense identification zone. Taiwanese Air Force fighters from Magong Airbase scrambled to respond. Before they fly, they are armed with live ammunition for combat.

Lieutenant Colonel Bi Shi Quan, call sign Big, commands the Coyote Squadron.

LT. COL. BI SHI QUAN, TAIWAN AIR FORCE: Sometimes it is reconnaissance. Sometimes it is training. Although we are performing combat readiness missions here, the training has never stopped.

SCIUTTO: Are you proud of the job you do here?

QUAN: Of course.

SCIUTTO: Taiwanese Navy ships based here have had close calls of their own. And they sail with an array of anti-ship and anti-air missiles to do their part in defending against an invasion.

The Taiwanese military here in Penghu is engaged not just in drills and training but in genuine operations, responding to Chinese military operations in the Taiwan Strait. And commanders in the navy, the air force and the army tell me their mission is to prepare to defend their country.

Taiwan buys billions of dollars in weapons from the U.S., but its defense plan depends in large part on developing and manufacturing many of its own weapons. Its indigenous fighter jets and many of its navy frigates and APCs and tanks are all Taiwan-built.

CAPT. CHUNG-HSIAO PENG, TAIWAN NAVY: This is our territorial water. We won't allow other countries to sail through that water without permission.


SCIUTTO: On Penghu, Taiwanese military units are widely dispersed for force protection, to make them more difficult targets for any invading force.

There is a saying here one commander told me. If you want to take Taiwan you have to take Penghu first. And these forces are training to make sure that never happens.

Jim Sciutto, CNN, the Penghu Islands, Taiwan.


ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN HOST: Thanks to Jim Sciutto for that report.

And coming up, the ethics of Justice Samuel Alito under scrutiny after a new report about his contacts with a billionaire who had cases before the Supreme Court.


MARQUARDT: There's new reporting tonight raising questions about the ethics of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.

"ProPublica" now revealing details about a luxury fishing vacation that Alito took with a billionaire who later had cases before the Supreme Court.


Justice Alito responding to the report before it was even published.

CNN senior Supreme Court analyst Joan Biskupic is following all this for us.

Joan, this was quite remarkable. Alito knew this report was coming. He decided to put out an op-ed to get ahead of this. How unprecedented is that?

JOAN BISKUPIC, CNN SENIOR SUPREME COURT ANALYST: Totally. But let's just get the basics first, "ProPublica", which earlier reported on Clarence Thomas and Harlan Crow, another megadonor billionaire, "ProPublica" reported on their relationships. What happens last night, suddenly we first see Samuel Alito calling attention to this report before we know what's in it.

But here are the basic outlines so everyone can know what was in the report, that Samuel Alito had taken a luxury trip to Alaska back in 2008, with Paul Singer, somebody who has given lots of money for conservative causes, and has litigation before the Supreme Court. These are the kind of details that were in that report, that the fishing lodge had charged more than $1,000 a day. The private jet going one way could exceed $100,000 and the wine they drank there reached about $1,000 a bottle.

Now, Samuel Alito responds. As he responds, he does mention he's not sure he drank on this trip, but knows the wine wouldn't be $1,000. But here's what he says is most relevant when he talks about the event. He says that my recollection is that I have spoken to Mr. Singer, I know more than a handful occasions, all of which was a small talk during the fishing trip 15 years ago, consisted of brief and casual comments on events attended by large groups.

On no occasions have we discussed the activities of his businesses and we have never talked about any case or issue before the Supreme Court. And the reason this is important, Alex, and the reason he's trying to rebut this is, is that, first of all, there are all sorts of ethics rules about -- or first of all, as you know, the Supreme Court doesn't formally abide by these, but there are general restrictions on what judges can do.

And one is not to take these kinds of gifts. Private jet travel like this, $100,000 one way, that should have been disclosed on his report. He didn't do that. And then, following up on it, when cases came to the Supreme Court involving Paul Singer and many did, including one billion dollar deal against Argentina, Samuel Alito didn't recuse, he's saying he never should have.

But this just goes again to the fact there's no form at code of ethics, and there's no way for someone to lodge a complaint and try to get a resolution.

MARQUARDT: All right. A major question whether Chief Justice Roberts will actually do anything here and impose some kind of code of conduct.

Joan Biskupic, thank you very much for your reporting. I appreciate it.

BISKUPIC: Thank you.

MARQUARDT: Coming up on "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT", right after THE SITUATION ROOM, Dr. Peter Hotez, the vaccine expert who spoke out against COVID misinformation, and is now facing online harassment after podcaster Joe Rogan called for him to debate anti-vaxxer, activist, and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy Jr. That is at 7:00 Eastern, here on CNN.

Now, ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is making a new admission about setbacks in the counteroffensive against Russia. We will go live to Ukraine. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


MARQUARDT: Tonight, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is acknowledging difficulties in the battle against Russia. He says that Ukrainian forces want to make bigger steps in their counteroffensive.

CNN's Ben Wedeman is in the war zone.

So, Ben, do these comments from Zelenskyy lineup with what you are seeing and hearing?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They do, actually, Alex. We were down south in -- some of those villages, the eight villages the eke radiance say they have retaken from the Russians. And I have really just made a dent, a fairly modest dent in the Russian lines, no great swaths of territory have been seized.

Now, we were speaking with the troops on the frontline and they basically said that they have been successful at routing Russian infantry. The problem is that when they take new territory, a come under a massive barrage from Russian artillery, Russian artillery throughout this war has really been one of the main weapons the Russians have used to their advantage, just using a massive amount of ammunition that they clearly have in large supply.

So, the morale seemed to be high when we were up there, when we were at the front. But there was a certain level of frustration that this offensive, which was anticipated by so many, but also by the Russians -- that it just is not working out the way people were hoping.

And, of course, let's keep in mind the Russians, as well as the Ukrainians, had months to prepare for this. And, for instance, after the destruction of that dam, which flooded a huge area, by all accounts -- and certainly, even Ukraine Ukrainian officials are acknowledging it -- the Russians were able to move some of their forces to this front, south of here, south of Zaporizhzhia.

So, it's becoming more complicated. What we did see is, there are western weapons there. We were with a mortar unit that was firing a brand-new American 120 millimeter mortar rounds towards the Russians, and they were very happy with his weaponry. They said it was great. It's amazing, and very accurate.

But they still, perhaps, don't have that critical mass to allow them to make the sort of dramatic gains that they were hoping to make when they launched this offensive earlier this month -- Alex.

MARQUARDT: Yeah, Ben, that's an excellent point. As much machinery, weaponry as they have lost, as many men as they have lost, the Russians also have had months to prepare for this counteroffensive.

Ben Wedeman, in eastern Ukraine, thank you very much.

I'm Alex Marquardt, here in THE SITUATION ROOM, thank you very much for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.