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Crisis in Ukraine; Interview With Tennessee Senator Bob Corker; Nigeria Kidnapping; "I Abducted Your Girls"

Aired May 5, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Ukraine is on the brink of war, or is it time we remove the word brink from that sentence?

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The world lead. What is America's responsibility with Eastern Ukraine in a crossfire between loyalists and pro-Russia separatists? Our guest, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has a plan, send in the artillery.

Also in world news, a disgusting vow from an Islamist terrorist group, taunting the families of the more than 200 girls kidnapped in Nigeria -- the leader now saying they will sell their young victims. Will the U.S. step in to try and stop them?

And the sports lead, did you really think the man who ordered his mistress not to bring black people to his games would go quietly? The disgraced owner of the L.A. Clippers now reportedly drawing up a game plan to fight the NBA.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We will begin with the world lead.

In Eastern Ukraine, it is the most intensive assault yet on the pro- Russian separatist who has seized government buildings in nearly a dozen cities and towns, Ukrainian security forces claiming they have gained ground in the rebel-seized city of Slavyansk, but not without a fierce firefight, of course.

The pro-Russia forces inside the city are digging into their positions. Ukrainian officials claim the rebels shot down one of their helicopters, though the pilots survived. At least four people are dead and nearly 30 injured in this latest round of fighting in Slavyansk, Congress to Ukraine's Foreign Ministry.

The separatists blame civilian deaths on the Ukrainian government, while that government has in turn labeled the separatists terrorists, which is of course a popular description from both sides in this conflict.

The Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement condemning Ukrainian military action. It reads in part -- quote -- "We again urge the Kiev organizers of terror against their own people to come to their senses, stop the bloodshed, withdraw troops, and sit down finally at the negotiating table to start a normal dialogue on ways to resolve the political crisis."

Russia, of course, still denies that it's playing a direct role in this crisis, though the U.S. government outright accuses Russia of fanning the flames.

A senior official tells CNN that the U.S. is planning to add more ships and planes to two military exercises in Eastern Europe next month, a flexing of American military might in the region.

But will that even make the Russians flinch? The latest intelligence shows that Vladimir Putin still has 40,000 to 50,000 troops along Ukraine's eastern border, according to a senior U.S. official. Putin is no doubt intensely watching the Ukrainians' government push into Slavyansk. Can loyalist forces regain that city?

Our senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, is standing by near Slavyansk.

Nick, night has fallen there. What are you seeing and hearing on the ground?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's quiet here, Jake, but the day started really with the Ukrainian army trying to move down a key highway into Slavyansk.

I should point out, they have not made much of a gain, but they do seem to control more and more of that road day by day. We saw their snipers and scouts moving down this morning, but the pro-Russian militants building up their forces too, intense fighting that happened.

Jake, these two forces have been sort of sizing each other up for the past few days. Clearly, today, they moved into their first real open confrontation, four Ukrainian soldiers dead, other casualties on the pro-Russian side unclear, Ukrainian government claiming dozens potentially.

We didn't see that. We saw four wounded militants taken into the hospital, one looking in pretty bad condition, and one woman killed by a stray bullet on a balcony. Slavyansk really under seize, a self- declared mayor explaining to me on a map quite where the forces were, but saying no negotiation until those forces are actually withdrawn.

And local residents tearing down trees, blocking the roads, a sense of a lot of anger now simply galvanized by the actions of the Ukrainian military around them -- Jake.

TAPPER: Nick, where does this offensive go next?

WALSH: The offensive? I think the fear is, in the days ahead, they may try and move more convincingly into the center of the town. They have to have something to show for the violence the past few days.

In Kramatorsk, another town to the south, they shot up a barricade, killed some civilians, moved around a bit, but then were not actually in evidence in the buildings the interior minister claimed they had actually reclaimed, the same issue in Slavyansk. There's a very strong pro-Russian militant force in the middle of that, and there's a timetable now, Jake. May 11, they want a referendum to potentially decide on what they call sovereignty. And really that's sort of a euphemism for either joining Russia or staying part of Ukraine. Everyone knows where that is going to go.

And then the 25th of May, presidential elections. So, we have a lot of political maneuvering here, but on the ground, the violence is getting intense daily, and I think people are very worried, really, as to quite whether any kind of presidential elections can happen with a degree of legitimacy, Jake.

TAPPER: Nick Paton Walsh, thank you. Stay safe, my friend.

The U.S. response to the crisis in Ukraine has been sanctions on Russia and sanctions on Russia, but a group of Republican senators says it's high time the U.S. did more, such as sending weapons to bolster the Ukrainian forces.

Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee sponsors a bill that would do just that. He's the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He joins me now.

Senator, good to see you.


TAPPER: Michael McFaul, President Obama's former ambassador to Russia, was quoted in "TIME" magazine saying: "This is real. This is war."

Do you agree? Is Ukraine already at war?

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: Well, there's no doubt a very violent conflict is occurring on the ground.

I don't know how you -- I don't know at this point that it matters how you describe it. But we see it happening. We see that Russia is actually accomplishing what they want to accomplish in Eastern Ukraine by not yet having forces there.

As to the bill you referred to, the bill does a lot of things, but it's more, Jake, about establishing a European strategy and taking that European strategy and focusing it on Ukraine.

As far as the authorization of the type of weaponry you're talking about, it really calls upon the administration first to take an assessment of what the Ukrainian government needs to cause itself to be hardened. Then it has to be asked for by the Ukrainian government.

So, this is all part of an overall strategy, if you will, not something that is immediate, but an overall strategy to strength Ukraine. The immediate, though, is to go ahead and put some sanctions in place against Russia. We know what they are doing.

We're listening to what they are doing. We're watching what they are doing, and to put some sanctions in place that will change their behavior. I think you have seen that, last week, the sanctions that were put in place are sanctions that actually caused the Russian stock market to increase in value, because it just didn't do the things that we thought -- we waited for a long time to see what these were going to be.

They ended up being nothing. And it's not affecting Putin's behavior. That's what we have got to do right now to cause them to pull back from fomenting the violence they're fomenting inside the country.

TAPPER: I take your point, Senator, that your bill does a lot more than just authorizing the provision of arms to the Ukrainian military. But that is probably the most controversial part.

I want to ask you about a "USA Today"/Pew poll in which 62 percent of the American people are against arming the Ukrainian military, 30 percent for it.

CORKER: Yes. Yes.

TAPPER: What do you say to the Americans who would prefer 2-1 not to do what you suggest might be the good thing to do?


Well, again, let me go back and say the administration is authorized once they assess what the government needs. We have relationships like this, Jake, with over 130 countries around the world, where we help them provision their country in such a way as to defend it, and to ensure that they have the ability to have the sovereignty that they cherish.

So this is not an unusual relationship. We have these kinds of relationships all over the world. We stated how important it is that Ukraine keep the sovereignty that it has.

And yet we're not really doing those things to either change the behavior of Russia or allow Ukraine itself to be more fully able to protect its sovereignty. Again, most of us realize that nothing immediate is going to happen relative to their military -- military's ability.

But, again, this is part of an overall strategy, the most important thing, I think, today to change Russia's behavior. They want to disrupt this election on May 25, 20 days from now. They are doing everything they can and being very successful at it right now to keep that from happening.

If they can delegitimize what is happening on May the 25th, it will be a huge step towards Ukraine not moving towards the West, which is one of the greatest threats internally to Putin himself. So, again, right now, I think our actions should be more on the sanctions piece, but working to bring Ukraine along in the manner that the bill lays out, and does so I think in a very thoughtful manner.

TAPPER: Well, you just said that you think Russia is disrupting things in Ukraine to meddle with the election.

President Obama last week, as you know, basically lowered the bar for these tougher sanctions on entire sectors of the Russian economy.


CORKER: Right.

TAPPER: Originally, he had said it would be if they invaded. Now he's saying if they meddle in the Ukrainian elections.

Do you think that Russia is meddling in the Ukrainian elections, so much that those sectoral sanctions should be put imposed?

CORKER: No question, I mean, no question.

I have been saying that for weeks. And, Jake, we don't have to hit entire sectors. What we can do is hit four banks. And our bill lays out, by the way, which four banks we should hit. These are what are called second-party sanctions.

In other words, it's business that we do between ourselves and these institutions. It would send a really strong signal to the Russian economy. But it's not something that implicates Europe. And I do think, right now, we're hiding -- we're hiding behind Europeans as it relates to these sanctions.

It's very evident that we're not really willing to lead on this issue. But, yes, I think we should hit four banks, one or two of the energy companies, not the entire sectors, but just to let Putin know that there is a price to pay for the meddling that is taking place.

The intimidation of the troops, plus what we know they are doing through black ops inside the country, no question, is destabilizing the country. You're watching it on -- you're watching it on your television screen. And yet we're doing nothing, nothing to change their behavior.

The sanctions we have put in place are nothing more than tweaks. They are not things to affect how people inside Russia feel about what is happening. As a matter of fact, Putin's polls right now, because there's been almost no punishment, his poll numbers are better than they have been, because people are proud of this nationalism that is taking place.

And, so, look, I'm very disappointed, but, candidly, more than that, I'm very concerned. When you allow these types of activities to continue and continue and continue, there's an expectation that is there. And when something different occurs, these are the kind of things that create major world wars.

And so I'm very concerned about the fact that there doesn't seem to be a very clear communication about what expectations are.

TAPPER: All right. Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, thank you so much. Appreciate it. (CROSSTALK)

CORKER: Thank you. I appreciate it.

TAPPER: Coming up on THE LEAD: A defiant terrorist brags about kidnapping over 200 schoolgirls, and he says he will sell them because Allah wants him to -- more on the plight of those girls and how the U.S. is assisting next.

And, later, new CNN polls just released showing voters are ready to send a message to the U.S. Should Democrats or Republicans be worried? Our politics lead is coming up.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD in world news.

The sickening new video by the militants in Nigeria who not only confirmed but bragged and laughed about how they plan to sell off young teenage girls as child brides for reported 12 bucks a piece.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I abducted your girls. I will sell them in the market, by Allah. There is a market for selling humans. Allah says I should sell. He commands me to sell. I will sell women. I sell women.


TAPPER: We are now learning that after the kidnappings, Eric Holder asked the U.S. intelligence agencies for an assessment of the group responsible, Boko Haram, that translates as "Western education is sin." It's known as Nigeria's Taliban. The U.S. designated Boko Haram as foreign terrorist organization late last year.

Authorities say the group has received weapons and communications training from al Qaeda affiliates in the Middle East.

CNN's Isha Sesay is in the Nigerian capital with all the latest.

Isha, it's been weeks since these girls were taken out of school and loaded onto troops. This video, of course, is only adding to Nigerian's anger, grief and frustration at this point.

ISHA SESAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, no doubt about that, Jake. And really creating a sense of despondency here on the group when these girls were taken from their beds last month. There was such fear. But also a sense of hope that the government would move swiftly and would be able to attend them to their parents. Three weeks have passed and these girls have not been found or not being reunited with their families and there's been a feeling until now that the government has not put enough effort into that.

The government says otherwise, they are doing the best they can. But to the people that we have spoken to here on the ground in Nigeria, the sense is that the government is not doing enough and certainly not sharing enough operational detail about what they are doing.

There had been these reports that the girls had been taken into the forest, forested area on the border between Nigeria and Cameroon, rumors that they have been married off to some of their abductors. None of that confirmed, but to have this tape today in which the leader of Boko Haram says on tape, "I abducted your girls and will sell them off and Allah says I should do this" creates so much distress here on the ground. And as I said, I've spoken to people here on the ground in Nigeria, a real sense of despondency, a real sense of despondency that, you know, these girls could be lost forever -- Jake.

TAPPER: Isha, clearly the claim of responsibility here is terrifying. But does the video offer any clues as to where the leader of this group is or where the girls might be?

SESHAY: No, no. We only see the leader. We do not see the girls in the video.

So, you know, we had the Nigerian government, the Nigerian president himself speaking on camera on this matter for the first time on Sunday saying the Nigerian government has no idea where these girls are. It has been three weeks now and they do not know, is what he admitted on television yesterday.

And this tape does not provide any clues. There are so many rumors. You have to understand that the area where this took place where these girls were taken from is so remote. It is so remote and some of that terrain is so forested and so secluded that they could be hiding in that area.

But, quite frankly, nobody knows and as a result, there are rumors that they are there. There are also rumors that they have been taken out of the country. But as yet, we just don't know, Jake.

TAPPER: Isha Sesay, thank you so much.

Secretary of State John Kerry was in Ethiopia over the weekend. He pledged U.S. support to find these girls. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney spoke out just a short while ago about this.


JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: This is an outrage and tragedy and we are doing what we can to assist the Nigerian government to support its efforts to find and free the young women who were abducted.


TAPPER: A U.S. official says that the United States is sharing intelligence with Nigerian authorities but nobody should expect any kind of "Zero Dark Thirty" style covert rescue operation, at least not yet. We're told there are no plans for troops to get involved. But are the U.S. and the rest of the world doing enough? Joining me now is Nicole Lee. She's a human rights attorney and outgoing president of TransAfrica, which advocates on U.S. policy for Africa.

So, Nicole, thanks for being here. I wish you could be under different circumstances.


TAPPER: President Obama has been briefed repeatedly on the situation. We're told that the U.S. is going to offer intelligence help to the Nigerians. What else can be done? What else should be done?

LEE: I think first bringing the light to the situation is so important. I mean, Nigeria has had repeated terrorist attacks by Boko Haram, 59 school boys were actually killed by Boko Haram in a very similar style attack. Now, we're seeing such a brazen, brazen attack, over 300 girls kidnapped, some did escape. We're talking about 276 girls.

Can you imagine if this would happen in any other country? It's very distressing.

TAPPER: Initially, the Nigerian government said, oh, they have been returned. Three weeks ago, they were kidnapped and they said they've been returned. This is something that they are obviously somewhat embarrassed about and there's been some odd behavior by the first lady. What did she do, exactly?

LEE: Well, here's the thing. I mean, this is why the parents are speaking out. They have taken to Twitter. They are using the international media because they don't have faith in the government.

Patience Jonathan who is the first lady called some of the mothers to her, to meet with her, and she basically told them that they really need to be quiet and they were really bringing shame and embarrassment to Nigeria. That's certainly a problem. There are also reports that she had two of the leaders of the protesters who protest last week, demanding that the government do something, she had two of the leaders arrested. So, the people of Nigeria, frankly, are losing confidence of their government and this is why they've taken to the international media to say, no more. Enough is enough. Bring back our girls.

TAPPER: And the president, Goodluck Jonathan, he obviously says that they're doing everything they can to find the girls, people questioned that. He also says, he criticizes the parents for not cooperating with the police, for not sharing information.

There's a good reason for that. Explain why the parents are not sharing information, names, and photographs?

LEE: I mean, frankly, you know, I certainly support the Nigerian government and everything that they are doing. It's a little bit of blaming the victim, though, the parents are concerned, if they give the names, if they give photos, does that mean that the terrorists will then kill their children?

I mean, just like any parent, you're going to worry that any move that might hurt your child, you don't want to be involved in it. I think that there has to be a way that Nigeria uses its incredible wealth and infrastructure rather than making them feel other, they're making them feel like they don't have a right to speak.

TAPPER: And lastly, there's a lot of people out there. This story has touched a lot of viewers out there in a way that is remarkable. You know, African stories often get ignored by the media and the public. What can people at home do?

LEE: I mean, well, first of all, it's education. So, using the hashtag, I think one of the most beautiful things that has happened is people are taking the hashtag, putting them in front of them and saying bring back our girls.

We need to take ownership as if this happened in Chicago, if this happened in Washington, D.C. We need to be talking about this. We need to intensify even the pressure to make sure there's an investigation. We need to make sure our own government is helping in any way that we can. And I think that people are doing that. It's catching fire. There's still more to do.

TAPPER: Nicole Lee, outgoing president of the TransAfrica, we will try to stay on top of the story -- you keep us honest.

LEE: I will. Thank you.

TAPPER: All right. Thank you so much.

In other news, what is Kim Jong-un up to? There may be something going on at one of North Korea's nuclear test sites. But it's not clear exactly because, of course, the North Koreans are using their cloaking technology and by that I mean a tarp to conceal it. CNN has learned that spy satellite photos show a tarp has been placed over the tunnel entrance to the site, raising fears that the regime is about to conduct another nuclear test. If the entrance is close under that tarp, it could mean the test is in its final stages, or, maybe not.

With North Korea, one must always ask is whether it's really preparing something or does it just want the U.S. to think it's preparing something. Kim's regime has threatened to hold another nuclear test but it had never said when.

When we come back, his wife and alleged girlfriend breaking their silence on Donald Sterling racist remarks. What are they saying about the disgraced owner of the L.A. Clippers?

Plus, it's all investigators have to go on, and it might be totally wrong. Why officials are reviewing the data that suggested that Malaysian Flight 370 ended in the Indian Ocean. What that means for finding the plane and the 239 people on board.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD, I'm Jake Tapper. The sports lead now.

It's absurdist theater with 90 feet of hardwood as a backdrop. Donald Sterling's girlfriend who taped these recordings we've all dissected over the past weeks, V. Stiviano, she gave an interview with Barbara Walters Friday. She tried to answer what was going to Sterling's mind when he uttered those rumbling racist invectives.


BARBARA WALTERS, ABC NEWS: Is Donald Sterling a racist?

V. STIVIANO, DONALD STERLING'S ALLEGED MISTRESS: No, I don't believe it in my heart.

WALTERS: Have you heard him say derogatory things about minorities in general, blacks in particular?

STIVIANO: Absolutely.


TAPPER: Did you follow that? I'm not sure I did.

Even murkier is the future of L.A. Clippers. We know Sterling is banned from the NBA for life. But will he fight to keep the team?