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Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees

WaPo: Trump Employees Moved Boxes of Papers a Day Before FBI Retrieved Documents at Mar-a-Lago; DeSantis Vows to Review Cases of January 6 Defendants if Elected; Russia Rattled by Attacks That Cross Into Its Borders; Wagner Chief Warns Russians Could Revolt If Ukraine Invasion Continues To Be A Struggle. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired May 25, 2023 - 20:00   ET



ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: The Oath Keepers were a key presence at the Capitol that day, clad in camouflage among the crowd.

Thanks so much for joining us. It is time now for Anderson and AC 360.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: 360": Good evening.

We have two big stories breaking tonight. New word the debt ceiling talks maybe -- maybe -- yielding progress. We're going to talk to Senator Bernie Sanders shortly.

But we begin tonight with new reporting that paints a remarkable picture just how much evidence federal investigators may have to show the former president obstructed justice in the Mar-a-Lago documents case. It comes tonight from "The Washington Post" and the headline is stunning: "Trump workers moved Mar-a-Lago boxes a day before FBI came for documents." New details including alleged dress rehearsal for moving sensitive papers show a focus on Donald Trump's instructions and intent.

Now in a moment, we'll talk to legal analyst, Elie Honig who joins us, but first political investigations and enterprise reporter, Josh Dawsey who shares a byline on the breaking story.

Josh, can you just lay out the sequence of events at Mar-a-Lago based on your reporting?

JOSH DAWSEY, POLITICAL INVESTIGATIONS AND ENTERPRISE REPORTER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Sure. So in May of 2022, federal prosecutors subpoena former President Trump for all classified documents that he still has in his possession. After that period of time, some of the boxes that are in the storage room are moved into other parts of Mar- a-Lago.

One day before federal prosecutors come to pick up the subpoenaed material, on June 3rd, the boxes are moved back into a storage room.

On June 3rd, prosecutors are taken to the storage room and said this is where all the classified documents are held. You cannot look through the boxes, but this is where they're all held. And Trump's aide, sent an attestation that say everything that is classified had been given back.

Obviously, we know now that not to be true. There were more than a hundred classified documents, they were all over parts of the residence. So what's interesting of prosecutors is, why were the boxes moved in and out of the storage room in that period of time? And why were they moved back one day before federal authorities came to search the area?

COOPER: And your reporting, the prosecutors, and I'm quoting from the reporting: "... gathered evidence indicating that Trump at times kept classified documents in his office in a place where they were visible and sometimes showed them to others." Which is, I mean, it's remarkable reporting. How key to the special counsel's investigation could that be?

DAWSEY: Well, it's certainly important enough to them, that they've asked multiple witnesses this question in grand jury interviews and interviews with the FBI and they've learned from multiple people that he did do this.

What his team had maintained, Anderson, was that it was a haphazard packing and storing process. The boxes were put in the storage room. All of this was kind of much ado about nothing. And what witnesses have said is that's not true. There were certain documents that he had a particular affinity for, that he would show visitors when they came, but he would keep in his office.

COOPER: I mean, is the implication of what you are reporting that Trump employees moved the boxes out of storage when they knew they were undergoing to be picked up or under subpoena, they were moved out and Trump looked at them to see what he wanted to maybe keep, and then they returned them right before the FBI came in.

DAWSEY: So that's what we're trying to figure out, Anderson, is exactly what happened in that time period. These boxes were moved. They came back the night before, and obviously as you know, now, there were documents found in many other places at Mar-a-Lago, the residence, his office, the Pine Room off the residence, and we've been trying to figure out what exactly happened.

What we were told to happen was that Evan Corcoran, the lawyer for former President Trump did a thorough search of the boxes in the storage room, but what seems to have happened now is that the boxes left the storage room for some period of time and came back literally hours before the federal authorities showed up to pick up the documents.

COOPER: You are also writing that Trump and his aides allegedly carried out a dress rehearsal, which some have called for moving sensitive papers. What does that mean, a dress rehearsal? And where does that term come from?

DAWSEY: So this whole saga dates back to 2021 when former President Trump leaves office, and the National Archives says they're aware he took things improperly and they want them back. And if you remember, in that period former President Trump was resistant to giving these back. He said, these documents are mine. He told a lot of aides not to give them back and eventually, the National Archives said we're going to involve the Department of Justice and Congress and then he gives back those 15 boxes in February of 2022.

In that period, what we're told is that a lot of his work auctions on how not to give out all the material back and what to do were analogous to what he did when DOJ then asked for the boxes and Judge Beryl Howell of the DC appeals court wrote in an 86-page opinion that what happened with NARA and why he did not give those back boxes back to NARA and what he did during that period, was a seeming dress rehearsal for what he did when DOJ asked for the documents.


COOPER: So is it clear knew how many of these Trump employees allegedly involved with moving the boxes have been interviewed by the special counsel's team? Who is paying their legal bills?

DAWSEY: We know both of the Trump employees have been interviewed by the special counsel's team and we know that the former president's PAC, Save America has paid at least some of the legal bills for both of these people.

One of them, as we've reported was Walt Nauta who is the former president's valet. You see him on the plane with him at his rallies. He is carrying boxes. He is his personal aide.

The second one whose identity is not known is a person who worked for the former president in Florida.

COOPER: Josh Dawsey, appreciate it. Thank you.

DAWSEY: Thank you.

COOPER: CNN senior legal analyst and former federal prosecutor, Elie Honig is here.

I mean, none of this obviously is good news for the former president. A lot of these details are new as well.

ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, a lot of it is really interesting. The key thing that prosecutors have to prove here is knowledge and intent with respect to the documents.

First of all, did Donald Trump know that he had those documents? There is no question whatsoever now that he knew about these documents. The reporting was that he went through them himself. He showed them to people.

There's always been a question about intent. What was he going to do with these documents? He wasn't posting them online. He wasn't as far as we know, selling them to anyone. But the reporting detail that he was showing them to other people, at least tells us that he was giving this information out to some selected people for some selected reasons, and I'd want to dig in on that.

COOPER: Which, I mean, there is a crime of mishandling classified documents, showing them to people, random people in your office that seems to be mishandling, no?

HONIG: Yes, so it is important understand, there are sort of two buckets of crimes here. There are several statutes that cover mishandling, destroying, stealing classified or sensitive documents. And if you take them knowing that you shouldn't, and I think that's what the sort of dress rehearsal that Josh has talked about went to, the fact that he knew he shouldn't have these then that can satisfy those crimes.

Separately, there is obstruction. And that I think, gets to the point that Josh Dawsey was just talking about of moving documents into and out of storage areas the day before and shortly after the DOJ team, not the search warrant, but the DOJ team of lawyers came to get the subpoena response, and that can tell you something about are they trying to play keep away with these documents.

COOPER: Well, there was also reporting just the other day about, you know, the special counsel looking at the Trump Organization and any business dealings they had from 2017 on with foreign governments or foreign actors, and one supposition would be -- possibly was there any correlation between classified documents that he wanted to have and any business dealings they had --

HONIG: Yes, logically, that one really jumped off the page to me. There are only two things that that could be. What you said, Anderson, which is, is there some link between these classified documents and any foreign dealings, foreign business, foreign nationals, foreign countries? Or it could be and there's not really anything beyond this, but it could be that they have expanded the scope of their investigation or getting into some of the financial dealings, but we've not seen any other facts to indicate that.

COOPER: The timeline, though, of where the special counsel investigation is going, I mean, there's been reporting that the grand jury hasn't met for a while. There was a flurry of activity, now, there's not. What does it tell you?

HONIG: It definitely feels like endgame for me and the fact that Donald Trump's team has asked for this meeting with the attorney general is a fairly common move that happens, not necessarily the very, very last thing, but you wouldn't do that in the middle of a case.

And as prosecutors, you normally want to keep the defense sort of, at least loosely updated on where you are. And usually that kind of meeting which happens where defense lawyers come in and make a pitch and say, hey, here is why you should not charge our client, that's something that logically and normally would happen towards the very end of the case.

COOPER: All right, Elie Honig, appreciate it. Also today, tough sentencing in connection with January 6. Eighteen years for Stuart Rhodes, the leader and co-founder of the so-called Oath Keepers. Twelve years for Kelly Meggs, head of the group's Florida chapter. Both men were convicted of seditious conspiracy.

The judge in the case telling Rhodes: "You pose an ongoing threat and peril to our democracy and the fabric of this country."

Earlier today, newly declared presidential candidate, Ron DeSantis weighed and not on these two specifically, but on the criminal justice system that convicted them, and in his power, if elected to grant pardons.

Appearing on a conservative talk show he was asked: "Do you think the January 6 defendants deserve to have their cases examined by a Republican president?" Here's some of what he had to say.



On day one, I will have folks that will get together and look at all these cases, who people are victims of weaponization or political targeting, and we will be aggressive at issuing pardons.


COOPER: He said, he would do it on a case-by-case basis but did not rule out pardoning anyone including the former president.

His remarks obviously follow this last night on FBI director Chris Wray, a Trump appointee should be noted.



DESANTIS: I would not keep Chris Wray as director of the FBI. There will be a new one on day one.

I think the DOJ and FBI have lost their way. I think that they've been weaponized against Americans who think like me and you and I think that they have become very partisan.


COOPER: We should point out despite this being a very popular talking point on the right, there is no evidence the FBI or Justice Department has been weaponized against conservatives or that any of the January 6 related cases so far had been wrongly brought.

Joining us now, Anthony Scaramucci, who served as White House communications director in the previous administration.

Anthony, I mean, no one should be surprised. But it sure says a lot about the Republican Party that the two leading candidates right now are going after the most important and legitimate institutions of law and order in this country.

ANTHONY SCARAMUCCI, FORMER WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: I mean, just harken back 30 years ago where the Republican Party was the law and order party, but I think this is all virtue signaling to their side, and so this is a little bit ironic in Governor DeSantis, because he doesn't like the woke culture, he wants to rebuke the left for doing the same thing that he is doing on the right.

And so a more sensible strategy, a more presidential look, would be that I respect the rule of law, I will meet with everybody and evaluate the personnel that I'm bringing into the White House, and the personnel that I'm keeping, and typically we keep the FBI director, and so Chris Wray shouldn't be let go.

And if he talked like that, though, he probably wouldn't get anywhere close to the Republican nomination, Anderson. And so that's the big problem right now. Who is going to step up in the chiasm and actually speak like a president, think like a president, unite the country, bring our values back together, and talk to people in a common sense way, instead of listening to political consultants, tell him well, you've got to get further to the right of Donald Trump, because if he falls out of the race, you're going to be the guy that takes over, and you've got to get his base.

And so I'm hoping for a more transformative candidate than that, instead of the stuff that we're getting right now.

COOPER: But I mean, you know, again, as we all -- and we've talked about this endlessly, but in a primary with a lot of candidates, if Trump has 30 percent, that is presidential behavior now.

I mean, this is -- what DeSantis is doing is essentially President Trump's playbook.

SCARAMUCCI: Yes, so, I obviously disagree with that, as an entrepreneur, we need an entrepreneurial candidate that would actually build the base of the Republican Party. Think about what Barack Obama did in 2008. He went up against Hillary Clinton and the Democratic establishment, and he built a new market for himself.

And so what I would like to see is every Republican Party candidate, reject those values and go into the marketplace and find the voters. You and I both know there's 144 million people that do not vote that are registered to vote and with the right messaging, you could bring a lot of young people into that campaign.

I did like what Governor DeSantis said about Bitcoin the other night on Twitter Spaces. There's stuff that he's doing that makes sense. But this hard right move to win the primary is very old school stuff and we don't need that right now in the country. We need a unifying figure and somebody that can build the demography of the Republican Party, not go to that hard right tact.

COOPER: What did you think of his doing that on Twitter Spaces? I mean, obviously, there were the glitches, which obviously, was disastrous for him. But you know, there are a lot of folks talking about how he wasn't talking about working Americans. He was hobnobbing with Elon Musk, and some tech, billionaire, I guess, or multi- millionaire.

SCARAMUCCI: I liked it. I think the fact that we are all talking about it. I mean, I'm sure he wasn't happy with the glitches seemed -- people seem to be focused on that. But it's an interesting medium and it is an interesting use case and I think he's opened up the platform for other people to do that.

I think one of the things that I think Mr. Musk wants to have happen is to create a purple platform. But unfortunately, in our society right now, we're sort of either red or blue. And so now that Governor DeSantis has done that, I think it's going to be hard for the Democrats to want to take that lane.

I hope they consider that because I do take Elon Musk at his word, that he's trying to broaden out that platform and make that platform a platform for free speech. But I did like it and if those numbers are correct, that he got six-and-a-half million impressions, then by and large words, and the fact that you and I are talking about it right now is probably another sign of it.

COOPER: In just the last 24 hours since announcing, DeSantis has taken on the former president in a more direct way. Something he has been obviously reluctant to do up until now. I just want to play something he said today in a radio interview.


DESANTIS: I don't know what happened to Donald Trump. This is a different guy today than when he was running in 2015 and 2016, and I think the direction that he is going with his campaign is the wrong direction.


COOPER: It's an interesting argument, he is not really criticizing what he did before. He is just saying, oh, he has changed.


SCARAMUCCI: Well, we'll have to see when he gets hit with a contact, right? It's like Mike Tyson, he says everybody has a plan until they're punched in the face, and so we'll have to see the counterpunching Donald Trump with those maneuvers.

Again, I think Mr. DeSantis will be better served with just explaining, listen, I was a good governor, I have a really good track record. The country needs to heal, we need to have an American renewal. And let me tell you what my plans are that represent that as opposed to trying to do this micro verbal surgery splitting participles and whatnot to try to get the Trump's base without overly alienating Trump. Let me just give the governor a newsflash, you've already overly alienated Donald Trump by entering the race. So anything you do now in terms of subtlety is not going to be noticed by the former president.

COOPER: Anthony Scaramucci, appreciate it. Thank you.

Coming up next, Senator Bernie Sanders on tonight's breaking news on debt ceiling talks. We're probably now closing in on an 11th hour compromise. We'll talk to you Senator Sanders live.


COOPER: There's breaking news just in on talks to head off a government default. "The New York Times" is reporting that White House officials and Republican lawmakers are closing in on a deal. It would raise the debt limit for two years, cap federal spending on everything but the military and veterans. In broad terms, according to "The Times," the emerging compromise would let Republicans point to spending reductions and Democrats to say they had spared most domestic programs from significant cuts.


Joining us now, Vermont Independent senator, Bernie Sanders, who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and he's a member of the Budget Committee.

Senator Sanders, appreciate you being with us. A., have you heard anything about tonight about a deal along those lines? And if so, how does it sound to you?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): Well, it's only what I read in "The New York Times," it may be right, it may be wrong. But Anderson, I want to say this, the idea that the Republicans are holding hostage the entire world economy unless they get what they want has been an outrageous display of extremist politics and it really is unacceptable.

And the second point that we have to appreciate is that right now in America, you've got a middle class which is shrinking, you've got 60 percent of our people living paycheck-to-paycheck, childcare system in disarray, health care system collapsing, housing all over the country, people can't afford housing. You don't cut programs that working people desperately need.

What you do, do and what has to be done is demand that the wealthiest people in this country who are doing phenomenally well start paying their fair share of taxes. You have to demand that corporate interest for receiving record breaking profits start paying their fair share of taxes.

You have to start cutting military spending, when we are spending more than the next 10 nations combined, mass cost overruns in the military. There are ways that you can cut government spending without doing it on the backs of some of the most vulnerable people in this country.

COOPER: A lot of those things particularly like military spending, as you know, Republicans have drawn a line on that. Where would you -- where is the negotiation from if you were running these negotiations? What is it --

SANDERS: Well, Anderson, it's not good enough for them to say, oh, we've got huge campaign contributions from billionaires. We don't want to tax them. Oh, we love the military industrial complex, we don't want to cut military spending, off the table. Well, it's not off the table.

What should be off the table are children in America where we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any major country, that should be off the table; the needs of elderly people who are struggling to pay for their prescription drugs, that should be off the table.

You know, what we could do, if we paid the same prices for prescription drugs as they do in Europe, that's what Medicare paid, we would save a trillion dollars over a 10-year period.

Do the Republicans have the guts to take on the pharmaceutical industry? I don't think so. So, it's not what they want, it is what the American people want and I think what I'm talking about is precisely what ordinary Americans want.

COOPER: You've called for President Biden to invoke the 14th Amendment, which as you know, says, " The validity of the public debt of the United States shall not be questioned." How would that play out in practical terms? Why do you think that is the way to go?

SANDERS: Well, I think if the Republicans are prepared to hold the entire world economy hostage and say, hey, Mr. President, you've got no alternative but to make massive cuts in programs for the vulnerable, but we have no alternative. Well, the President does have an alternative.

As you've indicated, the 14th Amendment is pretty clear. The validity of paying off our national debt is not questioned. That's the 14th amendment. I think he should invoke it. What that would mean, in practical terms, I believe it's never been done before, is that we would continue to pay our bills.

I suspect it would be challenged in the courts very, very quickly. I think the courts do not want to see the world economy crumble, and I think it would be sustained.

COOPER: Does the -- you know, there are Democrats who believe that invoking that essentially is sort of absolving Congress of what their responsibilities are and that it should remain in Congress. What about that argument?

SANDERS: It's an argument and I'm not here to tell you that I think the 14th Amendment is a wonderful solution. It's about all that we have left.

It is a better solution than the Republican approach, which says, and their original proposal was a 10-year program proposal, which would have made massive cuts for the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor, if that's the alternative, the 14th Amendment looks pretty good. But I'm not here to tell you that that's a great option.

The option is that you do what we've always done throughout history is you raise the debt ceiling, you do not default, you don't threaten to default. And then you'll have an argument about the budget. That's what you do in a democratic society, not hold the world economy hostage, which is what the Republicans are doing.

COOPER: What is extraordinary about the way the Republicans are doing it is, it is in such stark contrast to how they behaved under the former president in terms of the debt ceiling.

SANDERS: Absolutely. They've raised the debt ceiling, if I recall correctly, three times under Trump and by the way, we raised our national debt by something like a trillion dollars over that period.

But it's not just Trump, we have done it with Republicans, we've done it with Democrats. That is what you do, and let us be clear everybody should know this, this is not a budget issue. We're not arguing here what we should be spending next year.


It is simply paying the bills that Republicans voted for last year and previous years. We're paying off our debt. And when you're the largest economy in the world, that is what you do.

COOPER: If you make a deal now, Democrats could revisit your budget priorities if and when they win back control of the House, or I guess from the Republican perspective, if and when they went back to the White House. Would that be a better path than default?

SANDERS: Well, default is a terrible path. It will cause global anarchy. But the alternatives are also very, very bad.

Again, what I think is you have a normal budget process. Republicans want to cut, I want to make investments in our children and health care and education. Let's argue it out. But the other thing, Anderson that worries me very much is if Republicans get away with holding the economy hostage, this sets a precedent for years to come.

You talk about in the future, then the normal budget process that we go through, we have committees, we argue and all that stuff. It's gone and people say okay, hey, budget ceiling is coming. We're going to go through this again. That is a pretty bad way to develop budgets.

COOPER: Senator Bernie Sanders, I appreciate your time tonight. Thank you.

SANDERS: Thank you.

COOPER: Ukraine next, a naval drone attack on a Russian ship in the Black Sea. What happened and the other developments in the war when 360 continues.



COOPER: Tonight, there's video of what Russia is calling an unsuccessful drone attack on one of its spy ships in the Black Sea. But as you can see, it looks like one of the three unmanned boats targeting the ship did manage to at least get through. This, of course, follows the recent aerial drone attack on the Kremlin, and they certainly aren't the only such incidents demonstrating Russia's vulnerability.

Throughout the war, we've seen Ukraine sink. Russia's Black Sea Flag Chef blow up his piece of a strategic bridge. And this week we saw fighters from two anti-Putin groups launch a cross border raid into Russia. CNN's Sam Kiley talked to some of the members of that group.


SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A propaganda coup. Russian dissident soldiers back from a raid inside Russia, parading a captured Russian vehicle for the world.

(on camera): What do you hope will be the effect of this raid?

CAESAR, SPOKESPERSON, FREEDOM FOR RUSSIA LEGION: Effect of a threat was amazing. It was information or shell information bomb blowing about today's whole internet blowing up boiling.

KILEY (voice over): These men are all Russian nationals and part of Ukraine security forces and carry Ukrainian military IDs.

(on camera): This incursion into Russian territory which these guys say is ongoing was as much a propaganda mission as it was a military mission. But they say it was also done independently of the Ukrainian military. That is a claim we have to take with a big pinch of salt.

(voice over): They jointly raided Russian territory this week and flooded the internet with images of their work. Russia claims to have driven them out. Still, the raid has rattled Moscow.

(on camera): Do you think this is part of the coming summer offensive and attempt to keep the Russians off balance? Keep them guessing?

CAESAR: I think it's kind of yes. It's kind of it.

KILEY (voice over): American made vehicles appear to have been used in the cross border operation in Belgorod Province. It's unclear if they were U.S. donations.

(on camera): The vehicle that you took included some of the American MRAPs, is that right?

CAESAR: We use Hyundai also. We buy them in international shops, war shops. Yes.

KILEY (on camera): So you bought these vehicles on the open market? CAESAR: Yes, of course, everyone who have some money can do it.

KILEY (voice over): Ukraine's government which has received U.S. vehicles and lethal hardware says that these men operated inside Russia privately.

But a security source said here that Kyiv had advanced knowledge of the raid, and Caesar admitted Ukraine helped out with supplies.

CAESAR: Small arms, artillery weapon, heavy vehicles, everything that we need.

KILEY (voice over): So this was a raid that the government can deny, but still enjoy the results, divisions in the ranks of their enemies. Mercenary Leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, immediately reacting with fury.

YEVGENY PRIGOZHIN, HEAD OF WAGNER MERCENARY GROUP (through translator): Sabotage groups calmly sneak in drive about in tanks and APCs uploading videos. Where's the guarantee they won't come to Moscow tomorrow? It seems to me that nobody gives a shit about people of Belgorod province.

KILEY (voice-over): And the far right leader of the Russian volunteers even warns that Moscow could face a revolution.

DENIS NIKITIN, HEAD, RUSSIAN VOLUNTEER CORPS: The operation is ongoing. This is how I should put it to be honest. It definitely has various phases. So phase one, we considered a successful phase. It's over now, but the operation is ongoing. That's what I can say for now.


COOPER: It's -- Sam Kiley joins us now. Sam, it's really fascinating to hear from them. I mean, they sound very confident. They also sound like at least they want people to believe there will be more attacks from these kind of groups on Russian soil. How likely is that?

KILEY: I think it's pretty lightly, Anderson, in that they are relatively small in number -- numbering in the hundreds rather than thousands, these Russian citizens. But they are also trying to hook up with partisan groups deeper into the country. Try and inspire other people into acts of sabotage ultimately.

And then at the same time, the Ukrainians are prosecuting these sorts of attacks behind the Russian lines here, inside Ukrainian territory, either with special forces or now with the longer range weaponry that they've been getting, particularly from NATO partners.


The United Kingdom recently supplying the storm shadow, cruise missile that may have been behind a recent explosion in a Russian occupied town, more than 100 kilometers, some 80 miles or so behind the front lines. Anderson?

COOPER: Sam Kiley in Ukraine, thanks for that report. Joining us now CNN Military Analyst and Retired Army Lieutenant General Mark Hertling. General Hertling, I mean, in terms of Ukraine's fight against Russia, are these cross-border raiders effective either strategically or psychologically or in any way?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: In all those ways, Anderson, whenever you're conducting raids or faints or demonstrations, it causes the enemy to take a look at what they're doing, where they're defending. What you're talking about along the border between Ukraine and Russia on the eastern part of the country is close to probably 1,000 kilometers, 600, 700 miles.

The Russians cannot defend across that entire length and breath. So anytime you have a raid like this that gets in very quickly, causes a little bit of disruption in some chaos, and then moves out very quickly. You see the enemy reacting to that just like the Russians did. The Russians claim they killed 70 of these raiders. It's just not true.

You can tell by talking to that commander just now that he didn't lose a whole lot of people. In fact, he said he lost one soldier and two were wounded, but it caused a lot of disruption on the Russian side.

COOPER: What do you make of where the war is right now for Ukraine?

HERTLING: I think they're -- Ukraine is continuing to conduct shaping operations and these kinds of raids and demonstrations and faints are a part of that. You see continued strikes by the Ukraine against key elements of the Russian military. You see not only these raids that are taking place that they can basically say, hey, we don't know who did that, but we know it's helpful all the way to the bombing or the destruction of artillery, depots and ammo dumps in places like Berdyansk, which happened today.

You see, like you showed earlier, the unmanned surface vessel going after against the Russian ship. It's just a 1,000 knife cuts against Russia, and it's all part of shaping operations for the Ukrainians to determine where the weak spots are in the lines, where they can attack, and how the Russian forces are moving their elements around to address different threats coming from unexpected directions.

COOPER: You said shaping operations. So it's sort of probes in a way?

HERTLING: It is probes, it's intelligence gathering, it's preparation of a battlefield by different attacks, using artillery to strike command, post-ammo dumps, railroad crossings, places that disrupt the enemy activity and cause the enemy commander to take a different approach or to move forces or to defend things that he didn't want to defend in the past, or continue to guess at where the Ukrainians might come to next.

And it takes active Russian forces away from the defensive lines that they've been building for the last five months and puts them in other places like Border Post so that the Ukrainians will see this movement and use that to their advantage to attack in places where the Russians aid. COOPER: Just quickly, Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner group said that in an interview that 20,000 Wagner troops had died in the attempt to take over Bakhmut. Do you think that's an accurate number? And if so, what does that say about the fight?

HERTLING: Yes. I believe that's a low ball number from all of the U.S. open source intelligence that's significantly less than they lost there by count, but it's also Prigozhin continuing to insult the Minister of Defense Shoigu and the Chief General Gerasimov.

So when they fail, if there's any failure, he can say, hey, see that I was the guy that was attacking and having great success. You pulled me offline. You took away my Wagner group, and now you all have to suffer the consequences of failure. So he's insulting and he's also prepping a future battlefield from a political standpoint to gain more power inside of the Kremlin.

COOPER: Yes. General Hertling, appreciate it always. Thank you.

Just ahead, a shocking new development in the disappearance and murder of Gabby Petito at the hands of her fiance Brian Laundrie, on a cross country trip two years ago. It turns out Laundrie's mom gave him a letter, gave her son a letter before Petito's death that included the words, "burn after reading". We'll tell you what's in the letter and what Laundrie's parents have to say about it next.



COOPER: Tonight, there are a lot of questions about an undated letter given to Brian Laundrie from his mom. You may remember Gabby Petito, her remains were found in Wyoming in 2021 after she and Laundrie set off on a cross country trip. Laundrie returned from the trip without Gabby Petito and disappeared weeks later.

According to the FBI, before Laundrie took his own life, he wrote in a notebook that he was responsible for her death.

Now, CNN has obtained a copy of the letter marked, "burn after reading". More from CNN's Jean Casarez.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As we all know, the letter references bearing a body, bringing a shovel, and bearing a body, baking a cake, and putting a shiv in it.

JEAN CASAREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Gabby Petito's family and Brian Laundrie's family battle it out in a Florida courtroom over a letter written by Roberta Laundrie to her son. Investigators found the undated letter in Brian's backpack, close to his remains when they were discovered on October 20th, 2021 at Florida's Carlton Reserve.

"You are my boy. Nothing can make me stop loving you. Nothing will or could ever divide us no matter what we do or where we go or what we say. We will always love each other. If you are in jail, I will bake a cake with a file in it. If you need to dispose of a body, I will show up with a shovel and garbage bags."


The Petito say the letter is evidence the Laundries already knew Gabby was dead when Brian returned home alone in the fall of 2021. The Laundries say the letter was written well before Gabby went missing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She wrote the letter because she and Brian were experiencing a difficult period in their relationship and he was about to leave home. He was about to go on this long trip with Gabby. And she was hoping to repair their relationship before he left.

CASAREZ (voice-over): The Petito say the Laundries should be found liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress, because the Laundries refused to talk with them or give them any answers. The Laundries argue they had no duty to respond to them.

Weeks after Gabby was reported missing following a highly publicized nationwide search, the 22-year-old's remains were found in Wyoming. A coroner ruled her cause of death to be strangulation and the manner of death, homicide.

Brian disappeared during the search for Gabby. His body was discovered soon after hers. A notebook found near his remains revealed he claimed responsibility for Gabby's death, according to the FBI. A medical examiner ruled he died by suicide.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Only permits discovery regarding matters that are relevant.

CASAREZ (voice-over): Laundrie's family attorney argued the letter should not be interpreted literally pointing to other parts of the letter. "If you fly to the moon, I will be watching the skies for your reentry. If you say you hate my guts, I'll get new guts."

In her affidavit, Roberta Laundrie referenced two children's books that she says the letter was based on. The Petito family attorney rejected that premise.

PATRICK REILLY, PETITO FAMILY ATTORNEY: Because there's nothing about bearing a body or bringing a shovel or putting something in a cake if somebody goes to prison. Although Mama Bear did say she would bake little bear a cake on his birthday.

CASAREZ (voice-over): And written on the front of the envelope, "burn after reading".


COOPER: Jean Casarez is with me now. Will the jury get to see that letter if it goes to --

CASAREZ: Here's where we are. Yesterday, the judge made a big ruling that the Petito family and their attorney could actually have the letter because the Laundries did not want the letter to get into their hands at all.

So now they have the letter, it's part of discovery. I am sure the Laundries will bring in a motion so that the jury cannot see it. They -- it cannot become evidence in the trial. But the Petitos know this is their circumstantial way to show that the Laundries knew that their son had committed murder. And they weren't giving the Petitos any answers at all.

The judge said, I think it's relevant. So we'll see what the judge does. But in Florida, if you want to prove intentional infliction, emotional distress, I mean, there's a number of elements, but the main one is, it's outrageous and it's a legal standard.

And you know how case law interprets that? If you show a situation and a citizen, average citizen says that's outrageous, that is beyond the norms of decency.

COOPER: Jean Casarez, appreciate it. Thank you.

Coming up, more on the newest presidential candidate, Ron DeSantis. We'll look at what role his closest confidant, according to many his wife may have in the race next.



COOPER: Returning to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in his bid for the White House, his wife Casey, is often described as his most trusted adviser as First Lady of Florida. She's been by a side helping with media strategy and his particularly interested in issues surrounding mental health, substance abuse, and fighting cancer. She's, herself, a survivor of breast cancer. It's expected she'll play a key role in the 2024 race.

Randi Kaye has more.


CASEY DESANTIS, WIFE OF RON DESANTIS: Hello everyone and welcome to First Coast Living. I'm Casey DeSantis.

RANDI KAYE, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Long before she became the first Lady of Florida, Casey DeSantis was a fixture in many Floridians homes. She was an anchor and reporter for two Jacksonville, Florida TV stations. But she left it all behind to raise her children and support her husband's run for governor of Florida.

C. DESANTIS: I was going to take a break from the show.


C. DESANTIS: I was going to be able to spend time with my family.

KAYE (voice-over): Casey DeSantis was born, Jill Casey, Black in Ohio. According to media reports, her father was an optometrist and her mother worked as a speech pathologist at Casey's Elementary School.

Casey is a golf enthusiast and equestrian who graduated with an economics degree from the College of Charleston in South Carolina. She first met Ron DeSantis in 2006 on a Florida golf range.

C. DESANTIS: So I kept looking over my shoulder because I wanted, you know, the bucket of balls that somebody had left. Ron's over there, and so he thinks I'm looking at him.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Was there an attraction at all to him?

C. DESANTIS: Yes, of course he was cute.

KAYE (voice-over): In his new book, Ron DeSantis referred to that chance meeting as his life's most fortuitous moment. Three years later, the couple married at the Walt Disney World Resort. In 2010, according to her LinkedIn profile, Casey worked as a host for the Golf Channel.

A couple years later, Ron DeSantis was elected to Florida's sixth congressional district. Ever since, Casey has become known as her husband's closest confidant. She leans on her TV experience, often advising him on media strategy and campaign ads, including this memorable one from 2018.

R. DESANTIS: Build the wall.

C. DESANTIS: He's teaching Madison to talk.

R. DESANTIS: Make America great again.

KAYE (voice-over): In a recent Tampa Bay Times article, Representative Jared Moskowitz, a Democrat, who once served in the DeSantis administration, referred to Casey as a powerful force. A former spokesman for the governor, also told the paper, the sounding board starts and stops with Casey.

Casey DeSantis has a knack for humanizing her husband.

C. DESANTIS: You want to know who Ron DeSantis really is.

KAYE (voice-over): She recorded this campaign ad for him last year, focusing on how he helped her after her 2021 diagnosis with breast cancer. She's now cancer free.


C. DESANTIS: He was there to fight for me when I didn't have the strength to fight for myself.

KAYE (voice-over): When she isn't busy with their three young children, Casey DeSantis can be found at her husband's side on the campaign trail. This is her with him in Iowa.

C. DESANTIS: He's a good dad. He's a good person. He's in it for the right reasons. He's fighting for our children just as much as he's fighting for your families.

KAYE (voice-over): On the campaign trail, the governor often shines a spotlight on his wife, just as he did during his victory speech on election night last year.

R. DESANTIS: And most important of all, thank you to the greatest first lady in all 50 states.

KAYE (voice-over): Randi Kaye, CNN, Palm Beach County, Florida.


COOPER: Well, still ahead, the top law enforcement official in Texas and why lawmakers, including his fellow Republicans, are now recommending he be impeached.


COOPER: Tonight, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton could be on the brink of leaving office after a House Ethics panel voted unanimously to recommend he be impeached. The Republican Control Committee has been investigating allegations that Paxton abused his office to benefit a multimillionaire who was one of his major donors.

Yesterday, the committee heard from investigators detailing what they described as years of misconduct from Paxton. He's denied all wrong doing. In a new statement tonight, Paxton referred to Republicans who've defied him as liberal and rhinos.

That's it for us. The news continues. CNN Primetime with Abby Phillips starts now.