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Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees

Trump & Don Jr. Defend Man Convicted Of Interfering In 2016 Election And Who Spread Racist, Antisemitic Memes; Trump: Migrants Are "Poisoning the Blood Of Our Country"; Former Georgia Election Workers Sue Rudy Giuliani Again, Asking Judge To Permanently Stop Him From Lying About Them; Pressure Mounts For Israel To Get More Hostages Home; Pressure Mounts For Israel To Get More Hostages Home; CNN On The Frontlines; Ukrainian Forces Facing Dire Situation; GOP Texas Gov. Abbott Signs Bill Making Illegal Border Crossings A State Criminal As Federal Immigration Court Faces Massive Backlog; Florida Republican Party Censures Chair Christian Ziegler, Strips Him Of Authority As He Faces Sexual Assault Investigation; Iceland Volcano Eruption Underway. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired December 18, 2023 - 20:00   ET


ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: Wow, look at that. That is live -- that massive volcano eruption -- erupting on Iceland's Reykjanes peninsula, lava spewing hundreds of feet in the air. This is just moments ago.

Now, as you can see, obviously, there's the haze of fire. Intense earthquake activity presage this, including a powerful earthquake earlier today. It is, wow, magnificent to see.

Thanks very much for joining us. "AC 360" starts now.


PAMELA BROWN, CNN HOST: Tonight on 360, is the GOP okay with their presidential front-runner borrowing a notion and the very words from Hitler? Some answers from 2023, not 1933. Keeping them honest.

Also, tonight, breaking news, a legal setback for his former chief of staff, Mark Meadows and Rudy Giuliani, who's getting sued again for repeating the lies he told about two Georgia election workers.

And then later, more fallout on the case of the Florida Republican Party chairman, his moral-crusading wife, the accusations of rape, a threesome, and hypocrisy.

Good evening. Pamela Brown here sitting in for Anderson tonight. We begin with a return of the mostly tepid reaction to outrageous statements the former president makes that have slowly been returning within the Republican Party since the shock of January 6th wore off, specifically, reaction to this from over the weekend about undocumented migrants.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER US PRESIDENT: They're poisoning the blood of our country. That's what they've done. They poisoned mental institutions and prisons all over the world, not just in South America, not just the three or four countries that we think about, but all over the world. They're coming into our country from Africa, from Asia -- all over the world.


BROWN: It's clear to point out specific countries there. Well, this is language poisoning the blood used by Hitler, as I noted earlier. And until recently, it would be shocking from any other candidate of any other party or any office.

Republican candidate, presidential candidate Chris Christie sharply condemned it telling CNN's Jake Tapper, quote, "He's disgusting." Ron DeSantis, on the other hand, said this today.


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If you give them an ability -- the opposition an ability to try to make it about something else with some of those comments, I just think that it's a tactical mistake.


BROWN: So as you heard there, Florida's governor not condemning the words, only the tactics of saying them.

Republican Senator John Thune weighed in also gently saying, quote, "That's not a view I share." And here's a few more reactions.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: We're talking about language. I could care less what language people use as long as we get it right.

REP. TIM BURCHET (R), TENNESSEE: It's campaign bravado. You get up on stage, you're feeding off the audience, and you just let it rip. And that's exactly what he does, and that's -- frankly, that's why a lot of people like him.

MARC SHORT, FORMER PENCE CHIEF OF STAFF: I think it's highly unlikely that Donald Trump's ever read Mein Kampf.


BROWN: Well, CNN is also learning about the former president's defense along with Don Jr. of a social media influencer who has got a long record of posting deeply racist, antisemitic, anti-Muslim and homophobic content online.

KFILE Senior Editor Andrew Kaczynski shares the byline on it. He joins us now. So, Andrew, what more can you tell us about this influencer that Trump is defending?

ANDREW KACZYNSKI, CNN KFILE SENIOR EDITOR: Yes, that's right. Both Donald Trump and Donald Trump Jr. have been defending, praising a former influencer convicted of interfering in the 2016 election with a history of deeply racist and deeply antisemitic posts. His name is Douglas Mackey, and he posted under the anonymous Twitter handle, Ricky Vaughn. That's where he posted this meme, which prosecutors say was meant to trick people into thinking they could vote for Hillary Clinton by text. They say that at least 5,000 or 4,900 people texted this number.

Now, Mackey and the Trumps have sort of claimed that this was just a joke, that no reasonable person would believe that. But prosecutors allege a much more sinister plot to deprive people of their right to vote.

Mackey was convicted in March. He would sentence in -- he was sentenced in October, and now he's out as he waits for his appeal. Flash forward to today, and Donald Trump is using this as a case to say that Joe Biden's justice department is attacking the free speech of his supporters. Take a listen to this.



TRUMP: Crooked Joe and his henchmen have tried to shutdown free speech with a massive government censorship operation to silence their critics. They're putting Douglas Mackey in jail for sharing a joking meme about Hillary Clinton seven years ago. Nobody ever heard of anything like that.


KACZYNSKI: So even though he's mentioning Biden pretty specifically there, we should note that this investigation started under Donald Trump's own Department of Justice. This guy wasn't charged until just a week into Joe Biden's administration.

BROWN: And as we said, Mackey was known for his extremely racist and antisemitic posts, so it's not just this, right? It's -- it goes beyond that. What more have you learned about them?

KACZYNSKI: Well, that's right. They sort of sympathetically portrayed this guy as just sort of a Trump supporter. But he was sharing extremely racist, extremely antisemitic content regularly on his Twitter feed. It is so vile that we can't even show much of it on air. He used the N word and referred to black people as feral. He shared antisemitic propaganda that was reminiscent of Nazi Germany, racist cartoons of pretty much every person of color.

There was one post we reviewed where he joked about having a cake made that used a slur for Jewish people and joked about gassing Jews with a comment that was about hailing Hitler.

And take a look at this post right here. This is really one of the only ones we can show on air where he says the Jews fear that Donald Trump is Hitler because they know they have done great evil in America, and they feel -- fear that justice will be done. And it's not like this stuff was really hidden. This was on his feed every time. We checked in the web archive and just being a reporter at that time, I remember seeing it from this specific account.

So now that you've sort of looked at that, listen to what Don Jr. said when he had him on his podcast in early December.


DONALD TRUMP JR., SON OF DONALD TRUMP: You had an awesome account. It may be my favorite Twitter account of all time. Now, I'll get in trouble for saying that because they'll say, oh, he said something once that you must just about -- like it was hilarious. Okay, like -- again, like I said, maybe the best of all time.


KACZYNSKI: Yes, maybe the best of all time, that's what Donald Trump Jr. said about his Twitter account.

And we did reach out to Mr. Mackey's attorney before we did the story. He gave us a statement where he said that he regrets the tone and substance of those posts. They do not reflect his current views or the person he has been for the last several years. But Doug is grateful that former President Trump, his son, and thousands across the political spectrums can see through these smears and distractions, and recognize that his case is about protecting the First Amendment rights of all Americans.

BROWN: Andrew Kaczynski, great reporting by you, Alli Gordon, Em Steck. Appreciate it.

Perspective now from CNN's Senior Data Reporter, Harry Enten; CNN's Senior Political Commentator and former Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger, and CNN's Audie Cornish, host of "The Assignment" podcast.

All right. So let's start with Trump's most recent comments. Congressman, I want to go to you on that. These comments about immigrants from certain countries, quote, "poisoning the blood of the country are obviously vile." What do you make of the lack of ...


BROWN: ... strong condemnation from other prominent Republicans?

KINZINGER: So two things. Number one, that's not a comment you just come up with unless you know what you're doing.

Now, Steven Miller writes a lot of his stuff, I think. So, you know, whoever. But let's keep in mind, Donald -- this isn't the first time he said poison the blood of America. He said it what a month or two ago. He got pushback on it because it's basically Adolf Hitler. And he doubled down and did it again.

Frankly, that's what his people love, which is frightening. And the frightening thing to me is not even just that, it's the fact my former colleagues are now -- I mean, if you actually saw them behind closed doors, you'd see them trembling because they now know that they're going to have to answer to everything Donald Trump said. And they're back to their old ways, their old ways of just saying like, oh, that's just him. It's just words. As Lindsey Graham said, it's garbage.

These folks -- and I think anybody interviewing, any congressman or senator has to ask them repeatedly until they answer the question, do you or don't you agree?

BROWN: So do you think they're just being cowardly?

KINZINGER: Oh, 100%. I mean, they're just being absolute cowards. They wish you wouldn't say it. They -- you know, most of them, obviously, don't agree with how he says it, but they don't want to tick off the base.

Some of them may be up for re-election. They may have primaries around the corner. And instead of being leaders, Pamela, they're followers. The entire movement is made up of a bunch of followers. And that includes House and Senate members, unfortunately.

BROWN: And it's interesting, because if you heard Lindsey Graham say, those are just words, but those words, Audie, informed a lot of Trump's policies, right? His policies when he was in the White House reflected that kind of rhetoric.


And if you heard the congressman say his supporters love it. And I'm wondering what you say to that. Do you see any of them choosing another candidate because of this rhetoric or does it just simply have the galvanizing effect on them? And for others, they just may not care as much as they care about other issues like cost of living.

AUDIE CORNISH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So, no one comment can do anything like that. It's part of overall trend. And overall trend is the former president has been saying this clear back to the first debate with Hillary Clinton. He said it on the trail multiple times. He's used this blood and soil rhetoric multiple times.

And regardless of what he means, you do see support from him. There's been research about this on neo-Nazi sites, et cetera, where they pinpoint this language that's coming from him.

And lastly, you heard Adam Kinzinger talking about Steven Miller who's the architect of many of Trump's antiimmigration programs. The next round of this that they hope to push in a second term would be mass detention camps for illegal immigrants. They haven't ruled out the child separation policy. They're talking about revoking birthright citizenship specifically from people who are born to undocumented mothers. So there is real policy attached to the viciousness of any rhetoric that you're hearing.

BROWN: I think that's really important for everyone to remember, right? This isn't just rhetoric. This is backed up by, as you put, reporting about what would happen if Trump was back ... CORNISH: And it feels like Groundhog Day, right, with the ...

BROWN: (Inaudible).

CORNISH: ... outrage cycle about this over and over again, but it has meaning, which we've learned after January 6th.

BROWN: Well, I remember when he was running for office before, right, you know, talking about how Mexico is sending their worst, right?

CORNISH: Yes, and people ...

BROWN: And there was outrage.

CORNISH: ... explain it away. You heard that with Lindsey Graham, right? Well, it doesn't -- well, I wouldn't say it that way. Well, it's how he said it.

We've heard all of that spin before, them not taking things that he says seriously. But at this point, I think most of the world does take the former president seriously.

BROWN: It's one thing to say that back in 2016, it's another after we've already seen him in the White House and what he's capable of doing.

Harry, I want to bring you in because he made those comments about immigrants, many of whom are Latino. So where does the former president stand with Latino voters?

HARRY ENTEN, CNN SENIOR DATA REPORTER: Yes, it's really interesting, Pam. I mean, if you look at the polling right now and compare Joe Biden versus Donald Trump among Hispanic voters, you know, back in 2020, the final polls had Joe Biden winning Hispanic voters by 26 points.

Now, Joe Biden's still winning them today, but only by six points. That margin has been shrunk down by 20 percentage points.

And I think there's some question, you know, on this issue of immigration and border security. Is this an issue that Joe Biden could potentially use as a wedge issue to win some of those Hispanic voters back?

But take a look here. A better job on border security and immigration, among Hispanic voters, Trump is actually the one who's favored by 12 points. So I'm not necessarily sure that these recent comments will have too much of an impact on the Hispanic support that has been growing for Donald Trump over the past few years.

BROWN: What do you think about that, congressman? Do you think that that is a reflection of -- Harry just said -- Latino voters being more worried about other issues that they are faced with day-to-day living in America than this kind of rhetoric from Trump? What do you think?

KINZINGER: Yes, I think, look, I don't think Democrats understand how to attract Latino voters. I think they've taken the base for granted. I mean, look, as Republicans, we were always trying to figure out how do you reach Latino voters.

The thing is though is there's not just Latino voters. There are people from Mexico, there are people from Cuba, there are people from Venezuela, from Central America. They vote differently in many cases, and they vote on the same issue that any average American votes on.

And so, I think when it comes to the rhetoric, they're concerned about it, certainly, but they also think of themselves not as Latinos but as Americans. And therefore, I think it's better if the Democrats because they have to win this year because this is -- there's a lot at stake.

If the Democrats understand that you need to speak to them as you'd speak to any blue collar American about the things they care about. And the economy is number one. They have to do a better job of communicating the economy because it's not doing too bad, but everybody feels like it is.

BROWN: Yes, that's reflected in many polls.

Audie, to end with you, you know, we're only a few weeks away from Iowa. Hard to believe we're already there for the Iowa caucuses. And the former president, he continues to lead the Republican field despite that kind of rhetoric. Do you think any of his rivals have a shot at breaking through at this point?

CORNISH: We don't know for sure, but we can say that Ron DeSantis has really made a lot of sort of -- laid a lot of groundwork in Iowa. He has very high hopes there. You see Nikki Haley has made so many gains in New Hampshire, trying to take advantage of momentum that comes from media attention and donor attention.

So obviously, they still see some kind of path though that path is not clear, and they see some path through a certain subset of voters that they're hoping to get support from.


BROWN: Yes. And like you pointed out, you know, Nikki Haley is seen her standing, I mean, better in states like New Hampshire and so forth. So we'll have to wait and see.

Audie Cornish, Adam Kinzinger, Harry Enten, thank you so much.

And we have breaking news on the newest lawsuit Rudy Giuliani is facing for the election lies that he told and why, especially in this case, he really should have known better than to open his mouth.

Also, tonight, a live report from Israel where the calls from hostage families are getting louder and with it, the pressure on the Israeli government to do more is growing.


BROWN: Well, two pieces of breaking news tonight. One is a federal appeals court rejecting former Chief of Staff Mark Meadows' attempt to get his Georgia RICO trial move to federal court. The other will come as no surprise to anyone who heard Rudy Giuliani continue to lie about election workers, Shaye Moss and Ruby Freeman, even after a jury awarded them more than $148 million for those very same lies. No surprise, they're suing him again.

CNN's Evan Perez is here with more on both stories. Also, with us, Jessica Roth, former federal prosecutor and currently professor at New York's Cardozo School of Law.

All right. So, Evan, specifically, what are Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss asking for in this latest suit (inaudible)?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: It's exactly what the judge warned Giuliani and his lawyers about. They -- she told the legal team and Giuliani that he was opening himself up to more defamation claims and more lawsuits. And that's exactly what's happened is that these two women have now gone to the judge, and they want the court to enter an injunction essentially against Giuliani, preventing him from making these statements, defaming her, defaming both of them again.


And you know, from going on his media -- you know, as you know, he has a podcast, he has other ways that he gets his word out, to not only making those statements because those are the things he said on the steps of the court. He went out and said he stood by his claims. He said that he had proof that he was going to show proof, at some point, even though obviously for two years, he hasn't shown any of that proof.

And he said that his claims were supportable. All of those things, they're asking the judge to basically prevent him from being able to say again, from broadcasting it, from publishing those words again.

And so now, if this is successful, a judge can enter an order that will now have a greater force, a great -- greater teeth, really, against Giuliani on making these claims. $148 million is not enough apparently.

BROWN: I was going to say, I mean ...

PEREZ: Right.

BROWN: ... how is it that I paid $148 million ...

PEREZ: Well, he doesn't have it, right? So ...

BROWN: (Inaudible) -- well, he doesn't have it, exactly.

PEREZ: Right.

BROWN: So then let's go to you, Jessica Roth, former federal prosecutor. To put this in perspective, what can the court do to block Giuliani from repeating his lies after he already owes $148 million from last week's jury verdict?

JESSICA ROTH, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR, SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NY: So an injunction, if the court were to grant one here, is a court order that directs a party not to engage in behavior that the court has ordered the person to refrain from engaging in. And if the court were to go ahead and grant that injunction as the plaintiffs have requested, then if Giuliani violated the injunction, then he could be subject to additional penalties, fines, and also potentially imprisonment for contempt of court because that's the significance of an injunction issued by a court is that it has the force of a court order.

BROWN: Right. Evan, back to you. You've been a very busy man today because there's another case, this federal appeals court decision rejecting Mark Meadows' attempt to move the Georgia election interference case against him to federal court. Tell us about that.

PEREZ: No dice. This is something that Meadows has been trying to push for his case to be brought to federal court. The play here is to get this case dismissed, and so that Meadows doesn't have to face these state charges.

But here, we have a conservative leaning panel on this Eleventh Circuit, which is, again, a conservative-leaning court. And William Pryor who wrote this opinion says that what Meadows was doing was essentially electioneering. That does not fall within the four corners of what a chief of staff is supposed to be doing.

Meadows is saying everything he was doing after the election with Donald Trump was essentially part of his duties as a federal officer and, therefore, he should be immune from these charges -- these state charges and these RICO charges.

What he wrote here, he says, "Whatever the chief of staff's role with respect to state election administration does not include altering valid election results." And -- you know, and that is clear as day.

So now, we expect obviously that Mark Meadows is probably going to keep fighting. He's probably going to go to the Supreme Court and try his hand there.

BROWN: So then, Jessica, given that the court determined that Meadows' involvement in the alleged conspiracy was not part of his official duties of chief of staff raises the question, right? Could that impact similar claims of immunity by the former president?

ROTH: Yes. So even though the former president is not directly impacted by this decision from the Eleventh Circuit today, the reasoning in the decision does not bode well for Trump's claims of immunity. Of course, no board has previously held. There is such a thing as immunity for a former president from criminal prosecution. The cases are only talking so far from the Supreme Court about immunity from civil lawsuits.

But if the former president were to prevail on his claim, his argument, which is novel, that there is such a thing as immunity from criminal prosecution, then a court would have to decide what is the extent of it. And in the civil context, courts have held that it extends to the outer perimeter of the president's official duties.

So following the reasoning from the Eleventh Circuit today, if what Meadows was engaged in, which was on behalf of the court said of the Trump re-election campaign was not official because it was private and on behalf of the candidate Trump, then similarly what Trump is alleged to have engaged in, both in the January 6th prosecution in federal court in DC and in the Georgia case, very reasonably could be seen as outside the -- or not within the perimeter of his official duties. So I think the reasoning does not bode well for Trump's claims of immunity.

PEREZ: I mean, Pryor is very influential.

BROWN: (Inaudible), yes.

PEREZ: Right? I mean, he's a very influential judge so ...

BROWN: Conservative, yes.

PEREZ: Right. It is something that I think you're right -- does not bode well for the former president at all.

BROWN: Really important perspective and context there. Evan Perez, Jessica Roth, thanks so much.


Up next, growing pressure for the Israeli government to get more hostages freed from Gaza after sickening details emerge about the brutality former hostages experienced.

Plus, a report from the front lines in Ukraine with more aid at a standstill here in Washington, the mood on the battlefield has become increasingly grim.


BROWN: Well, following the death of three Israeli hostages mistakenly killed by the IDF, the White House today warned that the Israeli military may need to adjust its rules of engagement. And this comes with a growing split over the US and Israel over the high number of civilian casualties in Gaza.

Defense Secretary Austin, in Tel Aviv today, said he discussed pathways toward a future for Gaza after Hamas.

Meanwhile, there is pressure on Israel to get more hostages out of Gaza. Here's CNN's Jeremy Diamond.


JEREMY DIAMOND, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice over): The pleas are only growing more desperate.

(RAZ BEN AMI speaking in foreign language.)

RAZ BEN AMI (through translator): I begged the cabinet and we all warned the fighting would likely harm the hostages. Unfortunately, I was right.

DIAMOND (voice over): Recently freed hostages and the families of those still captive are ramping up the pressure on the Israeli government to reach a deal for their freedom after Israeli soldiers mistakenly shot and killed three Israeli hostages in Gaza. Their desperate plea smeared onto a white sheet on the building adjacent to where they were killed. "Help, three hostages," read the Hebrew letters stained with red sauce.

Former hostages like Doron Katz-Asher who was shot as she was whizzed into Gaza now beginning to share their stories of captivity.

(DORON KATZ-ASHER speaking in foreign language.)

DORON KATZ-ASHER, FORMER ISRAELI HOSTAGE (through translator): The first day was foggy because I lost a lot of blood and they stitched my wounds on a sofa with the girls next to me. Easy to understand that it was without anesthesia.


DIAMOND (voice-over): In an interview on Israeli TV, she revealed that she and her two daughters spent part of their captivity not in a tunnel, but hidden in a hospital.

KATZ-ASHER: We were in a 12-meter room, 10 people, no beds, only a sink. And to go to the toilet, we had to knock on the door. They could open it after five minutes or after an hour and a half. Small girls couldn't hold it.

DIAMOND (voice-over): Cramped conditions, but also unending fear.

KATZ-ASHER: Fear. Fear that because my girls were crying or making a noise, they would get an order from above, be taken from me. Fear, always fear.

DIAMOND (voice-over): For 49 days, Katz-Asher shielded her daughters from that fear until the moment they were handed to the Red Cross on the streets of Gaza, where hundreds of people crowded their vehicle.

KATZ-ASHER: It was the first time after a month and a half that Raz said, mom, "I'm scared".

DIAMOND (voice-over): Multiple former hostages also described the terrors of living under Israeli bombardment in Gaza.

OFIR ENGEL, FORMER ISRAELI HOSTAGE (through translator): There was a bombardment on the adjacent house. It sounded like it was going to hit us. One of the guards was notified that his family member is dead. So you tell yourself, I hope he doesn't turn against us.

DIAMOND (voice-over): Nearly every single former hostage spoke of feeling abandoned by their government while in captivity. Now channeling that feeling into action.

SHARON ALONY-CUNIO, FORMER ISRAELI HOSTAGE: I think that everyone needs to understand that not enough is being done in order to free the hostages from the Gaza Strip. They need to come back now. You have to do everything you can to bring them back now.


DIAMOND: And tonight, Hamas also appears to be attempting to ratchet up the pressure on the Israeli government, releasing its latest propaganda video, this time featuring three elderly hostages. One of them, Haim Perry, urges the Israeli government to secure their unconditional release, expresses concern about constant bombardment in Gaza.

The Israeli military, for its part, says that this is a criminal terror video and says it will do everything to secure those hostages release. Pam?

BROWN: All right, Jeremy Diamond, thank you for that.

And turning now to Ukraine, the White House is warning that new aid for it will run out at the end of this month as they try to strike a funding deal with Republicans. And as the battle plays out in Washington, it is already having an impact on Ukraine.

CNN's Nick Paton Walsh saw for himself on the front lines. Here's his report. But first, a warning for you, some of the content is graphic.


NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This was where the billions were meant to spell a breakthrough, but where the counteroffensive was supposed to have kicked Russia to the sea this summer. Now it is mud, death, deadlock and the remnants of American help vanishing.

(on-camera): It's a notably different mood here. Dark, frankly. In the summer, they were buoyed, feeling like they had the world at their back moving forwards. Now, it's slow, dangerous and a real sense of, well, despair, to be honest.

(voice-over): 40 Russian drones swarmed one Ukrainian trench here in a day. Down here in this tiny basement, the rule is do not get seen. The other side are not so lucky. Two Russians spotted moving a load. They guide in a mortar strike. There are just so many Russians now.

Usually more meat means more mints, the commander says. But sometimes their machine struggles to handle it. And sometimes they have success. Batteries die fast in the cold, and Russian jamming seems to damage them, too.

This is Orikhiv, whose streets reek of crushed lives and how much horror Moscow is willing to bring to be seen to win.

(on-camera): Within a matter of months since we were here in the summer, how much more damage has been done?

(voice-over): If you've stopped thinking about Ukraine, be sure Putin hasn't. At command, they watch a wasteland. Treelines now bare. The dead, the injured. It's unclear if Russia treats them differently. Another Ukrainian drone aims for a foxhole.

What they've struggled with are the waves of Russian assaults. Dozens of Russian prisoners, well trained and equipped, backed up by armor, who they say are given a mix of drugs. They show us this graphic video of a wounded Russian, his legs severed, seemingly high enough to smile through his fatal injuries.


Still, they claim they have held hard one ground, but at a huge cost.

Yes, as we say in the army, he says, the counteroffensive was smooth on paper, but we forgot about the ditches. Colossal changes are taking place. They started making their own attack drones and outnumber ours. But they use them badly like a kid's toy.

IHOR, UKRAINIAN SOLDIER (through translator): Excuse me. What's happening?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Heavy injuries.

IHOR (through translator): From what?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Dexter, Dexter, I'm Bremya, do you copy?

WALSH (voice-over): They say a drone has hit a trench and blown up a gas heater.

IHOR (through translator): Begin the evacuation, begin the evacuation. Evacuate with a small vehicle. Did you move already?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): We didn't.

IHOR (through translator): Why not? Why not?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): No transport, no transport.

WALSH (voice-over): The silence. The wait for news, agony.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Already dead.

IHOR (through translator): Copy, is he dead?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Yes.

IHOR (through translator): It's over, evacuate him, no rush. We can't help him already.

WALSH (on-camera): Does it feel like the casualties are getting worse?

Every casualty makes a difference, he says. It affects everyone's morale. It's very painful for me.

Sergey (ph), aged 48, was one of four Ukrainians to die in that area that day and about 50 that week. They haven't had to really talk about losing in this war. But this is what it looks like. It's not just drones. This Russian video seems to show a new threat. Gas, caustic, flammable. The Ukrainians have had nine incidents on this front, killing one.

Here are two survivors.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): At first, I saw smoke. We ran out from the trench and the gas suddenly caught fire. The trench was in flames. This gas burns, blinds you. You can't breathe. Shoots down your throat immediately. We didn't even have a second.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): You inhale it twice, then you fail to breathe.

WALSH (voice-over): Medical reports confirm their poisoning. And Ukrainian official told CNN a form of CS gas was being used.

(on-camera): And there was injuries inside your mouth.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): On my cheeks, everywhere inside the mouth. My face is swollen and covered in red marks.

WALSH (voice-over): It is an ugly, savage world. Even on a TV screen where there seems little Moscow won't do, but too much the west won't.


BROWN: Just endless horror at every turn there, Nick. Is it clear how much Ukraine would be able to turn the situation around if and when the USAID does come?

WALSH: I mean, technically speaking, they haven't really run out of USAID yet. There is still money that's supposed to be flowing, but even there on the front lines, they complain about a lack of equipment. So we've never really had great transparency on exactly what is in whose account.

But the morale is already low there because of the stall of USAID even just in the last hours. Indications on Congress they're not getting closer to a deal. And still they're dealing with a Russian force that reinvigorated. There were apparently 13 assaults in the area we were filming in just today, according to some Ukrainian reports.

Staggering how Moscow seems to have got its momentum back and is pushing again and again. So, yes, of course, there's going to be a serious impact when that American money finally dries up. Remember, the European Union, too, they're stalling as well on their aid contributions. But you're already beginning to see really the winter, the lack of morale, the fact that the counteroffensive didn't achieve what was thought it potentially might.

That's beginning to impact Kyiv. And so, yes, I think as the money runs out, that's going to make a significant change very fast. Pamela?

BROWN: Yes. Nick Paton Walsh, thank you for the reporting.

Up next, more breaking news. A controversial bill just signed into state law in Texas on illegal border crossings. Plus, a closer look at the massive backlog of immigration cases in federal court. And the Florida GOP chairman accused of rape is refusing to step down despite the sex scandal allegations involving him, his wife and another woman. We'll be back.



BROWN: More breaking news, Texas Governor Greg Abbot has signed a new bill into law. It makes crossing illegally into Texas from Mexico a state crime. The bill also gives local police the power to arrest migrants and allow state judges to issue orders to remove migrants to Mexico. This comes with a massive backlog in such cases in federal courts. Millions of migrants having to wait years to see a judge.

More from CNN's Ed Lavandera.


ED LAVANDERA, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Outside any American immigration court these days, you'll likely find long lines, people gathering in the middle of the night for court appearances that will determine if they stay in the United States or if they'll be deported.

JUDGE MIMI TSANKOV, PRESIDENT, NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF IMMIGRATION JUDGES: They are lining up sometimes at 05:00 a.m. I've seen them lining up the night before as well.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): Some of these migrants will end up in Mimi Tsankov's New York City courtroom. Judge Tsankov is the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. She's served as a judge for 17 years and has never seen the system under this intense strain.

TSANKOV: Some days I can see up to 100 different cases just in a morning. I've been a judge in Los Angeles, Colorado and in New York City and I've never seen the numbers that we're seeing right now.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): Now for the first time, tracking data shows the immigration court backlog has reached more than 3 million cases. In 2012, there were over 325,000 backlog cases.


Across the country, there are just 71 immigration courts and 734 immigration judges that handle this caseload. The states with the largest numbers of pending cases are Florida, Texas, California, and New York.

Last December, we met Yeison Virguez, his wife Zulema (ph) and their two children as they crossed the Rio Grande into El Paso, Texas.

YEISON VIRGUEZ, ASYLUM SEEKER: (Speaking Foreign Language)

LAVANDERA (on-camera): Did you think reaching this point was going to be so emotional?

VIRGUEZ: (Speaking Foreign Language)

LAVANDERA (voice-over): With tears in their eyes, they told me they never thought the journey from Venezuela would be so painful.

(Speaking Foreign Language)

LAVANDERA (voice-over): The family is now in New York navigating the immigration asylum process. Their journey captures the dilemma of the overwhelmed system.

(on-camera): It's been a year since we met you. You just had your first hearing in the court, correct?

VIRGUEZ: (Speaking Foreign Language)

LAVANDERA (on-camera): They say it's been very difficult to find an attorney. In fact, after a year, they still haven't been able to get an immigration attorney.

(voice-over): The same tracking data shows close to 100 percent of the migrants who have lawyers show up to the court hearings. The data is less clear for migrants who don't have lawyers. Yeison and Zulema (ph) attended their first court hearing last week and have another date set for April of next year.

The Biden administration has added more than 300 immigration judges to help handle the massive backlog of cases. But Judge Tsankov also says there aren't enough interpreters and law clerks to move cases along.

TSANKOV: The focus has been on hiring more immigration judges, which makes sense, but you cannot hire your way out of this problem because even an immigration judge really can only handle maybe about 500 cases a year.


BROWN: And, Ed, you mentioned in your piece there that the average wait time for an asylum hearing is four years. So can the people who are waiting work in the meantime?

LAVANDERA: They can. They needed work authorization to be able to do that. And depending on what country you come from, what your individual circumstances, it could take quite a bit of time to get that. So after these migrants get that, they can start taking on jobs legally here in the U.S.

In the meantime, other migrants simply try to find ways to make ends meet working under the table in various locations. And this is happening throughout the country. Immigration judges and reform advocates say that, you know, one of the things that could speed things up in the immigration court process is if the whole system was moved out from underneath the Department of Justice and the executive branch and into an independent judiciary branch. And they say that would give judges more discretion to move through these cases much, much faster.

BROWN: All right, Ed Lavandera, thank you so much.

And up next, the new steps taken against the Florida GOP chairman accused of rape and who is facing other allegations involving his wife and another woman.

Also ahead, a volcano eruption in Iceland tonight after weeks of warnings. More incredible pictures just ahead.



BROWN: Well, tonight, new details on that sex scandal involving the Florida GOP chairman, his wife, who is a co-founder of conservative group Moms for Liberty, and another woman. The chairman is refusing to step down as he faces the allegations that has led his own party to take drastic steps against him.

CNN's Carlos Suarez has the story.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Unanimous votes in there. He needs to move on.

CARLOS SUAREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A sex scandal involving Florida's GOP Chairman Christian Ziegler, leading to calls for his resignation.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He needs to resign.

SUAREZ (voice-over): He's been accused of raping a woman in October. According to a search warrant affidavit obtained by CNN, Ziegler and his wife had a prior three-way consensual sexual relationship with the woman. He's now stripped of all of his duties and his salary reduced to just $1.

EVAN POWER, VICE CHAIRMAN, REPUBLICAN PART OF FLORIDA: We asked him to resign immediately. He has still not resigned, so we reiterated that demand.

SUAREZ (voice-over): Ziegler tried to defend himself at Sunday's private meeting of party leaders, but he was heckled by party officials who rejected his apology.

CHAIR MICHAEL THOMPSON, LEE COUNTY REPUBLICANS: He just did a real stupid thing, and he's going to have to suffer the consequences.

SUAREZ (voice-over): Party leaders said even if the sexual assault allegations are not true, the details of Ziegler's private life becoming public is too damning.

POWER: You cannot lead the Republican Party with the charges that are standing in front of him and the admissions he's made in the affidavits. You cannot morally lead the Republican Party forward. And that's, I think, the end of the day. We wish Christian well in his legal endeavors if he did not do it.

SUAREZ (voice-over): Ziegler, who hasn't been criminally charged, says the sex with the accuser was consensual. He also denied reports of seeking a financial buyout in the neighborhood of $2 million in exchange for resigning his post. Writing in a text message to CNN, quote, "I have not asked for anything. Again, 100 percent fabricated lie.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would not be in favor of the payout.

SUAREZ (voice-over): The party plans to meet in three weeks to vote to officially remove him. And while Christian's fate with the GOP seems certain, his wife's political future is not. Bridget Ziegler, the co- founder of the conservative group, Moms for Liberty, refused to resign from the Sarasota County school board after fellow board members asked her to do so, telling her the sex scandal was a distraction, though she hasn't been accused of any wrongdoing.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Voluntarily resign.

SUAREZ (voice-over): Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has called on Christian Ziegler to step down, but won't go that far with Bridget.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I've called on Christian to step down as the RPOF chairman. My understanding is he's the one that's under the criminal cloud. Clearly, I think Bridget and this is somebody that I've worked with and have really liked the work she's done, I mean, you know, she's going to have to look to see how effective that she's going to be able to be in those circumstances.

SUAREZ (voice-over): Removing the Zieglers is one thing both Democrats and Republicans agree on, even if for different reasons.

ANNA ESKAMANI (D), FLORIDA STATE REPRESENTATIVE: In order for them to attempt to salvage what is left of their party's so called values, they have to give off the impression of accountability.


BROWN: Carlos Suarez joins us now from Orlando. So, Carlos, as you said, Christian Ziegler has not been criminally charged, do we know the current status of that investigation?


SUAREZ: Well, right now, Pam, we do not. The Sarasota Police Department really has not said anything about this case officially. We know that a police have -- we know that the investigation, at least according to the search warrant affidavit, began over two months ago and that police have reviewed text messages and other messages on social media between Christian Ziegler and the accuser.

And we also know that police have reviewed surveillance videos showing Christian arriving at the house of the accuser on the day of the alleged sexual assault. We're also told, at least according to this document, that Christian told police that he recorded this sexual encounter, which again he says was consensual and that police are still in the process of trying to obtain that piece of video. Pam?

BROWN: All right, Carlos Suarez, thank you so much.

Up next, more breaking news. The latest from Iceland, which is living up to its nickname of land of fire and ice with a volcanic eruption tonight.


BROWN: Well, more breaking news tonight. First, an earthquake and now a volcanic eruption is underway in southwest Iceland. Look at these visuals, hot lava and smoke spewing into the air. It is not unexpected after several weeks of seismic activity in the area. The eruption is less than 2 miles from the town of Grindavik, which was already evacuated.

And according to Icelandic authorities, cracks in the ground now stretched toward the town. The nearby Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, popular with tourists was also shut down weeks ago. We'll continue to monitor the situation and we'll, of course, bring you any new developments right here on CNN.

The news continues. The Source with Kaitlan Collins starts now.