Return to Transcripts main page

The Lead with Jake Tapper

Secretary Of State Antony Blinken Testifies Before The House; Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) Is Interviewed About Secretary Blinken's Testifying Before House; Trump Attacks President Biden And Former President Bush On 9/11 Anniversary; Booster Shots Not Yet Needed. New Medical Review: Evidence Does Not Show Need For Booster Shots For General Public; Former FDA Commissioner: Vaccines For Children Could Be Approved By Halloween; North Korea Claims Successful Test Of Long- Range Cruise Missiles; Prominent Attorney Shot Months After Unsolved Murders Of Wife & Son; Virgin Galactic Delays Next Spaceflight Due To Manufacturing Defect. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired September 13, 2021 - 17:00   ET




ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: It made very clear that if we would move past that deadline, it would resume the attacks that it had stopped on our forces and on our allies and partners, as well as to commence the onslaught on the cities that we've seen in recent months.

JESSICA DEAN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Blinken making the case while the Biden administration was beholden to former President Trump's agreement with the Taliban. The Trump administration had not put any plans for withdrawal in place.

BLINKEN: We inherited a deadline. We did not inherit a plan. The agreement reached by the previous administration required all U.S. forces to be out of Afghanistan by May 1st. In return, the Taliban stopped attacking our forces, our partners, and it didn't commence an onslaught of the Afghanistan cities. Had the president not followed through on the commitments that his predecessor made, those attacks would have resumed. We would have re-upped the war in Afghanistan after 20 years for another 5, 10, or 20 years.

DEAN (voice-over): House members also questioning Blinken on the parameters for U.S. engagement with the Taliban-led government.

BLINKEN: When it comes to engaging with that government or any government to be named on a more permanent basis, we're going to do so on the basis of whether or not it advances our interests. And those interests are very clear. They are the expectations that we have set and the international community has set. The ongoing freedom of travel for a government that makes good on the Taliban's commitment to combat terrorism.

DEAN (voice-over): Blinken says as of last week, about 100 Americans remain in Afghanistan who would like to leave the country. He also confirmed the Taliban have blocked charter flights from leaving.

BLINKEN: We want to see those flights leave. We need to see a process put in place to allow those flights to start to move and we're working on that.


DEAN (on camera): Republican Congressman Scott Perry did aggressively criticize Secretary Blinken for not appearing in person today. The secretary did say, though, that he had chosen not to appear in person because the House is technically out of session. And Jake, the chairman of that committee, Chairman Meeks, did say that this was a hybrid meeting. That this was a hybrid hearing and that everyone was able to choose whether they wanted to be in person or wanted to appear virtually. We saw members from both parties doing both.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: All right, Jessica Dean on Capitol Hill for us. Thank you so much. Joining us live to discuss, Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey. He's the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Secretary Blinken will testify before his committee tomorrow.

Secretary -- I mean, Mr. Chairman, thank you so much. I want to start with Secretary Blinken talking about counterterrorism in Afghanistan going forward. Take a listen to this.


BLINKEN: The Taliban is committed to prevent terrorist groups from using Afghanistan as base for external operations that could threaten the United States or our allies, including Al-Qaeda and ISIS-K. We'll hold them accountable for that. That does not mean that we will rely on them.


TAPPER: So, Secretary Blinken later acknowledged that the U.S. obviously lost intelligence capacity by withdrawing. Can the United States hold the Taliban accountable do counterterrorism in Afghanistan with no troops there?

SEN. BOB MENENDEZ (D-NJ): Well, we believe that there is ability to do over the horizon efforts that can help us in our counterterrorism efforts. And we believe that they will be sufficient enough to protect the homeland. There's no question that when you're not on the ground in any country for which there is conflict or potential, that you lose some element of it.

I think it would be naive to suggest that you're not going to lose some element of added protection. But I do believe there are over the horizon capabilities. We do this in other parts of the world, for which there is a threat as well. I believe we can do it here.

Holding the Taliban accountable, look, you know, the Trump administration basically signed a surrender agreement with the Taliban, gave them everything, held them to nothing. Gave 5,000 Taliban fighters that were in jail, had them released, which only augmented the Taliban's ability to move as swiftly as it did with extra manpower.

And at the end of the day, got nothing in return including trying to negotiate with the Afghan government to see if there was a peaceful way forward. So, I don't know about holding the Taliban accountable. I don't expect much from them especially when they named three of their leadership from the Haqqani network, which is on the foreign terrorist organization list of our country.

TAPPER: But in terms of the ability of the U.S. to conduct counterterrorism, what's your understanding of what happened with that drone strike when the U.S. was still in Afghanistan at the very end? "The New York Times" and other media outlets and CNN has not confirmed this, but other media outlets like "The New York Times" have suggested that that was not actually a terrorist that was killed.


It was either a mistaken identity or bad information. As the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, what do you know about that?

MENENDEZ: Well, Jake, that is a topic that we expect an intelligence briefing on. I've seen the reports. I want to hear what the intelligence briefing has to say about it. Obviously, we were told that it was someone who was involved with ISIS-K and was planning an attack.

The explosion that took place was far more than what we sent as a missile to explode that vehicle. So you have to wonder whether there were not explosives inside of the car. But we haven't had that type of intelligence briefing yet. Now that we're back in session, we expect it.

TAPPER: Some Republicans are calling on Secretary Blinken to resign. I'm sure you do not support that. But do you think that anyone in the Biden administration should resign as a result of the withdrawal that you have criticized?

MENENDEZ: I don't know yet. You know, one of the reasons we're having a hearing in person, the secretary will be before us in person tomorrow, is to get to the truth. And this is only the beginning of a series of hearings that I intend to have because as your two-hour special this weekend showed, we've had 20 years, in my view, a good part of those 20 years we were lied to in Congress by a variety of people in power, who said things that weren't quite the truth. Who made rosier predictions than what was actually happening on the ground.

And so, we have to have a full accounting. And when we have that full accounting, I think those -- when that accounting takes place, will have to be held responsible.

TAPPER: I'm glad you saw our documentary about Afghanistan. Just for anybody watching who hasn't seen it, it's going to re-air Friday night at 10:00 on CNN. But let me ask you, in that special, one of the former commanding generals and former ambassadors to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, told me that he agreed with Biden's choice to end the war, but that the exit was poorly executed. Do you agree?

MENENDEZ: I agree. I believe the exit was poorly executed. Of course, you know, the Biden administration was handed a bad situation. The previous Biden -- I mean, the previous Trump administration with Stephen Miller would not permit the SIV visas who helped us be processed. There was no processing of those visas. But even when you inherit such a set of circumstances, you know, it would have been important to come to the Congress and say, we have a problem, we have to surge dramatically, we need your support in doing so, and to have a clarion call that there was more than needed to be done. In that respect, the execution in my mind was totally unacceptable.

TAPPER: Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, thank you. We look forward to your hearing tomorrow. Appreciate your time today, sir.

MENENDEZ: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: Coming up, former President Trump skipping the unity and now going after both President Biden and George W. Bush. What Trump just said today, next.

Plus, Kim Jong-un at it again. North Korea claims it has fired off new missile tests. What are the details? We'll tell you. Stay with us.



TAPPER: In our "Politics Lead", for those who chose to participate in or watch 9/11 commemorations over the weekend, it was moving. A time of national unity and an acknowledgment of the almost 3,000 U.S. souls we lost that horrible day.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: It is what makes us who we are. America at its best. To me, that's the central lesson of September 11th. It's that at our most vulnerable, in the push and pull of all that makes us human, in the battle for the soul of America, unity is our great strength.


TAPPER: President Biden was joined Saturday at ground zero in New York City by former presidents Obama and Clinton. While at the Flight 93 memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, former President George W. Bush evoked the time that the United States came together after 9/11 in purpose and with compassion and in the name of service.

The Republican also warned not just the threats from abroad, but threats here at home, with a clear reference to the January 6th insurrectionists. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: There's little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home. But then there's disdainful for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols. They are children of the same foul spirit and it is our continuing duty to confront them.


TAPPER: It is also worth noting the former president who did not participate in these moments of unity. He was doing what he does on this hallowed day, September 11th, 2021. Former President Trump issued five public statements, four of which attacked President Biden, including this in his one video message that did not acknowledge in any way that Trump himself negotiated with the Taliban for the U.S. to leave Afghanistan this year.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: This is the 20th year of this war and should have been a year of victory and honor and strength. Instead Joe Biden and his inept administration surrendered in defeat.


TAPPER: The former president on this day of unity kept up the attacks after he traveled blocks from Trump Tower to visit the New York City Police Department 17th Precinct where in addition to praising the brave first responders, the former president continued to repeat the big lie about the 2020 election.



TRUMP: You gave me great support. We won the election but what are you going to do. We are fighting like hell and we're going to keep fighting and you see what happens because elections do have consequences. Nobody ever thought a thing like this would be possible.


TAPPER: Just take a second to absorb that. It's the 20th anniversary of 9/11. The former president, who hails from New York goes to an NYPD station where he continues to make the day about himself and his political grievances. It's a day when the rest of the nation was trying to do just the opposite.

And of course, he also invoked his big election lie which incited the deadly January 6th insurrection. Now, lest his lies about the election and his very various political grievances be his only focus, we should also note that the former president spoke at a different event held by Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church derisively known as the "Moonies," known for mind control and mass weddings, widely considered a cult.

It is unclear what Trump was paid for that appearance or what he was paid for during his appearance doing color commentary for a pay-per- view boxing event also held on September 11th. And even there, the former president made allusions to how he actually won the election and he teased a potential run for the Oval Office in 2024.


TRUMP: We're going to make a comeback like nobody has ever seen before.


TAPPER: We should note, for any fight fans out there that mostly the main event was a sad spectacle. Evander Holyfield, a shell of his former self, barely coherent, having to be rescued by the referees before he embarrassed himself any further. If only the modern Republican Party had such referees. Let's discuss. Kasie Hunt, thank you for being here. Welcome to THE LEAD. Great to have you at CNN.


TAPPER: I have to say, like the former president, like, I'm never surprised, but I'm always shocked. It's just unbelievable.

HUNT: I used to have to remind myself almost every day that while it seemed that those of us in the news business would become inured because every day you woke up and there was another -- something like this was happening literally every day. You can't let that actually affect how you view this.

And watching that tape of him on September 11th, on that anniversary saying -- talking about his own election lies, obviously, we should have expected that, but it still is completely stunning to see. And the contrast between the way that the former president, George W. Bush handled that day and the way that president -- former President Donald Trump handled it, we shouldn't be stunned, again, to put a button on it, but I still am.

TAPPER: And can I just say, to talk about the Bush comments, President Biden, I think, graciously ceded the day. He did not speak. Vice President Harris did. But the only president that spoke at a public event, other than certain rantings and rumblings at pay-per-view and other places was George W. Bush.

And he very clearly was saying, you know, as Juliette Kayyem pointed out, don't confuse the only threat -- don't think the only threat to this nation is from abroad. We have our own problem here. And he was very clearly talking about the insurrection.

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: He was very clearly talking about January 6th. President Biden, in fact, praised the speech that former President Bush gave. I think the problem for the Republican Party is that when you listen to what President Bush said, it really resonates with a lot of never-Trump Republicans. It resonates with a lot of middle of the road Americans. It resonates even with some Democrats who had opposed his administration.

It doesn't really resonate with the base of the Republican Party right now. And what Donald Trump says is what resonates with the base of the Republican Party. And a lot of Republicans in Congress, you know, they disavow January 6th, but have not disavowed Donald Trump himself. In fact, they've courted his endorsement and proudly touted it. And so that's really the fight that you're continuing to see play out within the GOP.

HUNT: Well, and Jake, I was going to say the other line that stood out to me from that speech was where he talked about how the terrorists on September 11th learned that any random group of Americans is an exceptional group of people. And it made me think of all of those people who went down on Flight 93 and how they felt connected to each other even in that very worst moment.

And you compare that to now, where we as Americans are hurling things at flight attendants, some people conducting themselves terribly. The divide that is on display every day in our skies now, it just -- it really, really struck me as I was watching that.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: What struck me was that Bush spoke the truth, which was inconvenient, and it wasn't great to hear that the America he knew, the America I know, as he kept saying, and I think this is -- we're going to look back on this as a historic speech. The America I knew 20 years ago is not the America we know now.


And talked about the insurrectionists without mentioning the insurrectionists and saying that those people are children of the same foul spirit as the ones who is flew the -- you know, the plane into the --

TAPPER: We should note, he did not name the January 6th insurrection.

BORGER: No, he didn't.

TAPPER: He did not mention Trump's name.

BORGER: But he have to.

TAPPER: Trump thought it was about him, though.

BORGER: Of course, obviously.

TAPPER: I mean, Trump gave us (inaudible) today, so interesting to watch former President Bush, he was responsible for getting us into the quicksand of the Middle East and then-- I'm not even going to finish it. He goes after -- but I want to change this a little bit from the West Wing to the East Wing because there's some new reporting today, Kate, about what Melania Trump did and what Melania Trump did not do on January 6th. KATE BENNETT, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. This is from

Stephanie Grisham's upcoming book, apparently a tell-all about her time in the Trump White House, where she was press secretary and she was also Melania Trump's chief of staff. And during the insurrection, as the capitol was being stormed by Trump supporters, and they had breached the gates, she texted the First Lady and said, hey, you know, do you want to tweet out peaceful protest is fine but no violence and, you know, keep it down people?

And she wrote back a one-word answer. "No." She had no interest in stepping into what was happening on January 6th. And it's not something she is shy about. She has before -- she had before come out against things the president said. She had been the voice some times, of reason.

So, this was clearly a marker where she just, she didn't want to get involved. She was that day conducting a photo shoot of a carpet.

BORGER: Tell me about this carpet.

TAPPER: So, priorities.

BENNETT: Well, you know -- exactly. And I think it's really telling. Listen, the last few -- I would stretch months of the Trump administration. We saw Melania Trump do barely really anything. And it's a legacy that she'll leave as one of, you know, this huge platform that she had and continues to have and still hasn't had a public event or done anything from her office.

You know, I think what Grisham's book is going to reveal is this sort of apathy that she had towards her role, towards the country, towards the influence she might have had. It's just very telling that on January 6th when someone needed to say something to sort of call off the dogs so to speak, she said no.

TAPPER: And we should note also that Grisham expresses in this excerpt also that I think "Politico" had a -- first had a read on that Melania was also an election truther, and that's reason why she didn't want to decry the violence, which actually didn't surprise me because he was an Obama truther.

SIDDIQUI: She tweeted -- she publicly tweeted also that, well, every legal (inaudible) legal vote, every legal vote should be counted. So she very much embraced these election --

BORGERE: And don't forget, Grisham quit. She quit the day --

TAPPER: She quit that day. She quit --

BORGER: That day of the insurrection was the day --

SIDDIQUI: She was the first one. She was the first to --

TAPPER: And I want to ask you, Sabrina, also because you talked about how the mainstream Republican Party, the January 6th insurrection, the election lies, et cetera, this has now become mainstream. There's this new poll out today, which asked -- CNN poll asked Republican voters about which beliefs are important to their partisan identity. Sixty- one percent say supporting President Trump is an important part of being a Republican; 59 percent say that believing Trump won in 2020, which by the way, he did not, that that's an important part of being a Republican.

I, you know, I grew up on when an important part of being a Republican was a strong foreign policy belief and low taxes, conservative belief in social issues, not, I need to believe this lie about the last Republican president.

SIDDIQUI: Well, it's quite clear that Donald Trump is still the de facto leader of the Republican Party and Republicans in Congress did have an opportunity after the insurrection to, you know, impeach him and remove him from office again. They declined to really take any kind of meaningful action.

And so, I think the big question is, you know, will he run again in 2024. Will they once again embrace him? Will they clear the field for him? A lot of these questions, we don't yet have the answers to, but this --

TAPPER: I think yes and yes.

SIDDIQUI: But, you know, this is a problem. There's still this element of trying to have it both ways. Again, it goes back to this idea of disavowing the insurrection, but sort of pretending that Donald Trump and, you know, very much everything he represents is not -- it's fundamentally tied to how he got to the insurrection in the first place. Yes.

HUNT: But they're past the point of even pronouncing the insurrection. I mean, this is the thing. So, I was at the capitol complex on January 6th, right? I watched -- I was in the Russell rotunda. We were worried at the time that we were going to be in a more dangerous spot because obviously the capitol would be safer. That obviously wasn't the case.

We watched while these people overtook things. The congressman who later said it was a bunch of tourists was literally inside the House chamber barricading the doors with these armed security guards.

UNKNOWN: There were pictures.

HUNT: This is obviously the place where the gun went off. All of a sudden, all of that, that day when everyone was actually on the same side, these members had to go down into a bunker, make sure our government kept functioning. They suddenly now, Jake, you said the word mainstreamed. I just -- I cannot even handle short handing it so much because of how dramatic the differences we treat these now in our politics, these Republicans as what happened that day.



BORGER: But they've made their deal with the devil, with Donald Trump. And they're going to live with it.

TAPPER: Thanks, everyone. Really appreciate it. I'm now more depressed than I was before.

Coming up next, a new prediction about how soon your young kids may be able to get a COVID vaccine. Stay with us.


TAPPER: In our "Health Lead" now, evidence that most people do not need a booster shot, at least not according to the data as of right now. This assertion from an international group of scientists who published their findings today in the widely acclaimed Lancet Medical Journal.


Those scientists include two senior FDA officials with expertise in vaccines, who just announced their retirements just as the Biden administration started pushing the FDA to approve boosters.

Let's bring in Dr. Megan Ranney, she's an Emergency Medical Professor at Brown University. And Dr. Ranney, these findings are coming out just one week ahead of an announcement of plans to offer booster shots in the U.S., September 20th. The scientists would rather see the current vaccine supply used on those not yet vaccinated and want more study on boosters to fight future variants.

The scientists back up what people have been saying for weeks now, where do you come down on this? Because we've -- Dr. Hotez and Dr. Jha are with the Biden administration, not with these scientists, where are you?

DR. MEGAN RANNEY, PROFESSOR OF EMERGENCY MEDICINE, BROWN UNIVERSITY: I am honestly on the side of the scientist that wrote in The Lancet. Listen, are we going to need boosters or a third dose for those of us that got Pfizer or Moderna? At some point, yes, almost certainly. That's the way the vaccines work.

Are there certain populations that might need boosters now? Yes, we've already approved a third dose for people who are immunosuppressed. And the data does support that folks who are elderly may need a third shot sooner. But for the rest of us, we don't need to rush out and get a booster. The full course of the two Moderna or Pfizer shots or even that single J & J still protects us so well against severe disease, hospitalization and death, which has been the goal all along. We can use those doses more effectively to get the folks that haven't gotten shots yet protected because you want to know what protects us all, it's getting us all vaccinated, not a booster shot.

TAPPER: On that topic, a new CNN poll out today shows growing support for vaccine mandates. 55 percent say vaccines should be required to attend school. That number has grown since it was 49 percent in April. 55 percent supported for attending sporting events and concerts. That's up from 47 percent four months ago. 54 percent for employees to work in person. 41 percent say vaccines should be required to shop in grocery stores, that's a boost as well. Even if vaccines become required in all these places, you say it's still not enough.

RANNEY: Well, if you look at those numbers, what shocks me isn't that the percent of people supporting vaccine mandates has gone up, but rather than it's gone up so minimally, despite the fact that we now have full FDA approval for the Pfizer vaccine, with the Moderna vaccine soon to follow suit. It shows that mandates, although important at getting a percentage of our population to show up and finally get that shot in the arm are simply not sufficient.

We also have to address the barriers that continue to block people from getting vaccines, things like trouble with transportation or childcare, or needing sick leave if they happen to have those mild to moderate side effects that lasts a day or two after the shots. And we need to have better communication. You know, the misinformation that is out there, the sheer conspiracy theories about these vaccines need to be combated. Mandates alone are not going to get the people that believe in the conspiracy theories in the lies to go and get a shot in their arms. They're just going to leave and remove themselves from regular society.

TAPPER: No, indeed, we are swimming in a sea of misinformation and lies by grifters and idiots in the media and politics, just telling all these untruths to people who are vulnerable. And some of whom -- thousands of whom have died as a result.

Let me ask you something Dr. Ranney, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former FDA Commissioner now sits on the board of Pfizer. He expects data ready for review on vaccines for children under the age of 12 by the end of the month. He says a possible FDA approval could come by Halloween. In the meantime, kids under 12, and those who are under 18, who are still not vaccinated, remain at risk. Do you anticipate a rush of parents lining their kids up to get vaccinated?

RANNEY: I think we're going to see the same thing that we saw with 12 to 17 year olds were a portion of us who have under 12s. You know, I have a 10-year-old myself. A portion of us are going to rush out as soon as that approval comes through and go and get our kids vaccinated. But there are going to be a lot of folks I think that continue to hang back.

I think the school mandates and the increased education are going to be critical there. I will say in terms of Dr. Gottlieb's predictions, I trust him. He's on the Pfizer board. But I would be thrilled if we have it by Halloween. I'm really telling folks to look for November or possibly even December.

TAPPER: Yes. I have an 11-year-old. I can't wait for him to be able to get it and I have a 14-year-old. She got it. She's great. We feel really good about that.

Dr. Megan Ranney, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

North Korea claims it's successfully tested new long-range missiles. What we're learning about how far they might go. That's next.


TAPPER: Our world lead now, an alarming announcement from a long-time U.S. adversary. North Korea is now crowing about what it claims was the successful test of new long-range cruise missiles. CNN's Paula Hancocks is monitoring developments in Seoul, South Korea. Paula, tell us about this missile and what North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un might be up to now.

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, according to North Korean state-run media, and that's really all we have it from at this point. They did test fire these long-range cruise missiles. They say that it's been two years in developments this new weapon system.

They did earlier this year test some short range missiles. But this is really the most significant testing that we have seen since U.S. President Joe Biden came into power. Now technically, North Korea is not breaking any rules by test firing the system. It's not ballistic missile technology, which means it doesn't violate the U.N. Security Council resolutions. But any weapons test from North Korea is going to rattle the region and this is no different.


Japan says it's very concerned. The range that we saw or at least heard from North Korea was just shy of 1,000 miles. Now that would put Japan in its sights and of course that the U.S. military assets in both Japan and South Korea as well.

Now, we did expect something. We knew that previous military parades back in January and then October of last year, there had been some significant weapons systems and missiles that had been unveiled. Experts pointed out they hadn't been tested yet, and at some point, North Korea would want to test them.

We also heard from Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un's sister just last month slamming the U.S. and South Korea for carrying out these joint military drills that infuriate them every year. So we were expecting some kind of a test and this is clearly what we saw, or at least what North Korea says they carried out over the weekend.

Interestingly, though, Kim Jong-un himself, the leader, was not present according to state-run media. And it was also run on page two of the state-run newspaper Rodongja Sinmun, not splashed across the front page, so not as significant or as worrying as it could have been. Jake?

TAPPER: All right, Paula Hancocks in Seoul, South Korea. Thank you so much.

A brand new investigation just opened moments ago, involving that prominent South Carolina family brought down by murders, a shooting, alleged embezzlement. We're going to lay out all the twists in this tragic and unbelievable story. That's next.


TAPPER: In our national lead in the south, a pair of unsolved murders, a new mysterious shooting and a cascade of scandalous revelations. Now, I'm not talking about the new Grisham novel. These are real tragic events playing out right now in the small town of Hampton, South Carolina.

CNN's Martin Savidge went there to investigate. He found plenty of clues, no firm answers and elsewhere, everywhere, stunned, troubled silence.


MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is a story with more turns than a South Carolina country road. It begins in the small town of Hampton just over 100 years ago, when residents like Randolph Murdaugh is the 14th circuit solicitor, most states call them district attorneys. For more than 85 years, three generations at Murdaughs with the supreme law for more than 3,200 square miles at Lowcountry.

SETH STOUGHTON, CRIMINOLOGIST: It's pretty well recognized in law that in criminal justice, there is no figure more powerful than the prosecutor.

SAVIDGE (voice-over): Keeping residents of the illegals rate narrow across five counties kept the Murdaugh (ph) family well connected to law enforcement.

(on-camera): And probably know each other pretty well, socially too.

STOUGHTON: That's very often the case here, yes.

SAVIDGE (voice-over): The family's grip on the solicitor's office ended in 2005 when Randolph Murdaugh III retired. But the family also had a very successful law firm, with offices in three counties known for winning big settlements for their clients. For 53 year old Alex Murdaugh known as Big Red to his friends, working as an attorney of the family firm offered plenty of reward.

Each evening, he'd head home to his more than 1,700 acre estate, and his beautiful family. He seemed to have everything anyone could ever want. Until one terrible night this past June.

ALEX MURDAUGH, SOUTH CAROLINA LAWYER: (INAUDIBLE) Moselle road. I've been up to it now. It's bad.

SAVIDGE (voice-over): Murdaugh says he returned home to find his wife and son shot to death out near the dog house on their vast property.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And are they breathing?

MURDAUGH: No, ma'am.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK, and you said that your wife and your son?

MURDAUGH: My wife and my son.

SAVIDGE (voice-over): 52-year-old Maggie Murdaugh was shot multiple times, sources say, with a semi-automatic rifle. While 22-year-old Paul Murdaugh had been shot at least twice with a shotgun. The gruesome scene suggested two shooters, leaving many wondering at the family's long legal history had played a role.

Seth Stoughton is a former police officer turned attorney and professor.

(on-camera): Two weapons, two people possibly would suggest maybe this had been planned carefully.

STOUGHTON: It's certainly not something that I would expect an investigator to rule out based on the evidence that I'm aware of that's been publicly available.

SAVIDGE (voice-over): Alex Murdaugh and his surviving son put up their own money for $100,000 reward for information. But at the bottom of the notice was not catch. The tip must be submitted to law enforcement on or before September 30th.

(on-camera): You ever heard of an expiration date on reward?

STOUGHTON: I have not.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: South Carolina son and mother who were gunned down.

SAVIDGE (voice-over): It wasn't the only strange thing. In an interview on ABC's Good Morning America, Murdaugh family members said their nephew Paul had been getting threatening messages online before he was killed.

JOHN MURDAUGH, PAUL MURDAUGH'S UNCLE: I didn't think it was a credible threat. If it was, I would have tried to do something or notified someone. But I guess maybe I made a mistake.

SAVIDGE (voice-over): The family says the threat started after a fatal boating accident.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Paul, what bridge is this?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: 911, where's your emergency?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're in a boat crash on Archers Creek.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have someone missing.

SAVIDGE (voice-over): February 2019, Beaufort, South Carolina, Paul Murdaugh and five friends all under rage out for a night of party. Images from investigation piles obtained by CNN show Paul Murdaugh buying beer and then buying more drinks at a bar. Everyone gets into a boat. Witnesses told investigators Paul was driving. Investigators say the 17-foot boats rock a bridge at high speed. 19- year-old Mallory Beach was thrown into the water.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Please send someone.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There are six of us and one is missing.

SAVIDGE (voice-over): It would take a week to find Beach's body.


SAVIDGE (voice-over): Paul Murdaugh was charged with boating under the influence resulting in death facing up to 25 years in prison. He pleaded not guilty. Despite the serious charges still pending at the time of his killing, the night of the crash, this dashcam recording obtained by the post and courier captured the voice of a passenger on the boat, suggesting Paul wasn't likely to face serious consequences.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You all know Alex Murdaugh?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, I know the name.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's his son.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's who's driving the boat?


SAVIDGE (voice-over): It wouldn't be the first time someone who suggested the Murdaugh name could influence the outcome of an investigation.

In the aftermath of the mother and son murders, SLED, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division made a stunning announcement. During their investigation, they said they found something. They wouldn't say what. But as a result, they were going to reopen an investigation into another unsolved death from 2015.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Where is your emergency?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hello, I just going down Crocketville road.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I see somebody laying out.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We'll get an officer headed out that way to see what's going on.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I ain't moving or nothing like that, but somebody going to hit him. SAVIDGE (voice-over): 19-year-old Steven Smith was found dead in the middle of the road in the middle of the night, just outside Hampton. There were no witnesses, but among classmates and friends there was a lot of talk, police file show. And one family name kept surfacing, a name many were reluctant to talk about to police, leading investigators obviously frustrated as interview recordings suggest.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A lot of people seem a little nervous to say the name Murdaugh.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. And, you know, I understand that they're pretty big down there in Hampton but I'm out of Charleston and that name doesn't mean anything to me. So --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- I want you to feel, you know, like you don't have anything to worry about.

SAVIDGE (voice-over): No one's been arrested, and no publicly released evidence links. Anyone in the Murdaugh family dismiss that. Then another shock.

On September 3rd of this year, the powerful family law firm announces, they discovered Alex Murdaugh had allegedly stolen significant funds from the company. Sources tell CNN, it was millions of dollars. Murdaugh had his own stunning admission, saying, "The murders of my wife and son have caused an incredibly difficult time in my life. I've made a lot of decisions that I truly regret. I'm resigning from my law firm and entering rehab after a long battle that has been exacerbated by these murders".

His lawyer confirming an opioid addiction. But the biggest shock was still to come.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He was shot in the head while changing a tire this --

SAVIDGE (voice-over): The very next day, Alex Murdaugh says he stopped on the side of the road looking at a leaky tire. Murdaugh says a man in a pickup truck drove past then turned around in a church parking lot and returned.

After a brief conversation, Murdaugh told investigators the man shot him in the head. He was out of the hospital two days later. So many wondered if the shooting had been staged. Murdaugh spokesperson put out a statement denying it was held inflected (ph). But the church where the truck turned around might just be the answer to investigators' prayers.

(on-camera): The church has a number of security cameras, a few which look in the general direction of where the shooting occurred down that way. And another that looks directly into the parking lot where Murdaugh says the pickup truck turned around. (voice-over): If there's video, he could provide clues about a suspect and Alex Murdaugh.

(on-camera): What do you make of the shooting of Alex Murdaugh?

STOUGHTON: I think it's going to tremendously complicate the investigators job both for that shooting and also for the shooting of his wife and son. It introduces a set of possibilities and facts that investigators are going to have to spend a tremendous amount of time and effort winnowing through to figure out whether they're connected, whether they're not connected.

SAVIDGE (voice-over): With so many new questions and so few answers from investigators, many who thought they knew the friendly, wealthy successful lawyer Big Red now wonder if they ever really knew him at all.


SAVIDGE: And, Jake, as we come to era with this story, there is another turn, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division has just put out a news release saying that they are formally opening an investigation into Alex Murdaugh now to look at the allegations that have been made by his law firm that he stole money. It is one turn after another on this one, Jake, that keeps people in this area mesmerized with what's going on. Jake?

TAPPER: And press attention, very important to make sure that justice is done in a small town like this. Martin Savidge, thank you so much.


TAPPER: Appreciate it.

New troubles for Richard Branson's company. We'll explain next.



TAPPER: In our out of this world lead, another setback for space tourism company Virgin Galactic, the company says it is delaying its next piloted test flight due to a potential manufacturing defect in its flight control system. This latest mishap comes as Virgin faces an ongoing FAA investigation into its July rocket trip carrying its billionaire founder Richard Branson. That trip, of course, veered off course and outside its mandated airspace for nearly two minutes.

You can follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the TikTok at JakeTapper. You can tweet the show at TheLeadCNN. Our coverage continues now with Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM" right next door. I'll see you tomorrow.