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The Lead with Jake Tapper

Pentagon Official: F-16s For Ukraine Not A Priority; Rep. Mike Turner, (R-OH), Is Interviewed About Ukraine War; F-16s, China, Havana Syndrome; Blinken: China "Can't Have It Both Ways" In Peace Agenda For Ukraine; U.S. Energy Dept. Concludes with "Low Confidence" COVID-19 Likely Emerged From Lab In Wuhan, China; U.S. Intel: "Havana-Syndrome" Unlikely To Foreign Adversary; Gang Of Eight Briefed On Trump, Biden, Pence Classified Docs; F.L. State Attorney Defends Decision On Murder Suspect's Past Arrest; Criminal Justice Reforms Under Scrutiny Amid Rise In violent Crime; Top Dems Schumer, Jeffries Send Letter To Fox Chief Demanding Network Stop Spreading Election Lies; Ex-Speaker Paul Ryan Questioned For Staying On Fox Board Amid Revelations Network Knowingly Aired Election Lies; White House Embraces Tough Border Measures It Once Rejected; Biden Commemorates 20 Years Of Department Of Homeland Security. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired March 01, 2023 - 17:00   ET




FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): Russia's view of what's currently the most bloody battle in Ukraine, state media releasing video of Moscow's troops hitting a Ukrainian armored vehicle in Bakhmut, the city devastated by months of relentless fighting. Here, mercenaries from the Wagner private military company show off a destroyed U.S. made N triple seven. Howitzer while Wagner foot soldiers pose in a Bakhmut suburb.

Even as they acknowledge they're on the back foot, the Ukrainians vow to fight on. We won't give up Bakhmut, the soldier says. We will hold on until the very last. Glory to Ukraine. Death to the enemies.

And Wagner boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, in an audio message acknowledges the Ukrainians aren't budging.

YEVGENY PRIGOZHIN, HEAD OF WAGNER GROUP (through translator): The Ukrainian army is throwing extra reserves into Bakhmut and trying to hold the town with all their strength. Tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers are fiercely repelling attacks. Bloodshed increases every day.

PLEITGEN (voice-over): Wagner mercenaries are the spearhead of Russia's invasion force in Bakhmut. Prigozhin claims they're making progress, but often lack the ammunition to advance.

PRIGOZHIN (through translator): I will say that a system needs to be worked out. I hope that this system will start functioning soon and we will be getting ammunition regularly. PLEITGEN (voice-over): The U.S. and Ukraine say the attrition rate among Wagner's assault groups, often made up of prisoners recruited from Russian jails is as high as 80 percent. But Prigozhin's media channel is now trying to convey how Wagner is actually helping the convicts. In this film, a former inmate thanks the mercenary group.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Wagner gave me freedom and hope. Hope that we have a chance. There are many guys who are ready to give their lives for their motherland and hope that our society is still not fully rotten.

PLEITGEN (voice-over): Ukraine says fighters like these are often little more than cannon fodder. Ukraine's president vowing to hold on, even as the Russians say it's only a matter of time before they take Bakhmut.

PRES. VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINE (through translator): Russia does not count people at all, sending them to constant assaults on our position. The intensity of the fighting is only increasing.


PLEITGEN: And, Jake, just tonight, an official from the Donetsk People's Republic, of course, the Russian occupied part of Ukraine is claiming that even some of Ukraine's toughest units in Bakhmut are suffering heavy casualties and having to be rotated out, at least parts of them. Of course, the Ukrainians, for their part, are saying that their forces are clinging on at least for the time being, not thinking of retreating from there. Jake.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: All right, Fred Pleitgen, thanks so much.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken sent a forceful warning to the Chinese government that sending any lethal aid to Russia would lead to steep economic consequences. Blinken, while on his tour in Central Asia, said Beijing cannot act as if it's interested in peace at the same time it considers getting involved in Putin's war. This as the Belarussian president, a close ally of Putin, met with Chinese President Xi Jinping today, a meeting seen as a glaring sign of China's strengthening ties with Moscow.

With me to discuss Republican Congressman Mike Turner of Ohio. He's the Chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence.

Mr. Chairman, thanks so much for joining us.


TAPPER: You're on the House Armed Services Committee also --


TAPPER: -- which heard testimony from Undersecretary for Defense for Policy Colin Kahl yesterday outlining the reasons why the Pentagon believes F-16 fighter jets are not a priority for Ukraine right now. He said they're too costly, they will require too much time to train Ukrainian pilots. Do you agree with that assessment?

TURNER: Well, I think with respect to F-16s, they may be right. But I think the problem here is the continuous debate that the administration has over any pieces of equipment. You know, we began the debate on whether or not we would send them tanks last fall. And now, as you just reported, there are these intense fighting areas in which tanks would be incredibly helpful, they're now moving. They're getting trained on German tanks.

There was previously the Polish effort to get MiGs, former Russian fighters into Ukraine. I think that's still a viable option. They're going to need some firepower in the air. It's just an issue of how do we figure out how to do this.

But I do think we need to shorten the time frame. When the crisis flares up, when it continues to be intense fighting, we should have less debate and more action.

TAPPER: Do you think Ukraine still has a chance to win this war? What does the intelligence tell you?

TURNER: Absolutely. First off, they have the will to win. They have the will to fight. They're fighting for their country.

This is a Russian aggression. This is not a fight over disputed territory. This is Russia trying to take their country.

With Zelenskyy having rallied really the world to the understanding that this is a fight for democracy. The world has stepped up in providing them weapons and training. We just need to make certain that we give them what they need as quickly as we can so they can hold off the aggression from Russia.


TAPPER: And what do you make of Secretary of State Blinken's warning to China? What consequences should there be for China if the government does end up sending lethal aid to Russia?

TURNER: This would be an incredible miscalculation and an escalation on behalf of China. First off, this is not just a Russia Ukraine conflict. It is certainly Russia making claims even through all of Eastern Europe, putting at risk Poland, NATO countries and the Ukraine.

And what you have here, if China decides to come in on the side of Russia, you'll see Russian use of Chinese weapons on European soil. And certainly China is going to be facing consternation from France, from Germany, from all of our NATO allies that China would step into this conflict and use their weapons to try to shore up Russian efforts.

TAPPER: So what consequences should there be, do you think, if they end up arming Russia?

TURNER: Well, certainly sanctions. But I think the consequences are beginning because what this administration has done, which is a shift in U.S. policy, is to make public the fact that these issues are happening. It's not just that they're getting intelligence of these things, they're trying to impact the outcome by letting the intelligence out. Let people begin to have a debate on these issues. Let Europe know that these weapons could be coming.

All of the embassies across Europe are firmly letting China know this would be considered a red line. This is not where China needs to go.

TAPPER: On the topic of China, the U.S. intelligence agencies seem quite divided on whether the corona virus came from a lab leak in Wuhan or from animal to human contact through a wet market. I assume you've seen some of the intelligence, if not all of it. What do you think?

TURNER: Well, the first thing I think is that when the Biden administration from the beginning started their 90-day assessment of this and then issued a classified and an unclassified version of their report, we've said this publicly, it's been on our Intelligence Committee website. We believe that the unclassified report released by the administration does not accurately reflect the administration's own statements in their classified report. We've called repeatedly for them to release the classified report.

We think there's no danger of being out there, and it would show what you're now seeing is the beginning of leaks really chips in that armor of the administration's spokesperson is beginning to say, well, there's actually significant evidence that this was a lab leak. And I certainly think that in the end, when you look at all the evidence, it's very hard to conclude otherwise, that it was not a lab leak.

TAPPER: Oh, so you think it was a lab leak? Interesting.

TURNER: I think there's certainly enough evidence for us to conclude that. I think there's more evidence that needs to be gathered, but I think the administration discounting it has sort of stymied the efforts of getting to the bottom of this.

TAPPER: I want to ask you about Havana-Syndrome, because sources are telling CNN that this new assessment from the U.S. Intelligence community, which says that they cannot link Havana Syndrome to any specific foreign adversary. There have been more than 1500 reported cases of U.S. government officials complaining of dizziness extreme headaches from 96 different countries. Do you think that this, in fact, was a targeted campaign from a specific enemy?

TURNER: Well, my ranking member, Jim Hines, and I released a bipartisan statement when this report has come out. We certainly have grave concerns of those who have been impacted by these incidences. We do believe that the intelligence community is trying to, you know, dig into this to find out what the source is, to find out what the impacts are on these individuals. But we are approaching their conclusion with a great deal of skepticism having both reviewed the intelligence and met the individuals who have had these impacts.

We think there's still more work to be done. And we have a commitment from both Director Haines of ODNI and Director Burns of the CIA that those efforts will continue regardless of this interim conclusion.

TAPPER: People at home may or may not know what the Gang of Eight is. It's the eight individuals who are leaders of the Intelligence committees and leaders of Congress. And you're one of them. You were part of the Gang of Eight briefing on the classified documents found in the homes of Trump and Pence and Biden.

The top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner and Marco Rubio said they left the briefing, quote -- they thought the briefing left, quote, "much to be desired." Do you agree? Did you learn anything new in that briefing?

TURNER: No, and it was very disappointing. But in addition, the fact that the Department of Justice is trying to thwart Congress's efforts to have access to these documents so that we can assess them ourselves is a problem. And it's certainly part of the continuing and ongoing debate. Even during the Mueller investigation, we had access to the root documents and the classified documents that were being utilized by that investigation.


In this, I think there's going to be bicameral effort to make certain the Department of Justice cough up these documents, let them be available to us. We need to be able to review them to get to the bottom of, you know, what is the problem here that we have the two vice presidents, a former president and with current President Biden, even as when he was a former senator, continue to misuse classified documents.

We just had in front of our committee today the archivist in front of the Intelligence Committee, and he indicated that we could use this as a non-classified statement and so he released it, that over 80 libraries that have received documents from members of Congress and others have contacted them saying that they received classified documents in the official records of retiring members. And he also said that ever since Reagan, they've had difficulties of these documents being combined and misused. So, we're going to have to do something to straighten this out.

TAPPER: All right. Chairman Turner, thanks so much for your time.

TURNER: Thank you.

TAPPER: Really appreciate it.

Coming up, the prosecution just finished his closing arguments in the Alex Murdaugh murder trial. We'll tell you the big takeaways from court next. Then, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer wants an apology, but he might be waiting a while. Stay with us.



TAPPER: In our national lead, the prosecution just finished its closing arguments in the double murder trial of Alex Murdaugh. He is, of course, the disgraced former attorney in South Carolina, accused of killing his wife Maggie and their youngest son Paul back in June 2021. CNN's Dianne Gallagher has been inside the courtroom in Walterboro, South Carolina. She's outside the courtroom now.

Dianne, how did the prosecution wrap?

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Jake, Prosecutor Creighton Waters, after nearly six weeks of this trial, wrapped it up by painting Alex Murdaugh as a privileged man from a prominent family who they characterized as a thief and a liar. Somebody who has a habit of lying until confronted with facts he could not deny and then he would come up with new lies to explain those away.

He hearkened back to Alex Murdaugh's own testimony under oath on the stand where he admitted to lying about part of his alibi, that he was at those kennels where his wife and son were murdered minutes before the state says they were actually killed. Something that he had lied about to his friends, his family and investigators from the night of the murders until he got on the stand that day. They closed by telling him -- by telling the jury not to let him fool them as well.


CREIGHTON WATERS, LEAD PROSECUTOR: Everyone who thought they were close to him, everyone who thought they knew he was -- who he was, he's fooled them all. And he fooled Maggie and Paul, too. And they paid for it with their lives. Don't let him fool you too.

On behalf of the state of South Carolina, I ask you to return a verdict of guilty against the defendant, Richard Alexander Murdaugh, for the murder of his wife Maggie and his son Paul, and for his possession of firearms during the commission of those malicious offenses.


GALLAGHER: Now, the prosecutor also spent time explaining what reasonable doubt meant to the jury. Jake, I anticipate tomorrow when the defense gets up to present its closing argument, they're going to focus heavily on reasonable doubt, circumstantial evidence and things like that as they try to prevent Alex Murdaugh from being convicted of killing his wife and his son.

TAPPER: All right. Dianne Gallagher in Walterboro, South Carolina, thanks so much.

Closing arguments at the Murdaugh trial are the focus of CNN Primetime this evening. Join our own CNN Anchor and Senior Legal Analyst Lara Coates for the inside -- for Inside the Murdaugh Murders. That's tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN.

Coming up, one week after a shooting that killed a Florida T.V. reporter and a nine-year-old girl, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is calling out a local prosecutor. Why he's calling her actions a failure? Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


TAPPER: In our national lead, the Florida Governor's office is demanding answers about the suspect arrested in the murders of a nine- year-old girl and a T.V. journalist last week in Orange County, Florida. Ron DeSantis's office sent a letter to the state attorney for Orange County, Monique Worrell, asking about the criminal history of the 19-year-old suspect, Keith Melvin Moses. The letter says, quote, "The failure of your office to hold this individual accountable for his actions, despite his extensive criminal history and gang affiliation, may have permitted this dangerous individual to remain on the street," unquote.

Before the murders, Moses was last arrested in November 2021 for marijuana possession. Charges were never brought. In a press conference earlier this week, Governor DeSantis went after State Attorney Worrell.


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): You have to hold people accountable. This idea, and I know the district attorney, state attorney in Orlando thinks that you don't prosecute people and that's the way that you somehow have a better community. That does not work.


TAPPER: Now, Worrell recently responded to the criticism from DeSantis, telling a local news station that the amount of marijuana found on the suspect, Moses, was not enough to prosecute at the time of his 2021 arrest. She went on to say this.


MONIQUE WORRELL, STATE ATTORNEY, NINTH JUDICIAL CIRCUIT: Any implication that my office does not prosecute cases is not based in fact. Nothing in Keith Moses' history that would have alerted anyone that he could be capable of committing a crime at the magnitude that he did. So, Keith Moses did not fall through the cracks. But I'll tell you this that doesn't mean that others do not. And when you have prosecutors who are doing the work of two, things will fall through the cracks.

So, if the governor wants to help public safety in the 9th Judicial Circuit, he needs to fund prosecutors across the state.


TAPPER: Now, Moses' 2021 arrest records revealed that he had multiple firearm possession charges that include first attempted degree murder and armed robbery on his record. Worrell said that Florida's juvenile justice system is not designed to handle violent juvenile offenders. The letter from Governor DeSantis's office gives Worrell until mid- March to comply with his office's requests for all records related to Moses or decisions about him and his 2021 arrest warrants. Worrell's office says they are working to comply with the request.


Let's bring in CNN's Chief Law Enforcement and Intelligence Analyst John Miller.

So, John, the prosecutor insists there's nothing she could have charged Moses with at the time of his November 2021 arrest. Governor DeSantis office says there is. What's the truth?

JOHN MILLER, CNN CHIEF LAW ENFORCEMENT AND INTELLIGENCE ANALYST: Well, she's probably right on this, which is she's arrested with a small amount of marijuana in Florida. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the state agency, won't even test an amount that small to verify that it's marijuana. So, basically, the arrest is unprosecutable based on the system that's set up. His more serious offenses occurred when he was a juvenile, and these are things that happened in 2018, 2019, and earlier. So, that is basically a separate system that is not controlled by the D.A. and not controlled by the courts.

Jake, I think what we're seeing here is that Governor DeSantis's problem with Prosecutor Worrell is broader than this case. She is one of those many prosecutors across the country that -- whose campaign was funded by super PACs, paid for by left leaning billionaire George Soros, who was brought in on the idea of criminal justice reform, which is fewer people going to jail, fewer people going to prison, and that this is an ideological split beyond this particular case.

TAPPER: In recent weeks, we've seen backlash aimed at prosecutors. There's this case in Missouri. A judge is going to decide if the state's attorney general can actually just replace the ADA for St. Louis. Kim Gardner. She's facing calls to resign after a teenage volleyball player from out of state was hit by a speeding driver. She had to have both of her legs removed.

And police said that the driver of the car was out on bond, facing felony charges and had violated the terms of bond 50 times before. Is it fair to blame this St. Louis prosecutor's office? Or is this a system problem?

MILLER: Well, I think this is the trend we're talking about, Jake, which is Kim Gardner in Missouri is another prosecutor who was elected after receiving $116,000 from the George Soros Super PAC safety and justice to bring that kind of criminal justice reform, which favors alternatives to jail or prison and other solutions. The real problem with this, which is kind of a laudable social goal is that the other side, not the criminal justice system side, but the social services side that's supposed to pick this up isn't really built out enough to handle it. So, there's a wave against these prosecutors, and yet some of them get reelected.

TAPPER: Yes. John Miller, thanks so much. Appreciate your insights.

Turning to our politics lead today, in a letter to Fox Corporation Chairman Rupert Murdoch, Democratic leaders Senator Chuck Schumer and Congressman Hakeem Jeffries are demanding that Fox stop, quote, "spreading false election narratives," unquote. Jeffries spoke about this earlier today.


REP. HAKEEM JEFFRIES (D-NY), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: Perhaps it's time for America to be able to move past that big lie. And an important step would be those who know it was a big lie to publicly repudiate it.


TAPPER: This demand comes in the wake of those damaging damning depositions and communications and Dominions lawsuit against Fox, revealing the top hosts and executives knowingly aired and even spoke election lies on the network, knowing they were lies.

Let's discuss with former Democratic South Carolina State Representative Bakari Sellers, along with the Editor-in-Chief of The Dispatch, Jonah Goldberg. We should note that Jonah was subpoenaed and deposed by Dominion in its lawsuit against Fox, and we're not going to ask him about that. He can't talk about it.

But, Jonah, let me start with you, you can't talk about your deposition, but you can talk about Rupert Murdoch's. You were with Fox for many years.


TAPPER: Were you surprised by all the candor and admissions that yes, we were spreading lies and we knew it was lies, but we did it because of money and ratings.

GOLDBERG: Yes, I mean, there's this weird dichotomy between shock and surprise. I'm not really surprised, but Rupert Murdoch is a canny, smart player, and when he just baldly says, this wasn't about red or blue, this was about green. Talking about why he put Mike Lindell, the pillow guy, back on air because he's a big advertiser. You could almost hear his, you know, Rupert's lawyers taking out the black tar heroin and tightening the cinch on their arms. I mean, like it's amazing that he would say something, some of these things, and not try to obfuscate or dodge the question.

And time and time again, both in the text messages and in the depositions, you have senior Fox executives just saying the quiet part out loud over and over again. And it's really compelling, even if there's more that we need to know from the Dominion response, because, again, this is essentially a prosecutor's brief, but it's very be hard not to see this as overwhelmingly persuasive on the thrust of it.

TAPPER: So, Bakari, let me -- play a little game with me. You'll like it. If MSNBC's chair admitted under oath that their hosts lied to their progressive viewers just for ratings about a topic that had caused a deadly riot at the Capitol against a Republican president, what do you think the response would be by Fox or by Republican members of Congress? BAKARI SELLERS, (D) FORMER SOUTH CAROLINA STATE REPRESENTATIVE: Oh, they would threaten to burn it completely down. I mean, I think that we all know what that response would be. And it's unique that you ask that question and I think it's a very good question because we now know that many of the hosts over at Fox News, the Tucker Carlsons, the Sean Hannitys, they get the leeway to say whatever they want to say, whether or not it has veracity or not. It's something that I would argue that Jake Tapper doesn't have, it's something I would argue that Joy Reid doesn't have, that you just don't have that leeway, and Jake, in your case specifically don't have that want to go out there and mislead viewers the way that we now know Fox News hosts and contributors did.

And I think that's a fundamental problem. And I think that -- and Jonah knows Rupert Murdoch better than I, I don't know him at all, he probably doesn't know me from a can of paint. But I would also go a step further and argue that Rupert Murdoch has not only tarnished and damaged his legacy, but he's also done a great deal of damage to democracy throughout the world or democracies throughout the world, because these lies fundamentally erode what we believe our democracy to be. And the fact that he had his soldiers and lieutenants carrying it out should be a problem. But no, I don't believe any host at CNN or any host at MSNBC, particularly can get away with the same things that Tucker and Sean get away with, particularly with these lies.

TAPPER: So, Jonah, there's now attention turning toward the Fox board of directors. One of its members, former Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, is trying to defend his role behind the scenes in a new interview with Charlie Sykes. Take a listen.


CHARLIE SYKES, THE BULWARK PODCAST, HOST: If you are on the board of directors of a company that is pumping toxic sludge, racism, disinformation, and attacks on democracy, if you don't stand up now, then when?

PAUL RYAN, FORMER SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I do, I have a responsibility to offer my opinion and perspective and I do that, but I don't go on a T.V. and do it.

SYKES: Right. I understand, but do you?

RYAN: So, I have a responsibility. I do. I do. I offer my perspective and my opinion often.

And I think Fox is a big part of the constellation of the conservative movement. It really is.

SYKES: Is the solution or the problem?

RYAN: Oh, no, I think it's going to have to be a part of the solution if we're going to solve the problem in the conservative movement.

(END VIDEO CLIP) TAPPER: What do you think, Jonah? Is Fox -- obviously they disagree. Is he part of the problem or is Fox part of the problem or part of the solution when it comes to conservatives?

GOLDBERG: Yes. I mean, I've had this very conversation with Paul Ryan myself. Full disclosure, he's a friend of mine. And I got to say I disagree with Paul to a certain extent insofar as I think turning the ship around.

Look, I was at Fox News for 12 years. I will still defend to this day a lot of the people on the -- in the news division who, you know, look, we know from these filings were trying to push back on this, which is why Tucker and some people wanted to get them fired, because they were fact checking the nonsense that was coming from the opinion side, and that was what was pissing off the executives. So I mean, I think it's a more nuanced problem than a lot of people want it to be.

At the same time, I think Paul is very sincere and honest when he says that he's counseled this from the get go, that this stuff is poisonous to the Fox brand, it's poisonous to conservatism. I just think with the current leadership at Fox, particularly Suzanne Scott, the CEO, who basically just gave the booze and car keys to the fastest drivers is not currently situated to make that transition.

But yes, if the conservative movement and Republican Party can't turn Fox around and make it a constructive part of American discourse and democracy and journalism, then it's bad for the country, but it's also bad for conservatism. And I think Paul Ryan, at the end of the day, cares a lot, he's a party guy, he's a movement conservative, he cares about those causes and those institutions. I just think that the task cut out for him to institute reforms from within is herculean.

TAPPER: Bakari, last thoughts.

SELLERS: No, I'm just admiring Jonah's very vivid analogies that he's using today. But I actually agree. I wholeheartedly agree with what Paul Ryan said, especially when it comes to the fact that if the conservative movement is going to change, if they're going to root out these cancers, then Fox is going to be a big part of that.


The question I have, though, is can they do that under the leadership of Rupert Murdoch? Can they do that under their current leadership? I think that's the largest question after reading those depositions.

TAPPER: Bakari and Jonah, thanks so much. Appreciate both of you.

Backlash for the Biden administration after the White House embraces border policies asterisk as ones from the Trump administration. Coming up, we're going to talk to the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas. Stay with us.


TAPPER: In our national lead, the Biden administration is embracing some tougher border policies, ones similar to ones that they previously rejected. And now we know why. Sources tell CNN that the administration, quote, "went from not wanting to do tough stuff to realizing they have no choice," unquote. The policy echoes some of what the Trump administration did that changed not sitting well with many of the President's fellow Democrats. CNN's Priscilla Alvarez joins us now with her new reporting.


Priscilla, some of Biden's allies say that this new policy is essentially Trump 2.0. So why did the White House go for it?

PRISCILLA ALVAREZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, Jake, the reality on the ground is that border crossings remain high, and there are still concerns within the administration about a surge of migrants when a COVID era border restriction is expected to lift in May. So that leaves the administration having to resort tougher enforcement measures, and it puts them at odds with their own allies. In fact, one source close to the White House described the policy to me as basically putting lipstick on a pig.

So what does it do? This is a policy that would largely bar migrants from seeking asylum at the U.S. Mexico border if they transited through other countries and didn't seek refuge there. That's something that the Trump administration also tried to do.

Now, administration officials reject the comparison. They say this is not a ban on asylum and that they are trying to open up legal pathways for migrants to still have the option to legally come to the United States. But Jake, this is something that came up before back in 2021, and now it is now considered palpable as they have to stomach harder decisions when they're facing mass movement in the Western Hemisphere and as numbers continue to creep up along the U.S. Mexico border. Of course, administration officials will tell you this is the policy that they have to take while they wait on Congress to try to pass some immigration reform. Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Priscilla Alvarez, thank you so much.

Joining us now, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, who today marked the 20th anniversary of the creation of DHS right after the 9/11 terrorist attack.

Secretary Mayorkas, thanks for being here. We'll talk about that in a moment. But first, I want to ask you about the border issue. It seems a real vulnerability for President Biden going into the 2024 presidential election. In this policy that you're now embracing is one that was floated nearly two years ago and shot down.

So, why the 180? Do you think possibly the Biden administration moved too quickly early on to get rid of Trump policies?

ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: Jake, we are doing so much to tackle the challenge at the border, and it is indeed a challenge. Fundamentally, what we need is new legislation to fix what everyone agrees is a broken immigration system. That is the fundamental problem.

But within a broken immigration system, we are doing so much. On January 5, most recently, we implemented policies that provide a safe, lawful, and orderly way for individuals from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuelan to arrive in the United States and not place their lives in the hands of ruthless smugglers. We have seen the populations from those four countries drop more than 95 percent in terms of encounters at the southern border. And people are accessing the lawful way to come to the United States, the safe way. That is the model that we are embracing, that we are implementing, and it is proving successful.

TAPPER: Your critics, and they're not only Republicans, say that the border is just a catastrophe. The facts, are that cities are overwhelmed with the humanitarian needs of migrants. The numbers of people crossing illegally are at record levels. Fentanyl is being smuggled across the border mostly by American citizens, we should note, and that fentanyl is going into the country and killing thousands of Americans.

These are major crises, other than legislation, what do you need to address them better? Is there really nothing, no other tools in your arsenal?

MAYORKAS: Well, Jake, let's separate the two issues, because individuals are conflating the challenge of migration and the challenge of fentanyl for political purposes. But the fact of the matter is the migrants whom we encounter in between the ports of entry are not the primary means by which fentanyl is coming into the -- is contrary --

TAPPER: No, no, I said that. I mean, I said mostly by American citizens are bringing the fentanyl.



MAYORKAS: Yes, but it's being brought in primarily through the ports of entry. And this has been a challenge, not just over the last two years. We unfortunately have seen tragedy at the hands of fentanyl for quite a number of years now. It's been growing year over year.

The immigration system has been a challenge, and we do need fundamental legislative reform. In the meantime, we're doing what we can within our administrative authorities. With respect to fentanyl and the tragedy that arises from its use, we have been surging resources since day one. We've been attacking the trafficking organizations, the people, their instrumentalities, their financial methods.


This is an all of government effort and we're only continuing in that effort, not just domestically, but with our international partners at all. There are two primary elements to the battle against fentanyl, the supply side and the demand side. And those are not exclusive of one another. And that has been the challenge in the war on drugs for decades.

Fentanyl poses a unique challenge. You know, in my first twelve years of government, I was a federal prosecutor. I did -- I prosecuted traffickers of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, black tar heroin. We've not seen anything like fentanyl. It is chemically made, it is synthetic, it is highly addictive and it is fatal.

We have got to really educate the American public about it. We have got to tackle the demand for controlled substances. And at the same time we have got to attack the traffickers of this poison. And that is indeed what we are doing.

TAPPER: Today President Biden commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Department of Homeland Security. Your department was born out of the horrific events of September 11, 2001. And your department has not stopped evolving since, since I think former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge was the first DHS secretary. What is the biggest Homeland Security threat the U.S. faces today?

MAYORKAS: Jake, the threat has indeed evolved significantly. We have a dynamic threat landscape before us.

I will tell you, 20 years ago weren't worried about cyberspace. Cyber criminals from across the world victimizing our critical infrastructure, hospitals, schools, police stations and the like. And now, we have a cybersecurity and infrastructure security agency that tackles the cyber threat and protects Americans from it.

Twenty years ago, were focused on the foreign terrorists who sought to enter the country and do us grave harm. Now, that threat, by the way, persists. But now we also have tremendously prominent the domestic violent extremists. The individual already here in the United States radicalized the violence because of an ideology of hate, a false narrative, anti-government sentiment and other ideologies spread on social media.

TAPPER: Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, thanks so much.

MAYORKAS: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: Coming up next, the alarming 700 percent spike in a dangerous disease that mothers are passing on to their newborns.



TAPPER: And we're back with our health lead. And an alarming spike in cases of syphilis in babies. Congenital syphilis rates have increased by about 700 percent in the past 10 years because mothers, unaware that they're infected, are passing the sexually transmitted disease to their child during pregnancy. As CNN's Elizabeth Cohen reports, that exposes babies to dangerous health conditions and in some cases, an early death. (BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, we're losing a lot of men to venereal disease, Colonel. Thank you. You can see for yourself.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): World War II government health campaigns like these warned U. S. soldiers about the dangers of syphilis. It took decades, but eventually there was success. This 1999 report showing syphilis cases dramatically reduced with cases plummeting to record lows. But now syphilis rates are back up again. Preliminary CDC data showing a 68 percent increase in cases from 2017 to 2021.

Venus Johnson is one of the youngest victims. Her mother passed syphilis on to her during pregnancy.

DANAE JOHNSON, VENUS' GRANDMOTHER: I thought my grandchild was going to die before she even had a chance to leave.

COHEN (voice-over): Danae Johnson, Venus' grandmother, says Venus' mother felt sick when she was about five months pregnant.

JOHNSON: I took her to the hospital and they just sent her away.

COHEN (voice-over): She says the syphilis was caught and treated just two weeks before delivery.

JOHNSON: Good girl.

COHEN (voice-over): But by that time, Venus' lungs had already been permanently damaged. Now she gets sick often, had RSV last fall, and was on a ventilator and in the hospital for a month. Other children born with syphilis have suffered liver problems or even become deaf or blind.

Congenital syphilis rates have increased about 700 percent in the past 10 years. In 2021, more than 2,600 babies born with the infection, more than 200 of them died. Part of the problem success decades ago at getting syphilis rates down.

DR. BOBBIE MCDONALD, U.S. CENTERS OF DESEASE CONTROL AND PREVENTION: Syphilis and congenital syphilis are things that many doctors have not seen in their careers. So it's so important for people and for providers to be aware of the fact that syphilis has returned.

COHEN (voice-over): Venus's illness, other babies deaths could have been prevented with one of the oldest and cheapest of drugs, penicillin.

MCDONALD: It's something that we really should be able to eliminate in this country, because we have the ability to screen and properly treat everyone.

COHEN (voice-over): So now a fight from 80 years ago --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If we could have discovered the condition of the mothers before the fifth month of pregnancy, we could have treated them and the children would have been born perfectly healthy.

COHEN (voice-over): That fight is back again. A disease that was once on its way to being eliminated in the U.S. has returned.



COHEN: There are several reasons why syphilis rates have gone up recently, and one of the big ones is money. As syphilis rates went down, public health infrastructure started spending less money on screening for syphilis. With less money, less vigilance, the bacteria once again was able to take a hold. Jake.

TAPPER: Elizabeth Cohen with an important story, thank you so much.

Turning to our national lead now, California is expected to see even more snow today as that state recovers from devastating back to back winter storms. These photos are from Yosemite National Park, which is currently closed and has no reopening date as of now after some parts got 15 feet, 15 feet of snow. Many areas of California have been walloped with significant amounts of snow in recent days, which is, to say the least, an unusual occurrence for a state not used tough winters. More than 100,000 customers there are currently without power.

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Our coverage continues now with Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM."