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The Lead with Jake Tapper

President Joe Biden Campaigns In South Carolina; New Hampshire Accuse DNC Of Voter Suppression; Gov. Beshear Launches PAC; Far-Right Member Of Netanyahu's Cabinet Described Palestinians As Nazis; Barrage Of Rockets Fired By Hamas Towards Israel; Families Of Hostages By Hamas Pressing For Their Release; Families Of Israeli Hostages Continue To Press For Their Release 3 Months After Hamas Attack; White House To Review Defense Secretary's Secret ICU Stay; Ukraine: 4 Civilian Killed In Latest Russian Strikes. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired January 08, 2024 - 17:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome to "The Lead." I'm Jake Tapper. This hour, the two top teams in college football are going head-to-head tonight and one happens to be under investigation for cheating. Legendary sports commentator Bob Costas will be here.

Plus, the new stinging criticism this hour at the White House -- as the White House stands by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin after Secretary Austin failed to tell the President that he was in the hospital in intensive care and temporarily office job. Days after the revelation, we still don't know why Secretary Austin was hospitalized in the first place.

And leading this hour, President Biden returns to South Carolina bringing his campaign back to the state that he hopes can save him again. He took the pulpit at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina not long ago. This was, of course, the site of a deadly 2015 shooting fueled by white supremacy. His speech, Biden's speech, interrupted by protesters calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.


UNKNOWN: Ceasefire now! Ceasefire now! Ceasefire now!


TAPPER: You hear the crowd afterwards, folks tried to drown out the protesters by chanting four more years. There was nothing subtle about the contents of President Biden's speech in his attempt to tie the ideology behind those racist murders at Mother Emanuel Church in 2015 to Donald Trump and the MAGA movement.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: A mob attacked, called black officers, black veterans, defending the nation, those vile of racist names. And yet an extreme movement in America, the MAGA Republicans led by a defeated president is trying to steal history now. They tried to steal an election, now they're trying to steal history telling us that violent mob was, and I quote, "a peaceful protest."


TAPPER: President Biden also attempted to draw a straight line between the so-called lost cause of the slave supporting confederacy and the MAGA movement.


BIDEN: Now, now we're living in an era of a second lost cause. Once again, there are some in this country trying, trying to turn a loss into a lie. A lie which if allowed to live, will once again bring terrible damage to this country. This time, the lie is about the 2020 election.


TAPPER: CNN's Priscilla Alvarez is in Charleston, South Carolina, traveling with the president. Meanwhile, CNN's Omar Jimenez is taking a look at some other Democrats, Democrats who are actually looking to take support away from Biden and are challenging him in the Democratic primary. Priscilla, let's start with you.

So, South Carolina Democratic Congressman James Clyburn told me yesterday that he's worried about the lack of enthusiasm for Biden among the black community. What was the president's focus today in his speech at the church?

PRISCILLA ALVAREZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Jake, it was clear in this speech by President Biden and from the campaign officials thereafter that mobilizing black voters is what's going to get him that second term in the White House if he can pull it off. Now, the focus was twofold. On the one hand, it was an extension of his Friday remarks and preserving democracy and personal freedoms, both of which he argued were at risk under former President Donald Trump and especially if he were to take the White House again.

And it was in this location, a critical one, that he sent that message. We're here at Mother Emanuel AME Church, where in 2015 a white supremacist killed nine black parishioners. And he drew on that painful history during his remarks here today and talked about the poison that continues today in white supremacy.


BIDEN: On June 17, 2015, the beautiful souls, five survivors and five survivors, invited a stranger into this church to pray with them. The word of God was pierced by bullets and hate and rage, propelled by not just gunpowder, but by a poison. Poison that has for too long haunted this nation. What is that poison? White supremacy. Oh, it is. It's a poison. Throughout our history, it's ripped this nation apart. This has no place in America. Not today, tomorrow, or ever.

(END VIDEO CLIP) ALVAREZ: Now, this is only one part of the message. He also repeatedly underscored what the administration has done to deliver on issues important to black voters. That got a lot of applause from those black Americans. All of that just underscoring how important it's going to be to remind them of those issues as he goes into this 2024 campaign.


TAPPER: And Omar Jimenez, let me bring you in because President Joe Biden is not on the New Hampshire Democratic primary ballot because of this dispute over which primary should come first. Biden wants South Carolina. And today we saw the very first Democratic presidential debate between two candidates on the New Hampshire ballot, Congressman Dean Phillips and Marianne Williamson.

OMAR JIMENEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And they both, Phillips and Williamson, talked about how that dispute over party rules is being handled at this point. Both Phillips and Williamson saying they view it as a form of voter suppression. Specifically, "Politico" reported the DNC sent a letter to the New Hampshire Democratic Party that reportedly referred to the January 23rd contest as meaningless and to educate the public this will be a non-binding presidential preference event.

Well, Phillips took exception to that and brought that up in the debate saying that letter is one of the most egregious affronts of democracy he's seen in his lifetime as Williamson essentially agreed and said that this is a form of candidate suppression. Now, they also largely agreed around the idea they believe that Joe Biden cannot win in a general election. Take a listen to some of what they said.


REP. DEAN PHILLIPS, DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Americans want to turn the page from Donald Trump and Joe Biden and I suspect most of you in this room want to turn the page to the future. We all know that. But I don't believe everybody knows that the truth is if that election happened today between Trump and Biden, Donald Trump wins. It's the truth.

MARIANNE WILLIAMSON, DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The danger for Democrats is not people voting for Donald Trump. We could indict him 91 more times. They're gonna vote for Donald Trump. The danger is people staying home.


JIMENEZ: And while they did also touch on some policy issues like the economy and abortion as well, they both agreed that they wanted Joe Biden to be on that stage with them as part of what they believe is a fair democratic process.

TAPPER: All right, Priscilla Alvarez and Omar Jimenez, thanks to both of you. Let's bring in Democratic Governor Andy Beshear from the great Commonwealth of Kentucky. He has just started a new political action committee. It's called In This Together, which will endorse and fundraise for democratic candidates across the country. And Governor, I haven't seen you since you were re-elected. Congratulations on that. No small feat in red Kentucky.

You said this PAC is about supporting candidates who, quote, "push back against this national trend of anger, politics, and division." And I'm wondering how you define anger, politics, and division. Just over the last few days, President Biden has called Donald Trump a threat to democracy. You hear how he's trying to tie the MAGA movement to the Confederacy. Is that anger and division in your view?

ANDY BESHEAR, GOVERNOR, KENTUCKY: Well, anger politics is different from talking about the policy stances or even the rhetoric of an opponent. Anger politics is about trying to turn one American against another. It is wrong, whether it's under my faith, values, morals, but it is just wrong to divide our country in a way to just try to get a few more votes for somebody with this or that letter behind their name.

You look at attacks on groups of people, kids. You look at attacks based on any, what, three-letter acronym that seems to be out there. It's this attempt to rile people up, not necessarily even at somebody running for office, but against a group of other people in this country. I think that's a threat to who we are. It certainly violates that golden rule that we love our neighbor as ourselves, and that parable of the Good Samaritan that says everyone is our neighbor.

I know in my race and that's just here in Kentucky, that we saw every angry, nasty, scapegoating, hate-based ad that you could ask for. And what did we do? We pushed back with compassion, with empathy about standing up for the right things and we came out on top. My hope is that sets an example not just for other candidates of my party, but for candidates all over the country not get into that type of mudslinging, anger, and division. But how about this? How about you run on what you want to do for the people that you're gonna serve?

TAPPER: Can you give me an example of what you're talking about specifically? I mean, I'm not trying to be cute here. I'm just wondering, like, what is an example of a race where this kind of hate and anger politics was used? Because it sounds nice.

I mean, look, one of the ways you won your race was with a very powerful ad about a young girl who had been raped by a member of her family and it was about how she shouldn't be forced to carry that child to term and obviously that that's not a hate or anger, but it was a very, you know, I'm sure you're -- I'm sure your opponent didn't like the ad and I'm sure he would have had some choice words for it. So, give me an example of what you're talking about.


BESHEAR: Well, let me first say that ad was about empathy. It's about not being pro this or pro that, but having enough basic human empathy and decency to say regardless of what I felt in a Roe v. Wade era, that victims of rape and incest, especially as young as 12 years old deserve options. And what we saw are people across Kentucky saying, you're right, that this comes before, you know, how I define myself. This is somebody we know. This is somebody's daughter. It could be mine. The contrast that with the millions upon millions of anti-trans ads that we saw in Kentucky picking on young kids that are trying to find their way in this world that regardless of whether our different groups understand what it is, the idea that they would be repeatedly attacked, called names, a group that already struggles on the margins would see that type of negativity directed at it when we know it can increase risks of suicide is just wrong.

TAPPER: Right. Okay.

BESHEAR: That's the type of anger politics that we see out there and that's not where we should be.

TAPPER: Sure. There's a lot of demonizing of the trans community, especially trans kids. Let me ask you about the demonizing of Jews these days because we see a lot of that not just from the right, but these days a lot of it from the left. Is your PAC going to be willing to call out Democrats who are either engaging in anti-Semitism or raising money with anti-Semites? Is that part of this as well?

BESHEAR: Anti-Semitism is wrong. It exists. We're seeing more of it. We've got to speak out against it regardless of who says it, whether it's through a PAC or not. I just started the state's first anti- Semitism task force. It's based on ensuring that we have the right curriculum in our schools, but that also we are receiving good information that we recognize anti-Semitic symbols that some might not otherwise see, and that we are getting the best advice on policy that we can.

Hate in any form is wrong. That's Islamophobia. That's racism. It's certainly anti-Semitism. And it's our job, no matter who says it to speak out and say that's not who we are either in Kentucky or across the United States.

TAPPER: There's a new podcast out today featuring former First Lady Michelle Obama and she said she's, quote, "terrified." Terrified essentially that Biden's going to lose to Trump. But take a listen to how she put it.


MICHELLE OBAMA, FORMER FIRST LADY: What's going to happen in this next election? I am terrified about what could possibly happen because our leaders' matter. Who we select, who speaks for us, who holds that bully pulpit. It affects us in ways that sometimes I think people take for granted.


TAPPER: Now, I know you've said that your PAC is gonna stay out of the 2024 presidential race itself, but are you afraid, are you afraid that Joe Biden's gonna lose to Donald Trump?

BESHEAR: Well, Joe Biden and his advisors have won a presidential race. They beat an incumbent and they beat the likely candidate they're going to face. They have a lot more experience in this than I do. There's going to be significant support, including from me, but there are going to be so many super PACs and other dollars that come in to support the president.

This PAC is about candidates that might otherwise be overlooked, that are running in red or purple states, but can follow a game plan like we had and truly be victorious. And what they can do is bring life changing policies to the states they serve. Take Roy Cooper, who's a friend of mine. He just expanded Medicaid in North Carolina.

And I can tell you that Kentucky only has rural hospitals because my dad, Steve Beshear, expanded Medicaid years ago. Josh Stein is gonna end up being the Democratic nominee there. He's one of the exact type of candidates that this PAC needs to support to preserve that healthcare for so many individuals.

TAPPER: Are you worried about Biden losing?

BESHEAR: Oh, I worry about every election. But I believe that the president is going to be ready. I think you are going to see ultimately a united, you could call it party, but in the end, I think one of the most important things is speaking to how people are doing outside of the economy, asking about the economy itself.

I'll give you an example. When you do polling here in Kentucky and you say, how's the economy in Kentucky? About 60 percent of people say it's terrible and 30 percent say it's great. But then you say, economically, how are you and your family doing? And about 70 percent of people say, we're doing great. And about 30 percent of people say, not so good.


It's about making sure that we can cut through the pessimism because right now we have this pessimism problem between news and social media and actually get to the good jobs, the infrastructure, and the expansion of health care that's happening nationally and happening in Kentucky as well.

TAPPER: Democratic Governor Andy Beshear of the great Commonwealth of Kentucky. Good to see you, sir. Don't be a stranger.

On the Republican side of this race, Wednesday is the big day for the CNN Republican presidential debate in Iowa. I'm going to moderate with my colleague, Dana Bash. That begins at 9:00 p.m. eastern only here on CNN.

Coming up, political extremists serving in the cabinet of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Why a far-right member of the cabinet called all two million Palestinians in Gaza Nazis as Israel intensifies its strikes in the Strip. Stay with us.


TAPPER: In our "World Lead," as the United States government, the Biden administration say they are trying to reduce the violence in Gaza. That mission was likely made all the more difficult by the latest outrageous and frankly racist comments from the far-right extremist Israeli finance minister and member of the Netanyahu government, Bezalel Smotrich.



BEZALEL SMOTRICH, ISRAELI FINANCE MINISTER (through translation): A Jewish settlement should be established in the territory of the Gaza Strip so that there will be a Jewish presence there for a long time, so that terrorism does not grow there. If not, there are 2 million Nazis in Gaza who want to destroy us when they get up every morning and we will wake up in 10 or 15 years to a new October 7th.


TAPPER: Two million is of course the population of Gaza. So, take that in for a moment. Two million quote, unquote "Nazis in Gaza." So, babies, two-year-olds, three-year-olds, old ladies, all of them Nazis. Meanwhile, a barrage of rockets from Hamas was aimed at Israel today. It's the latest in a string of attacks following IDF strikes that have claimed the lives of leaders of both Hamas and Hezbollah.

CNN's Nic Robertson is in Tel Aviv for us. So Nic, these strikes are only increasing and widening in scope against the leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah, it seems.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLMATIC EDITOR: Particularly the Hezbollah one. Israel hasn't said it was responsible but it's got all hallmarks, targeted killing of a commander of Hezbollah and Hezbollah put up a bunch of photographs of him meeting with the spiritual leader of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah, meeting with the head, the former head of the Quds Force of the Iranian IRGC, the top general Qasem Soleimani who the United States killed in a drone strike four years ago.

So, this was a guy by all measure of internally in Hezbollah. He was the leading commander. He was killed and that to Hezbollah will look like an escalation. But then they escalated over the weekend because they fired 62 missiles at an air base, at an air surveillance base in the north of Israel that the IDF has said actually was accurate and actually did do some damage, although the base is still up and running, but they're gonna look at modifications to make it safer going forward, which was Hezbollah's answer for the IDF, according at least to U.S. officials, for taking out and killing a Hamas leader in Beirut last week.

So, you get the picture, this escalation. And I think when we -- you talk about those rockets coming out of Gaza, they came a couple of hours after that Hezbollah leader was killed. And I think that you can look at the two things together, that this was Hamas showing Hezbollah, one of your top guys gets killed and we'll fire rockets at the capital of Israel. There was no one injured, but all these things are connected. And yes, on the ground, it looks like escalation.

Will it be? There's that miscalculation element that can always lead to somebody making a move that the other side just won't tolerate, but they are tolerating it right now. I think that's the bottom line.

TAPPER: All right, Nic Robertson in Tel Aviv for us. Thank you so much. And then of course, there are the people, the victims that Hamas took hostage who have been in captivity for 93 days now, 93 long days. They must not be forgotten. And Doron Steinbrecher is among them. Her brother is here in Washington, D.C. today and he's going to join me next.



TAPPER: In our "World Lead," three months after the October 7 terrorist attack by Hamas, families and loved ones of hostages are still anxiously waiting for the release. Israel believes that 107 hostages are still alive and still being held by Hamas in Gaza. Let's bring in Dor Steinbrecher. Hamas kidnapped his 30-year-old sister, Doron Steinbrecher, from Kibbutz, Kfar Aza.

Dor, thank you so much for being here. I can't imagine what it's been like. You learned that your sister was kidnapped through a frightened voicemail she left saying, "They got hold of me. They caught me." What went through your mind?

DOR STEINBRECHER, BROTHER OF ISRAELI HOSTAGE DORON STEINBRECHER: Yeah, correct. On October 7th, I currently live in Israel center not in the Kibbutz Kfar Aza where my two sisters and parents live. So, on October 7th around 6:30 in the a.m. where the -- we saw rockets (inaudible).


STEINBRECHER: I woke up and opened the news and I saw there was really mess and alarms from the Israeli south area. I had pick up my phone and with my family and they told me that there is a terrorist attack from the Kibbutz and I tried to reach my two sisters and make sure that they are okay, each one of them --

TAPPER: You're the older brother?

STEINBRECHER: -- in a different -- I'm the older brother.


STEINBRECHER: And Doron is my youngest sister. She was living in an apartment on the Kibbutz where all the young people and students and all the soldiers live.


STEINBRECHER: And she had a phone call with my mom around 10 a.m. She had called my mom. She was crying on the phone telling she is lying under the bed in a safe room. After she locked the door and put a couch and the refrigerator behind the door, she thought it would be enough. It wasn't. They go inside her apartment, took her, and there's the voice message she sent to a friend, few seconds when she is telling that she has been (inaudible) -- she's been kidnapped. And you can hear the Arabic and --

TAPPER: Oh, you can hear the Arabic in the background.

STEINBRECHER: -- Arabic in the background, sound of shooting.


TAPPER: Have you -- have you have any evidence that she is still alive? Have you other photographs or other hostages who were -- have been freed who saw her?

STEINBRECHER: No. Unfortunately, not. And all the hostages who came back no one see her --

TAPPER: No one saw her.

STEINBRECHER: -- in Gaza. And we didn't have any sign of life on us.

TAPPER: Well, that doesn't mean she's not alive. It just meant, it just --


TAPPER: -- they're all separated. Your sister takes medication daily. And I know your parents reached out to the Red Cross --


TAPPER: -- to help ensure that she's able to get that medication. What did the Red Cross have to say?

STEINBRECHER: First of all, my sister is to take a medicine daily basis. And probably she doesn't take it from October 7th, like all other of the hostages need medicine and didn't got it. And my mom had a few meet with the Red Cross. And she told them, my sister needs to get her medicine.


STEINBRECHER: And they told that we should care more about the people on the other side.

TAPPER: That you should care more about what's happening to the people in Gaza?

STEINBRECHER: Yes. And less about our beloved one who didn't get the --

TAPPER: Wait a second.

STEINBRECHER: So your sister takes medication every day, she was taken hostage. She's a civilian. And she was taken hostage by Hamas three months, and a few days ago, or three months and one day ago. And your parents told this to the Red Cross and hope that they would be able to get the medication to her wherever she is. And their response was, you should be worried more about the people of Gaza. That's what the Red Cross said to your parents?


TAPPER: That is shocking.

STEINBRECHER: Yes. Very shocking.

TAPPER: You must be worried about your sister Doron. I mean, I know there's a lot of fear about what's happening to all the young women.

STEINBRECHER: Yes, teenagers, girls in their 20s, Doron is 30.

TAPPER: Yes. We all saw the evidence and the testimonies and the article of "The New York Times" about sexual and violence, which happens on the October 7th on the party and after that in the Hamas captives. And it's very scary.

TAPPER: Terrifying.


TAPPER: There are still people in this country, and I cannot wrap my head around it, who -- when there are posters of Israeli hostages put up on the streets of America not saying this is why the IDF is doing what it's doing, not connecting it, just expressing sadness that these people are missing. There are still Americans who rip down those posters. And I'm sure you've seen it by now. And I'm wondering what your message is to those people and what do you want them to know about your sister, Doron?

STEINBRECHER: I want them to know not just about my sister, about each one of the hostages in Gaza. They are just citizens, most of them pulled out of the beds on Saturday morning and take into Gaza with now with no reason I can think about it. I want them to try to imagine that all of the hostages in Gaza, the babies, the woman, the grandfathers it's their family members, their family, beloved ones, which need their help. And then think about why they did with the hostages' posters.

TAPPER: We're going to keep covering Doron and we're going to keep covering the hostages. Dor Steinbrecher, thank you so much for being here.

STEINBRECHER: Thank you for everything.

TAPPER: Yes. We'll be right back.



TAPPER: In our National Lead just minutes ago, a blistering statement from the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, a Democrat, after the Defense Secretary secret stay in the intensive care unit. Chairman Jack Reed Democrat of Rhode Island wrote in part, quote, I remain concerned that vital chain of command and notification procedures were not followed while Secretary of Defense Austin was under medical care. This lack of disclosure must never happen again.

This of course, following the revelation that the nation's top defense or defense official had elective surgery on December 22nd. We still don't know for what and then he went home the next day and then was rushed to the intensive care unit on January 1st, after experiencing complications for three days after that. Essentially, no one knew that the Secretary of Defense of the biggest military in the world was hospitalized.

The public didn't know, President Biden didn't know, senior national security officials didn't even know, not even the Deputy Secretary of Defense knew. And she temporarily took over his job while she was on vacation in Puerto Rico. In fact, the Pentagon never even told the White House or Deputy Secretary of Austin's initial medical procedure back in December. Here's what National Security Council Spokesman John Kirby told reporters aboard Air Force One earlier today.


JOHN KIRBY, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL SPOKESMAN: We'll take a look at process and procedure here and try to learn from this experience. There's an expectation that when a cabinet official becomes hospitalized, that there's a -- that will be notified up the chain of command there is that expectation. There is no plans for anything other than for Secretary Austin to stay in the job and continuing the leadership that he's been exude -- that he's been demonstrating.



TAPPER: Let's talk about this with the former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, also the CIA director during the Obama administration and the White House Chief of Staff in the Clinton administration. Secretary Panetta, great to see you. I can't imagine you ever doing anything like this.

LEON PANETTA, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY, OBAMA ADMINISTRATION: Well, it's something when I was chief of staff to Bill Clinton. We had a pretty clear policy that any cabinet member that was going to be incapacitated in the job had the responsibility to inform the White House. And I hope that they do establish that as a clear policy, particularly here, where you've got the Secretary of Defense, a very key member of the chain of command for national security. It's really important that that he informed the President and the national security team when he's hospitalized.

TAPPER: And obviously, this comes in the middle of a tremendous amount of international turmoil. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell today called the lack of disclosure over Austin's hospitalization, shocking. What would are the national security implications if one doesn't know that one's own Secretary of Defense is in the intensive care unit?

PANETTA: Well, look, you know, it's precisely because Lloyd Austin's done a, you know, a very good job as Secretary of Defense at a very critical topic, dealing with Ukraine, dealing with Israel, dealing with Middle East crises, dealing with China. This is a very critical time, and he's been on top of things. But it's precisely because of that, with all of these crises, that it is extremely important that if he is incapacitated in any way, that certainly the President in the United States, and the national security team, and certainly his deputy, need to be informed that he's being hospitalized.

So, yes, I know he's accepted full responsibility. I know he understands that he could have done a better job here. And that's important. But it has to be made clear, not just to him, but other key cabinet members, that when they face this kind of situation, the White House and the President need to be quickly informed.

TAPPER: We still don't know why he was hospitalized to begin with. There's a talk now of a need for transparency and accountability. What does the transparency look like? What does the accountability look like?

PANETTA: Well, you know, look, I understand that there are health issues that people feel are very private, and that's understandable. But the health of the Secretary of Defense is a public issue. It's a public matter. Because the public needs to know that the Secretary of Defense is in good health and can handle a very critical job that when it comes to our national security.

So, you know, as always, Jake, and you know, this, the truth is going to come out --

TAPPER: Right.

PANETTA: -- as to what the problem is, at some point. We all know that. And it's probably better than it come from Secretary Austin than a reporter who's digging around, because ultimately, he does have to convince the public that he has restored his health, and that he can assume the responsibilities of Secretary of Defense.

I mean, even his deputy wasn't told that he had been hospitalized when she assumed his duties. And one Pentagon official told CNN, quote, there are all these people around the secretary at all times who manage Austin and help them on a day to day basis, and no one had the wherewithal to even tell the White House. I'm surprised no one is using the word cover up yet, unquote. That's not me saying it. That's a Pentagon official saying it. Why would so many aides failed to report this to the White House or do the deputy or to anyone? I mean, even just if you only tell President Biden, fine, but tell him.

PANETTA: Yes, it's, you know, it's difficult to kind of understand that at least somebody in a staff position, you know, should have informed the White House immediately as to what was happening. You know, during the holiday, some strange things can happen, having been through that people are on vacation, people are trying to enjoy a little time off from some pretty challenging jobs.

And as a result of that, I think there's kind of a different attitude, that somehow things don't have to be told as long as we're in a holiday period. Wrong. It's the wrong attitude to take. You've got to keep the President and the White House informed of what's going on, particularly when we are dealing with war in Ukraine, war in Israel and conflicts in the Middle East that could erupt into additional wars. This is a critical time for the Secretary of Defense. It's a critical time for our national security. So whether it's Christmas time or, or any kind of holiday, unfortunately, those crises never do take a holiday. And they've got to be attended to.


TAPPER: Yes. Former Secretary of Defense and CIA Director Leon Panetta, thanks. And I know you join me, sir, and hoping that whatever it is, Secretary Austin is going to be OK. And that his recovery is full and complete. Thank you so much, sir. Always good to see you.

PANETTA: Absolutely. We wish him.

TAPPER: Yes, we wish the best. Absolutely.

We have new pictures just coming in from Texas. You're looking at the aftermath of some sort of explosion near a hotel in downtown Fort Worth. We're following the story. We're going to tell you more. We're going to squeeze in a quick break. Stay with us.



TAPPER: Breaking news now out of Fort Worth, Texas. Take a look at this video from just moments ago. You can see debris scattered around the streets. A city official confirms there's been some sort of explosion in the city's downtown area. The official went on to say there was a plume of smoke higher than the city's high rise buildings.

One eyewitness told the eyewitness told the Fort Worth Star Telegram that she saw people coming out of a nearby hotel with bloody faces and others being wheeled out on stretchers. Our crews are on the way to the scene. We're going to bring you updates as soon as we got them. Stay with us. We're going to squeeze in a quick break. We'll be right back.


TAPPER: In our World Lead, Ukraine's national police say that at least four civilians were killed and 38 others wounded after a wave of Russian missile strikes across the country today. Residents in the capital of Kyiv had to shelter inside the subway station as missiles flew overhead. Frederik Pleitgen brings us this report from Kyiv.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes (Speaking in Foreign Language).

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): An interception that probably saved lives on the ground. Ukrainian anti-aircraft guns at work as Russia has drastically escalated its aerial assault. We meet with a mobile air defense unit currently working overtime around Ukraine's capital.

It all depends on the weather conditions, a soldier says, if the weather is good, then of course, it's much easier to shoot down a drone. At night, especially in fog, it's harder. We react very quickly.

The mobile teams don't only use guns, they also have American made shoulder launched surface to air missiles taking aim at both Iranian made shahed drones and low flying cruise missiles. The teams move out fast and can set up and fire within minutes.

PLEITGEN: This gun might not look like much but it is very important for the air defenses not just here in Kyiv, but across the country. And when they get the call, they have to be ready in minutes to move out.

PLEITGEN (voice-over): The Russians are constantly changing tactics trying to make their attacks more lethal, making air defense like a chess match, the commander tells me. They used to fly in a single trajectory, he says, but now they are zigzagging. A drone can fly then circle, hover, go down completely then rise about half a kilometer then fly sharply down. They are now very maneuverable and must be seen and destroyed.

Now another massive drone and missile attack killed and wounded scores in various areas of Ukraine. Russia used some of its deadliest and most advanced ballistic cruise and hypersonic missiles Kyiv says. Of the 51 missiles launched, they were able to intercept 18, the Air Force says, because they simply don't have enough high powered Western surface-to-air batteries to cover the whole country.

There were a lot of ballistic missiles today, the spokesman says, such missiles may only be shot down by means such as Patriot systems. That's why the result is such. The mobile air defense units celebrate every missile and drone they managed to hit while understanding the ones they cannot take down often cause catastrophic carnage.

They are trying to hit our energy infrastructure and military infrastructure, the soldier says, but the most painful thing is when they're hitting civilians, houses, kindergartens, this is not in line with the customs of war and not in line with human morality it is immoral.

Fred Pleitgen, CNN, Kyiv.


TAPPER: And our thanks to Fred Pleitgen for that report.

Moments ago, a tornado watch was issued for the area around New Orleans as a strong fast moving storm is set to impact nearly every corner of the eastern and central United States. CNN's Chad Myers is in the CNN Severe Weather Center. Chad, what are the biggest threats right now?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Right now, there is a blizzard going on in Kansas parts of Nebraska, I-70, 80 closed. And I've seen pictures from YouTubers that are out there live streaming and you can't see across the street with zero visibility. All of a sudden now down to the south in the warm sector, this is where the severe weather will be. And although we haven't had a lot of severe weather yet today, the severe weather is going to increase, the threat will increase after dark tonight.

Those nighttime tornadoes are always the most deadly. They typically happen down here in the south in the wintertime. I know you don't think about this being a severe weather time of year but for the Gulf Coast, it is. This is exactly their time of year when they get this type of severe weather. And, yes, you said tornado watch all the way from Houston, all the way to Biloxi right now.

We have a storm rolling through Houston. No real big warnings on the storm at this point. But we have tens of thousands of people heading to a football game for the college football playoffs. So they are all seeing the thunder and lightning there. There are your blizzard warnings, winter storm warnings, there will be places with a foot and a half of snow.

Now we move you to the east where it is going to be a flood event. There's already a lot of snow on the ground, especially in the mountains and in parts of New England. Now it's going to rain. There is going to be four inches of rain on top of that snow, that snow is going to clog the drains and then all of a sudden we are going to get that flash flooding, could even see coastal flooding because the winds are going to be pushing on shore.

Some of these winds are going to be 50 miles per hour pushing that water up into the Delmarva up into the Chattahoochee Choptank, all the way up here even toward the northeast into parts of Long Island Sound. And then the wind could also bring down some power lines.

Here's where the severe weather is today. Here's where it is tomorrow off to the east. And then this is the area of snowfall we're going to see across parts of the Midwest even up toward Chicagoland. Everywhere that's purple, that's over a half a foot. And there are spots in there for sure that are more than a foot of snow. There's your rainfall down across the Deep South all the way from Florida right on into the Delmarva itself, the washing away of that rainfall. That's the area that I'm really most concerned with for this significant flooding.


But look at the snow. And, Jake, there's another storm on the heels of this just three days from now, that will fill this place back in with more snow. Very active this weekend.

TAPPER: All right, Chad Myers, thanks so much.

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Our coverage continues now with Wolf Blitzer in The Situation Room. I'll see you later.