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The Lead with Jake Tapper

Judges Appear Skeptical Of Trump's Immunity Claim; CNN Poll: Haley Cuts Trump's New Hampshire Lead To Single Digits; Storm System Spawns Tornadoes In Southeast, Heavy Rain In Northeast, Blizzard In The Plains; Defense Secretary Austin Underwent Prostate Cancer Surgery On December 22; State of Emergency In Ecuador After Gang Leader Escapes Prison; Trump Co-Defendant Alleges Misconduct By D.A. Fani Willis. Aired 4-5p ET

Aired January 09, 2024 - 16:00   ET



BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: They say the staff have been evacuated. This is happening during a national emergency triggered by notorious gang leader's escape from prison. In the hours since, there has been other violence, including a kidnapping of police officers.

CNN continues to follow the story. We are going to keep you updated. Obviously, a lot of developments a they're incredibly, incredibly scary times there at that TV station.

And THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER starts right now.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN HOST: Is a U.S. president above the law?

THE LEAD starts right now.

Donald Trump's day in court. His legal team argues why the former president cannot be prosecuted, even if his actions were criminal. The side eye of skepticism from the judges who will now decide how this case proceeds.

And six days before the crucial contest in Iowa, a new CNN poll from another key early primary state shows a candidate gaining ground on the GOP front runner.

Plus, the defense secretary treated for prostate cancer. The revelation as the Pentagon is pressed on his hospital status and why the president didn't know one of his top cabinet members was in the hospital and couldn't do his job.


BROWN: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Pamela Brown, in for Jake Tapper, who is on assignment getting ready for to tomorrow's CNN Republican presidential debate.

And we start today with our law and justice lead. And former President Donald Trump in a federal courtroom as his lawyers argued he should be immune from facing charges for any alleged crimes he committed while in office. Now, the three appeals court judges appeared skeptical of Trump's arguments that he was working in his official capacity as president when he tried to overturn the 2020 election.

And to one of the most stunning moments, Trump's lawyer suggested immunity would also cover a president who used the U.S. military to assassinate a political opponent, saying the president could only be charged if impeached and convicted by Congress first.

Let's go straight to CNN's Paula Reid with a closer look at the arguments made in court today and what comes next.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good afternoon.

PAULA REID, CNN CHIEF LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Former President Trump traveled to Washington Tuesday to watch arguments in a federal appearance court hearing over whether he should be shielded from criminal prosecution.

DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT: I feel that as president, you have to have immunity, very simple.

REID: Trump was not required to be in attendance, but was in court to witness the three judge panel express skepticism of his claim that he cannot be prosecuted for his actions, unless he is first impeached and convicted by Congress.

JUDGE FLORENCE PAN, U.S. COURT OF APPEALS FOR D.C. CIRCUIT: Can a president order SEAL Team 6 to assassinate a political rival? That's an official act, an order to SEAL Team 6.

JOHN SAUER, TRUMP ATTORNEY: He would have to be, and would speedily be, you know, impeached and convicted before the criminal prosecution.

PAN: I asked you a yes or no question.

SAUER: There's a political process that would have to occur under the structure of the Constitution, which would require impeachment and conviction by the Senate and these exceptional cases.

REID: Trump's lawyers argue that when trying to overturn the 2020 election, Trump was acting in his official capacity.

SAUER: To authorize the prosecution of a president for his official acts would open a Pandora's box from which this nation may never recover.

REID: Trump's lawyer also warned that if this near absolute immunity was not recognized, there could be a possibility of vindictive prosecutions against political rivals.

SAUER: He would authorize, for example, the indictment of President Biden in the Western District of Texas after he leaves office for mismanaging the border, allegedly. REID: The special counsel rejected these arguments, noting that

charges were brought in this case because of what they described as extraordinary conduct.

JAMES PEARCE, ATTORNEY, SPECIAL COUNSEL: Never before has there been allegations that a sitting president has, with private individuals and using the levers of power, sought to fundamentally subvert the democratic republic and the electoral system.

REID: And argued that impeachment and conviction through a political process should not be required before a criminal prosecution.

PEARCE: I think it would be awfully scary if there weren't some sort of mechanism by which to reach that criminally.


REID (on camera): It's unclear how long it will take the judges to come back with their decision, and from here, this case could go to the full appellate panel or the Supreme Court. It's unclear if any one of those courts would take up this issue.

And, Pamela, just as important as the decision is the timing because the longer it takes to resolve the constitutional question, the less likely it is that the federal election subversion case will go to trial before November.

BROWN: All right. We'll be keeping an eye on this.

Let's dive in a little deeper here with former federal prosecutor and CNN legal analyst Elliot Williams.

Elliot, so I want to start with this idea presented by Trump's lawyers, that a president is immune from any charges relating to official duties, including carrying out an assassination against a political rival, unless the president was convicted or impeached or convicted by Congress for it.


Does this make any sense to you from a legal perspective?


BROWN: Okay.

WILLIAMS: Let's just be blunt here. And look, I've been a lawyer for a while, I have watched a lot of appeals. And that was the moment when you watch, wow, you've lost these judges. And I don't think Trump's team is getting them back.

Look, you know, there's a really good argument made that looking back at President Ford and Nixon, this idea that Ford had to pardon Nixon after his crimes, inherently means that there's been a recognition before that a president can be held accountable for crimes. If that were the case, Ford wouldn't need to have had to pardon Nixon. So, this whole idea that there's a sphere of conduct that somehow presidents are immune from is just ludicrous.

And Judge Pan, Florence Pan, today was the one that really picked on it. And they didn't have answer for it because there is no answer for it. You cannot credibly say that a president could call in a drone strike against a peer or a political candidate and not face political accountability for it simply by resigning. So, I think that's really lost.

BROWN: Yeah. And one of the judges, maybe the same one, brought up the Nixon example --


BROWN: -- about why would Nixon have been pardoned then?

So, Paula, let me go back to you because the judges today asked about previous comments by Donald Trump and this was interesting because they brought up the fact that his team, when trying to hold off impeachment during his first term, Trump's team said that former officeholders would not be immune from facing charges. So, basically, they should be left to DOJ, not Congress. How did that come into play today?

REID: It was interesting to watch, his now lawyer trying to square this. And he argued that, yes, they said that, but what they meant is that criminal charges could be brought. And then we could bring up defenses like immunity. That's pretty tough to square.

We also have a lot of people calling attention to Mitch McConnell's comments during the second impeachment, where he said, look, a proper place to deal with this is either civil or criminal process. It underscores, too, how political impeachment is and really goes to bolster the special counsel's argument that you can't have this political process as a potential bar to any kind of criminal accountability.

BROWN: And, you know, Trump's attorneys, for their part, they are trying to make the argument that, look, if the court says that presidents don't have total immunity, that President Biden could be prosecuted in a Texas courtroom for, quote, mismanaging the border. Is that something that could really happen?

WILLIAMS: You know, it's almost insulting to the practice of law to have to take arguments like that seriously. I mean it, because there is simply no credible basis to an argument like that because -- and I would direct the former presidents attorneys to look in the federal criminal code and identify crime you could actually hold Joe Biden accountable for if it is a question of the border.

Now, you might have policy differences with the current president, and that's fine. That's why you have elections. But there is simply nothing criminal about disagreeing with someone on immigration policy or firearms or abortion or anything else. It's just silly and that is simply not how the federal criminal code works.

REID: And there was this one comment by one of Trump's attorneys about President Obama that I'd like to have you fact-checked for us on the other end here, Paula. Let's listen.


JOHN LAURO, TRUMP ATTORNEY: The special counsel conceded that if it was President Obama who was being prosecuted for a drone strike, and then they would have to consider immunity. But when it's not, when it's President Trump, then they are taking the position that there's no immunity for presidential acts that were required when the president is carrying out his job responsibilities.


BROWN: But the reality is, there is more nuance, right?

REID: It was, and John Lauro is a great lawyer, but, look, he's not making that argument in a court of law. He's making it in front of the press.

But here, they are trying to argue that these efforts to subvert the election, that this was all part of Trump's official duties, just as calling it a drone strike or starting a war, that those are all part of official things you do in the White House. But that's not how the courts have seen it. Back down in Georgia with Mark Meadows tried to argue that some of these efforts to subvert the election were part of his federal duties, they disagreed.

And, of course, we've seen that this is why presidents have some immunity, so that they are not sued for every drone strike or if things that happen in war. But he is just putting all of those together, trying to make this argument that clearly there is a double standard, when it's just not how the courts so far have seen official duties and it's unlikely that this court is going to see that way either.

BROWN: So, let's talk about a timeline here right, because you pointed out, look, I mean, this could -- depending on how this comes down, right, we may not see anything until after November of this year. So, how quickly, Elliot, do you think a decision will come from this appeals court? How quickly could this end up before the Supreme Court?

WILLIAMS: In court terms, incredibly quickly because they've already moved with breakneck speed to get this argued today. The fact that this was even briefed in a matter of weeks is lightning-fast in terms of how our appeals court works.

Now, what people may not understand about these courts is that the judges and the clerks and the court personnel have been working on this for weeks, if not months. They've been studying the briefs. So, they may have already drafted opinions written that they are just refining right now. So, you can see an opinion come out within days if not weeks.


You know, the former president or whomever else -- whoever loses has an opportunity to appeal it to the whole court or the Supreme Court. And again, either of these folks -- either of these courts could take it up quite quickly, I mean within a matter of weeks, which may not imperil the timeline this was already set on.

BROWN: So, Donald Trump was here today, we can see him in a courtroom earlier this week, right, Paula?

REID: That's right, but he doesn't have to be there on Thursday. There is closing arguments in the civil case in New York. It's very personal to him because at stake there is potentially the Trump Organization's ability to do business in the state of New York. We've seen it shown up multiple times,, even though again, he is not required to, just like he was not required to be in court today. He is choosing to spend his time in key appearances that these proceedings, witnessing them instead of going out and campaigning.

BROWN: All right. Paula Reid, Elliot Williams, thank you so much.

In another case against Trump in Georgia, there is a new effort to disqualify the top prosecutor, Fani Willis, accusing her of having a romantic relationship with a lawyer she put on the case.

But, first, the 2024 race and tomorrow's CNN Republican presidential debate. How the candidates can make this a breakthrough moment. One of Nikki Haley's biggest supporters joins us next.



BROWN: Well, in our 2024 lead, two weeks before the New Hampshire primary, a brand-new CNN poll today shows Nikki Haley cutting Donald Trump's lead to single digits the Granite State. Trump leads Haley 39 percent to 32 percent. His lead down to seven points, the rest of the field is trailing far behind. Chris Christie at 12 percent, Vivek Ramaswamy at 8 percent, and Ron DeSantis at 5 percent.

And support for Haley has surged, up 12 points, since CNN's last poll back in November. Her opponents' numbers have tick slightly downward or remain stable.

So, let's bring in New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, who has endorsed Nikki Haley.

Governor, thanks for coming on.

This is obviously good news for your candidate. Do you think that Haley will be able to close the gap in time for the New Hampshire primary?

GOV. CHRIS SUNUNU (R), NEW HAMPSHIRE: Oh, without a doubt. She's the only candidate that has surging numbers in Iowa or New Hampshire. And that the numbers in New Hampshire are not just closing a gap but really approaching Donald Trump. And at this rate, yeah, she has every opportunity to win here in New Hampshire.

And that alone is just such a big story, such a national reset on the assumptions and expectations that Trump was just going to win every state and run away with it by double -- you know, 20, 30 points. That's clearly not the case. Emperor has no clothes here.

And, you know, Chris Christie still holding that 12 percent. Obviously, Chris can't win. There's no strategy beyond New Hampshire. There's no chance for him to overtake even a second place. So, all those Christie voters are now coming onboard of it. Even just today, so many Christie voters coming and talking to us to say, look, we need to make sure Trump's dealt a loss.

This is how you do it. This is the path to do it. And so, I think that in itself will keep this momentum building for Nikki Haley.

BROWN: Let's talk about Chris Christie because you have actually called for him publicly to drop out of the race to consolidate support for Haley. If she doesn't nab New Hampshire, I mean, would you put the blame on Chris Christie for taking some of those more moderate voters away?

SUNUNU: Well, look, there's only one person that wants Chris Christie in this race and that's Donald Trump, right? A vote for Christie is a vote for Trump. A vote for Christie is about being taken away from Nikki Haley and prevents delivering that lost to the former president. That's what Chris's message and mission has always been. He has an opportunity here, whether to get out of the race or to have supporters galvanized behind Nikki.

And again, commit on his mission. Once the lost starts here, once he loses that first primary in New Hampshire, they go to the home state of South Carolina for Nikki Haley, and with a month to campaign there and close the gap there.

So everything gets reset if Chris were to get out of the race. I think he knows that. I'm still hopeful he'll make the right decision. He's done a great job on the race. You have to give him a lot of credit, to be sure. But now, it's time to say, well, this was kind of a long shot, we always knew we had to consolidate and here's the chance to do. It would be given all the credit in the world if he were.

But, yeah, that's the margin of victory right there. If Chris were out of the race, Nikki wouldn't just be close to Donald Trump, she'd be three or four points ahead of Donald Trump, something no one in the national media thought was possible. So, you know, we're -- she's been exceeding expectations, a lot of momentum here. Two weeks is a long time, a long time in New Hampshire politics and it's just going to go up for her from there.

BROWN: All right. I want to follow up, because you said, you know, you think Chris Christie knows and sees the writing on the wall. But he sees calls like yours for him to drop out crazy. I wonder if there been any personal more direct discussions between you and Governor Christie and Nikki Haley and Governor Christie about, you know, dropping out of this race.

SUNUNU: I would say this. I think members of his leadership team here in New Hampshire are having those discussions with him, and that's the right folks to do it there. He has no ground game. He's not even trying. Even in the next 2 to 3 days, he could be doing 10 events a day, he's doing like two. So, there's no real emphasis of his own campaign here. He's running out of resources and he's not campaigning in any other state.

So I think those discussions are happening, I know they are, with folks on his steering committee, a couple have already left.


BROWN: I want to be clear, how do you know those discussions are happening, those personal discussions with Christie to drop out?

SUNUNU: Because I'm talking to the folks on his steering committee and they're all saying the same thing. They know he's done a great job pushing a message on Trump. It's had a lot of effect here. It's been a very important part of the campaign and I know a lot of those folks are having those conversations.

BROWN: All right. I want to ask about Ron DeSantis here because he slipped to fifth place in this poll. Are you surprised he now trails Vivek Ramaswamy?

SUNUNU: Well, you know, Ron has really put all his eggs in the Iowa basket. He started doing that about a month ago. So, not surprising, because he really hasn't done that so the ground game here. So, Vivek has just kind of stuck at 5 or 6 percent, whatever conspiracy theorists are left in this race, they galvanize around Vivek.

But Ron put all his eggs in the Iowa basket. He said he's going to win Iowa. Trump said he's going to win Iowa.


They really set a lot of expectations out there.

So, no, I'm not -- I'm not too surprised at his poll numbers have plummeted just given that he's putting all his emphasis in the Midwest right now.

BROWN: All right. Governor Chris Sununu, great having you on. Thank you.

SUNUNU: You bet.

BROWN: Then there's Iowa. Only six days to go before voters weigh in on this race. Does Ron DeSantis have a fighting chance there? You just heard Governor Sununu talk about the fact that he put all the eggs in the Iowa basket.

We'll talk about that and what it means for candidates who appear to be losing support, such as Chris Christie and Vivek Ramaswamy. We're gaming it out, next.


BROWN: We are just six days away before voters in Iowa weigh in on who they want to win the Republican presidential nomination.


Let's bring in Republican strategist Alice Stewart and former Democratic Congressman Andy Levin of Michigan.

Thank you both for being here. We have the nice Michigan Wolverines t- shirt you are representing, congrats on the win.



LEVIN: Thank you.

BROWN: All right. I want to go to your first, Alice, because obviously, there's a lot of focus, Republican hopefuls are focusing on Iowa right now. But I want to talk about this New Hampshire poll. You just heard the conversation I had with Governor Sununu, talking about Nikki Haley really closing that gap with Donald Trump in New Hampshire.

Do you see this becoming a two-person race at this point?

STEWART: It potentially could. I think the governor made some really excellent points. If she continues at the rate she is going and the momentum she is going, there is potential she could not only bridge the gap with Donald Trump, but catch up to him and potentially beat him in New Hampshire, that is.

And, look, that is a little bit further down the road, but she's done everything that you need to do in New Hampshire, doing the good solid retail politics, having a more moderate message and those independent and undeclared voters that are important in New Hampshire primary. Those are the people she is really resonating with, with her message and it certainly doesn't hurt have Governor Sununu in your corner out there campaigning.

The challenge now is will she compete in Iowa? This is going to be a battle outside of Donald Trump for the second place between Xi and DeSantis. This is going to be a battle of her momentum and his mechanism that he's put in place with regard to already identifying voters in the commit to caucus. So I'm interested to see how she comes out of Iowa and how that sensor heading into New Hampshire with the wind at her sails.

BROWN: How do you see it? I'm wondering why you think Nikki Haley is doing so well in New Hampshire in the polling.

LEVIN: Well, you know, I think that if Donald Trump is the leading candidate in your party, it's an emergency to find someone else. The Republican base doesn't seem to be going for it a lot but Nikki Haley as doing a better job than others at trying to work in New Hampshire.

To me, she is as MAGA as the rest. She said she would sign a six-week abortion ban as president. I mean, many women don't even know they're pregnant when they -- I mean, when they're six weeks along.

And, you know, she said she is for gutting Social Security and Medicare. She's been for the Freedom Caucus, extreme cuts in domestic spending. So, you know, whether she can come off as sort of moderate, the MAGA extremism has taken over the Republican Party and I don't think that is going to bode well for her, ultimately. I think people will probably stick with Trump.

STEWART: Look, to push back just a little bit, she's made it quite clear her position on abortion, a little more moderate than some of the others. She's saying, look, let's not demonizing this issue and demonizing women in this situation and let's find where we can have reasonable compromise on this issue. Let's talk about abortion limits and not bans.

So I think the fact that she's found more nuanced position on this has helped her in a state like New Hampshire, which is trying to get away from the more extreme positions on this issue. And the fact that she is talking to the people of New Hampshire, who want to turn the page on Donald Trump and look at her as someone who is less chaos and less drama and is willing to have more moderate conversation on these key issues and showing her strength with foreign policy.

And her big issue and the strength in New Hampshire, the live free or die state, it's a fact, that let's get away from too much government and put more responsibility back in the hands of people.

BROWN: And, of course, it was a couple weeks ago when her answer on the civil war, what caused it caused quite a stir. And the civil war continues to be a topic that Republican candidates keep talking about on the campaign trail in 2024.

This is what Donald Trump had to say this weekend in Iowa. Let's listen.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT: The civil war was so fascinating, so horrible, I'm so attracted to seeing it. So many mistakes were made. See, there was something anything could've been negotiated, to be honest with you, I think you could've negotiated that, all the people died.


BROWN: And Ron DeSantis held a virtual press conference with the Iowa meeting yesterday and this is how he weighed in.


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He couldn't even negotiate funding for a border wall when he had a Republican Congress. The more Iowans see kind of, you know, this Trump versus the Trump they knew, I think that you're going to see more and more people who are going to be open to go in a different direction.


BROWN: All right. Like he's clearly been ramping up his attacks on Trump. Where has this guy been?

STEWART: That's a good question. Because, look, all the candidates that are running against Donald Trump have been very cautious about attacking Donald Trump because, A, they don't want to get the punch back from Donald Trump. And they don't want to alienate his base.

Now, they are realizing, that's not working, way behind Donald Trump, 20 and 30 points in some states. So, they are fine-tuning their messaging and going after him not just on, as DeSantis just said, his inability to have Mexico pay for building a wall, but going after Trump on many of the issues that in terms of his tone and tenor, and DeSantis presenting himself as someone who is a new generation.


And also, I'm here to look forward at what is best for the American people, whereas Donald Trump is looking at his past legal woes and his past grievances and trying to garner more support based on his legal woes and not what's best for the American people.

LEVIN: Ron DeSantis needed you a long time ago.

I mean, politics is a rough sport. You got to go after the front runner. He's failed to do it, doing it at the 11th hour like this, I'm not sure it cuts it.

But the Republican Party in general has a problem with racism. I mean, Haley is saying the civil war wasn't about racism. Of course, she tries to clean it up later. And then Donald Trump just completely out of line saying, oh, we should've negotiated that. You don't negotiate about slavery. It's wrong and, you know, it's just -- it's something that is just out of bounds.

BROWN: I just want you to respond. He said your party has a problem with racism.

STEWART: But le's be -- let's be clear, Republicans know full well that slavery was the root cause of the civil war. Republicans know full well there is nothing fascinating where attractive about the civil war, which Donald Trump says, and Republicans realize there is no negotiating a way from the civil war.

The reality is, look, Republicans, Abraham Lincoln was a Republican president who let us away from slavery. So, he deserved certainly some credit for that.

But Republican voters also recognize the fact that it's not time to -- let's have a history lesson on what happened in the past. We've learned from that. Let's talk about what we can do to improve the future and make sure that we can work on race relations moving forward, and what's best for the American people with regard to our economy and securing the border and inflation and issues such as crime and safety in their own neighborhoods. And that's what they're -- (CROSSTALK)

LEVIN: You know, I think the record of the modern Republican Party speaks for itself. From Nixon southern strategy to George H.W. Bush's Willie Horton ads, where did -- where did Ronald Reagan start his campaign? In the county where civil rights workers were murdered. Why would you go there?

I mean, the Republican Party has had a political problem with racism for decades. And Donald Trump is continuing it and Christie -- and Haley couldn't even answer the question.

STEWART: I think it's clear, she -- she understands, she misspoke, she corrected it and the voters we are seeing are understating and respecting the fact that she made a mistake, she corrected it and she's moving on.

BROWN: All right. We don't have time to do more of a deep dive on history, but thank you both so much for that conversation. We appreciate it.

And the conversation continues tomorrow. Jake Tapper and Dana Bash will moderate the CNN Republican presidential debate live from Des Moines at 9:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN.

And a dramatic scene on live TV, armed men in masks and hoods forced people to the ground. The unrest that has led to this terrifying scene, up next.



BROWN: And the national lead, a wide-ranging storm is causing havoc in several parts of the country today. Tornadoes creating damage such as this in Florida's panhandle. Homes and businesses left barely standing. The storm killed one person in Georgia and another in North Carolina.

Right now, more than 30 million people are under severe storm threats with blizzard conditions in the Midwest and flooding in the Northeast. More than 500,000 are without power and that number likely to increase this heavy winds and rain get worse throughout the night.

And in our politics lead, finally, some answers after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's secret hospitalization in the middle of a brewing global conflict involving U.S. troops in the Middle East. In a statement this afternoon, Walter Reed Medical Center explains Austin was treated in late December for early stage prostate cancer. He was readmitted to the hospital January 1st for severe pain and an infection. The hospitalization, the White House, President Biden and Austin's own deputy were unaware of for three days.

CNN Pentagon correspondent Oren Liebermann is with us now.

Oren, did the Pentagon explain why Austin didn't notify anyone? OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Pam, there's a personal

side of this, which a statement from Walter Reed and the Pentagon in a press briefing pointed out that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is a private person and the decision to treat prostate cancer is a private decision.

But this isn't just an average citizen. This is the secretary of defense of the United States. Some of that privacy simply isn't there. That leads to the question of, why is it that President Joe Biden didn't know that his defense secretary was in the hospital, that the deputy secretary of defense didn't for days, neither did other senior administration officials?

There's also the question about whether anyone knew that he was under general anesthesia on December 22nd, when he was initially treated with a minimally invasive surgery, according to Walter Reed, for prostate cancer here. He spent the night in the hospital there. That, too, a major question here that has yet to be answered.

The Pentagon saying they've initiated a 30 day review of the notification procedures. They say it was his chief of staff Kelly Magsamen's job to pass on the notification to others but she had the flu is the answer or excuse we're hearing from the Pentagon here.

Still, his senior medical adviser knew and didn't pass on the notification. So, Pentagon saying they're reviewing this as part of a 30-day process. White House clearly concerned as well, because they told other agencies to look at their protocols as well here.

BROWN: Yeah. So, what else is the White House saying? It seems like from the reporting coming in, the president is still learning about Austin and his condition and having prostate cancer.

LIEBERMANN: And this is quite stunning, especially since President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are supposed to be pretty close. Biden didn't know that Austin was in the hospital until January 4th, three days after he was admitted.


And Biden only learned today that his defense secretary had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.

Here is the National Security Council John Kirby explaining this.


JOHN KIRBY, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: Nobody at the White House knew that Secretary Austin had prostate cancer until this morning. And the president was informed immediately after.

REPORTER: Did the president of the White House instruct Secretary Austin to make this disclosure today?


REPORTER: Does the president plan to stick with Secretary Austin through the rest of the term?



LIEBERMANN: The Pentagon now promising daily updates on Austin's health.

BROWN: And the defense secretary, we should note, is still in the hospital. What did the Pentagon say about his recovery or his schedule?

LIEBERMANN: No specific date for when he'll be released from the hospital. The doctors who released a statement from Walter Reed earlier today saves prognosis is good, prostate cancer was detected quite early here. But they caution, that even with a good prognosis and him being in good condition, this is a process that can take quite a bit of recovery here. So, there's no specific date on when we could expect to see him back in the hospital. Worth pointing out that he did resume his duties on Friday. He's carrying those that at this point from the hospital.

BROWN: All right. Oren Liebermann at the Pentagon, thank you so much.

And turning out to our world lead. Dramatic scenes today in Ecuador, have you seen this? Hooded gunmen stormed the state television station during a live broadcast, taking hostages. Ecuador is in the state of emergency, a declaration made after notorious gang leader escaped prison.

CNN's Patrick Oppmann is falling this from Havana, Cuba. Patrick, the TV station incident is just one of many troubling events.

PATRICK OPPMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, there's a wave of violence that is been committed by these gangs, armed violent gangs that are linked drug tells. The attack to university, attacked police, attacked prison guards. You have this absolutely stunning video that you just showed of these armed gunmen coming into a TV station in Guayaquil, Ecuador, while it was live on the, air, threatening employees, pushing them to the ground, pointing guns at them.

It appears that police have retaken control of the TV station. They're showing pictures of some of the alleged gunman on the floor with their hands up tied behind their backs there. They're saying they're able to go in and arrest them and rescue the employees of the TV station.

This is only one incident that apparently has been kicked off when one of the most notorious gang leaders in the country. He just walked out of prison, just before he was supposed to be transferred to a maximum security prison. A man known as Fito, a notorious gang leader escaped. Still not clear how he did that.

The president of Ecuador, Daniel Noboa, today declaring several of these gangs to be terrace groups and is ordering the military to check to the streets to fight them. These gangs, they are not giving up without a fight and they're saying that they will resist and fight back. And that is what they've been doing, and they say they will continue to do it as the Ecuadorian government tries to bring the gangs under control.

BROWN: Patrick Oppmann, thank you.

Coming up, new allegations against the district attorney prosecuting Trump in Georgia, accusing her of having a romantic relationship with a lawyer she put on the case.



BROWN: In our law and justice lead, a twist of the Georgia election subversion case. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is now accused, without concrete proof, of having an improper romantic relationship with the private attorney that she hired to be the lead prosecutor in the case against Donald Trump and 18 codefendants.

Now, one of those codefendants claims in a new court filing that D.A. Willis also may have been helped financially from hiring the private attorney, Nathan Wade.

So, let's bring in, Tamar Hallerman, a journalist for "The Atlanta Journal-Constitution" who has been following this accusation closely.

Thanks for joining us, Tamar.

So, who is Nathan Wade and how long has he known District Attorney Fani Willis?

TAMAR HALLERMAN, REPORTER, ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION: Nathan Wade is the special prosecutor who has really been spearheading this Trump election interference case in Fulton County, more or less, since the beginning. He joined in fall of 2021, he has been working closely with Fulton D.A. Fani Willis, as she collected evidence and the case, signed off on subpoenas, interviewed witnesses, helped negotiate immunity deals with potential witnesses.

And he's known Fulton D.A. Willis for several years now. He was assigned to mentor her back before she became district attorney when she was serving as a magistrate judge. So he was a part of her transition team, helped her staff up her office, and really has been an integral part of this election interference investigation.

BROWN: So what exactly is alleged here and what evidence is there to support the allegations?

HALLERMAN: These allegations certainly are striking. Ashleigh Merchant, who is the attorney for the defendant Michael Roman, has alleged that Nathan Wade and Fani Willis have been and a romantic relationship since before he was brought on to this case. And she alleges that a travel all over the country together. They've taken cruises to the Caribbean, allegedly.

And Mason Wade used some of the money that he earned as special prosecutor in this case, to help pay for D.A. Willis's transportation, allegedly, on these trips.


But the evidence is pretty scant in these filings. Ms. Merchant, the attorney who filed this, mentioned, or at least indicated that some of this evidence has been sealed as part of Mr. Wade's divorce filings as he battles it out with his former wife and those records have been sealed. She said she's fighting to get a hold of them but until then the allegations are out there with not much to back it up.

BROWN: So, the big question is, right, this has to do with Trump. How can this impact the case against Trump legally, politically, both?

HALLERMAN: Well, let's take this into pieces. I mean, politically, this is already an issue that is being seized upon by Fani Willis's Republican critics. In the state legislature here in Georgia, you are seeing Republicans using it as a reason to strengthen a new prosecutorial oversight commission that was created last year. We've heard critics who said it's yet another reason not to trust what D.A. Willis is doing in Fulton County and really to try to undermine whatever may come out as a part of this trial.

Legally, we are still waiting to figure out what all of this means. Of course, we are waiting to see what kind of evidence miss merchant brings forward and eventually at some point, and we're also waiting to see what D.A. Willis has to say about all of this as well as Nathan Wade, the special prosecutor.

They have not weighed in and they said that they would respond in the upcoming court filings. But otherwise, we have no idea what may come out of all of this. And so, I think that there is a real question about what happens moving forward.

There are some folks who've I spoken to who say that this is more of a case of bad optics more than anything else. But Ms. Merchant, and the attorney who did file these allegations mentioned how she believes not only is this a conflict of interest, but she believes it could file, it could be -- it could be running against laws that make it illegal to profit against government actions.

BROWN: We will have to wait and see what happens. Tamar Hallerman of "The Atlanta Journal-Constitution", thank you.

HALLERMAN: Thank you.

BROWN: New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers was back on the airwaves today. He weighed in on his feud with comedian Jimmy Kimmel, and a lineup of debunked conspiracy theories.



BROWN: The New York Jets quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, made his weekly appearance on ESPN's Pat McAfee show today, which did not include an apology to ABC TV host, Jimmy Kimmel. Rodgers faced backlash after suggesting last week that Kimmel might be listed in the Jeffrey Epstein documents. Rodgers made a brief mention of Kimmel today, instead, doubling down on debunked conspiracy theories, particularly about COVID and vaccines, raising questions again about misinformation going unchallenged on a platform Disney owns.

Let's bring in CNN senior media reporter, Oliver Darcy.

So, Oliver, Pat McAfee said today he would check Rodgers on anything that he knew was not true.

OLIVER DARCY, CNN SENIOR MEDIA REPORTER: Well, he didn't do a good job, Pam, because Aaron Rodgers was, once again, peddling all sorts of conspiracy theories and nonsense on ESPN when he came and responded to Jimmy Kimmel. I mean, he was talking about how vaccine supposedly cause injuries, which is, of course, something rejected by the medical community. He, once again, attacked Dr. Anthony Fauci, obviously widely respected public health authority.

It was really a repeat of what we have seen Rodgers do on ESPN during the Pat McAfee Show every Tuesday. He comes on every Tuesday, and often, the conversation goes down this rabbit hole where he starts spreading conspiracy theories. And that's why last week he suggested falsely that Jimmy Kimmel would show up in these Epstein documents, and that is why, now, he's, you know, getting Disney and really dragging the brand through the mud with these nonsensical vaccine conspiracy theories.

BROWN: Yeah, I remember that it was nine years ago I met him, and he knew I was a CNN reporter and he was spewing a very disturbing debunked conspiracy theory to me. And that was many years ago, and clearly, he just discontinues what that mindset. So, anytime you have Aaron Rodgers on, you've got to be ready to fact-check, apparently.

Disney owns both ABC and ESPN. Is there a sense of where the CEO Bob Iger stands on this?

DARCY: Bob Iger has actually remain silent during this entire affair. And it is actually quite stunning at this point because you had Jimmy Kimmel, which is one of Disney's brightest stars being smeared within the magic kingdom's own walls, and Bob Iger really not saying anything. Of course, Disney owns ESPN, so when you have someone like Kimmel attacked on Disney's own air, it's really remarkable.

And you've got to wonder at what point does someone like Bob Iger, you know, address this, because this is -- he has a lot of problems on his plate. But this is certainly a headache that is not going away anytime soon. This is what happens on the Pat McAfee show. Aaron Rodgers spreads these conspiracy theories. And now, Jimmy Kimmel has really put a magnifying glass on it.

So, at some point, Disney is going to have to say something. They seek to be this inoffensive family friendly brand, but when you have someone like Aaron Rodgers on there, it becomes something more akin to Fox News and injecting poison into a public discussion. And that's something Disney certainly does not want.

BROWN: Yeah. No, I think that that's a very important point to make. Oliver Darcy, thank you so much.

Before we go, Jake Tapper is in Iowa right now getting ready for tomorrow night's CNN Republican presidential debate. He will moderate along with CNN's Dana Bash live from Des Moines. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Governor Ron DeSantis will take the stage. Watch live tomorrow night at 9:00 p.m. Eastern, right here on CNN.

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