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Willis Not Stepping Down; Jeremy Saland is Interviewed about the Willis Story; Biden Speaks at National Prayer Breakfast; U.S. Strikes Destroy Houthi Drones. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired February 01, 2024 - 09:00   ET




SARA SIDNER, CNN ANCHOR: This morning, Fani Willis remaining defiant with no plans to step down. New CNN exclusive reporting on the Fulton County DA leading the Georgia election subversion case against Donald Trump and others.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Iranian leaders worried and nervous. The new U.S. intelligence coming out about the strike that killed three Americans in the Middle East and the eventual response coming from President Biden.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: The mother of a convicted school shooter expected to take the stand as early as today in a precedent-setting trial. She says she, quote, "failed as a parent," but is that enough to convict her of manslaughter?

I'm John Berman, with Kate Bolduan and Sara Sidner. This is CNN NEWS CENTRAL.

SIDNER: A CNN exclusive.

We're learning Fulton County DA Fani Willis has no plans to step down from the Georgia election subversion case against Donald Trump and multiple co-defendants. Sources telling CNN that Willis is worried her departure would effectively end the case.

The Fulton County DA is facing scrutiny over allegations she's been having an affair with the lead prosecutor she appointed in the case, Nathan Wade. Willis and Wade are among nearly a dozen potential witnesses who have been subpoenaed to testify at an upcoming hearing.

CNN's Zachary Cohen brought us the exclusive reporting this morning.

Zach, a lot of drama going on here. Not a good look because this case is dramatic enough on its own. But tell us what we're going to sort of hear and what we imagine might be the response after some of your reporting.

ZACHARY COHEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Yes, Sara, what's clear is multiple sources telling me that Fani Willis is digging in. She has no intention of voluntarily removing herself from this case. And, look, that sets up a crucial couple weeks here that we have coming up here. On February 2nd, tomorrow, Willis faces a deadline to file her written response to these allegations that she engaged in an improper romantic relationship with her top prosecutor.

And it will really be the first time we've heard from Fani Willis since these allegations first surfaced. She spoke a couple weeks ago at a church in Atlanta, but since then has been silent. I'm told that she has been working behind the scenes, intimately and directly involved in crafting this written response. So, we're going to see what that says. I'm told it will focus mostly on the legal arguments, though. It's going to try to undercut this claim that she should be disqualified based on the allegations. She's not expected to really refute them, tough, directly. So, we're going to have to see how she balances that and what that will mean for an upcoming hearing on February 15th where Willis has been subpoenaed to testify.

As you know, Sara, all the hearings in this case are broadcast live on video. So, if Willis does take the stand on February 15th, we would be able to watch it live.

SIDNER: Right. And a lot of people will be watching.

You know, this all stemmed from a divorce that her attorney that she hired is going through, and she's embroiled in that. It has nothing to do with the case. But I find it interesting that you say that she believes the case would fall apart without her at the helm. We will be watching this and I know you'll be watching it closely. Thank you so much for your exclusive reporting. We appreciate it.


BOLDUAN: And let's talk about this reporting.

Joining us right now is former Manhattan prosecutor Jeremy Saland.

If this is what Fani Willis is expecting could happen, why she's -- why she's not stepping down, she fears or feels that the case would fall apart, do you think it would?

JEREMY SALAND, FORMER MANHATTAN PROSECUTOR: I don't think the case would fall apart. Any competent leader who's a chief law enforcement officer has the caliber of assistant prosecutors who are going to help take that case and shepherd it through to its end. And it's not a one- person show. She has multiple hands on deck to get this done. So, I would not expect it would fall apart, no.

BOLDUAN: Short of falling apart, would it necessarily impact the case?


SALAND: Impact directly, not necessarily.


SALAND: I mean there's a lot of moving pieces here, right?

BOLDUAN: There sure are.

SALAND: Is there misconduct? Is there an ethical issue? Should she be recused? Does it warrant dismissal for some reason, as they say, unconstitutional? There's a lot of moving pieces.

But, yes, it will impact the case because now we have a side show. But it's a legitimate side show. Any defendant should say, if something that seems nefarious is going on, it should be explored. So, no one should fault Roman and we'll call it the Trump team. It's not necessarily the Trump team, but Roman from taking this action.

BOLDUAN: Jeremy, stick with me. We're going to head back right now to Washington. I'm told that President Biden is now beginning his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast on Capitol Hill.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thanks for your introduction and for your service on behalf of the people of northwest Indiana.

A few years ago I visited Frank's hometown, Hamond, Indiana, with our dear friend and great Hoosier, Joe Donnelly, who's doing an incredible job as our ambassador to the holy city, walking his face in service of his nation, as well as we all are called to do. So, Frank, thank you for leading this year's prayer breakfast. And Congressman Tracey Mann of Kansas as well.

Thank you, Speaker Johnson. It's an honor to be with you today and Majority Leader Jeffries, and Senator Gillibrand and Blackburn, thank you both.

The chair of the National Prayer Breakfast and Foundation, Senator Heidi Heitkamp.

Heidi, I hadn't seen you in a while. It's so good to see you again, kid. It really is.

Members of the administration, Secretary Buttigieg, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and his wife Grace, who helped make this event what it is today.

Members of Congress and their families, including one of the home state senators -- my home state senators, Chris Coons, who, by the way, he not only got a law degree at the same time he got a law degree he got a divinity degree at Yale University, which makes me always wonder about him. I don't know. But all kidding aside, he's a great man. And his wife Annie is with him today. They're both dear friends.

Chaplain Black, we've known each other a long time. And on my last day in the Senate chamber you offered a prayer that in our labor may we illuminate the darkness of doubt, may we distinguish between truth and falsehood, and may we see possibilities that are now hidden. Your wisdom then and now this morning are deeply moving.

To the incredible Andre -- I think, by the way, I am an unadulterated fan of Bocelli, he will tell you, and you know that to be the case. He -- God, he could -- anyway. He's incredible, I think. Jill and I had the honor to host him for Christmas at the White House in on our first year in office, and you performed with your son and daughter as if you were a choir of herald angels. And in a difficult time for our family, after we lost our son Beau, you expressed in a song what we felt in our hearts. From your song "Fall on Me," it goes like this. It says, "fall on me with open arms. Fall on me from where you are. Fall on me with all your light."

Andre, you're a gift. You were a gift to my family at that moment, and you continue to be.

I have attended many prayer breakfasts over the years. And Jill and I have been humbled by the prayers of so many when we needed them badly. It means everything to us. And we're all blessed to live in a nation where we can practice our many faiths and practice them freely. And where we can come together and lift up our nation, and each other, each other, in our own prayers, especially in tough times.

Our prayers continue to be with the families of the three American servicemen killed and attacked in (INAUDIBLE) in Jordan, Sergeant William Rivers, Specialist Breonna Moffett and Specialist Kennedy Sanders. I spoke with each of these families separately, and Jill and I will be, tomorrow, at Dover Air Force Base to receive the dignified transfer of their bodies. They've raised their lives in harm's way, they risked it all, and we'll never forget the sacrifice and service to our country that the dozens of service members who were wounded and are recovering now.

I also see the trauma, the death and destruction in Israel and Gaza. And I understand the pain and passion felt by so many here in America and around the world. We value and pray for the lives taken and for the families left behind, for all of those who are living in dire circumstances, innocent men, women and children, held hostage or under bombardment or displaced, not knowing where the next meal will come from, or if it will come at all.


Not only do we pray for peace, we are actively working for peace, security, dignity for the Israeli people and the Palestinian people. I'm engaged in this day and night and working, as many of you in this room are, to find the means to bring our hostages home, to ease the humanitarian crisis, and to bring peace to Gaza and Israel. An enduring peace with two states, for two peoples, just as we worked for peace, security and dignity for the Ukrainian people as they show incredible resolve and resilience against Putin's aggression. We must continue to help them.

The challenge of our times, it reminds us of our responsibility as a nation to help each other, just and lasting peace delivered abroad and here at home. That's why we're fighting against the rise of anti- Semitism and Islamophobia here in the United States and all forms of hate, including those against Arab Americans and South Asian Americans.

This is a calling to stand against hate. To remember the very idea of America. We're all crazy -- we're unique in the world. The only nation based on an idea, we hold these truths to be self-evident. We're all created equal and deserve to be treated equally throughout our lives.

We've never, as a nation, fully lived up to that, but we've never walked away from it either. It's a covenant we have with one another that holds this nation together. And, quite frankly, I knew it before I became president because I did a lot of foreign policy and -- under -- and -- and the -- and the previous administration with Barack. But we're the beacon to the world. The entire world looks to us. That's not hyperbole.

This is an idea. This idea was made real before the soul became flesh, before this dream became a fact. It was prayed for. It was hoped for. It was believed in. That's the story of America.

Let me close with this.

It's fitting today marks the first time the National Prayer Breakfast is being held here in Statutory Hall. This is where the House of Representatives met for 50 years leading up to the Civil War. This is where a congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, sat at desk number 191 before becoming president and served our union and saved it.

History remembers President Lincoln's first inaugural address, counseling us to heed, quote, "the better angels of our nature." "The better angels of our nature." We'd do well to remember what he said just a few moments before he concluded the same address. At a moment of deep division in our nation, President Lincoln said, "we are not enemies." He said, "we are not enemies, but friends." We must not be enemies, he went on to say.

I've long believed we have to look at each other, even in our most challenging times, not as enemies but as fellow Americans. Scripture tells us, the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness. I believe that's our collective calling today. Here -- here we are in this room, among the statue of heroes who shaped our history, and here we know faith is a living spirit. It awakens our passions to come down from the pedestal and act to serve. That's why over the door of the rotunda there's a scripture depicting Cleo, the muse of history. In her hands is an open book in which she records the events taking place here, in a citadel of democracy. She's a silent witness to the American story of war and peace, insurrection and stability.

As we gather this morning, what will Cleo write for the future about what we did in our time? What will she write about us? My prayer, my hope, is we continue to believe our best days are ahead of us, that as a nation we continue to believe in honesty, decency, dignity and respect. We see each other not as enemies but as fellow human beings, each made in the image of God, each precious in his sight. We leave no one behind. We believe everyone deserves a fair shot. We give hate no safe harbor.


Together we believe in America. That's my prayer, to remember who we are. We're the United States of America. And there's nothing, and I mean this sincerely, nothing beyond our capacity if we act together. We're the only nation in the world that's come out of every crisis stronger than we went in when we act together.

My prayer for all of you, in my church we've taken the 22nd Psalm and turned it into a hymn. It says, he will raise you up on eagle's wings and bear you on the breath of dawn and make you to shine like the sun. Until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand.

That's sincerely my prayer to all of you. We have really tough, tough differences. We really go at one another. But remember, let's remember who the hell we -- who we are. We're the United States of America. And it's all about dignity and respect. So, let's practice it.

Thank you for having me. It's good to be back.

BERMAN: President Biden speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast, calling for national unity. Catching himself at the end there, about to say, let's remember who the hell we are. Didn't get the full word "hell" out as he was praying there with national leaders.

Every president since Dwight David Eisenhower has appeared at the National Prayer Breakfast, and every single one of them has called for unity, almost. Notable exception, Donald Trump prayed for ratings for "The Apprentice," and the following year he used the National Prayer Breakfast to attack Mitt Romney and Nancy Pelosi.

President Biden there calling for unity. Also calling for prayers for the three U.S. service members who were killed in Jordan.

Much more on this ahead.

Also, for the first time since his unannounced hospitalization, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin holds a news conference. We are also expecting new insight into the expected U.S. response to the attack that killed those three Americans in Jordan.

A bipartisan tax deal passes the House with an overwhelming majority. It could help thousands of low-income families. But one senior Republican senator expresses concern it could also help President Biden.

An airport hangar collapses, leaving three people dead. We've got new developments.



SIDNER: All right, this is just coming into us here in the CNN newsroom. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is scheduled to speak at a news conference at the Pentagon next hour. His first since his unannounced hospitalization due to complications with cancer.

It comes at U.S. officials now say Iran is getting increasingly nervous about their proxy groups as attacks on U.S. forces in the region escalate. Overnight, a new round of U.S. strikes destroyed a major hub for Houthi drones in Yemen. This is as President Biden's retaliation still looms for the killing of American soldiers, three of them in Jordan.

And in the Red Sea we're now learning a Houthi missile came within one mile of this U.S. warship that you are looking at over my right shoulder. Past attempts have come no closer than eight miles.

Natasha Bertrand is following all of this from the Pentagon.

Natasha, what are we seeing here because everybody is waiting for the response to the killing of those three soldiers in Jordan, but we're seeing that Iran is being reportedly concerned about their proxies.

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Yes, Sara. So, what we're learning from U.S. officials is that Iran does not want to get into a direct war or direct conflict with the United States. Yes, they train, support, equip these proxy groups in Iraq, Syria and in Yemen with the Houthis, of course, but really the goal of that support has always been to kind of harass U.S. forces and not engage in the kind of escalation that backs the U.S. into a corner and then forces the U.S. to respond in a very significant way, potentially striking Iran itself, as we see Republicans have been calling for in recent days because of that attack on Jordan that killed three U.S. service members that the U.S. is now attributing to Iran-backed militias.

And so what we're learning is that the Iranian leadership is becoming a little bit nervous about what these groups are doing because we have to remember also that Iran doesn't have perfect command and control over these groups in Iraq and Syria. And so the question now is, is Iran going to do anything about it? That remains completely unclear. Are they actually going to try to rein in these groups because, again, you know, the question of Yemen is a really good example of this. They don't have a lot of control over the Houthis and their attacks on commercial shipping either. And that is hurting Tehran's bottom line because it's angering some of Iran's closest and really only allies, including China and India.

And so the question is, are they going to actually take -- make a move to rein in these groups. That remains to be seen. The U.S. has conveyed to the Iranians privately that they do expect them to try to control these groups a little better, but it's unclear if they actually can.

And so when -- as the U.S. is weighing their response, of course, Iran has anxiety about whether the U.S. is going to go as far as to strike inside Iran directly. That is very unlikely at this point we are told, but, still, the U.S. response is expected to be multi-faceted and potentially even sustained over time in multiple countries, Sara.

SIDNER: All right. I know you'll be watching all of it and get the details for us.

Thank you so much, Natasha Bertrand, we appreciate it.


John, watching this for so long. Ever since the October 7th terrorist attacks. And then you had Israel respond, saying, we are in official war. There has been this constant worry that this was going to blow up into a regional conflagration after that (ph).

BERMAN: And there is constant activity.

With us now is CNN military analyst, retired Colonel Cedric Leighton.

Cedric, we don't know exactly where this U.S. ship, the USS Gravely, was attacked inside the Red Sea, but we do know what it used to repel this Houthi missile, which is a close-in weapon system. Explain to us what we are seeing right here and what it tells us about how close this Houthi missile got to the U.S. vessel.

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, John, the close-in weapon systems, or CIWS, is an automated machine gun basically. And what it does is it's a close-range gun that is used when no other system has been able to engage a target successfully. So, what that means is, that Houthi missile got really, really close to the Gravely, the USS Gravely, which is the destroyer that we pictured earlier. And that is one in very, you know, close situation. And it's the first time -- as Sara mentioned, that's the first time that we've had a situation like this in this particular operation.

BERMAN: Yes, it just shows how much closer these Houthi missiles are getting.

News out of Europe, Colonel, which is that the European Union has approved $50 billion in new money to help Ukraine. Now, Colonel, if you had this new infusion of money, what would be the first two things on your shopping list for Ukraine?

LEIGHTON: So, John, the first thing I would be getting would be air defenses and ammunition. Those would be the first couple of items. And those would be the most important because those two things are really what Ukraine needs right now.

We have seen how much the Ukrainians have actually had to scale back on their operations, even their defensive operations. With ammunition they can improve their defensive operations and they can also potentially go on offense in selected sectors there. And, of course, air defenses are critical because the Russians are targeting the civilian infrastructure of Ukraine. And if they can spread out their air defense architecture within Ukraine, what that means is they can protect more people, prevent more deaths, and that then will allow the Ukrainians to have a much better effort in terms of being able to counter the Russians than they've had in the last few months.

BERMAN: What are we talking about in terms of air defense, the Patriot missiles batteries like we see here?

LEIGHTON: Yes, Patriots would be one aspect. Remember, the Europeans also have Patriot batteries that they could potentially send to Ukraine in addition to the ones they've already sent. We also have a system IRIS-T, which is a German made system. And then we have the NASAMS system, which is a joint U.S./Norwegian system designed for more close-in air defense type operations. But those three systems would probably be the most important ones that the Ukrainians could use barring perhaps the acquisition of something like an Iron Dome from Israel, which is related to the Patriot system.

BERMAN: Cedric, I just had handed to me a note here, an alert out of Ukraine, where the Ukrainian military is saying that it sunk a Russian vessel somewhere in the vicinity of Crimea here on the map. They say it was a Russian corvette that was hit by Ukrainian sea-borne drones. It was a Russian guided missile corvette.

Talk to me about what exactly that means. And is this more of a moral victory for Ukraine? They keep on attacking ships in Crimea, showing that they can, but does it get them anything in the long term in their battle against Russia?

LEIGHTON: So, the Ukrainian strategy that's evolved right now because of the static nature of the front lines on -- in the ground war, John, they've evolved a more asymmetric strategy. And that strategy includes clearing the Black Sea of as much of the Russian navy as they possibly can. So, they've been pretty successful considering the fact that they really don't have a navy. They've been very successful using sea-borne drones to go after Russian naval targets. They've sunk several ships, including destroyers. They've also sunk transport ships. And, of course, famously they sunk the Moskva back at the very beginning of this war where they were actually able to sink the flag ship of the Black Sea Fleet.

So, this is a furtherance of the Ukrainian strategy. And what that means is that Ukraine is better able to export grain and other products through the Black Sea.

The Russians are basically unsuccessful in really taking the western Black Sea as making it in essence a Russian lake. They can't do that because of the Ukrainian efforts. And it's really making the Black Sea Fleet impotent.