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Biden to Meet with Residents Impacted by Deadly Storms; Tornado Outbreak Likely this afternoon for Midwest, Mid-South; Biden Calls on Russia to Release U.S. Journalist Evan Gershkovich; Trump, Prominent Republicans Invoke George Santos in Attacks on NY DA; Heart-Wrenching 911 Calls Released as Funerals Begin. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired March 31, 2023 - 13:30   ET




ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN HOST: Just minutes from now President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden will meet with the residents of Rolling Fork Mississippi, that town that was nearly erased by a deadly tornado. Just minutes ago, federal and state officials delivered an update on the ongoing emergency response. And later the president will reaffirm his pledge to help rolling fork and nearby communities rebuilt.

CNN's Priscilla Alvarez joins us now from Rolling Fork. Priscilla, we know that the president takes his role of consoler in chief very seriously, how is that community feeling about his visit today?

PRISCILLA ALVAREZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: I've been speaking to residents this morning who say they're grateful for the help that they've gotten from the federal government and our welcoming President Biden here. And they really have remarkable stories of survival, Alex. I spoke to one resident who's lived here for 11 years and he was in his home and the tornado ripped through this area.

And he was lifted up in his home along with his family. He's just lucky to be alive, he says and he's looking forward to seeing President Biden today. Now, as you mentioned, President Biden did meet with federal and state officials earlier today. And then he acknowledged the devastation that he's seen so far. Take a listen.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: And most important thing is we got to let people know there's reason for them to have - especially people who lost somebody.


ALVAREZ: Now President Biden will be delivering remarks, he will announce that the federal government is going to cover the full cost of state emergency measures. That includes the removal of debris shelter operations, as well as overtime for first responders. He will also say that FEMA will have disaster recovery centers in different locations that were affected by these tornadoes. Again, Alex, you really can't overstate the devastation that he will be seeing as he arrives here in minutes.

MARQUARDT: Now still so much work to be done to rebuild. Priscilla Alvarez, in Rolling Fork Mississippi, thank you very much for that report! And we have this just in the National Weather Service has issued a rare level five out of five high risk alert for the Mid-west and mid-south warning that a tornado outbreak is likely for this afternoon. Let's get straight to the CNN Weather Center. Five out of five risks that is obviously that obviously does not sound good Jennifer.

JENNIFER GRAY, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Not good at all, Alex. Storm Prediction Center issues these and the last one that was issued was two years ago. So, that shows you how rare this is. This is going to be possibly very significant day across portions of the Mid-west and the mid-south. You can see the storms already starting to fire up. In fact, we already have our first Tornado Watch issued of the day.


You can see that does include St. Louis, also Little Rock, we have a couple of severe thunderstorm warnings in effect. But of course, we aren't seeing any tornado warnings quite yet. As the day goes on, we're going to have a lot of daytime heating taking place; we're going to have a lot of moisture coming in from the south that is really going to fuel the storms as we go through the evening and even into the overnight.

These areas highlighted in hot pink, Davenport included in that as well as Memphis, those are the areas that are the high risk. That's the level five out of five. However, we could see very strong, significant violent, long track tornadoes.

This is all language that the Storm Prediction Center has used to explain these storms; we could see those anywhere that shaded in these orange areas as well as that darker orange. We could see strong, long live tornadoes that are tornadoes that are on the ground for a long period of time. We're talking about EF3 or greater.

And strength, we're also looking at damaging winds in excess of 75 miles per hour. Here's a closer look at that northern risk area and then the southern risk area, it does include Memphis and the areas around there. And then you can take a closer look at the northern areas. That's the highest risk level.

But the area, the greatest area producing tornadoes is anywhere where these black lines are. So, that's going to be your greatest probability of a strong tornado. And this is a huge area for the potential for severe weather. So, really everyone needs to be on guard.

You can see the storms passing through Little Rock Memphis by five o'clock tonight even Chicago getting in on the storms. And then if they track to the east will continue the threat through the overnight hours. It's very important, especially since these storms are coming just a week after the deadly tornadoes last week to make sure you have a way to wake up throughout the overnight hours and get alerts on your phone.

Because we could see these travel throughout the overnight hours where a lot of people will be sleeping forecast rainfall an inch or two, possibly four. We could see the potential for flash flooding as well, Alex, but I can't stress it enough. The greatest rest this afternoon evening in the overnight will be that tornado threat.

MARQUARDT: And that warning a huge stretch across the United States. And right at the southern tip, Jennifer, I want to note is Rolling Fork Mississippi.

GRAY: Right.

MARQUARDT: Which just saw that tornado and where President Joe Biden is visiting today? So, I'm sure they're watching that very, very closely. Jennifer Gray in the CNN Weather Center, thank you very much.

GRAY: Thanks.

MARQUARDT: Now today the Kremlin says that accredited foreign journalists can keep working safely in Russia that assurance coming right after Russia's arrest of American Journalist Evan Gershkovich. According to Russian state media, the Wall Street Journal reporter is charged with espionage. The 31-year-old has pleaded not guilty. And this morning in his first public comments on this President Joe Biden did urge Russia to release Gershkovich, listen.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's your message for Russia right now as they're detaining the EU to Russia as they're detaining--

BIDEN: To whom?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To Russia, as they're detaining this Wall Street Journal Reporter.

BIDEN: Let him go.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you going to expel Russian diplomats or journalists - that's not the plan right now.

BIDEN: that's not the plan right now.


MARQUARDT: Joining us now is Jill Dougherty, a former CNN Moscow Bureau Chief who is now an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. Jill, thank you so much for joining me on this really, really important story! This is as you know the first U.S. journalist who has been accused of spying by Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It comes just days after the U.S. Department of Justice accused a Russian national of being a spy that that man was arrested in Brazil. Does the arrest of Evan Gershkovich of The Wall Street Journal in Moscow; does that feel like a retaliatory tit for tat? Or do you feel as some have suggested that this is Russia really stepping up its efforts to arrest and hold Americans who they can then trade?

JILL DOUGHERTY, FORMER CNN MOSCOE BUREAU CHIEF: You know, Alex, I've talked with several former diplomats, very senior diplomats. And each one says that there are a lot of factors could be going into this. I mean, it could be finding someone to trade for this guy you know, who is in Brazil right now. There also are two Russians in Slovenia who are being held. That might be a possibility.

There's also the idea and the Wall Street Journal is saying this, that it's an attempt to intimidate journalists in general. And then, you know, there could be a lot of different reasons for this, so I think is unclear, but it's entirely possible that that is one of the scenarios.

MARQUARDT: In terms of next moves Jill, the Wall Street Journal today called on the Biden Administration to expel not just Russia's ambassador who is still in Washington, but Russian journalists who work here in the United States as well. Do you think that that is the right move for the White House?

DOUGHERTY: You know that gets into a really debatable point because as another diplomat said, we don't do that. That is a U.S. diplomat. The United States wouldn't retaliate that way.


So, I think it's really, you know, do you violate your own laws in the United States, which robustly protect journalists? And, you know, just to prove a point to the Russians, or do you do something else, you know, they definitely would have to call the ambassador in and maybe, you know, ask him to go home. That's entirely possible. But I don't think at this point, that it is a good idea, personal opinion, to kick out Russian journalists.

MARQUARDT: We have heard a lot of rhetoric from different parts, different ministries and officials in Moscow. But Russia, we understand hasn't officially notified the U.S. that Gershkovich has been detained. U.S. officials from the embassy certainly have not been given consular access to the young reporter, given the climate that we're in, the horrible relationship between the U.S. and Russia right now. Do you have any hope that this situation can be resolved quickly?

DOUGHERTY: Oh, not at all. No, I think this is going to be dragged out. And if you notice this morning, there were statements from Dmitry Peskov who is the spokesperson for Putin saying, you know, Evan will be allowed consular access, somebody will be able to get to him. But you can, they can drag this out for a very long time.

You know, many of these rules when you get into espionage cases, which are literally classified as top secret, the rules can be stretched, you know, consular access may come let's say after they interrogate the journalist, there are many things that can happen.

But I think no one that I speak to as experience in this thinks that this is going to be ended quickly. In fact, the reverse I think this is going to be a very long and arduous period.

MARQUARDT: Jill, we only have a couple moments left, but if you were still a bureau chief, would you pull your journalists out right now?

DOUGHERTY: I would be very concerned. Yes, definitely, especially for Americans. But I don't think it's only Americans. I mean, if you look at Russia right now, they're criticizing the UK, Germany, et cetera. So, I think I probably would do that, sadly.

MARQUARDT: Yes, it is certainly having a deeply chilling effect on the Western journalists who are still there. Jill Dougherty thanks, as always, for your time and expertise, really appreciate it. Donald Trump and other high profile Republicans are invoking one of their favorite boogeyman claiming liberal billionaire George Soros is somehow directing the actions of the Manhattan District Attorney, Alvin Bragg, we have the facts next.



MARQUARDT: In the wake of his indictment former President Donald Trump and other prominent Republicans are invoking liberal billionaire George Soros in their attacks on the Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. Florida Governor and potential Trump 2024 rival Ron DeSantis, he tweeted the Soros back Manhattan district attorney has consistently bent the law to downgrade felonies and to excuse criminal conduct.

Yet now he is stretching the law to target a political opponent. With me now for a fact check is CNN's Daniel Dale. Daniel, we do know that Soros is a long-time supporter of democratic causes and campaigns. But do we know how directly involved he was with Bragg's?

DANIEL DALE, CNN REPORTER: Not directly Alex, his role here was indirect. What he did was as a long-time supporter of criminal justice reform; make significant donations to a like-minded PAC Political Action Committee that itself spent money supporting Bragg. Now I'll lay out the specific facts in a moment, Alex, but I want to start with some very important context.

George Soros is a frequent target of anti-Semitic attacks, sometimes explicit, sometimes more subtle dog whistles that portray him as like a puppet master pulling the strings behind various events. In this case, there was no indication that Soros somehow pressured DA Bragg into indicting Trump.

In fact, a Soros spokesman told me the two men have never once spoken e-mail texted communicated whatsoever. Soros also did not make any direct contributions to Braggs' 2021 campaign. Now it is true, though, that Soros indirectly helped Bragg. How? Well, he's a vocal supporter of criminal justice reform and liberal DA candidates.

And he was a major contributor, in fact, the biggest donor in the 2021, 2022 period to a pack that also promotes criminal justice reform. And these liberal candidates that pack called The Color of Change PAC told me it's spent just over $500,000 in support of Bragg's 2021 campaign.

Now a Soros spokesman told me this. He said between 2016 and 2022, George Soros personally and Democracy Pac has together contributed roughly $4 million to Color of Changes PAC, including 1 million in May 2021. None of these funds were earmarked for Alvin Bragg's campaign. He reiterated there had been no contact between Soros and Bragg.

Now I also spoke to the President of Color of Change, Rashad Robinson, he called these Soros centric attacks both anti-Semitic and anti- black. He thought they implied that his experienced black LED group was being like puppet master around by Soros, rather than making its own decisions about who to support.

And he noted the PAC has backed similar reform minded candidates around the country. He also told me it's a major overstatement to suggest that the money has PAC spent was like the sole reason that Bragg who's a Harvard law grad, a former federal prosecutor, former state Chief Deputy Attorney General was victorious in this 2021 Democratic primary.

Robinson said the pack was very important, but one of many factors and he said "Up until last week, we couldn't get people to write about our PAC". Now all of a sudden, we single-handedly elected the Manhattan DA when he was elected, I didn't get that credit. He said this stuff is a big reach by Trump and his defenders.


Now, George Soros himself issued a comment via text message to the outlet semaphore and Soros noted he didn't contribute to Bragg's campaign itself. He reiterated like a spokesman that he doesn't know Bragg. And Soros argued that "Some on the right would rather focus on far-fetched conspiracy theories than on the serious charges against the former president". Alex?

MARQUARDT: All right. Daniel, thank you for all those details now new insight into the heartbreak and horror of the school shooting in Nashville, Tennessee. The first funeral gets underway this afternoon as authorities released the heart wrenching 911 calls for help. We'll be live in Nashville next.


MARQUARDT: This afternoon in Nashville, the first funeral is being held for a victim of Monday's school shooting. Nine-year-old Evelyn Dieckhaus is one of the six people gunned down and killed in the attack. And those horrifying moments are captured in the panicked 911 calls from the school. Here's some of that newly released audio.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You need to make sure that if he comes there, you're going to have to either find a way to get out safely or fight. Do whatever is safest for you to do OK, but try to barricade yourself in the room as best you can.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Please send someone.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How many more shots did you hear?



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The fire station ma'am.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. So, it's on the side of the fire station?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Please, there are children here.


MARQUARDT: Find a way to get out or fight that is just bone chilling. CNN's Carlos Suarez is outside the church where the funeral for Evelyn will be held this afternoon. Carlos, how's that community doing?

CARLOS SUAREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Alex, as you can imagine, this community is still very much grieving several days after the shooting. And we're now looking at six funeral services over the next seven days. The service for nine-year-old Evelyn Dieckhaus is expected to get underway at around three o'clock local. We're told that the service will last about an hour and that the church here behind me can accommodate well over 1000 people.

Now overnight, an obituary of little Evelyn was released and in part, you get a sense of just how much of a role this girl played in her family's life. She's described as being the beacon of joy to her family, and that her faith was pure and that her prayers were sincere.

Now on Saturday, we're also going to see a funeral service for a nine- year-old Hallie Scruggs. Her father was the lead pastor is the lead pastor at the school's church. And in 911 calls that were released yesterday, you can hear her father calling 911 and saying that he was going to run inside of the building after hearing that there was a shooting that was going on inside.

The dispatcher tells him look, it's not safe for you to do that. You really should wait until police get there. Now at no point during that 911 Call, does it appear that Scruggs father knew that his daughter had been shot. On Saturday, we're also going to see another funeral service. That one is going to be for 61-year-old Cynthia Peak.

She is a substitute teacher. She is among the three staff members that were killed. And then the remaining funeral services will take place throughout the weekend and then into next week. Alex?

MARQUARDT: All right, just the beginning of years and years of mourning and sadness for those families and for that community. Carlos Suarez in Nashville, thank you very much for all of your reporting! And we do have an update to the dangerous weather alert that was issued just moments ago.

The National Weather Service says several strong and possibly violent that means EF3 or higher. Tornadoes are likely along with tennis ball size, hail and damaging thunderstorm wind gusts of up to 70 miles per hour. The watch includes Memphis, Little Rock and St. Louis, extending from far northwest Texas, to Illinois. That does it for me. Thank you so much for watching. We have much more breaking news, just ahead. Thank you.