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Defense Secretary Austin: Strikes Send A Clear Message To Houthis; Houthis Say Military Operations Will Continue Despite Strikes; Tonight: South Carolina Primary Kicks Off Biden's March To Democratic Nomination; Officials: Biden Approved Saturday Strikes Earlier This Week; Federal Judge In Election Interference Case Postpones Trial; Southern California Braces For Torrential Downpours. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired February 03, 2024 - 18:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN HOST: And you are in the CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Alex Marquardt in New York, tonight for Jim Acosta. Thank you so much for joining us.

We begin this hour with breaking news in the Middle East as the United States and the United Kingdom have launched together a new round of airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The two countries hit 36 targets across some 13 locations. Senior Biden administration officials say that the president approved these strikes earlier this week.


The Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is calling it a clear message and saying that the US will not hesitate to defend the free flow of commerce in that vital waterway, the Red Sea, but Iran warns that the US is fueling further conflict in the region.

Now all of this coming just a day after the US also launched strikes against militant groups in Iraq and Syria backed by Iran. That, in retaliation, the administration says for a deadly drone attack last weekend on US troops in Jordan that left three American servicemembers dead.

CNN's Oren Liebermann is live at the Pentagon tracking all of this. So Oren, what more are we learning about these latest strikes in Yemen.

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: So first, in terms of how they were carried out, we can talk about some of the platforms that were used here. US Navy FA-18 fighter jets took part in this launch from the Dwight D. Eisenhower, a carrier that has been operating in the region. We have seen F-18s teams from the Ike, not only take part in these sorts of strikes before, but also have played a big role in going after Houthi weaponry in smaller strikes, and shooting down many of the drones and missiles that had been launched.

We also saw two Destroyers take part in this, the Carney and the Gravely, they have been in the region for quite some time. And similarly, have also taken part in these sorts of strikes before, as well as intercepting a lot of the Houthi launchers that have targeted international shipping and that's the core of why the US and the UK have done this, as well as the other countries that have backed this because these Houthi attacks have continued and from everything we're seeing, will continue.

But as the US in the UK that have gone after trying to degrade a lot of -- and disrupt a lot of the Houthis' capabilities to go after this. In terms of what was attacked, the US went after 13 different locations, a total of 36 targets across those locations.

According to a joint statement, those targets included a deeply buried weapons storage facility, missile systems and launchers, air defense systems, and radars.

A short time ago, US Central Command also put out a statement saying they also targeted helicopters. That's an interesting one, first time we've seen the US go after helicopters. It's worth noting that in the video the Houthis released of the ship that they hijacked at the beginning of their attack on commercial vessels, there was a helicopter that played a key role in getting Houthi forces onto that ship, so perhaps a message there as well.

The bottom line, this is the third time we have seen the US and the UK carry out this joint operation backed by a number of other countries, in this case, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand as well and Bahrain, backing this up trying to send a message not only to the Houthis, but also because the Houthis, an Iran-backed rebel group sending a message to Iran as well, that this isn't just an attack on the US and the UK, it is an attack on one of the world's most critical waterways in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

And Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin saying this loud and clear, if these attacks on international shipping don't stop on the US warships, I should point out, then these strikes on Houthi targets won't stop either -- Alex.

MARQUARDT: And then Oren, in terms of the strikes last night against Iranian backed groups in Iraq and Syria, the Pentagon was very quick to come out saying this was seven different -- seven facilities, 85 different targets, but there were still a lot of unknowns. The casualties, for example, what was actually hit and the damage done to that.

So is there anything we've learned in the last few hours about what the US was actually able to do last night?

LIEBERMANN: We haven't yet gotten a battle damage assessment. For our viewers, that's when the US is able to conduct sort of intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance and get a much better sense of what it was able to destroy what it missed, perhaps what it only partially destroyed. So we haven't gotten a read on that yet.

Of course, after the strikes, which took place at night, you basically need at least a day to go by so the US has a better opportunity to surveil all of that in the day.

Shortly after the strikes, in a briefing, the US did say that they believe they were incredibly effective at striking the targets they were going after and did a good job of hitting the targets that they targeted. Obviously, a large number, more than 85 targets across four locations in Syria, and three in Iraq using more than 125 precision guided munitions, but that's not a guarantee that all of those targets were hit or destroyed.

They did say it was likely that there were casualties in their strikes. You almost had to expect that given that this was a retaliation to a drone attack that killed three US servicemembers and wounded scores more that there would be casualties among Iran-backed militias as part of the US response.

But crucially, Alex and we have certainly talked about this before, the US making clear that there will be more of a response to those strikes. I'll point out that the pictures you're seeing now, those are afterburners from FA-18s taking off from the Ike. This is a launch of a Tomahawk cruise missile from a Destroyer that took part in the strikes on Yemen today.

These pictures just coming out moments ago as part of the US and UK up operation to go after Houthi targets in Yemen, some incredible pictures there from US Central Command and from the Navy. That's the Destroyer again, that's the deck of the Ike with FA-18 fighter jets taking off as part of these attacks.


MARQUARDT: And just sort of to highlight, Oren, how busy the US is across the Middle East right now, you're talking about extraordinary strikes in Iraq and Syria that were carried out by B-1 bombers that flew over from the United States. And there we are looking at the ships and the jets that are involved in striking the Houthis in Yemen.

Oren Liebermann, thank you for your terrific reporting from the Pentagon.

And this is just in to CNN, the Houthis are now responding to the US- led coalition strikes earlier today on those targets in Yemen.

CNN's international diplomatic editor joins us from Tel Aviv.

Nic Robertson, so what are the Houthis saying?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: And perhaps not unexpectedly, saying that they're going to meet escalation with escalation, remembering that the Houthis fought an eight-year war with Saudi Arabia, they believe they're in a fight with the United States right now, and they have, they believe the experience of withstanding year after year after year of aerial bombardment.

Now given Saudi Arabia doesn't have quite the firepower, the number of munitions, a large coalition to bring to bear on the Houthis, the Houthis also know at the time, when the Saudis were fighting them from the air, they were getting intelligence, and they were getting air refuel capability from the United States.

So the Houthis already feel they've got some experience fighting the United States, and they feel at the moment that they can still punch back. They will find clearly that the level of strikes and the capacity of strikes, and the frequency of strikes that the United States and its coalition partners can mount will be bigger, and are bigger than what the Saudis were able to do.

But this doesn't alter the mindset of the Houthis, and that very much at the moment is escalation for escalation. They continue to say that they're doing this to save the people of Gaza. The narrative overall, whether you're listening to the Houthis or the Iranians or the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq or Syria, they all say, look, just finish the war in Gaza, just end all of that, and everything will go back to being calm.

But what they actually mean is, end the war in Gaza on the terms that we want, where Hamas is able to be strong, where Israel is weakened, and therefore the United States' principal ally in the region is weakened, and therefore US interests in the region are weakened.

I don't think anyone should kind of misunderstand what they're actually saying here when they say, you'll get peace, if you stop all of this. They're not. They're saying they want it on their terms where they come out stronger, and they are vowing to continue the fight here.

MARQUARDT: Yes, in this mission of deterrence, they don't sound particularly deterred tonight.

Nic Robertson, thank you for your wealth of analysis there. Nic in Tel Aviv, thank you very much.

Let's dig deeper now with a panel of experts. Joining me now is the president of the Eurasia Group and GZERO Media, Ian Bremmer, and the former NATO supreme allied commander, General Wesley Clark.

Gentlemen, thank you both, for joining me this evening.

Ian, let me start with you. We have seen things like this in the past few months, I mean, strikes on the Houthis in Yemen, strikes against the militants in Iraq and Syria, but how different do you think what we've seen over the course of the past 24 hours is, and what does it mean for what we're going to see in the next few weeks?

IAN BREMMER, PRESIDENT, EURASIA GROUP: It's a little different, in the sense that it is a response to what White House advisers had referred to as their nightmare scenario over months now. The thing they really, really were most concerned about was that Iran's proxies would strike the US and we would have servicemen and women in the field dead. That's now happened and the Americans have to respond. They have to respond with significant escalation, which they've done. And they've not just targeted proxies, they've also targeted the IRGC. In other words, Iranian assets, and some Iranian advisers on the ground in Syria and Iraq. Having said that, they've also telegraphed that to Iran days in advance, and what that means is both that it is much less likely that the US and Iran will get into a direct shooting war and everyone has been trying to avoid that, but it's also much less likely that Iran will be deterred from continuing to provide ongoing military support and intelligence to those proxies.

And so the axis of resistance, I'd be stunned if we see any limitation or slowdown from the attacks, both in terms of the Red Sea and civilian shipping traffic, as well as against the Americans and others in the region.

So we're a little closer to war, but the steps are very incremental.


MARQUARDT: General Clark, do you agree? Do you think we're a little closer to war when you look at these more than 30 targets struck in Yemen today and the real ramping up of activity against those militant groups in Iraq and Syria?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, actually, we've been at war or Iran has been at war with us for 40 years. Undeclared, but they've pushed on us. You know, they used terrorist attacks against our Marines in Lebanon, so we just don't want to admit it because we don't want this.

Iran has a very good strategy by their standards. They can continue to attack and whittle away at American interests, and then they can claim deniability, and I don't accept that for a second. I think ultimately, we're going to have to go to the source of this and that source is Iran, and we're going to have to put it at risk those assets they value most.

Now, yes, that is an escalation. But we are ramping this up right now. And Alex, I think I just -- we just can't discuss this without also referencing Ukraine.

Ukraine is really central to the US alliances in Europe and global credibility for the United States and they are really struggling now. So everything we do in the Middle East helps Putin deal with Ukraine. We have to keep that in mind. This is a multi-theater problem that we're dealing with and the longer we drag this out with Iran, the greater the impact -- adverse impact -- on our alliances and in Ukraine.

MARQUARDT: Ian, what do you make of how the US is trying to walk that line with Iran, imposing costs on their assets, making clear, however, that they are not going to strike inside Iran itself?

BREMMER: They've made that clear so far, and again, that limits the likelihood of direct war. I agree with the General, of course, that there has been a proxy war that the Iranians do not have deniability. All of these proxies, do not have massive weapons stockpiles, they are being provided ongoing weapons by the Iranians every week, every day that the Americans and others are trying to interdict. They are completely accountable for the fact that these attacks continue to go on. They're happy to have these attacks continue to go on. So clearly, the Americans are involved indirectly in a war with the Iranians.

But of course, there is another theater. It's not just the Ukrainians are now a deep second place in terms of the interests of the United States, the time of US policymakers, the willingness to provide support. It's also that this is hurting Biden in an election year.

And the longer this war goes on and the more we see escalation in the region, the harder it is for him to deal with Republican opposition saying you're a weenie, you're not taking this war to the Iranians. This never would have happened under Trump.

And he's also taking it from the progressives in his own party that are saying you're on the support of war criminals engaged in genocide in Israel. That's a serious -- that's a serious problem for Biden right now.

For a year, you know, you had bipartisan support for Biden's support on Ukraine. Now, you've got the divide in the United States and Ukraine, you've got the divide in the United States on Israel, you've got a divide in the United States on the Iranians and that is a hard, hard thing for Biden to see his way through.

MARQUARDT: I really appreciate how both of you are looking at the big picture here zooming out, connecting what we're seeing in each of these different areas with the bigger picture, the other issues, but General Clark, at the same time, the Pentagon, the White House have been really trying it seems to isolate each one of these fronts, whether it's what's going on with the Houthis in Yemen, or what's going on in Iraq and Syria, and not talking about how any of it is connected back to Israel and Gaza. What do you make of their efforts to sort of break those out into different issues?

CLARK: Well, I think it makes sense to try to break it out in different issues if you're looking for a diplomatic solutions, and I think this is characteristic of this administration. It's been trying to work a diplomatic solution with Iran for over a decade and it has brought Russia into this.

And it's one of the reasons why Putin feels like he's had a free hand or relatively free handing in Ukraine, because at the very time that he invaded and seized Crimea, the United States was really fawning over him to try to get him to help us get an agreement with Iran.

So it's characteristic of this administration through this -- now look, what Ian says is exactly right. No Democratic leader, no democratically elected government can sort of say, hey, this is the strategy and let's call it like it is. It's too difficult.

And so we're sort of edging our way into this. We're backing into it. We've got our eyes open on intelligence. We haven't mobilized our military industrial base adequately to deal with what's happening. We're using critical munitions in the Middle East that could be decisive if used by the Ukrainians in Ukraine. We're not producing enough to overcome our consumption.


So we have a number of issues here, and by the way, the volunteer force also needs to be looked at. We're not meeting our recruiting objectives in the Army and in the Navy. So there's a lot that needs to be done.

I hope the president will address the American people, link these issues together, explain the importance of national security and national defense and not run from the challenge, but use it as he is the right person to lead this forward. I mean, that's what a political leader has to do at this time.

MARQUARDT: No one is disputing that so many of these issues that we're talking about go back to well before October 7th, and I'll throw in the northern Israeli front with Hezbollah, of course.

But Ian, do you think that the Biden administration sees a lot of this as being tied back to October 7th? And to what extent is it critical for the US to help get a ceasefire in place, wind down that war in Gaza as a vehicle, essentially, to calm the region?

BREMMER: They do see a lot of it as tied to October 7th because they really were surprised by it. Remember, only eight days before October 7th, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, wrote a piece saying the Middle East is more stable now than it has been in a very long time and he had reason to say that, of course.

I mean, the Saudis and the Emiratis had made peace with Qatar and the GCC. The Americans had the Abraham Accords. Israel was in a strong geopolitical position. The Chinese had facilitated a breakthrough between the Chinese -- between the Iranians and the Saudis.

Only problem is that the Palestinians were still on the short end of that stick, and Netanyahu was driving all sorts of problems in his own democracy. Israel was more unstable, had their eye off the ball.

So October 7th happened and the Biden administration was very surprised by that, in a sense, was caught flatfooted by that. And now they've got to deal with a crisis in a region that they really, really did not want. They really, really weren't prepared for.

And absolutely, they're pushing hard for at least a temporary ceasefire. They're pushing hard to get those hostages exchanged and stop the fighting in Gaza for a period of time, so they can talk about political solutions with Gulf allies, for example, talk about providing security on the ground in Gaza, that is not an a permanent occupation by Israel, also talk about how to get Netanyahu out of there, who is -- who frankly, benefits from the war going on longer in terms of his own personal ambitions on the ground that aren't always aligned with those of Israeli national security.

It's a very, very hard thing for Biden to get done, though, because there are so many moving pieces, many of whom are not aligned towards stability. MARQUARDT: And General Clark, we just heard my colleague Nic Robertson is saying that it's not that the Houthi necessarily want the end of the war in Gaza, they want it on their terms. So to what extent do you think that you know, what Ian was just talking about that that possible truce and pause in the fighting is so critical for these various other fronts?

CLARK: Well, I think it would be very useful if we got a pause on the fighting, but on the other hand, Israel cannot allow Hamas to reconstitute and continue to constitute a threat against Israel. No country could do that and you still have the problem in the north with Hezbollah, which is directly attributable to Iran.

And as Ian said, the Iranians are feeding the Houthis. They've got technicians there, they've got the weaponry there, and so forth. It's all in their interest. And this ties back to the strategic relationship between Russia and Iran. They see it as all connected.

We're trying to deal with the pieces separately because we're trying to use diplomacy rather than force. Putin is an adroit intelligence operator. He knows he's got the Houthis. He's got Hezbollah. He's got Iran. He's got Gaza.

Plus, he has in the United States, a substantial minority of people who want to cut off aid to Ukraine. He's feeding that. And so there is a disinformation operation going on affecting a number of people in this country and we've never really done a counterintelligence we need to clean up our own political system.

You know, when you're the most powerful country in the world and you hold an election, every country in the world wants to influence it. And then you know, I hear China say, oh, we won't try to interfere. Come on. Come on now. Let's not accept that. Every country wants to interfere and some will do it in a nice way, and some will do it illegally.

So this is a multi-theater operation. It's a struggle for democracy against autocracy and it is a struggle about the credibility of the United States in a new era.

Soft power is not working in a way it worked 20 years ago. It has been degraded. We're not as effective using soft power because we've blundered our credibility.


We have other nations that want to challenge us through the use of force. It's unthinkable that Russia would give nuclear threats to the United States and we wouldn't respond in a commensurate way. It's like, oh, my goodness, we don't want to talk about nuclear. We have a nuclear deterrence that's why we had 40 years of peace with Russia during the Cold War.

So we're going back in some ways to an earlier era. It's going to be a very difficult era for the American people to understand and it really falls on this administration and the president to grasp it, to explain it, and to look past the election to what's in the best interest of the United States in the longer term.

MARQUARDT: Well, we're very fortunate to have both you help us wade through all of that nuance and provide that proper context. Ian Bremmer, General Wesley Clark, thank you both very much.

And we will have much more of our breaking news coverage straight ahead. Stay with us.



MARQUARDT: Tonight, President Joe Biden is betting on a big win in the state that propelled him to the Democratic nomination back in 2020.

Fifty-five delegates are up for grabs in South Carolina's first in the nation Democratic primary after the DNC stripped New Hampshire of its delegates for refusing to comply with the party's official nominating calendar, putting South Carolina first.

Now, this is the first time that South Carolina has appeared at the front of the official Democratic nominating calendar and that was a change made largely at the request of President Biden. He is far and away the overwhelming favorite in this Democratic field facing minimal competition from Minnesota Congressman Dean Phillips and author, Marianne Williamson.

CNN's Eva McKend is on the ground in South Carolina.

So Eva, without much of a competition here for the Democratic nomination and for President Biden himself, why is the state still so important for him?

EVAN MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: You know, Alex, I have two words for you, Black voters.

When you speak to Democrats, they describe Black voters as the backbone of the party. Sixty percent of South Carolina Democrats are African-American, and so they are looking to this population and this contest as instructive about what lies ahead.


MCKEND (voice over): Saturday's South Carolina primary will serve as an early test of President Joe Biden's standing with a loyal constituency, Black voters.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You're the reason I'm president. You're the reason Kamala Harris is a historic vice president and you're the reason Donald Trump is a defeated former president.


MCKEND (voice over): While the president is expected to win the first official Democratic contest, the results could signal how much work he has to do to shore up support with a critical piece of his coalition ahead of an expected rematch with Donald Trump in November.

GABRIEL FANT, SOUTH CAROLINA VOTER: We need somebody who speaks to Black Americans in the United States and I don't think that either/or are doing so.

MCKEND (voice over): Gabriel Fant is a server at Hannibal's Kitchen, a must stop for political candidates visiting Charleston, including the president just last week.

FANT: I'm a seventh generation in South Carolina, so I've seen the hardships Black people go through, and no one is addressing that and economically, we are at the bottom.

MCKEND (voice over): Not even FaceTime with the president has changed her mind. Her economic anxieties too great.

FANT: We need a candidate who's going to stand up and stand up strong for us or we're voting for the couch.

MCKEND (on camera): So you're considering staying home and not voting.

FANT: Yes. And a lot of us rare.

DR. TONYA MATTHEWS, PRESIDENT AND CEO, INTERNATIONAL AFRICAN-AMERICAN MUSEUM IN CHARLESTON: History reminds us to never forget that there was a time when we did not have that choice.

MCKEND (voice over): Dr. Tonya Matthews is the CEO of the International African-American Museum in Charleston. She says Black voters have created the organizing power to elevate issues vital to them, like fair wages, housing development, and small business support.

MATTHEWS: We think about the ancestors who died to fight for this, but we also think about aunts and uncles that are currently poll workers. When we see encouragement or strong turnout or strong voices in places like South Carolina, it is a note to the rest of the country, not just to other Black voters, that Black voters are paying attention.

MCKEND (voice over): The significance is not last on shop owner, Mimi Striplin, who met Biden last month with other South Carolina entrepreneurs.

With this administration, she says she feels like she has a seat at the table and her voice is valued.

MIMI STRIPLIN, SOUTH CAROLINA BUSINESS OWNER: I think that we have to be able to step back and think a little more long term like yes, four years, eight years feels like a long time in my lifetime, but we think about these changes and how they are hopefully going to be impacting the next generations to come.

MCKEND (voice over): She worries about what another Trump presidency would bring.

STRIPLIN: It could be chaos all over again, like there were days that I just wake up as a person of color in this state and fear for my life and that shouldn't be the case for anyone. And so of course, there are definitely worries and fears around that.

MCKEND (voice over): National Democrats are leaning into those concerns hoping they will motivate voters to turn out while also making an affirmative argument for Biden.


There are a lot of ways that we've been trying to make things more affordable for working people. Student loan debt, we have seen the lowest -- the lowest unemployment for Black folks in 50 years. We've seen this president work to cut childhood poverty in half particularly in Black communities.


MCKEND (voice over): Many are ready to give Biden another four years to continue making the case.



GEORGE MCCRAY, SOUTH CAROLINA VOTER: I'm always in support of Biden because I - on the inside, I think he's fair. On the inside, I think he's fair. I don't think Barack Obama would have had him a part of the team if he wasn't and I'm a firm believer of Barack Obama.


MCKEND (voice over): But it may not be enough to convince some black voters weary of supporting Democrats again.

GABRIEL FANT, SOUTH CAROLINA VOTER: I'm telling black people, stay home.


MCKEND (on camera): So Alex, things have been relatively quiet at this polling site here in Columbia. Just about 181 people showed up at this site to vote today, but still Democrats in this state expressing optimism, telling us 76 percent of early and absentee ballots came from black voters. So there was several days of early voting in this state, and they're confident in those numbers.

But time will tell, Alex. The polls close in just about half an hour.

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN HOST: All right. Eva McKend on the ground there in Columbia, South Carolina. Thank you so much for that report.

And coming up, back to our breaking news tonight, the U.S. and a number of allies conducting a new wave of airstrikes against the Houthis in Yemen. We'll have new details when we come back. Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


MARQUARDT: We want to get back to tonight's top story. A U.S.-led coalition of countries hit 36 Houthi targets across 13 different areas in Yemen.

CNN's Priscilla Alvarez is in Los Angeles where the President is holding a fundraising event tonight. So, Priscilla, he's fundraising but keeping a close eye on what's happening in the Middle East.

PRISCILLA ALVAREZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: He is. He's closely monitoring all of it. And two senior administration officials tell me that President Biden gave the greenlight earlier this week, specifically on Monday, for these strikes to happen.

Now, of course, these are separate from the retaliatory measures that we saw unfold on Friday. That was in response to the three American service members that were killed in Jordan. These strikes are part of an ongoing campaign with a coalition of countries.

The President had previously approved multilateral strikes against the Houthis to defend U.S. vessels and commercial vessels in the region. This has been an ongoing activity by the Houthis that have raised alarm within the administration because it really does threaten the global economy. Some of these commercial vessels have had to avoid the area and it has become of increasing concern to many of those in that region.

But, of course, this is just one of many things that the President is having to navigate in this region as he tries to avoid being pulled into a wider regional war. And a senior administration official stressed to me that these strikes in Yemen were not intended to escalate any conflict in the region, but rather directly related to the Houthis' actions in the Red Sea and taken to prevent or at least to deter them from continuing these actions.

Now, of course, the U.S. officials have repeatedly said that these strikes are intended to degrade the Houthis' capabilities. Whether or not that has had an effect sort of remains to be seen because we're still seeing that activity. But the President, at the very least, did approve these strikes to happen earlier in the week. Alex?

MARQUARDT: Yes, the President walking a very fine line of trying to deter and not escalate the situation.

Thank you. Priscilla Alvarez in Los Angeles where the President is arriving for a fundraising swing.

We are staying with this breaking news. There's lots more to discuss. Stay with us. We're taking a quick break. Be right back.


[18:42:23] MARQUARDT: We are closing in on one month since a D.C. appeals court heard arguments on Trump's claim that he is immune from prosecution for actions that he took while in the White House, because he was president. And while we wait for that appeal to play out, the federal election subversion case against the former president has now been put on hold.

Judge Tanya Chutkan has formally vacated the trial date that had been scheduled for early next month, March 4th. So let's discuss this with defense attorney and former federal prosecutor, Shan Wu.

Shan, thanks so much for joining me. So this isn't totally surprising because they're still trying to figure out the immunity claim. But when that date is vacated, it's essentially taken off of the docket. What's the impact of that?

SHAN WU, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Well, it's possible for a new date to be selected after the court of appeals decision comes down that theoretically could still be in time to stay out of the red zone for the election. But the formal vacating of it means that now it's officially off the docket.

I think earlier we saw some reporting that Judge Chutkan had scheduled another trial on that date. That by itself isn't that significant. Judges will sometimes double book things because you never know if the trial is going to go. But the formal vacating of that date indicates that it's clear to her it's not going to start on that date.

MARQUARDT: So it's supposed to start on March 4th. Do you think that this is going to be delayed by a lot? And isn't it - it's true that this is the Trump legal team's preference, isn't it, that this gets delayed and drags on longer.

WU: Oh, absolutely. That's been their preference from the beginning. The more delay there is, the better for them. This is a hard situation. The delay with the D.C. Circuit Federal Court of Appeals, the delay, it's not particularly unusual. I mean, sometimes, of course, the bills take months for a decision.

But here, they clearly know that there's a clock ticking and people are, of course, very anxious to find out. And given the gravity of the decision for them, they're probably having some wrangling going on behind the scenes as to even who's being assigned to write the opinion and what is the analysis going to be.

MARQUARDT: Do they prioritize this because of the importance of who is involved and the fact that this is an election year?

WU: I think they do prioritize it in the sense of the timing. I think it's quite plain to them that the clock matters here. So I think everyone's been saying this, but I do think we're going to be seeing that decision sometime soon. It's not going to be months from now.

MARQUARDT: And could it be delayed even farther if this court decides that he is not immune, because then the expectation would be an appeal to the Supreme Court? [18:45:05]

WU: Yes, that could happen. They would probably first - Trump's team would probably first try to do what's called an en banc, meaning get the entire D.C. Circuit to hear. And after that, they would almost certainly try to go to the Supreme Court.

MARQUARDT: And then speaking of the Supreme Court, we will hear arguments next week to review the Colorado ruling that barred Trump from being on the ballot for the Republican primary because of his role in January 6th. So what are you watching for in those arguments?

WU: Well, if we think there's behind-the-scenes wrangling going on with the D.C. Circuit, that's going to be nothing compared to the Supreme Court. We'd love to be a fly on the wall for that. I think what's going to happen there is the court - the Supreme Court's going to be looking for some kind of an off-ramp here.

They feel that they really need to supply some kind of uniformity for the cases across the country, and yet they're going to be very cautious about really wading into the merits too much.

So, for example, they can look for off-ramps in the manner of process. They could look at Colorado and say, wasn't sufficient process here for the kind of decision they made. They could also punt to Congress and say you really need to have a congressional finding in cases like this. So it's - we'll have to see which way they go, but I would be surprised if they really want to wade too much into the substance, because what they want to do is to find a way to resolve it, but also not to make themselves the target for more political criticism.

MARQUARDT: Yes, not appearing eager to get involved in election politics.

At the state level, let's talk about what's happening in Georgia. We saw these court filings just yesterday. The Fulton County District Attorney, Fani Willis and the filings were concerning Willis and the special prosecutor, Nathan Wade. And in them, it was confirmed that there was a "personal relationship" between the two. But Willis denied that Wade had benefited financially from his being hired. What's your take on those filings that we saw?

WU: I think those filings really provide the basis for saying that there's no there there. I believe those filings, including an affidavit, indicated at the time he was hired there was no personal relationship. Even if there had been, that doesn't go to the question of any prejudice to the defendants in the case. Maybe it's sort of an HR kind of issue where they're hiring someone she's involved with.

Even now, if there is a personal relationship of some kind, there's no prejudice to a defendant, because they're on the same side. Two prosecutors having a relationship doesn't affect things. So one would think this might put the matter to rest, but the politics are so highly charged there that I'm sure she will continue to be the target of investigations, including there's like a political committee, a legislative committee that's trying to oversee her now in Georgia. MARQUARDT: Yes, they're not on opposing sides in this case.

All right. Shan Wu, thank you very much for tackling all those different cases. Much appreciated.

WU: Good to see you.

MARQUARDT: California officials are putting evacuation orders in place near Los Angeles as they warn about a major rain event that could last for days. We'll have the latest on that next. Stay with us.



MARQUARDT: A strong atmospheric river is bearing down on Southern California, which is expected to bring life-threatening conditions - life-threatening flooding conditions, excuse me. The Weather Prediction Center now saying that parts of the region are under a rare high excessive flood risk. That's a level four out of four for tomorrow's storm. Evacuation orders have now been issued for Ventura County and parts of Santa Barbara County.

CNN's Camila Bernal joins us now from Los Angeles.

So, Camila, how are people preparing there?

CAMILA BERNAL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Alex. So in some of those areas that you mentioned in Santa Barbara and Ventura, people are being told to leave their homes because those areas are particularly vulnerable. In other cases, people are also just being told to have basic preparations, meaning keeping up with the information, having an emergency kit and stopping by your local fire station just to grab some sandbags. That's exactly what a lot of these people here are doing.

I spoke to many of them who've come throughout the day. We've seen the piles of sand essentially go down and get filled again. You see they put more sand over here because of the amount of people that were coming in throughout the day.

And I want you to listen to what one of the L.A. residents told me when he was here to pick up some sand.


BERNAL (off camera): Once you saw, it made me a bit (inaudible) ...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We need to prepare for the worst and definitely protect our house. Bringing the sandbags over to the house, making sure we put silicone wherever necessary on the outside of any windows that may possibly have had past water intrusion, and just making sure we have some backup batteries for our flashlights and other electronic devices.

BERNAL (off camera): So you guys are ready? UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As good as we can be.


BERNAL (on camera): And now officials here in California have said this. They have water rescue teams that are already and ready to go. They have helicopters and air teams that are also prepared. They say they have crews ready in case of power outages or downed trees. They've also had people throughout L.A. County going to the homeless population and encouraging them to leave, to go to a shelter, especially those in areas that normally flood.

And overall, the general public is being told, look, those currents can be very deceiving. So don't drive through any of the water. Don't walk through any of the water. And take it seriously because it can be dangerous. Alex?


MARQUARDT: Yes, that is a huge area of California from north of San Francisco to south of Los Angeles that is now under flood watch.

Camila Bernal, thank you very much for that report.

A crucial test for President Joe Biden and his bid for re-election as South Carolina's Democratic primary gives us some idea of how much support he has with black voters.

You're in the CNN NEWSROOM.



MARQUARDT: You are live in the CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Alex Marquardt in New York, tonight for Jim Acosta. Thank you very much for joining me.