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Tornadoes Rip Through Parts of Oklahoma; CIA Director Says China Considering Providing Lethal Aid to Russia in Its War in Ukraine; Defense to Call Final Witnesses in Murder Trial of Alex Murdaugh. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired February 27, 2023 - 08:00   ET



KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Some places were buried under more than six feet of snow. You see the videos here as freeways were turning into rivers. This driver actually had to climb on top of his Porsche after it became swamped and he was left stranded. Just north of Los Angeles, several RVs were swept into a river when the riverbank eroded and gave way. More than seven inches of rain fell in Ventura County, that's northwest of Los Angeles. A helicopter crew had to rescue a driver from a jeep, as you see here. His car got stuck in these fast- rising floodwaters.

Ed Lavandera is live on the ground in Norman, Oklahoma. Ed, I've been t Norman a bunch of times. I love the people there. And I know this is the worst thing to wake up to dealing with these storms, and they happened overnight. It's often the toughest to be able to make sure you're in a safe place.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I've always said, there's nothing worse than the overnight tornadoes in the dark. You have no idea, really, where it's coming from. And this is what the neighbors -- the residents in this neighborhood are dealing with. Trees, about a foot in diameter, snapped in half. Take a look way up there in the tree, about 30 feet high, a giant piece of plywood stuck in the branches there. That is rooftop that has been shredded off people's home. You can see, it gives you a sense of all of the debris that was flying around here so wickedly.

And here in this backyard, really gives you a sense, you can get in here because the fence has been completely blown out, but this particular home, fortunately, the owner of this home was in Tulsa at the home, but this was -- you can also get a sense here of when you're inside your home and the tornado is coming, just the force that these storms and the wind brings. About 70 to 80-mile-per-hour winds were being registered throughout the evening as these storms were approaching.

In the Texas panhandle in a little town called Memphis, there were wind gusts of 114 miles per hour recorded last night. That is where the beginning of this storm really kind of generated. And this line just moved through Oklahoma incredibly quickly, but the force of this tornado that touched down here in the Norman area blowing out windows, ripping off homes -- the rooftop of homes, as well. The good news, Kaitlan, is that much of this is very isolated. So as

bad as this looks, if you go just about a half-mile or so east or west, it's a completely different picture. So that is some of the good news. Last we checked, there were close to about 30,000 customers here in the Oklahoma area without power this morning. And those numbers have been dropping rather quickly.

But it was an intense night of storms racing through the state of Oklahoma. And this storm system stretches from Texas all the way up through the central plains. A very dramatic site for this February, Kaitlan.

COLLINS: Yes, it's always striking to me to see when a tornado hits and you see one side of the road where everything is destroyed and then the other side, it looks like nothing happened. That is the timing here, though, that's unusual, I think, the idea that this is happening, we're here at the end of February. And did it catch residents off guard? What are you hearing from people as they're waking up and assessing the damage this morning?

LAVANDERA: They've been hearing about it all day. The alerts of the wind -- there was a great deal of concern with the wind and the intense wind that was expected throughout all of this, but there was local news coverage of these events happening for hours and hours ahead of this storm, so there was a great deal of warning about this.

And as we were driving -- we got into the Oklahoma city area last night and drove around for several hours, it was very quiet. Of course, it was a Sunday night, but I thought it was a little bit quieter than normal. And I think that's probably an indication of people know very well what to do here in the state when these types of weather systems coming blowing through.

COLLINS: Yes. Ed, let those Sooners fans know we are thinking about them this morning. Ed, thanks for being on the ground there.

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: The U.S. Department of Energy now finding that COVID-19 was likely the result of a leak from a Chinese lab in Wuhan. That is according to an updated classified intelligence report. But CNN has learned the department only has low confidence in the findings. Other agencies assess it was a natural transmission. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan says the intel community is divided on the issue.


JAKE SULLIVAN, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: President Biden specifically requested that the national labs, which are part of the Department of Energy, be brought into this assessment, because he wants to put every tool at use to be able to figure out what happened here. And if we gain any further insider information, we will share it with Congress and we will share it with the American people. But right now, there is not a definitive answer that has emerged from the intelligence community on this question.


LEMON: China's foreign ministry has responded, saying a lab leak is highly unlikely, but China has not been forthcoming about COVID's origins there.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Top U.S. intelligence officials are warning that China is considering supplying Russia with lethal aid in Ukraine. Listen to this.



WILLIAM BURNS, CIA DIRECTOR: Well, we're confident that the Chinese leadership is considering the provision of lethal equipment. We also don't see that a final decision has been made yet.

JAKE SULLIVAN, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Beijing will have to make its own decisions about how it proceeds, whether it provides military assistance. But if it goes down that road, it will come at real costs to China. And I think China's leaders are weighing that as they make their decisions.


HARLOW: Let's bring in our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto. Jim, good morning. Thank you for being here, given all your experience in China. One thing I thought was interesting, our viewers just heard from Bill Burns, the head of the CIA, is that Margaret Brennan on CBS who interviewed him yesterday pointed out, just as recently as February 2nd, you guys were saying that China was reluctant to give this aid. That was the word he used then. Now it seems like a dramatic escalation in terms of the U.S. concern. Do we know why that is?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR AND CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: It seems they have some new intelligence. And it's interesting, it's part of a broader strategy of the U.S. intelligence community, like we saw in the run-up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, of lifting the veil on what they know in hopes of changing the calculations of the leaders involved. It certainly didn't change Putin's calculations on invading Ukraine. Their hope is here by saying, hey, listen, we know you're considering this now. Here's how you're going to pay for it. And beginning to hear from folks like Janet Yellen and others to say there's going to be an economic cost to this.

But big picture, I always look at this, why should folks at home care about China entering this war? This is already the biggest war in Europe since World War II. It's bloody, it's long, there's no sign of it ending. You already have two superpowers on opposing sides, in effect. Russia invaded the U.S. supporting Ukraine. If China were to provide lethal assistance to Russia to help it in this war, this would enter another superpower, not directly into the conflict, no Chinese soldiers or war planes, but China as sort of a proxy here, right. China involved in this conflict and supporting one's side. It just expands the potential for escalation and just the broader tensions here between the superpowers, which are already, as we keep reporting every other day, right, with balloons and so on, already going in a very dangerous direction.

LEMON: Jim, before the invasion of Putin -- before Putin invaded Ukraine, the Biden administration publicly released this intelligence showing that Russia -- showing what Russia was preparing to do. I'm wondering if they would consider doing the same thing on China's plans with Russia.

SCIUTTO: They may. And we know they were considering it. There was some discussion of this last week, considering telling us, in effect, why they know that China is considering this. They haven't done that yet. They seem to be comfortable with at least saying, we know, and here's the cost that you would pay.

But they're doing this on a number of fronts. You look, for instance, the public comments this weekend on U.S. understanding of Russia's relationship with Iran in this war. We already knew that Iran was supplying drones that have had a big effect in Ukraine. Now there's discussion that in return, in effect, Russia is promising Iran potential help on its missile program. Have a listen.


WILLIAM BURNS, CIA DIRECTOR: Russia is proposing to help the Iranians on their missile program and also, at least, considering the possibility of providing fighter aircraft to Iran, as well. So it's a quite disturbing set of developments.


SCIUTTO: A big deal, right, because you're talking already the U.S., its allies, Israel, et cetera, view Iran's missile program, its potential nuclear program as a primary threat to stability in the Middle East. If Russia is now in return helping Iran develop that program, it just shows you how the war in Ukraine, the effects of it, the ramifications of it can and seem to be, sadly, developing in a much broader, more dangerous direction. It's a difficult time right now. It's not just about Ukraine. It's about a whole bunch of other countries.

COLLINS: And that is such an important point here, because often, we talk about support for U.S. aide in Ukraine softening, what that looks like, what we're hearing from lawmakers. This is not just an issue that's happening in eastern Europe. There are these broader implications of what the world order is going to look like if China does decide to get involved. What it means for Iran and Russia and how that alliance has gotten so much closer. It has these massive implications.

SCIUTTO: It does. And listen, we grew up in an era the last 30 years, this is post-fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989, the collapse of the Soviet Union, relative peace, right, in Europe? Relative peace between the U.S., NATO, and Russia. That's over, right? Clean break after the full-scale invasion last year of Ukraine. And things going in a troubling direction with China, concerns,

genuine concerns that China invades Taiwan, China sending surveillance balloons over the U.S. Listen, doesn't mean we're going to war, right? But you have increasingly hostile relations here and folks kind of aligning themselves on each side.


China with Russia in Ukraine, Iran with Russia in Ukraine, Russia, perhaps, with Iran on its nuclear program. And these are -- these are things to watch really closely.

HARLOW: Jim, thank you very much. We'll see you at the top of the hour. Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Will do.

LEMON: About an hour from now, court resumes in the double murder trial of Alex Murdaugh. The defense will call its final witnesses after Murdaugh spent two days on the stand. He admitted lying to investigators and stealing from clients but says that he is telling the truth that he did not murder his wife and son.

CNN's Randi Kaye live in Walterboro, South Carolina, with more. What's the latest? Good morning to you, by the way.

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Don. The latest is this crowd here behind me. You can see, this is how much interest there is in this court case. These are people who come from near and far, hoping to get a seat inside that courtroom. They show up early and they wait here until they can get inside.

But the big deal was on Friday -- Thursday and Friday when Alex Murdaugh testified. Finally, Don, after more than 20 months of lying to investigators, he did admit that he was at the kennels where the murders took place on their property around the time of the murders. He told the prosecutor that he left his phone at the main house on the property when he went down to the kennels. He took the golf cart down there, was there for a couple of minutes, left the kennels at 8:47 p.m., got back to the house at 8:49 people, which is when he prosecutors believe Maggie and Paul were killed.

Then he said he took a nap. It was a very short nap, because his phone started showing activity again 13 minutes later at 9:02, and prosecutors found that very curious. Here's that exchange from court.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You would agree with me from 9:02 to 9:06, your phone finally comes to life and starts showing a lot of steps.

ALEX MURDAUGH: I do agree with that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What were you doing?

MURDAUGH: I was getting ready to go to my mom's house. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's far more steps in a shorter time period

than any time prior as you've seen from the testimony in this case. So what were you so busy doing? Going to the bathroom?

MURDAUGH: No, I don't think that I --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Get on a treadmill?

MURDAUGH: No, I didn't get on a treadmill. And what I wasn't doing was doing anything, as I believe you have implied, that I was cleaning off or washing off or washing off guns or putting guns in a raincoat. And I can promise you that I wasn't doing any of that.


KAYE: And it's when he returned from his mom's house is that he said he found his family, his wife and son shot and bleeding at the kennels.

LEMON: Randi Kaye, thank you very much.

HARLOW: Well, coming up, a ruling that could halt more than half of the currently legal abortions being carried out across the United States. Why so much attention is being paid to the judge, the federal judge in Texas about to issue his decision.

COLLINS: Also, support the party nominee or get off the stage. Will every Republican candidate make the loyalty pledge? We're going to talk about it with Dana Bash, next.




As soon as today, a Federal Judge in Texas could issue a ruling that would put a nationwide ban on the abortion pill at least temporarily. This pending decision comes in a lawsuit that could reverse the FDA's two-decade old approval of mifepristone, that is the first drug in the two-drug medical abortion process.

Medication abortion accounts for more than half of all current legal abortions in the United States, and this is the most consequential abortion related case since the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade last May.

And this case rests in the hands of a US District Court Judge, a Federal Judge, Matthew Kacsmaryk. He is a Trump appointee. He was opposed by Republican Senator Susan Collins and all Democratic senators. He was opposed by her over his record on LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights.

Back in 2013, though, then Attorney General Eric Holder presented him with the Justice Department Award for his work as a US attorney. He has critics and they are not surprised that he got this case. He has presided over 95 percent of the civil cases brought in the Northern District of Texas.

One Democratic senator says antiabortion advocates are gaming the system. Here is Ron Wyden.


SEN. RON WIDEN (D-OR): And with this Judge, they found a way to make it happen. Because of how Judges in this Federal district in Texas are assigned, the plaintiffs could use a procedural loophole and hotwire the judicial branch.

They could ensure Kacsmaryk was the only Judge who'd gets the case.


HARLOW: It is part of a larger pattern of conservative group's "Judge shopping" or forum shopping, that's according to my next guest, Steve Vladeck. He recently wrote about that in an opinion piece in "The New York Times." He is our legal analyst and a Constitutional Law Professor at the University of Texas Law School.

Good morning, Steve.

STEVE VLADECK, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Good morning, Poppy. How are you?

HARLOW: Good. Let's start with what this case actually means. Because I think people need to understand what the plaintiffs are arguing here, and how likely it will be you think they succeed?

VLADECK: Yes, so at the heart of the case is basically the idea that when the FDA approved never mifepristone, way back in 2000, it was doing so only against the backdrop of a constitutional right to pre viability abortion, which as you know, was the law of the land then, and is not the law of the land today.

And so the argument is that basically last year's decision in Dobbs, getting rid of that right basically pulls out the foundation from under the FDA's approval of mifepristone. If that argument succeeds, if Judge Kacsmaryk issues a nationwide injunction against the FDA, we could see consequences overnight, even in the bluest of blue states when it comes to access to mifepristone.

HARLOW: And it's pretty likely right that the Fifth Circuit would uphold the ruling of Judge Kacsmaryk?

VLADECK: I think it depends on what the ruling says. But you know, even as that process plays out, I mean, it is coincidence, Poppy that all of these cases are being brought in Texas, because the Appeals go to the very, very conservative Fifth Circuit.

But even if the opinion and the decision is so far out of the norm, that the Fifth Circuit might reverse it, that's going to take time, and it is time during which this injunction presumably will be in place. That's unless the FDA, of course, runs to the Fifth Circuit or the Supreme Court and tries to get a stay, and the burden for that is even higher. So I think the reason why there is so much attention on Judge

Kacsmaryk here is because he could, if he goes all the way, if you have a ruling that really would have seismic effects, at least in the short term for women all across the country.


HARLOW: What do you make of the fact that we just heard from Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon who is also saying essentially something pretty stunning, Steve, right that regardless here of your politics, that the FDA should just ignore this.

He is basically saying wait until it goes up to the Fifth Circuit or to the Supreme Court, ignore it. And "The Wall Street Journal" Editorial Board called him out for that, saying it's dangerous business, calling it the Wyden Legal Nullification Doctrine, and they said, talk about norm busting.

What do you think?

VLADECK: Well, I think first, we should stress that "The Wall Street Journal rather mischaracterized Senator Wyden's proposal. Wyden is not saying that the FDA should ignore the Courts in their entirety. He is saying it should be up to the Supreme Court, not a carefully hand picked --

HARLOW: Well, he's saying don't listen to it until -- if and until it reaches the Supreme Court.

VLADECK: So I think, you know, I think that would be norm busting, Poppy. I think the question is whether those norms are already being busted by the litigants.

I mean, keep in mind, as you said, at the top, you know, this lawsuit was filed in Amarillo entirely so that it would be assigned to this one specific Judge, who since September has been receiving 100 percent of new civil cases filed in Amarillo.

You know, I'm not a defender of Senator Wyden's position here, but I think it's understandable why folks would think that one response to the kind of norm busting of handpicking Judges and not subjecting lawsuits to random assignment would be norm busting in the other direction, that's part of the problem here is that it's a race to the bottom, where what we really need is a more sensible approach to this kind of nationwide litigation.

HARLOW: And it's not really just -- and as your piece, which was so good a few weeks ago in "The New York Times" points out that this is happening. I think it's important for us also in fairness to note that during the Trump administration, you had a number of liberal attorneys filing cases for nationwide injunctions against Trump rulings to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, because they thought, rightly so, that the Ninth Circuit would be favorable to them. So liberals are doing it, too.

VLADECK: Yes, and I've got to say two things. One, I think that's true to a degree. The big difference is that what was happening during the Trump administration was not this kind of hand picking individual Judges.

So in California, for example, would challenge a Trump's immigration policy, it would usually file in a courthouse in which it was subjected to a random draw of 11 different Judges.

Now, Poppy, those Judges might have been generally more sympathetic to California than to President Trump. But again, I think that's the difference between forum shopping and Judge shopping.

But either way, even if folks don't think that's a distinction with a difference, where it really underscores is that we ought to revisit just how comfortable we are with having outlier Judges at either end of the political spectrum, who have the power to basically bring in nationwide policies, in this case, one that's 23 years old, to a screeching halt whether Congress should revisit exactly the ability of litigants to shop in that respect.

HARLOW: That's a really good point, Steve. And I hope a lot of people are listening because I think Ken Paxton has filed so many of his cases in Amarillo, where the rules just changed, so only Judge Kacsmaryk is the only one who can rule on these things.

We'll be watching. Thanks very much, Steve Vladeck.

VLADECK: Thank you.

HARLOW: Kaitlan.

COLLINS: And as we track that major decision, new this morning, Michigan Democratic Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin has just announced minutes ago that she is running for Senate in 2024.

She's going to be seeking to replace the retiring Democratic senator in that State, Debbie Stabenow. Slotkin is now the first Democrat to jump into the key race in a battleground state. It's also a race that could determine the power and control of the Senate in 2024.

Slotkin says that she is running because, "We need a new generation of leaders that think differently, work harder, and never forget that we are public servants."

We should note in this race that the Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and also Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg who recently moved to Michigan, Michigan have both said they will not run for the spot.

Also, someone else has a new campaign style. Video out this morning not for Michigan Senate, we are talking about Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as the chatter about a 2024 presidential run is growing even louder.

Plus --


in an interview if he was running, and he joked that he had to call you to find out.

So we're going to the source. Where do things stand? When is that announcement coming?


LEMON: Well, I guess it's official now because she's going to make the announcement for him.

First Lady Jill Biden coming up.




JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My intention from -- as has been from the beginning to run. But there's too many other things I have to finish in the near term before I started campaigning.

DAVID MUIR, ABC NEWS: Is your age part of your own calculation into whether to run again?

JOE BIDEN: No. But it's legitimate if people raise issues about my age. It's totally legitimate to do that. And the only thing I can say is "watch me."


LEMON: How many times the man have to answer that question.

President Biden hinting that the launch of his 2024 reelection bid could be just around the corner. So what does First Lady Jill Biden think about that?

Arlette Saenz traveled with the First Lady to Africa on her recent five-day tour addressing drought and hunger in the region. She sat down for an exclusive interview.

Arlette Saenz joins us now.

So good morning to you. So is he or isn't he? Because he says he's got to consult with the First Lady and you got to ask her. So tell us.

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Don, Jill Biden, of course is a key figure for President Biden in so many of his decisions, and we had a chance to talk to her about a host of issues including that possible reelection bid.

And while she says no announcement plans have been finalized, in her mind, she essentially believes the decision has been made.

Take a listen.


SAENZ: Your husband was asked in an interview if he was running and he joked that he had to call you to find out.

JILL BIDEN: Was this recently?

SAENZ: It was recently.

JILL BIDEN: Oh. I must have been sick.

SAENZ: So we're going to the source. Where do things stand? When is an announcement coming?

JILL BIDEN: Well he said he intends to run.