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Erin Burnett Outfront

New Video: Russian Soldiers Allege Fellow Soldiers Shot At Them With Machine Guns; China Says It "Reserves The Right" To Act Over U.S. Downing Of Balloon; George Santos Under New Security Over Campaign Spending; Death Toll Rises, Tops 3,800 In Turkey And Syria After Massive Quake. Aired 7-8p ET

Aired February 06, 2023 - 19:00   ET



ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: OUTFRONT next, Russians say they're being shot at with machine guns by fellow Russians. Disturbing claims emerging of what's happened inside Putin's army tonight as Putin's reputed girlfriend breaks her silence. You'll hear what she's comparing to Kalashnikov assault rifles.

Plus, a right to retaliate. China vows to fight back the U.S. shut down its spy balloon with a heat seeking missile. What will China do? We're live with a report from the ground in Beijing.

And Congressman George Santos addressing today the long list of campaign expenses that don't add up, like spending $22,000 in an Italian restaurant. That's almost 1,000 orders of the rigatoni bolognaise there.

Let's go OUTFRONT.

And good evening. I'm Erin Burnett.

OUTFRONT tonight, Russians shooting Russians with machine guns. Allegations surfacing in this new video tonight, these are Russian soldiers detailing the threats and torture they suffered at the hands of other Russian soldiers. You see them there.

According to the regional government of Tuva, which is where they are, it's part of Russia bordering Mongolia, one of these soldiers says on February 4, 2023, the Russian military in Donetsk came to us. They shot at us with machine guns, forced us to do pushups, told us that we will not leave here alive.

They're saying this happened only two days ago. Those Russians attacking Russians.

It is shocking, even in this war, happening on the front lines. All the more so, because any Russian who would survive such, you know, intra-Russian conflict and actually is there on the front line could suffer the same horrific plight as this Russian soldier.

This is more new video to want. I do want to warn you this is very disturbing, but this is the horror of this war. This is a Russian soldier running. He's on fire. His body is on fire is.

He's running to escape after his tank came under attack. Seconds later, one of the tanks hit, explodes. Now, of course, in this war, we don't know if the soldier engulfed in flames survives, and it's horrific to see, no matter who he is, but his fate, alive or dead, is terrible.

And he is not alone. The rugged terrain in Eastern Ukraine is now littered with tank debris and Russian bodies. And now, in a bizarre move of bravado, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the brutal Wagner Group, whose forces are dominating much of the region for Putin, is putting out a new propaganda video that appears in the video in which he claims to be in a fighter jet that just bombed the village of Bakhmut, whether there's anything left to bomb. He claims that's where he is, he's in a fighter jet and he's doing that.

And this comes as we're hearing from someone close to Putin that we don't often hear from, his girlfriend and the mother of multiple children of Putin, Alina Kabaeva. The former Olympic gymnast's title is chairwoman of the National Russian Media Group, which is one of the largest media corporations in Russia, and she is now speaking out publicly, saying that propaganda is as important a weapon right now as those machine guns.


ALINA KABAEVA, PUTIN'S REPUTED GIRLFRIEND: Our people need our success, because information works under the conditions that we are currently living and as we fight for our country, is like a weapon of war and in terms of significance, it holds no less value than a Kalashnikov.


BURNETT: And to be clear, the propaganda she's talking about isn't just video like flying a fighter jet acting like everything is so great as his forces are lit on fire. It's expert after expert on state television saying that Putin should use nuclear weapons, saying that this war is a war of Russia against Nazis.

That propaganda is powerful. It's been used to justify Putin's entire invasion of Ukraine and justify his attacks and imprisonment of political enemies, like Putin opposition leader Alexei Navalny, now in solitary confinement in a penal colony, and former critic Mikhail Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia, who's dying in prison right now.

The court today rejecting an appeal to release the former president of Georgia because of his declining health. Look at the ghastly images he showed. Those are his ribs.

And just to remind you, here's what Saakashvili looked like when he was OUTFRONT in February of 2015. He's now emaciated and incredibly unwell. It's hard for him to even write.

Ukrainian President Zelenskyy put up pictures in a press conference for the world to see over the weekend, saying Saakashvili is being killed, quote, little by little -- as Putin's purge of his enemies continues.

Let's begin on the ground tonight with Fred Pleitgen OUTFRONT live in Kyiv.

And, Fred, what is the latest on the ground there as you see it?


Well, certainly, it's the battle for the east heating up here in Ukraine. The president of this country had a big meeting with his security team, and they focused a lot they said on the battle in Bakhmut.


They say it's still a big danger. The Russians are trying to encircle that place. And they also talk about what the Ukrainians can do to prevent that. Now, the Ukrainians have been bringing in more forces, more artillery pieces, trying to counter the Russians.

But they also say they need a lot more ammo to take the fight to the Russians in that area. Here's what we're learning.


PLEITGEN (voice-over): Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin taking to the skies, flying a combat aircraft, challenging Ukraine's president to a dog fight.

I landed, we bombed Bakhmut, he says. Tomorrow, I'm boarding a MiG-29. If you desire, we'll meet in the sky.

Ukraine acknowledges the Russians have made some rains around Bakhmut, but insist they're suffering catastrophic losses, the head of Ukraine's national security council tells us.

The lack of shells that is a significant disadvantage, he says, but in our favor, we are killing them at a ratio of seven times to one. Unfortunately, our men and women are dying there as well.

Ukraine's entire eastern front has been heating up. The Russians deploying tens of thousands of troops mobilized late last year for what is expected to be a massive spring offensive. Even so, Ukraine's Security Council chief says his country is ready. We're concerned, he says, but I would stress that we are preparing together with our partners. Good preparations are being made now, so if the Russian offensive begins, it will be unsuccessful.

But to turn the tide of this war, the Ukrainians say they need more long range weapons to hit Russian supply lines. And combat aircraft to win control of the skies. They're caught of getting both eventually.

It's only a matter of time until we get F-16s, he says, they will definitely come. Unfortunately, in the meantime, we're losing our people while fighting for our independence.

The Russians say they fueled a drone attack deep inside Russian territory, only about 140 miles from Moscow. The Ukrainians have promised not to use Western weapons to hit Russian territory, but Danilov says Ukraine will use its own.

Regarding Russian territory, nobody prohibits us to destroy targets with weapons produced in Ukraine, he says. Do we have such weapons? Yes, we do.

For the Ukrainians, it's a race against time to secure and develop weapons that will hold off what they call Russia's revenge.


PLEITGEN (on camera): And, Erin, all this coming as the Russians continue to build up their forces. In fact, tonight, we're also hearing from a top Ukrainian intelligence official who says that he believes that on top of the forces that the Russians have already mobilized late last year, Moscow might want to mobilize an additional half a million people by the summer of this year to keep the war going. And the Ukrainians are saying this absolutely shows that Vladimir Putin has no desire to end this war any time soon, Erin.

BURNETT: Fred Pleitgen, thank you so very much, live from Kyiv tonight.

And OUTFRONT now with me, retired Army Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the former commanding general for all of Europe.

Now, General, you know, let's start here with what we heard about this, Russians fighting Russians inside the army, right? This group from Tuva, a region near Mongolia, saying other Russian soldiers are machine gunning them and telling them they won't leave there align. Those are Russians on Russians.

What do you take away from seeing this?

LT. GEN. BEN HODGES (RET0, U.S. ARMY: Three things, Erin.

First of all, there is a long tradition of violence, abuse inside the Russian military, hazing. I mean, very physical hazing, brutality, using weapons to keep people from retreating. So this does not surprise me.

The second take away is that the Russian Federation is made up of almost 100 different ethnic groups. You've got soldiers that come from different parts of the Federation, different ethnicities, different religions. Historical grudges. So again, that doesn't surprise me that there would be some friction.

And then third, this is a manifestation, I think, of enormous pressure on the military. None of them wants to be there.

BURNETT: None of them want to be there. And so in that context, you know, you hear about the sawing near troops taking on a bigger role, right, and reports of them just kind of rushing in en masse.

I want to play again what Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group, said to Zelenskyy today when he appeared in that propaganda video, riding in that combat aircraft, hey, look at me, I'm up here. Here's what happened.


YEVGENIY PRIGOZHIN, WAGNER CHIEF (through translator): I landed. We bombed Bakhmut. Tomorrow, I'm boarding a MiG-29. If you desire, we'll meet in the sky.


BURNETT: Okay. So this is a propaganda video. He says this as he knows his Wagner soldiers and Russian soldiers are dying en masse. We see one running while on fire. It's horrible what's happening.

But he's sort of making this a bravado at best, some kind of a sick joke at worst.


I mean, what do you make of that?

HODGES: So, Mr. Prigozhin, of course, is competing to be either the savior of Putin or the --

BURNETT: Toppler?

HODGES: The relief, the replacement. I think for the last several months, he has been focused on Bakhmut and the incredible loss of life of Russian soldiers. He clearly does not care about that. And actually, Bakhmut itself is not so strategically important.

So for months with the Wagner Group, he has been trying to take this place. I think this is a vanity project, just like announcing I want to get up in the aircraft and, you know, do this macho thing. Actually, I think if he got up in a MiG-29, he would probably be shot down very quickly by Ukrainian air defenses.

BURNETT: Which would be a whole turn to the story. Sort of watch what he does, not what he says.

Today, Russia says it foiled a drone attack about 140 miles from Moscow, very close. Now, obviously, this is what they say. But the reality is we know Ukraine, by drone or missile, is capable of hitting deep inside Russia, capable.

How capable in terms of aim and should they be doing a lot more of it?

HODGES: They should be doing everything they request to protect their own population. I mean, it's the legal right of every nation to defend themselves, and Russia is killing Ukrainian -- innocent Ukrainian civilians with aircraft and missiles, taking off from inside Russia. We have -- we have resisted so far giving Ukraine the ability to do

that with American weapons. I understand it. I disagree with it. But we should also be giving them the ability to hit targets inside Crimea. This is Ukrainian territory, but in effect, we have created sanctuary for Russia by limiting the range of the weapons that we provide them.

BURNETT: But you're saying inside Crimea, and I know you believe Ukraine can take Crimea, but how do you feel about inside Russia?

HODGES: Absolutely, we should be given that capability. But at least within our policy, Crimea is inside Ukraine. So let's make a distinction, then.

BURNETT: All right. General Hodges, thank you very much. I appreciate your time.

And I want to turn now to Alina Polyakova, president and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis. She has done extensive reporting on Putin and his inner circle.

So, Alina, I'm glad to have you back.

You know, we just played that sound a moment ago from Putin's alleged girlfriend, mother of multiple of his children, and I want to play it again.


KABAEVA: Information under the conditions that we are currently living and as we fight for our country, is like a weapon of war and in terms of significance, it holds no less value than a Kalashnikov.


BURNETT: What is she really saying here?

ALINA POLYAKOVA, RUSSIAN FOREIGN AFFAIRS EXPERT: I think a few things of the whole idea that information warfare or the use of disinformation is part and parcel of how Russia engages in war. It's not just about the thanks. It's not just about the Kalashnikovs, as she says.

It's also about skewing the narrative and skewing the very idea of what's happening in Russia's war against Ukraine. This is nothing new. She's really reconfirming what has been official Kremlin policy.

I think the second takeaway here is something that she alludes to, which is, of course, that we are looking at almost a year since Russia's full scale invasion of Ukraine. And I think she says at the beginning that we need this win, something along those lines.

And what she's really saying there is this war for Russia, the war that Russia that Putin has launched against Ukraine is really an existential war for Putin and for Russia itself, and many Russians today inside of Russia do believe that this is a war that they have to win. It's a nationalist war. They believe, wrongly, of course, that Mr. Putin is protecting them.

BURNETT: And, Alina, for anyone who hoped she would have, I don't know, turn sides or just decided to remain in Switzerland, this obviously shows it's not the case. It took a long time for the United States to put any sanctions on her whatsoever. They finally did. They thought -- it would be too incendiary to Putin, but she is now sanctioned.

How influential is she? Does she -- does she carry much sway? Obviously, we know who she seems to be, vis-a-vis him, and then along with that, she got these titles, like head of some of these crucial media companies.

POLYAKOVA: And well, to be clear, she's definitely a known name in Russia. I mean, she's Putin's girl friend, mistress, whatever you want to call her. So for that reason, whatever she says does get reported in the Russian tabloids.

But in terms of having political influence, she really doesn't. I mean, she is here, basically, reframing, repeating what is the Kremlin talking point. But she is a recognizable name.

Of course, the sanctions have probably forced her to go back to Russia and leave we believe was a very opulent lifestyle she was living in Switzerland where she now is the chair of this new media group. Everyone knows inside of Russia that she's only there because she's the mother of Putin's children, so she gets paid millions of dollars for basically doing absolutely nothing, except making a few PR appearances here and there.


BURNETT: Amazing.

All right. Alina, thank you very much. Good to see you again, and thanks.

POLYAKOVA: Thanks, Erin.

BURNETT: And next, China now accusing the U.S. of being full of it. We're live in Beijing with what China is saying now about its spy balloon and how it ended up over the United States for over a week.

Plus I'll talk to a woman who worked alongside George Santos for more than a year and she was supposed to be helping him find homes for animals. You'll hear why she says something didn't add up about Santos, when she knew something was wrong.

And the death toll this hour climbing after the massive earthquake in Turkey and Syria. Those numbers have gone up hundreds in just the past few hours, 3,800 now confirmed dead. They're still digging through the rubble. There are more people missing, and we're going to take you there live tonight.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BURNETT: Tonight, China vowing to fight back. Xi Jinping's communist government saying it reserves the right to act after the U.S. shot down a suspected spy balloon with a heat seeking missile fired from an F22.

This as the U.S. military says the spy balloon was 200 feet tall and what it was carrying was the size of a regional commercial airliner -- obviously not the weight, but the size of a regional aircraft, when you just think about the length and the span, enormous.

President Biden weighing in late tonight, saying the United States did the right thing shooting it down.

Selina Wang is OUTFRONT in Beijing.



SELINA WANG, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): China is angry that the U.S. shot down its balloon, but it wasn't long ago when China aired this documentary about its air force downing another country's spy balloon.

The commander orders the pilot to shoot it down. The missile hits the balloon. It explodes, then falls.

Once again, the documentary says, China's air force has crushed the enemy in a heroic move.

Yet fast forward to today and ironically, Beijing is accusing America's decision to shoot down China's balloon as a violation of international practice. Beijing claims it's just a weather balloon gone astray.

The U.S. is confident that what they shot down is, in fact, a spy balloon, disclosing the balloon carries surveillance equipment not normally associated with civilian research, with collection pot equipment and solar panels. This balloon was also flying over sensitive areas in the U.S.

Could you help us understand how this could be a civilian research weather balloon?

In response, she repeated, it was a civilian balloon and accused the U.S. for hyping up the incident, calling the U.S. irresponsible. She also confirms to me for the first time that that the second balloon spotted over Latin America belongs to China, too, claiming it's also a civilian airship that mistakenly drifted into the region.

But the U.S. says these balloons with part of a fleet of Chinese spy balloons spotted around the world in recent years. Both the U.S. and China use more sophisticated satellites to spy on each other, but balloons have some advantages, as Chinese state media has pointed out in recent years. This military expert explains how balloons can linger longer over a

target and take higher resolutions photos, compared to satellites, adding that China's achieved breakthroughs in surveillance balloon development. In this 2019 state media video, a researcher points to a computer screen showing the trajectory of an unmanned air shift flying around the world. He says, look, here is the United States.

Meanwhile, on China's heavily censored social media, nationalists are excitedly watching the drama unfold and mocking the U.S.'s reaction. And this viral video from Chinese social media jokes that the balloon was just a giant lantern China sent over to the U.S. to celebrate the end of the lunar New Year.

These light-hearted animations a contrast to the U.S./China relationship that's spiraling toward a darker future.


WANG (on camera): And look, Erin, China's own state media clearly shows that the country has been focused on balloon technology development for sometime, even showing off recently in its own documentary the air force shooting down another country's spy balloon.

In terms of this incident, experts say Beijing made this clumsy miscalculation. China really want that summit with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to move ahead, to show it's rebuilding tied, but now they say Beijing is left looking incompetent, nefarious, or a little bit of both -- Erin.

BURNETT: All right. Selina, thank you very much, live from Beijing.

OUTFRONT now, I want to go to the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Republican Mike Turner of Ohio.

And, Chairman, I very much appreciate your time.

So, you know, you hear Selina's report and China is slamming the U.S. as irresponsible, that's their word, for shooting down the balloon. They're saying that -- again, their words, reserve the right to handle similar situation, sort of a threat to escalate.

Do you think that China will escalate the situation?

REP. MIKE TURNER (R-OH): Well, their balloon was an escalation, Erin. And the fact they say this was a lost weather balloon, then they shouldn't have any concerns about us taking it down. They're certainly not going to get it back, if it's a lost weather balloon. It certainly wouldn't be at a great cost.

But it was at great cost. China calculated that they could pull this off and they could garner whatever information they were attempting to get as they crossed our most sensitive missile defense sites and nuclear weapons sites and infrastructure.

And this is of grave concern. This is a national security risk. China should not be permitted to do this. It's unfortunate that the balloon was permitted to go all the way across the U.S.

Really, China has been exposed as having these balloons for spying and we're not going to permit it.

BURNETT: So you say by the time the balloon was shot down, it had already completed its intelligence gathering mission. Now, of course, they could have transmitted all that back home, right? They don't need to get the balloon back to get the information most likely.

But in your capacity as chairman of the intelligence committee, what information do you think China acquired from this balloon?

TURNER: Well, if you look at the path and you put X's every place where we have our major missile defense installations, nuclear weapons sites, nuclear weapons themselves, part of the infrastructure, you would see this path unfold of some of our most sensitive military sites.

So, you know, not just imaging. You can get imaging from satellites. You can get signals intelligence. You can test signals intelligence. You can test ways to defeat the military assets that are beneath them.


My concern is that this would be an attempt to affect our command and control of our missile defense systems or our nuclear weapons systems.

BURNETT: So, now, you know, as you say, China made a grave miscalculation in terms of doing this. And perhaps one of the reasons they did is it seems they got away with it before.

The Pentagon today admitting that it did not notice three suspected Chinese spy balloons when they fly over the United States, that happened during the Trump administration. We don't exactly know when. We understand the incidents were not discovered until after Trump left office.

So if that's true, obviously the Trump administration didn't shoot them down. They didn't know they were there.

But do you have any answers or do you want answers as to why the Pentagon did not notice last time? This time, they appeared for notice before civilians noticed, although no one said anything until civilians noticed.

TURNER: Right.

BURNETT: But do you have answers on this?

TURNER: So I was previously briefed on China's balloon program and its incursions into the United States prior to this balloon. So the one thing I know, which concerns me the gravest, is that as we look to this administration, they seem to have no urgency of these types of issues.

You know, these are real national security threats. From the last time that this administration was faced with this until this occurred, they should have been prepared. They should have been prepared either to intercept, to prevent, to take it down, or to try to, you know, capture the balloons. They could capture the equipment that's there.

Instead, they were left as casual observers watching this traverse some of our most sensitive military sites.

BURNETT: Right. And I know there's obviously discussion as to when President Biden wanted to shoot it down, if he wanted to shoot it down early on. And those are fair questions.

Do you, though, feel you have the answers as to why the Pentagon did not notice three other spy balloons flying? I mean, that seems very concerning, that they could be flying and our own military doesn't notice.

TURNER: Right. And the other aspect of this is if they didn't, by now they know why, and we should be immediately fixing this. One of the questions and demands that Congress is going to have as we're getting our briefings is, okay, now that we -- now that the whole public knows this, we know DOD has known this for a while. The administration has known this for a while.


TURNER: Why weren't we doing anything? If we are to do anything, what should we do? And let's get on with it. Let's get on and protect ourselves and make certain we don't just get to watch these balloons go across our country again.

BURNETT: All right. Chairman Turner, thank you very much. I appreciate your time.

TURNER: Thank you.

BURNETT: And next, $22,000. That is how much Santos and his campaign spent at one Italian restaurant. So on what? And what is Santos saying today about his very questionable campaign expenses?

Plus, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis embracing a new culture war tonight, this time targeting the Orlando Philharmonic. And we'll tell you why.



BURNETT: Tonight, embattled Congressman George Santos is denying accusations of sexual harassment on top of a litany of exposed lies, alleged scandals and investigations.

Derek Myers, who applied to work as an aid for Santos, told CNN that Santos made an unwanted advance on him. He said Santos rescinded a job offer after Myers refused.

As Santos is -- this comes as Santos is fending off new questions over his campaign's spending, including things like spending more than $22,000 on an Italian restaurant in Queens, New York.

Miguel Marquez is OUTFRONT.


REP. GEORGE SANTOS (R-NY): I'm not a campaign treasurer. I couldn't answer that for you.

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): George Santos refusing to answer questions about campaign financing. His spending under investigation.

SANTOS: I don't do my own treasury. Never did.

REPORTER: Who is your treasurer right now?

SANTOS: It's on the FEC. You should be able to look it up.

MARQUEZ: One piece of it, 37 expenses filed with the Federal Election Commission in the amount of $199.99.

SAURAV GHOSH, DIRECTOR, FEDERAL CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM, CAMPAIGN LEGAL CENTER: It's extremely odd. We looked at the campaign finance reports and were immediately struck by how many of the charges there were for exactly that amount.

MARQUEZ: The FEC mandate? Expenditures over 200 bucks, the campaign must keep a receipt or proof of the expenditure. Seven charges of 199.99 were to Il Bacco Restaurant in his New York district. The Campaign Legal Center has filed a campaign with the FEC over George Santos' campaign expenditures.

GHOSH: The question it raises immediately is, are these legitimate disbursements? Are they actually for this amount? Is this actually being reported as it happened?

MARQUEZ: In all, Santos and his campaign filed 32 expenses to Il Bacco, spending more than $22,000. Everything from fundraising events to staff meetings to lots of generic charges for food and beverage.

Santos says he expects to be cleared of any wrongdoing for anything.

SANTOS: I'll be cleared. I have nothing to hide.

REPORTER: Why won't you answer our questions about your past? Your finances?

SANTOS: Questions will be answered to the appropriate people. The media is not judge and jury of anything. Sorry.

MARQUEZ: CNN contacted Santos' lawyer about the questionable campaign expenditures. His response? Due to these ongoing investigations, it is inappropriate to comment on any of the questions you have raised.

In all, there are 10 $199.99 expenditures for food and beverage, ten for office supplies, five for airfare, five for taxi, two for Amtrak tickets, two for hotels, and one each for JFK parking, a clear security membership, and travel insurance.

GHOSH: I think the Justice Department's investigation is going to take its time and really get to the bottom of what's going on here with the campaign. Where did it get the money from? How did it actually spend its money?


BURNETT: I mean, there are so many questions, Miguel, and of course places like JFK, it's impossible to get a 199.99. So these don't add up on their face, but they're looking into it.

MARQUEZ: Correct.

BURNETT: So, if Santos broke the law, how soon could we expect charges?

MARQUEZ: Of all the things that are questions in his life right now, the campaign finance of this could be the biggest piece of it. Experts in this field say, look, these investigations are thorough, but they're slow, and they expect that if there are charges, they would come in quite sometime before -- after they do a complete investigation and have an air tight case.

BURNETT: All right. And keep in mind, obviously, you're in a 2-year term. You're already in it. When you get the political reality, you may not be -- you're not looking at weeks here.


MARQUEZ: Could take a while.

BURNETT: All right. Miguel, thank you very much.

MARQUEZ: You got it.

BURNETT: Congressman Santos is under new scrutiny tonight as well for work he claims he's done for animal rescue groups. "The New York Times" reporter Michael Gold who first broke the news about Santos' laundry list of lies about his past and his resume now has new reporting on where money Santos raised for animal groups actually went. Now at least three rescue groups are coming forward, telling Gold that money that Santos raised on their behalf never made it to them.

Several other people, including Navy veteran Rich Osthoff, who's appeared on the so show, says he scammed them out of money meant to help their sick pets.

OUTFRONT, Judi Eskenazi, who helped run one New Jersey rescue group that worked with Santos.

And, Judi, thanks so much for your time.

So, you know, when you meet Santos or he first contacts you, this is back in 2017 and it's for help placing some dogs that he apparently had in his care. What can you tell me about your interactions with him?

JUDI ESKENAZI, RAN AN ANIMAL RESCUE: Hi, Erin. Thank you so much for having me.

So I knew George as Anthony, and he did reach out to me at first, claiming he was the president of a rescue called FOPU, which is Friends of Pets United. He reached out to me, because I did post a dog that was in need in the Brooklyn area and he said he would be able to help, as he had a team of pro bono lawyers assisting him.

Our relationship or friendship, you know, was over the course of about a year, and throughout that year, he really was constantly asking me for help, asking me to help -- asking me to help him place some dogs, and that was really the extent, but he was constantly reach out and asking for me to help him place the dogs that he had in his care.

BURNETT: All right. So placing dogs, obviously, is different than raising money, right? So you are talking about actually placing dogs. What made you feel something wasn't right and when did you start to feel that way?

ESKENAZI: Yeah. So normally in rescue, when we do pull dogs out of the shelter or, you know, take any type of owner surrender, we then will see the dog referred to adoption. It's not uncommon for us to raise money through fundraisers, GoFundMes, but what's striking me as odd was that he was taking these dogs, posting GoFundMes, posting fundraisers and then coming to us and asking us to take the dogs from him and help them through for adoption.

So that's when, you know, we really started questioning, what is this guy about?

BURNETT: So he is raising money, then, and ostensibly to do that part of a job and coming back to you to do it. You have no idea what happened to any of that money?

ESKENAZI: Correct.

BURNETT: So, eventually, you cut off contact. Of course, he's denied any wrongdoing. He's said my work in animal advocacy was a labor of love and hard work.

When did you realize that the person you were working with, Anthony, was now Congressman George Santos?

ESKENAZI: So it was like an ah-ha moment, right, which was crazy. I had somebody reach out to me, a reporter from I believe "The Washington Post", through Venmo, saying hi, I would like to talk about your relationship with George Santos.

And I sat there thinking, I don't know this congressman. I just know what I've seen on the media. And something told me to look up his name in my Facebook messages as that's where I was doing all of my rescue, and when I did search his name, I saw the conversation between me and Anthony pop up as the name, Anthony D., which Facebook is now George A.D. Santos. That's when it clicked in my brain that it was the same person. So, you know, pretty wild.

BURNETT: Pretty wild at the least.

All right. Wow. Well, Judi, thanks so much. I appreciate your sharing the story.

ESKENAZI: Of course. Thank you so much for having me. Have a great rest of your night, thank you.

BURNETT: All right. You, too, Judi Eskenazi.

And, next, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis taking his culture war to the next level, now threatening the Orlando Philharmonic after they hosted a holiday-themed drag event.

Plus the death toll now topping 3,800 after that catastrophic earthquake rocks Turkey and Syria. We're live on the ground because at this hour, even in the night, there's a desperate scramble to find anybody buried alive.



BURNETT: Tonight, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis wading into his latest culture war fight as he eyes the 2024 run for president. DeSantis reportedly filing a complaint against the Orlando Philharmonic for allowing minors to attend a drag show over the holidays.

The governor moving to strip the foundation's liquor license, saying organizers did not provide notice as to the sexually explicit nature of the show's performances. OK, unclear as to why stripping a liquor license. I presume the minors weren't allowed to partake of that, but I get the punishment.

All jokes aside, Jonah and Karen are with me.

So, Jonah, DeSantis clearly is confident that these culture wars work, right? So he picks one, he'll pick another one another day, right? Whether it's DEI, at AP level Black history. Here we are with the drag show.

JONAH GOLDBERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yeah. So I think the first thing that people need to keep in mind is even if they don't like DeSantis, I'm not a huge DeSantis fan, even if they think these culture war fights are stupid, he's not stupid for picking them. First of all, I think this is a winning issue for Ron DeSantis. I think if you actually read what these kids were exposed to with this thing, the average, nonpolitical parent is going to hear it and say, I think it's inappropriate for six year olds to see all of that stuff and to hear all of that stuff.

And if Democrats want to fight 'em on it, then they have to defend what was going on there, which is not good politics. So I think it's a smart move for him. He's very good at picking these

kinds of fights. And he waits for someone to sort of fight back on them, thinking that because it's a Boo Beatty kind of culture war issue that he must not know what he's talking about, then he's got the goods to back it up.

BURNETT: So, Karen, to this point, DeSantis has made this a bigger issue. The newest count by CNN has bills in at least 11 states to restrict or ban drag show performances. This is the world we live in now.

Now, these are red states, aside from Arizona, which, of course, Biden won in 2020. But to the point Jonah is making, right? Do Democrats want to be forced by DeSantis into looking like they support drag shows in the presence of six year olds?

KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think what Democrats need to do is focus on the larger issue, which is freedom. Parents should have the freedom to decide, not DeSantis, not any governor, not any government, what content is appropriate for their children, whether that is what they learn, the books that they can get at the library, or the shows that they take them to -- instead of fighting it on the culture war territory.


Obviously, you want to affirm support for the LGBTQ community, but again, I think there's a larger issue of freedom.

GOLDBERG: I agree there. Actually, I agree freedom there. But I think parental freedom is more of a Republican issue than a Democrat issue.

FINNEY: Well, but you can't have it both ways. You can't say we're for parental freedom, but I'm going to tell you what show you can take your kid to.

GOLDBERG: Yeah, except my understanding is a lot of parents were shocked by what they actually saw and complained about it.

FINNEY: They might, but did they want the governor to be the one?

BURNETT: What's interesting, though, you're now going onto individual rights. In a sense, in the traditional way of viewing things, we're sort of flipping the scripts here.

FINNEY: It's part of the argument we made so effectively on reproductive freedom, that women should control their own bodies. That is still a big concern for people.

And so, I think when you cut to the underlying rights and values, not as a GOP primary issue, as a general election issue in this country, I don't think that's going to sell.

GOLDBERG: I don't know that any of this is going to work in a general election, but in the primaries I think it works for him. And also, I think the idea that -- I do think that the idea the Democrats are going to get on the parental rights side of the argument over Republicans, given their role with teachers unions, is impossible.

We saw how the lock downs played out with the Democrats taking the side of teachers unions over the sides of what parents wanted. I think DeSantis is firmly on that side of the argue mesh and it's a good argument to have.

BURNETT: All right. On the general election side, Karen, new AP/NORC poll, 37 percent of Democrats want Biden to run for a second term. That's really low and I was actually shocked, because it's down 15 points from October. I mean, that's a very big drop.

How significant is that, in your view, given where we are here? We're now in February.

FINNEY: Well, I think that's part of the reason that the State of the Union tomorrow is important. It is an opportunity for Biden to create an inflection point, talk about what he's done and to try to get those numbers back up and remind people, because I think one of the things that's happened over the last couple years, we've forgotten how bad it was when he first came into office. Imagine having gone through balloon gate with Donald Trump tweeting every ten seconds. It would have been more aggravating and stressful than it was. And so I think that's part of what he's going to do tomorrow, to kind of turn the corner on that.

BURNETT: By the way, same poll says Trump would beat Biden. Not an outcome you're looking for?

GOLDBERG: No, it's not an outcome I'm looking for and I'm -- not necessarily believe it. Full disclosure to the audience, I hate the State of the Union Address. I hate it under Republicans. I hate under Democrats.

I think it's one of the many terrible things Woodrow Wilson inflicted on this country, and also, but as a political matter, he may get a bump from it. He may not. But bumps from State of the Unions tend not to last.

BURNETT: No, they do tend not to last. All right. At least we appreciate honesty on the program.

Please tune in tomorrow.


FINNEY: Right.

BURNETT: All right, thank you both very much.

And next, emergency crews right now sifting through the debris, searching for survivors after a massive earthquake rocked Turkey and Syria. They're literally hunting for people right now trying to save lives. The numbers have gone up in the last couple hours, 3,800 now confirmed dead. We're going to go there, next.

Plus, a very dangerous close call. We are now learning a FedEx cargo jet came within 100 feet of a Southwest jet, which was packed with 100 passengers. Just look at this. What happened after this.



BURNETT: Tonight, a desperate search for survivors after a massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake tore through Turkey and Syria. The death toll is now more than 3,800 people and expected to climb as the rescuers dig through the rubble. This dramatic moment was caught on video, a child pulled from the wreckage. All night crews are hoping to find more survivors. Amazing.

Nick Paton Walsh is OUTFRONT in Turkey tonight on his way to the disaster zone.

I do warn you what you will see in his piece is disturbing.


NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR (voice-over): Not everyone woke up today. Dozens of children pulled from under the rubble in this rebel-held Syrian town, their lifeless bodies lining the corridors of the overwhelmed hospital.

DR. OSAMA ABOL EZZ, SYRIAN AMERICAN MEDICAL SOCIETY: Most of the casualties are children and women. And there is a lot, a lot under the rubble, and we receive more and more every hours.

WALSH: The destruction knew more borders. A magnitude 7.8 earthquake and over 100 powerful aftershocks flattened buildings in Turkey and Syria.

In Kahramanmaras, near the epicenter in Turkey, people woke up to the sight of their worlds demolished, wondering if their neighbors are still alive under the rubble.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): As soon as the shaking slowed down, we threw ourselves outside. By the dawn we started looking for our relatives. We have losses, and there are several people we still can't reach. At the moment, two voices are coming from the rubble.

WALSH: Aftershocks caught rescuers and journalists by surprise, some almost as powerful as the first earthquake.

Reducing the crumbling buildings into dust, sending survivors running for their lives again.

DR. CATHERINE SMALLWOOD, WHO EUROPE'S SENIOR EMERGENCY OFFICER: Now is the time to really be able to prevent some of those further deaths. Some people unfortunately won't be saved.

WALSH: In near freezing temperatures, the snowstorms are hampering what would already be tough rescue efforts.

Where the destruction is worst, the bodies will be pulled out slowly, each one laden with hope for a miracle that slips away with each icy hour.


WALSH: And, Erin, I have to tell you, you can see here the horizontal snow that is gripping Turkey. At the moment, we're driving on a main highway towards the disaster zone, and it is crammed with fire engines, ambulances, multiple excavators we've seen, literally all of Turkey on the move to try, just the beginning here frankly of a rescue operation while these freezing temperatures are just going to make that death toll rise.


That's in Turkey. With logistics across the border in Syria, crippled by war, poor infrastructure, there is going to be a desperate race there with all kinds of aid facing political problems. These numbers are going to keep going up, Erin.

BURNETT: Such horrible loss of life, and so many children in those.

Nick, thank you very much, reporting live from the freezing story, getting close there to the disaster zone.

And next, we're going learn new details about how a FedEx cargo jet came within 100 feet of a packed Southwest Airliner.


BURNETT: Tonight, dangerously close. A FedEx cargo flight coming within 100 feet of a Southwest passenger flight. This was in Austin, Texas.

Air traffic control cleared both flights. One was arriving. One was departing. They were cleared to use the same runway.

So, you can see on your screen, the FedEx cargo flight abandoning its landing to avoid the collision. The Southwest flight was taking off.


AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL AUDIO: Southwest, abort. FedEx is on the go.


BURNETT: The NTSB says it wasn't air traffic control that intervened to avoid the crash. It was the crew of the FedEx flight. It's pretty incredible.

The chairman of the NTSB praising the FedEx crew for saving over 100 lives. Pretty incredible to imagine that, and I think about that tragic loss of life averted by the paying attention, courageous, quick thinking of a crew.

Thanks for joining us. I'll be back at 9:00 for a special edition of OUTFRONT.

"AC360" starts now.