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Erin Burnett Outfront

More Than 30 Towns Across Eastern Ukraine Under Heavy Fighting; Soon: Biden Gives First Address Before GOP-Controlled House; DeSantis' Fight With Disney Is About To Get Heated; Expert: China Using Spy Balloons To Make ICBMs More Accurate; Death Toll In Turkey-Syria Quake Rises, Tops 7,700. Aired 7-8p ET

Aired February 07, 2023 - 19:00   ET



ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: OUTFRONT next, bitter battle. More than 30 towns across Eastern Ukraine under fire tonight as new and graphic video shows the brutal Russian losses on the front lines.

Plus, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar on getting kicked off a committee by Republicans, her special State of the Union guests and whether she thinks the president really has her back.

And Governor Ron DeSantis publicly praising a lawyer who's going after Trump's election deniers. Is it game on between DeSantis and Trump?

Let's go OUTFRONT.

And good evening. I'm Erin Burnett.

OUTFRONT tonight, under fire. More than 30 towns across eastern Ukraine facing bitter fighting in the overnight hours tonight. And we have new video to show you tonight from the front lines, I show you this, this is from where we believe is near the town of Vuhledar. And it is graphic. This is the first video. It's important to understand the context of what's happening on the front lines.

We believe there are Russians standing by this tank. You see the drone hovering above. They drop that small munition, and the Russians are killed. It's gruesome and graphic. You're talking about human life.

The tank is covered in blood. And the soldiers seem to be sitting ducks, in part, because you could see them. They don't have the proper equipment or any camouflage to blend into the snow. And as you see it there, and obviously, that tank is covered in blood.

And let me show you another new video. This one is a bit different. You're going to see what appear to be other Russian soldiers taking shelter in a trench. They're spotted, munition is dropped, and you see that explosion.

Now the drone here zooms in. Some are killed, others are injured. The camera gives you a sense of the scope. Some were able to crawl out. Some survive. This is what it's like there on the front lines, being hunted by

drones, dying like that. The sickening death and destruction coming amidst intense street fighting in eastern towns. According to U.S. officials, the Russian death toll is in the hundreds every day right now, according to British intelligence, Putin's forces are only managing to move several hundred yards a day. And they're doing that with death in those towns and getting out of their tank and being hit by small munition and all dead on their tank.

As Putin is planning a greater onslaught to try to overcome this incredible loss of human life, thinking throwing more bodies at it will solve it, the pressure is showing on him.

I want you to take a look at this picture. This is a woman named Maria Ponomarenko. She's a Russian journalist. This is her in the cage of Russian judicial system. Russian prosecutors want to sentence her to nine years in prison, according to the human rights group OVD.

Well, why? The reason is because she reported on the bombing of the Mariupol theater, you know, the one full of innocent women and children, hundreds were killed, the theater that was labeled "children" above it in Russian. Ponomarenko was arrested because she described what really happened on Telegram, what really happened, right, that there was a bombing, and so many of those women and children were killed.

So, now, she is there in that cage, charged with disseminating false information about the Russian army. She's a mother of two and she may very well spend the next decade in her life in prison or a penal colony. After all, Russian courts who have a history of rubber stamping what prosecutors recommend.

So this is the crackdown happening inside Russia as Russian soldiers take those incredible losses on the battlefield that few want to be anywhere near.

Our Fred Pleitgen is OUTFRONT live in Kyiv tonight.

And, Fred, you're there on the front lines. You had a chance to speak with some of those Wagner fighters who are, you know, the ones in those trenches by those tanks. They are now the ones you spoke to, Ukrainian prisoners of war, and an incredible opportunity for you to speak to them. What did they tell you?


You're absolutely right. It was certainly a remarkable opportunity that we had. And we needed to treat it in a very sensitive way. It was Ukrainian intelligence that allowed us access to these two Wagner fighters had been captured late last year on the battlefields in eastern Ukraine.

And, of course, we had to make clear to these fighters that they were under no obligation whatsoever to speak to us. Also, of course, we had to assure ourselves as best we could that they did not feel under any sort of duress to speak to us. Those are certainly things that we conveyed to these fighters.

The other thing we did is we hid their identity and changed their voices. But they gave us some pretty remarkable insight into some of the tactics that Wagner is using, specifically those human waves of expendable fighters that are being sent towards front line positions, many of them getting killed before they even get anywhere near the Ukrainians, and also about some fighters being shot if they refuse to do so.


Here's what we heard.


WAGNER GROUP FIGHTER (through translator): Artillery targeted us. We had no chance to hide anywhere. We got an order just to run forward. We ran forward, but one guy was hiding behind a tree and refused to advance.

We reported him to the commander later and they condemned him after they returned to the base. He was simply taken out of the building. He dug a grave for himself and he was shot down 50 meters from the base.

WAGNER GROUP FIGHTER (through translator): Groups of fighters were brought to the starting line, 400 people were taken there, and more and more coming constantly. They were always nearby on the starting line. They were constantly sent to storm positions, one group was sent, decimated and then it was disbanded. Then more and more other groups were sent.


PLEITGEN: Erin, both of these men were Russian convicts. They were languishing in Russian jails when they said that the boss of Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, came there and recruited them to fight in Ukraine.

Now, at least one of the men was told that actually he would be in the rear echelon, that he wouldn't even be in the front line, but he said he quickly realized that it was going to be very different than that. You know, those brutal assaults where so many of these prisoners died. One of the guys said that he had taken part in four of those where many of the people around them were just mowed down by the Ukrainians because they were trying to run towards those positions.

The other one said that it was five assaults that he took part in. Remind our viewers, about 50,000 such people the Ukrainians say have been brought to the front line by Wagner, and many of them already have been killed, captured, or have ran away, Erin.

BURNETT: All right. Thank you very much, Fred.

And incredible to have the opportunity to speak to them, and doing so with as much, you know, care and directness as you possibly can just to try to hear their story as best as you can.

Fred Pleitgen live from Kyiv.

And I want to go to the retired Army Brigadier Mark Kimmitt, who's a former assistant secretary of state for political and military affairs as well, and Ekaterina Kotrikadze, the news director and anchor for TV Rain, which is an independent Russian language television channel that was shut down by the Russian government at the start of the war.

General Kimmitt, these Wagner fighters, you know, it's interesting, Paul Whelan, the American who's been held for 1,500 days, now in a Russian penal colony, says that some of the worst operators in that penal colony left, they took the offer, we'll go, put their hand up and went to Ukraine, and that it's -- such that it can be better. I don't even want to use that, but some of the worst operators left and went to the front lines.

So, I don't want to say this with sort of sympathy, but nonetheless, these are human beings and they're being put on the front lines and they're fighting. And you hear them talking to Fred about a fellow fighter being shot and killed by his commanders after they refused to advance. He keeps referring to this point of where they're going to fight as "the starting line."

What does that even tell you about the fighters here and the military?

BRIGADIER GEN. MARK KIMMITT (RET.), FORMER ASST. SECRETARY OF STATE FOR POLITICAL-MILITARY AFFAIRS: Well, first of all, I think we've always got to take prisoner of war footage with great suspect. That's why it's against the law of the land warfare. We certainly don't want to see our prisoners as a spectacle held up by the enemy. And that's why we traditionally don't do that with our prisoners of war.

But what it does say is that the Wagner people coming from the penal colonies obviously think the front line gets them a better chance than living in a Russian penal colony, especially since that they do a good job, they'll be released. That's a real devil's bargain that they are signing up for. I think the way they're being treated demonstrates how callous the Russian way of war is, whether those were penal colony, Wagner group, or regular Russian soldiers. This was the way Russia treats their soldiers.

BURNETT: Right. And, as I said, you are talking in each of these cases these are human beings, die.

Ekaterina, one of the Wagner fighters, Fred asked him whether it was the right choice to join Wagner. He said to Fred, quote, I think it was the wrong choice. If I were at home instead of at the penal colony, I wouldn't have joined up. I wouldn't have needed it.

I didn't know anything about the war then. They brought us here under a false pretext. And so we're at war, but I don't think it's a just cause.

Now, again, you understand the situation that they are in when they say this. But, in a penal colony, and they're saying if I hadn't been there, I wouldn't have done it. It was just because of how bad my situation was. Does this make sense to you from everything you're hearing?

EKATERINA KOTRIKADZE, ANCHOR, TV RAIN: Yeah, absolutely. There has been so many investigations by independent journalists and human rights activists telling us about the situation in penal colonies in Russia in jails. It is terrible what people are going through there.


And, you know, that the biggest example of how they torture people in Russian prisons is Alexei Navalny, the biggest Russian oppositioner, the leader of the opposition. I was just watching again that the pictures and videos from how people were protesting when he was arrested, and how the wave of, you know, protest in Russian citizens was going through the whole country when he was detained after coming back to Moscow.

What I'm saying is that people in Russia are scared of jails, of colonies because of the history of terrible attitude to prisoners.


KOTRIKADZE: Historically, it always has been like that. But another problem is that I don't want to lose the sense of responsibility for those who are going to this war. I mean, it's important as well -- people didn't want to know about Ukraine. They were feeling comfortable in their lives, you know, small personal lives. They don't want to get involved in politics.

Millions of Russians, unfortunately, they were, you know, they were choosing to have this normal, comfortable life with this president who was not entering their, you know, private spaces. And it was a huge mistake. Unfortunately, a lot of the big percentage of Russian population was living like that, above politics. And this is how they are paying right now.

BURNETT: Paying the price for it.

Now, General Kimmitt, the two new videos that we have from the front lines, there's something about them. In Ukraine, when those of us, you know, we've gone there, the drones are ubiquitous, and they are a part of the warfare here. But when you see this, you get a sense somehow from these particular videos, maybe of what it's like to be on the ground and just be hunted by them.

And so, you're sitting there and you can't move and you don't know one is there, and then this happens, the tank comes out and all those Russians are killed. We're seeing incredible Russian death toll. And, yet, it is still slow in terms of what the Ukrainians are getting to fight back.

Germany said today, 20 to 25 of those Leopard tanks will arrive in Ukraine by the summer, 80 by early next year. Early next year is a long way away. Is that too long, or is that effective, General?

KIMMITT: Well, frankly, it's too little, and it'll take too long to get there. What I would remind you is when you see one drone drop one bomb and hit one trench line, that is a microcosm of what happens when you have thousands of artillery rounds fired every day from both directions.

I think we're seeing a very microscopic view of the battlefield. I think what is actually happening on the battlefield is far, far more profound, far more casualties, and far more, sadly, death and destruction.

But, again, going back to your question about the tanks, I think they will make a morale boost. But I don't think they're going to have much of a tactical value on the battlefield.

BURNETT: Which is significant. I know there are some who would hope otherwise, but important that you put that concern out there. Thank you both so very much.

Next, President Biden about to address the nation, calling for bipartisanship. But will it go anywhere? Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who was just kicked off the House Foreign Affairs Committee by Republicans, responds next.

Plus, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis now taking on Trump's inner circle, the ones who were pushing the former president's election lies.

And glimmers of hope as rescuers are still finding people buried alive after the massive earthquake with every survivor, more and more bodies are recovered. Now more than 7,700 people dead. We're live on the ground.



BURNETT: You're looking at live pictures of the White House, where President Biden is at this moment. He's preparing to head to the Capitol for his State of the Union Address tonight.

That's just a little over an hour away. And it is a speech that all but kicks off his re-election campaign.

Let's go straight to Phil Mattingly at the White House.

And, Phil, you have seen part of President Biden's speech. What can you tell us?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, Erin, we got a look at pieces of those remarks. It's supposed to be a lengthy speech. He is doing a final run-through of the entire speech. And what we know is there are some critical themes that the president is certainly going to highlight.

And they are consistent themes. You've heard from the president over the course of the last two years, a focus on resiliency and very clear progress over two years but the acknowledgment that there is more work to be done, talking about things like defending democracy, which has been critical to both his campaign and his presidency up to this point, bipartisanship, protecting Social Security and Medicare, a clear difference from the new House Republican majority. And also fighting for the middle class and police reform, something that has really been elevated in terms of importance over the course of the last couple of weeks in the wake of the beating death of Tyre Nichols down in Memphis.

And one key element here is that focus on bipartisanship in particular because the new speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, will be sitting right behind him for the first time during his state of the union speech. And in his remarks, which we have excerpts from, the president will say, to my Republican friends, if we can work together in the last congress, there is no reason we can't work together in this new Congress. The people sent us a clear message fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of power gets us nowhere, a focus on bipartisanship even if there aren't any clear pathways for a lot of the major legislative agenda items the president wants and will list in his speech tonight, Erin.

BURNETT: All right, thank you very much, Phil Mattingly.

And, as you point out, lengthy because there's a case he wants to make right ahead of the anticipated re-election announcement.

I want to go now to Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar who is joined by her guest for tonight's State of the Union, Andre Locke Sr. His 22- year-old son Amir was shot and killed last year while police executed a no-knock warrant in Minneapolis. And Congresswoman Omar is introducing legislation named after Amir Locke to end the use of no- knock warrants.

I appreciate both of you being with me very much.

And, Congresswoman, I'd like to begin with you on the overall framing of this speech, such that we understand it. You just heard Phil Mattingly's reporting, that President Biden is going to make the case tonight for bipartisanship. Some of his words will include this phrase, there is no reason we can't work together. And that his vision for the country is to unite it.

Of course, he's talking to a room with the Speaker McCarthy behind him.


Some of the Republicans in that room are the very one who's just kicked you off the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Is he right to work with those Republicans, including Speaker Kevin McCarthy?

REP. ILHAN OMAR (D-MN): So, you know, the president has always been understood as someone who can unite a divided country. That's one of the reasons people voted for him, you know, instead of voting for Trump. I think it's really important for there to be few people that we identify, that we can work with in a bipartisan matter. If you remember many of the pieces of legislation that we have moved

in a slim majority in the last Congress, a lot of them had bipartisanship support, whether it was the bipartisan gun bill, whether it was the infrastructure legislation. There were a lot of moments where we had that, and I think the president asking for that moving forward, it's going to be really important for anything to get done in the House.

BURNETT: And, of course, he is going to be talking about police reform as well. And I want to get to that.

But an email just came out that I want to give you a chance to respond to, because your Republican colleagues are fundraising off your removal from the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The Republican Congresswoman Brian Mast of Florida just sent out an email with the subject line "We just banned Ilhan Omar." The email says she is a rabid anti-Semite whose position was a massive liability for our country's national security.

Congresswoman, he's fundraising off of that. He's calling you a rabid anti-Semite. I wanted to give you a chance to respond to that.

OMAR: Not only is this truly bigoted, you know, act and speech, it is really important for us to remember just how partisan this vote was. Many of my colleagues talked about how this was an attack. I've talked about how their bigoted actions were rooted in the fact that they didn't want a Muslim person, someone who was an immigrant from Africa, and someone who was a refugee being a voice on the foreign affairs committee.

This is new McCarthyism. I think it's beneath them to be doing this, especially the speaker denigrating his leadership by raising money off of committee assignments. But what can we expect? This is a Republican Party that is now run by conspiracy theorists, QAnon folks, and folks who would rather run a circus than a house.

BURNETT: The president will also address police reform.

And, Andre, your son was killed by officers executing a no-knock warrant, which was not related to your son. He was in legal position of a gun. Officers said they considered that a threat. Prosecutors said there wasn't enough evidence to justify charges against any of those officers.

Now, of course, you're there tonight with Congresswoman Omar because she is putting forth legislation named after your son, which would end no-knock warrants.

When you look at Congress and you look at the division there, do you have hope that this legislation will pass?

ANDRE LOCKE SR., SON AMIR LOCKE WAS SHOT AND KILLED BY MINNEAPOLIS PD: I do. I have hope, and I believe that it will pass. And I actually -- I know that as everything happens in seasons and it's time for something to happen at this point because no-knock warrants are a high risk to predominantly Black and Brown people. And we're continuing to lose our lives for something that shouldn't be.

So, I truly believe that by this bill being passed, that it will save not only civilian lives but also save police lives as well.

BURNETT: And, Andre, what do you want to hear from the president tonight?

LOCKE: Well, that is -- first off, it's an honor to be here. Congresswoman, thank you for inviting me as representation for my family, the Locke family, and also standing in the gaps for Amir's mother, Karen Wells and the Morgan family.

I hope to hear the president stand strong on all reform. And I really don't know how to -- I really don't know how to answer that because, you know -- I expect a lot of things, you know? But mostly I'm hoping to see the no-knock bill possibly passed.


OMAR: Yeah. I was going to say Andre and I were talking about this earlier. I think what we want to mostly hear and what we've heard from a lot of the families is they want to hear a speech that's aspirational, that's asking of Congress to act around accountability, reform, one that will guarantee justice, and certainly make sure what Amir Locke's family is never experienced by other families across this country.


But we also think that the president still might have tools within his toolbox when it comes to executive order. So we're hoping to hear what more can he do in regards to that. But, most of all, we also obviously want to hear holistically what the vision is for the country, and we want it to be rooted in justice.


BURNETT: Thank you both so very much. I appreciate it.

LOCKE: Thank you.

BURNETT: And, of course, they will be in the chamber watching the president along with all of you, we hope.

Our special coverage of the State of the Union will begin at 8:00 of President Biden speaking and Anderson Cooper and Jake Tapper will be here.

OUTFRONT next, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis taking on Trump's biggest allies, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Lindell, the pillow guy. Is this really though a direct barb at Trump himself?

And is China using its spy balloons to make its intercontinental ballistic missiles more accurate? Was it all about targeting? It's a story you'll see first OUTFRONT.



BURNETT: Welcome back.

These are live pictures of the White House, while President Biden will be leaving shortly to go to the Capitol for his State of the Union Address. The president expected to make the case that he has to, quote, finish the job. He appears close, extremely close to formally announcing his run for reelection.

One of Biden's possible challengers, of course, is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who tonight is taking back his GOP rival Donald Trump.

Sticking with DeSantis' style, though, of not using Trump's name. Look at this, he sat in front of a big screen that says truth, and he sits there, truth behind him, praising the lawyer who is suing Rudy Giuliani and other Trump allies in an election lies lawsuit. Hmm.

It comes hours out of a big legislative move tomorrow in the Florida governor's culture wars, a bill that will give DeSantis more power over Disneyworld.

Leyla Santiago is OUTFRONT.


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R), FLORIDA: We fight the woke in the legislature. We fight the woke in the schools. We fight the woke in the corporations.

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Echoing his election victory speech, a new development in a year-long feud between Governor Ron DeSantis and Disney. A bill filed by Florida lawmakers would give the governor more control about who governs Walt Disney World Resort.

Florida Republicans aiming to turn over control of Disney's special taxing district called the Reedy Creek improvement district, to a five-member board chosen personally by the Florida governor. For more than half a century, the Reedy Creek, the 25,000-acre independent special district, has allowed Walt Disney World to self-govern its Orlando area theme parks, maintaining roads, buildings, utilities, even its own fire department. The board is run by land owners with close ties to Disney.

DESANTIS: We shouldn't let one company have their own set of rules compared to everybody else.

SANTIAGO: But critics say the move directed at Disney isn't about fairness, it's about exacting political retribution.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think that the governor has decided that anyone who goes against what he thinks is the right thing to do for Florida, they call it woke. Then they have to be dealt with.

SANTIAGO: So you see this as retaliation? UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, I do. In many respects, I do.

SANTIAGO: Retaliation after Disney, the state's largest single-site employer, spoke out about Florida's efforts to limit how sexual orientation and gender identity are discussed in classrooms, efforts that DeSantis supported. Republicans deny it's about payback.

RANDY FINE (R), FLORIDA STATE REPRESENTATIVE: What happened is by Disney alienating the people of Florida, they lost the political capital that prevented this good idea from happening. It's not retaliation.

SANTIAGO: Disney and DeSantis have not always been at odds. DeSantis was married at Disney. And in recent years, the company has financially backed DeSantis, contributing more than $100,000 to his political action committee after he was elected governor. Disney also gave more than $1.3 million to the Florida Republican Party during DeSantis' first term.

DESANTIS: Making sure that Disney doesn't have self-governing status anymore.

SANTIAGO: But now, Florida Republicans say this is the proposal needed to level the playing field, taking away special privileges from Disney, and laying out who is in charge.


SANTIAGO (on camera): And you know, Erin, remember here in Florida, it is a Republican-led legislature. So, by all accounts, this is expected to pass by the end of the week, in which case the next big question will be -- and actually this came up in conversations with lawmakers today, who will Governor Ron DeSantis appoint to that board? Erin?

BURNETT: All right. Thank you very much, Leyla.

And let's go now to David Urban, Republican strategist and former senior adviser to Trump's 2020 campaign.

So, David, Governor DeSantis is happy to take the money from Disney, obviously. It pays a lot of bills. He seemed -- happily seemed to get married there. But now this -- in the culture war conversation that he's having, this is the big fat pinata in the room. He cannot resist.

Is it smart politics?

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It's great politics for Republican primary politics, it's phenomenal, right? He gets to battle against woke, against DEI, against everything that the Republican base doesn't like, especially on the heels of what Disney did. Disney waded into a culture war when most companies backed off. It's a pinata for Ron DeSantis here.

BURNETT: For the base.

URBAN: For the base, absolutely.

BURNETT: Then you have a different conversation.

URBAN: But it changes for the general.

BURNETT: It changes for the general.

So, now, let's talk about what else he did today. So today, I was looking around, I said what did Ron DeSantis do today? And I see this set that says "truth" behind him on a set like we're sitting on. But behind him --

URBAN: Not the governor's mansion.

BURNETT: Truth, OK, and he's sitting in front of that, and he is attacking the media. But also this kind of -- you said a three- dimensional chess game, right? He's complimenting a First Amendment lawyer who's against --


URBAN: Who just happens to be --

BURNETT: Right, who happens to be against the inner circle of Trump and the election lies lawsuits with Dominion.

URBAN: Look, Governor DeSantis is pretty smart at this, right? He's obviously, this stagecraft was amazing, right? It's like a production. It's not in the governor's mansion with a bunch of Florida flags behind it as you pointed out.

It was very well-orchestrated. And without -- you know, the governor has critiqued the former president without calling him out by name. I think this was just an extension of that.

BURNETT: And so, do you see -- you know, he's not using Trump's name, again. Just putting "truth" behind him. Is that the strategy here that's going to continue for --

URBAN: Yeah, look, I don't think he's going to name names. It doesn't, you know -- in any political campaign, you never want to say -- you say "my opponent", right? So he doesn't have an opponent, he's not in the race yet, so he has to run even more obliquely so he could talk about these big things, these thematic issues, and still be winning.

So, I think he's doing pretty well right now.

BURNETT: All right.

URBAN: And especially on the night that you have the current president who's kind of auditioning for his role in '24. He's going to give a speech tonight, which I expect would be kind of reelect me and here's what I'll do. So, DeSantis is trying to steal that spotlight I think as well. BURNETT: All right. And, of course, tomorrow, you've got the big --

the Disney bill, which is going to be his chance to really get back on that public stage immediately.

All right. David Urban, thank you.

URBAN: Thanks.

BURNETT: And next, the U.S./China relationship deteriorating even more after the spy balloon. CNN is now learning that the Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin requested a phone call with his Chinese counterpart over the weekend. China refusing to take that call.

And new images tonight showing the absolute devastation from the earthquake as the death toll now nears 8,000 human lives lost. Our Nick Paton Walsh is on the ground near the epicenter.



BURNETT: Tonight, China refusing a phone call with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin after the U.S. shot down the Chinese spy balloon. This as the U.S. Navy has recovered parts of the surveillance balloon. They did that off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, releasing these photos.

And tonight, in a story you'll see first OUTFRONT, a top military analyst tells CNN that what China claims are weather balloons could actually be helping their military develop more accurate intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Will Ripley has this report OUTFRONT from Taiwan.


WILL RIPLEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This Chinese propaganda video released just days ago during the lantern festival, shows the military muscle of China's People's Liberation Army.

The PLA promising to reunite with Taiwan, planning to build up bullet train across the Taiwan Strait, pledging to take control of this island of almost 24 million, bringing the self-governing democracy under communist control.

One of the Chinese military's tools, high-altitude balloons. They've been testing them for years as this 2018 video shows. The U.S. shot down the suspected Chinese spy balloon last week. Beijing calls it a civilian weather balloon. They gave the same explanation to CNN on Monday for a second balloon over Latin America.

CNN obtained images of similar Chinese balloons hovering over Taiwan in recent months, including this one on New Year's Eve, and this one a few months earlier. At least four balloon sightings in the last two years, says Su Tzu-

yun, director of Taiwan's Institute for National Defense and Security Research. He says the island's relatively small size about the same as the state of Florida, gives Taiwan's military limited time to intercept balloons or even shoot them down.

Why do these Chinese balloons pose such a threat?

SU TZU-YUN, DIRECTOR, TAIWAN'S INSTITUTE FOR NATIONAL DEFENSE AND SECURITY RESEARCH: The spy balloon crossed Montana state, a very important ICBM site of the United States. If Beijing tried to conduct a so-called first strike, it will destroy enemy's ICBM site first. So, such data is very helpful for PLA to organize.

RIPLEY: Su says balloons can capture high-resolution images of sensitive sites, like those missile silos in Montana, potentially making China's ICBMs more accurate. Taipei says Chinese spy balloons should not be tolerated by the international community.

Last year, dozens of civilian drones from China captured videos of Taiwanese military outposts. Soldiers responded with rocks and flares, managing to shoot at least one drone down.

Taiwan's defense ministry says 121 Chinese military planes flew near the island just last month.


RIPLEY (on camera): And there are balloons almost identical to the one that was flying over the United States for a week that were actually hovering over the presidential office here in Taipei. So imagine if that had happened and this thing was hovering over the White House.

And experts here in Taiwan are telling us that these balloons can be weaponized. They can put supplies in them. They can potentially put bombs in them. So this is, you know, a lot more, some might say, sinister, for lack of a better word, than just a civilian weather balloon.

BURNETT: It certainly is. When you hear the word "balloon," it is interesting just in the way we all think. You don't necessarily first go there. And maybe that's part of the ingenuity, for lack of a better word, of what may be happening here.

All right. Will Ripley, thank you very much for that exclusive reporting.

OUTFRONT now, Adam Kinzinger. Of course, he's the former Republican congressman, also though a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard, and previously flew surveillance aircraft in the Air Force.

So, Congressman, I really appreciate your time. There's a lot to talk about here.

So, you hear Will's reporting. And obviously we knew the military says the spy balloon flew over these sensitive sites where the U.S. stores a lot of nuclear facilities.

So, do you think China could've been using the balloon to collect information for its own ICBM or missile targeting?

ADAM KINZINGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yeah, certainly. If you think about an ICBM site, right, a lot of these missile silos are spread out. They may be even able to get down -- especially if they have the ability to detect radiation -- radiological material. They would be able to see actually where these things are stored at.

So it can get precision targeting. On top of the fact that, of course, it can be pulling up electronic surveillance. It can determine -- a lot of things that we're probably going to find out in the next month or two is like, oh, my goodness, I can't believe they could do that.


BURNETT: And now, you know, you were telling me that you believe it's possible that some of these unidentified aerial phenomenon or UFOs as some call them, that there have been, you know, sort of an explosion of them in recent years, could have been things like this possibly.

But you make the point that if this balloon was off course, maybe lower than it normally is --


BURNETT: -- that maybe we just can't see them, and they're there, can't shoot them. Is it possible that they're that sophisticated?

KINZINGER: It really is possible because a radar return off of balloon material, you're not going to really see. Or what you get off the payload may look like something completely different because a radar doesn't like just pop back and say, hey, this is an airplane, this is what -- you interpolate what you're seeing and you say, hey, it's moving at this speed, it's this aircraft.

A balloon barely moving, you may dismiss it as something as an aberration. I think when they look back at historical radar data, that's how they were able to -- DOD was able to look and say, this was the radar return we got off this balloon that we knew was there. Oh, my goodness, here are some other times it's been there as well.

And keep in mind, if this thing's flying at 100,000 feet, not 60,000, which is very possible with these balloons. They can go up basically until they hit space. The ability to take them down is much, much harder at that altitude.

BURNETT: And then you add into that, of course, Will just said that it could be carrying a payload, it could be -- I mean, it's incredible to consider.

All right. Thank you so much, Congressman Kinzinger.

And next, a stunning juxtaposition. The before and after photo showing the impact of the devastating earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria. Some areas now completely reduced to ash. The death toll tonight nearing 8,000. It has doubled in the past 24 hours.

We're live at the epicenter with our Nick Paton Walsh.

And toxic. The guest attending the State of the Union Address with George Santos says he lost his job because of his decision to associate with the embattled congressman.



BURNETT: Tonight, desperation setting in the painstaking search for survivors in Turkey and Syria. Now, more than 7,700 people have been confirmed as killed in the massive earthquake. The shocking images show the catastrophic damages. Buildings are still completely gone. People are still trapped beneath them. So many people still trapped.

Our Nick Paton Walsh is OUTFRONT and he's now tonight near the epicenter where the rescue efforts are ongoing through the night. There is no time for rest.

Nick, what have you been seeing?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: Yeah, Erin. Kahramanmaras, where I'm standing here, close to both the first tremor that started the earthquake, and then the significant after shock that followed hours later. You can't see in the dark here, but literally every major apartment block utterly destroyed, ground down to rubble.

A rescue operation happening behind me. We've seen moments of pain and joy across this city since we arrived here.


WALSH (voice-over): You can still almost feel the enormity of the tremors here. This is Kahramanmaras, closest to the epicenter, one of the older neighborhoods shredded. Its family warmth huddling on the street.

Prodek's (ph) father is trapped under the rubble here. Only his feet protrude. They can't get him out but can cover his toes. It would be really nice, he says, if the government has come by.

Turan (ph) retrieved his 8-year-old daughter, wife, and daughter-in- law. Pray you never stand over so much of your life. Their final dignity from a carpet.

Pushed down and there are glimmers of hope. These rescuers have spotted a 12-year-old Mustafa in the rubble and have to dig down to him.

Further along, Ali helped him find his 65-year-old mother.

She's in her bed down there, he says. We'll get her out soon.

There is not much sign of government here, perhaps as the scale of this is all too massive.

Dusk makes the dust and the immense bulk of the mess harder still. The cold just an insult in the days of emptiness that lie ahead.

And the news from the rubble is as often as bad as it is good. A body found here carried out and laid next to this man's 9-year-old daughter.

The black here hiding the infinite agony buried in it, the stories with the wrong ending.

Then, suddenly, there is a call for quiet, hush. They think they hear a voice. A pause and then the best noise, joy.

Rescuers think they might have found six people alive, but there are hours more ahead of checking.

But nothing really goes to plan here. Even the joy seems random. Where Ali's mother is being rescued two young people are unexpectedly found and pulled out, a 16-year-old girl apparently still alive.

Extraordinary moment of joy, the kind of thing all of Turkey is desperately hoping and waiting for. But as the temperatures drop and time goes by, it's harder to come by. But extraordinary to see so many pulled so healthily straight out of this building.

Abdullah seemed unscathed, almost untouched, by the tremors that altered everything else he emerges into.



WALSH (on camera): Now, the snow may have eased, the bitter cold has certainly not. And behind me here, we've seen -- just behind this car, intensified rescue efforts. There were a hush called for. Two separate voices appear to have been heard, but the rescue effort is hampered by the severe risk of the roof above these two apparent people still could be collapsing onto them or the rescuers.

Hour by hour counting here, Erin, as the chance of bringing people out alive diminish slowly day by day -- Erin.

BURNETT: Nick, thank you very much.

And next, Congressman George Santos may soon find himself at the center of an ethics investigation as we're learning his guest for tonight's State of the Union has just been fired from his job.


BURNETT: Tonight, more problems from embattled Congressman George Santos. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy telling CNN, Santos will face an investigation from the House Ethics Committee. Here's what he told our Manu Raju earlier today.


MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So ethics is actually investigating right now?



BURNETT: But McCarthy later clarified saying Santos is simply the subject of complaints to the committee.

Now an investigation would be a major escalation in the Santos saga. Republicans acknowledging that it could even lead to his expulsion from Congress and comes in the context of tonight, the State of the Union. Santos' guest there is a man named Michael Weinstock, a lawyer who worked as a volunteer firefighter at Ground Zero on 9/11. He said he's been let go from his law firm for accepting Santos' invitation. Weinstock saying a partner at the firm described Santos as, quote, toxic.

CNN has reached out to the firm for comment. We have as of yet gotten no response.

Well, thanks so much for joining us.

Our special coverage of the State of the Union begins right now.