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Erin Burnett Outfront

Putin Ally Threatens Use Of "Any Weapons" As Ukraine Eyes Crimea; Source: White Powder Sent To D.A. Amid Trump Hush Money Case; U.S. Rejects Chinese Threats Over Warship In South China Sea; Beijing Warns Of Consequences For Provocative Actions. Aired 7-8p ET

Aired March 24, 2023 - 19:00   ET



ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: OUTFRONT next, poisoned for opposing the war. A Russian politician and Putin critic tells OUTFRONT she's been poisoned, and she will not stop speaking out, even despite that.

Plus, a threatening letter with white powder sent to the Manhattan district attorney investigating Donald Trump. This is the former president warns of death and destruction, his words, if he's indicted.

And Senator Fetterman's office says he'll be out of the hospital, quote, soon. It has been more than a month since the senator checked himself into Walter Reed. So what are his constituents saying tonight?

Let's go OUTFRONT.

And good evening. I'm Erin Burnett.

OUTFRONT tonight, poisoned. A Putin critic tells OUTFRONT that she was poisoned because she opposed Putin and his war. Elvira Vikhareva, in her first interview with Western media, says she's 33 years old, otherwise healthy, but then suddenly this happened.


ELVIRA VIKHAREVA, PUTIN OPPOSITION POLITICIAN (through translator): I had convulsions, palpitations, papillary constriction and pains in the stomach.

I had to go to a private clinic to treat it, to be blunt, something that isn't treatable. No one was able to give a concrete diagnosis.

We did many toxicology tests used for poisoning incidents, experts told us to do blood analysis.

In total, there was about 4.5 mg of poison in my system.


BURNETT: Four point five milligrams of poison on her system when she tested it, and to be clear here. You heard her voice, right? The reason we couldn't see her face, the reason we spoke to on the phone is because, she says the poisoning has taken a toll on her appearance as well.

Now the Russian outlet says that Elvira was poisoned by heavy metal salts, and she talks about that 4.5 mg of poison. They cite lab tests that Vikhareva underwent after she started experiencing these symptoms.

Here's the amazing thing. Vikhareva tells OUTFRONT that she has not deterred.


VIKHAREVA: I don't intend to leave my country. Many people, even at this moment, are writing to tell me to pack my bags immediately and get out of here, even offering to assist me in this. But I am being monitored by medics and I'm undergoing treatment.

I don't intend to leave the country because I have a great deal of supporters.


BURNETT: Incredible to hear her say that.

And we should say that tonight I'll be there is actually one of the lucky ones. She's still alive to tell her story. We've seen a long list, of course, of mysterious deaths of prominent Russians since the start of the war, at least 14 by our most recent count, and we're very conservative on this. You're looking at some of them on your screen.

One fell out of the window of his hotel. Another fell out of a hospital window. Another fell down a flight of stairs. And yet another fell off a boat. You get the point.

And all of this comes as Putin's forces are continuing to flail in Ukraine. The Wagner group once, of course, gaining praise for Putin's major rare victory and Ukraine months ago has been suffering continued heavy losses in Bakhmut and is now looking to replenish its depleted force.

Here is a new ad that we just found that is now running a local Russian television.


YEVGENY PRIGOZHIN, WAGNER GROUP (through translator): Guys, sign up with Wagner PM. It's a friendly team. You'll learn how to do a man's job the right way.


BURNETT: And then you see the number they gave to call.

But that doesn't seem to be doing much. And now those close to Putin are looking for another way again. The nuclear saber rattling -- rattling rising tonight. The former president and close Putin ally Dmitri Medvedev warned today

that if Ukraine tries to retake Crimea, which, of course, Ukraine is loud and clear that it is going to do, if that happens, quote, it is absolutely clear that this will serve as a basis for the use of all means of protection, including those provided for by the basic doctrine of nuclear deterrence. There are obvious grounds for using any weapons. Absolutely any. I hope our friends across the ocean realize this.

One can hardly cause such a thing like that a veiled threat.

And to take it even further, here's one of Putin's top anchors on Russian state television.


VLADIMIR SOLOVYOV, RUSSIAN STATE TV PRESENTER (through translator): They are planning for a long war, but it could be really short. That is, if a decision would be made to use the Sarmat or Poseidon. Everything would happen much faster that way.


BURNETT: Let's got to the ground in Ukraine tonight where Ivan Watson is OUTFRONT. He's in Zaporizhzhia this evening.

And, Ivan, what is the latest there?

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Erin, Ukrainian authorities say at least two people were killed in Ukraine's northern Sumy region after Russian warplanes fired guided bombs at towns and villages there.


And they say another three people were killed in an eastern town called Konstantinovka by a Russian missile attack. That is just up the road from the embattled city of Bakhmut, scene of more than seven months of deadly warfare.


WATSON (voice-over): Russia's war machine appears to be losing momentum in Bakhmut where Ukrainian commanders now exhibit optimism. After hurling themselves for months against Ukrainian defenders in this city on Ukraine's eastern front, Russian troops and mercenaries have made on the incremental gains and suffered staggering losses. Russian forces in Mahmoud are depleted, says one of Kyiv's top generals, and the Ukrainian counteroffensive could soon be launched.

Harder to judge, the enormous sacrifice Ukrainians have made in their costly defense of this embattled city. But while Russia's efforts have slowed, they haven't stalled. Ukraine claims the area has been hit with more than 200 strikes in the last day alone.

And Russia is sending in backup to compensate for the growing losses of Wagner private mercenaries, with Russian airborne troops now playing a greater role in the fighting around Bakhmut, according to the Ukrainian military.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I want to say that the situation in the south has not improved in such a way we can talk about some kind of victory or anything like that in the country. The enemy is applying even more pressure.

WATSON: President Volodymyr Zelensky earlier this week paid tribute to the defenders of Bakhmut, visiting Ukraine's eastern front to hand out awards.

The deadly grudge match over Bakhmut is far from over. The Ukrainian military says it's using the front lines of Bakhmut to bleed and exhaust the Russian army. But how long can Ukraine afford to fight a bloody war of attrition against its much larger, stronger enemy?


WATSON (on camera): Erin, amid all of this grinding fighting. We've gotten word of an exchange of sorts. The Ukrainian authorities say that the Russian military handed over the bodies of at least 83 killed Ukrainian soldiers and that Ukraine handed over an undisclosed number of very seriously wounded Russian troops.

The Ukrainians are not calling this a prisoner exchange. Rather they're calling it a repatriation that they say they have to do according to international law.

Just goes to show that amid the carnage and the killing that is going on day and night on the front lines, there are still some areas of cooperation between Kyiv and Moscow -- Erin.

BURNETT: Ivan, thank you very much from Zaporizhzhia tonight.

And I want to go now to Alina Polyakova, a Russian foreign affairs expert and the president and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis, along with retired U.S. Army Major General James "Spider" Marks.

And, General Marks, I just want to begin with you. You know, Ivan talking about this fighting in Bakhmut. Russian forces clearly are depleted there. You're not just hearing that from Kyiv. It's visible on the front lines, so we understand Russia's sending more of these airborne troops and that they're going to put them there.

Now, I know you've had a lot of experience dealing with Russian airborne troops in your time in Europe. So does -- what does that say to you?

MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Well, the Russian airborne troops are they paint themselves just like American airborne troopers as a pretty elite group, and let's be frank. It is. It's an additional step, but it's an additional qualifier that's required in order to join that unit. But once that unit is planted on the ground, their capabilities are

not dissimilar to other units that would be there. They just in many cases would get there by jumping out of the back end of an aircraft. In this case, in Bakhmut, they won't do that. They'll deploy by trucks or by other means, or they'll walk in.

But what I think it demonstrates is that with the airborne troops there, it really is a reinforcement. I don't see this as a relief in place, in other words, that the Wagner Group is going to withdraw and then that the airborne troops are going to take their place. That is a very -- although it seems very simple. It's a very complicated military operations, so you don't create gaps and vulnerabilities.

But I think with the Russian forces are trying to achieve is there this is where they want to make a stand. These airborne troops are there and this is where they intend to fight and we've seen what the images look like, and we see what the report in terms of losses on both sides.

BURNETT: Absolutely and obviously, you know the incredible loss that this has been for Russia, so they're putting in more elite forces. What that says in always.

We also saw, of course, Alina, the recruitment video, right, uh, precaution put out.


And you know, in this context, anyone who is now opposing the war in any way we're seeing more and more response to it right whether being in prison or poisonings or falling out of windows.

And I want to play more of what Elvira told us about how concerns for her safety worry her and even for her parents. Here she is.


VIKHAREVA: I have absolutely no guarantee for my safety from an objective standpoint. The most important thing is that there are two hostages in this country, my own parents. They're in a completely different city. There's a rather broad range of actions that could be applied to them. I know a lot of people who don't share the Kremlin's views, and they have no guarantee of safety because there are oppression machine is rolling along with maddening speed.


BURNETT: And, of course, Alina, you know, she says that they were able to confirm that there were you know, 4.5 milligrams of this poison in her system. I mean, what is this say to you about how bad things are for anyone who speaks out in Russia right now?

ALINA POLYAKOVA, RUSSIAN FOREIGN AFFAIRS EXPERT: Well, Elvira's cases certainly absolutely heart wrenching, but unfortunately, it's not unique as you reported many times on your program, Erin. I mean the list of those who speak out against the regime who call Russia's war in Ukraine exactly what it is, which is a war, now face really increasingly brutal consequences, harassment of your family. Nothing is really off the table.

Children are being taken from their parents in the case of that in Russia, as well of a little girl who drew a picture at 12 years old of a Ukrainian flag with the word "war" in the picture, and she was basically taken from her father. It's really approaching a state of repression, censorship, and just, you know, really deep. I think dictatorial type tactics that look very much like a place like North Korea or Belarus.

I mean, this is what Russia is today, and the risk of speaking out is incredibly high.

BURNETT: And, General Marks, and Alina talks about repression. Elvira also told us about how bad the repression has gotten as she sees it there, you know, talking about what they will do to track down any critic. Here's what she said about that.


VIKAHAREVA: The food processor. Come to some people at 4:00 a.m. They come to do searches, knocking down doors with sledgehammers. They ransack, turning the whole house over and an attempt to find some documents discrediting the authorities, or I don't know, to find some opposition signs.


BURNETT: I mean, General, this is what they're spending time doing, day in and day out, knocking on doors 4:00 a.m. with sledgehammers.

MARKS: Doesn't sound much like a republic, doesn't it? Sounds very much like the Soviet Union that we grew up with for 40 to 50 years.

Look, there's criminality across the board in terms of what the Russians are doing in Ukraine and to their own people. There's no form of dissent.

And then when you take this to a military perspective, what young man or woman -- what young man in the Russia case -- would want to fight for this type of an autocratic regime, when it's feckless leadership, it simply is a matter of following orders and not understanding the purpose of what you're trying to achieve?

It's blind loyalty, which is very, very dangerous.

BURNETT: And, Alina, the context here is there is now some reporting. This is from "Bloomberg", that the U.S. is ramping up its investigation of Swiss banks, that they say maybe helping Russian oligarchs evade sanctions, right? So we're more than a year into this war, and you've still got Swiss banks, possibly essentially assisting oligarchs. If this is how this pans out.

We know Switzerland is long a playground for Putin's inner circle, reported home of his ex wife, Ludmila, was there, right, within -- you could see it from Davos, where the world's elite met recently. "The Wall Street Journal" says that Putin's girlfriend, mother of his children, Alina Kabaeva, lives in a high walled mansion near Geneva or certainly has at one point, and Switzerland even acknowledge nearly $50 billion of Russian money in Swiss banks. That's what they're acknowledging.

How big is this I guess the safety zone, Alina?

POLYAKOVA: Well, exactly as you said , and Swiss in particular have a reputation and they've been quite notorious because of the kind of anonymity they provide to their clients, in being known as a safe harbor for dirty money, money that is being laundered, money that is stolen, in this case from the Russian people, and it's been a known fact that many Russian oligarchs who are trying to keep stay safe, basically and keep their money out of the hands of their own country, of the hands of Mr. Putin, in particular, have been hiding it in Europe, but particularly in Switzerland.

Unfortunately, there are many Western financial institutions that are likely involved in this. Switzerland is really the hotspot for it, but I think what's really different now is that the Department of Justice is taking this very seriously in the way that we haven't seen before, and to the extent to which they're also investigating Western wealth managers for potential wrongdoing.

BURNETT: It's going to be interesting to see what happens, right, and how serious the sanctions are more than a year after this invasion.

Thank you both so very much. I appreciate it.

And next, suspicious white powder and a threatening note sent to the Manhattan D.A.'s office as a potential indictment faces Trump.

Plus, U.S. versus China, a battle brewing over an American warship in the South China Sea, as China suddenly today arrested five employees from an American company. What is happening?

Plus, actress Gwyneth Paltrow testifying today in the trial accusing her of crashing into and injuring a man while skiing. She says, though, it was his fault. Not hers.


BURNETT: New tonight, a threatening note and a white powder substance sent to the office of Manhattan D.A. Alvin Bragg. This after multiple threats, including bomb threats were made against the court, and just a day after Trump posted this since deleted image that shows him appearing to take a bat to Bragg and warning that if he is indicted over the hush money payment to Stormy Daniels, quote, potential death and destruction in such a false charge could be catastrophic for our country.

Kara Scannell is OUTFRONT.

Kara, more than reminiscent, of course, of what he said and tweeted before January 6th. What else do you know about the threat today to the D.A. and his office?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Erin, sources tell us that a 911 call came in around noon, that the D.A. office had received a suspicious package containing a white set -- of white powdery substance and a threatening letter to Bragg.


We're told that from the D.A.'s office that this was then transported to the NYPD and the city's Department of Environmental Protection. They reviewed the substance and determined that it was nonhazardous. It's now at the DAP's lab, and NYPD says the investigation to this is continuing.

And as you say, this is part of a real kind of stepped up rhetoric by Trump really beginning last week when he was calling for protesting. He was going to be arrested and charged. Of course, he wasn't arrested and charged.

But that didn't change the calculus. You know, there have been, as you say, bomb threats that are non-credible that were called in. There are bomb sweeps at the courthouses daily and that there is just a general increase sense of security. You know whether it's for protests or for perhaps something even like this.

But we've seen --- have been down on the ground all week, we've seen increase in NYPD personnel, increase in court security officers, you know, just showing a little bit more vigilance around the area, you know, particularly as Trump is raising the rhetoric on all these threats, and, of course, the grand jury meets again on Monday, where this investigation into Trump's role in the hush money will continue -- Erin.

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

Ryan Goodman is with me tonight, along with Karen Agnifilo, former chief assistant D.A. for them Manhattan D.A. Cy Vance.

Of course, I know you worked on this as well. Criminal defense attorney now.

So you did used to work at this office. So when you hear this today in the context of these Twitter threats, and everything else that's happening, how troubled are you?

KAREN AGNIFILO, FORMER PROSECUTOR: Well, he has committed new crimes . These are absolutely criminal behavior on his part with the posting the baseball bat image to Alvin Bragg's head, calling him an animal, and then calling for death and destruction because it's just like January 6th. He knows what his words mean.

He wasn't calling for peaceful protests. This is a call to action to his supporters, and he has stepped over the line and committed multiple, albeit misdemeanors at this point, but he has committed multiple crimes. We'll see if he gets charged with them, but he has absolutely crossed a line. BURNETT: All right. Does that impact the indictment here? I mean, I mean, I guess, I mean, Ryan, because I'm saying is, you know you've got these are human beings involved, right? A D.A. is a human being, right? And he's going to -- obviously, he's trying to do what he thinks he can actually prosecute.

But when you have someone making these threats and things like this happen, obviously, it gets emotionally charged.

RYAN GOODMAN, FORMER SPECIAL COUNSEL AT DEPT. OF DEFENSE: I don't think it will affect whether or not he decides to indict. I think in some sense that decision is probably being made long before these threats began, in one way or the other. And so I think he'd line it up.

But I do agree with Karen that I do now I think he has to consider does he add to the indictment --

BURNETT: More charges.

GOODMAN: -- more charges because he also would buy that way send a signal that this has to stop.

BURNETT: And you're also concerned about whether there could be a gag order, which is being incredibly complicated because talking about someone who is running for president who's out there every day talking.

GOODMAN: That's right. So a very good close example is Roger Stone when he was in a during a trial, and he put the picture on Instagram up of the judge in crosshairs. And that had crossed a line so that the judge said we had a kind of gag order. But now we're going to impose a full gag order. You may not use social media to talk about this case.

So given what Trump is doing if you are currently under indictment, I could imagine this would be the next question the next day at a hearing before that judge, and this looks into the this is the direction of might go.

But then, as you say, it's such an unusual circumstance. It's not just that First Amendment free speech rights or on the other side of the equation. It's political speech by a political candidate for the highest office in the country that's heavily weighed on the other side of the equation.

BURNETT: So, you know, here we are on a Friday night, a week ago on a Friday night, we thought this could be happening right or happened on Monday. Is it -- is it -- is it still imminent in terms of an announcement if there is an indictment or if there is not an indictment? Which I know is unexpected, but could be the case. Is that still something that could happen any day?

AGNIFILO: I think it's going to happen Monday or Wednesday of next week. I think enforcement is currently having discussions about security and when would be the safest and most convenient time for him to surrender? And I think based on that date will be. Then what day do they decide

to go in and ask the grand jury to take a vote? Because too much time in between you see what Trump is already doing.

He's already causing his supporters to make death threats. He's himself making death threats and white powder. All the things you're saying the bomb scare.

So law enforcement is going to want to keep everybody safe. And so they're going to wait to see and try to coordinate those two things as close to each other as possible.

BURNETT: And -- okay, so, Ryan, this comes on the heels of a legal blow today for Trump and another probe, special counsel. So that a judge there ruled that a former top aides are not protected by executive privilege, so that they're going to have to come in and speak. That includes Mark Meadows would have to appear before that grand jury right in the special counsel probe in Washington.

So, you know, Mark Meadows, as we know is central to everything right? He was chief of staff. He was on the call with Brad Raffensperger, texted with a lot of GOP officials on the day of January 6th, and that's just what we know, right?


I mean, the whole point about Mark Meadows is what we -- what we don't know. So how significant is this ruling on executive privilege?

GOODMAN: I think it's hugely significant, especially because the court of appeals if Trump decides to try to appeal, will probably just slap it down. We know this has happened already before, and the CNN has reported, for example, the former White House chief -- the White House counsel and deputy White House counsel also tried to do executive privilege. But then they testified.

Mark Meadows, like you say is central. One of the former January 6th staff committee members said that he was our MVP, without him. We wouldn't have had the playbook and that's because he partially cooperated with them.


GOODMAN: This is about full cooperation under threat with the Justice Department, and I think he can reveal so many things across the gamut of issues.

BURNETT: Has his path to stopping it run out? I mean, this is it. He now has to.

AGNIFILO: It seems like it seems like it. Yeah. Jack Smith seems to be able to get who he needs into the grand jury, very quickly.

BURNETT: All right. Well, we shall see because this is one of them waiting and waiting. And I think everyone stopped even holding their breath. All right. Thank you both so very much.

And next, China raiding the offices of an American company in Beijing, and they arrested five of its employees, and it comes as China is warning the United States of serious consequences in a dispute over warship in the South China Sea. So what is really ramping up here?

And John Fetterman is still in the hospital tonight. It is more than five weeks since he began treatment for depression there, and now, some of his constituents are wondering, whether he should return to the Senate.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think the man's fit for the job, okay? And maybe he doesn't have the cognitive ability.



BURNETT: Tonight, the U.S. versus China. China accusing the United States of a trespass after the U.S. Navy sailed a guided missile destroyer near disputed islands in the South China sea. China is now warning of serious consequences if the U.S. does not, in their words, stop such provocative actions immediately. And this comes after just yesterday, China claimed it forced the same warship away from the South China Sea, which is something the U.S. Navy denies.

The reality, of course, is that China has been incredibly aggressive and openly so in the South China Sea, they see it as theirs. They ignore territorial claims from other countries. And they've even gone so far as to build a tiny reefs up into artificial islands that they can now use for military purposes and heavily fortified them.

And now as U.S. China relations sharply deteriorate. Chinese authorities raided the Beijing office of a U.S. firm that conducts background checks, they shut down the office, they detained five local staff members, and those individuals whereabouts are right now, unknown. Outfront now, Mike Chinoy. He is the former longtime CNN Beijing Bureau Chief and author of the new book Assignment China, an oral history of American journalists in the People's Republic, which is amazing just looking through this. I know it's just come out, talking to hundreds of journalists and what their time has been like there.

So, I guess when we look at this, and we're going through destroyers and disputed islands and provocative actions and threats, how high are tensions right now between the U.S. and China?

MIKE CHINOY, FORMER CNN BEIJING BUREAU CHIEF: I think tensions are pretty high. I think both President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping don't want this to sort of escalate into a war, but each side has identified the other as its central adversary. And moreover, the domestic politics in both countries, China fomenting nationalism as a way to bolster the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. In the U.S., China is the one issue in which there seems to be bipartisan agreement. So there's not much room for maneuver for Biden or Xi to try and deescalate, even if they wanted to.

BURNETT: Right, and it seems like they may not want war, but the drumbeat just get louder, right, every single time it goes up and up. Xi Jinping's first speech after his precedent breaking, of course, winning of a third term. He promised to turn the Chinese military into a great wall of steel, pledged to reunify Taiwan with Mainland China. Is this just words?

CHINOY: No, it's not words, he has tasked the People's Liberation Army with acquiring the capability to take Taiwan by later this decade, that does not mean that he's going to order it to use that capability. But this is - Taiwan is a central issue for China. And I think Xi and the people around him really identify the United States as the central obstacle to their ambition of China taking its rightful place on the global stage. And from the U.S. point of view, of course, China is seen as a key challenger, particularly to the American position in the Asia Pacific.

So, they're locked in this competitive or even more dangerous kind of spiral. And it's going to be tricky to reverse it.

BURNETT: That's, I think, the spiral of fear, it will feel so frightening to anybody, anybody watching. And then in this, so you've got what's going on in the South China Sea, you've got the sort of military incursions and the possibility for something to go horribly wrong and cause more escalation. And then you've got the Beijing offices of an American company, the Minsk Group, as I said, does background checks, but they get raided, five people who work there are detained, Chinese nationals, and they're now whereabouts unknown. I mean, what is that about?

CHINOY: Well, the rating of the Minsk Group, this is a group, there any number of companies, they do due diligence. So, if you're a big foreign firm, and you're going to do investment or go into a joint venture with China, you want to know who you're dealing with. And often these groups come across sensitive information. So, I don't - I wouldn't necessarily see this as having been ordered from the top. But they may have trampled on some toes and angered some people who retaliated in this way.

On the South China Sea, the danger at the moment for me is not an all- out war over Taiwan. The danger is of an accidental clash. Go back to 2001 when a Chinese jet collided with an American EP3 surveillance aircraft, the Chinese pilot died, the Americans were held for two weeks in China, and it took very complicated negotiations to free them.

If something like that happened now and people die. It's the politics at home in Beijing and Washington are going to make finding a compromise to resolve it. Very tricky. And that could lead to a kind of escalation.

BURNETT: Right, escalation and spiraling. And as you say, no one wants a war, but very rarely do people want a war when they actually get one. All right. Thank you very much, Mike. I appreciate it. And of course, as we said, you know, Mike's new book is out now. And Outfront next, Senator John Fetterman may spend another week in the hospital. He is now nearing six weeks away from the Senate. So, how do his constituents feel? Are they convinced he's able to serve effectively? We're in Pennsylvania tonight for a report you'll see first Outfront.

And then actress Gwyneth Paltrow sued over a ski accident and tonight taking the stand in her own defense.



BURNETT: Tonight, Senator John Fetterman is expected to return to Congress soon, which is according to a spokesman who did not offer any specifics beyond that, saying it'll be a week or more. Fetterman has been at Walter Reed Medical Center for more than five weeks already after he checked himself in for depression. This is after he suffered a massive stroke last summer at the height of his Senate campaign. So, how is his long absence from Capitol Hill and the circumstances being perceived back home? Danny Freeman filed this report Outfront in Pennsylvania.


DANNY FREEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Braddock, Pennsylvania, an old steel town east of Pittsburgh once booming, now struggling.


FREEMAN: It's where you might find 83-year-old Guy Rocco volunteering at the Free Store. It's the town's take what you need charity store started 10 years ago by Gisele Fetterman wife of the town's former mayor, current Pennsylvania Democratic Senator John Fetterman.

GUY ROCCO, FETTERMAN SUPPORTER: I wish everyone could know him like I do. He'll never change, he'll always be the most authentic representative anyone has ever had.

FREEMAN: Rocco's passion even led him to the campaign trail.

ROCCO: The Fetterman's are truly special.

FREEMAN: Like many, Rocco was concerned after Fetterman suffered a series of health setbacks. First, when he had a stroke during last year's hard-fought campaign.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Congratulations senator.

FREEMAN: And then six weeks after he was sworn in, when the senator checked himself into Walter Reed Medical Center to receive treatment for clinical depression.

ROCCO: I was brokenhearted when I heard about it of course. I knew it'd be temporary. FREEMAN: Even as Fetterman has now spent more than a month in the hospital, Rocco and other Fetterman supporters we spoke with remain steadfast.


MARCIE GANS, PENNSYLVANIA INDEPENDENT VOTER: I pray that he gets better. But I appreciate that he did go get mental health, and he isn't keeping it private. Because it is a stigma.

MARY KUNSAK, PENNSYLVANIA DEMOCRATIC VOTER: We all take time to heal. You shouldn't judge people for what it takes.

FREEMAN: Not every Pennsylvania voter agrees. From the suburbs of Pittsburgh.

JIM COLLETTI, PENNSYLVANIA INDEPENDENT VOTER: I don't think the man is fit for the job. OK. And maybe he doesn't have the cognitive ability also.

FREEMAN: Is there anything you think he could do to kind of assure you that he can handle the job?

STEVE SMILEY, PENNSYLVANIA VOTER: He could resign and turn it over to somebody who is physically fit to handle the job.

FREEMAN: To deep red Washington County. We also heard concern over Fetterman's fitness to serve.

SEAN LOGUE, GOP PARTY CHIEF: I'm rooting for the guy. I want him to be able to do his job. And he's MIA and I'm not the bad guy for simply asking. Are you capable of doing your job?

FREEMAN: Two weeks ago, Fetterman's office released pictures of the senator working from the hospital. Sean Logue, the county's GOP party chair says it's not enough.

LOGUE: Senator Fetterman sits on the U.S. Senate Banking Committee. We are in the middle of a banking crisis. And our senators must be representing Pennsylvania can't leave the hospital. There's something wrong. They have lied to us before and I'm afraid they're lying to us now.

FREEMAN: Fetterman's state director insists the senator's office has never stopped working and that the senator has been informed and engaged throughout.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My chief of staff goes to the senator every morning. He's got this briefcase that he takes over with all of this stuff. Right. And the senator reads every word. And he goes and he makes decision. He's a very intelligent man.

FREEMAN: You're ready for him to get back?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, of course. I think the Senator is ready to get back. FREEMAN: Guy Rocco is also ready. He showed us a photo he says Gisele Fetterman recently texted to him. The couple smiling outside of the hospital. This smile is for you proof that the Fetterman you know is coming back.

ROCCO: Is back. Right.


FREEMAN: Now, of course, the big question still is when will the senator be out of the hospital. Well, sources close to Senator Fetterman tell CNN, it will be soon likely at least another week, but they're hoping that he'll get out by the end of the month or early April? Erin.

BURNETT: Alright, Danny, thank you very much with that report from Pennsylvania. I want to go now to David Axelrod, former senior adviser to President Obama, our Senior Political commentator. I mean, David, of course, since Fetterman has been in Walter Reed, we've only seen the senator a couple of times in terms of photos, right? We've only seen photos of him working with staff. We've not heard from him directly. Is he being transparent enough? And should he be considering whether he stays in the Senate?

DAVID AXELROD, FORMER SENIOR ADVISER TO PRESIDENT OBAMA: Erin, look, I was critical during the summer of the campaign, because I don't think they were transparent before the primary election there when he had the stroke. They conveyed to people that this wasn't a significant event. And it turned out to be a very significant event.

In this case, I think it's much different. He checked himself into the hospital, he acknowledged why. I don't think when you're being treated for depression, you have daily kind of reports from a doctor. And so, I don't think it's the same thing. I also think we should note that he's just a few months into his term. If he has repeated health problems of any kind over the next several years or leading into a reelection, which would happen in 2026, then I think, he'll have political problems. But right now, I think most people are rooting for him. And, when you talk to Democratic leaders in the Senate, they also believe that he's going to be back rather soon. So this, this may be in the rear-view mirror pretty quickly.

BURNETT: All right. Well, of course, we'll have to wait and see. I want to ask you about 2024. Since you mentioned the election cycle here, Ron DeSantis has all declared - all but declared he's running for president, obviously, I just wanted to play something for you that stood out to me, David, this is a Newsmax interview it aired last night. So, DeSantis is asked whether he would consider being Donald Trump's vice president. And of course, you could guess the answer, but I just wanted to play for you how he said it.


RON DESANTIS (R) FLORIDA GOVERNOR: I think I'm probably more of an executive guy. I mean, I think that you want to be able to do things. That's part of the reason I got into this job is because we have action, we're able to make things happen. And I think that's probably what I'm best suited for.


BURNETT: More of an executive guy.

AXELROD: Yes. Listen, we've talked about this before, the Ron DeSantis plan to become the Republican nominee of the Republican - for president is to offer himself as kind of methadone for Trump supporters who want to quit the habit. And so, he's not going to fully - I mean, the obvious answer to that for some would be, I will not serve as his vice president because I don't think he should be president.


And that's one of the reasons I'm running for president. But that's a risky proposition in today's Republican Party, and DeSantis isn't going to take that risk. He's certainly not going to take it on Newsmax. And he only appears on Right-wing media. So, I thought it was kind of an anodyne answer for a guy who doesn't want to really tell the truth, which is the guy's got four or five investigations going, he'll likely be indicted, he may be convicted, and there is a circus around him at all times. And I don't think he should be president.

BURNETT: Right. He certainly, at least as of now has loudly and clearly not taken that path. Alright David Axelrod, thank you so much.

AXELROD: OK, Erin. Thank you.

BURNETT: All right. Always good to see David and next on AC360. There's been a second attack targeting U.S. forces in Syria after a deadly drone strike, how the Biden Administration is responding is tonight at 8. And Outfront next, Gwyneth Paltrow on the stand testifying in her own defense in a lawsuit, accusing her of skiing out of control and causing brain damage when she crashed into a fellow skier. Her version is totally different. And Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Aniston and Chris Rock, just a few of the actors coming together to pay tribute to comedian Adam Sandler honored with the Mark Twain prize for humor.


ADAM SANDLER, ACTOR: Our first thought of course when they told me I was getting this prestigious Mark Twain honor, I was of course wow, is Twain going to be there?




BURNETT: Tonight, Gwyneth Paltrow testifying in her own defense spending more than two hours on the stand tonight. The actress and businesswoman is being sued over a ski accident in Park City, Utah, where a 76-year-old, Terry Sanderson says Paltrow was skiing in 2016 out of control slammed into him, he says causing brain damage and other lasting injuries. And Paltrow says that's not what happened. She says he actually crashed into her. Veronica Miracle is Outfront.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good afternoon.


VERONICA MIRACLE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Four days into her civil trial.

GWYNETH PALTROW, ACTRESS: My legal name is Gwyneth Kate Paltrow Falchuk.

MIRACLE: Actress and entrepreneur Gwyneth Paltrow took the stand accused of plowing into 76-year-old Terry Sanderson on a Utah ski slope in 2016. On the stand, Paltrow claimed she was the victim.

PALTROW: I was skiing and looking downhill as you do, and I was skied directly into by Mr. Sanderson.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And your nine-year-old son, you will admit was on your left and up a bit?

PALTROW: To my recollection.

MIRACLE: Sanderson claims Paltrow was distracted by her children and ran into him.

PALTROW: I was skiing and two skis came between my skis, forcing my legs apart, and then there was a body pressing against me. And there was a very strange grunting noise. So my brain was trying to make sense of what was happening.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He was still on the ground, right?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When you said what are you doing?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK. Like, why did you do that?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And he said, I think you skied into me.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And that's when you were furious, and said, you ski directly into my effing back at the top of your lungs?

PALTROW: Yes, I did.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK. PALTROW: I apologize for my bad language.

MIRACLE: Before the 50-year-old star took the stand.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was like a day and night as far as before and after the accident.

MIRACLE: Plaintiffs' attorneys claim Sanderson broke for ribs, suffered brain damage and was vibrant before the collision. But after his brain deteriorated.

SHAE HERATH, PLAINTIFF'S DAUGHTER: This is not my dad. This is an alternate version of my dad.

MIRACLE: Sanderson's daughter recalled angry outbursts after the collision, like when he lashed out at his granddaughter while struggling to close a van door.

HERATH: She is just so belittled and made to feel like she's stupid and this didn't have to happen, if he just listened to her.

MIRACLE: The defense claiming Sanderson's prior medical issues, including a stroke like event could have been a factor.

STEPHEN OWENS, GWYNETH PALTROW'S ATTORNEY: Do you agree that he adjusted his skiing to the right side of the slope? Because of his in - because of his vision issues?

POLLY GRASHAM, PLAINTIFF'S DAUGHTER: I think that was typical. He would, yes.

MIRACLE: The only witness who testified to seeing the collusion, a friend of the plaintiff said Paltrow was to blame.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She hits him right directly in the back.

MIRACLE: Paltrow said on the stand. He got it wrong.

PALTROW: I did not believe his testimony.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you believe that he saw the collusion?

PALTROW: No. I don't believe that he saw what he thinks he saw.


BURNETT: It's interesting watching that and watching her there. Obviously, as a celebrity, you've got the jury watching very closely. Saw how she responded to the swearing and almost making kind of a joke of it or making light of it. How did the jury respond to Paltrow, Veronica.

MIRACLE: It was really interesting, Erin, because earlier in the morning, some of them seemed pretty disengaged, a little bit tired. But as soon as she took the stand, everybody was mesmerized. They were focused on her. She is a movie star. They seem to respond very warmly to her and she was pretty warm throughout her entire proceeding. And when she left here, she seemed in good spirits. Erin.

BURNETT: Alright, Veronica, thank you very much. Yes, just fascinating just to be able to watch all that unfold. And next, roasting Adam Sandler right here on CNN.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But if you ask yourself why so many of Adam's friends were available to speak tonight. I'll tell you why, because when Adam isn't working, they aren't working.




BURNETT: Finally, tonight, a star-studded award ceremony airing exclusively on CNN this weekend. Comedian Adam Sandler receiving the Mark Twain prize for American Humor from the Kennedy Center. Conan O'Brien, Chris Rock, Drew Barrymore and many others paying tribute to Sandler and of course roasting him. That's how it goes. And Sandler himself took the stage to accept the honor. Here's a clip of that.


SANDLER: Hello, my name is Adam Sandler. And I am a 2023 Mark Twain Humor Prize Award recipient for greatness in American funny and bringing the thunder his belly laughter This week people of Planet Earth, can I get a hell, yes. My first thought of course when they told me I was getting this prestigious Mark Twain honor, I was of course wow, is Twain going to be there? No, said the Kennedy Center people to which I replied make sense.


BURNETT: And you can watch the full Mark Twain Prize ceremony this Sunday at 8 o'clock Eastern and Pacific only on CNN. Thanks so much for joining us. We hope you have a wonderful weekend. It's time now for "AC360."