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The Situation Room

Biden meets Privately with Families of Victims for Almost Three Hours; Prosecutors Unveil 15 Felony Counts against Trump Org CFO, Allege Audacious Tax Fraud. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired July 01, 2021 - 18:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: 17 people including 10 law enforcement officers were injured by the blast.

Our coverage continues now with one Mr. Wolf Blitzer live from Surfside, Florida.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer in The Situation Room. We're live today in Surfside, Florida, once again, and were following breaking news.

We're standing by for a news conference this hour on the collapsed condo search and rescue effort, which the Surfside mayor now says has just resumed after being halted over concern of further collapse.

Also, President Biden meeting first responders and families of the victims, the president saying those families, quote, are going through hell, but realistic one week after the disaster.

Also breaking, the Trump Organization and its Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg charged with 15 felony counts stemming from what prosecutors are calling a long running tax fraud scheme. We'll have much more on all of that coming up in just a few moments.

First, let's get to the latest on the condo disaster right here in Surfside. Our Chief White House Correspondent Kaitlan Collins is joining me right now. You have been here all day, Kaitlan. The president of the United States took on the role today of comforter in chief.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, this is his first time coming face-to-face with these families since part of this condo building collapsed last week. And he was in the room with them for nearly three hours. And when he said that what he saw in there was agony. It was grief. And he said a lot of them are hopeful but, Wolf, also they're realistic.


COLLINS (voice-over): President Biden taking on the role as consoler in chief tonight. JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They're going through hell, and those that have survived the collapse as well as those who are missing loved ones.

COLLINS: For nearly three hours, the president met behind closed doors with the families of the victims and those still unaccounted for in the Surfside building collapse.

BIDEN: I thought it was important to speak to every single person who wanted to speak to me.

COLLINS: People in the room telling CNN Biden cited his own history with grief as he sought to comfort those grieving in Florida.

BIDEN: It's bad enough to lose somebody, but the hard part, the really hard part, is to not know whether they're surviving or not, is to not have any idea.

When the accident took my wife and my family, the hardest part was, were my boys going to get out, are they going to make it and not knowing.

COLLINS: Biden's meeting happening hours after officials delivered grim news. Search and rescue operations forced to pause over fears that the rest of the condo building could come down.

BIDEN: They're all realists. They know that the chances are, as each day goes by, diminished slightly. But at a minimum, they want to recover the bodies.

COLLINS: The president offering a word of praise for the first responders and search and rescue teams who have been working day and night as Florida officials voiced concern about their mental health.

BIDEN: You know, we talked about our military suffering from post- traumatic stress. We see what they're seeing, doing what they're doing, understanding how much trauma is involved. I just don't want them thinking that they should walk away.

COLLINS: Biden also surprising local officials telling them the federal government could likely cover the full cost of the rescue effort.

BIDEN: I think I have the power and we'll know shortly to be able to pick up 100 percent of the cost for the county and the state over the next 30 days.

COLLINS: Republican Governor and Trump ally Ron DeSantis was with Biden for most of the day as the two put politics aside and focused on the devastation.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): You recognized the severity of this tragedy from day one and you have been very supportive.

(END VIDEOTAPE) COLLINS (on camera): And, Wolf, after the president finished meeting with those families, he and the first lady stopped by a makeshift memorial that has been formed for those still unaccounted for. You saw the first lady put a large bouquet of flowers.

And as they were meeting with these families, he said a lot of them asked heart-wrenching questions like what do I do if we don't find my loved ones body, just unimaginable questions that these families are waiting to find out the answers to.

And, of course, we should know that President Biden did say he plans to stay in touch with the families he met today.

BLITZER: Yes. That so, so heart-breaking as you as I know having seen what's going on over here. Kaitlan, thank you very, very much. Once again, we're standing by for a news conference and an update on the search and rescue effort that according to the mayor here in Surfside has started back up after being halted for so much of the day.

CNN's Brian Todd is working that part of the story for us.


So, Brian, if, in fact, that search and rescue operation has already resumed, it would be very, very welcome news for everyone here.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It certainly would, Wolf. And it does appear that rescuers are back on the job at this hour, that according to the Surfside mayor, Mr. Burkett. They're back at the job trying to make up for lost time after some serious concerns earlier today over the possibility that some of the remaining structure could collapse on them.


TODD (voice-over): Rescue work can resume, authorities have decided, after it was suspended for most of the day today. Alarms went off early this morning, warning of at least three areas of movement that authorities say could cause additional collapse.

CHIEF ALAN COMINSKY, MIAMI-DADE FIRE RESCUE: 6 to 12 inches of movement in a large column hanging from the structure, slight movement in the concrete floor slabs, moving in the debris pile immediate adjacent to the south side of the structure.

TODD: Rescuers also revealing a haunting account of what they heard in their first hours on site.

COMINSKY: We did hear audible sounds. And they were searching for a female voice, is what we heard, for several hours. And, eventually, we didn't hear her voice anymore.

TODD: This video taken just moments before the collapsed, shows water pouring into the garage. Still experts say it is unclear whether the water is related to the cause of the collapse. This as we learn most of the condo board quit in 2019, a year after a structural engineer recommended extensive repairs amid disagreements on repair plans according, to the Washington Post.

And in a new harrowing account, a survivor who was in the part of the building that fell says she woke up and heard a crack.

ILIANA MONTEAGUDO, SURFSIDE COLLAPSE SURVIVOR: I saw a crack starting in the ceiling coming down, coming down fast. And that black line opened it and opened it and opened it.

TODD: She said she only survived because she accidentally ran to the far stairwell which didn't collapse on the way down the stairs.

MONTEAGUDO: I feel a terrible sound, terrible sound. And I knew that the building collapsed.

TODD: Colonel Elad Edri, Deputy Commander of the Israeli National Rescue Team, is acting as a kind of detective in the operation, gathering information from relatives of those who lived in the collapsed tower for clues on where they could be found. He shows relatives a map of the building.

COL. ELAD EDRI, ISRAELI NATIONAL RESCUE UNIT: They mark on this site the exact place of the bedrooms and they dig exactly when we understand that their bedrooms are and they search for the drop only on these places.

TODD: Edri, also pours over photos, questions relatives about unique characteristics of their loved ones.

EDRI: Such as the tattoo or a unique jewelry or a color of the hair or a color of the clothes that their family members were dressing.


TODD (on camera): And we have this just in. We have now the possibility that the remaining structure that's there, that south complex of the Champlain Complex, the south tower, could be demolished. That's according to a structural engineer with FEMA.

Now, according to the Miami News Times, the structural engineer was at a meeting with family members. One of the family members said just tear that building down. He said it is a highly likely possibility that that remaining structure could be torn down.

He said the reason that it hasn't been possibly pursued further at this point is that we didn't want to cause any more damage or destruction to the individuals who are trapped in the lower portion. But that engineer from FEMA, according to the Miami News Times, telling family members tonight, Wolf, that there is a very highly likely possibility that the remaining structure is going to have to be demolished.

BLITZER: Yes. This is really an awful situation. This seems to be getting worse by the day. All right, thank you very much, Brian Todd, for that report.

The mayor of Miami-Dade County, Daniella Levine Cava, is joining us right now. Mayor, thank you so much for joining us.

I want to talk about the president's important visit here with the first lady today, but let me get the latest information from you on whether or not this search and rescue operation has, in fact, resumed because it's been put on hold for almost the entire day.

MAYOR DANIELLA LEVINE CAVA (D-MIAMI-DADE COUNTRY, FL): So, yes, we did start back up, fortunately, after the structure was determined to be safe. And, so, it has resumed as of 5:00.

BLITZER: Has it resumed fully or just partially?

CAVA: Well, it has resumed in the areas that are safe, which has always been the case. So we'll get more of a report for you at 6:30.

BLITZER: When this briefing is coming up in a little while.

CAVA: Correct, yes.

BLITZER: The remaining part of the complex, the tower that still stands, how secure is that? Because there is a great deal of concern that it's eventually going to have to be torn down because it is very unstable, the structure.

CAVA: Yes. So again, we'll give you an update at 6:30, but, clearly, we think it's safe for the rescue operation to take place in the areas where we have our team.


BLITZER: Is it still a search and rescue operation as opposed to a recovery? Is there -- in other words, it's been a week now, is there still hope that there may be survivors there?

CAVA: We are still conducting our search and rescue. We are still exploring crevices. We're still looking for voids. And we continue to seek bodies that are alive.

BLITZER: How much of a risk is there to these first responders, these search and rescue men and women? It's a dangerous job they have, even if this tower was shaking a little bit.

CAVA: Well, I can only tell you that the president said to them, you must be crazy because it is an extremely dangerous job. And certainly, they're trained for it. They're highly specialized. And we do not allow them to take undue risks. But the conditions are very difficult, and they are proceeding into conditions clearly where there is a severe risk of danger to themselves.

BLITZER: Tell us about the visit that you had. The president spent more than three hours with family members trying to comfort together with the first lady, Dr. Jill Biden. Take us inside and give us a flavor of what was going on.

CAVA: Really, this was extraordinary. I have never experienced this sort of engagement by a public official with people who are directly affected. And it was an open ballroom tables groupings and after making introductory remarks about his own personal experience with death and grief, which were very, very moving, he moved on to speak individually, table by table, until everyone had a chance and was satisfied that they had truly connected with the president and the first lady.

BLITZER: So, in other words, he and the first lady actually spoke with every family member who was there who was gathered. They could say a few words about their moms or their dads, their sons or daughters.

CAVA: And he immediately asked. He wanted to understand there circumstances. He shared his own stories of how he had coped with loss and grief. I found it very comforting, and I know they did as well.

BLITZER: Yes. And you had never experienced obviously anything like this before.

CAVA: No, sir.

BLITZER: President coming to Miami-Dade and all of a sudden you have to deal with a crisis like this. So what is your assessment looking forward? And he says that these family members, in his words, they are realistic about what's going on with their loved ones. Do you get the same impression?

CAVA: We've work very hard to make sure that these family members have everything they needed to prepare for the future, and that includes preparing for potential loss. Look, they have all experienced loss already just from the horrendous circumstance. But we have worked with them, including allowing them to visit the site, as you know, and with grief counselors, with rabbis, with pastors. And, really, they bonded as a group. They have supported each other. Family members are coming in from across the world to be together. And I think that they are really going through this very difficult process and were supporting them to do so.

BLITZER: I just want follow one detail. A FEMA engineer has now said publicly that once the search and rescue operation is completed, the recovery is completed, that remaining tower that still stands for practical purposes, for safety purposes, is going to have to be demolished. Is that the information you are getting from your experts as well?

CAVA: We're going to talk about that at 6:30. And I think we'll all come to understand what is necessary to do at this site.

BLITZER: And who are you going to be joined by at this news conference?

CAVA: Yes. We're going to have some of the structural engineers who are part of the team that has been reviewing all of this.

BLITZER: So they're going to tell us about the resumption of the of the search and rescue operations, how it's unfolding, how serious it is right now, and what needs to be done.

CAVA: Yes.

BLITZER: Lots of questions, Mayor, I know you have a ton going on.

CAVA: Thank you so much.

BLITZER: Thank you so much, as usual, for joining us. We really appreciate it, Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, thank you very, very much.

BLITZER: And just ahead, once again, we're standing by for the news conference that the mayor just discussed here in Surfside, Florida, as rescue operations have now resumed, very significant. They have resumed at the collapsed condo site right behind me.

And there's more breaking news we're following here in The Situation Room. Prosecutors reveal an extensive list of charges against the Trump Organization and its chief financial officer. We have details and analysis right after the break.



BLITZER: We have breaking news we're following. We're expecting an update any minute now from top officials here in Surfside, Florida, as search operation have -- yes, they have resumed at the condo collapse site.

There's other news we're following, an important breaking news. Prosecutors in New York have charged the Trump Organization and its Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg with felony tax fraud.

Our Senior Legal Affairs Correspondent Paula Reid has an update for us. Paula, this is truly an extensive list of charges.

PAULA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: It really is, Wolf. Prosecutors described it as a sweeping an audacious illegal payment scheme to compensate Trump Organization executives and help them avoid paying taxes. Now, these charges add to the pressure on a long time CFO who so far has resisted pressure to cooperate against the former president.


REID (voice-over): The namesake company of former President Trump now charged with tax crimes along with one of its top executives, Allen Weisselberg, the chief financial officer for the Trump Organization, led into court in handcuffs to the judge.

Prosecutors describe a 15 year tax scheme charging Weisselberg, Trump payroll corporation and the Trump organization, 15 counts against the CFO and ten against the former president's namesake company. Prosecutors alleged Weisselberg evaded taxes on $1.7 million in compensation all three defendants pleaded not guilty.

Weisselberg's attorney announcing in a statement he will fight the charges. [18:20:00]

His indictment and charges against the Trump Organization come after more than a two-year probe by the Manhattan D.A., Cy Vance, an investigation when was originally triggered by questions surrounding hush money payment made by Donald Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen to adult film star Stormy Daniels and ultimately led to obtaining Trump's tax records in a Supreme Court battle.

Investigators have been focusing on perks awarded to employees like free apartments, cars and even school tuition. Benefits that would amount to tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars and were allegedly not properly reported for tax purposes.

JENNIFER WEISSELBERG, FORMER DAUGHTER-IN-LAW OF ALLEN WEISSELBERG: When you get the same salary for 21 years and the same bonus and then the raise is paid in an apartment, in a car, in a tuition. That's the issue.

REPORTER: Allen, how are you feeling?

REID: The Trump Organization fired back today, claiming prosecutors are using Weisselberg, quote, as a pawn in a scorched earth attempt to harm the former president, saying in a statement, the district attorney is bringing up a criminal prosecution involving employee benefits that neither the IRS nor any other district attorney would ever think of bringing. This is not justice. This is politics.

Lawyers for the Trump Organization spoke after court.

LAN FUTERFAS, ATTORNEY FOR TRUMP ORGANIZATION: If the name of the company was something else, I don't think these charges would have been brought.


REID: No indication the former president or any member of his family will be charged any time soon. Prosecutors would likely need a cooperating witness like Weisselberg or someone else or significant additional evidence before they could successfully go after the former president. Wolf?

BLITZER: Paula, I want you to stay with us. I also want to bring in our Chief Legal Analyst Jeffrey Toobin and former FBI Deputy Director, CNN Senior Law Enforcement Analyst Andrew McCabe. He's the author of the book, The Threat, The FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump.

Jeffrey, how serious are these felony counts laid out in this indictment today?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, what's clear is that Allen Weisselberg himself is in a world of trouble. It's going to be very hard to defend how the Trump Organization paid his grandchildren's tuition at a private school and somehow he didn't pay taxes on it. Now, maybe he can argue the company car was actually a company benefit. Maybe he could say the apartment was a corporate benefit. But the idea of a company paying for your grandchildren's education, it seems to me pretty close to an open and shut case.

As for the Trump Organization and the former president himself, they're suggestive -- the charges are suggestive of illegal conduct, but it is a lot less clear, and it's not identified in the indictment who unindicted co-conspirator number one is, that could be Donald Trump. It is also not clear who authorized these payments, which appear to be clearly designed to be to avoid taxes.

BLITZER: You know, Andrew, lawyers representing the Trump Organization say this is all politically driven, the former president calling it a witch hunt. What do you make of those responses?

ANDREW MCCABE, CNN SENIOR LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, I think it is to be expected, right, from the defense attorneys. Their job is to put a narrative out there that puts their client in the best light possible. But I think along the lines of what Jeff just walked us through, the details in this incitement are really serious and detail an intricate and broad scheme to defraud multiple tax authorities over many, many years.

They include things like the Trump Corporation maintained an internal spreadsheet to keep track of the money that they were essentially paying Weisselberg off the books so it could be subtracted from his total compensation at the end of the year.

So there is really interesting pieces of evidence in here. It shows a high degree of fraught and planning. So it will be very hard to explain all that, the potential criminal activity off as simply politics.

BLITZER: You know, Jeffrey, the indictment, which is, what, 20, 25 pages or so points to others, others who were involved, not charged but others who were at large (ph). Is it possible one of those people, one of those others, is the former president?

TOOBIN: It is entirely possible. And late in the indictment, there are references to other people signing the checks. And we know that Donald Trump, who kept a tight rein on the finances of his own company with his big sharpie pen liked to sign most of the checks.

Now, obviously, when you are the CEO of a company, you might not know exactly what every payment is for but it could present uncomfortable questions or worse for the former president if his signatures are on these checks to the private school.


I mean, why in the world would a building company on Fifth Avenue be paying a private school on the upper west side of Manhattan? I mean, it just sort of defies belief that you could think that was a proper payment. But the question of, you know, who was involved in this scheme and who authorized it and who paid for it and who knew what was going on, that's obviously central to the story here. And I think, in fairness, we need to say at this point we don't know that part of the story.

BLITZER: As you know, Andrew, the Trump Organization CFO, Allen Weisselberg, he appeared in court today in handcuffs. Could that stark reality make him rethink his decision not to cooperate? And is it normal for in a case like this for a 74-year-old to be brought into the courtroom in handcuffs?

MCCABE: Well, it is normal, Wolf. And it is certainly the exact sort of thing that could, could, we don't know if it will, but could cause someone like Weisselberg to rethink whether or not he wants to cooperate with the government.

I will tell you from my 20-plus years experience with the FBI, I arrested many, many people and brought them through this process of being presented the day that they're charged and brought them to court, many of them for the first time in their lives. And it is a very, very tough day to go through. This is an incredibly hard day on Mr. Weisselberg and his family.

I have seen a lot of people start that day convinced that they will not cooperate with the government and then in the days or weeks that follows, they had a chance to really think about what's set in on them and they change their minds.

So will that happen here? We don't know yet at this point, but it's certainly possible.

BLITZER: So, Jeffrey, what's next? Jeffrey what's next in all of this?

TOOBIN: Well, there will certainly be a lot of legal motions, a lot of legal proceedings in the -- in this case. A judge will be assigned. The defense will be able to make motions. And this -- you know, white collar cases, especially in the New York State system, take a long time to work their way through the system, especially when there is a corporate defendant, because corporate defendants are rarely charged.

The criminal law doesn't work that well with corporations. There is no one you can put in jail. And the cases tend to be resolved with fines and guilty pleas. You know, whether the Trump Organization would ever plead guilty seems like an unlikely scenario given what we know but this is going to be a process of months, not weeks until it's resolved.

BLITZER: And we will, of course, all of us, will watch it very, very closely. Guys, thank you very, very much.

There is more breaking news we're following right now as we stand by for a news conference and more information on the search and rescue operation that is now back up and running once again after being put on pause all day today.

Plus, we'll speak to members of one family who met with President Biden today and what they told him about their missing loved one.



BLITZER: We have breaking news this hour. We're standing by for a news conference on the resumption of the search and rescue efforts here at the site of the collapsed condo where 145 people are still missing tonight. President Biden met with some, some of their relatives earlier today.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They had basic heart- wrenching questions. Will I be able to recover the body of my son or daughter, my husband, my cousin, my mom and dad? How can I have closure without being able to bury them? If I don't get the body, what do I do?

Jill and I wanted them to know that we're with them and the country is with them. Our message today is that we're here for you as one nation, as one nation.


BLITZER: Joining us now, Kevin and Josh Spiegel. Kevin's wife and Josh's mother, Judy Spiegel is one of those still unaccounted for. They met with the president earlier today. Kevin, what did it mean to you to hear that message from the president of the United States?

KEVIN SPIEGEL, WIFE MISSING IN BUILDING COLLAPSE: Wolf, thank you so much to having Josh and myself on. It meant a lot, it really did, to have Jill and President Biden meet with us, sit down, talk to us, and he was actually really sincere. And it was the same time where things did slow down with the operation, so we were able to talk to him about really putting more federal resources into this rescue effort. Josh?

JOSH SPIEGEL, MOTHER MISSING IN BUILDING COLLAPSE: Yes. I think that President Biden really spent a lot of time with all of the families. And it also gave us an opportunity to talk to some of the other families as well.

I think we also need to thank dearly Senator Marco Rubio, Governor DeSantis and Debbie Wasserman Schultz as well. They were all amazing and they have been fighting extremely, extremely hard for us and for the rest of the families, and they were there as well and giving everyone a lot of support and since I think they have put in an extreme, extreme amount of effort as well as all of the first responders on the ground.

K. SPIEGEL: You have the entire Israeli team --

BLITZER: Were you able -- go ahead, Kevin.


K. SPIEGEL: Okay. I mean, just the whole Israeli team and their technology that they met with us, designing out the apartment and doing their forensic analysis is really important. And we conveyed both to the president about how important and we conveyed both to the president about how important that effort is and for him to support that as well.

BLITZER: Kevin, were you able to tell the president and the first lady about your loving wife, Judy? I know you have been married now for almost 40 years.

K. SPIEGEL: Thank you so much for asking that question. Absolutely. Judy is an amazing person. She, as you know, has philanthropic heart, a big heart and all of her efforts. The president and both Jill were extremely compassionate about all of her efforts.

And also, you know, our goal in this effort is really to put resources in to the rescue effort, and that's the most important thing that we conveyed to him.

BLITZER: Josh, I know you're a trauma surgeon. We've had a chance to get to know each other a little bit in the past few days. I just spoke to the mayor of Miami-Dade, Daniella Levine Cava, and she said the search and rescue operation has started up again after being halted for so much of today, halted overnight and almost all of today. What kind of hope does that give you?

J. SPIEGEL: There is always hope. I mean, with trauma, we talk about the golden hour and all these things. And right now, it's already past a week, which is, in some ways, disheartening, but we're not giving up hope.

When we heard this morning that the building shifted and they were not able to work all day long, we were very, very concerned. And now that we're hearing that they're able to restart again is very helpful. But there is some -- going to be something that needs to happen to the existing standing building. And whether that's to take it down and kind of push it into the street where there is empty space and away from the pile because what we do not want to happen is for it to collapse on to the pile and then we just restart from scratch. That would be the worst.

BLITZER: All right. Josh and Kevin Spiegel, our hearts go out to you. We're praying and hoping for the best. Thank you once again for joining us on this important day, the president of the United States and the first lady here.

Coming up, once again, we're only minutes away from a news conference here in Surfside. We're standing by for an update on search and rescue operations, which just have resumed.

Also ahead, there are other major developments unfolding in Washington right now. Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney is breaking with her party, accepting Speaker Pelosi's invitation to join the special committee investigating the Capitol riot.



BLITZER: We're only a moment or so away from an update from officials here in Surfside on the resumption of search and rescue efforts at the side of the condo collapse. We'll have that news conference live in a few moments. Standby for that.

In the meantime, we're following historic developments unfolding in Washington where Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney just accepted an invitation from the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, to serve on the select committee investigating the January 6th insurrection.

Ryan Nobles is tracking this story for us. Ryan, update our viewers while we wait for the news conference.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Wolf. Pretty significant development today, and the big takeaway is that the House Nancy Pelosi is just not going to wait for Republicans to cooperate with her efforts to investigate and get to the bottom of what happened on January 6th in the Capitol insurrection.

Less than 24 hours after the House passed a resolution creating that select House committee to look into January 6th, Pelosi announced the eight people that she has picked to serve on that committee. And as you mentioned, included in that group is the Republican congresswoman from Wyoming, Liz Cheney.

Cheney, of course a critic of the former president Donald Trump and the role that he played leading up to January 6th, Cheney was also someone that was a major backer of the plan for an independent bipartisan commission that was ultimately stalled in the Republican -- by Republicans in the U.S. Senate.

So the big question now is just how cooperative will Republicans end up being? The House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, does have the opportunity to appoint up to five members that will need the approval of the House speaker. At this point, Wolf, he has not said whether or not he plans to do so. So we have to see just how bipartisan this committee ends up being. The House speaker says she'll move forward no matter what. Wolf?

BLITZER: Ryan, standby. Jamie Gangel, our Special Correspondent, is also with us. Jamie, I have to interrupt you, but just how significant is it that Congresswoman Cheney's decision -- actually, standby. The mayor is speaking at the news conference. Well get back to you.

MAYOR DANIELLA LEVINE CAVA (D-FL), MIAMI-DADE COUNTY: I want to thank our Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and our Congresswoman Maria Elvira Salazar for joining us here today. I'm very glad that I can share with you that starting around 4:45 today, we resumed -- I'm very glad I can share with you that starting at 4:45 p.m. today, we resumed -- I'm glad I can share with you that starting at 4:45 p.m. today, we resumed our search and rescue efforts.


I have to tell you that our firefighters looked really, really excited to get back out there. This was following the recommendations of our structural engineers. They had taken the time to study the conditions, to make sure things were safe.

Our fire rescue team has been working around the clock as you know since this fateful building fall. And we needed our engineers on site to evaluate the safety of the standing structure. I'm grateful to their hard work, that got us back to work on the search and rescue as soon as possible.

And we are continuing of course to assure that we do everything to protect our first responders.

We will continue to feverishly search as we have done all along in the parts of the collapse that we currently have access to. Given our ongoing safety concerns about the integrity of the building, we are continuing to restrict access to the collapse zone. We will get more information about that from our chief prior officer shortly.

We are continuing to use the technology, cameras, drones and more to search in the area of concern. Our team of engineers is going ongoing testing and evaluation as we work to expand the search area as quickly as possible as it becomes safe to do so.

And we are proceeding with planning for the likely demolition of the building while the search and rescue continues as our top priority.

This is a decision that we need to make extremely carefully and methodically as we consider all the possible impacts to the pile of debris and a researcher rescue operation as well as considerations of how to best manage the demolition in order to safeguard the integrity of the existing degree field.

The numbers remain the same, 18 confirmed deaths, but now we have identified and notified next of kin for 17 of those victims. Please join me in praying for their families and their loved ones and those who are still waiting and waiting for news.

We are also continuing to closely monitor the progress of our tropical storm, Elsa. And the National Weather Service will be here tomorrow on site to brief our team. No impacts to south Florida are expected until late Sunday where there is a risk of heavy rainfall and strong winds. But we continue to monitor the storms progress.

Now is the time for our community to make sure that you have a plan in place and you take key precautions at home in the eventuality of a major storm. Our Office of Emergency Management in Charles Cyrille, and Florida Department of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie will provide more details on the storm front variation. We encourage you to download our app, Ready MDC app. You can also get the details from There are checklists and other import information as you prepare for the storm.

I have been in touch with the chairman, Debbie Diaz who is with us today, and we are working closely with the South Florida Water Management District on methods to draw water down in preparation for the possible storm because of all of the water that we had here lately. Given the saturation, we need to be sure that we will be able to drain any water that comes from this new storm, and we've already been doing this over the last several days.

Finally, I am very grateful to President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden for visiting us in Surfside today. We provided them with operational briefings on search and rescue efforts, our comprehensive family assistance center which is up and running, our support effort and much, much more.

He spent over 3 hours visiting with the families, and also spent time with our first responders. He listened deeply to everyone and was truly emotional for all of the families as well as for me and my team. Family spoke very candidly with him about their struggles, and their grief. And he shared his own experience of great tragedy and grief, which was a great comfort to the families.

As I said, excuse me, as he said in his remarks following this, we are truly one nation united by the enormity of this tragedy.


We are truly united by this tragedy.

So, I want to thank the president and all of our state and federal partners for their ongoing collaboration, it has been a blessing, and a great honor to have their support and all the teams on the ground for their remarkable work that they're doing in each and every day without fail, their endless dedication.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: All right, we're going to get back to the news conference momentarily, but the important information that the mayor is confirming that the search and rescue operation has resumed in areas where it's safe to do so, that does not mean it will resume all over the place.

It's still a very, very dangerous search and rescue operation.

Jimmy Patronis, the Florida state fire marshal, is with us.

Jimmy, thank you very much.


BLITZER: So, this operation is continuing right now, I know that you've been briefed fully on it. How significant is this operation? Is it resumed as fully as it was before the pause, before the delay?

PATRONIS: What we've done is there is about a 45-foot buffer up against the structure that is still standing, it has been expanded the fear we're bringing in heavier equipment, the heavy equipment creates potential complications to the weight that is keeping the structure in place.

So, out of abundance of caution, we've expanded that buffer to make sure those firefighters and first responders have a little more comfort being a little farther away from what we call widow makers or other debris that could cause harm.

BLITZER: Is that remaining tower from the condominium complex here what is left of that complex is it going to have to be demolished?

PATRONIS: It will, it will. The timing of it still has yet to be determined about in order to complete what it takes and in order to finish the mission, labeling will have to go, it's too much of a risk.

BLITZER: Some suggested that it should be demolished towards Collins Avenue instead of the rubble that is behind right now in order to allow the search and rescue operation, God willing, there may be a survivor out there or at least find somebody's in order not to further make it more difficult. What is the theory on where all of that rubble from the demolish tower should go? Because it is a dangerous situation.

PATRONIS: Sure. So, you would take the existing scene, we could cover with tarps as best you could. And then you we would drop it in place, it's amazing with they can do with these control charges. But, yeah, it would err on the side of Collins Avenue.

BLITZER: So, they would have to go into that area so as to not further complicate the search and rescue operation. When you think that will have to be done in order to protect the hundreds of men and women who are part of the search and rescue teams?

PATRONIS: So, when you look at the challenges that we have seen, the advent of storms taking place and also the urgency of time that is working against us. You know what, it might be sooner than we are anticipating.

But engineers have been working around the clock even though there is a stoppage, nobody stopped working. We put together a plan in order to continue the mission.

BLITZER: So, the search and rescue mission is continuing, when you mentioned the weather. Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, she said tropical storm Elsa could impact this area as early as Sunday. That's the last thing that anyone needs. Things are really bad to begin with. All of a sudden the tropical storm with heavy wind and rain over towards this area.

PATRONIS: So, the men and women are basically on top of a lightning rod on top of that. So, strong winds, also complicated -- because strong winds, again, make debris off of the building, potentially falling down. That's -- those are, again, those things that we can avoid with safety precautions. Unfortunately, if the building is level, then it makes the work effort that much easier to accomplish.

BLITZER: So, you think that by Sunday that tower might be level?

PATRONIS: I don't know if it will be that quick. But again, all of those complications of whatever it will take to do it, those complications are there the --

BLITZER: I know you and the mayor have been fully briefing at the families before you come out and brief us. How is that going?

PATRONIS: So, just a bit ago, I was -- I was about a visit with another television station. And the local Greek priest (ph) who's embedded with Miami-Dade that brought the family that lost their son Andreas and --

BLITZER: He's a student from Vanderbilt University, 21 years old?

PATRONIS: Yes. Right.

And the family -- I got chills just -- it was such an amazing healing moment for me because of they were grateful to be able to have and I got to introduce them to some of the first responders, some of the task force members. A little uncomfortable at first, but it was so healing for everybody. It was not that easy for everybody. I was just grateful.

BLITZER: Yeah, it is so heartbreaking, 21-year-old student of Vanderbilt. Yesterday, you announced the 4-year-old, and a 10-year- old, among the 18 people were confirmed dead, 145 people still unaccounted for, still missing.

PATRONIS: When we met with the president today, the only thing that I asked him, I asked one question and I just wanted to make sure that the PTSD -- that this is unlike anything that has ever experienced before, just that the benefits that they will need, the treatment, the help, that they get it. And -- because it is abnormal to tell a parent that their 4-year, -old or 10-year-old has died.

BLITZER: It's hard when you just think about it. Jimmy Patronis of the Florida state fire marshal, good luck to you and all the men and women who are part of your team. We are so grateful to you.

PATRONIS: And to you.

BLITZER: All right. Well, thank you very much.

We're continuing to monitor the news conference. We're going to get back to it. Much of our special coverage from here on Surfside, Florida, when we come back.


BLITZER: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Surfside, Florida. Thanks for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.