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Biden: Storm Damage We Witnessed Is "Profound"; Biden Visits N.Y. & N.J. To Survey Damaged From Historic Floods; U.S. Tops 40 Million Confirmed COVID-19, Cases More Than Four Million In The Past Four Weeks; Taliban Form Hardline Interim Government for Afghanistan Including Senior Figures In U.S. Designated Terror Group; Texas Governor Signs Voting Restricting Bill Into Law; Texas Gov: No Exception For Rape Victims Under New Abortion Law, Vows To "Eliminate Rape"; Louisiana Revokes Licenses From 7 Nursing Homes Accused Of Evacuating Residents Into "Unsafe" Conditions; How Ukrainian Spies Planned To Ensnare Alleged Russian War Criminals With A Fake Website And Promises Of Riches. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired September 07, 2021 - 17:00   ET



JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF DOMESTIC CORRESPONDENT: Happening now, breaking news, President Biden calls the Northeast flood damage profound. He just got an up close look at another hard hit area and warned Americans are paying a price, a devastating price for climate change.

Also tonight, COVID-19 cases in the U.S. hit an alarming level with more than 41 million -- excuse me, 40 million confirmed infections from the pandemic. President now said to deliver a major speech on what happens next.

And the Taliban form a new hardline government including members of a designated terror network. It's raising red flags even as the U.S. denies the group is blocking Americans from valid travel documents from leaving Afghanistan.

Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Jim Acosta, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is CNN breaking news.

ACOSTA: And let's go straight to CNN White House Correspondent Arlette Saenz.

Arlette, we just heard from the President a few moments ago, what are the episodes (ph)?

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, President Biden spends a little over an hour on the ground in Queens, New York meeting with those people whose homes and personal lives were devastated by Hurricane Ida. But the President also spoke to the urgency of the threat of climate change, saying that the situation in this country and around the world is a code red. (BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

SAENZ (voice-over): President Biden issuing a warning on climate change today as he saw firsthand the damage wrought by Hurricane Ida.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Climate change poses an existential threat to our lives, to our economy. And the threat is here, it's not going to get any better. The question can't get worse. We can stop it from getting worse.

It's incredible.


SAENZ (voice-over): It was the second time in four days that the President toward the devastation left in Ida's wake on the ground in Louisiana on Friday. And today in New Jersey and New York meeting face to face with families impacted by the storm.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Our plan was to go in and save our belongings but unfortunately, probably around 2:33 o'clock Thursday, the house is on fire.

BIDEN: Thank God you didn't come back.


SAENZ (voice-over): The President pledging federal support will continue for the long haul. As the region recovers from flash flooding and tornadoes --


SAENZ (voice-over): -- that damaged homes and killed at least 50 people.

BIDEN: We're going to make sure the relief is equitable, so that those hardest hit, get what they need. And they -- and we know there's a lot more to do and that's why we're here.

SAENZ (voice-over): He also use the visit to make the case for his economic agenda. Arguing investments in infrastructure and combating climate change are vital for recovery.

BIDEN: I think we're at one of those inflection points where we either act or we're going to be in real, real trouble, our kids are going to be in real trouble.

SAENZ (voice-over): The White House says one in three Americans live in counties impacted by severe weather in recent months. And officials argue, action is needed across the board.

MAYOR ROBERT FAZEN (R), BOUND BROOK, NEW JERSEY: We do as much as we can at the local level. But I'm sure that not only the United States but the rest of the world is responsible for fixing this problem.


SAENZ: And the President also suggested he may soon travel to California to see the impact of the wildfires on the ground there. And today, the White House also asked Congress for more funding to help combat some of these natural disasters. They specifically asked for $10 billion to respond to Hurricane Ida and another $14 billion for recovery for other disasters like wildfires and storms.

And on another issue this administration is working on, they've also asked for $2.1 billion to help with the resettlement of Afghan refugees. Both of those things -- issues that the White House is tackling at this moment, Jim.

ACOSTA: All right, CNN's Arlette Saenz, thanks so much.

Let's go to one of the hardest hit areas the President saw firsthand. CNN National Correspondent Athena Jones is working that part of the story for us.

Athena, you're in Manville, New Jersey, we can still see so much debris behind you. This is where President Biden was touring earlier today. Tell us about the devastation you're seeing there and about the President's visit.

ATHENA JONES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Jim. Well, you can see here this is the kind of damage and devastation the President saw.

In another block in Manville on the other side of the street -- mattresses you can see a kitchen tables and chairs and sofas, all kinds of refrigerators, to washing machines, a bookshelves, really the entire inside has had to be pulled out because of the destruction of the floodwaters.

And let me show you this house where we have been at all day. This is a place that was -- that had to be completely gutted inside there -- pull out all of the insulation. So really, everything almost nothing remains inside -- and grown is now over my head. And the reason is because the water came up above this flagpole.


Now, we spoke with the owner of this home several times over the course of the day and he said, look, what we need is aid, immediate aid. We know that President Biden has already signed a major disaster declaration for six counties in New Jersey. We also know that New Jersey's governor, Phil Murphy, has asked President Biden to just consider adding more counties because the devastation is more widespread than just those six counties.

And we know that that federal assistance includes things like grants for temporary housing, to pay for temporary housing. Grants to pay for home repairs. And loans to cover the cost of things that property losses that were uninsured.

This person who lives here has already spent multiple nights in a hotel at $169 a pop. How to pay for food for him and his family. So his main concern is not just that the aid comes, but that aid comes quickly and without a lot of red tape. And that that state and federal resources are here to help them on what is going to be a long road to recovery because this repairing this kind of damage, it's not a one week or certainly a one day deal. And so, that's one part of the focus, aid to people.

Another part of the focus, of course, is on the idea of improving infrastructure and also making sure there are better warning systems in place so that people have a better understanding of just how dangerous a flood can be, and particularly a flash flood. That is one thing we're hearing government officials discuss. Jim.

ACOSTA: That was certainly part of the message today, no question about it. All right, Athena Jones, thanks so much.

And joining us now, Shawn Lipani, the Mayor of Hillsborough Township, New Jersey.

Mayor, thanks so much for being with us. Tell us about the President's visit today. How did things go on your end? And what was his reaction to what he saw and heard there?


The visit was with myself and several other mayors. And we were able to give kind of our local flavor, so to speak, of what we were experiencing on the ground here at ground zero. I shared with him the fact that this is in the last 20 years, our fourth major event flooding going back as far as 2000 in Floyd. And unfortunately, it's always seems to be the same homes in areas that are affected.

We are surrounded by three rivers, Hillsborough Township, for 54 square miles, but have a Raritan River to the north, the Millstone River to the east and the Shark River to the west, that when they flooded, we've essentially become an island, which creates a situation for our first responders who had over 100 rescues in a five-hour period that night. Risking life to save people stranded on homes and in and cars, unfortunately, did have two souls lost, of course, by the flood.

And I just shared with him that this is not a one term, two term issue. This has been going on for years.

Hillsborough is celebrating its 250th anniversary this year. And we've been blessed with a growing area. And people are moving into town because of our schools and our way of life. But we have a problem.

We have a problem that can't be fixed strictly by putting up dams and levees. We have an issue that needs to be addressed. And only FEMA can do that. And that is, and I poured to him and the governor when the governor was here that we need to help these people out that are always in the flood zones, giving them an opportunity to get out and create a, what they call blue acres, so that we don't have to constantly go back in and rescue the same people over and over again, and then repair the same house over and over again. ACOSTA: And the President is using today's trip to highlight the effects of climate change. Did what you heard today from the President leaves you optimistic about that? Is that what you wanted to hear? And in terms of the help that you need to recover, were you hearing the right things from the President?

LIPANI: Well, the infrastructure bill and climate change, part of that is the mitigation to prevent future flooding by engineering dams and headwalls, which is in the short term, important. And we need that because obviously, the situation is at a dire straits that what we have now is just not working. So that is encouraging because that takes money that we obviously on a local municipality and county can't afford, nor even state, so we need aid for that. So that was encouraging.

The short term that we're in right now with the rescue and the recovery is -- and getting FEMA money to our residents so that they can start to get back into their homes is as vitally important and -- to these people as the climate change and programs down the road so that this hopefully does not happen again.


ACOSTA: And what's your message to your residents tonight as they're trying to rebuild and recover? It looks bad.

LIPANI: Well, my message has been the same as it is has been out all weekend. We're here to help you if you need help. We have, in our building, municipal (ph) building, we have our food and we have clothing for those in need impacted.

We have our people going around inspecting homes to get you back into homes. We have dumpsters on site, as we've been doing to help you clean up. We're here to help you get through the next week to get your work done and get back to -- in your house as soon as possible. But we're also here to facilitate any needs you have as far as transitioning to the locals, the state, the federal government to get the support you need to rebuild.

And we're here every step. If you have questions, please call our office and we will have our people help you if you're not sure how to get that out.

ACOSTA: All right, Hillsborough, Township Mayor Swan Lipani, thanks so much for joining us. Good luck to your community and to yourself. So we appreciate your time.

LIPANI: Thank you, Jim.

ACOSTA: Thanks.

Coming up, a disturbing pandemic milestone as the U.S. tops 40 million known COVID-19 cases.



ACOSTA: More than a year and a half into the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. has now surpassed more than 40 million cases with more than 4 million of them reported in the last four weeks alone. President Biden is scheduled to deliver a major speech on the ongoing crisis on Thursday.

Let's talk about that and more with Dr. Peter Hotez, Co-Director of the Children's -- Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.

Dr. Hotez, great to see you. The number is kind of stunning to look at, to have it staring in the face. Forty million Americans have now contracted a virus that didn't even exist at this point two years ago. But it has gotten so much worse in recent weeks. Can you put this in perspective for us?

DR. PETER HOTEZ, CO-DIRECTOR, TEXAS CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL CENTER FOR VACCINE DEVELOPMENT: Yes, it really has, Jim. And, you know, the other milestone that we're coming up on is we're about to exceed the number of deaths that occurred in the 1918 flu pandemic in the United States. That's often put at 675,000. So we're reaching that as well.

What's happening, Jim, is that the, you know, the epidemics been in the south this whole summer, and it's still there, maybe going down a little bit in places like Florida, but now we're seeing it pick up spreading laterally and northward. So, South Carolina's getting hit hard. And now we're seeing West Virginia, Ohio get hit and extending west across Texas.

And then we're seeing a second node form after the Sturgis rally in Western South Dakota. So that's expanding outward as well. So, the worry, this is all going to become confluent.

And exactly how things go over the next few weeks is unknown. What happened in the U.K., it went up from 5,000 to 40,000 cases a day. They were ahead of us in their Delta wave, and went down to 20. And everyone thought it was going to be going pretty well. But then it stayed there and went up again. So, I think we could be in this for at least a few more weeks, and maybe for the rest of 2021.

ACOSTA: And children now represent more than one and four of the weekly COVID-19 cases reported nationwide. Without an approved vaccine for children 12 and younger, is that number just going to keep on growing and growing quickly? How do you see this playing out?

HOTEZ: Well, what happened was, you know, in the south, where vaccination rates are so low, that's what allowed the epidemic to really flourish. And as we -- if we look what's going on in the north -- in the Northeast, what happens is you're doing such a good job vaccinating all of the adults and adolescents. I think that can protect a lot of the kids.

So, how the kids do in terms of in person classes across the U.S. in the fall really depends on how you're doing with slowing community transmission, and that depends on how well you're doing vaccinating. So the more people you can vaccinate, the better protected our kids are. And you know, that's not going to go well in a lot of the Mountain West states, maybe a little better in Illinois, so it's going to be quite variable depending on how well we're doing vaccinating.

ACOSTA: Right. And I'm sure you saw those images of those crowded football stadiums over the weekend. Dr. Fauci tells CNN he thinks people should be vaccinated and wear a mask when attending large crowded events, even if they're outdoors. But for months, we've been told it was relatively safe to participate in these outdoor activities without a mask. What are your thoughts on that?

HOTEZ: Well, what happened was, we wind up not doing a good job as we'd hoped vaccinating. You know, the Biden administration says we vaccinated 170 million Americans and that's true, but we've also not vaccinated 80 million eligible Americans. So that's a disappointment. And this Delta variant is so much more transmissible.

So, we'll have to see whether these big football gatherings are going to act as spreader events. And so, all I can say is the more, you know, the more we can vaccinate those 80 million and also think about getting boosters, third immunizations and to others to slow breakthrough infections, all of that will help. But it's a pretty high bar before we're going to really slow this epidemic.

ACOSTA: And it's starting to look like three doses might be the proper vaccine regimen. Dr. Fauci has been saying this in recent days. Is that what the data is pointing to for you? Is that what you're seeing in terms of how we should go about vaccinating folks? Are we going to need three doses?

HOTEZ: Well, Jim, you know, we've been talking since the beginning of 2021, that I thought this was going to be a three dose vaccine. Because you know, when we rolled that vaccine out the end of December, beginning of January it had a three to four week interval. And that was really important, it saved a lot of lives to get the American people fully vaccinated. But it meant that we were not going to have a long lasting durable response. And so that's why I always thought a third immunization would be necessary.


ACOSTA: All right, we'll have to roll up our sleeves, it sounds like, in the coming months.

Dr. Peter Hotez, thanks so much for joining us. We hope it gets better. We know you'll stay on top of it. Thanks for your time.

HOTEZ: Thank you.

ACOSTA: And up next, the Taliban announced a hardline new government in Afghanistan as protesters take to the streets of Kabul. We'll have a live update from the region right after the break.


[17:25:03] ACOSTA: One week after the U.S. completed its military withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban have announced a hardline new government. For more on that, let's check in with CNN International Diplomatic Editor, Nic Robertson. He joins us from Islamabad, Pakistan.

Nic, what kind of government is this? Some of these names are familiar to us.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Some of them are I think the headline of all of this is that this is a government that is going to run the country by strict Islamic law. The Taliban say there'll be inclusive, they'll protect people's rights. But I think if you're an Afghan tonight mulling over this new announcement, you're going to be worried, you're going to be worried because you're going to see that's going to mean a big change in your life. And to that point people out on the streets in Kabul today protesting.


ROBERTSON (voice-over): In the biggest challenge to Taliban rule so far, women and men took to Kabul streets, demanding an end to the Taliban's military offensives.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We are here for this protesting for our human rights, we want to stop killing.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): Anger to Pakistan, who many Afghans blame for the Taliban's rapid rise to power.

The Taliban responding with gunfire. This time at least over protesters heads, also detaining some of the women, beating and arresting several journalists before releasing them several hours later, according to social media accounts.

The Taliban commander at the protests blaming America. What is there to protest against, he said, we're in an emergency situation. The United States is getting the money. There is no other problem.

Hours later, the Taliban announcing their new caretaker government. Top jobs to hardliners with a track record of imposing a strict interpretation of Islamic law. The powerful Interior Ministry going to Sarajuddin Haqqani. The FBI says he has close ties to Al-Qaeda, has a $5 million bounty on his head and is under U.N. sanctions for connections to terrorism.

I was earlier in Qatar, Secretary of State Antony Blinken indicating the United States is in communication with the Taliban leadership.

ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: We've been assured, again, that all American citizens and Afghan citizens with valid travel documents will be allowed to leave. And again, we intend to hold the Taliban to that.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): On Monday, the Taliban overrunning the lost pockets of anti-Taliban resistance in the Panjshir Valley, consolidating their power across the whole country, deepening U.S. dependence on Taliban commitments to stop Al-Qaeda attacking America.

LLOYD AUSTIN, DEFENSE SECRETARY: There's no question that it will be more difficult to identify and engage threats that emanate from the region.


ROBERTSON: Measurably more difficult because the main interlocutor, the interior minister has a $5 million FBI bounty on his head is connected to Al-Qaeda, the very group that the Taliban have promised will not use Afghan space to attack the United States in the future. This is a very muddled and I would expect deeply troubling picture for the United States and many other nations right now. But this is how the Taliban are presenting themselves to the world, Jim.

ACOSTA: And, Nic, what about these protests in Kabul today? There's some video in your piece showing some of these protests we've seen in recent days. Are the Taliban tolerating these protests?

ROBERTSON: There was a protest as well in the city of Herat today. Women protesting wanting rights, wanting representation, political representation, wanting education. There the Taliban shot in the air, two people were killed, three were injured.

The Taliban don't have a sort of a graded response to demonstrations. They're not used to it. They use the people doing what they're told.

Shooting over crowds -- at the heads of the crowd today is their sort of method of crowd control. I think it's pretty obvious that people in Afghanistan, the young generation don't want what the Taliban are offering and are prepared to go to the streets.

And it seems to me understanding how the Taliban operate, there is going to be a very potentially dangerous and bloody collision at some point. The Taliban just don't know how to handle crowds without a weapon.

ACOSTA: It sounds like a volatile situation. All right, Nic Robertson, thanks so much for that report.

Let's bring in CNN National Security Analyst, Peter Bergen, for more. He's the author of "The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden."

Peter, what did you make of what Nic Robertson was just saying there a few moments ago? And what are these announced positions tell you about what the Taliban has in store for us?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, as we saw in Nic's piece, Sarajuddin Haqqani's been appointed Minister of the Interior, this is really one of the most important positions in the government. And it'd be a bit like appointing Bernie Madoff to be head of the SEC or John Gotti to be the head of the FBI. This guy is a, you know, designated foreign terrorist. He has kidnapped multiple Americans. He's -- the Haqqanis are holding an American right now, Mark Frerichs.

And in this travesty of a peace negotiation, the United States government conducted with the Taliban, they got 5,000 Taliban prisoners because of U.S. support -- pressure on the Afghan government. We didn't get even this one hostage, American hostage which shows us all this stuff. Tony Blinken is a very smart guy. But all this stuff coming out of the State Department about all the leverage we have on the Taliban, I think it's total nonsense.

The Taliban when they were in power, only three countries recognize them. They're also sitting on a huge pot of gold, which is the largest opium poppy trade in the world. Yes, they'd like international recognition. Yes, they'd like some of our -- their reserves in American banks to be released, but they can live without it.

And as Nick said, correctly in his piece, they're going to -- there's going to be a bloody collision with the people that are protesting because the Taliban has only one approach, which is violence when it comes to dissent.

ACOSTA: Yes. And let's talk about some of those protests. Let's play some of that video again from these protests. You can hear how terrifying this must be for Afghan protesters. And it seems like the Taliban's response to this does not indicate what we were hearing in recent weeks about some sort of new and improved Taliban, doesn't look that way at all?

BERGEN: It doesn't. I mean, in fact, it was total nonsense. And it was, you know, the appointments of that they've made speak for themselves. I mean, the Haqqani network is essentially a criminal terrorist organization. That is the most powerful part of the Taliban. Siraq Haqqani who's the interior minister is also the military commander of the Taliban. He just presided over one of the great military victories of the last several decades in which he, you know, essentially, they, you know, know exactly what they did. They took the country very quickly.

So I think these appointments speak to Taliban 1.0, not Taliban 2.0.

ACOSTA: Right. And Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin says there's no question we'll be more difficult to identify threats from the region.


ACOSTA: Because of the situation that's shaping up there. Do you agree with that?

BERGEN: Well, Jim, you know what the definition of a gaffe (ph) is in Washington, is telling the truth in public. And so Lloyd Austin just told the truth in public. Of course, it's getting harder to kind of get to deal with these terror threats. And it's interesting that he had the, you know, that -- you know, it's interesting that he said it because, of course, that's true.

ACOSTA: Yes. I think he was just being candid.


ACOSTA: Maybe more than anything else, which is also a rarity here in Washington. All right, Peter Bergen, thanks so much for that. We appreciate it.

And just ahead, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signs one of the nation's most restrictive voting laws as Republicans go all in on former President Trump's lies about the election.



ACOSTA: Texas just became the latest Republican led state to seize on former President Trump's lies about the 2020 election and impose significant new restrictions on voting. For more on that, we're joined by CNN's Senior National Correspondent Ed Lavandera in Dallas. Ed, this law is already being challenged in court that happened quickly.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, there were a couple of lawsuits that were filed even before the bill was signed. And a few more that have already been filed today in the moments after Governor Greg Abbott here in Texas signed that bill. And part of what this bill does is puts a ban on 24-hour voting and drive-thru voting that is something that was put in place in Harris County in Houston because of the pandemic and was very popular. 127,000 people voted in the drive-thru voting lanes of Harris County.

There are new hurdles to voting by mail. And it also empowers partisan poll watchers with more access at election sites. And because of all of this, coalition of groups like the NAACP, the ACLU, LULAC say that this is one of the most restrictive voting bills in the country. They have filed suit. Republicans say this is about protecting the integrity at the ballot box.


GOV. GREG ABBOTT (R-TX): The first thing the Democrats do is they run to the courthouse and try to challenge it. I feel extremely confident that when this law makes it through the litigation phase, it will be upheld in a court of law.


LAVANDERA: You know, critics of this bill say essentially what Texas Republicans are doing here is finding a solution in search of problem that there just isn't widespread voter fraud, especially when you look at what happened during the 2020 election here in the state. So that is why there is so much criticism centered around this Texas elections vote, Jim?

ACOSTA: And another Texas law, which bans abortion after six weeks highly controversial, was recently allowed to stand by the Supreme Court. Abbott was asked about that today, and about how the law impacts rape and incest victims. What did they have to say about that?

LAVANDERA: Well, that law here in Texas does not make a -- an exemption for victims of rape and incest. The Governor was asked about that and his answer has infuriated a lot of people who were already angry about this bill. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why force a rape or incest victim to carry a pregnancy to term?

ABBOTT: It doesn't require that at all, because obviously, it provides at least six weeks for a person to be able to get an abortion. So for one, it doesn't provide that. That said, however, let's make something very clear. Rape is a crime. And Texas will work tirelessly to make sure that we eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas by aggressively going out and arresting them and prosecuting them and getting them off the straight.


So goal number one in the state of Texas is to eliminate rape so that no woman, no person will be a victim of rape.


LAVANDERA: Jim, head-scratching answer as he took pivots from being asked about victims of rape and incest and starts talking about eliminating rape in Texas, especially as critics have pointed out, most women don't necessarily find out that they're pregnant until after they're six weeks pregnant. So this idea that they have six weeks to decide to get an abortion, they say, it's just simply false. Jim?

ACOSTA: Yes, I can't believe he's the first governor to come up with the idea of eliminating rape. It's a novel concept. I guess we have to keep tabs on and see if he accomplishes that goal.

All right, Ed Lavandera, what a baffling comment from the Governor there. Thanks so much.

And this just in to CNN, the state of Louisiana has just revoked licenses from seven nursing homes accused of evacuating residents into facilities deemed, quote, unsafe, unsanitary and unhealthy. CNN's Martin Savidge is joining us live from New Orleans with details. Martin, what's the latest there?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: (INAUDIBLE) tales of what life was like for the senior citizens that were evacuated to a warehouse of all places. The licenses have been revoked by Stephen Russo. He's the head of the LDH, Louisiana Department of Health. He made that announcement just a very short time ago.

So, let me give you a bit of explainer. Just before the storm struck a couple of days, there was the owner of seven nursing homes, and he decided, it was a pretty good idea, to take those people out of the nursing homes, about 800 to 840 elderly patients and transport them to a warehouse, a warehouse that looks nothing like a nursing home facility, about an hour north of the city. Well, it wasn't long after they arrived that authorities began hearing that the conditions there were deteriorating, even before the storm, people were suffering from a lack of attention. Those that needed changing, were getting changes. They were lying on the floor, there was really no restroom facilities at all. And there was no separation for COVID-19. And then you get the storm that strikes. And it sounds like a life and death struggle that was taking place.

911 calls began coming into authorities from that warehouse, from some of the elderly patients. And I could just read you some of the lines from those calls. Patient gasping and having trouble breathing. Person that is having seizures. More 911 calls. A diabetic patient not eaten due to them having no supplies here. Stroke patient lying on the floor and he is being treated poorly. After that, they got reports of people no longer breathing.

So it shows you that there was this deterioration of what was happening to these 800 plus seniors that were crowded into a building that first just didn't have the resources but then after the storm was flooding. It was horrific. Jim?

ACOSTA: It is horrific. Just a terrible way to treat senior citizens. All right, Martin Savidge, thanks for that report. Thank you so much. We appreciate it.

Breaking news ahead, President Biden tonight seeing the devastation from the northeast floods firsthand and sounding the alarm on climate change.



ACOSTA: In July last year, security forces in Belarus arrested 33 suspected Russian mercenaries accusing the Kremlin of sending them to inflame anti-government tensions in the country ahead of presidential elections. The men were paraded on Belarusian state TV before being deported back to Russia. But CNN can now reveal stunning details of what former Ukrainian intelligence officials say was actually not a failed attempt by Moscow to meddle in the elections of Belarus at all. But a foiled Ukrainian led operation to capture in jail, Russian mercenaries linked to war crimes.

CNN Senior International Correspondent Matthew Chance has our exclusive report. Matthew, this sounds fascinating.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It is fascinating, Jim. We hear so much about Russia carrying out covert operations, but this was one conducted against them. It was a sting operation that went dramatically wrong. A failed attempt to identify and arrest suspected Russian war criminals carried out by Ukraine, apparently with the knowledge of the United States.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking Foreign Language)

CHANCE (voice-over): The dramatic raid in a Minsk hotel was all over state TV. By the Russian's Special Forces shown arresting this group of alleged Russian mercenaries, experienced fighters said they were described suspected of being sent by Moscow to disrupt elections in the country last year.

We got confirmed intel. These Russians had real combat experience and actually took part in armed conflicts. This heavily disguised Belarusian police commander warned at the time. But what he didn't know is why this mysterious group of Russians was really there. Few did until now.

(on-camera): All right, well, we're now driving to an undisclosed location on the outskirts of Kiev, Ukrainian capital, where we're set to meet a group of former Ukrainian military intelligence officials, who have an extraordinary story about what actually went down in Belarus, and about how those Russian mercenaries were, in fact, part of an elaborate Ukrainian led sting operation. To capture suspected Russian war criminals to bring them to justice here.


(voice-over): The former high ranking officers spoke to CNN on condition we shield their identities. They're not authorized to disclose details of what they say was an ambitious top secret plan backed by the United States that failed at the last moment when Belarus intervened.

(on-camera): When you saw all those people, those Russian mercenaries being arrested in Belarus that was a nightmare for you. What did you think?

SOURCE A, FORMER UKRAINIAN INTELLIGENCE OFFICER (through translation): The feeling I got was very bad, because it meant all our hard work had gone down the drain. We'd carefully prepared for more than a year in the hope that justice would prevail, and that these bandits would be in prison and punished. Unfortunately, this didn't happen.

CHANCE (voice-over): When he says bandits, he means Russian-backed fighters battling Ukrainian government forces in the country's breakaway east (ph). Among them, a Russian nationals accused of involvement in some of the worst atrocities of the war. By good (ph) downing in 2014 of a Malaysian airliner, MH17, with nearly 300 people on board.

Our intelligence sources say the men detained in Belarus they've been identified over many months as having suspected links to war crimes.

SOURCE B, FORMER UKRAINIAN INTELLIGENCE OFFICER (through translation): There were two who were present when the missile that down MH17 was launched. Four others were members of a group responsible for shooting down our military aircraft and killing at least 70 of our best men. So identifying and punishing these people was of high interest to us.

CHANCE (voice-over): It was apparently of interest to U.S. intelligence too. But U.S. officials deny having any direct role. According to our sources, the Ukrainian led operation got some U.S. cash, technical assistance and advice from the CIA on drawing Russian mercenaries in. Senior U.S. official told CNN those allegations are false.

(on-camera): But identifying the right people and then luring them out of Russia required an elaborate deception. So our former Ukrainian military intelligence sources told us they set about creating a fake private military company with its own Russian language websites. On it, they advertise jobs, like one lucrative contract $5,000 a month to protect oil facilities in Venezuela. That was the bait. And we're told hundreds of Russian mercenaries actually took it.

(voice-over): All they had to do according to our sources was prove who they were and where they fought.

SOURCE A (through translation): We started to call them and say, hey, man, OK, tell me something about yourself. Maybe you are not really a fighter. Maybe you were a plumber or something like that. And then they started to reveal things about themselves, sending us documents, military IDs, and proof of where they'd fought and we're like, bingo, we can use that.

CHANCE (on-camera): They're sending you evidence of who they are.

SOURCE A (through translation): Yes, they sent it to us. Absolutely.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking Foreign Language)

CHANCE (voice-over): In fact, what followed was, according to our sources, a fountain (ph) have freely volunteered intel, not just documents and photos, but potentially incriminating videos like this one, after the downing of a Ukrainian military aircraft in the eastern war zone, offered up by the fighters themselves. All Ukrainian intelligence had to do was pick the ones that wanted offer the lucrative Venezuela contracts. And because of COVID-19 travel restrictions in Russia, assemble them in neighboring Belarus to fly out.

Our intelligence sources say the real plan was to land them in Ukraine and make the arrests.

SOURCE B: If these people would have ended up here in Ukraine, the details of their criminal acts would have become known around the world. Ukraine could have brought them to justice and shown that our fight with Russia is serious, and that we won't raise our hands and surrender.

CHANCE (voice-over): But the plan failed when the Belarusian arrested the group just hours before they were meant to leave. Could have been a stunning blow to Moscow. Instead, according to our sources, a bold Ukrainian intelligence operation was foiled.


CHANCE: The Ukrainian government has tried to put some distance between itself and what we now know unfolded last year, the country's intelligence officials have not yet responded to our requests for any comments on this failed sting. But even if this operation had succeeded in so many Russians that have been taken into custody, it's unlikely I think that anyone in the Ukrainian or indeed the United States government would have wanted to take responsibility.

Back to you.

ACOSTA: It sounds like a spy thriller that you just unfolded for us, Matthew Chance. All right, CNN's Matthew Chance, thanks so much for that report. We appreciate it.

Breaking news next, President Biden declares code read on climate change as he tours the devastation caused in the northeast by historic flooding.



ACOSTA: Happening now, breaking news. President Biden wraps a tour of catastrophic flood damage in the northeast. He's declaring the climate crisis has reached a code red and Americans must act now. Also tonight, President is set to unveil the next phase of his pandemic response has confirmed COVID-19 cases today disturbing new total in the U.S. rising above 40 million.

And legal challenges are already in the works just hours after the Texas Governor signed a controversial election's bill into law. We'll break down the legislation and what it means for the war on voting in the U.S.

Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Jim Acosta.