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The Situation Room

Biden Wraps Critical Meeting with Divided Democrats on Hill, Appears to Abandon Pelosi's Urgent Infrastructure Timeline; New Bodycam Video Reveals What Gabby Petito Told Police About a Domestic Dispute with Fiance Brian Laundrie; FDA Sets October Vaccine Advisory Committee Meetings on Moderna and J&J Boosters, Pfizer Vaccine for Ages 5-11; Federal Judge: Justice Department Hasn't Been "Even- Handed"; VP Harris on Damage Control After Newest Blunder. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired October 01, 2021 - 18:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Our coverage continues now with one Mr. Wolf Blitzer right next door in "THE SITUATION ROOM." See you Monday.

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 following breaking news.

Tonight, President Biden is vowing that Democrats will overcome their deep divisions and salvage his embattled domestic agenda, apparently abandoning the urgent timeline created by the House speaker Nancy Pelosi. The president wrapped up a critical meeting on Capitol Hill, just a little while ago. He declared, and I'm quoting him now, we're going to get this done. It doesn't matter when, whether it takes six minutes, six days, or six weeks.

We're learning new details, meanwhile, about what the president said behind closed doors, including his call for both infrastructure and the broader economic package be passed, as progressives are demanding. But he's also offering an olive branch to moderates, urging the top- line on the spending bill be lower than the currently price tag of $3.5 trillion.

Our correspondents are over at the White House up on Capitol Hill at this critical moment, where the president and the Democrats -- we'll go to Phil Mattingly in just a moment.

But, first, let's go to our Congressional Correspondent Ryan Nobles for the very latest on the hill. Ryan, the president came out of his meeting up on the Hill, and gave a very broad timeline on how long these negotiations potentially could last. What took place inside during that meeting?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there's no doubt about that. The president for the most part had not been directly involved in the negotiations around these two big packages on the type of level that he was today. For the most part, he'd been in a listening mode, his staff had been involved in those negotiations. Today, he came to the Hill and made it clear to his colleagues in the Democratic House of Representatives that he wanted two things. He wanted both pieces of legislation passed, and he wanted the price tag on that second piece, the social safety net to come down from $3.5 trillion.

And the other thing he said, as he left, as you point to, Wolf, is that the timeline is not nearly as urgent as we were led to believe for most of this week. Take a listen.


JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: I'm telling you, we're going to get this done.

It doesn't matter when. It doesn't matter whether it's in six minutes, six days, or six weeks. We're going to get it done.


NOBLES: So that is very important, Wolf. Because for this week, the negotiators have been furiously trying to come up with an agreement to meet self-imposed deadlines that were set in place by the House of Representatives, they no longer have to worry about that. They can now take the time to go through this legislation and find something that they can all agree upon.

That is actually happening right now behind me. The House progressive caucus immediately left that meeting with the president, went behind closed doors to hash out ways to trim that $5.3 trillion social safety net package in a way that they could feel comfortable with. This was, no doubt, way a win for progressives, because they did not want to see a vote without the social safety net, but it was also a win for moderates because of the scope of that reconciliation package.

One of those moderates, Henry Cuellar of Texas, he left the meeting and had this to say about the president's remarks.


REP. HENRY CUELLAR (D-TX): The president said that we've got to get both of them done, so it doesn't sound like there's going to be a vote today.

He basically said one thing. One, it's going to be 3.5, maybe 2 instead of 3.5. So he set that. And then the other thing he basically said, we need to pass both of them.


NOBLES: So, there you have it, Wolf. All sides of this argument losing a little bit and winning a little bit. And the Democrats believe that's put them in a position to get on a path to momentum. To get both bills passed. But, Wolf, as we've said many times this week, they still have a lot of work to do. BLITZER: They certainly do. Ryan, I want you to stand by. We'll get back to you in just a moment. I want to go to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue right now. Our Senior White House Correspondent Phil Mattingly is over at the White House. Phil, so what is happening behind the scenes where you are at the White House tonight?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the president returned from Capitol Hill and huddled with aides, talking about next steps, also what transpired on Capitol Hill. And what we saw was a very clear effort to serve as a bit of a pressure release valve. Obviously, White House officials and the president very closely watching, at many points, participating in what has been a serious and feverish set of negotiations and intraparty battles over the course of the last several days.

Yet for much of the last several days, we have not actually seen the president. To some degree, that ended up being strategic. Deploying him to Capitol Hill at the moment where officials thought he could have the maximum amount of impact.

And Ryan laid out very well, the message that he was there to deliver, basically taking the elements of the fights over the course of the last several days and saying, this is the reality of things at the moment.


There is no way to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill without that second economic and climate package. There is no way to get $3.5 trillion, given where two Senate moderates are in the party. It's going to have to come down. The president giving a range, somewhere between perhaps 1.8 or 2.2 or 2.3 trillion, not a firm number that he's looking for, but a reality of where discussion have been with those senators.

But, Wolf, the president behind the scenes, also, I'm told, talking about the stakes. Not just the stakes for the party, not the political stakes, but something we've heard from him a lot over the course of the last several months, whether he's talking to lawmakers or foreign leaders about stakes for the country in this moment. What we've seen over the course of the last several years and the need for Democrats to be able to deliver on what they campaigned on. That's so central to how he views his domestic agenda, both pieces of his domestic agenda. And he made very clear, I'm told, to Democrats today, if there is no compromise, if the party is not able to unite, they will get nothing, and that, at this point in time, is just simply not an option, to some degree, too dangerous for him to even consider. Because of that, Wolf, he's making clear, they are moving forward. Not necessarily on a timeline, not even at the top line that they were looking for, but they're looking forward to moving forward together, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, they certainly are. Phil, stay with us. Ryan is coming back into the conversation. We're also joined by our Senior Political Analyst, the former presidential adviser, David Gergen.

David, President Biden has now told Congress what he wants. He wants both of these bills to pass together. He says the price tag for reconciliation will need to come down from that $3.5 trillion number. So, what took so long? Why is this taking so long?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Because there are deep philosophical as well as political differences within the Democratic Party. The moderates are mostly from purple districts and they don't want to look like they're in the camp of spending, spending, spending. And the liberals, the progressives who are winning so far, we've never seen a progressive movement be as popular as this or have as much power, until you go back to the new deal, the last time progressives were so powerful. And they really vetoed what the moderates were doing.

So it is a -- the moderates and the liberals can both claim some credit, but tonight, Wolf, the real story is, this was a failure. This whole effort, it wasn't a question of being able to govern both parties and put together bipartisanship, it was within one party, an intraparty fight. And that is going to give a lot of risk for the Republicans coming up in the off-year midterm elections. This plays right into their hands and Donald Trump's hands.

But I think they're going to have a hard time getting a compromise. It seems to me, the most logical thing is to cut the length of the bill, instead of ten years, make it five years. You can save one heck of a lot of money that way without destroying your support for programs. And if you get these programs started and they're popular, it will be really hard for Republicans if they win the elections to take them back.

BLITZER: Yes, it's true. A lot of people suggesting, don't do a ten- year legislation bill, do a five-year, and the price tag will certainly come down.

Ryan, the moderates aren't yet getting what they want. They wanted an immediate vote on this $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package, which overwhelmingly passed in the Senate, all 50 Democrats, 19 Republican senators, including Mitch McConnell. But now, progressives also need to face reality on the massive $3.5 trillion reconciliation plan. Will they do so? Are they ready to go down from $3.5 trillion?

NOBLES: Yes. What was remarkable, Wolf, as soon as they exited from this meeting, I mean, for weeks, progressives have said, for over and over again that the 3.5 trillion number was their concession, that they originally wanted as much as $6 trillion.

And as immediately as they came out of this meeting, their tune changed pretty quickly. The House progressive chair, Pramila Jayapal, acknowledged that they were going to have come to the table with some cuts, and she said it was going to be the job of the progressive caucus to figure out exactly where they would be able to make those trims. Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland, who was a member of this caucus, just left this meeting a few minutes ago and said the same thing. Exactly what David Gergen is mentioning, can they reduce the timeframe for some of these social programs that they consider to be priorities and in that way, find some cost savings, and revisit them in a couple of years to determine whether or not that they should go a little bit longer.

But, Wolf, they are going to have a hard time, because each and every one of these programs has a specific set of constituencies that passionately want them to be a part of this package. And they're going to have to make some tough choices here. So this is not going to be an easy process, but you're right, they have taken that first step of acknowledging the number has to come down, but getting there won't be easy.


BLITZER: And that's why the president has just said it could be six minutes, six days, six weeks to get this done. He promises it will get done eventually.

Phil, what are your sources saying over there about President Biden offering a range for a possible reconciliation price tag? We know the president wants to pass transformative legislation. Do progressives feel right now he's on their side?

MATTINGLY: I mean, I think when you look at the remarks that he delivered, and Ryan has done a great job reflecting and reporting on this over the course of the last hour or so, how progressives came out of that meeting was a recognition that the president did not go into that meeting and demand that the infrastructure bill be passed. He did not go into that meeting and tell progressives it was time to back down. He made very clear that the two bills needed to go together.

Now, that would mean, based on just the simple vote counting dynamics of the Democratic caucuses that the top-line number is going to go down. But I think if you look at it from where the White House sits right now, $1.9 trillion in COVID relief, $1.2 trillion infrastructure proposal, $1.8 to $2 trillion economic and climate package, that is a significant sum of money with very, very real and tangible benefits to it for Democrats. That's a lot and I think the president thinks that's enough.

BLITZER: Yes, I think you're right. All right, guys, thank you very, very much.

Just ahead, what exactly did the president tell divided Democrats during a closed-door meeting up on Capitol Hill? I'll ask a key progressive Congresswoman, Debbie Dingell. She's standing by live. We'll discuss when we come back.



BLITZER: We're following the breaking news, President Biden just wrapping up meetings with Democrats up on Capitol Hill as he tries to heal the divides inside his own Democratic Party and seal the deal on two signature pieces of his domestic agenda.

Let's discuss this and more with Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Dingell of Michigan. She's a senior House Whip and a Deputy Whip in the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Congresswoman, thank you so much for joining us.

I know you were in that meeting with President Biden up on Capitol Hill just a little while ago. Can you confirm that he told Democrats he wants these two bills to pass together and that the reconciliation price tag will need to come down from $3.5 trillion?

REP. DEBBIE DINGELL (D-MI)You know, Wolf, this is what I'm going to tell you. He came and helped lay out very clearly for the caucus the reality of where we are. I've always said, I've said this to you for weeks, that Democrats are united that failure is not an option. He laid out the fact about what our numbers were in the House and the Senate, that the build back better is his vision. It's what he wants with the infrastructure bill. And I think he was trying to just lay out a very clear picture for where people are.

He did say that he needs both bills. The reality is, we're not going to get 3.5. I think he made it very clear that the next couple of weeks, we're going to have to -- and he's not talking numbers. He's talking, tell me what you're for. Tell me what the programs are that mean the most to the constituents that you represent. Then he'll talk about the dollars. So I think he -- you know, I've been saying for a week, they say, you've got to support the president. And I do support the president, but what is it that you want to support.

I think that Democrats are united that we have to deliver on what his vision is. He laid out what's got to happen. Now we're on a path to making that happen.

BLITZER: CNN has learned, Congresswoman, that the president did suggest a range, a range of $1.8 to $2.3 trillion for the reconciliation package. If moderates like Senator Manchin, for example, come up from their number, he was proposing $1.5 trillion, are progressives, you think, willing to compromise within that range?

DINGELL: You know, Wolf, first of all, I don't think anybody is going to deal with this publicly. The negotiations need to take place among the caucus members and we shouldn't be talking the numbers. The president made it very clear that every person he talks to, he says, tell me what matters to you. And I think that's where he is. The fact of the matter is he's -- I can't remember the number of hours he had said that he had spent with both of the senators. There were a lot of them. And they've made it very clear where they stand and our numbers in the Senate are a rally. There are 50 senators.

But he made it very clear that the build back better vision is his. He can't pay none. He's going to deliver on it. All of us understand that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. We cannot blow this chance. The American people are expecting us to deliver. We are united that failure is not an option.

BLITZER: Progressives, as you know, like you, huddled after this meeting with the president. What was the overall reaction among your colleagues in the progressive caucus? What is the path forward right now?

DINGELL: So, I was not in that meeting, because I was in a leadership meeting. People are trying to talk about how do we make sure everybody's got input. The fact of the matter is, we've got to all talk to each other, what matters that has to go into build back better. And there are a lot of programs we care about. The once that matter to me are everything from home care.

But if we don't take this opportunity to get the lead out of the pipes in this country and keep our children safe from lead in their water, if we're going to make electric vehicles a reality, we've got to build out the E.V. infrastructure, we all have to go, we all have strong feelings, we're going to all talk to each other, which is what legislating is, Wolf, what are our priorities, listen to each other and work it out.

BLITZER: What's your timeline? What's the timeline right now for passing both of these bills?

DINGELL: The president said it would take a little time.


I think stay tuned. I think you may see one pass in a certain way, sooner than later. But they've got to go together. They're not going to move without going together. And people know that we've got to get this done. So you're going to see House members even -- you know, I don't even know if we're going to come back in next week. We all know that we've got to work on this right now and I'm going to leave here and be working with all my colleagues on what we've got to do and what we've got to do to get it done.

BLITZER: Well, very quickly, before I let you go, Congresswoman, if the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package comes up for a vote by itself without the reconciliation package approved yet, will you vote for it?

DINGELL: That's not going to happen that way. It's just simply -- the president made it clear --

BLITZER: It potentially could happen?

DINGELL: I don't believe it will. I think the president has made it very clear, we've got to work on both of these together and people are talking about options right now, Wolf. People keep pitting us against each other. We're not going to be pitted against each other. We're going to work together because failure is not an option.

BLITZER: Okay, let's see what happens. Congresswoman Debbie Dingell of Michigan, I appreciate it very much.

DINGELL: Thank you.

BLITZER: Coming up, a troubling new video of Gabby Petito at a traffic stop and it's raising serious questions about why officers didn't do more to protect her just days before her disappearance and killing.



BLITZER: We're following developments in the Gabby Petito investigation. Newly revealed body cam video is shedding new light on a troubling interaction with police shortly before Petito went missing and was later found dead.

CNN's Leyla Santiago is on the story.


LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Newly obtained video gives insight on the state of Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie's relationship and cross-country road trip.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hey, we got a call about a male hitting a female.

SANTIAGO: This additional footage from an officer's body camera from an August 12th stop in Moab, Utah, after witnesses reported a fight between the couple.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So what happened here in here?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm not sure it was -- I was just trying to get back in the car and his backpack was on the back and it got me.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So, the backpack got you?


SANTIAGO: But then her story changed when police brought up witnesses who said they saw Brian hit her.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, to be honest, I definitely hit him first.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did he hit you, though? I mean, it's okay if you're saying you hit him. And I understand if he hit you. But we want to know the truth if actually he hit you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, I guess, yes. But I hit him first.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Where did he hit you? Don't worry, just be honest.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He grabbed my face like this. He didn't like hit me in the face. Like he didn't like punch me.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did he slap your face or what?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, he like grabbed me with like his nails and I guess that's why it looks -- I definitely have a cut right here because I can feel it when I touch it, it burns.

SANTIAGO: Police say the evidence all suggested that Gabby was the lead aggressor in the situation. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So, at this point, you're the victim of suspected assault because you --

SANTIAGO: Rather than charge Gabby, which both made clear they did not want, officers decided to just separate the two for the night. Criminologist Casey Jordan said that was a bad idea.

CASEY JORDAN, CRIMINOLOGIST AND BEHAVIORAL ANALYST: They have labeled her the primary aggressor and she is just distraught. She can't stop crying. He's 20 feet away smirking. And, obviously, the 911 phone call said that he was the primary aggressor. So there was more that needed to be sussed out.

SANTIAGO: But in Utah, the law regarding domestic violence cases clearly states the primary duty is for the officer to protect the victim and enforce the law.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In no way, shape, or form, that can I perceive, does what happened here, a little slap fight between fiancees we love each other, want to be together, can I perceive that this is going to digress into a situation where he's going to be a battered man.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But then again, I don't have a crystal ball.

SANTIAGO: Two weeks later, Brian returned home to his parent's house in Florida without his fiancee. As seen in these documents obtained by CNN, a day before Laundrie returned home, his mother canceled a camping trip reservation for September 1st for two people, then made a new one for September 6th to include a third person. But where he is today remains a mystery.


SANTIAGO (on camera): And, Wolf, between these two body cam videos we've been able to obtain, you hear the couple talk about things that could shed light on growing tensions. You hear him talking about how they're low on funds. You hear her say that they ran out of water, that she doesn't feel like he supports her video website that she was working on. So, it clearly speaks to growing tensions on this long cross-country road trip.

And here's some perspective for you, Wolf, a road trip that ended a month ago today when Brian Laundrie returned here to North Port, Florida, without his fiancee.

BLITZER: Leyla Santiago reporting for us, Leyla, thank you. Let's get some analysis right now for the state attorney for Palm Beach County, Florida, Dave Aronberg, and Major Neill Franklin, retired officer of the Maryland State and Baltimore Police Departments.

So, Dave, why is this new body camera footage so important as investigators try to piece together what exactly happened to Gabby Petito? DAVE ARONBERG, STATE ATTORNEY, PALM BEACH COUNTY, FLORIDA: Yes, good evening, Wolf. To me, this body cam video tells me two things. First, it answers the question as to whether the police on the scene got the message from the 911 operators that witnesses saw Brian hitting Gabby. And, secondly, it also tells me that there was probable cause that day to arrest Brian.


At first, you know, they were trying to focus on arresting Gabby, but now you have witnesses who said that Brian was hitting Gabby and you have Gabby admitting that Brian did grab her face, put his nail in her skin, leading to a mark, and she did what many domestic violence victims do, and that she blamed herself for it. And I think that had an impact on the police at the scene.

Now, whether the police could have arrested Brian is different than whether they should have. There will be an independent investigation to determine whether the police followed proper procedures.

BLITZER: You know, Neill, let's watch a little bit more of that body camera footage of Petito's interaction with police in Utah. Watch this.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think I threw in the car, all right, please, because we're okay.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I understand. But we don't have -- listen, if I had any discretion in this, I would separate you guys for the day and just give you warnings to stop hitting each other. But I lawfully don't have discretion here. I don't have --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is it because somebody said -- like a witness said something?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's two witnesses and there's what you said and what he said. And, guess what, it all matches nicely that you were the primary aggressor.


BLITZER: So, Neill, as a retired police officer yourself, what goes through your mind as you watch that?

MAJOR NEILL FRANKLIN (RET.), RETIRED OFFICER: What goes through my mind, Wolf, especially since when I was in criminal investigation here in the state of Maryland, with the Maryland State Police, and starting the first domestic violence unit for the Maryland State Police, we had to put our police officers through a lot of training to bring them up to speed on domestic violence and the cycle of violence.

My question is how much training have these police officers had regarding domestic violence. In the state of Maryland, there's a thing such as pro-prosecution, and we really train and push our police officers to do thorough investigations, so that they can actually make an arrest without the victim cooperating. And with the witness statement of Brian actually hitting her -- I mean, I think the words were actually slapping her, despite what the couple said, an arrest would be possible here in the state of Maryland, but we have to research the law there.

And again, I am concerned about the amount of training or lack of training that these police officers may have had. So if they hadn't had the proper training, it's very hard to blame them as individuals but that's something that needs to be looked at, the training that they've had.

BLITZER: That's a really important point, yes.

Dave, we're learning also more about the actions of Brian Laundrie's parents after their son returned from that cross-country trip. Just how involved are they in the potential fallout from this case?

ARONBERG: Well, they have done everything possible to incriminate themselves in the court of public opinion. But in a court of law, it's uncertain, because it's not enough for them to remain silent or lawyer up, to be charged as an accessory after the fact. They would need to know that Brian was involved in a crime and then try to cover it up to prevent his punishment or his arrest. And if, in fact, they knew that he committed a crime.

And, by the way, there's an inference that they knew by the fact that he returned home from this trip without Gabby, and they went ahead and sanitized the fan or destroyed evidence or bought him a plane ticket to get out of town, then you would see officers walking up their driveway with a shiny new pair of handcuffs.

BLITZER: Dave Aronberg, thank you very much, Neill Franklin, thanks to you as well.

There's more information we're following in the situation room with the FDA's review of Moderna and J&J's booster shots and the first vaccines for young children.



BLITZER: More breaking news this hour. The FDA is moving closer and closer to making some big decisions on whether to green light Moderna and Johnson & Johnson booster shots and Pfizer vaccines for children ages 5 to 11. The agency is scheduled meetings of its vaccine's advisory committee later this month to debate these truly critical moves.

Let's get some analysis from our Medical Analyst, Dr. Leana Wen. She's the author of the important timely new book entitled, Lifelines, A Doctor's Journey in the Fight for Public Health.

Dr. Wen, so tell us when, based on the timing of these meetings that we might be able to start seeing the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson shots be able, as far as boosters are concerned?

DR. LEANA WEN, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: This is so important, Wolf, because there are a lot of Americans who will now have heard that we need boosters, but only the Pfizer booster is approved for people who got the two doses of the Pfizer vaccine. And so people who got the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccine are wondering, what about me? Well, now, the FDA is showing that they are acting with a sense of urgency.

October 14th and 15th are when they are going to be meeting to discuss this issue of the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson booster. I would expect that if the data turn out to show that they're safe and effective, that they will be the go ahead for the FDA at that point. The following week, presumably, the CDC is going to be meeting and probably the week of the 17th, 18th, we could see shots of Moderna and Johnson & Johnson going into arms.

Very importantly, the FDA saying that they're also looking at mixing and matching studies, which is crucial, because there are some people who want the convenience of being able to get whatever is first available. Maybe they are in a place where they can't easily get Pfizer and they got the two doses of Moderna, so they should be able to get the other option. And I think also for people who got the Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine, some people also want the option of getting an mRNA second dose. And so having that approval will be important too.

BLITZER: We should know in the next two to three weeks on that front. The vaccine advisers will convene again on October 26th, about four weeks, to discuss the Pfizer vaccine for children ages 5 to 11.


Does that mean kids that age could start getting vaccinated, potentially later this month?

WEN: At this point, it's looking like the timeline, even if the -- even if Pfizer is able to get in their application in time for the FDA to review by that October 26th meeting, it looks then like the CDC will be meeting the following week, which I'm not sure if we're going to make the end of October deadline, but I'm hopeful still for end of October, at least early November.

BLITZER: Merck today announced, Dr. Wen, it has developed an antiviral pill that reduces the risk of death or hospitalization from COVID by half. How much of a potential game changer could this be?

WEN: I think it's really important, although it's really important also to mention that this type of pill, this treatment, does not replace the need for a vaccine. The point of the vaccine is to prevent you from contracting COVID in the first place. So, the vaccine also reduces the likelihood of getting severely ill.

However, there are still going to be some people who are unvaccinated. Also, there are individuals who may have breakthrough infections. And having a pill that prevents them from getting hospitalized or dying is still very good. And so this is excellent news.

BLITZER: It certainly is. All right, Dr. Leana Wen, thank you very much.

Coming up, a Trump-appointed federal judge accuses the Justice Department of here in Washington of treating rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol unfairly. We have details on this highly unusual ruling. We'll share them with you right after the break.



BLITZER: Tonight, a federal judge is lashing out at the U.S. Department, suggesting rioters who breached the U.S. Capitol on January 6th are being treated unfairly.

Our law enforcement correspondent Whitney Wild is joining us right now.

Whitney, what are you learning?

WHITNEY WILD, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're learning what this judge said, basically, is that he thinks that the Justice Department is going easier on the rioters from the summer of 2020 than they are going on the rioters who stormed the Capitol on January 6th. He said that the Justice Department just hasn't been consistent in its approach though these rioters.

He's echoing this what-aboutism that we've heard from Republicans, and again, specifically making clear that he thinks that prosecutors are just not being evenhanded. Here's his direct quote. He said that the Justice Department would -- he basically said that the Justice Department would increase its credibility if it was more even-handed in its approach.

Here's the direct quote: The U.S. attorney's office would have more credibility if it was evenhanded in its concern about riots and mobs in the city. When he said that, he was citing concerns from Mayor Muriel Bowser. The mayor here in D.C.

The judge who made these comments is District Judge Trevor McFadden. He's a Trump appointee and this happened during a sentencing for a woman named Danielle Doyle who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for unlawfully protesting at the Capitol. The DOJ was asking for a house arrest. Instead, he ordered her to pay a $3,000 fine and another $500 to fix up the capitol complex.

Judge McFadden had previously denied a January 6th's rider's attempt to get his argument tossed. So, McFadden didn't buy into that argument, but then again saying that these rioters are being treated differently. He also did say in a very pointed way that Doyle participated in a shameful event calling it a national embarrassment, Wolf.

So he's not drawing a blanket statement, saying that these prosecutors should get off the hook, but he is making the observation, he feels, that there are differences and he thinks it's worth pointing out.

BLITZER: Very interesting, indeed. Whitney, thank you very much. Whitney Wild reporting.

Let's get some insight from our legal analyst, Elliot Williams.

Elliot, what's your reaction to the judge's decision that the January 6th rioters, at least some of them, are being treated more harshly or unfairly?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Look, Wolf, we have to get off of this fantasy that exists in America that federal judges are not political figures, because he was making a broad point that we should all agree with that, yeah, all defendants should be treated equally. He could make that point without calling attention to another politically charged matter. So, it's rank, naked politics coming from someone tonight federal bench.

BLITZER: Because he said, they were being treated differently than the rioters who were involved in last year's racial unrest.

WILLIAMS: Right, it's apples and oranges, Wolf, and really dangerous to start getting down the road of one class of defendants to another class of defendants. Look, Judge McFadden is himself a former Fairfax County police officer. So I would love to hear his view on the different treatment of police officers on January 6th, for instance, or with respect to Lafayette Square, where tear gas was being used against protesters there.

So, it's a really dangerous road to go down there. And I'm sort of surprised that the judge went there, but a little bit disappointed that that was the angle --

BLITZER: He was surprised that he was putting the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol basically in the same category as those who were protesting George Floyd's murder.

WILLIAMS: Right. And moreover, the cases on January 6th are far more airtight cases than you ever could have gotten at a Black Lives Matter protest.

Everyone -- even assuming there were people who were lawfully protesting on January 6th, the moment someone crosses into the Capitol building, they're committing a federal offense. There's surveillance footage, there's footage, and there's just more airtight cases, when you're talking about prosecuting a mob or a melee, it's just harder to do.

BLITZER: We checked. There was a recent survey that came out from Pew Research center. And I am checking it right now. About half the American public believe the punishments for those involved in the January 6th insurrection haven't been severe enough.


Only 20 percent said the punishments are too severe. What does that indicate to you?

WILLIAMS: You know, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld into going to war with the Army you have, you go into court with the laws you have and the sentencing rules you have and the charges people got for trespass, obstructing Congress, and so on, those are the penalties they come with and if people want to change that, yes, then go to Congress and make those more severe penalties.

But it's not the Justice Department is being more lenient than they should be. That's just the penalties that come for those crimes.

BLITZER: Elliot Williams, thank you very, very much.

Coming upon up, Vice President Kamala Harris's office on clean-up duty once again. We'll take a closer look at her latest misstep and why she is now making amends to Israel.



BLITZER: Vice President Kamala Harris and her office are on damage control tonight after the latest in a series of missteps. The VP failing to push back at a student who accused Israel of engaging in ethnic genocide.

Our Washington correspondent, Sunlen Serfaty, has details.


SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Vice President Kamala Harris is in damage control mode after this exchange with a university student earlier this week.

STUDENT: There were funds allocated to continue backing Israel which hurts my heart because it's an ethnic genocide and the displacement of people. And I think that the people have spoken very often in what they do need and I feel like there's a lack of listening, and I just feel like I need to bring this up because it affects my life and people I really care about lives.

SERFATY: Harris responding in part --

KAMALA HARRIS, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNTIED STATES: I'm glad you did. And again, this is about the fact that your voice, your perspective, your experience, your truth cannot be suppressed. And it must be heard. The point that you are making about policies that relate to Middle East policy, foreign policy, we still have healthy debates in our country about what is the right path, and nobody's voice should be suppressed on that.

SERFATY: Israeli publications jumped on Harris for not pushing back against the student's characterization of Israel's actions towards Palestinians as ethnic genocide. And sources tell CNN calls came into the White House from several leading Jewish organizations expressing their concern. The vice president's office is now scrambling to minimize the fallout,

putting out a statement today saying the vice president strongly disagrees with the student's characterization of Israel, that it was the student who voiced a personal opinion during a political science class, emphasizing the vice president whose husband is Jewish has been unwavering in her commitment to Israel.

This dust-up is just one in a series for the vice president in her nine months on the job. The West Wing having to publicly push back on reports of infighting and dysfunction in the vice president's office. In June, her first foreign trip overshadowed by criticism of her blunt delivery of the Biden administration's message to Guatemalan migrants.

HARRIS: I want to be clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States/Mexico border: Do not come. Do not come.

SERFATY: That answer upsetting many, including members of her own party, in calling into question her diplomatic chops.

Just days later, Harris causing headlines again by dismissing the criticism that she has never been to the border.

HARRIS: We've been to the border.

LESTER HOLT, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: You haven't been to the border.

HARRIS: And I haven't been to Europe. I mean, I don't understand the point that you're making.

SERFATY: And causing friction with a key member of her own party.

HARRIS: We can't continue this way.

SERFATY: For going to West Virginia and sitting for local interviews about the COVID stimulus plan without giving a heads up to the state's longtime senator, Joe Manchin.

SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D-WV): I couldn't believe it. No one called me. We are going to try to find a bipartisan pathway forward. I think we need to. But we need to work together. That's not a way of working together, what was done.


SERFATY: And back on this week's dustup at that school just outside Washington, d.c., we spoke today with many of the groups that were originally concerned with the vice president's response when she was speaking with that student. And they -- they are satisfied they tell me with the outreach the White House reached out to them, and gave them some assurances and in terms of their support for Israel. So they were pleased, satisfied overall with outreach.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much, Sunlen Serfaty, reporting for us. Finally, tonight, we wish a very, very happy birthday to the oldest-

living former president of the United States. Jimmy Carter is 97 years old today. He's celebrating privately at his home in Plains, Georgia. I was privileged to visit with President Carter and former-first lady Rosalynn Carter in Plains a couple years ago shortly before his 95th birthday. He shared with me his greatest wish for the nation and the world.


JIMMY CARTER, FORMER PRESIDENT: I just hope that the entire world can -- recommit themselves to -- to universal peace. And to be made between peace and war, choose peace. Whenever there is a choice to be made between basic-human rights and the violations of people's rights and the equality of people, choose the human rights. So, if we would just do this, the world would be a better place.


BLITZER: Again, President Carter, we wish you a happy birthday. Nothing but the very best.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.