Return to Transcripts main page

The Situation Room

Trump Still Touting His Big Election Lie Setting Up For 2024; U.S. Capitol Police Whistleblower Alleges Leaders Of Failures; Turning The Corner On The Pandemic; Biden's Dwindling Timeline For His Agenda; Biden Struggles To Unify Party, Salvage Agenda As Clock Ticks & Public Approval Fades; Democrat Faces Headwinds In Virginia Governor's Race Due To Biden's Stalled Agenda In Washington; Tensions Soar As China Provokes Taiwan By Repeatedly Sending Warplanes Into Its Air Defense Zone; U.S. Calls New Talks With Taliban "Candid" & "Professional"; Southwest Says Flight Cancellations Due To "Weather & Other External Constraints," Not Vaccine Mandates. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired October 11, 2021 - 17:00   ET



NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That was exposed by Florida problems, weather, and air traffic control problems. A significant amount of their flight crew is based in Florida. Southwest has a huge problem at their hands that they haven't quite yet been able to wrap their hands around yet. Pamela?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN HOST: Thanks, Nick. And thank you for joining us for the special edition of "THE LEAD." Our coverage continues now.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, a potential turning point in treating COVID-19. The FDA was just asked to authorize the first pill to fight the virus. How might that impact the pandemic and the push to vaccinate more Americans?

Also tonight, growing fears of another election nightmare as former President Trump and his enablers keep peddling the big lie and defying the January 6th select committee. Are they laying the groundwork for 2024?

And thousands of air travelers are left stranded and very, very angry after Southwest cancels more than 2,000 flights over three days. Tonight, passengers say some of the airlines' explanations are simply hard to believe. We want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We begin tonight with American democracy in peril as the country already looks ahead toward the 2024 race for the White House. Former President Trump working harder than ever to spread his big lie that the 2020 election that he lost was stolen.

CNN's Brian Todd is joining us. He's got new details for us. Brian, Trump's big lie fueled that January 6th insurrection. And now the select committee in the house, their investigation is clearly intensifying.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That investigation is at stage a critical stage, Wolf. Trump's former aides and the former president himself seem ready to do battle with the committee as Trump continues to hold campaign-style rallies.



TODD (voice-over): Tonight, new concerns that former President Trump, his allies and supporters continue to stoke the flames of the big lie that the last election was stolen. And are setting the stage for a worrisome period leading to the 2024 vote. Trump and his lies are in a serious showdown with the House Select Committee investigating the January 6th attack on the capitol and the next few days will be critical.

President Biden has waived executive privilege allowing the National Archives to send Trump-era documents to the committee, documents which could shed light on whether anyone in Trump's White House inner circle might have been involved in the insurrection. Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff, a member of the committee, was asked by CBS when the committee will get those documents.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): We should, I think, get those documents soon because the sitting president has the primary say on executive privilege. But we also want to make sure that these witnesses come in and testify.

TODD (voice-over): But that may not happen. Of the four former Trump aides who have been subpoenaed for documents and testimony, two of them, former Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and former National Security aide Kash Patel are said to be communicating with the committee.

The third, former deputy chief of staff Dan Scavino was finally physically served with a subpoena after several days of committee staffers trying to find him. And the fourth, former Trump White House strategist Steve Bannon has indicated through his lawyer he will not cooperate with the committee at all, prompting leaders of the committee to threaten to refer anyone who doesn't cooperate to the Justice Department for possible criminal contempt charges.

This comes as more GOP leaders seem to be falling firmly in line with Trump. Congressman Steve Scalise, the number two Republican in the House, was pressed repeatedly on Fox News Sunday on whether he thought the 2020 election was stolen and repeatedly he refused to answer.

CHRIS WALLACE, FOX NEWS HOST: Last time, I promise. Do you think the election was stolen or not? I understand you think there were irregularities or things that need to be fixed. Do you think the election was stolen?

REP. STEVE SCALISE (R-LA): And it's not just irregularities. It's the states that did not follow the law set which the constitution says they're supposed to follow.

TODD (voice-over): And Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa who voted to certify the 2020 election results and earlier this year slammed Trump for claiming the election had been stolen stood with Trump at the former president's rally in Iowa this weekend and heartily accepted Trump's endorsement for his re-election bid.

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R-IA): So if I didn't accept the endorsement of a person that's got 91 percent of the Republican voters in Iowa, I wouldn't be too smart. I'm smart enough to accept that endorsement.

TODD (voice-over): Trump himself at that same rally continued to stoke the big lie.

TRUMP: And actually, we won by a lot. They rigged the election and now, based on the rigged election, they're destroying our country.

TODD (voice-over): On his HBO show "Real Time," liberal comedian Bill Maher warned of what he called a slow-moving Trump coup.


BILL MAHER, LIBERAL COMEDIAN: Trump will run in 2024. He will get the Republican nomination. And whatever happens, on election night, the next day he will announce that he won.


TODD (on camera): The former president is fanning the flames in other ways as well. Over the weekend, recording a video praising capitol rioter Ashli Babbitt on the occasion of her birthday and demanding justice for Babbitt. Trump and his supporters have sought to make Ashli Babbitt a martyr.

She was shot and killed on January 6th as she tried to break through a window to the speaker's lobby. They're doing that even though investigators have concluded that she appeared to threaten lawmakers and the capitol police officer who shot her has not been disciplined or charged. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Brian, thank you very much. Brian Todd reporting for us.

Let's get some more on all of this. Our chief political analyst Gloria Borger is with us, CNN senior commentator, the former Ohio governor john Kasich is with us, and our chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin is with us as well. He's the author by the way of the book "True Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Investigation of Donald Trump."

Gloria, after the January 6th attack, Republicans, including Senator Chuck Grassley called on former President Trump to take responsibility. How is it possible that less than a year later, Grassley would stand by Trump's side as he spouts new election conspiracy?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, craven ambition. Total hypocrisy. What Chuck Grassley said after January 6th was even worse than what you just quoted. He accused Donald Trump of belittling and harassing elected officials across the country to get his way and accused the president of extreme aggressive and irresponsible behavior.

And there he is accepting his endorsement because Donald Trump is popular in his state. At the age of 88, he has decided to run for re- election. This is someone who was in the capitol that day and had to hide from the insurrectionists. This is someone who should know better.

This is someone who, throughout his political career, has been on the side of whistleblowers. And the other day he said that Donald Trump did absolutely nothing wrong in his office on January 3rd when he was trying to pressure the Department of Justice to fix the election. Something has happened with Chuck Grassley and he wants to get re- elected and he knows Donald Trump can help him get there in Iowa.

BLITZER: He's the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.


BLITZER: He's been in the Senate for so many years --

BORGER: That's right.

BLITZER: -- you would think he would know better than this, but --

BORGER: He does. He does

BLITZER: -- clearly he's got political ambitions even at this stage in his career. You know, Jeffrey, Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney says, and I'm quoting her now, "perpetuating the big lie is an attack on the core of our constitutional republic." This is an incredibly undemocratic movement, isn't it?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Let me be very specific about one threat. And this came up in Steve Scalise's interview with Fox yesterday. One of the things that Republicans are now talking about is using state legislatures to vote after the election to seat or not seat the top vote winner in that state. It could be the vote for president. It could be the vote for other statewide officials.

But think about that. This is now becoming an official position of the Republican Party that Republican state legislatures in states like Pennsylvania, in Iowa, in Florida, can vote not to certify the actual results, but put their favorite candidate in.

This is something that several states are considering doing and it is shocking that it hasn't gotten more attention for the anti-democratic act that it is, but this is where we are heading and this is what I think Bill Maher, you know, who may be a comedian, but he sure knew what he was talking about last night.

BORGER: And it's not funny. BLITZER: Yes. It was very, very powerful indeed. Governor Kasich, do

you fear Trump will be successful in purging any members of the GOP who would stand up to him if -- if he attempts another coup down the road?

JOHN KASICH, CNN SENIOR COMMENTATOR: Well, look, I mean, first of all, I like Bill Maher. He's been on all sides. I mean, he's been criticizing the left as much as the right. He's really been remarkable in what he's been doing.

I think there's one important thing to remember here. And that is these legislators didn't do that. And I understand the push is to get them to do it. And I am concerned about it. This is one of the reasons why I was probably the most prominent Republican to be against Donald Trump. To fight against Donald Trump and what he stood for.

But I think to some degree, Maher's -- his -- the things that he had to say, he was connecting a lot of dots. And I understand what Jeff Toobin said, but I have to also say, I still believe at the end of the day there has to be such a vast conspiracy to overturn this.


You got have to have the courts involved. You got have local election officials involved. You got have secretaries of state involved. I think it's a bridge too far. But look, it's why I've never been for Trump and I don't intend to be for Trump and shame on somebody like Grassley. I think Grassley probably got terrible advisers who are close to Trump who talked this guy into this. And it's -- Gloria is right about him. He's never been this way. And, you know, he's 88, searching for re-election, and you know, it's pretty sad.

BLITZER: Yes. You know, and Gloria, you and I have covered Grassley over these many years and it is pretty sad to see how he's flipped just in recent weeks.

BORGER: Yes, it is. And you have to say it's about his re-election but, you know, what this, if you take a step back, Wolf, what this is, is about co-opting the Republican establishment. That picture of Chuck Grassley smiling next to Donald Trump saying, of course it would be so smart. I'm so smart to accept this, you know, endorsement. Is Trump co-opting people?

And with Grassley standing there, you can look at that and say, oh, look. He's got the support of one of the key people in the United States Senate. Wait a minute. That's, you know, that's okay. And then what do other senators do? Do they fall in line behind Donald Trump because they're worried?

I mean, what happens next is that Donald Trump's agenda could become their agenda. And a lot of them don't want it because his agenda is one thing, re-litigating 2020. Their agenda is running against Joe Biden on immigration, on spending, you name it. But now with this, it's becoming the Trump agenda and that can motivate Democrats actually to get out and vote.

BLITZER: Jeffrey, what do you think?

TOOBIN: Well, I just, you know, with respect to Governor Kasich, I just think this is the Republican Party today. There are a few outcasts like the former governor, like Liz Cheney. But the entire party is falling in behind Donald Trump.

It is not like there is some internal battle going on. They are all lining up behind this anti-democratic agenda and I think we need to be open -- you know, we need to have our eyes open about this. It is just -- it is everywhere in the Republican Party. And that's just the risk we face as we go to '22 and '24.

BLITZER: Go ahead, Governor Kasich.

KASICH: Wolf, my eyes are very open about what this is all about and I have to again say, when there was pressure put on people in Pennsylvania, in Georgia, they just had an election, re-election count in Arizona. Nothing came of it. That isn't to say that we shouldn't watch, we shouldn't keep our eyes open. Of course we should.

One other point I need to make before we go, and that is Bill Maher just doesn't -- didn't talk about this. He's been talking the last few weeks about the fact that if the Democrats don't get their act together, and have an agenda that reflects the values of the people, that they are helping the Republicans to have an overwhelming election in 2022.

So, you know, this is all very interesting and -- but we got to keep our eye on it. I don't disagree with Jeff on that, but I think America is going to be okay.

BLITZER: We're going to have a lot more on the Democrats' agenda and what the president is doing. Kaitlan Collins is standing by live. We'll get to that shortly. All right, guys, thank you very, very much.

We're also following explosive new allegations by a capitol police whistleblower of leadership failure surrounding the January 6th insurrection. CNN law enforcement correspondent Whitney Wild is joining us with details. Whitney, so what is this whistleblower saying?

WHITNEY WILD, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT CORRESPONDENT: Well, the letter obtained by CNN and first reported by "Politico" claims that two of the top U.S. capitol police officers failed to act on January 6th as violence unfolded. The letter also says former Acting Chief Yogananda Pittman lied to Congress earlier this year.

The whistleblower says in this letter that there a high ranking officer with 31 years at capitol police. This person came forward because Assistant Chief Yogananda Pittman and Acting Assistant Chief Sean Gallagher played a role in disciplining officers for actions on January 6th.

But this whistleblower feels they were never personally held fully accountable. Some of the allegations mirrored conclusions of other reports, but this letter takes particular aim at Pittman and Gallagher and accuses Congress of failing to investigate their missteps, Wolf.

BLITZER: Whitney, one major issue raised is the allegation that Assistant Chief Pittman hasn't been honest about how the threat, the intelligence was shared.

WILD: That's right. Specifically the whistleblower is taking issue with what she told Senate investigators when she was acting chief. She is now assistant chief, was acting chief for several months after the insurrection. Now, according to a Senate report, Pittman said that the department had intelligence that showed as early as December 21st, people were commenting on a blog about confronting lawmakers about bringing weapons to the rally on January 6th.


She said that information was shared with command staff. The whistleblower says that is not true. Here's a quote from the letter. "Never shared it with the rest of the department, particularly those commanders with real operational experience. If provided, this information would have changed the paradigm of that day." A spokesman denied to "Politico" that Pittman lied to Congress, Wolf.

BLITZER: What else, Whitney, did this whistleblower say?

WILD: Well, another significant allegation is that once the fighting broke out, neither Pittman nor Gallagher took significant action. The whistleblower claims to have been inside the command center for some time on January 6th and said, "What I observed was them mostly sitting there, blankly looking at the T.V. screens showing real time footage of the officers and officials fighting for the Congress."

A law enforcement source defended these two officials saying they were focused on protecting lawmakers and reminded us that in the end, not one member of Congress was hurt. Overall, the capitol police executive team told CNN a lot has changed since January 6th and many of the problems outlined in that letter have been addressed under the new police chief Tom Manger, Wolf.

BLITZER: Whitney Wild there reporting for us. Thank you, Whitney, very much. Coming up, a new way to fight COVID-19 that's proven so effective, the drug trial has been stopped and now the maker is asking for emergency use authorization for a pill.



BLITZER: Tonight, the numbers of COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths are declining across the United States, increasing hope that the country may be turning the corner in the devastating pandemic that's claimed more than 700,000 American lives.

Let's discuss with Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. Dr. Jha, thank you so much for joining us. So all these major COVID metrics here in the U.S., they seem to be heading in the right direction. Are you optimistic, DR. Jha that things really are getting better, that we won't see another major surge as the weather gets colder?

ASHISH JHA, DEAN, BROWN UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HHEALTH: Yes, Wolf, first, thanks for having me back. You know, I think we are clearly seeing declining metrics and thank goodness. And I think it's driven in large part by the horrible surge that we saw across the south really turn around.

There are still parts of the country that concern me as we get into the winter months. Certainly the upper Midwest, Great Plains states have low vaccination rates. I think those are troubling. Here in New England, I'm hoping we're going to do okay because we have much higher vaccination rates, but nobody is completely out of the woods yet. We still have more work to do.

BLITZER: Vaccinations as you know here in the U.S., they are on the rise but that's primarily being driven by people getting their booster doses, not necessarily their first or second dose. Are you worried, Dr. Jha that the Americans who need a shot the most, we're talking about the unvaccinated, still aren't getting them?

JHA: Yes. Look, first and foremost I'm pleased to see people getting boosters, I think, especially vulnerable people need them. But you're right, Wolf, that what is absolutely essential if we're going to put this pandemic behind us is getting more people their first shot. As you know, there are about 70 million Americans who are eligible who have not gotten it. That number is rising too slowly. I'm hoping mandates, as they kick in, will drive those numbers, but that's really going to be critical to watch.

BLITZER: Let me get your thoughts also, Dr. Jha, on this new COVID treatment pill from Merck which has just submitted to the FDA authorization, emergency use authorization they are seeking. What's your message to unvaccinated Americans who would rather simply take this new pill than go out and get the shot?

JHA: Well, first of all, let's be honest. The pill is good, like I'm happy. Again, we haven't seen the full data, but it does seem to reduce hospitalizations by 50 percent. That's great. You know, vaccines prevent infection and prevent and reduce hospitalizations probably by 95-plus percent.

So it's a whole different ball of wax, as it were. The vaccines are really the path out of the pandemic for breakthrough infections, for people whose immune systems doesn't hold up. The pill is an important tool. It's not a substitute for the vaccine.

BLITZER: Almost all of the people who are hospitalized or god forbid, who die are unvaccinated Americans. The FDA advisers are meeting this week, Dr. Jha, to consider booster doses for Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, as well as potentially mixing and matching different vaccines. Do you think Americans will be allowed to take a different vaccine booster than the one they originally received?

JHA: Yes. We'll see what the data is that the FDA reviews. There are a lot of good immunologic reasons to believe that mixing and matching maybe quite a good thing to do, but we haven't seen the data. And again, we want to be driven by data here. So, I think we'll know a lot more by the end of the week and I'm hopeful that the data will show that it's a pretty reasonable approach.

BLITZER: I think you're -- I hope you're right indeed. All right, Dr. Jha, thanks as usual for joining us.

Next hour, by the way, we'll get more on all the late-breaking COVID news with Dr. Anthony Fauci. He's standing by to join us live here in "The Situation Room."

Up next, new signs of the growing political cost as President Biden's agenda remains stalled and Democratic moderates and progressives simply can't iron out their differences.



BLITZER: Tomorrow, The House of Representatives is expected to approve a temporary increase in the national debt ceiling. While that will avert a national economic crisis, the president's domestic agenda is stalled in Congress and now lack of action is taking a toll on his approval rating. CNN's Jessica Dean is monitoring the situation up on Capitol Hill.

But let's go to the White House. Our chief White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins is joining us. Kaitlan, does the White House see this potentially as a make or break stretch for the Biden agenda?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, I think they've realized that there is a lot riding on the line right now because the way Congress solved that debt ceiling problem last week is just temporary and it only delays it by a few months. And now it's going to come up against deadlines for government funding but also those deadlines for the president's domestic agenda and getting that passed.

And that of course is going to continue to be the White House's primary focus as Democrats have still not reconciled their differences over this. And that is really still going to be a challenge going into this week for the White House and for the president which is what is going to be -- what it's going to take to get Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Joe Manchin, Senator Kyrsten Sinema all on the same page when it comes to passing the president's domestic agenda.

Of course, that's going to be a critical period for that, in addition to those other two challenges that they are now going to be juggling essentially all at the same time, Wolf.

And so that is really going to be the focus of the White House because this, of course, they are worried that if they do not get that passed it could have long-term political implications for the Democratic Party in addition to, of course, the president's agenda or his legacy, Wolf.

But it's also having short-term implications when you look at his poll numbers. Because President Biden came into office and enjoyed an initial burst of public support.

Now you look at the numbers, the CNN poll of polls, which is a combination of all the major polls, you see the president's approval rating is at 45 percent. In a Quinnipiac poll last week, it was around 38 percent.

When you talk to White House officials and they say those are numbers that will take care of themselves as they are working out differences within the Democratic Party.

Of course, Wolf, it does count on working out those differences within the Democratic Party.

And that's a big challenge that's facing this White House, of course, in the week ahead. It's going to be a very critical period for his presidency.

BLITZER: Critical moment right now. No doubt about that.

Kaitlan, thank you.

I want to go to Capitol Hill right now. Our congressional correspondent, Jessica Dean, is joining us.

Jessica, there's a key vote tomorrow on the debt ceiling. But for the rest of the president's agenda, there are still major divisions within the president's own Democratic Party. Give us the latest.

JESSICA DEAN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Let's start with that debt ceiling vote. We know the House is coming back from its recess. That is expected to vote and get us into December.

But in the meantime, they're going to have to figure out how they proceed forward after December. The Democrats still don't -- still refusing to take the path Republicans want them to take.

And Republicans still saying they will not help them and we are leaving this compromise that they came to, to extend it with them, even more entrenched than where they began.

So that is going to kick that can down the road until December. But you can bet that's going to become a bigger and bigger issue.

This, as Democrats are trying to zero in to get President Biden's legislative agenda over the finish line. And they are trying hard with the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is hoping to get that voted on by October 31st. A reminder, that's already passed the Senate. Once the House gets that through, it can go to the president a desk.

The question is, can she get the votes? And what's hanging that up?

It's the second part of the president's agenda. It's that economic package, that massive economic package, the Build Back Better Act. Right now, as Kaitlan was alluding to, they don't even have a top-line

number for that. They started at $3.5 trillion. Joe Manchin said he wanted $1.5 trillion. And they are trying to go back and forth over what that number is.

And that's impacting what is in the bill. Wolf, I've talked to a number of lawmakers in the last several days, a number of Senators who have their various projects they want in there.

Things like the child tax credit. Things like paid family leave. Expanding Medicare benefits and Medicaid to states that haven expanded that yet.

So there are a lot of items they want to get in this bill. And the number is likely to shrink from where it began. So now they have to get to the point of what gets in and how.

And, Wolf, they have to get this all done in a short amount of time. It's a heavy lift.

BLITZER: They don't have much time left.

Jessica, thank you.

The president's stalled agenda here in Washington is creating strong headwinds for the Democrat in the Virginia governor's race.

Former Governor Terry McAuliffe is trying for another term but polls show he's in a tight race with the Republican businessman, Glenn Youngkin.

Early voting is under way and Election Day is three weeks from tomorrow.

Let's bring in CNN political director, David Chalian.

David, the race isn't just critical in Virginia. It has enormous ratifications for the Democratic Party.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: This is the first big test before voters about the Biden agenda, the political landscape in the country.

And you know, if Terry McAuliffe loses this race in a state that has been trending more Democratic in recent years, that's going to send real alarm bells inside the Democratic Party heading into next year's midterm elections.

This should be a winnable race. But the stalled agenda in Washington is clearly of concern to McAuliffe in Virginia.

BLITZER: The whole notion, the whole notion of coronavirus clearly as a major political impact on the race in Virginia and elsewhere as well. But how is it specifically playing out in Virginia?

CHALIAN: We see it playing out in the two different approaches the candidates have.

So McAuliffe, you may recall, Gavin Newsom in California leaned into vaccine mandates and mask mandates and that worked. Those are very popular.

They're popular in Virginia as well. You see McAuliffe leaning into that.

Youngkin, for his part, is saying, I got vaccinated. All Virginians should get vaccinated, But he won't go so far as to call for a mandate. McAuliffe sees that as a potential opening in a state like Virginia.


BLITZER: We have a clip from Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate. Let me play it.



DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: You're frustrated with your own party. Are they dragging you down?

TERRY MCAULIFFE, (D), VIRGINIA GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE & FORMER GOVERNOR; It's not dragging me down. I worry about the people of Virginia.

BASH: Your race --


MCAULIFFE: I want to -- are they are making it harder for you?

MCAULIFFE: Hard or not, people understand what I am doing. My plans, my 20 big plans to take Virginia to the next level. They'll vote for me. But there's frustration, you know, all over the country. We just want action.


BLITZER: He suggested a few days earlier that Biden was sort of a burden in his bid to win this election. But he seemed to try to walk that back a bit yesterday.

CHALIAN: What you saw was, it was on a Zoom and he thought it wasn't public. But he was talking with campaign supporters.

He noted Biden is unpopular in Virginia. His numbers are upside down. Biden's numbers are upside down nationally as well. More disapprove of Biden than approve of him right now.

What you saw there was a candidate soft shoe. He didn't want to repeat the words and take on his president, you're unpopular.

But he does consistently note he's facing real headwinds.

And not having the deliverables to go back and say to Democrats, this is what Biden and the Democrats have done in Congress, is posing a challenge at this moment for Terry McAuliffe.

BLITZER: Is the Republican Candidate Glenn Youngkin running sort of on Trump's playbook?

CHALIAN: I don't think he'd describe it that way. McAuliffe wants to try and portray Youngkin as a Trump carbon copy.

Youngkin has to walk a fine line here, as do all Republicans in purple or blue states because it is a Trump-dominated Republican Party. And they need to do nothing to alienate that Trump-supporting base. And yet they need to expand beyond that.

Youngkin has said he wants to be for Trumpers, Never Trumpers and moderate Democrats.

But in the primary, Youngkin talked about an election integrity and called into question -- even recently called for an audit of the 2020 election.

That gives McAuliffe a huge opening to attach him to Trump and the Big Lie.

For Youngkin's part, he's trying to focus more on issues that he thinks has appeals in the middle, like talking about this issue about parents being very concerned about what's happening in their kids' schools.

McAuliffe, in a recent debate, said parents shouldn't be involved in the curriculum in schools. And of course, he's been under the gun for that in the last couple of weeks.

Youngkin has seized on that and sees that as a conversation of that can keep the Trump base engaged but also broaden to get some of those Independents and moderates.

BLITZER: The Virginia contest will have national ramifications.

CHALIAN: No doubt.

BLITZER: David Chalian, thank you very much.

David Chalian helping us, as always.

Just ahead, an update on what happened during the first U.S. talks with Taliban officials since the Afghanistan withdrawal?

And we're also standing by to speak with Dr. Anthony Fauci about this week's crucial meetings on expanding booster shots here in the U.S.


[17:41:58] BLITZER: We're following truly soaring tensions right now between China and Taiwan.

I want to go to our Will Ripley, who is joining us from Taiwan.

Will, this confrontation poses potentially a huge threat of drawing in the United States, doesn't it?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. This island is potential a flash point for what their president calls a fight between authoritarian China and democratic Taiwan, ally with the United States.


RIPLEY (voice over): Taiwan's growing arsenal on full display at this weekend's National Day Parade.

To defend against a growing threat from China, this small island is spending big on weapons, many made in the U.S.A.

F-16 fighters, Patriot missiles -- $5 billion in U.S. weapons sold to Taiwan last year.


RIPLEY: Taiwan arm sales skyrocketed during the Trump years.

The former President's hardline stance against China, one of the few Trump-era policies embraced by President Joe Biden.

Defending Taiwan's democracy against authoritarian China has rare bipartisan support.

Some worry Washington politics may be provoking Beijing, even pushing Taiwan and the U.S. into dangerous territory.

JESSICA LEVINSON, PROFESSOR OF LAW, LOYOLA LAW SCHOOL: If you do take steps to look like you are aggressively defending Taiwan, then you arguably put them in a more vulnerable position. You arguably, again, irritate China.

RIPLEY: Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen says the island is on the front lines of a much bigger battle.

TSAI ING-WEN, TAIWANESE PRESIDENT (through translation): Free and democratic countries have been alerted to the expansion of authoritarianism. And Taiwan is on the forefront of the defense line of fellow democracies.

RIPLEY: China set a record 150 warplanes near Taiwan in just five days this month.

Biden's balancing act? Calming prostrate tensions, defending democracy, and preventing a conflict that could cost American lives. JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I've spoken with Xi about


LEVINSON: I think Taiwan really presents a challenge to any American presidential administration because you're trying to balance competing interests.

RIPLEY (on camera): This is an extraordinary sight. Four kinds of domestically produced missiles rolling through the capital in front of Taiwan's presidential palace, an ominous sign of escalating regional tensions.


RIPLEY (voice over): Every Chinese leader since Mao has vowed to take control of Taiwan. Analysts say President Xi Jinping may be the first with a military mighty enough to do it, even as he calls for peaceful reunification.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translation): Whoever wins Taiwan wins the world.

RIPLEY (voice over): China is locked in territorial disputes across the Indo-Pacific region. Taiwan, Beijing's biggest unresolved issue, and some say, Biden's biggest test.



RIPLEY: And for the first time in more than 70 years, some analysts say the People's Liberation Army is posing the most significant challenge yet to U.S. military supremacy in the Indo-Pacific.

And you are seeing not just a Chinese military build-up but Australia being deployed with nuclear submarines in the coming years.

You also have Japan deploying missiles to its outlying islands just 100 miles from Taiwan.

It's clear, Wolf, that all of the allies of the U.S. in this region, as they conduct naval exercises and keep in a state of readiness, are watching closely to see what happens with cross-strait relations.

BLITZER: This is really, really a critical moment. We'll sadly be hearing a lot more about this in the coming weeks and months.

We'll stay in close touch with you, Will.

Thank you, Will Ripley, reporting live from Taiwan.

Other important international news. For the first time since the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, senior officials from the United States and the Taliban actually held direct face-to-face talks over the weekend in Doha, Qatar.

CNN's Clarissa Ward is monitoring all the late-breaking developments from Pakistan for us.

So what more are you learning, Clarissa?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, according to the State Department, the talks were candid.

They did say, however, that the Taliban will be judged, Wolf, not by their words or not only by their words, but by their actions. And that's the key thing.

Some of the main issues, of course, they were discussing were the evacuation of the remaining Americans inside Afghanistan, estimated to be in the dozens. Difficult to get an exact number.

The Taliban did release a statement via one of their leaders saying they would facilitate the movement of Americans.

They also underscored the need for humanitarian aid.

For the Taliban, this is the big focus of those talks, trying to get some of that aid unfrozen, trying to get some of that funding back again, which is so desperately needed.

The U.S. also brought up the topic of Afghan allies of the U.S. trying to facilitate their departure. No response from the Taliban on that one.

But I will say, Wolf, having just spent two weeks inside Afghanistan, not a day went by when I did not get approached by Afghans who worked with the Americans, who have already been approved for their special immigration visa, and who have yet not been able to leave the country.

So remains to be seen if there will be any resolution, Wolf, on that issue.

BLITZER: Things are critically important.

Clarissa, we'll stay in close touch with you.

Clarissa Ward reporting for us.

Coming up, passengers stranded at airports across the United States after Southwest cancels thousands of flights. So what's behind this airline meltdown?



BLITZER: Just into CNN, Southwest Airlines now says the wave of more than 2,000 flight cancellations is the result of quote, "weather and other external constraints, not employee concerns over COVID vaccine mandates."

CNN aviation correspondent, Pete Muntean, has the latest from Reagan National Airport. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PETE MUNTEAN, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Southwest Airlines is only starting to emerge from a weekend of widespread delays, stranding thousands of passengers nationwide.

The carrier canceled 800 flights on Saturday, 1,100 on Sunday and another 360 flights on Monday.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's no explanation for this problem. So I suspect Southwest isn't being totally honest with us.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've been worried about it for the past 24 hours. Literally couldn't sleep last night because we didn't know what was going to happen.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Started looking through and there's nothing, nothing, nothing for the next few days. Just really anxious to get home now.


MUNTEAN: Anthony Scott was stranded overnight in Baltimore when Southwest cancelled his flight home to Birmingham.

The airline blamed compounding problems first caused by air traffic control and weather issues dating back to Friday.

SCOTT: That's a hard story to believe.

MUNTEAN: In an international memo, Southwest apologized to employees, saying "an unexpected number of delays led to a staffing shortage" with workers and planes scattered out of position.

The airline acknowledged, in some cases, flight crews were left without hotel rooms.


MUNTEAN: Captain Casey Murray heads the union representing Southwest pilots, which said the airline has become brittle and subject to massive failures under the slightest pressure.

Data shows Southwest has 7,000 fewer workers than before the pandemic.

MURRAY: We want to see Southwest not continue to make the same failures that we've seen for a few years now, but especially over the summer and this past weekend.

MUNTEAN: Southwest insists it has an aggressive hiring plan, but that is not enough for the passengers who reported hours long hold times trying to get through to customer service.

Anthony Scott says he was a longtime customer but has now left with a Southwest credit to use. SCOTT: I'm not sure that I would. You know, this is a very frustrating



MUNTEAN: Southwest Airlines just issued a new statement. It says it extends a tremendous apology to its customers.

It is also underscoring that these problems were not the result of employee protests over its new vaccine mandate -- Wolf?

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

Pete Muntean reporting for us.


Coming up, how former President Trump is putting American democracy increasingly in peril as he steps up his efforts to spread his Big Lie about a stolen election.


BLITZER: Happening now, former President Trump and his Republican enablers pour new fuel on his lies about the 2020 election. Alarming defenders of democracy who are growing increasingly worried about a repeat in 2024.

Also tonight, the U.S. may soon get a new weapon against COVID-19. Merck now asking the FDA to authorize its promising antiviral pill.


I'll ask Dr. Anthony Fauci about that and the state of the pandemic as cases, hospitalizations and deaths here in the United States decline.

And an intriguing new spy saga.