Return to Transcripts main page

The Situation Room

Charlottesville Jury Awards Plaintiffs More Than $26 Million In White Supremacist Rally Case; Jury deliberates Under Way In Killing Of Ahmaud Arbery; Prosecutors Reveal Sixth Death In Attack On Parade As Wisconsin Suspect Appears In Court; January 6 Committee Subpoenas Far- Right Extremist Groups, Including Proud Boys And Oath Keepers; Biden To Release 50M Barrels From Strategic Oil Reserves Ahead Of Holiday Travel Season; Lawmakers Describe "Toxic: Environment In Congress Amid Threats, Violent Videos And Safety Concerns; Top U.S. General Speaks With Russian Counterpart Amid Concerns Over Russian Troop Buildup Near Ukraine. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired November 23, 2021 - 17:00   ET



KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And because the owner will want, versatility he or she can carefully pop out the Empire diamond from the necklace and mounted onto a ring. A deputy jeweler will be on call to help whenever the owner requires that particular service. I'll make sure they have me on speed dial.

And that's it for the lead today. I'm Kaitlan Collins, in for Jake Tapper. Our coverage continues right now over in THE SITUATION ROOM.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF DOMESTIC CORRESPONDENT: Happening now, breaking news, a jury in Charlottesville, Virginia orders the white supremacist organizers behind the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally to pay millions in damages to nine plaintiffs.

Also tonight, we're standing by for a verdict and trial of three men shield charged with killing Ahmaud Arbery. The prosecution making a strong rebuttal today before putting the case in the hands of the jury.

And President Biden is taking on soaring gas prices, releasing 50 million barrels of oil from the strategic reserve. Will it make any difference at the pump and time for holiday travel?

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 get right to the breaking news, the verdicts in the civil case against organizers of the United Right Rally back in 2017. CNN's Brian Todd is in Charlottesville.

Brian, what did the jury say?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is a devastating financial blow to some of the most notorious white supremacist and white nationalist groups in the country, Jim. The plaintiff's attorney is declaring unequivocal victory and I think this sends a clear message to anyone who comes to a town like Charlottesville to deliver messages of hatred.


TODD (voice-over): Tonight, the jury awarded the plaintiffs in the Unite the Right trial more than $26 million in compensatory and punitive damages on several claims. Among them, finding five defendants were liable for racial, religious or ethnic harassment or violence under a Virginia state law, and that all the defendants participated in a conspiracy.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think this verdict today is a message that this country does not tolerate violence based on racial and religious hatred in any form.

TODD (voice-over): In addition, James Alex Fields Jr., the driver of the car that plowed into the crowd of counter protesters killing one and injuring dozens, was found liable for more than $12 million for assault or battery and for inflicting emotional distress.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's going to be accountability for the people who did this.

TODD (voice-over): More than half of the damages against Fields, the rest spread among various defendants from the white nationalist movement.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If the defendants in the case are destitute, none of them have any money, I don't know how any of the plaintiffs are going to get anything for any of this.

TODD (voice-over): The jury was deadlocked on the first two claims that organizers conspired to commit racial violence or failed to prevent it. The evidence included victim testimony about the injuries they sustained for brawling at the rally and Fields's car that ran through the crowd and private communications allegedly showing organizers discussing the potential for violence, quote, "cracking skulls," and even whether it's legal to drive into protesters.

But the defendants said they didn't plan the violence. It wasn't their fault. And that what they said before the rally was hyperbole and is protected free speech.

The damages awarded by the jury mean a judgment against some of America's most notorious white nationalists, including Richard Spencer, Jason Kessler and Christopher Cantwell. The damages will go to the plaintiffs who include some of those most severely injured in the car ramming and the brawling.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think we did a decent job on the defense side, cutting the damages down to size, even though it is many millions of dollars.

TODD (voice-over): This civil trial, an effort by activists to financially cripple the white nationalist movement.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good sets a precedent, which is if you conspire to commit violent acts, especially on racial grounds, you should expect that plaintiffs will file suit against you under these federal and state laws in the future. And so the trial in that way is a deterrent against future white supremacist conduct of the kind that we saw in Charlottesville in August 2017.


TODD: Now the attorneys for defendants, at least two of the attorneys for the defendants have told us a short time ago that they are going to try to reduce the amount of damages, to reduce those dollar amounts assessed to their clients. In this case, some of these people, these white supremacist have already been financially crippled by this and other similar lawsuits. But this is not over for many of them, because the plaintiff's attorneys also told us that on those two counts, that they could not reach verdicts on those two counts of conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence. Those federal counts, they are going to try to bring those cases again, Jim, so they're going to keep going after these people.

ACOSTA: A bad day for people who spread hate and violence.

Brian Todd, thanks so much for that report in Charlottesville.

I also want to bring in CNN's Elle Reeve.

Elle, as someone who was there back in 2017 reporting on these rallies, witnessing the hate firsthand, I wanted to get your reaction to these verdicts What did you think?


ELLE REEVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, so the Unite the Right rally really meant to unite the right, to bring together mainstream groups with hardcore Neo Nazis. But there's a divide between those groups, the older groups the hard right, they had a lot more experience organizing in real space. So they didn't go to the torch march because it didn't have a permit, and they thought that would spare them from the conspiracy charge, but it didn't. The jury hit every single person who was involved.

The other thing that it revealed was that the plaintiffs wanted to argue that all of their online organizing all of their jokes, all of their banter, that was just having fun, it wasn't actually a conspiracy. And the jury said no, all of those jokes about killing people, about the Holocaust that constituted plans to do violence in Charlottesville.

ACOSTA: All right, Elle Reeve, thank you very much for that perspective.

Let's discuss with the president the NAACP, Derrick Johnson. We're also joined by CNN Legal Analyst, Elliot Williams.

Derrick and Elliot, thanks so much for being with us.

Derrick, what's your reaction to this verdict today?

DERRICK JOHNSON, NAACP PRESIDENT: Of course it's important, because we know from our African American experience, if you allow white supremacists domestic terrorism to continue without any accountability, you can be assured to have more terror in communities across the country. So finally, we're seeing verdicts like this orders a civil trial. And a civil trial of the burden of proof is lower, but more importantly, they will be held accountable. So I think that's most important in this moment.

ACOSTA: And Elliot, what do you make of this verdict? And what does it say that the jury deadlocked on two of these most serious federal charges in the case?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, OK, let's start with that question. Well, number one, they deadlock in the two federal charges, but it bears mentioning that on the other charges, which were there Virginia State law charges, the law is incredibly clear on this under Virginia law.

Just a quick word on how the law works, in federal courts, state law will govern, depending on where the court is Virginia law is very clear on this. So, let's not focus on those two deadlock case. And frankly, you know, we don't know if it was one juror or, you know, or if none of them could agree. So, I wouldn't fixate on that as much as the fact that this is, as Mr. Johnson had said, a profound statement for people who are going to commit acts of hate and terror in the United States.

Now look, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI and Department of Homeland Security have said that domestic terrorism remains the greatest threat that continues to confront the United States. And so, it is quite significant that -- for in spectacular fashion, people who have worked together and conspired to commit these acts are going to be held accountable. So this is a big deal.

ACOSTA: It's a very big deal. I mean, it's a very big dollar figure, Derrick, some of the nation's most prominent white supremacist leaders and groups are now liable for more than $26 million in damages. How is important -- how important is it for them to face this kind of accountability?

JOHNSON: That's really important. You know, one of the strategies used in the late '70s, (INAUDIBLE) who perfected it was going after white supremacist groups and bankrupted by no credit bankruptcy, it paralyzed their activities. We must be as aggressive now against these groups than more than ever before.

The Republican Party has allowed these groups to exist within their party. It is now being debated whether or not to push to protect rights to votes and white supremacy behavior is somehow, you know, OK by one of the major political parties in this country.

And I'm going to keep talking about the Republican Party, because the past administration having white supremacists live in the White House, operate from the White House, allowed for the message to germinate from the White House started in Charlottesville. We began to see a spread across the country, whether it was in Pittsburgh, or Louisville, on Wisconsin. We must as a nation hold individuals who are domestic terrorist accountable or will facing another January 6. We can -- our democracy cannot afford that again.

ACOSTA: You're right. And Elliot, how far could this go in hindering some of these hate groups? Is this going to slam the brakes on some of the groups that we saw involved in the Unite the Right rally?

WILLIAMS: Look, we keep hearing the word statement today. And it's very clear that if someone is a member of a hate group or these groups, that if you try to coordinate together and commit acts of terror, you can be sued by groups of plaintiffs. And so, to the extent that -- look, I'm not a member of a hate group, so I don't know what exactly will deter them.

It's quite significant that you could end up with a multimillion dollar settlement. So, to the extent they are rational actors, yes, this is a profoundly big deal and ought to deter people from engaging in these kinds of terrible acts.

ACOSTA: All right, let's hope so. Elliot Williams, Derrick Johnson, thank you very much for that perspective. We appreciate it.

Coming up, we'll have a live report from the courthouse in Brunswick, Georgia where jury deliberations are under weigh on the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.



ACOSTA: We're following all the news out of Brunswick, Georgia this evening where the fate of three men charged with killing Ahmaud Arbery is now in the hands of a jury. CNN's Martin Savidge is standing by for us outside the courthouse.

Martin, the jury began their deliberations this morning. Give us the latest.

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Jim, yes, the jury has been deliberating a little over five hours. We have not heard of any communications or questions that they have. We have heard that they have worked through lunch. And we definitely know they've got a lot to go over.


SAVIDGE (voice-over): Tonight, the jury deliberating the fate of the three men accused of killing a black man running through a coastal Georgia neighborhood last year.


SAVIDGE (voice-over): Judge Timothy Walmsley placing the controversial case into the hands of a jury, 11 of whom are white, just one African American.

WALMSLEY: So with that, ladies and gentlemen, I ask that you retired the jury room.

SAVIDGE (voice-over): The prosecution getting the final say retelling how an armed father and son, Gregory and Travis McMichael, aided by a neighbor, William "Roddie" Bryan, pursued 25 year old Ahmaud Arbery, eventually cornering and killing him. The final moments caught on video.

LINDA DUNIKOSKI, LEAD PROSECUTOR: You can't force someone to defend themselves against you so you get to claim self-defense. This isn't the Wild West.

SAVIDGE (voice-over): Defense lawyers say the member attempting as citizen's arrest after Arbery was seen several times trespassing inside of a home under construction. It turned deadly, they say, when Arbery attack Travis McMichael as he was pointing a shotgun at him, and Travis says he shot in self-defense. The prosecution pushing back saying the man that day never told police they were attempting a citizen's arrest.

DUNIKOSKI: The defendants never ever said citizen's arrest. They never ever said, we're making an arrest. They never said, we saw him committed crime. So ladies and gentlemen, where are the road to citizen's arrest think come from? Because it didn't come from the defendants on February 23, 2020.

SAVIDGE (voice-over): And the state argued self-defense was not an option since the father and son initiated the chase, saying an arm Travis McMichael in a truck never really feared and unarmed Arbery.

DUNIKOSKI: There's no fear here. There's only anger. Do you really believe he had no other choice but to use a shotgun?

SAVIDGE (voice-over): The state arguing if any one of the defendants had not taken part in any of these crimes, Ahmaud Arbery could still be alive, and that his race was a motivating factor.

DUNIKOSKI: What's your emergency is a black man running down the street.

SAVIDGE (voice-over): Both Arbery's family and defense attorney said they have faith in the jury.

LEE MERRITT, WANDA COOPER-JONES' ATTORNEY: And we're confident that this jury will seriously consider all the evidence and come back with a verdict that is reflective of what actually happened, which is the brutal and unjustified murder of Ahmaud Arbery.

JASON SHEFFIELD, DEFENSE ATTORNEY FOR TRAVIS MCMICHAEL: We feel very confident in the evidence and Travis's innocence. And now we'll see what the jury feels is justice, and we will accept the verdict whatever it is. Thank you.


SAVIDGE: It is unclear exactly how long the jury plans to deliberate into the night. It's quite likely that the judge will let them go as long as they wish, especially with the impending holiday coming up on Thursday.

Meanwhile, a prayer vigil is getting set to get underway. The community of Brunswick knows that regardless of the outcome of this trial, it will have to try and live with it. Jim.

ACOSTA: Absolutely. We know you'll be there to cover it.

Martin Savidge, thanks very much for that report.

For more on the trial, I want to bring in CNN Legal Analyst Areva Martin and Defense Attorney Shan Wu. Thanks so much to both of you for being with us.

Areva, let me start with you first. The prosecutor said this is about the facts, not whether the defendants are good or bad people. How effective was that closing argument in your view?

AREVA MARTIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Jim, I thought the prosecutors or closing argument both her initial argument and her rebuttal were masterful, actually a class and how to do a closing argument, powerful, persuasive, logical. And one thing she did really well was to make her arguments plain, make them simple and make them relatable for this jury.

And saying that this isn't about whether someone's good or bad I thought was important, particularly in light of what we saw yesterday with Laura Hogue, the attorney for Greg McMichael, she tried to ingratiate herself to the jury by telling stories of her father being an insurance salesman and then she went on attack on a mod, you know, accusing him of being some kind of nefarious individual that was in this neighborhood where he didn't belong. And I thought what we saw today by the lead prosecutor was, you know, her letting this jury know that indeed it's the narrative that she's been putting forth. And the evidence that is what should resonate with this jury.

I just think she did an outstanding job of really shooting down this theory that there was some reliance on citizen's arrest or even at that law that's affirmative defense applies in this case. She made it very clear that these defendants had no knowledge of -- immediate knowledge of a crime being committed, no crime occurred in their presence, therefore, citizen's arrest doesn't apply. And if you don't have citizen's arrest, you don't get to self-defense.

ACOSTA: And Shan, this jury has to consider three different men, three different roles in the killing, each facing nine charges, we have them up on screen right now. How complicated are these deliberations having to sort through all of that? SHAN WU, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: They could be complicated, Jim, but I agree with Areva, the prosecutor has done a very good job at making it very simple for the jury. She talked about how to use the verdict form to start with the underlying tone is, which is what you need to find to get you to the felony murder. So, I think even though there are three different defendants, I mean, query the wisdom of defendants in choosing to be tried together because there's a certain atmospheric taint to that.


But even though there are three different defendants with three different roles I think she has spelled out quite easily how the evidence goes to each person, and the idea that like her bank robbery analogy, a look out person is just as guilty of the shooting that may go on inside the bank as the shooter is. So I think she's done a good job with that.

And I think the case has gone in well, for the prosecution. I wouldn't expect this to be a long verdict. And you'll also have the added pressure of a holiday, that jury is working through lunch, they're anxious to get at it.

ACOSTA: And Areva, do we expect a lengthy deliberations? What do you think?

MARTIN: I don't think so. I agree with Shan. I think, you know, these jurors are, you know, they're humans, they have families, they have big dinners that they want to get to. I would expect them to go as late as they can today, maybe past 6:00 or 7:00. And if they don't come to a decision by this evening, to be back in court early tomorrow morning. But I wouldn't be surprised if they go past 5:00 or 6:00 tomorrow evening.

Now the Court has said that if they don't reach a decision by tomorrow, he will give them Thanksgiving off, but they will be back in court on Friday. And knowing what I know about jurors, if there is agreement that can be reached, it's likely to be done tomorrow rather than on Friday or thereafter.

ACOSTA: Yes. And Shan, speaking of the jury and the make of the jury, 11 White jurors, one African American juror, at the end of the day, what is your sense as to whether or not this is going to make a difference?

WU: Yes, I think -- it was a big strategy question, I think for the prosecution as to how much weight to give that. I and others have been critical that they didn't raise race as a motive for the murders. But I think the prosecutor has done a good job with that. I thought it was very, very powerful evidence.

In her closing, she mentioned that that 911 tape, what is your emergency, it's a black man running down the street. And I really think that may have been enough to do it.

I think as a prosecutor, you have to be careful about worrying so much about a jury possibly being biased that you start to tailor your case towards that. I think you have to trust in the jury, I mean you pick them wanting them to be fair. I don't think you can try your case assuming that you have a bunch of racists on the jury that aren't going to convict. You have to put in your evidence the best way you can.

So you know, 2020 hindsight, if it doesn't work out well, you know, we'll be wondering, maybe there should have been more evidence about the racial animus. But at this point, I think they've done a solid job.

ACOSTA: And Areva, your thoughts, because I mean, it seemed to times, I mean, obviously, the members of the defense team were trying to push people's buttons with some of these dog whistles that we heard during the trial. What do you think?

MARTIN: Yes, Jim, we heard a lot of dog whistles that, you know, we don't want any black pastors in the courtroom.

ACOSTA: Right.

MARTIN: And this is akin to a public lynching. Those kinds of statements were clearly dog whistle, you know, racist statements.

I agree with Shan, though the prosecution had a decision to make. You're in Georgia, you're not in New York, you're not in Los Angeles, and the way, you know, the issues of race may play out in bigger cities isn't necessarily the way it plays out in a small community in Georgia. And we have to keep in mind, there are federal hate crimes that all three of these defendants faces well, so the Confederate flag that was on the truck, the racial epithets that we have heard were made by one of the defendants. If there is not, and even if there is, you know, guilty verdicts.

In the state case, we know we're going to see a case played out in federal court that will expose all of the issues of racial animus. I think the prosecution made a good call to be measured in how she talked about race. She made it clear enough that there was no reason for this man to be chase other than the fact that he was a black man. I think that resonated with the jurors without having to beat it over the head over and over again. There was enough evidence, I think, to convict with the amount of evidence on race that has been presented by the prosecution.

ACOSTA: All right, Shan Wu, Areva Martin, thanks so much for those perspectives. We appreciate it.

WU: Good to see you, Jim.

ACOSTA: Good to see you. Thank you.

There's more breaking news ahead. A man accused of killing several people when he plowed his SUV into a Christmas parade just appeared in court.


ACOSTA: There's more breaking news this hour, Darrell Brooks, the man accused of driving his SUV into a Christmas parade and Waukesha, Wisconsin making his first court appearance right now. He faces charges in connection with the deaths of five people. And prosecutors just now revealed a sixth person has died. But charges have not been filed yet.

CNN's Adrienne Broaddus is in Waukesha for us.

Tell us more, Adrienne. Very, very sad news coming in.

ADRIENNE BROADDUS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, tough news indeed. This is not the outcome anyone had hoped for. Not only are we learning moments ago that a six person, a child has died, but the number of injured has increased from nearly 50 to now 62. And that's a number that could likely go up.

The accused is in court behind me right now. And prosecutors are asking for a $5 million cash bail.


BROADDUS (voice-over): As citizens rushed in to help the dying and injured along the Waukesha parade route, the man suspected of running them over was asking for help too.

New video obtained by CNN show suspect Darrell Brooks approaching a private home urgently asking for a ride.


DARRELL BROOKS, SUSPECT: I call some -- I called an Uber and I'm supposed to be waiting for it over here, but I don't know when it's coming. Can you call it for me, please?

BROADDUS (voice-over): The resident says he invited Brooks in, even gave him a sandwich without knowing the circumstances. Authority say the red SUV used to hurt so many had been left in a nearby backyard and police were now far behind.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you know this guy?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hands up. Put your hands where I can see them.


BROADDUS (voice-over): Brooks was taken into custody, adding to a long criminal history dating back to the 1990s. As recently as November 2nd, court document show Brooks used his car to hit a woman claiming to be the mother of his child. The criminal complaint alleges Brooks, "Intentionally and without consent, ran her over with his vehicle while she was walking through the parking lot of a gas station." CNN reached out to Brooks's attorney regarding the incident but hasn't received a response. Authority say at the moment, he raced his car through the parade route. Brooks was out on a $1,000 bail and driving away from another domestic disturbance.

At least 62 survivors remain injured, including badly wounded children.

RYAN KOHNKE, NIECE INJURED IN PARADE: My sister and her family is a part of the Waukesha dance extreme team. They had just passed us a few minutes prior.

BROADDUS (voice-over): Ryan Kohnke says his 11-year-old niece who was dancing in the parade is in intensive care with several serious injuries.

KOHNKE: She was laying in the middle of five corners, downtown Waukesha, (INAUDIBLE) her. And unfortunately my children were with me and they see it to.

BROADDUS (voice-over): A GoFundMe page for her says she, quote, is not fully aware of the severity of her injuries, but managed to say, quote, just glue me back together.


BROADDUS: And again, for those of you who may be just joining us at this hour, the 39-year-old suspect is still appearing before a judge at this hour. In the last few minutes, we learned a sixth person, a child has also died. The prosecutor telling the judge she intends to file additional charges. Jim?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN HOST: All right. And just before Thanksgiving, just so, so sad. Adrienne Broaddus, thank you very much for that report.

There's also breaking news here in Washington. The House Select Committee on the January 6th insurrection issued another round of subpoenas this afternoon. Let's go to CNN Law Enforcement Correspondent Whitney Wild. Whitney, this latest targets include these right-wing extremist groups, who played a major role on January 6. Tell us about it.



WILD: To put it plainly, the committee says they are going after individuals they believe are linked to the violence. There are several big name groups here. Notably, The Proud Boys and specifically their leader, Enrique Tarrio. We now know dozens of members of The Proud Boys have been indicted for their roles in the insurrection, the violent insurrection.

Further, they've subpoenaed the Oath Keepers and the leader of the Oath Keepers. We know that dozens of those members have been indicted and further several have been charged with conspiracy for their role in the insurrection. And then here's a group that you might not be that familiar with a group we haven't talked about a lot on CNN, the First Amendment Praetorian. They are a group who was listed as security for events at Freedom Plaza on January 5th. That is important because they are an extremist group.

And the subpoena points out that on January 6th, around 4:13 p.m. hours after the violence took place, hours after police were battling hand to hand with rioters, that group tweeted, the cost of truth is pain, Jim?

ACOSTA: Oh, well, that is something the committee definitely wants to sink its teeth into. And this comes on the heels of what we saw yesterday, the subpoenas being issued yesterday for people like Roger Stone, Alex Jones, more lower level Trump aides and associates, they are certainly spreading the net (ph) wide, it seems.

WILD: Right.

ACOSTA: And they're not taking time off it seems during this run up to Thanksgiving, they're busy.

WILD: Right, exactly. And so, what we've seen now is more than 40 subpoenas. And what's become abundantly clear is what the committee is trying to do is draw stronger connections between what was going on at the White House, between people who were at the very center of the Stop the Steal rally, and then eventually in what way that connected to the violence.

For example, we know that the Oath Keepers, again, committing acts of violence on the -- at the insurrection on Capitol grounds. That's according to Department of Justice. We also know, according to the subpoena that was issued yesterday, that members of the Oath Keepers provided security for Roger Stone, one of those people was indicted for his role in the insurrection, Jim. It's become very clear. Again, they are trying to draw connection between the money, the rally, the White House, the violence.

ACOSTA: And the people close to Trump.

WILD: Right.


ACOSTA: All right. Whitney Wild, thank you very much.

Coming up, just ahead, a big announcement for President Biden intended to bring down gasoline prices. Will it work? And if so, how soon?


ACOSTA: Tonight, President Biden is tapping into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a new move aimed at tamping down soaring gas prices ahead of a busy holiday travel season.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And while our company's combined actions will not solve the problem of high gas prices overnight, it will make a difference. It will take time but before long you should see the price of gas drop where you fill up your tank. And then the longer term, we will reduce our reliance on oil as we shift to clean energy.


ACOSTA: Let's discuss with Democratic Congressman Ro Khanna of California. Congressman, thanks for joining us. You just heard President Biden admit this move, will not solve gas prices overnight, as he put it. Is this a Band-Aid do you think for a much bigger problem?


REP. RO KHANNA (D-CA), PROGRESSIVE CAUCUS DEPUTY WHIP: Jim, the President has always been a straight shooter. I applaud him for taking this step and he has gotten a lot of other countries that tap their reserves, it will eventually bring down the price. And the President's just being honest that it may help but 10, 15 cents a gallon, but it's not going to be a panacea.

ACOSTA: And that will help a lot of folks out there, I mean, 10 to 15 cents that that means a lot per gallon for a lot of folks who are just making ends meet these days. And while the President acknowledged challenges today, he also touted his accomplishments so far, how does President Biden try to win credit for his infrastructure legislation, for example, and build support for that larger social economic climate bill, when so many Americans are feeling the impact of inflation in their everyday lives? I mean, it is there. It's happening.

KHANNA: The President has to be honest, but he is being. He has to say, I understand that the price of gas is higher, that the price of food is higher. And we are making inflation, a huge priorities, tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the Build Back Better bill is all about lowering cost, lowering the cost of childcare, lowering the cost of preschool, giving tax cuts to the working and middle class so they can afford their groceries. So, the President has to link our legislation with things that will ease the inflationary pressure for the working class.

ACOSTA: And the fate of that Build Back Better bill is now in the Senate, where Senator Joe Manchin is again raising questions about the President's strategy. Do you think progressives are going to stick together and make this bill a reality, even if the Senate makes some big cuts? If Manchin insists on some cuts, will you go along with it?

KHANNA: Jim, the progressives have always been willing to compromise. We will be willing to vote yes. Obviously, if some of the major climate provisions are taking out, that would be a problem. But my expectation is that more or less the President's framework will pass. The President has said he has the assurance of 50 senators to get that framework through. ACOSTA: And I want to ask you about CNN's reporting on the atmosphere in the House. It's some pretty chilling reporting, with violent videos, ongoing threats and real fears for members' safety out there. As you know, these days, one Democrat described it to CNN as toxic.

How big a toll is this taking on lawmakers? Are you experiencing, are you feeling this? And what do you think it's going to take to change this climate, this dangerous climate that we're seeing up on the hill?

KHANNA: Jim, I've, unfortunately, been saved but a lot of lawmakers, women of color, in particular, face threat. One thing I hope Americans could agree is that no lawmaker should be threatening violence against another lawmaker. And we should be condemning that regardless of party.

I will say I have actually decent relations across the aisle. I've worked with Leader McCarthy, Representative Comer, even Andy Biggs on legislation. And I remember when I went to Orientation Group House (ph), the former president of Harvard said things were a lot worse in the antebellum south in the 1850s when they used the cane people in Congress.

So I am hopeful and optimistic about our democracy fundraising (ph). I still believe we're the greatest democracy in the world. But we just need more Americans saying no violence, that's where we draw the line.

ACOSTA: Absolutely. All right, an important message. Congressman Ro Khanna, thanks so much for your time. We appreciate it.

KHANNA: Thank you, Happy Thanksgiving, Jim, and to all the folks listening.

ACOSTA: And you as well. We appreciate it.

Coming up, we'll bring you an exclusive look inside the Ukrainian Defense Forces patrolling the border with Russia as tensions between the two countries threaten to boil over.



ACOSTA: As Americans head into the Thanksgiving holiday, the COVID pandemic here in the U.S. is taking a turn for the worst. Cases are on the rise in 26 states with hospitalizations trending up as well. More on that, I'm joined by Dr. Zeke Emanuel, former health policy adviser in the Obama White House. He's the author of, "Which Country Has The World's Best Health Care?"

Dr. Emanuel, great to see you. Thanks so much for doing this. We appreciate it. Cases, as you know, we're on the rise ahead of this Thanksgiving holiday. But we aren't hearing the type of warnings that we heard last year from health officials against big holiday gatherings. I assume that's because we have these wonderful vaccines to thank for that, to be thankful for. What are your thoughts? DR. EZEKIEL EMANUEL, FORMER OBAMA WHITE HOUSE HEALTH POLICY ADVISER: We do have those vaccines and the boosters and they do provide very, very good protection. On the other hand, I think one thing we shouldn't forget is that people should test ahead of time because there are breakthrough infections. Unfortunately, unlike many other countries, we haven't gotten the price of the tests down which we should.

And if you're among people whose vaccination status you don't know, you should protect yourself and wearing a good mask is one of those ways. But I do think people can feel more confident now. On the other hand, traveling, flying getting -- going through airports, they're still a pretty big risk because we have to remember that 40 percent of the country is still not vaccinated. And that does mean that there could be a lot of virus around infecting people.

ACOSTA: Yes, how important is it for family and friends to talk about their vaccination status and take these rapid tests ahead of these get togethers? And I suppose this is our first holiday where you might have, you know, an anti-vax relative at the dinner table. Perish the thought, but I suppose there going to be some families dealing with that.


EMANUEL: Yes, and I think you do have to deal with it. Those people who are anti-vaxxers and probably therefore aren't wearing masks and taking seriously reducing their risk, posed the biggest risk to other people. And because we know breakthrough infections can happen, especially given the Delta variant, which is prevalent throughout the country, that does pose a risk to people who are vaccinated.

On the other hand, we should remember how protective those vaccines are. Compared to the -- I mean, the unvaccinated have 13 times the risk of dying from this virus compared to the vaccinated and that's a very, very big difference. And that's how good the vaccines are at protecting people from serious illness, hospitalization and death.

ACOSTA: All right, and it's something to be thankful for. Dr. Zeke Emanuel, great to see you. Thanks so much. Happy Thanksgiving.

EMANUEL: Thank you.

ACOSTA: All right.

EMANUEL: Take care.

ACOSTA: You as well.

We're following an extremely tense situation on the border between Russia and Ukraine where a buildup of Russian troops is prompting deep concern inside the Pentagon. Today, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley and his Russian counterpart held a phone call to discuss. CNN's Fred Pleitgen has this report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): On patrol in some of the most contested waters in the world, Ukraine's Navy took us on an artillery boat in the Sea of Azov, just as tensions with Russia have reached a boiling point.

Our main goal is to defend and keep the sovereignty of Ukraine from the direction of the sea, the captain tells me. Russia has been massing troops near Ukraine's borders, the U.S. says, warning its allies, a large scale invasion could happen soon.

(on-camera): The Ukrainians believe that if Russia does decide to launch an attack of the Sea of Azov, could be one of the main battleground. That's why the Ukrainians are both modernizing their fleet, but also their infrastructure on land as well.

(voice-over): The Azov coastline holds a strategic value to Russia. It would allow President Vladimir Putin to establish a much sought land corridor to connect Russia to annex Crimea.

Ukraine defense ministry gave us rare access to the massive construction going on at the Berdyansk naval base. Kyiv has now ordered this building program to urgently be accelerated with the Russian threat looming large.

(on-camera): In order to complete this project as quick as possible, the Ukrainian military tells us they are now working seven days a week. And they say, once it's finished, it will offer a formidable deterrent against any Russian aggression.

(voice-over): Upgrade seemed badly needed here with much of Berdyansk's port in other disrepair. Ukraine says new facilities will allow them to base more and bigger ships here.

We are ready, this officer says, that is why we are here so that at any time if there is any aggression on the Azov Sea, we can resist it. Ukraine's president says Russia has positioned close to 100,000 troops near its borders, which the Kremlin denies.

These satellite images appearing to show dozens of military vehicles near Yelnya in southwestern Russia. The Biden administration has warned Moscow not to attack and is mulling (ph) more weapons deliveries to Kiev. CNN has learned one U.S. defense official says Russia's aim maybe to create confusion or to get concessions.

The Kremlin dismissed talk of a possible invasion as hysteria. But Vladimir Putin also issued a clear warning.

PRES. VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN (through translation): We need to consider that Western partners worsen the situation by delivering to Kiev modern lethal weapons and provocative exercises in the Black Sea. And not only there, but also other regions close to our borders.

PLEITGEN (voice-over): Ukraine's armed forces say they are on constant alert, preparing for an armed confrontation they hope can be avoided.

(END VIDEOTAPE) PLEITGEN: And Jim, the Ukrainian military actually also conducted some Air Force exercises of their own today. And the other thing they also did is they actually drew up a new law that would allowed them to call up some 200,000 reservists if bad comes to worse here in this region. But of course, the Ukrainians and the U.S. and its allies hope that is something that won't happen here. Jim?

ACOSTA: All right, Fred Pleitgen, thanks for that report. Disturbing developments again, between Russia and Ukraine. Thanks so much.

Stay with us for the latest on today's multiple breaking stories, including the verdicts and awards of millions of dollars in the trial of the organizers of the 2017 "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.



ACOSTA: Happening now, breaking news, a jury finds defendants partially liable in the hate filled and deadly Charlottesville, Virginia white supremacist rally that shocked the world. They've just been ordered to pay millions of dollars in damages.

Were also following the trial of three white men charged in the killing of an unarmed black jogger Ahmaud Arbery. The jury deliberating the men's fate after powerful closing arguments by prosecutors. And President Biden makes a rare move in an effort to lower skyrocketing gas prices. Will it actually ease Americans pain at the pump?

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 we are going to get straight to the breaking news. CNN's Brian Todd is in Charlottesville, Virginia for us tonight. Brian, the jury found five defendants liable for violating Virginia law on harassment and violence. Tell us.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They didn't indeed, Jim, finding the libel on several counts and the damages are significant.