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The Situation Room

FBI Says, Synagogue Standoff Terrorism-Related, Hostage-Taker Targeted Jewish Community; Walensky To Wall Street Journal, I Haven't Conveyed The Uncertainty Around COVID-19 Pandemic; MLK Family Says, Pass Biden's Voting Rights Bill; Former President Trump Spars With Florida Governor DeSantis Seen As Possible Rival; Power Outages, Coastal Flooding, Traffic Nightmares, In Wake Of Powerful U.S. East Coast Winter Storm. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired January 17, 2022 - 18:00   ET




WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, we are learning new details about that terrifying hostage situation inside a Texas synagogue. In just a moment, I'll speak with one of the worshippers who survived the 11-hour standoff with the gunman. Stand by for that.

Also tonight, the family of the late Martin Luther King Jr. is calling on congress to honor his legacy bypassing President Biden's voting rights bill. The head of the NAACP is standing by to join us here in The Situation Room on this MLK holiday.

And an arctic blast crushes the U.S. East Coast, canceling flights, snarling traffic and knocking out power for more than 200,000 Americans. Millions of people are still under a winter weather alert.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington, and this is a Situation Room special report.

Let's begin with what we're learning about that 11-hour hostage drama at a Texas synagogue, the FBI calling it terror, terror targeting the Jewish community. Our Senior National Correspondent Ed Lavandera is on the scene for us. So, update our viewers, Ed, on the latest.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, in a couple of hours members of the Beth Israel Synagogue will come together for the first time since this ordeal that they've all experienced, essentially, together. They're going to come together at this Methodist Church in the nearby town of South Lake for a special service, this as many of the congregants are still coming to terms with the ordeal from over the weekend.


LAVANDERA (voice over): The final moments as hostages escaped from inside the Beth Israel Synagogue was captured by a photojournalist when CNN affiliate WFAA. The hostages are seen racing out a side door. The hostage taker briefly appears, pointing his firearm in their direction. The FBI Hostage Rescue Team, which arrived at the scene just hours earlier, moves in.

An explosive device detonates and gunfire rips through the air. Shortly after, it's announced the hostages were safe and alive, the hostage-taker dead. Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker says the situation was quickly deteriorating.

RABBI CHARLIE CYTRON-WALKER: The last hour or so of the standoff he wasn't getting what he wanted. I made sure that the two gentlemen who were still with me that they were ready to go. The exit wasn't too far away.

I told them to go, I threw a chair at the gunman, and I headed for the door. And all three of us were able to get out without even a shot being fired.

LAVANDERA: Law enforcement officials have identified the hostage taker as 44-year-old Malik Faisal Akram. He is a British citizen. Law enforcement sources tell CNN Akram arrived legally in the United States in late December at JFK Airport in New York, eventually making his way to Texas, where he spent three nights at this Dallas homeless shelter in the days leading up to the hostage standoff. On Saturday morning, Akram showed up to the synagogue, Rabbi Walker thought he was someone who needed shelter.

CYTRON-WALKER: It was during prayer, while we were praying, and my back was turned. We face toward Jerusalem when we pray, right before he revealed himself, but this was plenty of time in. I heard a click, and it could have been anything, and it turned out that it was his gun.

LAVANDERA: Akram's voice could be heard on the live stream of the synagogue Sabbath services.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm willing to die in this, all right? Are you listening? I am going to die, okay?

LAVANDERA: Rabbi Cytron-Walker credits the law enforcement training he's received with saving their lives.

CYTRON-WALKER: They really teach you in those moments that when your life is threatened, you need to do whatever you can to get to safety and you need to do whatever you can to get out.


LAVANDERA (on camera): And, Wolf, the brother of the suspect says that his brother was suffering from mental health issues. Law enforcement authorities say that he was driven, in part of the motivation, was to get the release of a woman named Aaifi Siddiqui, a known jihadist, who was convicted of attacking U.S. service members overseas.


She was being held here -- is being held here in the North Texas area in federal prison. Wolf?

BLITZER: Ed Lavandera on the scene for us, thank you very much.

Let's discuss what's going on with Jeffrey Cohen, one of the synagogue hostages. Jeffrey, thank you so much for joining us. Our hearts go out to you and your family and everyone else over there. What a horrific ordeal you went through. How are you doing, first of all, Jeffrey, as you try to process this?

JEFFREY COHEN, HOSTAGE AT COLLEYVILLE SYNAGOGUE: Thanks a lot, and I appreciate the thoughts and prayers that are coming our way. How am I doing? Well, about as good as can be expected, I guess. You know, last night, I got a full night's sleep, which is good because, Saturday, I got basically none, and I'm eating and everything. But, you know what, the emotion is just below the surface and it's always going to be there, or at least it will be there for a while. And the rest of us are doing okay too.

BLITZER: I know all this started, Jeffrey, with your rabbi, Rabbi Cytron-Walker actually welcoming in the stranger when he showed up at the door, giving him a cup of tea. Can you walk us through the moments you first realized that you were all being taken hostage?

COHEN: Yes. You know, right before the service began, and I got in, the rabbi pointed this guy out to me and I went over to say hello and to welcome him. And there's all the signs that you look for, the darting of the eyes, the shaking of the hands, the sweating, he didn't have any of that. He was on the phone, he was smiling, he said hello. And then as it was just reported, we finished a section of prayer that's called Amygdala, we're standing doing that, and then when you finish, you sit down and did. And a moment later, I heard that very distinct click of an automatic handgun, the slide being pulled back. But it didn't make sense. It was a sound that was out of context.

And Rabbi Charlie was looking over at him as well, and very soon after that, he jumps up and he starts screaming, and I knew that we had a problem. I dialed 911. I keep my phone next to me during the service. I dialed 911 and I turned the phone over so the screen was down and left it there and walked down that aisle way toward where he wanted us to be, and I both tactically and strategically positioned myself on the aisle closest to the door so that we did have a clear shot out.

You know, that training that we had -- really I should say a course, it wasn't really training, that in an active shooter, that's what saved our lives. Because it taught me to be aware of my surroundings, to know where the exits are, and then the rest of that is run, hide, fight, and that's what we did. We made sure that the system, the situation was as in control as we could.

At one point, the terrorist let us call our families, so I made calls to my wife, my daughter and son and basically told them there's a gunman here, he claims he has a bomb. Things don't look good right now. I love you and remember me. I also made a short Facebook post that said something to the effect of at CBI, there's a gunman here, it doesn't look good, remember me and -- excuse me a sec, and fight hate, because that's what this is. And my hope was if somebody saw it, they would be able to relay to law enforcement authorities, to the FBI, to whomever, that we were there and we needed some help.

BLITZER: So what was this gunman's demeanor, Jeffrey, as the hours went by? This continued for 11 hours.

COHEN: Yes, it was really quite interesting, Wolf. The first hour, he was pretty agitated. He wanted this woman released and he wanted to talk to her, and he thought -- well, he said point blank, he chose this synagogue because Jews control the world, Jews control the media, Jews control the banks. I want to talk to the chief rabbi of the United States. And, of course, there isn't one. And at one point I told him nice and calmly, in the U.K. you do have a chief rabbi, I don't remember who it is now. But it used to be -- oh, my gosh, I've just quickly forgotten.


Anyway, we don't have a chief rabbi in the United States. We're somewhat independent. And he wanted to talk to one specific rabbi out of New York, and Rabbi Charlie was able to find her phone number somehow and we called her, we left her a message and said what was going on. She called back and he spoke very briefly with her.

His demeanor changed not too long after that and he became much calmer, maybe because he thought he was going to get what he wanted. And it changed from more attack to I'm going to die, I'm going to let these guys go, but I'm going to die here and that's okay, me and my sister.

Now, at some point later on, I asked, when was the last time you spoke with your sister, and he said, I never have. And that's when I realized that this is not his biological sister, this is his sister in Islam.

Now, in that last hour, as you heard earlier in the interview with Rabbi Cytron-Walker, that in the last hour, half hour, he degraded, he devolved from being relatively calm to being very agitated, extremely agitated, to the point where it was -- it concerned us. Up until that point we were very willing to wait for law enforcement to do their thing. At that point, we knew we had to get out.

At one point, he even said that I'm going to put a bullet in each of you, get down on your knees, at which point I glared at him, I raised up in my seat, kind of like I'm doing now, I may have shake my head like that but I glared at him and I mouthed, no. And at that point, he kind of -- that was the first time that we had been not subservient to him, and he pulled back. The aggression kind of made him pull back. He sat back down.

I think that's when he put down his gun and went to pour his soda. I didn't actually see that. But that's when Rabbi Charlie yelled, run, and threw the chair at him. My friend got one step in front of me. He was the guy who had been feeling poorly, so I grabbed him under the arms and pushed him out. As a matter of fact, in your WFAA footage, initially, they were saying two people got out. That's because I was holding him so close. I'm the guy in the blue shirt. And Rabbi was behind us. We got out the door and they ran forward, I was running, and I tripped and went down hard on my knees and face, knocked my glasses off.

And so I started crawling under the hedge row that is there, because I could go into the neighbor's yard. I thought I was far under it, but later I found out I was pretty exposed when he came out and shook his gun around. I heard him, but I didn't see him. When he went back in, one of the FBI agents yelled, run to the front, run to the front. And I got up and I ran.

And, you know, I mentioned this to somebody earlier, Coach Williams would have been proud of me because I probably did my best 40 ever. And then it was over. We heard the loud bang of the breach less than 30 seconds after.

I want to make it clear, two things, we were not released, we were not rescued, okay? We escaped, and we escaped because we kept presence of mind, because we made plans, because we strategically moved people. At one point when my friend, who wasn't feeling well, got up and was pretty bad off, kind of got him to move over, sit down next to me. I got up and I rubbed his shoulders and whispered in his ear, the exit is right over there.

And then when we brought the pizza in, instead of putting it on the tables in the back, I motioned for Rabbi Charlie to come sit with us so that we can all be neatly in line with the exit. And that was critical, because five, six steps at most, we were out the door. And having this training that was -- in this case, was done by the Secure Community Network, it absolutely saved our lives.

You know, the other thing that I want to bring up is this guy was not the shooter that we hear about all the time that wants to just come in and shoot all the Jews. This was not him. He came here, he came to us, he terrorized us because he believed these tropes, these anti-Semitic tropes that the Jews control everything, and if I go to the Jews, they can pull the strings.


He even said at one point that I'm coming to you because I know President Biden will do things for the Jews, I know President Trump will do things for the Jews.

And we need to be aware and call out when we hear these throw-away comments that are made by people that, you know, they're not really racist, those individual people, they're not. We know them, they're our friends, our neighbors. But they don't realize how much potential damage those little things do to someone who is mentally unstable. It builds up until this guy really believed that if I go to the closest synagogue, to Carswell Medical Facility, that if I go to the closest synagogue and I take Jews hostage, they will let this woman out. He really believed that. And that's scary.

BLITZER: It certainly is. Jeffrey Cohen, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. We are so, so, so thrilled that you and the others and the rabbi all got out safe. We are really pleased that you took this course on how to deal with this, 11 hours of terror you had to go through. But thank you so much for spending some time with us. We will continue this conversation. We appreciate it very, very much. Good luck to you, good luck to everyone in your congregation, Beth Israel, we appreciate it very much.

And we have a quick programming note for all of our viewers. Tomorrow at this time, I'll speak live with Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, tomorrow at 6:00 P.M. Eastern right here in The Situation Room.

Just ahead, confusing guidance coming in from the CDC regarding isolation, and it's frustrating Americans right now who are grappling with COVID-19 as the omicron variant surges nationwide.

This is a Situation Room special report.



BLITZER: With the United States now in the throes of the omicron COVID surge, the head of the CDC is making a rather surprising admission about government messaging and the uncertainty that surrounds COVID-19.

Let's discuss with Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, and Dr. Paul Offit, a member of the FDA Vaccines Advisory Committee. Doctors, thank you for joining us.

And, Dr. Offit, let me start with you. The CDC director, Walensky, admits to the Wall Street Journal that she hasn't adequately conveyed the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. When a failure of messaging can literally mean life and death for so many people, just how important is it to communicate clearly?

DR. PAUL OFFIT, MEMBER, FDA VACCINES ADVISORY COMMITTEE: Well, it's very important. I think, actually, if you look back at the 2009 influenza pandemic, Richard Besser was the head of the CDC. And so here, this was a worldwide pandemic with flu which certainly can kill and killed thousands of people in this country. Every other day, he was on television answering questions from the media. I think he was a model really for how to do this. It's hard. This is hard. It's always easy in retrospect. But I thought that Dr. Besser, as head of the CDC then, really provided a model for how best to communicate.

BLITZER: Dr. Jha, the CDC is now advising people who have recovered from COVID-19 that they can actually stop isolation after only five days, but they should avoid being around what makes up, right now, we did the math, about 80 percent of the U.S. population who are deemed high risk, that includes anyone, for example, who is pregnant, diabetic, immunocompromised, the list goes on and on. Does that guidance make sense to you?

DR. ASHISH JHA, DEAN, BROWN UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH: Yes. Wolf, the CDC is in a challenging position because there's so many people infected right now, and a vast majority of them are not isolating at all. So, CDC is trying to find guidance that people will do that will reduce transmission. I think five days is when people are most contagious, so that's critical. Beyond that, I think it's essential that people wear high-quality masks and avoid high-risk situations. We're trying to walk a fine line here.

BLITZER: Yes, because the numbers are horrendous, indeed, still horrendous. Dr. Offit, early data coming in from Israel now shows a fourth dose of the COVID-19 vaccine does yield an increase in antibodies. Should scientists consider giving fourth doses to at least high-risk Americans or Americans 60 and over, which is what is going on in Israel, about a half a million Israelis have now received that fourth dose?

OFFIT: No, I don't think we're there yet. If you look at that fourth dose, while there was an increase in antibody titers, it was less than the previous. I think we're getting to the point of the law of diminishing returns. And while I do agree that a third dose is valuing people who are at high risk, over 65, residents of long-term care facilities, people who have preferably (ph) multiple comorbidities, which put them at highest risk, that makes sense.

But what a third dose gets you if you're a healthy young person, for example, is about three months of increased neutralizing antibodies to lessen your risk mild disease. I just don't understand why we have that third dose for young, healthy people. I don't. And I think now when you're starting to talk about a fourth or a fifth dose, again, we're ignoring the obvious here, which is we just keep trying to better protect people who are already protected against serious illness instead of really focusing our effort on people who are unprotected, i.e., the unvaccinated.

BLITZER: Interesting. Dr. Jha, I just spoke in the last four with Congressman Ro Khanna of California, who suggested you would make a great choice to lead the CDC.


I want you to listen to what he told me.


REP. RO KHANNA (D-CA): I think we need someone like Dr. Ashish Jha, someone who is compassionate, who has been right on most of the calls, who understands that we need to be fast when it comes to masking and testing and getting that out there. There are others as well. But I do think that we need strong, empathetic leadership in that position.


BLITZER: All right. So what do you say, Dr. Jha?

JHA: Well, I would say if I had to pick a CDC director, it would be someone named Rochelle Walensky. I said that when she was chosen and I feel that way today. We have a fabulous CDC director managing an extraordinarily difficult circumstance. So, I'm pretty happy with the leadership we have now.

BLITZER: All right, interesting. Dr. Jha, thank you, as usual, for joining us, and, Dr. Offit, thanks to you as well.

Coming up, a battle to protect voting rights here in the United States is overshadowing today's celebrations of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. I'll ask the president of the NAACP what he sees as a path forward in this very passionate and critically important debate.



BLITZER: Martin Luther King Jr.'s family gathered today and crossed the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge here in Washington with a clear message for President Biden, and I'm quoting now, you delivered for bridges, now deliver for voting rights.

Let's bring in our Chief National Correspondent Jeff Zeleny. He's the joining us from the White House. Jeff, the voting rights fight has not been easy for President Biden, at least so far.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: And it's not been successful either, and there is going to be a vote in the Senate tomorrow, Wolf. And the reality is the math simply isn't there for Democrats to pass this. But that did not stop President Biden and Vice President Harris from invoking the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. today as they made pleas for Senate Democrats to support the bill. But it was the words of Martin Luther King III, the son of the civil rights leader, that echoed the loudest.


MARTIN LUTHER KING III, GLOBAL HUMAN RIGHTS LEADER: So, no matter what happens tomorrow, we must keep the pressure on and say no more empty words. Don't tell us what you believe in. Show us with your votes. History will be watching what happens tomorrow. Black and brown Americans will be watching what happens tomorrow. In 50 years, students will read about what happens tomorrow, and know whether our leaders had the integrity to do the right thing.


ZELENY: So, you may wonder why are they going ahead with these votes if there simply is not the support there. We know that Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, the Democratic senators, are not in favor of changing the so-called filibuster rules. Well, President Biden and the White House and these allies want to make a sign to the base that they simply are trying here. Obviously President Biden has been under much criticism for not speaking up with a louder voice on this.

The question, Wolf, is, is this the end of the road or will there be some compromise down the road with some Republican senators as well. It's very much an open question. But tomorrow, that vote, all eyes will be on it. And now, it appears, it simply will not pass, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, it certainly does. Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thank you very much.

Let's discuss with the president and CEO of the NAACP, Derrick Johnson. Derrick, thanks, as usual, for joining us.

You've said, and I'm quoting you now, you said it's time for this administration to match their words with actions, but the country is now marking another Martin Luther King Jr. Day without much hope for voting rights legislation getting passed. How much blame do you lay with President Biden himself?

DERRICK JOHNSON, PRESIDENT AND CEO, NAACP: Well, let's be very clear, the Senate must do their job. And it's not about two senators who align with the Democratic Party, it's about all 100 senators. In 2006, the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act was passed 98-0, 16 members of the Senate are still in place now and they're Republicans, and they're refusing to move this forward.

So, I'm not interested in the blame game. We're looking for voting right protections. It's not about a partisan issue. It's not about who is right and who is wrong. It's about ensuring that we can uphold our Constitution and protect our democracy.

Senator Kyrsten Sinema tweeted out a list of opportunities to give back this MLK Day and you replied to the senator, and I'm quoting now, you replied, there's actually a really great event happening this week that you should sign up for. It's called pass voting rights and it's taking place in the U.S. Senate.

I know you've met with Senator Sinema. How does she justify her opposition to getting this done right now?

JOHNSON: Well, we are tone-deaf to excuses. And the other things that we are concerned about is how people use this moment, the legacy of Dr. King, and his words, and yet are willing to move forward through actions to live up to the very things he was talking about, a more inclusive society, equal protection under the law, and protecting the rights of voters. And that's what this is about.

And, unfortunately, Senator Sinema and the Republicans all alike are posturing as if they are doing good deeds and saying good things, when, in fact, the best deed that she can do, that all of the senators can do, is pass voting right protections.

BLITZER: As you know, the former president, Trump, is overtly stoking white grievance. Let me play just a small portion of his fact-free message on Saturday.


Listen to this.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: The left is now rationing life- saving therapeutics based on race, discriminating against and denigrating, just denigrating white people. In fact, in New York State, if you're white, you have to go to the back of the line to get medical help. Think of it. If you're white, you go right to the back of the line. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: How disturbing, Derrick, is it to hear this former president and the presumed frontrunner potentially for the 2024 Republican nomination, blatantly claiming it's white people who are being discriminated against?

JOHNSON: I'm waiting for the Republican Party to actually stand up and stop embracing this white supremacist. I'm looking forward to the business community to finally stand up and not look for tax consideration and address what's taking place. We must, as a society, not allow his nonsense to continue to poison the political landscape. That's why we're seeing what we're seeing with voting right protections.

His poison has created and paralyzed far too many members of the Republican Party. They seem as if they're just completely terrified and scared of him. This is white supremacist behavior Bull Connor- style. We must move beyond that. We are looking for the business community, Republicans, to finally stand up, denounce this foolishness, protect the rights to vote so we can move forward as a society together and not continue to devolve into tribalism.

BLITZER: Derrick Johnson of the NAACP, thanks so much for joining us.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

BLITZER: Just ahead, no Austrailian Open for the tennis star, Novak Djokovic, after his deportation over COVID vaccination requirements.



BLITZER: Tennis Star Novak Djokovic is back in his native Serbia tonight facing questions about future competition after that dramatic COVID vaccination controversy that led Australia to deport him.

Let's discuss with a former professional tennis player and CNN contributor, Patrick McEnroe. Patrick, thanks, as usual, for joining us.

Djokovic's participation now in the French Open that's coming up soon, Wimbledon, the U.S. Open the later this year, it's on the line. Knowing what you know about this tennis star, do you see a scenario in which he finally gives in and agrees to get vaccinated?

PATRICK MCENROE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, you know what, Wolf, actually, I don't think he's going to do it. He's very stubborn. That's part of what's made him one of the greatest players of all time. And he was on his way to becoming arguably the greatest player of all time. And you know what was interesting about this whole situation, Wolf, how it played out in Australia, was that the Australian government didn't argue that his medical exemption was improper, they didn't argue that they were worried that he could actually spread the virus in Australia. Instead, they argued, and they won this unanimously, that he was a threat to civil unrest in the country because of his anti-COVID vaccination status, and because of his high profile. So in the end, his high profile, his celebrity actually worked against him.

But as the tennis season goes on, Wolf, and it's not just the French Open in May and the other majors, it's other tournaments throughout Europe, throughout the world, where he's going to have to face this situation. And if he doesn't get vaccinated, it's going to be increasingly complicated for him to continue his career.

BLITZER: Can he keep his title of number one men's tennis player in the world if he doesn't play in these upcoming tournaments?

MCENROE: No, he cannot. He will keep it for a temporary period because the ranking system goes over the course of an entire year of play. So, obviously, last year, he dominated the tour. He won three of the first four majors of the year, including the Australian Open. But, no, he will not be able to keep his number one ranking.

I think more importantly, Wolf, he will not be able to continue to chase those big titles, those major titles. He's tied, remember, with Roger Federer, who is out with an injury, and Rafael Nadal, who is playing in Australia and looking pretty good coming back from his own injury woes at 20 majors total.

He all assumed in the tennis world it was just a matter of fact that Novak was going to break these records that was going to end up with the most major titles. Now, that is very, very much in doubt.

BLITZER: Big picture, is Djokovic gambling that his tennis is so good that his legacy can survive this ordeal? If so, is he right about that?

MCENROE: Well, I think his legacy as a player is already written to a certain extent, Wolf, because he's had such an amazing career already. But his legacy as a human being is certainly going to be really tough for him to overcome that as he moves forward. He's drawn so much negative attention all over the world.

In Serbia though, they welcomed him as a hero because, of course, he's a national hero in that country. But he's got a lot to deal with these next few months.

BLITZER: Yes, he could solve it, just simply get vaccinated, as hundreds of millions of people around the world have already done. Patrick McEnroe, thanks, as usual, for joining us.

Coming up, an intensifying feud between former President Trump and his previous ally, the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis.



BLITZER: We're following some tension in the Trump world, with the former president sparring with long-time ally Florida Governor Rick DeSantis, who has actually criticized some Trump administration COVID decisions, including the March 2020 lockdown.

Let's discuss with our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, and CNN senior political commentator, John Kasich, the former Republican governor of Ohio.

Gloria, what is it about Governor DeSantis that seems to get under Trump's skin?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Governor DeSantis has said -- or has not said that he wouldn't run if Donald Trump were to run for president. So, he hasn't gotten out of the way of Donald Trump.

Donald Trump believes that DeSantis is an ingrate because he believes that DeSantis wouldn't be where he is without Donald Trump, and there are lots of other potential Republican candidates who have come right out there and said, look, if Donald Trump runs, we're not even going to think about it. But Ron DeSantis just isn't one of them.

BLITZER: Governor DeSantis, Governor Kasich, hasn't said he'll, as Gloria says, step if Trump ultimately decides to run for president again, which former President Trump calls the magic words, according to "The New York Times."

Does Trump expect all other Republicans to essentially bow down?

JOHN KASICH, CNN SENIOR COMMENTATOR: Yeah, I'm sure he does, Wolf.


But I'm with Gloria. You know, I mean, the height of arrogance for DeSantis to think that he could challenge the king, you know? But you know, when you run -- when you run for public office, you make a decision, am I better than the people that are out there that are thinking about running? That's the way thought about it when I ran for governor, when I ran for Congress, when I ran for president.

And I think he has decided that he is capable of doing this job. Who knows how it is all going to work out but I wouldn't get out of the way for anybody, and just knowing a little bit about DeSantis, I don't think he gets out of the way for anybody, either.

BLITZER: You know, Gloria, what are the chances you think that Ron DeSantis decides to mount a primary challenge to Trump in the event that the former president runs?

BORGER: Well, who knows? I mean, he is running for re-election as governor, first. And I am not so sure he wants to get in a big spat with Donald Trump right now. Since he is running for re-election, but who knows?

He's got a big war chest around 70 million bucks so that certainly helps. And he is clearly someone who's taken on the former president indirectly, by kind of implying that he wished going back to March of 2020 that maybe they ought to have rethought the lockdowns then.

So, you know, he seems to be unafraid and that Donald Trump doesn't like it. So, who knows?

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting, Governor Kasich, despite this feud, Trump and DeSantis are cut basically from the same cloth to the never-Trumpers. Do you think it makes much of difference which one is potential at the top of the Republican ticket?

KASICH: I think first of all, I want to make a point when DeSantis runs for re-election, I don't think he is going to get a lot of votes out Mar-a-Lago.

Secondly, Wolf, as you know, politics is never a straight line. It is up and down. The tectonic plates are always shifting and what it looks like today is certainly not what it is going to look like in a year, let alone three years.

So it's going to be interesting to see how this all works out. But, you know, the more, the merrier is what I like to say. It's good for Wolf Blitzer.

BORGER: You know, one thing I think Trump is it not like is that in all these straw polls that are being taken, and we know they are not worth much except Donald Trump looks at them. And DeSantis does very well. And if Trump is out of the picture, DeSantis is -- is number one.

And he doesn't want anybody in his way, and he believes everybody, the water should part. And that he can just kind of glide into a nomination, should he decide to pursue it. And believes that DeSantis should be somebody who should be grateful to him, and put aside his own political wants for Donald Trump.

BLITZER: Gloria Borger, Governor Kasich, guys, thank you very much.

We are going to have more news just ahead, including winter-weather wreaking havoc right now along the East Coast as millions of Americans are bracing for more disruptions.



BLITZER: States of emergency up and down the East Coast of the United States where a powerful winter storm is impacting millions with power outages, travel nightmares, and flooding.

Let's go to our national correspondent, Jason Carroll. He is working the story from New York for us.

What can you tell us, Jason?

JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, right now, where we are in New York, Wolf, just a little wind and some flurries but a much different story to the north and further to the south where people are still dealing with the effects of severe winter weather.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) CARROLL (voice-over): Millions of Americans still under winter- weather alerts, as a massive storm continues its march northward leaving in its wake, treacherous roads and widespread power outages along the East Coast. Virginia, Georgia, North and South Carolina, all, under states of emergency. Drivers in the Southeast, warned to stay off roads on this holiday, as freezing temperatures caused by hazardous conditions from Virginia to North Carolina where a tractor- trailer slid off this icy overpass.

Outside of Raleigh, two people died after their car struck trees and a median.

Meanwhile, snow and high winds pummeled parts of Tennessee and Georgia where this homeowner was awoken when a tree crashed into her condo in Atlanta.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We heard a loud bang and we went to assess our bedroom and found the other bedroom completely collapsed in, um, everything. And then, we went outside to find our neighbors and make sure everyone else was okay. It's a nightmare, it is actually really terrifying.

CARROLL: In southwest Florida, tornados destroyed dozens of homes, much of the damage, near ft. Meyers.

EDWARD MURRAY, FLORIDA HOME DESTROYED BY TORNADO: It was turning the house upside down. I thought I was looking down at the floor, and I was actually looking up at the sink that was turned over on me. I looked up at the blue sky and I said, Satan, today ain't the day.

CARROLL: Thousands in the Southeast, still without power and while New York City and Boston were spared the worst of the storm, Buffalo is buried under more than a foot of snow. Pittsburgh, also getting blanketed.

Air travel snarled in the region, as wintery conditions cause thousands of flight cancellations over the weekend into Monday.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I tried to get a few extra flights. I had one tomorrow morning, that one was cancelled, too. So I switched tomorrow afternoon and hopefully that one isn't cancelled.


CARROLL: And, Wolf, it's not over yet. Another round of severe weather possibly bitter cold and snow, expected for the Northeast by the end of the week. Welcome to January -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yep. Good point. Jason Carroll reporting. Thank you.

And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. This Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday is special as we honor the life and legacy of the great civil rights icon, and it's worth remembering Dr. King's immortal words, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.