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The Situation Room
Ukraine Gains New Ground In Push Toward Russia Border; Trump- Backed Dr. Oz In GOP Senate Primary Cliff-Hanger In Pennsylvania; Suspected Gunman's Plot Posted Online 30 Minutes Before Attack; Biden Admin To Invoke Defense Production Act To Help Baby Formula Shortage; Former White House Press Secretary Grisham Appears Before 1/6 Panel For Second Time. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired May 18, 2022 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR (voice over): I'm also going to talk to the families and loved ones of other Americans being wrongfully detained around the world. Again, it airs this Sunday at 8:00 P.M. Eastern only on CNN.
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Our coverage continues now with Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. I'll see you tomorrow.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, in the war-ravaged northeast, Ukrainian forces now say they have recaptured new territory as they push closer to the Russian border and attempt to push back Kremlin troops on multiple fronts. And NATO official now says the battlefield momentum has shifted significantly in favor of Ukraine.
Also this hour, a political cliffhanger in Pennsylvania, the Trump- endorsed T.V. doctor, Mehmet Oz, is neck and neck with his GOP Senate primary rival, David McCormick. We'll break down the former president's election night wins and losses as he's now pressuring Dr. Oz to declare victory before the last votes are counted.
And another chilling twist in the Buffalo shooting massacre, we're now learning that the suspected gunman revealed his racist attack plans online some 30 minutes before the deadly rampage. And that's prompting a new state investigation. There's a lot to discuss when the mayor of Buffalo joins us live this hour.
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.
Tonight, Ukrainian forces are within miles of their enemy's backyard after making significant new gains in the Kharkiv region near the Russian border.
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh is on the frontline.
NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR (voice over): Every inch of respite from Russian shelling here comes at grotesque cost. What once rained down on the second city of Kharkiv now lands here.
Ukraine declared here, Ruska Lozova, liberated over two weeks ago, but it's never simple.
These tiny villages which before the war were places you wouldn't notice driving through have now become the key battlegrounds to defend vital cities, like Kharkiv.
While the fight to protect Kharkiv still rages with every step fast and cautious because of mines, Russia's border is now just nine miles away.
Did you ever think you would be as close to Russia in nearly three months?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE).
WALSH: But Russian troops are even closer. That's in the forest, across the field, over this wall that they say frequently at night Russian reconnaissance groups try and move in on the village.
The next tiny hamlet is being fought over, and this is where Kharkiv's defense cannot fail, the U.S.'s most effective gifts in some of Ukraine's youngest hands. This is a home-grown defense, volunteers, software engineers, economists funded mostly by our guide, a farming millionaire. Russia's brief occupation never planned to leave anything of value here, zed on a van full of T.V.s for looting.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They say that they were better. And they do not even think that something is wrong with them, not with us, you know? They think that because America gives us everything for free, and they hate us for that and they rob us and they kill us.
WALSH: Here, they hold back an enemy that's slowly proving as inept as it is immoral by placing incredible value on the smallest patches of their land.
WALSH (on camera): Now, since we filmed that report, Wolf, we understand Ukrainian forces are now claiming gains, possibly as far as three, maybe four miles north of that particular village. But it's very fluid. They have lost territory too in other areas.
Today, though, in Kyiv, so much focus on the trial of 21-year-old Russian soldier Vadim Shysimarin.
He pled, quote, fully guilty to essentially the crime of murder and violation of the norms of war accusations from Ukrainian prosecutors relating to an incident in a village not far from where I'm standing into the sort of west in Sumy region where he killed, according to prosecutors, a 62-year-old man whilst trying to prevent that man from telling Ukrainian forces where his unit were.
A deeply symbolic trial about Ukraine's process of putting Russian soldiers that's captured on trial in court for war crimes and a process that has such a tension, frankly, the judge had to suspend it until tomorrow partly because of the volume of journalists in the room, Wolf.
BLITZER: Nick Paton Walsh on the scene for us in Kharkiv, thank you very, very much.
Let's discuss the state of the war right now and the response by the west as NATO considers expanding, Finland and Sweden, by the way, now formally officially applying to join the alliance.
We're joined by the former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Retired General Wesley Clark. He's a CNN Military Analyst. General Clark, thanks so much for joining us.
First, you're the former NATO Supreme Allied Commander. How significant is it to see today that Finland and Sweden formally have applied to join this NATO alliance?
GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, I think it's a very, very significant step and I think it's very, very important diplomatically that they get in. It's the kind of diplomatic move that really puts pressure on Putin. But also it has military effectiveness because we have been worried about the defensibility of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. Now, what we have with Finland and Sweden if they come in is a much more coherent defense in the Baltic Sea area.
BLITZER: Just as soon as Finland and Sweden took this truly historic step today, Turkey, a member of NATO, blocked the start of these talks. Could this be a bumpy process?
CLARK: Well, I think it's going to be very difficult to get through this. Turkey has its own internal issues, just like every country in NATO has, and they don't like some of the people that are living in Sweden. They don't like the groups. There's been a long-term 30-year, 40-year war against the Kurdish guerillas, the PKK. Some of them live in Sweden. And how Sweden handles that, how that's finessed the United States leadership role in getting this resolved.
Can it be resolved? Yes, it can. Will it be difficult? Probably so. And you can be sure that Russia is doing the best it can to put pressure on whatever is going on between Turkey and NATO by blandishments to Turkey or threats.
Let me bring Jim Sciutto in, he's our Chief National Security Correspondent, to join in the analysis right now. Jim, thank you very much. What do you make of this Russian response to the NATO expansion plans at least so far?
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's interesting, Wolf. Because it started with some hyperbole about how this was a threat, a bit of saber-rattling by Russia, as they're often want to do, but as it became something of a fait accompli with such overwhelming support in Finland and Sweden and it appears the alliance coming around this, assuming NATO officials are right that they will get over Turkey's reservations, its push for concessions here, almost Putin explaining to the Russian public that, well, if this happens, it's not that big a deal.
You know, it is Putin managing the reality here, right, is that this is something he's lost on. I mean, he went into this war claiming that NATO enlargement is a threat and association agreement between Ukraine and NATO would be a threat. Now NATO is bigger. He'll have a bigger border with NATO, much bigger if Finland does successfully join and it appears he may be preparing the Russian public for that reality.
BLITZER: I know you're doing a lot of reporting on what's going on inside NATO. What are you learning, Jim, about NATO's assessment of Ukraine's capabilities right now on the battlefield?
SCIUTTO: What's changed, and it's NATO's, it's also the U.S. military assessment, and it's been a remarkable change. Because, you know, Wolf, we were talking about the U.S./NATO assessment prior to the invasion, massive Russian force, very quick win. That changed. The Ukrainians defended themselves well.
And what I have begun to hear from officials in recent days and weeks is the possibility of Ukrainian victory here, right? And that's not just rhetoric because they like to see the Ukrainians advance, but it's an assessment of their military capabilities and Russia's military failures so far.
And they're seeing some success of Ukrainian counteroffensives as an example of that, right? The territory they lost to Russia around Kyiv, for instance, and around Kharkiv in the northeast, they have been able to take back, and Russian forces have withdrawn from.
Can they do the same with areas that have been controlled by Russia for some time, Crimea, for example, or other parts of the Donbas? That's the test.
For now, the eastern front from the U.S. and NATO assessment remains pretty static but they do at least see the possibility of Ukraine being able to gain back some of that territory.
BLITZER: And we shall see in the next few days what happens. Guys, thank you very, very much, General Wesley Clark and Jim Sciutto.
Just ahead, Donald Trump is urging his favorite candidate in Pennsylvania's Senate primary to declare victory before the votes are fully counted. Are the former president's election conspiracies about to become a new headache for Republicans?
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Tonight, former President Donald Trump is weighing in on the cliff' hanger Republican Senate primary in Pennsylvania. He's urging his endorsed candidate, T.V. Dr. Mehmet Oz, to declare victory now before all the votes are counted.
CNN's Jeff Zeleny is in Chester, Pennsylvania, for us. He's got more on the primary night results and what happens next.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Overtime in Pennsylvania, Dave McCormick --
DAVE MCCORMICK (R), PENNSYLVANIA SENATE CANDIDATE: We're going to win this campaign.
ZELENY: -- and Dr. Mehmet Oz --
DR. MEHMET OZ (R), PENNSYLVANIA SENATE CANDIDATE: When all the votes are tallied, I am confident we will win.
ZELENY: -- locked in an extraordinarily tight battle for the Republican Senate nomination, with Oz holding a razor thin edge in a contest with 1.3 million votes cast. A day after the election, both campaigns tell CNN they see a path to victory with McCormick relying on mail-in votes still being counted and Oz hoping his strength at the polls holds.
In Lancaster County, election workers scramble to sort through about 22,000 mail-in ballots printed with an incorrect code that could not be scanned, a process officials said that could take all week.
KATHY BARNETTE (R), PENNSYLVANIA SENATE CANDIDATE: This campaign has always been about you.
ZELEY: Kathy Barnette, whose candidacy surged in the final week of the race, fell short, but her imprint on the race was a factor in the bitter duel between McCormick and Oz. After the counting, the race could head to a recount if the margin is 1/2 of a percent or less.
LEIGH CHAPMAN, PENNSYLVANIA ACTING SECRETARY OF STATE: By next Tuesday, we'll have a good sense as far as whether or not there will be an automatic recount.
ZELENY: Donald Trump, who loomed large in the race, weighed in today, saying, Dr. Oz should declare victory. The winning Republican will face John Fetterman who won the Democratic Senate race but is still recovering from a stroke with a defibrillator implanted on Election Day.
GISELE BARRETO FETTERMAN, WIFE OF JOHN FETTERMAN: John is going to be back on his feet in no time.
ZELENY: The stage is set for a raucous general election in Pennsylvania with Doug Mastriano winning the Republican governor's race, campaigning on a platform of lies about the 2020 election.
DOUG MASTRIANO (R), PENNSYLVANIA GOVERNOR CANDIDATE: There's this movement here that's going to shock the state here on November 8th.
ZELENY: As some Republicans openly worried about Mastriano's prospects, party leaders express pleasure with results from North Carolina, as controversial Congressman Madison Cawthorn conceded defeat. And in the Senate race there, Ted Budd swept to victory.
TED BUDD (R), NORTH CAROLINA SENATE CANDIDATE: I'm a conservative fighter, I'm America first, and I am honored to be your Republican nominee for the United States Senate.
ZELENY (on camera): And Wolf, right now at this hour, Oz is leading but only by about 1,300 votes. This is a number that has grown smaller as the afternoon has gone on. What this means is Election Day has become Election Week. Both campaigns are looking for the likelihood of a recount. We will know that for sure on Tuesday, but the McCormick campaign, Wolf, feeling much more optimistic than they were last night around midnight. Wolf?
BLITZER: Jeff Zeleny in Chester, Pennsylvania, for us. Thank you very much.
Right now let's bring in our Chief Political Correspondent Dana Bash and CNN Political Commentator Michael Smerconish.
Dana, how did the race between Dr. Oz and McCormick get so close potentially even within recount range?
DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, Wolf, I'm going to say something that we are mostly loathe to say when we're giving analysis, and the answer is we just don't know yet. We really don't.
And part of the reason is because if you look at where the votes came in for frankly all of the Republican candidates in this race, there doesn't seem to be a clear rhyme or reason. I'm going to defer to Michael on this because he is in Pennsylvania. He's an expert on it. But from what I have seen and from what I have heard from people who are on the ground in these campaigns, they agree.
The one thing that is very clear is that Kathy Barnette is not going to be the nominee. The other thing that's clear about her is that she obviously, even though she's not going to win, took votes away from somebody. It's most likely that she took the votes away from Mehmet Oz, nut at the same time, I have talked to people who say she also could have brought out voters who wouldn't have voted for either of her opponents if not for her.
BLITZER: Is it any surprise, Michael, that the former president's go- to is to now push Dr. Oz to declare a victory before all the votes are even counted? MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It's not a surprise because he regrets that he didn't do that. I mean, Wolf, this is so reminiscent of the red mirage and blue wave. How often did we talk about that in the presidential cycle where we cautioned people don't think that those who vote in person are necessarily the be all and end all of the campaign? You have to wait for all those absentee ballots to be counted. And, clearly, the McCormick campaign has done a better job thus far in absentee ballots than has Dr. Oz.
So, it's reminiscent of exactly where we are, where I think it was the Saturday after the Tuesday, Joe Biden in Pennsylvania finally eclipsed Donald Trump and that sealed the deal for the presidential campaign.
So, President Trump looking at this from 1,000 miles away in Mar-a- Lago is probably saying to Oz, you ought to do what I didn't do. Just claim victory even if it's not supported by the facts.
BLITZER: Yes, that's a key point.
You know, Dana, does the evolution of Trump's election fraud lie now take on a new potential danger when you look at the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Doug Mastriano?
BASH: Well it does because of what Michael was just saying. This isn't about ancient history. This is about current events. And the fact that we're talking about counting votes, watching the votes being counted appropriately so in the midterms, and, of course, maybe on a much more important scale nationally, looking ahead to 2024, no matter who is the Republican and Democratic nominee for president, the question of who the governor is going to be in Pennsylvania and other places but specifically somebody like Mastriano, if he were to win, and if he were to follow through on the threats and the actions that he tried to take as a member of the legislature, it would be almost unfathomable how disruptive it would have been for democracy and, again, it's not necessarily just about the past, it could be about the future.
BLITZER: And it's just an important point.
On that point, Michael, Democrats clearly want to run against Mastriano, paint him as an extremist, but could they come to regret that?
SMERCONISH: So, here's the interesting thing. You know, there's concern among Republicans as to the impact Mastriano might have down ballot, but I would remind folks that Republicans in Pennsylvania, they don't like no excuse absentee balloting. That was part of a deal struck with Democrats where they also -- Republicans were able to win, this is called Act 77, the end of pulling the big lever, straight ticket balloting. And so you can't pull the big lever as we say anymore, Wolf, in Pennsylvania.
That might be good for Republicans because it forces people to vote for governor, then to vote for Senate, to vote for everything else that's down ballot. In other words, Republicans could lose at the top of the ticket with Mastriano but still could survive and have a good day down ballot.
BLITZER: Michael Smerconish, thank you very much, Dana, thanks to you as well.
Coming up, gruesome new developments in the Buffalo massacre investigation. We're now learning the suspect allegedly posted about his plans online just before the shooting.
Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: Right now, there are some very, very disturbing new details emerging about the racist grocery store massacre in Buffalo, and how the suspected shooter plotted his attack and made his plans public on social media.
CNN's Brian Todd is in Buffalo for us. Brian, I understand you have new information tonight.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We have very jarring new information tonight, Wolf. On how this suspect posted his attack plan on a social media platform just minutes before the massacre almost as some kind of a sick preview to it and he invited a select number of people to look at it.
TODD (voice over): 30 minutes before the Buffalo mass shooting, the suspect revealed his plans to a small group on social media. In the gamer chat room app Discord, he invited a select group to access the private diary he had been keeping for six months.
The chat log shows he chose the ZIP Code in Buffalo because of a high percentage of black people. He visited the supermarket three times on March 8th, surveying its layout, drawing a map and taking note of how many black customers and white customers were there. And he planned his attack for March 15th but delayed it several times.
JONATHAN LACEY, FORMER FBI SPECIAL AGENT: It's coming to light now that this person planned this very methodically.
TODD: Discord says their records show no one saw the chat prior to 30 minutes before the shooting. One former FBI special agent believes the posts were intended to recruit others.
LACEY: He was trying to radicalize other people, just like he was radicalized online. I think we're going to learn who his contacts were. That's critical right now because we don't know who else is out there that's a potential threat to this community or some community somewhere else in the United States or elsewhere. TODD: And today, New York's governor asking her attorney general to investigate the social media platforms the suspect used to plan, promote and livestream his attack.
KATHY HOCHUL (D-NY): These social media platforms have to take responsibility. They must be more vigilant in monitoring the content and they must be held accountable for favoring engagement over public safety.
TODD: She also called for tighter gun control and established a domestic threat assessment program for the state.
HOCHUL: We're going to insure that we have the best in the nation cybersecurity teams to monitor the places where radicalization occurs. We're watching you now.
TODD: In Washington, House Democrats planning a vote tonight on a bill that would set up FBI and DHS offices to monitor and analyze domestic terrorism threats, including white supremacists and neo- Nazis. But concerns over civil liberties have Republicans lukewarm.
Also today, authorities reveal that one 911 call during the incident was mishandled, although they say it did not affect how fast police responded.
The caller spoke in a whisper.
MARK POLONCARZ, ERIE COUNTY EXECUTIVE: Our intention is to terminate the 911 call taker who acted totally inappropriately, not following protocol. We teach our 911 call takers that if somebody is whispering, it probably means they are in trouble.
TODD: Today, the ten victims killed and the three who survived were honored by members of the Buffalo Bills football team who came to pay their respects, show their support for the community and help distribute food outside the shuttered grocery store.
BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us from Buffalo. Brian, thank you very much.
And this just in to CNN, the NAACP has just announced that its president, Derrick Johnson, will meet in person with the attorney general of the United States, Merrick Garland, this Friday, to discuss the spread of white supremacy across social media platforms and hate crimes.
Let's discuss this and more with the mayor of Buffalo, Byron Brown. Mayor Brown, thank you so much for joining us.
How horrific is it, Mayor, to hear that this shooter actually made his deadly plans public some 30 minutes before the shooting?
MAYOR BYRON BROWN, BUFFALO, NEW YORK: It's sick. It's jarring. It's incredibly troubling.
BLITZER: What needs to come out of the New York State attorney general's investigation so that these social media platforms don't radicalize yet another dangerous individual?
BROWN: Well, New York Attorney General Letitia James is very thorough. She will do a complete and thorough review of social media and hate speech and racist indoctrination on social media. It has to end.
Governor Kathy Hochul has talked about it. President Joe Biden has talked about it. Hate speech on social media and radicalizing people on social media has to end, certainly that played a large part in this massacre that occurred in Buffalo, New York, this past Saturday. Ten precious lives lost to someone that was radicalized, someone that was filled with hate. And someone that plotted, pre-meditatively, to come here and kill as many black people as they possibly could.
BLITZER: It is so heartbreaking to see what happened in my hometown of Buffalo, New York, a city I truly love.
You just heard me report that the NAACP president, Derrick Johnson, will meet this coming Friday with the attorney general of the United States, Merrick Garland. What action do you want to see at a federal level, Mayor, in response to this horrible racist massacre?
BROWN: I think that meeting is a great thing. I would like to see hate speech prevented all together on social media platforms. I would like to see it be illegal to post hate speech on social media platforms, to post racist and hateful doctrine on social media platforms, and to make it impossible for there to be any kind of radicalization of people on social media no matter what that kind of radicalization is. It should be illegal. Hate speech isn't free speech. It is hate speech, and it should not be legal in the United States of America.
BLITZER: Before I let you go, Mayor, you know that I'm a longtime Buffalo Bills fan, and I was so personally happy to see our team step up and respond to this horrific attack today. What impact is this having on our community?
BROWN: The Buffalo Bills, the Buffalo Sabers, the Buffalo Bandits came here to show their concern for the community, to show their solidarity with the community. They helped to cook food. They served meals. They took pictures with members of the community. They held small children. They showed that not only are they our sports heroes but they are also members of our community that care deeply about what happens to the community that were personally affected by this racist attack on ten beautiful people -- actually 13, 10 that were killed.
The Bills lifted the spirits of people today, people that were grieving, people that haven't had smiles on their faces since Saturday.
[18:35:01] The Bills being there brought smiles to their faces. The hugs went all around. Five buses of players rolled on to Jefferson Avenue, and when the Bills and the Sabers and the Bandits got out, it certainly showed that Buffalo sports heroes are not just people that we look at on T.V. or go to see in the arena, they are members of the community that care, that are deeply affected and they came to make a difference.
It was also great to see Bills Coach Sean McDermott and Bills General Manager Brandon Beane there with the players as well.
BLITZER: Certainly was. The Buffalo mayor, Byron Brown, thank you for joining us. Thanks for all you are doing. Please pass along all our love to our fellow Buffalonians right now who are continuing to suffer. I appreciate your joining us, very much. Thank you.
BROWN: I sure will.
BLITZER: Coming up, the first Russian soldier to stand trial for war crimes in Ukraine pleads guilty.
Also ahead, there's breaking news, the Biden administration now preparing a major new initiative to ease the national baby formula shortage.
We'll be right back.
BLITZER: The first of what could be thousands of war crimes trials in Ukraine is wrapping up following chilling testimony about the deadly actions of a Russian soldier. CNN's Melissa Bell is on the scene for us in the capital of Kyiv. She's joining us tonight.
MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Ukrainian and Russian prisoners of war now facing a reckoning. In a Kyiv courtroom too small for the 150 journalists who turned up, the first Russian soldier to be charged with a war crime pleaded guilty. Vadim Shysimarin led away after the hearing was suspended until a larger courtroom can be found.
The 21-year-old is accused of killing an unarmed civilian, prosecutors say, after he and several other soldiers escaped a Ukrainian attack on their convoy in a stolen car. One of those Russian soldiers traveling with Shysimarin that day now expected to testify on Thursday.
ANDRIY SINYUK, PROSECUTOR: He was in the car with Shysimarin. He saw the moment of the shot. He saw Shysimarin fire. He saw how the bullet hit the victim and how the victim fell after that. That is, he was a direct witness to the crime.
BELL: Over in Russian held territory meanwhile, the latest pictures released by the Russian Ministry of Defense showed some of those Ukrainian soldiers evacuated from the Azovstal Steel Plant in Mariupol. Looking gaunt and dejected, they are now also prisoners of war.
MARIA ZAKHAROVA, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY SPOKESPERSON: Qualified medical help is being provided to all the wounded.
The norms of humanitarian law are basic for us so no one should have any doubt about that.
BELL: But will they be handed over as part of the prisoner swap that Ukraine had been hoping for?
PRES. VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY, UKRAINE: I want to emphasize Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive, to bring the boys home, the work continues, and this work needs delicacy and time.
BELL: For now, though, they remain in the breakaway Donetsk People's Republic. Its leader suggesting on Wednesday that the fighters might now be put on trial, comments mirrored by the speaker of Russia's lower house of parliament in Moscow.
VYACHESLAV VOLODIN, CHAIRMAN OF STATE DUMA: Nazi criminals should not be exchanged. They're war criminals. We should do everything to ensure they are put on trial.
BELL: The Russian side now claiming that the commanders of the Azovstal fighters are not amongst the evacuees, even as the fate of the surrendered soldiers takes a far more clear turn (ph).
BELL (on camera): The point is, Wolf, that tonight, Russia can claim those nearly 1,000 evacuated soldiers from Azovstal as extra leverage in a campaign that has also seen them over the course of the last 24 hours pound those positions to the north of Donetsk and Luhansk, essentially suggesting that a huge swath of territory they have got that borders Russia is one they can now claim as their own, Wolf.
BLITZER: CNN's Melissa Bell reporting from Kyiv for us in Ukraine, thank you very much.
Coming up, there's breaking news, the White House just announcing major new steps to bolster the national supply of baby formula amid a worsening shortage. Will anxious parents out there finally get some relief?
BLITZER: There's breaking news tonight. The president of the United States, President Biden, has just announced he's invoking what's called the Defense Production Act to help alleviate the nationwide shortage of baby formula.
Our White House correspondent Arlette Saenz is working the story for us.
Arlette, walk us through this encouraging news from the White House.
ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this marks a major step as the White House has been scrambling to find ways to alleviate this issue that is affecting so many American families. The president tonight announcing that he will invoke the Defense Production Act, something he had been facing some pressure to do.
This is a 1950s era law that allows the federal government to have more authority to direct domestic production. And in this scenario, the president is pushing suppliers to prioritize the delivery of resources, things like ingredients directly to the manufacturers so they can produce more formula. Additionally, the president is also setting up something called operation fly formula. He's directing the health and human services department as well as the agriculture department to use commercial defense department planes to try to import and fly products from overseas into the United States.
We know that the FDA earlier this week had announced steps to try to make it easier for overseas companies to send their products to the United States, but those are still approval processes that need to be conducted and under way with each individual company. Now, this all comes as the White House over the past two weeks has really been scrambling to try to identify or try to address this shortage relating to baby formula.
Now, the White House really has simply said that they believe this is an issue that will gradually improve over the course of the next few weeks but they have been reticent to place an exact timeframe for when things will get back to normal. Tomorrow, the FDA commissioner will be testifying on Capitol Hill to talk about the FDA's budget and also oversight of infant formula and will certainly face.
But tonight, the president announcing this major step in invoking the Defense Production Act -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Let's hope it has a great impact. There are so many families right now.
Arlette Saenz at the White House, thank you very much.
We're also following some troubling new pandemic news. The CDC now reporting that almost 1/3 of Americans actually now live in areas seeing medium to high levels of COVID in their communities.
And joining us now, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, Dr. Ashish Jha.
Dr. Jha, thank you so much for joining us.
How concerned should most Americans be right now about this recent rise in COVID cases here in the United States?
DR. ASHISH JHA, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORONAVIRUS RESPONSE COORDINATOR: Yes, good evening, Wolf. Thanks for having me here. We are seeing a lot more infections out there, right? Infection
numbers are almost up to 100,000 a day. That's a lot. It's a good three, fourfold increase over where we were six weeks ago.
I think if you're vaccinated and boosted, even if you get a breakthrough infection, you're going to do much better if you get a breakthrough. If you have not gotten the booster, you are at high risk of serious illness. Obviously, if you have not gotten vaccinated at all, you have substantially higher risk.
So I think that really -- how concerning it is depends on who you are. It's really important to protect yourself at this moment.
BLITZER: At the same time, though, some places, Dr. Jha, like New York City have already ruled out reinstating mask mandates. Are you worried that most Americans are done with this pandemic, no matter how high the cases get?
JHA: Well, I think, you know, as case numbers climb, we're going to have to be vigilant. We're going to want to do things that are going to drive infections down. I do think places like New York and other places with high levels of infection that are on the orange levels from the CDC, it is important for people to wear masks indoors.
I've been encouraging people to wear masks indoors in those places with high transmission. It's a really important way to keep infection numbers down.
BLITZER: Certainly is. The White House is in conversations we're told with the FDA about a potential fourth dose of the COVID vaccine for people under 50. Why would yet another dose be necessary for that age group, Dr. Jha?
JHA: So, I'll tell you where things stand. First of all, the critical thing is that third dose, that first booster. More than 100 million Americans have not gotten that two are fully vaccinated. But I encourage people if you haven't gotten your third shot, you need a booster. In terms of the second booster, the fourth shot, you know, the clear evidence is for people over 60 that they benefit from this and they should be getting it.
For people under 50, we just have less data on this. This is an issue that FDA and CDC are exploring right now. It could be another level of protection to help people come up to speed on their vaccination status. This is going to be an FDA/CDC decision.
BLITZER: In our earlier conversations, Dr. Jha, you touted the rollout of the COVID therapeutic pill Paxlovid. But there are concerns about people testing positive again with symptoms returning just a few days after finishing the Paxlovid treatment. Should Americans still seek out this drug if they qualify?
JHA: Absolutely, Wolf. And let me be very clear why. What we know about the data from Paxlovid, we're seeing this in the real world experience, when people get this drug, they're less likely to end up in the hospital and less likely to die. That's what matters. We are seeing some proportion of people, it's a very small minority having that rebound. When people get that rebound, where they start having symptoms again, they test positive again, they're not getting particularly sick. If we remember, our goal is to prevent severe illness and death, Paxlovid is working extremely well.
BLITZER: Important point, indeed. The White House coronavirus response coordinator, Dr. Ashish Jha, as usual, thanks so much for joining us. And thanks so much for all that you are doing.
JHA: Thank you.
BLITZER: Just ahead, we have details now on the growing rift between the U.S. Justice Department and the January 6th select committee. Stand by.
BLITZER: The high profile member of the Trump White House speaking to the House January 6th Select Committee for the second time.
Our congressional correspondent Ryan Nobles is joining us with details.
What's the latest, Ryan?
RYAN NOBLES, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, that's right, Wolf.
Stephanie Grisham, who was a former press secretary, who was serving as the chief of staff to First Lady Melania Trump on January 6. And what is significant about this appearance is that it is the second time that she's come back to speak to the committee. She did what they described as an informal interview a few months ago. So it's clear what they learned in the first interview led them to come back and talk a second time.
Of course, these interviews have been an important part of the committee's investigation. They conducted nearly a thousand depositions. It's something the justice department is very interested in. The Justice Department asking the committee to hand over the transcripts of some of their depositions, as recognition that the DOJ has expanded its investigation into what happened on January 6th.
But the committee isn't complying. They're saying it's their work product and they are not going to hand it over.
I asked Chairman Bennie Thompson about that today, asked himself, are you frustrated with the Department of Justice? He said, no, we turn people down all the time. This is our work product, we are holding onto it, until our investigation is complete. The Justice Department can amend their request, but as for right now, they are not getting access to this material -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Very significant information, indeed. We'll stay in close touch with you, Ryan. Thank you very much, Ryan Nobles, up on Capitol Hill.
And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.