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The Situation Room

Prosecutor Says, Gunman Confessed to Opening Fire at Parade; Ex-Trump White House Counsel Pat Cipollone to Testify Before 1/6 Committee; Biden Calls Wife of WNBA Superstar Detained in Russia; Brittney Griner's Wife "Grateful" for Call from Biden, Harris; Russia Advancing in East Ukraine as War Reaches Critical Stage. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired July 06, 2022 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Authorities say the gunman admits the opening fire and to considering a second attack. I'll talk with the lead prosecutor who is promising the shooter will face new charges beyond seven counts of murder.

Also tonight, former Trump White House Counsel Pat Cipollone is now set to face the January 6th select committee after months of pressure to testify. Will he provide crucial evidence against the former president?

And President Biden is responding to a desperate personal plea for help from WNBA Star Brittney Griner. We're going to tell you what President Biden told Griner's wife about his efforts to win her release from Russia.

We want to welcome viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We begin in Highland Park where authorities now say the July Fourth shooter is confessing to what he did and what he thought about doing after the slaughter. CNN Senior National Correspondent Ed Lavandera is on the scene.


ED LAVANDERA, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Appearing in court for the first time since the July Fourth massacre, prosecutors say, shooting suspect Robert Crimo III admitted to opening fire on parade-goers celebrating Independence Day in Highland Park, Illinois. Authorities say three 30-round magazines and 83 spent shell casings were recovered and that Crimo was considering another shooting in Madison, a 2.5 hour drive away.

DEPUTY CHIEF CHRISTOPHER CONVELLI, LAKE COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE: He did see a celebration that was occurring in Madison and he seriously contemplated using the firearm he had in his vehicle to commit another shooting in Madison.

LAVANDERA: A judge ruled he will be held without bond. The state's attorney is charging the 21-year-old with seven counts of first-degree murder. The FBI is also considering federal charges.

ERIC RINEHART, LAKE COUNTY STATE'S ATTORNEY: These are just the first of many charges that will be filed against Mr. Crimo. I want to emphasize that. There will be more charges. We anticipate dozens of more charges centering around each of the victims.

LAVANDERA: New surveillance video captured the commotion after the gunfire started. Some parade spectators were scrambling into a nearby outdoor apparel store, a few stumbling upon entry, then ducking for cover.

Crimo's past contact with law enforcement is under scrutiny. Police say they were contacted in April of 2019 after Crimo tried to kill himself. The matter was treated as a mental health matter and no police action was taken.

Five months later, a family member contacted police reporting that Crimo had a collection of knives and said he was going to, quote, kill everyone. Police responded and removed 16 knives, a dagger and a sword from his home. No one from his family, however, filed a complaint. Later that day, the knives were returned to Crimo's father who claimed they were his.

Despite all of this, Crimo was granted a firearm card by Illinois State Police with his father sponsoring the application for the card. The agency says Crimo passed four background checks between June of 2020 and September of 2021.

MAYOR NANCY ROTERING, HIGHLAND PARK, ILLINOIS: I'm looking forward to an explanation of what happened. We in Highland Park, our police department did the right thing, filed the necessary reports and I am waiting for that explanation. I expect it in the next few days.

LAVANDERA: As a community mourns, more witnesses are coming forward sharing their harrowing experience.

BRYANT SIVESS, PARADE ATTENDEE, HELPED VICTIMS: The whole time I'm just trying to figure out who is going on, what do I need to do.

LAVANDERA: Bryant Sivess attended the parade with his wife and four kids. He says his oldest son was briefly missing after the shooting stopped but says he still managed to help victims while searching for his child. He eventually found his son in a nearby jewelry store.

SIVESS: I came and got him and just like where you've been, son? We're scared to death. We didn't know if he was shot, that's why we couldn't find him. We didn't know if he was just hiding somewhere. We didn't know.


LAVANDERA (on camera): And, Wolf, it's not entirely clear why that second attack wasn't carried out in Madison, Wisconsin. Authorities said today that perhaps the early indication right now is that the shooter didn't feel like he had researched it enough to carry it out.

As far as the overall motivation for why he carried out this deadly attack on the streets of Highland Park, Illinois, investigators are saying at this point they don't want to speculate what the motive might have been. They say it's not necessarily clear at this point given the conversations they've had with the suspect. Wolf?

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

Joining us now also from Highland Park, the Lake County state's attorney, Eric Rinehart. Eric, thanks so much for joining us. Thanks for all you're doing.

As we watch this truly horrifying new surveillance video of parade- goers fleeing the attack, tell us why you believe it's so important that this gunman faced justice for everyone he terrorized on top of the seven first-degree murder charges he's already facing.


RINEHART: Thank you, Wolf. It's vital to the healing of this community that every single victim receives justice. I've been meeting with victims since yesterday. We've had our office personnel down in Highland Park since early yesterday. The FBI Victim Assistance Team is doing an amazing job. Everyone is pulling together.

I want to express my condolences to those who lost their loved ones, to those injured physically and psychologically. Every one of those people that was injured and killed has lost their freedom. Their freedom matters, the freedom to be free from the trauma of what happened here on the Fourth. And so for every victim, we will be filing multiple charges against Mr. Crimo.

BLITZER: Given this confession to investigators, are you expecting that this gunman will plead guilty in court?

RINEHART: I don't want to speculate on what he's going to do. Law enforcement did an amazing job. Our federal partners at the FBI, the ATF, the Highland Park Police Department, the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force, the Illinois State Police and so many other agencies all came together to investigate this case quickly. They were able to capture him in a matter of hours. And, obviously, I have to mention the first responders who were here to help those who were injured. Everybody has done an amazing job even in a heartbreaking -- even in such a heartbreaking situation.

BLITZER: Yes. We are all so very grateful to all of them.

During your briefings over the past day or so, you left open the possibility of charging the gunman's parents, especially his father. What charges potentially could they face?

RINEHART: I don't want to speculate too much on that. The investigation is very active. We continue to encourage people who have information about Mr. Crimo or about the parade to come forward. We are looking a lot at his contacts and his social media as well as his digital footprint, and that's going to help us understand the complete picture of this premeditated and calculated attack.

BLITZER: I ask the question Eric, because the gunman's father signed off on the gun license application, as you know, in December of 2019, despite his history of violent threats. Does he bear some legal responsibility for this attack?

RINEHART: We're looking at all of the details of what everyone's involvement was, what everyone's knowledge was, when people were aware of the danger, when people were aware of the risk, the substantial risk to other individuals, and we continue to evaluate that as we receive evidence.

BLITZER: Police say the gunman seriously contemplated a second attack in Madison, Wisconsin, not very far away from Highland Park. How close did he actually, though, come to carrying out another massacre?

RINEHART: You know, that information is just stunning to contemplate. That information is -- it's unbelievable. And we don't know how close he came. He certainly was by himself up there, as far as we know right now, and, you know, his statements about that I'll leave for another day. But it's certainly, incredibly concerning to think about that and about the -- really, the access he had to assault weapons.

I've called for a state and nationwide ban on these type of assault weapons. It was an MNP-15 and that is not something that he should have had access to for a variety of reasons.

BLITZER: Could more charges, do you believe, stem from those plans of a potential second attack?

RINEHART: Certainly, we're looking at what happened in Wisconsin. We're looking at him crossing state lines to do that. We're looking at all of the information that may be out there digitally to understand the full scope of his attack. I speak with the U.S. attorney every few hours. I would certainly refer you to them in terms of some of the federal questions about potential federal charges. But we're working day and night on this. Our office is coordinating with the FBI to understand all of the digital evidence.

BLITZER: The shooter, as you know, Eric, passed four, not two or three but four background checks despite previous threats against his own family. What needs to change to prevent someone like this from getting their hands on an assault rifle?

RINEHART: So, that information is conveyed from a local police department directly to the Illinois State Police who governs that application process. I think some of that information could have come to prosecutors' offices possibly in the future in case we had contact with him. It just so happens the state's attorney's office never had contact with Mr. Crimo at any point.


And so I don't know that that would have prevented it, but at this point, we should be looking at everything we can to make the community safe, obviously, increasing digital information, increasing cooperation between law enforcement and state's attorneys and the Illinois State Police to understand when people are a threat is important and to store that information and be able to access that information later in case its obtained early and the law changes or it's obtained early and but it's not searched later. We've got to increase the connectivity when people are making these types of blanket threats.

BLITZER: You're absolutely right. It's so heartbreaking and I'm sure you'll agree to hear from the families of these victims. It really is terrible. What is your message to them, Eric, tonight as you try to bring this gunman to justice?

RINEHART: Yes, that we're here to support you, that this journey could be a long one and that it's an individualized journey and that we are here for each and every one of you. The FBI Victim Assistance Team is amazing. The state's attorney victim witness coordinators are here in Highland Park. We're going to continue to be here as long as we need to be and that we will get justice, that we will seek the maximum penalty against Mr. Crimo for this unbelievable attack not only on Highland Park and on Lake County but on really the peace of the nation.

When somebody does this here in Lake County, Illinois, I think people in California, in New York, in Maine, in Texas, in Florida, I think they're thinking about that when they go to the zoo or to the museum. It is a devastating attack on all of us and we must meet it with the full force of our community to counteract that. And that's what I want to pledge to the victims and to make sure that there are no more victims and to do everything we can policy-wise and legislatively to make sure there are no victims in the future.

BLITZER: Yes, because if it can happen in Highland Park, it can happen anywhere in the country. The Lake County state's attorney, Eric Rinehart, thanks for all you're doing. Thanks so much for joining us. I'd like to continue our conservations down the road. I appreciate it very much.

RINEHART: Thank you very much, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, heartbreaking new details about the shooting victims and how they died.

Also, a potential breakthrough of the January 6th investigation as the former Trump White House counsel now agrees to testify.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: One of the most sought after witnesses in the January 6th investigation now has reached a deal with the select committee. Sources say former Trump White House Counsel Pat Cipollone will be interviewed behind closed doors this coming Friday.

Let's go to our Congressional Correspondent Ryan Nobles. Ryan, this is certainly a major development for the select committee.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There is no doubt about that, Wolf, because Pat Cipollone is a name that came up over and over again during testimony that we heard in previous hearings, particularly the testimony of Cassidy Hutchinson, the former aide to the White House of chief of staff, Mark Meadows.

And Cipollone is a key player here. He is someone at the center of everything taking place at the White House especially in that critical period of time that the committee is interested in, from after the election leading up to January 6th. And according to Hutchinson's testimony, he worked very hard to prevent things like having Jeff Clark be installed as the attorney general and also prevented the former president from marching down to the Capitol on January 6th, which would have made a bad situation even worse.

Now, what we're not clear about is the parameters of this particular interview. We know it's going to take place behind closed doors, it will be transcribed and videotaped. So, it's likely that we'll at least see some of it in future hearings. We don't know though how they are going to handle the issue of privilege.

Committee members have said that they are willing to work with Cipollone when it comes to matters like that and likely means, though, Wolf, that any specific and direct conversations that he had with the president will be off limits. Wolf?

BLITZER: Yes, I think you're right. And I'm sure they will run clips, excerpts from that videotaped interview during the next round of hearings.

Regarding the Georgia special grand jury investigating Trump's attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, I understand that Senator Lindsey Graham, who has now responded to the subpoena that he was issued for his testimony, but he's saying he's not ready yet to agree. What's the latest?

NOBLES: Yes, that's right, Wolf. Senator Graham making it clear that he plans to challenge this subpoena request through the courts, which, of course, will mean that it will delay any sort of testimony or information that he could provide the district attorney in Fulton County and basically extend this process out.

Now, depending on which legal expert you talk to, it does seem as though there is nothing that absolves Graham from stepping forward and answering the questions that the grand jury and the district attorney are looking for but, still, Graham has decided that he wants to fight this in court and plans to do so.

Of course, graham is a key player in all of this. He was among the group of people close to the former president that was putting pressure on election officials in Georgia to at least investigate allegations of fraud or stand in the way of the certification of the election results there. This particular investigation in Fulton County is moving ahead now at a rapid clip and it appears that they believe Graham is a key part of the investigation.

BLITZER: They certainly do. All right, Ryan Nobles up on Capitol Hill, thank you very much.

Let's bring in Defense Attorney and former Federal Prosecutor Shan Wu along with CNN Senior Political Correspondent Abby Phillip.

Shan, how significant is Cipollone's testimony this coming for you?

SHAN WU, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Well, I think it's very significant because of who he is, of course, and his great statement that if Trump went to the Hill, they might be charged with every crime imaginable. But I completely agree with Ryan's observation that because of the privilege issues, January 6th committee really doesn't have time to litigate those issues with them so they are going to cave to his parameters and, therefore, we will probably hear very little about his actual conversations with Trump but he can certainly corroborate a lot of what we heard from Cassidy Hutchinson earlier.

BLITZER: We'll see what happens on that front. He's known as someone, and you covered the White House, Abby, as someone that doesn't necessarily like the limelight right now talking about Cipollone, but his testimony potentially could be very, very significant.


ABBY PHILLIP, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it absolutely will be. And even though it will be behind closed doors, it will be videotaped, like many of the other depositions that have happened. And I think that you can expect that if it's of significance and it has bearing on some of the additional hearings that we're going to have, you might even see Pat Cipollone in further hearings.

He is someone who obviously has been in this White House, the Trump White House, through thick and thin. He defended Trump through his impeachment hearing, his first impeachment hearing. He sees himself as a defender of the presidential institution, but at the same time, based on the testimony of others, he was issuing big red flag warning signs.

And I think the committee wants to know what did he know about how much the president knew about who was armed in that crowd, about how badly he wanted to go to the Capitol, about all the machinations happening behind the scenes by people like Rudy Giuliani and others. Those are really going to be important pieces of testimony from someone who would have actually had a good 360-degree view of what was going on from the legal side but also just from the perspective of people trying to get former President Trump to do something on January 6th.

BLITZER: Abby Phillip, thank you very much. Shan Wu, thanks to you as well. We'll stay on top of this story, of course.

Coming up, a father's final act of love trying to shield his toddler son from gunfire, we're going to share some of the new and gut- wrenching stories of Highland Park shooting victims. That's coming up.

Plus, we're learning right now about a new investigative report on the law enforcement response to the school massacre in Uvalde, Texas. We're going to tell you what it reveals, a lot more coming up.



BLITZER: Tonight, we have a new glimpse into some of the victims of the Highland Park shooting, the terror, the pain, bravery that they showed in their final moments.

CNN's Mike Valerio is in Highland Park for us. Mike, what more are you learning about these truly, wonderful, innocent people who simply went to a Fourth of July parade and never returned?

MIKE VALERIO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we're learning the stories of a father who simply, in his dying moments, just wanted to protect the life of his toddler son. We're also learning the story of a mother who just wanted her daughter to have a great time reuniting with high school friends here at the parade.

But all of these stories, Wolf, have led hundreds of people together paying their own silent homage to the dead at the memorials that now line up and down the pray ground. And, in fact, one of the indelible images came this morning when a man sinks to the ground with sunflowers at his feet and he puts his head right into his hands and just prays in a moment of agony.

But, Wolf, of course, we're all remembering the story of two-year-old Aiden McCarthy. His father, Kevin, in his last act of heroism alive decides to save his son, shield him from the barrage of gunfire. His mother, Irina, would also be lost in this depraved attack and it's up to a Good Samaritan couple to save the baby from this catastrophe, from this chaos. They bring him into their home, launch a social media campaign to find his relatives and he was recently reunited with his grandparents.

Wolf, we're also remembering the story of 64-year-old Katie Goldstein who brought her daughter to the parade. The daughter described her mother's last moments of life. Listen to what she said.


CASSIE GOLDSTEIN, DAUGHTER OF HIGHLAND PARK SHOOTING VICTIM: I looked up and I saw the shooter shooting down at the kids and I told her that it was a shooter and that she had to run. So, I started running with her. And we were next to each other and he shot her in the chest and she fell down and I knew she was dead. So, I just told her that I loved her but I couldn't stop because he was still shooting everyone next to me.

She was just a good mom and I got 22 years with her. And I got to have 22 years with the best mom in the world.


VALERIO: 22 years but not nearly enough, Wolf. And when you see the images of the souls we've lost, every single name, every single face, every story, it brings new heartbreak all over again.

And, Wolf, there is a line in Hamlet, when sorrow comes, it's described in the play, it comes not in single spies but it comes in battalions. And it does feel as, Wolf, that every single news story that we hear, more heartbreak, it's another battalion that hits here in Highland Park. Wolf?

BLITZER: Mike on the scene for us, Mike, thank you very, very much. It is so, so heart-wrenching, so painful to see those stories and to hear those stories.

Let's bring in our legal analysts right now, Joey Jackson and Paul Callan.

Joey, the lead prosecutor in this case, Eric Rinehart, told me this hour just a little while ago, it's important to pursue justice for everyone at that parade, not just for those who were killed. As we watched this terrifying new surveillance video of people fleeing the attack, you can certainly understand why he wants to file even more charges, right?

JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Without question, Wolf. It's about accountability. And the obvious charges and to the prior report, the issue is on the other side of a dangerous weapon are families, families with loved ones who are lost, who thought they were going to a parade simply to enjoy themselves and they are no more. And then in addition to those and, of course, we know the premeditated murder charges are the others, the others who were just there to have a good time, to celebrate the founding of our country and of our democracy.


And so, certainly, the prosecutor has to ensure that there is accountability as to those who died, accountability as to those who were attempted to be killed, accountability as to those who were injured physically, psychologically, et cetera. And so I do believe that moving forward. Wolf, you'll see an amendment of the charges so that everyone involved and really at the other end of really this disgraceful act could be held, right, the shooter could be held to account for.

It's just -- really, we're talking about it too much, something needs to be done. It's just really, really harmful for families and communities alike.

BLITZER: It certainly is. It's possible, Paul, that the gunman's parents potentially could face charges, as well, specifically the gunman's father who signed off on his son's gun license application back in 2019 despite the son's history of violent threats. Does that put him, the father, in legal jeopardy?

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think it could put him in legal jeopardy. However, the likelihood of a criminal prosecution is very, very low. More likely a civil lawsuit by the victims against him but that's for money damages and who is to say that he would have the funds to pay for a big judgment?

So, unfortunately, it's going to be hard for any of these families to find justice for this horrible act.

BLITZER: Joey, what do you make of the fact that the gunman confessed to the shooting but still hasn't entered a formal guilty plea?

JACKSON: Yes. I think that that is really of value, right? First of all, what you have to look at is the fact he gave an indication what his thought process was, what he did there, when he left to go to Wisconsin, what his plans were there, and, of course, he didn't do that, he came back. And so the police, really, in doing their job, really, in vetting out the case made an assessment, and he, of course, fully indicated exactly what he did.

But in terms of a plea, I think we'll see that moving forward. There is a process and that we have to determine whether the process will involve a full blown trial or whether that process, Wolf, will involve him seeking really to plead guilty. We know that this is not a death penalty prosecution. It will be life in prison without parole but I think in a confession in addition to the other evidence goes a long way of establishing his guilt but notwithstanding the fact what is justice in this case even though he pleads guilty, you have seven people without their family members anymore and so many more tarnished, psychologically damaged and physically injured.

BLITZER: So, heartbreaking. Paul, what about the possibility of federal charges? The FBI director, Christopher Wray, says that's still a possibility.

CALLAN: Well, it is a possibility. But, generally, we see those kinds of charges where the animus for the killings is racially motivated or ethnically motivated. And he seemed to have a hatred of everybody. He was shooting wildly into that street. So, I'm kind of doubtful that there will be federal charges. And bear in mind, Wolf, that he's facing life without parole on the current set of charges. So, you can only put somebody in jail for so long.

I do think, though, that if there is some lesson to be learned from these charges, it's that these red flag laws that people feel are helping us are of no help, whatsoever. They're filled with loopholes and the lawmakers have to go back and write better laws that protect us against people like this individual who never should have had a gun in his hands in the first place.

BLITZER: You're absolutely right. Paul Callan. Thank you very much. Joey Jackson, thanks to you as well.

Just ahead, a damning new report finds police missed several chances to stop the Uvalde, Texas gunman in the moments before the elementary school massacre. We have details when we come back.


BLITZER: A new review of the Uvalde mass shootings finds police missed multiple opportunities to stop the shooter before he went on a rampage inside Robb Elementary School killing 19 children and 2 adults.

CNN's Rosa Flores is joining us now from Houston. Rosa, what are we learning from this new report?

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This new report is by law enforcement training experts and they note that --

BLITZER: I think we -- unfortunately, we lost our connection with Rosa Flores, but let me read to you what the Texas State University report says about the Uvalde school shooting.

Quote, the officer armed with a rifle asked a supervisor for permission to shoot the suspect. However, the supervisor either did not hear or responded too late. Statement goes on to say the officer turned to get confirmation from his supervisor, and when he turned back to address the suspect, he had entered the west hallway unabated.

Very disturbing information, indeed, potentially, that shooter could have been stopped before he entered that elementary school.

We'll try to reconnect with Rosa Flores when we can. Rosa, in the meantime, thank you very much.

Coming up, what President Biden told Brittney Griner's after WNBA star sent him a letter begging him, begging him not to forget about her as she sits in a Russian jail.



BLITZER: President Biden and Vice President Harris spoke today to Cherelle Griner, the wife of detained basketball star Brittney Griner. The White House says the president assured Cherelle he's working to secure Brittney's release from Russia as soon as possible.

CNN's Brian Todd is following all the late breaking developments for us. So, Brian, what are you learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, a short time ago, Griner's wife, Cherelle, issued a statement to CNN saying she is grateful to the president and vice president for that phone call and it means the world to her entire family and to her wife. Brittney.

This phone call came after significant public pressure on the Biden White House from Brittney Griner's family, from her teammates and from Griner herself.


TODD (voice over): New urgency from the White House tonight in the case of Brittney, the American basketball star, detained in Russia.


Her wife, Cherelle Griner, gets a call from President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris who assure her, according to administrative officials, that they're working to ensure Brittney Griner's release as soon as possible.

AMB. WILLIAM COURTNEY, FORMER SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO THE PRESIDENT FOR RUSSIA, UKRAINE AND EURASIA: The president and vice president are under pressure to do more, but this is understandable, given the high profile of Brittney Griner's situation.

TODD: The White House also says the president has written a letter to Brittney Griner in response to her letter to him delivered this week, in which she wrote, I am terrified that I might be here forever. Please don't forget about me and the other American detainees.

And it all comes just a few days at the shallow Griner, in an exclusive interview with CNN, implied that not enough is being done by the White House.

CHERELLE GRINER, BRITTNEY GRINER'S WIFE: I do have to, unfortunately, push people that these things that they are telling me is matching their actions. It has been the hardest thing to balance because, I can't let up.

TODD: One analyst says that the Russians could seek to capitalize on the recent publicity over the Griner case.

STEVE HALL, FORMER CIA HEAD OF RUSSIA OPERATIONS: It is in the Russians interest to have this be as high-profile as possible, because they can drive a harder bargain when they want to try to get a hostage released. That is what this is, it is a hostage situation.

TODD: Griner's been charged in Russia with drug smuggling. At her trial, Russian prosecutors say that she is carrying less than a gram of cannabis oil when she was apprehended in February.

Griner's WNBA coach, Vanessa Nygaard, had in recent days accused the Biden administration of a double standard, saying that if NBA star LeBron James was being held by the Russians, he would be up by now, saying that women, Black people and gay people are given lesser value.

After hearing of the presidents call with Griner today, Nygaard said this to MSNBC.

VANESSA NYGAARD, HEAD COACH, PHOENIX MERCURY: To get that call from President Biden and Vice President Harris and to know that they read the letter, and that they're going to react and respond, this is great, great news. And we hope to have more progress continue.

TODD: But not everyone is pleased. Paul Whelan is an American who has been detained in Russia since 2018 on espionage charges, which he has denied. Today, Whelan sister, Elizabeth, told CNN that she is furious, not that Biden called Griner's wife, but that she has not spoken with the Whelan family. Quote: Why are the Whelans not getting a call, she said. I'm really angry.

COURTNEY: Any American citizen who has a family member held in a place like Russia is certainly justified and being angry. But let's remember, the U.S. has been given sustained attention to the Paul Whelan case for months now.


TODD (on camera): Contacted by CNN about Elizabeth Whelan's complaint, the spokesperson for the National Security Council at the White House said President Biden has been clear about the need to secure Paul Whelan's release, and at the White House and State Department have been in regular contact with the Whelan family.

Brittney Griner's wife Cherelle is the pressing for an in-person meeting with President Biden, Wolf. She may get that soon.

BLITZER: I suspect she probably will. All right. Thanks very much. Brian Todd reporting for us.

Let's discuss what is going on with "USA Today" sports columnist and CNN sports analysts Christine Brennan.

Christine, thanks for joining us.

It certainly remains to be seen whether the Biden administration will, in fact, be able to get Brittney Griner out of that Russian prison. But it's very significant, isn't it, that the president actually responded to her emotional letter and reach out with a phone call to her wife, Cherelle Griner.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, CNN SPORTS ANALYST: Wolf, it certainly is. It is a big step forward. This is heartbreaking. It is such a difficult story. I think everyone's heart goes out to the Griner family and, of course, Brittney Griner, six foot nine stuck in a cell, almost five months now.

It was February 17th. Another week or so, it would've been five months, Wolf, that she was arrested since the arrest at the Moscow airport and then, of course, being held.

And it is such a difficult story. It is set against the backdrop, of course, of the horrors of the Ukraine War that started just a week after Brittney Griner was arrested. And also, the issue of how women athletes are treated compared to male athletes. The money they make, the reason that Brittney Griner, as you know, was going to Russia was because so many WNBA players don't make much money, basically $200,000 or so.

So they go to try to make more money, supplement their income overseas. All of that is wrapped into this very difficult story.

BLITZER: Very difficult, indeed. Is there some risk to the president getting personally involved and making this an even higher profile case? Because some experts say that could give the Russians more leverage in what is essentially probably going to be a hostage situation?

BRENNAN: Certainly, it could turn out exactly as the Griner family is hoping it wouldn't. In other words, as Brian had a piece, she now becomes higher profile.


So, that irony of the woman athlete, the conversation about if it were Tom Brady or LeBron James, it would be so different. Well, Brittney Griner now is becoming more high-profile by the day, Wolf. And, because of that, this is high stakes game of chess, this hostage drama, does it even become bigger and it becomes more difficult to get her back because of that? I'm asking as a question because we don't know.

There is so much unknown here. The motion of the moment and understandable heartbreaking situation for the Griner family clearly is carrying the day right now. Moving forward, as this trial starts again tomorrow, we'll see how that plays out.

BLITZER: Let's hope she's released soon. Christine Brennan, thank you very, very much.

Still ahead, we are going live to Ukraine, as Russia makes new advances in the east, and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are now being urged to evacuate.

Stay with us.



BLITZER: Tonight, Russia's war against Ukraine is at a critical stage, with Kremlin forces advancing in the east.

CNN senior international correspondent, Alex Marquardt is out on the ground for us in Ukraine. He's joining us from Kharkiv right now.

Alex, so what's the latest on this Russian advance?

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, things here in Kharkiv are tense ahead of what is expected to be a renewed Russian advance here on Ukraine's second biggest city. This is a city that comes under almost daily bombardment from the Russians, Wolf, in just the past half hour, we have heard two large booms in the distance.

And in his nightly address tonight, President Zelenskyy referenced the bombing of a teachers university of that has left at least one person that. Now, Russian troops have been pushed back from the city around 12 miles or 20 kilometers, but Ukrainian forces are digging new trenches. They are digging in and fortifying those.

You can see out here that it is pitch black around me. There are no lights on at all in this city for security reasons. All of this comes as Russia has made some significant gains in eastern Ukraine, particularly in the Luhansk region of Donbas. That is where they have taken on almost entire territory, except for a few small pockets.

And that is why there is a belief that Russia is going to turn its attention to the other part of Donbas, Donetsk. And in Donetsk, local officials are telling residents that they need to flee. They need to get out. They need to evacuate. The national rail company has put war carriages on the trends that people get out.

The population there, Wolf, in Donetsk, is around 20 percent of what it was before the war. But there are still some 300,000 residents that local officials are hoping will get out soon. Now, President Zelenskyy is optimistic that they will be able to take back the Donbas. He says that Ukrainian troops were pulled out of Luhansk in order to save lives, in the face of intense Russian attacks. He says that he believes Ukrainian forces will go back in and take Donbas with the help of that military aid that is coming from the West -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Alex Marquardt, stay safe over there, we will be in touch. Thank you very much.

Joining us now, the former NATO supreme allied commander, retired General Wesley Clark. He's a CNN military analyst.

General Clark, thanks for joining us.

With Luhansk now under Kremlin control, is the entire Donbas region now at risk of falling to the Russians?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, I think this gives the Russians, it shows what the Russian tactics and strategy is, and it does put the region at greater risk. It is not because Luhansk has fallen. It's because in the process, a lot of good Ukrainian forces have been chewed up in battle.

And this is a Russian effort to trip, destroy and degrade the Ukrainian military. The military is the real objective. But they're doing is holding the military forward because the Ukrainians cannot give up terrain without hurting themselves politically. You heard President Zelenskyy say we're going to take it back.

At the same time, they are holding Ukrainians forward. They are pounding them with artillery. They are hitting them with poorly trained troops, but is enough to inflict tremendous casualties and losses.

What he wants to do is break the Ukraine military. He's using the heavy artillery to do it. Is a critical, yes? Over the next 4 to 6 weeks, as the ground dries out, Russia still has several dozen battle groups that are basically held up on a fight. They could break through, they could exploit, that would be the conventional war strategy. Whether they are capable of doing it or not effectively remains to be seen.

But, yes, this is the fear that we had all along, because the Ukrainians didn't have enough artillery, didn't get aircraft, didn't have enough modern equipment, did not have air defense, but they would be ground up in this artillery struggle. And that looks like that's what's happening.

BLITZER: So, is there anything the U.S. can do, General Clark, to help Ukrainians right now?

CLARK: Well, in the near term, of course, it would be better if we get the more intelligence information so that they can use their longer range weapons more accurately. We said we're not going to actually help them and targeting. OK, that's a legal decision. We want to stand on legality, fine. If there is a way to help with intelligence, we should find that way to do it.

Secondly, we need to expedite the flow of munitions and long-range artillery there.

Third, we need to be preparing for the fact that we will be run low on Warsaw Pact ammunition, the 1.52 milliliters especially. They don't have long-range rockets. So, we got to get Ukrainians trained on NATO standard equipment. And that means at the same time they are fighting, they are reorganizing their whole armed forces.

They've got a lot of volunteers. They've got a lot of people who want to fight. They don't have body armor. They don't have helmets. They don't have radios. They don't have the equipment they need.

And some of these units are very poorly equipped, but they are being forced into fight to hold a line in Donbas.

BLITZER: Let's see what happens. Let's hope for the best.

General Wesley Clark, thank you very much.

To our viewers, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.