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The Situation Room

White House Likens GOP Governors Sending Migrants North to Human Smugglers; New Special Master in Mar-a-Lago Documents Case Sets Tuesday Hearing; King Charles and Siblings Stand Vigil as Queen's Coffin Lies in State; Biden Meets Face-to-Face with Families of Americans Held by Russia. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired September 16, 2022 - 18:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: -- United Nations General Assembly next week, plus, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, Republican Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota, that's Sunday at 9:00 A.M. and noon Eastern.


Then Sunday night, my CNN special, American Coup, the January 6 investigation, that's Sunday night at 9:00 P.M. Eastern.

Our coverage continues now with one Mr. Wolf Blitzer in The Situation Room. I will see you on Sunday morning.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, growing backlash against Republican governors sending migrants north, the White House likening their actions to human smugglers. This is as migrants flown to Martha's Vineyard's by Florida's governor now are being sheltered in a U.S. military base in Massachusetts.

And also tonight the state is now set forever a legal showdown after a judge's ruling naming a special master to review classified documents and other materials seized from Mar-a-Lago. The special master just set his first hearing for this coming Tuesday as the Justice Department prepares to file an appeal.

And King Charles and his siblings stand vigil at Queen Elizabeth's coffin as members of the public now wait up to 24 hours to pay their respects. We're following the tributes and the security concerns just ahead of the queen's funeral on Monday.

Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer, and you're in The Situation Room.

We begin with the fate of migrants flown to Massachusetts by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Some of them now tell CNN they were misled into making the trip.

CNN Senior National Correspondent Miguel Marquez is on the scene for us.


MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): After less than 48 unexpected hours in Martha's Vineyard, nearly 50 Venezuelan migrants were given a warm sendoff. Volunteers embracing each person as they boarded buses, then ferries and on to the next part of their long journey.

Their unannounced arrival Wednesday all part of the campaign by Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to send migrants to so-called sanctuary cities by surprise.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): All we're trying to do is offer transport to sanctuary jurisdictions free to the alien but certainly not mandatory, and that way they're able to go and these sanctuary jurisdictions could put their money where their mouth is.

MARQUEZ: These immigrants were picked up in Texas. Some of them say they were taken to a hotel to wait, then boarded planes. Well, didn't know until last minute our destination, such as New York, where our relatives reside, he says. Yeng Palomora (ph) and other immigrants we spoke to here say they were promised all sorts of things, including jobs and housing, things that never materialized. We were told it was humanitarian aid by a foundation that, in this case, remains unknown, he says. It's just the latest account of migrants seemingly deceived and dropped off.

From Washington, D.C. --

CARLA BUSTILLOS, VOLUNTEER: They felt fooled and they felt that their suffering was exploited.

MARQUEZ: -- to confusion in New York City --

MANUEL CASTRO, COMMISSIONER, NYC MAYOR'S OFFICER OF IMMIGRANT AFFAIRS: Standing at port authority, he asked me, and how do I get to Portland, Oregon?

MARQUEZ: -- to California, where Governor Gavin Newsom has asked the Department of Justice to open an investigation into the controversial practice.

GOV. GAVIN NEWSOM (D-CA): What Ron DeSantis is doing is a disgrace. It is almost monstrous.

DESANTIS: They did get a packet that had the map of Martha's Vineyard, and they're also treated very well with all this. I mean, they're treated well with meals and everything.

MARQUEZ: While volunteers and officials in Martha's Vineyard promptly responded and cared for their unexpected guests, lawyers assisting the immigrants say the stop did nothing but detour already desperate people.

RACHEL SELF, LAWYER ASSISTING IMMIGRANTS, MARTHA'S VINEYARD: It is sickeningly cruel, throwing obstacles in the way of people fleeing violence and oppression, some of whom walked through ten countries in the hopes of finding safety.

LISA BELCASTRO, VOLUNTEER: My heartbreaks for them because they were not the first priority. They're many my heart forever. I don't know what else to say.


MARQUEZ (on camera): So, it was only two days, but there was a real connection made between the people here on Martha's Vineyard and those Venezuelan migrants. Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, mentioned that they were given a packet and they were given maps. We have some pictures of those very maps that they were given. One was a picture of the U.S. showing a red line from Texas to Massachusetts. It's not very clear on that map where exactly they're going at Massachusetts.

The other is a picture of Martha's Vineyard. But on top, it says, welcome to Massachusetts, bienvenido a Massachusetts, if they're reading Spanish.


And then in the fine print, in the center, there's a star that says, you are here, Martha's Vineyard, but if you're from Venezuela and have been on the road for three months, you probably don't even know where Martha's Vineyard, or maybe don't even know where Massachusetts is. Many of them thought they were going to get closer to New York City, where they have friends and relatives. So, the thought, well, that's a pretty good idea, but then, of course, they're on an island. The bottom line, Wolf, it's just complicates their already very complicated journey. Wolf?

BLITZER: It certainly does. Miguel, stand by. We're going to get back to you in just a few moments.

Also tonight, the Biden administration is ramping up its criticism of Republican leaders for what is happening to these migrants.

Let's bring in our White House Correspondent M.J. Lee. M.J., the White House, I understand, is meeting today to discuss its response to Governors DeSantis and Abbott for that matter. What is the latest? What are you hearing?

M.J. LEE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, needless to say, White House officials have been monitoring very closely and with a good amount of concern. The situations that Miguel laid out in his piece there, these groups of migrants that are being flown or bused to the areas in the north unexpectedly and without a lot of notice. And today, you're right, that there was a meeting between cabinet and White House officials. The White House officials have stressed that this meeting was in place before these situations took place.

But you can imagine that the stakes are a lot higher now as these officials presumably discuss key immigration issues, like the situation at the border and also just the federal response to some of the scenes that we're seeing playing out here in terms of what exactly law enforcement and other agencies should do in response to these situations, and today, the White House really leaning into the fact that they see the situation as inhuman and cruel. Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, today likening the actions of these Republican governors to human smugglers. Take a listen. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KARINE JEAN-PIERRE, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: These are the kinds of tactics we see from smugglers in places like Mexico and Guatemala. And for what? A photo op? Because these governors care about creating political theater than creating actual solutions to help folks who are fleeing communism, to help children, to help families. Instead, they want to do political stunts.


LEE: And all of this has prompted a lot of legal questions. And today, when I asked Jean-Pierre whether there is a legal determination on whether these actions are legal or not, she again referred us to the DOJ. But they are going to be pressing the fact that, again, they find all of this to be cruel and inhumane. Wolf?

BLITZER: M.J. Lee at the White House for us, thank you very much.

Let's bring back Miguel Marquez along with CNN Political Commentators Van Jones and Charlie Dent.

Charlie, as a former Republican congressman, what do you make of this strategy by Governor DeSantis, for example? Do you think it will work with GOP voters?

CHARLIE DENT, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, Wolf, I served on homeland security committee for six years, I could say this. Look, this is a political stunt to be sure. But he is highlighting a point. The immigration system is broken. There are a lot of people coming into this country unlawfully, many are seeking asylum, many of them are economic migrants. They really aren't legitimate asylum cases.

The point is the immigration system is broken. They need to deal with the DREAMERs, they need to make sure that their adequate detention beds, immigration judges, to process these things. There isn't infrastructure at the border to deal with this. These people have to be dealt with humanely. And to be fair, the Office of Refugee Resettlement routinely will send migrants from the border up into the interior of the country, like it did in my district in Pennsylvania. We often housed refugees.

Now, I don't agree with the way they're doing this, some of these governors, but they are making a point. They need help from Washington to fix this system once and for all. And, frankly, both parties have a lot to be blamed for in this situation.

BLITZER: Well, let's get Van to respond to that. What do you think, Van?

VAN JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, when the Office of Resettlement does it, they call ahead, they coordinate, they make sure that services are in place and do it in a responsible way. It is not an ambush. It is not tricking and trapping people and then traumatizing then and throwing them out into a bewildering situation with T.V. cameras. So, this is a completely different situation when it is done the right way.

Now, I agree that the people in the border towns are frustrated. I don't think that we've done a good enough job solving the crisis. But what is happening with these GOP governors, they are pimping the pain of border towns and the migrants for their own purposes and solving no problem. This is making a point but they're not solving the problem.

I think Biden has an opportunity here. He should call all of the governors in to the White House and they should sit down and roll sleeves up and get to work. If DeSantis were serious though, he would have contacted the National Governor's Association, a bipartisan body, he should say, we have a problem, let's coordinate to fix it.


He did not do that. Instead, he engaged in a multimillion dollar conspiracy to defraud people and put them at risk and I hope the Department of Justice does something about it.

BLITZER: Miguel, you've been doing a lot of reporting on this. As you know, some Republican politicians are clearly stoking fears of illegal immigration. But the men and women and children sent to Martha's Vineyard are all asylum seekers, aren't they? They're legal asylum seekers?

MARQUEZ: Yes, this is sort of the complication in all of this. People who cross the border and claim asylum, especially those from Venezuela, a country and a government that Ron DeSantis does not like and has spoken out against many, many times, Venezuelan immigrants and migrants and refugees, he has supported over and over again for these people to sort of be moved up here. They are here on a legal basis. They are claiming asylum. They have ongoing legal meetings and hearings in across the country, in California, in Washington State, in Cincinnati, in Texas.

Sending them to Martha's Vineyard complicates all of that. They were well taken care of in Martha's Vineyard and will be fine eventually but it just added another wrinkle and another difficulty to a very, very difficult journey that they are on. Wolf?

BLITZER: Good point. Charlie, considering the sensitivity of this issue in Florida politics, is there a risk that all of this could backfire for Governor DeSantis there?

DENT: Well, yes, actually there is, Wolf, because there is a substantial expatriate Venezuelan population in Florida, and many of them I think are sympathetic to the Republican Party, to be perfectly candid. Many of them have escaped in a very socialist or communistic form of government, many similar to the story of the Cubans who left Communist Cuba and they've come to Florida and many of them identify with the Republican Party.

So, I think Governor DeSantis has to be very careful with how he treats these migrants. Again, I think the Venezuelan has some loyalty to the Republican Party in parts of South Florida, and he could put that part of electorate at risk if he's not careful with his management of this situation.

BLITZER: Van, let me give you the final word, go ahead.

JONES: I want to just point out one thing, which is that you might look at the pictures, and they're getting hugged and they're sandwiches and everything seems to be so great. Hey, no harm, no foul, a little political stunt from the frat boy down there in Florida. No, these people are now out of place. They're out of position. Some of these people are supposed to be in other parts of the country meeting with their immigration lawyers, dealing with officials. How are they going to get off of an island and where they're supposed to be so they can get back on track with their process? This was not a victimless stunt. Those people, they may be happy right now, they're in a world of hurt from an administrative standpoint and it did not have to happen.

BLITZER: Van Jones, Charlie Dent and Miguel Marquez, guys, thank you very, very much.

Just ahead, a legal showdown in the Mar-a-Lago investigation, the special master in the case has just scheduled his first hearing for Tuesday.



BLITZER: The newly appointed special master in the Mar-a-Lago documents case has just scheduled a hearing for Tuesday, but the U.S. Justice Department is expected to appeal the appointment of judge, setting up a legal showdown over the documents taken by the FBI in its search of former President Trump's Florida home.

CNN's Justice Correspondent Jessica Schneider has the latest.


JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Former President Donald Trump's lawyers doing a victory lap --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was a major win.

SCHNEIDER: Celebrating a judge's decision to name a special mast tore sort through more than 11,000 documents the FBI seized from Trump's Florida estate. The stage now set for a legal showdown with the Justice Department, which is expected to appeal.

JOHN YOO, FORMER DEPUTY ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL: On appeal, the 11th Circuit will look at what power did Judge Cannon have to undertake this remarkable and extraordinary step, which is to introduce a third party, this special master, into a type of situation where we rarely ever see them.

SCHNEIDER: Judge Aileen Cannon, a Trump appointee, standing by her decision to put the DOJ's criminal investigation into classified documents found at Mar-a-Lago on hold. YOO: And I'm not surprised that Judge Cannon did this because the Justice Department was basically asking her to reverse much of her decision.

SCHNEIDER: And rejecting the DOJ's argument that national security is at risk as a result of her order pausing the review of documents. Writing, the court does not find it appropriate to accept the government's conclusions on these important and disputed issues without further review by a neutral third party.

DAVID PRIESS, FORMER CIA OFFICER: She is saying, I don't trust you that they're actually classified. Who do I trust? A designee of the court, a special master who is going to determine more than the executive branch, which handles classification issues, what is classified and what isn't. It actually does have an impact on intelligence collection and has an impact on national security.

SCHNEIDER: Cannon giving Brooklyn-based judge and Reagan appointee, Raymond Dearie now special master in this case until the end of November, after the midterm elections, to conclude his review. Dearie was one of Trump's picks for the job and backed by DOJ. He's a veteran of the FISA court, a secretive body that handles foreign intel cases. His appointment though delaying the criminal probe six weeks longer than DOJ had wanted.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They delayed until November 30th. Sorry about that but you shouldn't have been so far-reaching.

SCHNEIDER: Cannon also ordering Trump to pay the costs rather than split it 50/50 with the DOJ. As for Trump, he said Thursday, even if he were indicted, that wouldn't prohibit him from running for president again. And he issued this warning.

DONALD TRUMP, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: You would have problems in this country, the likes of which perhaps we've never seen before. I don't think the people of the United States would stand for it.


SCHNEIDER (on camera): And tonight, we've just gotten word that the special master in this case, Judge Raymond Dearie, will be holding a preliminary conference on Tuesday at 2:00 P.M. That hearing will happen at the Brooklyn federal courthouse. That's where Judge Dearie is actually a senior judge. And, Wolf, this is all happening so quickly because the judge in this case has ordered within a ten-day period for the special master to meet with Trump's attorneys as well as prosecutors to come up with a schedule in this case because, of course, at this point, the clock is already ticking.


This review of these 11,000 documents needs to be complete by November 30th. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. Jessica Schneider reporting for us, thank you very, very much. Let's get more on all of this. Joining us now, the former FBI deputy director, the CNN senior law enforcement analyst, Andrew McCabe, and defense attorney former federal prosecutor Shan Wu.

Andrew, first to you, how surprised were you to see this judge reject nearly all of the government's arguments?

ANDREW MCCABE, CNN SENIOR LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, Wolf, I wasn't surprised at the outcome of her ruling because she's literally been projecting the direction she was going to rule from before she even heard the arguments of the parties, and the government put her in a position where to go with the government's request on this motion would have basically been backtracking on her early order, which was unlikely to happen.

But this order, I was shocked by what it contains. This judge is basically -- she's refused to even acknowledge the government's assertion that they seized classified materials. Yet, in the next breath, she says that there is undisputedly privileged material in the documents that the government seized. So, it couldn't really have gone any worse for the government here. It is a -- it is a head-scratcher of an order and I'm sure DOJ is disappointed.

BLITZER: Let's get Shan's thoughts. Shan, the Justice Department could obviously appeal at any moment. How will this unfold, do you think? Could this go, for example, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court?

SHAN WU, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Unfortunately, it could go all the way there, Wolf, and I'm not really sure what kind of reception it's going to get there because they tend to be fans of expanding presidential authority. Judge Cannon really missed an opportunity here to potentially save some face or reach a reasonable accommodation. The department offered her something very narrow, which is just let us work with the classified documents.

And she's either very naive or something more nefarious. I mean, you can't really you can't just draw this barrier around those documents and say, go ahead and continue your investigation. You don't have to have access to those. They can't really continue the investigation without access to that. And trying to do that creates potential land mines later for defense counsel to say, hey, you were using materials, asking questions about materials, which you weren't allowed to do by the special master, which could taint their case.

BLITZER: Andrew, as you know, the special master in this case has now scheduled a hearing for this coming Tuesday and the judge wants this review completely done by November 30th. But how concerned are you about this slowing down the overall investigation?

MCCABE: It is very concerning, Wolf. It is -- we are -- I should say that the Justice Department and the FBI are in the middle of a national security investigation to try to understand whether or not the improper and unlawful storage of these documents in a place that is not authorized for it may have had a negative impact on national security. So, to just say, hey, let's just put that aside for a while and talk about whether or not there is privileged material in the personal property that may have been scooped up as well, it is just absolutely turning your back on what might be a clear and present danger to national security.

And Shan is exactly right. The judge in one breath said that the Justice Department and the FBI should feel free to participate in the security assessment but they cannot use the content of any of these documents in the course of things, like interviews. So, it is absolutely tying their hands and slowing things down.

BLITZER: Andrew McCabe and Shan Wu, guys, thank you very much. We'll continue our coverage of this.

Coming up, Queen Elizabeth's children stand vigil at her coffin in Westminster Hall, as some members of the public wait 24 hours in line to pay their respects. Our report from London is next.



BLITZER: The world got another up close look today at senior members of royal family honoring Queen Elizabeth in these final days before she's laid to rest.

CNN Royal Correspondent Max Foster has our report from London.


MAX FOSTER, CNN ROYAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Tonight, a profound moment, the queen's children, including King Charles III, standing vigil for their beloved mother for one last time, as she lies in state in Westminster Hall. Their heads bowed, they stood silently as a line of mourners quietly passed by.

On Saturday, her grandchildren will do the same, including Prince William and Prince Harry, the king making a special request for both to be clad in military uniform, not just William. A monumental line, at one point, hours long snaking through Central London, full of mourners seeking a chance to view the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II, Soccer legend David Beckham amongst those reportedly waiting several hours to pay their respects.

DAVID BECKHAM, FORMER SOCCER STAR: I grew up in a house hold of royalists and I was brought up that way. So, if my grandparents would have been here today, I know that they would have wanted to be here. So, I'm here on their behalf.

FOSTER: So many showed up, the miles long line closed down for several hours after reaching full capacity.


Despite warnings of 24 hour waits, as many as 2 million people are expected to make the pilgrimage. The flood of mourners has led London's Metropolitan Police to take unprecedented measures to secure the queen's funeral on Monday.

DEPUTY ASSISTANT COMMISSIONER STUART CUNDY, METROPOLITAN POLICE: This will be the single largest policing operation that the Met Police have ever undertaken and I think is ever likely to undertake.

FOSTER: Bigger than the 2012 Olympics or the platinum jubilee, the police have not released the total number of officers expected to deploy on Monday, but attendees including hundreds of world leaders and VIPs can expect horse mounted officers, firearms officers and dog handlers, the full arsenal of police power. The police presence will extend to Windsor, where the queen's coffin will move to a burial service in St. George's Chapel.

In addition to airport staff security for the funeral attendees, the police have called on the public to be their eyes and ears and to report any concerns.


FOSTER (on camera): Dramatic scenes were reported, Wolf, this evening in Westminster Hall as onlookers, mourners looked on in horror as someone appeared to rush to the coffin but got tackled very quickly, very effectively by the police. And the police say a man has been arrested and the mourning continues. But it is a warning really about the level of security concern here right now.

BLITZER: Indeed it is. Max I want you to stay with us. I also want to bring in CNN's Chief Law Enforcement and Intelligence Analyst John Miller along with journalist and British broadcaster Bidisha Mamata.

John, the London police force says, the queen's funeral, as you just heard, will be the largest single policing event it has ever undertaken. Can you walk us through the factors that make this a truly unprecedented security operation?

JOHN MILLER, CNN CHIEF LAW ENFORCEMENT AND INTELLIGENCE ANALYST: Well, in terms of the scope of funerals, you would have to go back to the funeral of JFK, which was carried in a world largely before we understood terrorism the way we do today. But the event itself, the presence of royal family, the 500 dignitaries who are coming from the around the world as protectees, each one would be their security mission for the Met. And then you put on top of that the massive crowds, live television and that it is unfolding on the world stage, if you have been in a counterterrorism planning business doing overlays for events, it has everything, and it is a challenge.

BLITZER: It certainly is. Badesha, you just heard Max Foster report that as many as 2 million people are expected to brave the miles long line to pay their respects to the queen. But were you surprised to see David Beckham, for example, was one of those people? What does that tell you about the truly historic nature of this event?

BIDISHA MAMATA, JOURNALIST AND BRITISH BROADCASTER: It was an extraordinary site because he didn't appear to have any security detail of his own. He simply rocked up in his sort of tweety-looking baker boy cap, traditional English tailoring and stood very patiently in line. It made me wonder how many other super celebrities are in that line trying to go incognito.

It is an amazing site. In fact, the queue has become a tourist site in its own right. So, people with getting excited to see little bits of queue. It is bit like Big Foot or the Lochness monster here you glimpse a little bit of the queue. And it is amazingly well organized. There are refreshment stops, there are loos. Everyone is so compliant and it really makes me reflect on the comments that we just heard about what a massive enterprise this is.

For as many as uniformed police officer and stewards and volunteers that you can see, I could bet you there is an equal number of plain clothes operatives making sure everything goes without a hitch. Everything about these days, everything about the weekend and Monday will have been rehearsed. Will have been planned to the Nth degree years in advance by experts, by hundreds of thousands of people pulling together to make this seem seamless.

BLITZER: Yes, good point indeed.

Max, tomorrow, we'll see the queen's grandchildren, Princes William and Harry, for example, stand vigil at her coffin. Have the events surrounding their grandmother's passing provided an opportunity for the brothers to reconcile?

FOSTER: Well, they certainly reconciled professionally, haven't made to some extent. They've come together and there have been no sort of signs of any reactions (ph) to district from the memorialization of their grandmother. It is all but utterly focused on her, and we'll see that again tomorrow. I think that is going to be a really powerful moment to see all of the grandchildren around the coffin in a vigil and members of the public filing by.


It will be difficult particularly for Prince Edward's children, who are very young, but a big profound moment. And it was quite profound today to see the queen's children around the coffin today and members of public wandering by.

But this is about sharing what is a private family moment with a public family moment. And I think the families are very aware of how they did share the queen with the public. And that is what these vigils are about, even though they look uncomfortable because they're very personal and they're very public at the same time in those moments.

BLITZER: They certainly are.

John, after the queen's funeral, world leaders will travel from London to the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. So, what goes into securing some of the world's most prominent leaders as they depart one event and travel to another major event?

MILLER: That is going to be a real challenge, because, for years, we've done the U.N. General Assembly here in New York City when I was with the police department with Chief Tom Galati, where we staggered the arrival over several days. I mean, what you're going to see here is all of the world leaders are coming from the same place, which is the queen's funeral, and they're all going to want to go straight to the U.N. General Assembly because the key day is going to be right then and they're all going to arrive at once. So, it is going to be a real challenge for the NYPD and the Secret Service.

BLITZER: It certainly is. All right, John Miller, thank you very much. Bidisha Mamata, thanks to you. And, Max Foster, as usual, thank you.

And stay with CNN for live coverage of the state funeral for Queen Elizabeth. It all begins Monday, 5:00 A.M. Eastern.

Just ahead, we'll go live to Ukraine where President Zelenskyy now says more than 400 bodies have been uncovered at mass burial sites in a newly liberated city, including some showing major signs of torture.



BLITZER: There are disturbing new indications tonight of the horrible human toll of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. CNN International Security Editor Nick Paton Walsh saw firsthand a mass burial site in a town recently liberated by Ukrainian forces. And we want to warn our viewers, the images are graphic.


NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR (voice over): Here is where the horror gets names and numbers. Russia's unprovoked invasion killed many new but only now in liberated cities, like Izium, where we're finding out who and how. And even this rain cannot erase the smell how death haunts these pines.

It is important to point out that this was a military position. These are tank positions around the city presumably for the Russians when they occupied it burying these bodies where their troops would lay to rest and defend the city.

Ukrainian officials have said over 400 bodies were buried here, even children, all showing signs of a violent death. Through the day, they have been exhuming dozens of bodies, most individual graves, numbered and orderly, one burying a number as high as 398.

But this, we are told, and can smell and see, is a mass grave, where 17 dead were found, a policeman here told us. Ukrainian officials said bodies found included the family killed in an airstrike, Ukraine soldiers shot with her hands bound and bodies showing signs of torture.

Some of the graves are marked just by a number and others have someone's full history. Zolotariov Alexei Afaneseyavich (ph), who looks like he dies age 82, buried here.

This investigator tells us what he found in this spot. Here are civilian bodies and military ones further along, he said. Over 20 have been examined here and will be sent for further investigation.

It seemed to be the hurried extension of the long-term cemetery nearby, wreaths, coffins, candles, some people knew who they were burying, others next to this invader's campsite, likely not.

Nadezhda said the Russians first hit the graveyard with an airstrike and then moved in.

NADEZHDA KALINICHENKO, IZIUM RESIDENT: We tried not to go out because it was scary where they brought their special machines. They dug some trenches for their vehicles. We only heard how they were destroying the forest. When they left, I don't know if there was fighting or not, we just heard a lot of heavy trucks one night a week ago.

WALSH: We saw multiple refrigerator lorries leaving town but we were asked not to film the contents of this one. Part of where the history of Russia's brutal occupation will be written and nothing could wash this site clean.


WALSH (on camera); Now, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met officials to discuss the next phase of the counteroffensive and he's also liken to what you saw there to Bucha, the district around Kyiv, where civilians were shot dead by Russian soldiers and clear of what seemed to be war crimes. This scene in Izium has, it seems, according to Ukraine officials, hallmarks of possible similar incidents. But I should point out, many of these individual graves have yet to be exhumed and many of the investigators that we spoke there don't know when the people who were taken out of the ground died or much about how they came to die.


Yes, of course. Russia is ultimately responsible for people who experienced a violent death there. But maybe some of these people died in the original onslaught of Izyum or during the occupation. A lot still to be found out about what is in that grizzly scene at the pines there, although Ukrainian officials very strident in the statements that they're making, Wolf.

BLITZER: Nick Paton Walsh reporting for us, thank you very much.

Coming up, President Biden is meeting face-to-face with the families of two Americans detained in Russia. We're learning new information about efforts to finally bring Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan home.



BLITZER: Tonight, the White House is saying that President Biden is not going to let up on getting Americans Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan released by Russia.

CNN's Brian Todd is working this story for us.

What's the latest, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right, Wolf. We know that the meetings began just under two hours ago. The families of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan meeting with the president separately, the meetings do come as the Biden team has made a renewed commitment to try to win their release.


TODD (voice-over): President Biden's first-ever face-to-face meetings with the families of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan since they were detained in Russia, a move White House officials say was intended to let the families know Griner and Whelan remain, quote, front of mind with the president.

White House officials are frustrated that an offer the Biden administration had made to the releases for Griner and Whelan didn't, according to the White House, bring a serious response back from the Kremlin.

KARINE JEAN-PIERRE, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Russia should take this offer. It is a substantial offer.

TODD: Sources have told CNN the White House has offered convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for the releases of Whelan and Griner. But one administration official tells CNN the U.S. has gotten a repeated demand back from the Putin regime for something the U.S. is incapable of delivering on.

EVELYN FARKAS, EXEXUTIVE DIRECTOR, THE MCCAIN INSTITUTE: The Russians are masters at, you know, asking us to do things that we cannot do. It may indeed be something where they think the U.S. controls something that they don't control.

TODD: Meanwhile, CNN has learned independent negotiator Bill Richardson was in Moscow this week meeting with Russian leadership. Administration officials expressing open frustration that Richardson has apparently been working outside official channels.

JOHN KIRBY, DIRECTOR OF STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: Our message is that private citizens should not be in Moscow at all right now, and that private citizens cannot negotiate on behalf of the United States government.

TODD: Griner, detained by the Russians in February for carrying cannabis oil in her luggage, pleaded guilty to drug charges but said she accidently packed the drugs. Whelan has been held for more than three years on espionage charges that he's denied. Could the Ukraine war factor into their fates?

FARKAS: The Russians are looking very weak because of their war effort. They're looking weak internationally. Putin's looking weak domestically. He may have an additional incentive for making a deal right now.


TODD: And again, those meetings with the families of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan started just over two hours ago. We are told that they are ongoing -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us -- Brian, thank you very much. We'll have more news right after this.



BLITZER: This Sunday night at 9:00 p.m. Eastern, a CNN special report "American Coup: The January 6th Investigation." CNN's Jake Tapper goes inside the House Select Committee's probe to look at the evidence, examine new details, and conduct exclusive interviews.

Watch this.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: A lot of the people we've interviewed have expressed concerns not just about what happened but what will happen. In fact, we see a whole bunch of election liars running for office. Are you worried?

REP. LIZ CHENEY (R-WY): I'm very worried. The responsibility that we all have to make sure that we defend our republic and that we defend our institutions has to be above politics. There are people running so that they are in a position that they will be able to certify the results only for Donald Trump. That's obviously fundamentally a threat to the survival of the republic. And I think those people have all got to be defeated.

TAPPER: You have been shouting from the rooftops, this is not just about 2020. You're worried about 2024. You're worried about future elections.

J. MICHAEL LUTTIG, RETIRED U.S. FEDERAL JUDGE: I am, and right now the former president, his allies and supporters including in Congress and including in the states represent a clear and present danger to American democracy. That's not because of what they did on January 6th. It's because of what they pledge to do in 2024.

TAPPER: Do you think that Republicans are hearing what you're saying?

LUTTIG: I hope they are. There's no evidence that they've heard anything to date.


BLITZER: Our chief Washington correspondent, the anchor of "THE LEAD" and "STATE OF THE UNION", Jake Tapper, is joining us right now.

Jake, thanks very much for doing this special report.

TAPPER: Thank you.

BLITZER: These are two very prominent Republicans that we just heard from, obviously who are very concerned about what happened January 6th. But they're also very concerned looking down the road. Tell us a little bit more about that.

TAPPER: Well, they're terrified because what you have here is a very complex comprehensive plan that the January 6th committee has laid out for Donald Trump and his officials to try to steal the election. And they laid out in a very comprehensive way.

And we try to bring it down and distill it in one documentary for people to understand how -- how -- this wasn't just like one guy behaving erratically. This was a real strategy. But they failed. Thankfully they failed.

But what we see now in these midterm elections are a number of people who have no respect for democracy, who go along with Donald Trump's lies, who have said that if they had been in office as governor of Arizona, as governor of Pennsylvania, they would not have certified the election results.

So, democracy is really at risk. And that's why you have these very prominent and conservative Republicans taking the stand.

BLITZER: Give us a very brief little preview of what else we can expect in this special report.

TAPPER: Well, I think, you know, when you watched the hearings over the course of several months, there was so much there. And it was so overwhelming, and it was hard to keep track of all of that.

What we've done is we've taken the most important points to really show chronologically and also strategically the extent to which Donald Trump and his people like Rudy Giuliani and others were really trying to undermine democracy. And there was no regard for rule of law or will of the voter. It was all just about just make a lie publicly and give us the cover to not certify the election and put pressure on Pence. That's really what it came down to.

BLITZER: This is going to be really important. I'm really looking forward to this.

TAPPER: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Jake, thank you very, very much.

The special report, the CNN special report "American Coup: The January 6th Investigation", once again, it airs this Sunday night, 9:00 p.m. Eastern, right here on CNN.

And "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.