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Ukraine: 30 Percent Of Energy Infrastructure Already Destroyed By Russia; New Russian War Commander Says Goal Is To "Methodically Grind" The Ukrainian "Enemy"; Zelenskyy: Russia "Crawling" To Iran A Sign Of Weakness; New Woodward Audiobook Has 8 Plus Hours Of Trump Tapes; Rep. Jason Crow, (D-CO), Is Interviewed About Donald Trump's Interview With Bob Woodward; CNN: Woodward Calls Trump "Unparalleled Danger" Because Of Efforts To Overturn The 2020 Election; GOP Trying To Unify In New Hampshire And Elsewhere; Biden & Dems Turn Focus To Abortion With Polls Showing Economy Is The Top Issue For Voters; New Sub Variants Spark Concern Over Potential COVID Surge. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired October 18, 2022 - 17:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN HOST: So be sure to join Jake Tapper on CNN tonight. Jake is talking with Lin-Manuel Miranda on the changing political landscape when it comes to Latino candidates and voters and much more. That's tonight at 9:00 p.m. Eastern time.

If you ever miss an episode of The Lead, you can listen wherever you get your podcasts. You can follow me @johnberman. Our coverage continues with Wolf Blitzer now in THE SITUATION ROOM.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, new kamikaze drone attacks, ignited fires and caused massive blow -- blackouts across Ukraine. Russia targeting more Ukrainian power plants and escalating the bloodshed and the suffering of civilians.

Also tonight, a CNN exclusive on the Trump tapes, standby to hear some of them. President Trump's revealing recorded interviews with journalist Bob Woodward, including Trump's boasting about the Kim Jong-un letters that helped spark the Mar-a-Lago documents investigation.

And as early voting in Georgia sets of records right now, the high stakes midterm election is now only three weeks away. We're following new flashpoints in the battle for control of Congress, including a new promise by President Biden on abortion rights for women.

Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Our top story this hour, widespread blackouts across Ukraine as Russia strikes major power and water facilities. Ukrainian officials warning that Moscow's attacks have already destroyed nearly a third of their energy infrastructure. CNN Senior International Correspondent Fred Pleitgen has our report.


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): Russia hitting Ukraine's infrastructure with massive strikes across the country. Power plants in several regions targeted by both kamikaze drones and cruise missiles. This video purports to show Ukraine taking down one of them, but some hitting civilian areas like this residential building in the southern town Mykolaiv.

KSENIA HORPYNYCH, MYKOLAIV RESIDENT (through translator): We woke up at 1:45 a.m. because of a very loud explosion. It's impossible to describe it. There was so much dust.

PLEITGEN (voice-over): The Ukrainian say 30 percent of their energy infrastructure has already been destroyed by Moscow's bullets. Key installations like this power plant in the city Dnipro hit by multiple missiles. Ukraine's air defense is sometimes also overwhelmed by swarms of cheap kamikaze drones.

PRES. VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINE (through translator): The world can and must stop this terrors. When we talk about Ukraine's need for air and missile defense systems, we talk about real lives taken by terrorists.

PLEITGEN (voice-over): Kyiv believes Moscow is resorting to drone strikes because its forces are running out of precision cruise missiles, stocks of sub weapons already critically low Ukraine's military intelligence player. But Russia's army is showing no signs of letting up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): During the last 24 hours, the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation continued to deploy long range high precision weapons both air and sea based on Ukraine's military command sites and energy infrastructure.

PLEITGEN (voice-over): Ukrainian officials believe despite Russia strikes, its forces will prevail on the battlefield. The senior intelligence leader saying Russia's defeat is inevitable.


PLEITGEN: And Wolf, one of the reasons why the Ukrainians seem to be so confident is because they do continue to make gains, especially in the south of the country, in that Kherson region where the Ukrainians are planning, they say for a very long time, already a big counter offensive there. And they do say that they are already making some headway in some very important key towns.

One of the areas where they're having more issues is actually where I am right now in the Bakhmut area. But here, they're also facing some of Russia's most toughest forces from the notorious Wagner private military company, Wolf.

BLITZER: Fred, I want him to stay with us, we're going to get back to you in just a few moments. But right now, I want to get an update from Kyiv, the capital. CNN International Diplomatic Editor Nic Robertson is standing by. Nic, what else can you tell us about the situation in the Kherson region in southern Ukraine right now where Kyiv forces have been making significant gains?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLAMATIC EDITOR: A really quite astounding statement from the Russian general in charge of Kherson in the south of the country. Sergei Surovikin recently appointed by Vladimir Putin saying that he's going to organize as of now the withdrawal of all civilians from Kherson. He says the fight there is getting very difficult, that the important thing for his troops to do is to grind the advancing enemy. He says the bridges into the city across the de Dnipro River, because of course it's on the west side of the river, have been damaged, that vehicles cannot get into the city, getting food supplies and there's been very difficult.


This is significant because it appears to signal while he's only talking about pulling out civilians, it appears to signal that Putin may be preparing to pull his troops out of Kherson and relocate them on the east side of the Dnipro River, a strategic move, if you will, and an acceptance perhaps that what he had said back in April, when it reoriented his forces to take the south all the way across the south of the country through Odessa towards Moldova, that is, at the moment, a failure. This is a significant moment. And analysts will watch very carefully to see if Russia tries to pull its troops out as those civilians are moved out of the town as well. Essentially, if the troops had to pull out under the cover of civilians.

BLITZER: A very significant moment, indeed. Nic Robertson in Kyiv, the capital for us. Stay safe over there.

I want to bring in CNN's Contributor on Russian Affairs, Jill Dougherty right now. Also joining us, Retired U.S. Army General Wesley Clark, he's a CNN Military Analyst, he's also the former NATO Supreme Allied Commander. And Fred Pleitgen is back with us as well.

General Clark, Ukraine says that in the last week alone, some 30 percent of their energy infrastructure has been destroyed by the Russians. How would you characterize this new phase of Russia's strategy?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, obviously, they're going after the fixed targets, they're easier to hit, they're going to try to put a lot of pressure on the civilian population and make it impossible for the civilians to stay there and support the military. It's a doctrine of infliction of pain. That's what it is and it's a war crime.

BLITZER: It's -- that's what I was going to ask you. All of these attacks on civilians in Ukraine and civilian infrastructure. Are these war crimes according to international law?

CLARK: Yes, they are. You cannot attack civilian infrastructure in an effort to inflict pain on a civilian population in order to get the policy changed. That's a war crime. You can't do that. BLITZER: So would you agree that what the Russians are doing suggests that Russia is now a state sponsor of terror?

CLARK: I certainly would.

BLITZER: All right. Jill Dougherty, let's talk to you a little bit. Domestically within Russia right now, are more Russians becoming aware of the realities of this work as men mobilized off the street for all practical purposes are already coming home in body bags, big numbers?

JILL DOUGHERTY, FORMER CNN MOSCOW BUREAU CHIEF: Yes, I think, Wolf, you would have to say that, you know, this is now affecting with this partial mobilization. It's affecting people who were not affected before, people from big cities, you know, Moscow, St. Petersburg, not people, not young men from the poor parts of Russia who were serving up until this point. That's one. And then also on social media, you see quite a lot of comments about people who were sent to the front with almost no preparation and they were coming back literally within days or weeks, unfortunately, you know, in coffins, and body bags.

And then the final thing is a lot of comments about the fact that people are not being properly prepared. These are mostly civilians, and they were being thrown into these really tough battles with very little preparation, training or even equipment and sometimes uniforms.

BLITZER: Let me get General Clark to weigh in on this as well. General Clark, the Russian sending these young men off to war with little or no training at all. What does that say to you?

CLARK: Oh, it says they're very disorganized. It's a hasty defense effort. The Russians, the Soviets did this when the Germans were at the gates of Moscow in 1941. So there's Russian precedent for this, the soldiers is not well trained. But if you put them in a trench in a defensive position, give them a weapon, maybe they'll shoot back, maybe they'll try to surrender. But it's a desperate measure to fill the depleted ranks of the Russian military at this point.

BLITZER: All these young Russian men who were just picked off the streets were sent off to war and are coming home in body bags.

Fred Pleitgen, the new Russian commander in charge of this worst says they aren't striving for what he calls high rates of advance that the goal is to methodically grind the enemy, he says. Read between the lines of that for us.

PLEITGEN: Well, to me, Wolf, that says that the Russians are going to be in it for the long run. And also to a certain extent says that a more hardline position has really seemed to have won the day right now, not just in the Kremlin among those advising Vladimir Putin, but really among the military ranks as well. It was one other thing that this new commander, Surovikin, said, he said that he wants and Russia wants that Ukraine to become a state that's friendly to Russia and independent of NATO.

So, to me that seems to indicate that the Russians are saying we are going to beat up on you until you become our friend. Now that is probably something that is not going to work at least if you've listened to the Ukrainians. But certainly right now if you look at the sort of top echelons of those who are leading this war, it does seem as though there's a little more cohesion there now than there was before. You had that infighting before between, for instance, you have gamey perversion of the Wagner militia, that sort of private military company that's fighting around here heavily criticizing the defense minister, you could see infighting going on possibly even a power struggle.


Well, he just said about the new commander that he thinks his commander is very capable, that he's someone who's well studied on the art of war, but it's also someone who needs better logistics to win the day, Wolf.

BLITZER: Very interesting. General Clark, President Zelenskyy says the fact that Russia, in his word, is crawling to Iran for help with weapons right now is a sign of weakness. Is President Zelenskyy right?

CLARK: Well, it is a sign of weakness in the sense that, you know, the Russian military industrial complex is not able to produce what for -- what the forces need in the field. On the other hand, it's adaptive, it's exploitative, and it raises the risks of greater instability in the Middle East as well. So, it's a really dangerous move by Putin.

But Wolf, here's the thing, we have the weapons that are needed by the Ukrainians to offset these drones. They're simply not being provided. They're not being provided in a quantity, the right weapons aren't there yet. And we've got to get with it to give the Ukrainians the protection they need and the ability to strike back and dissuade the Russians from striking this kind of infrastructure with drones.

BLITZER: Yes, President Zelenskyy and the Ukrainians, they're pleading for this kind of help right now. They desperately needed.


BLITZER: General Clark, thanks so much for joining us. Fred Pleitgen, Jill Dougherty, thanks to you as well.

Coming up, new audio of former President Trump talking with journalist Bob Woodward about the letters from North Korea's Kim Jong-un that sparked a U.S. Justice Department investigation.

Plus, WNBA star Brittney Griner speaking out as she spends her 32nd birthday in a Russian prison while U.S. officials are struggling to try to bring her home.



BLITZER: Now a CNN exclusive. We've obtained a new copy of the audio book by Bob Woodward containing 20 interviews the legendary journalist conducted over four years with now former President Trump. It's called the "Trump Tapes" and it comes out next week.

CNN Special Correspondent Jamie Gangel is here with an exclusive preview for us. You know, it's amazing some of these interviews that that Trump did with Bob Woodward. Well, give us a couple of the highlights.

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: So first of all, there are more than eight hours. Woodward has, in effect, opened up his reporter's notebook. And you're really in the room with them, Wolf.

Trump is unvarnished, he's blunt. It will not surprise you that he goes on the attack against people he considers opponents. He spends a lot of time boasting about himself up. But there are some moments that are captured that I am certain his national security advisors would be very unhappy about.

And one in particular has to do with letters that were declassified, those now infamous love letters between Kim Jong-un and Trump that he took to Mar-a-Lago. So, let's start. Just listen to what Trump says to Woodward as he hands them over.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Nobody else has them. But I want you to treat them with respect. I haven't -- with anybody.


TRUMP: And don't say I gave them to you, OK?


TRUMP: But I think it's OK. Normally, I wouldn't give -- I wasn't going to give them to Bob, you know. What, did you make a Photostat of them or something?

WOODWARD: No, I dictated them into tape recorder.

TRUMP: Really?



GANGEL: It's actually sort of funny with the Photostat and the dictating. But just think about what Trump said to Woodward, don't say to anyone that I gave it to you. It is a classic example of what Woodward says, you know, in these audio tapes, it's interspersed with commentary by Woodward and he said it is a perfect example of how casual, how dangerous, how cavalier Trump was with classified information.

It's also important to keep it in mind, Wolf, because here we are again with Trump more than hinting that he wants to run again in 2024. This was the Trump White House. BLITZER: You know, we heard some of the audio when Woodward published his bestselling book entitled "Rage."

GANGEL: Right.

BLITZER: But now we're hearing a whole lot more, brand new recordings.

GANGEL: There are never before heard interviews with Trump's National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien, with his deputy Matthew Pottinger. And then throughout the audio tapes you hear in the background, it's sort of like Trump's court. They're people who are in the room. In the background, you hear Melania Trump, you hear Don Jr, you hear Senator Lindsey Graham, Dan Scavino, Kellyanne Conway, among others.

It's -- but some of the most revealing moments are Trump on Trump. This is when Woodward asks him who helps you write a speech?


WOODWARD: Did somebody help you?

TRUMP: Yes, I get people. They come up with ideas. But the ideas of mine, Bob. The ideas are mine.


TRUMP: Want to know something? Everything is mine.


GANGEL: Classic Trump, everything is mine. The audio book is coming out next week, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, I'm sure everybody's going to want to hear those interviews. All right, thanks very much for that. Jamie Gangel doing excellent reporting, as she always does.

Let's get some more in all of this. Joining us now, Democratic Congressman Jason Crow of Colorado. He's a member of the Intelligence and Armed Services Committees.

Congressman, thanks for joining us. So you just heard, we all just heard the former president hand some classified documents over to Bob Woodward and then instruct him to treat them with respect before adding, and I'm quoting him now, "don't say I gave them to you." What concerns, if any, does that raise in your mind?


REP. JASON CROW (D-CO), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Well, Wolf, you know I've spent a good chunk of my adult life at national security and foreign policy defending this country and I just can't imagine how anybody that understands the complexity, the high stakes of our national security, the volatility in the world today, how anybody could think that Donald Trump is remotely equipped to handle these challenges and to keep America safe, right? This is a man who, over and over and over again demonstrates narcissism, antisocial or even sociopathic behavior. This idea that all ideas are his, everything good originates from him, everything bad or just to somebody else. This is not a stable man. Not to mention, somebody even understands national security.

And it's shocking, you know, shocking that we spent four years with this person as the commander in chief, and he certainly has no place being in the Oval Office or anywhere near national security again.

BLITZER: And all of this is particularly relevant, as you well know, Congressman, because these letters from Kim Jong-un are part of what prompted the Department of Justice here in Washington to investigate documents at Mar-a-Lago down in Florida. Does this new audio give investigators additional relevant insight into the former president's thinking?

CROW: Well, I certainly would think so, right? You have eight hours of, you know, unfiltered tape and audio and actually would encourage Americans to listen to it. Listen to it themselves. This isn't anyone's opinion, this isn't an article describing it, this is just eight hours of Donald Trump talking about how great he is, talking about how he makes every decision based on gut instinct, how, you know, he didn't really have a plan when he went to meet with Kim Jong- un, a very dangerous dictator with a nuclear armed hermit state in North Korea. This is not good stuff.

And certainly investigators, I think will be looking at this. But even just as importantly, the American people should listen to it and decide for themselves. And I think the conclusion would be, this is not somebody who you would actually trust to watch your children to hire as a babysitter, not to mention to serve in a position of trust and national security, and not even thinking about as president of the United States.

BLITZER: Jamie also reported that Woodward has now concluded in his new audio book that Trump is, in Woodward's words, an "unparalleled danger" because of his continued efforts to try to overturn the 2020 presidential election. As someone who was in the U.S. Capitol on January 6 where those efforts came to fruition, do you agree with Woodward's new assessment?

CROW: Yes, absolutely, Wolf. You know, I agreed with it long before January 6, actually, you know? I was an impeachment manager. In the first impeachment trial, and I sat on the floor of the Senate making the case that he should be removed from office as president of the United States.

That's not something I took lightly. That's not something I would do unless I thought it was absolutely necessary. It was very, very clear from the early stages of his presidency that he was not fit, he was not stable, that he would weaponize the office for his own personal political gain.

And, you know, let's, let's also not forget this, that first impeachment trial was about Ukraine. He actually withheld weapons support and military assistance and security assistance from Ukraine to get an advantage in his own political election. That's what he did.

And here we are now, as Ukraine fights for survival, we understand why that was such a dire thing to do. This man will do anything. There's nothing that's sacred to him. There's nothing that's off limits, and he remains a very clear danger to our republic.

BLITZER: Congressman Jason Crow, thanks as usual for joining us.

CROW: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Up next, President Biden focusing on abortion and the overturn of Roe vs. Wade exactly three weeks before the midterm election here in the United States. Is that the right calculation for Democrats?



BLITZER: Exactly three weeks before the midterm election, President Biden and his fellow Democrats are focusing in on abortion rights and the U.S. Supreme Court's overturn of Roe vs. Wade. CNN White House Correspondent MJ Lee is joining us with the latest right now.

MJ, the President is making abortion a priority issue in an attempt to rally voters right now. What is his message?

MJ LEE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the message that we heard from the President today was that of contrast, essentially, he said, if you care about abortion rights and reproductive rights, then you better go and vote for Democrats in the midterms. Because if Republicans take control of the -- of Congress, then they are the party that wants to enact a national abortion ban and take away certain other health care services. And this is of course, sort of the bigger picture contrast that we've seen the President throughout the month, try to paint between Democrats and Republicans as he has tried to characterize Republicans as being the party of extremism.

Now when the President spoke earlier today, we did see him make a specific promise when it comes to Roe v. Wade, and also saw him asking voters to basically channel their anger. Take a listen.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Here's the promise I make to you and the American people, the first bill that I will send to the Congress will be to codify Roe v Wade.

I'm asking the American people will remember how you felt, how you felt that day the extreme Dobbs decision came down, Roe is overturned after 50 years.


LEE: Of course, big caveat here is that in order to codify Roe v Wade, Democrats will need to keep the House and expand their majority in the Senate.

Just one other dynamic that's important that the White House is very aware of, they know that the economy remains top of mind for voters. You take a look at this "New York Times"/Siena College poll that came out recently on the question of what is the most important problem facing America right now, forty-four percent of people saying the issue is economy or inflation, only 5 percent saying that it is the issue of abortion. So, yes, Democrats are right that abortion rights issues have been galvanizing in some ways. But again, the White House is very cognizant that the economy remains top of line. This is part of the reason why tomorrow, we do expect the President to address the issue of gas prices, Wolf.

BLITZER: That's what we expect. MJ Lee at the White House, thanks very much.

And coming up in our next hour, by the way, I'll speak live with the White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, she'll join us live. We'll discuss this and a lot more.

We're also counting down to the midterm election three weeks from today and the crucial Senate race in New Hampshire. CNN's Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borgia has a closer look at attempts to unify the Republican Party after the primaries.


GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST (voice-over): New Hampshire, home to the first presidential primaries. And now --


BORGER (voice-over): -- home to a crucial Senate race attracting voters with fiercely held views.

RANDY BROWNING, NEW HAMPSHIRE VOTER: I mean, who doesn't want to make America great?

BORGER (voice-over): That's the goal, of course. But watching Republicans try to unify this election season is like watching a bunch of arranged marriages. In New Hampshire, between a more conventional and successful incumbent governor with a Senate candidate calling for a new breed of party outsiders.

(on camera): So what would you call yourselves?

BOLDUC: We're patriots. Right? We're a new ilk of the Republican Party.

BORGER (voice-over): That's retired Brigadier General Don Bolduc who served 10 tours in Afghanistan and narrowly won a PAC primary as a border protecting an election denying conservative once opposed by the Republican establishment.

BOLDUC: The establishment has become the problem and people want a solution to that. BORGER (voice-over): So what exactly is the Republican problem?

VINCENT SERVELLO, NEW HAMPSHIRE VOTER: They're not audacious enough. They're not aggressive enough.

BILL BORDEAUX, NEW HAMPSHITE VOTER: Trump was like a hand grenade thrown into the Republican Party. Love them or hate them.

BORGER (on camera): Right.

BORDEAUX: He definitely changed things up.

BORGER (voice-over): Bolduc was not endorsed by Trump. He's an underdog in this race against former governor and one term senator, Democrat Maggie Hassan. She's talking a lot about abortion politics. He's talking a lot about the economy and immigration.

BOLDUC: Will you vote and support the southern border? Yes, baby.

BORGER (voice-over): And he's getting a lot of money from a political action committee aligned with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, the ultimate insider and not a Bolduc favorite.

(on camera): Has PAC has given you $23 million?

BOLDUC: Well, thank you very much.

BORGER (voice-over): And yet, the self-proclaimed change candidate seems unchanged.

BOLDUC: I want leadership to change in the United States Senate.

BORGER (on camera): Leadership, but --

BOLDUC: I want it to change.

BORGER (voice-over): Bolduc is among a large chorus of Republican right wing warriors who now find themselves welcoming both money and newfound support from the very party pool buzz they once dismissed.

BOLDUC: He's a Chinese communist sympathizer.

BORGER (voice-over): That was about the popular Governor Chris Sununu, seeking his fourth term who had no kind of words for Bolduc.

GOV. CHRIS SUNUNU (R-NH): Kind of a conspiracy theorist type candidate.

BORGER (voice-over): But post-primary an embrace and a nod from the governor.

SUNUNU: He's an amazing individual with this background, this war hero background that just wants to stand up and serve.

BORGER (voice-over): And now needs, to reach out beyond his conservative base. BRAD TODD, GOP STRATEGIST: New Hampshire is an ordinary state. There more Independents and there are members of either party in New Hampshire. So go as the attendance goes, so goes New Hampshire.

BORGER (voice-over): And so a Bolduc switch on the legitimacy of the 2020 election from this.

BOLDUC: So, I signed a letter with 120 other generals and admirals saying that Trump won the election and dammit, I stand by my words.

BORGER (voice-over): To this.

(on camera): So you believe the election was not stolen?

BOLDUC: Not stolen, but irregularities and fraud.

BORGER (voice-over): The state Republican Party chairman says it's all for the greater good.

STEPHEN STEPANEK, CHAIRMAN, NEW HAMPSHIRE REPUBLICAN PARTY: If we are going to change the direction of this country, you have to support our entire Republican ticket. Because if you don't, the Democrats win and the direction of the country doesn't change.

BORGER (voice-over): Unity at all costs, not only in New Hampshire, consider Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin support for election denier Kari Lake.

GOV. GLENN YOUNGKIN (R-VA): The Republican Party has to be a party where we are not shunning people. What Arizona deserves is a Republican governor.

BORGER (voice-over): Bolduc's supporter Paul Grant hopes the harmony lasts.


PAUL GRANT, DON BOLDUC SUPPORTER: I think Republicans sometimes are immature when it comes to politics. And by that I mean, I don't agree with a lot of the policies or stances of the Democratic Party, but they play to win. They do this. They stick together.

BORGER (voice-over): There's just one small problem on the horizon.

BRAD TODD: It'd be one thing to say the Republican Party is not just a big tent, it's a big tent with a bar fight.

BORGER (voice-over): And it's not about to reach last call anytime soon.


BLITZER: So, Gloria, how are voters reacting to these big swings we're seeing from these candidates?

BORGER: Well, Republican voters in New Hampshire, for example, I was asking them about well, he was an election denier, said it was rigged. Now he says it wasn't rigged. What do you think?

You know what they're saying? That's fine, he changed his mind. He looked at the numbers and he changed his mind.

The big question in New Hampshire is how are Independent voters going to see this? Are they going to see him just as pandering to Independent voters? And we don't really know the answer to that. You'll have to see that in the election in New Hampshire.

But as people changed their minds, Republicans are saying, you know, these were tough primaries. People disagree in tough primaries. But this is such a basic question. You have to wonder how Independent voters are going to look at it. And of course, Democrats, we're not going to vote for Donald, like, anyway, right?

BLITZER: Gloria, standby. I'm going to continue this conversation.

I also want to bring CNN's Audie Cornish as well.

Or, you heard Gloria liken a Republican efforts to unify to a bunch of what you called arranged marriages right now. How do you expect we'll see all this theme play out as we approach the midterms in three weeks?

AUDIE CORNISH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I mean, I wouldn't want to slander arranged marriages like that, which is an evolving level of respect, I think, in those parties coming together. But I do think it is was very smart, Gloria, to have the story set in New Hampshire. I recall another Senate race that was a tipping and turning point for Republicans, which was Scott Brown, and the Tea Party kind of coming to the forefront.

We're now in a new era for the Republican Party. And a second reason for it to be good set in New Hampshire is the end of the Yankee Republican. This kind -- there's a certain kind of Republican figure, Liz Cheney's another example of it, that is going away. And I think the embrace of that kind -- the new type figure in a place like New Hampshire is sort of heralding this new era where the Marjorie Taylor Greenes, etc., have a kind of primacy in the party.

BORGER: You know, the interesting thing is in New Hampshire is that the Republicans establishment, if you will, didn't want Bolduc. It was a big primary and they endorsed someone else who was a more establishment candidate. And that candidate didn't win.

So the moment that happened, the greater good is, of course, control of the Senate. And that is the goal. And so you see a very popular governor like Chris Sununu, who's up for his fourth term, embracing him and saying, you know, what, he's a veteran, he really just wants to stand up and serve. That was not what he was saying during the primary.

CORNISH: But also the calculations that you saw voters say white evangelical voters make when it came to supporting Trump. The idea of the imperfect messenger, the idea of, hey, it's just fine if we get what we want in the end. And you could say for those voters, for instance who are pro-life, they do feel like they have -- they had a successful time with a Trump presidency. And I think there's a lot of other voters within the Republican Party that are making that same calculation.

BLITZER: It's interesting, Gloria, today, we heard President Biden clearly count on trying to galvanize Democrats --


BLITZER: -- around the country around the issue of abortion rights for women. But polling shows voters are much more concerned right now about the economy and some other issues. Look at these poll numbers right there, they're much more concerned about the economy and inflation than they are about abortion or immigration or crimes. So what do you make of that?

BORGER: Well, look, I think what the President was trying to do today is remind people as he put it, you know, how they felt the day of the Dobbs decision, who was trying to make it front and center. Because we know that when it was front and center, there was a huge reaction to it. And he's also trying to change the subject.

You know, he doesn't want this election to be about the things that people are so worried about inflation and the economy. He wants to talk about the Dobbs decision. He wants to talk about Republicans as extremists, which that's what Democrats are saying. So he wants to kind of -- you know, whoever defines the election is going to win the election. And so, he's trying to define it away from himself and towards these other things obviously.

BLITZER: Tomorrow he'll be delivering a big speech on gas prices, what to do about that and inflation as well.

BORGER: And remind people no doubt that he brought gas prices down, right?

BLITZER: Yes, he'll remind people that.

All right guys, thank you very, very much.

Just ahead, experts warning that new Coronavirus, various could cause another surge this winter. I'll discuss that and more with the White House COVID coordinator, Dr. Ashish Jha. He's standing by live.



BLITZER: New COVID variants have U.S. officials on edge right now and they're urging Americans to get their updated booster shots ahead of a potential winter surge. Let's discuss this and more with the White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha.

Dr. Jha, thanks so much for joining us. How concerned are you Dr. Jha by these two Omicron sub variants that seem to be gaining traction across the United States right now? DR. ASHISH JHA, WHITE HOUSE COVID-19 RESPONSE COORDINATOR: Yes. So first of all, thanks for having me back. We're monitoring this very closely. These sub variants are concerning.

But here's the bottom line of what Americans need to know, the new updated vaccine should provide a high degree of protection against these sub variants. And the single most important thing Americans can do if they want to protect themselves as we go into the winter or if we see a surge and we think about the Thanksgiving and the holidays, the single most important thing people can do is get vaccinated.


You know, a lot of Americans say, well, I had an infection nine months ago, I got a vaccine last year, that'll protect me. Unfortunately against these sub variants, they very well may not. So that's why people really need to go out and get these vaccines.

BLITZER: But so far, the updated booster shots have been very low, relatively speaking. What's the administration's strategy to encourage more Americans to get the latest booster shots as you correctly pointed out, it's so critical.

JHA: Yes, these are updated vaccines, they are updated for the Omicron variant that's out there. I think they're going to make an important difference. We have seen millions of Americans go out and get it, we obviously want to see a lot more people go and get it.

We know that with the flu shot in, annual flu shot every year, it's really October and November when that vast majority of Americans get it. We think there's going to be a real pickup of vaccinations this month. And we're going to continue encouraging people to do this because, again, as I said before, single most important thing people can do to protect themselves and their families as we get into the holiday season.

BLITZER: Did President Biden's a statement that, quote, the pandemic is over hurt the push to get more people up to date on their vaccines?

JHA: You know, as the President said that -- he said he was very clear in that statement, COVID is still with us. COVID is not over, COVID continues to kill three to 400 Americans every single day, the third leading cause of death. And almost all those deaths, Wolf, are wholly preventable. If people got the vaccine, people got treated, if they have a breakthrough infection, we can drive those deaths down to zero. So that is the goal of the administration.

That's what gets me to work every single day. That's get all of us working on this. And as long as we stay focused on that, I think we're going to be able to make a big difference here.

BLITZER: With the concerns over these new sub variants, Dr. Jha, and what could be potentially, God forbid, a very bad flu season here in the United States as well, what is your advice to Americans heading into this winter? JHA: Yes, the advice I would give, you know, Americans is the advice I've given my elderly parents, that I give to my family, which is get the flu shot, get the COVID shot, I got both of them in the same arm, same time, safe to do. If you have a breakthrough infection, get treated. I think that's really important.

It is -- we are in a different place in this pandemic, right? We are in a place where we can gather safely. We can have really good safe holiday season if people do these things. I am confident if Americans do them, we can really get through the next few months without a lot of disruption and without a lot of people getting sick.

BLITZER: Yes, it will save a lot of lives as well. Dr. Ashish Jha, thanks for all you're doing. Thanks so much for joining us.

JHA: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Coming up, Brittney Griner sends a birthday message from a Russian prison. What the WNBA star is saying about efforts to try to bring her home.



BLITZER: American basketball star Brittney Griner is spending her 32nd birthday today in a Russian prison. And tonight, she's speaking out as U.S. officials are struggling to try to bring her home. Our Brian Todd has on the story for us.

Brian, Griner says she's grateful for all the work on her behalf. But it looks like the negotiations that may be going on so far have not been very successful.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No major breakthroughs yet, Wolf, and there's some real frustration over that. Tonight, Brittney Griner's lawyers say that she's growing more despondent, more worried that she could spend almost the next decade in a Russian prison.


BRIAN TODD (voice-over): Spending her 32nd birthday in a Russian jail, Brittney Griner releases a message through her lawyers saying, quote, "Thank you everyone for fighting so hard to get me home. All the support and love are definitely helping me." But her attorneys tell CNN Griner is increasingly worried about her appeal next week and about a reported proposal by the U.S. for a prisoner swap.

MARIA BLAGOVOLINA, ATTORNEY FOR BRITTNEY GRINER: Brittney can't help him thinking that if this swap doesn't happen, she will have to spend the whole period of the sentence in Russia.

BRIAN TODD (voice-over): That's a nine-year sentence for drug smuggling. Griner pleaded guilty to that charge this summer but said she accidentally pack the less than one gram of cannabis oil she was carrying when she was arrested at a Moscow airport in February. Griner's Russian lawyers now say she's struggling emotionally. Asked by CNN how she's faring in prison.

ALEXANDER BOYKOV, ATTORNEY FOR BRITTNEY GRINER: I will say she's treated pretty good. Not better than other inmates, not worse. She is a very likable character, so it helps in both the personnel of the jail and the inmates, the like her very much.

BRIAN TODD (voice-over): Her Russian lawyer told "The New York Times" Griner is allowed outside once a day when she walks for an hour in a small courtyard at a penal colony outside Moscow. They say she spends the rest of her time in a small cell with two other inmates that she sleeps on an elongated bed to accommodate her six foot nine frame.

A Russian journalist who visited Griner last spring told "The Times" Griner was reading a translation of a Dostoevsky novel and a biography of the Rolling Stones, that she played a board game with her cellmates similar to the game battleship. Despite that portrayal of somewhat tolerable conditions, experts say penal colonies like the one Griner's in can be brutal.

TOM FIRESTONE, FORMER RESIDENT LEGAL ADVISER, U.S. EMBASSY IN MOSCOW: Disease is rampant, abuse takes place. The conditions in sales are very small. The space of sales is very small. There's limited communication with the outside world.

BRIAN TODD (voice-over): Griner's wife, Cherelle recently told CBS News in their most recent call Brittney's voice told the whole story.


CHERELLE GRINER, BRITTNEY GRINER'S WIFE: The minute I hung up I think I cried for about two, three days straight. I did not get out of my bed. It was the most disturbing phone call I'd ever experience.

BRIAN TODD (voice-over): U.S. officials spoke to Greiner and fellow American detainee Paul Whelan today by phone and have communicated with Russian officials in recent days about their cases, according to a senior administration official. But as for Vladimir Putin side --

TOM FIRESTONE, FORMER RESIDENT LEGAL ADVISER, U.S. EMBASSY IN MOSCOW: They are playing hardball on this one. They think they've got a lot of bargaining leverage here and they're making apparently very unreasonable demands.


BRIAN TODD: When asked recently by CNN if he would consider meeting with Vladimir Putin at the upcoming G20 Summit, President Biden said he has no intention of meeting with Putin, but then he said he would if Putin came to him and wanted to talk about the release of Brittney Griner. That's the only way they'll speak according to President Biden.

BLITZER: Let's hope it succeeds.

All right, thanks very much Brian Todd reporting for us. Coming up, President Biden vows and abortion rights law as Democrats try to rally voters three weeks ahead of the midterm election. But is that the issue at the top of voters minds? I'll ask the White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. She's standing by to join us live. That's coming up.