Return to Transcripts main page

The Situation Room

A.G. Garland Names Special Counsel To Oversee Trump Probes; Elizabeth Holmes Sentenced To 11 Plus Years In Theranos Fraud Trial; AG Garland Names Special Counsel To Oversee Trump Probes; Pelosi Blesses New Democratic Leadership Candidates; North Korea Confirms Launching "New Type" Of Missile; Temperatures Plummet, Kyiv Sees First Snowfall As Russian Attacks Cut Off Power For Millions; Two Deaths Blamed On Snowstorm Pummeling Buffalo, 4-5 Feet Expected. .Aired 5-6p ET

Aired November 18, 2022 - 17:00   ET




WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, Attorney General Merrick Garland appoints a special counsel to oversee the sprawling federal criminal investigations into Donald Trump. The announcement prompted in part by the former president's decision to launch a 2024 White House campaign.

Up on Capitol Hill tonight, the new Democratic leadership team is taking shape after Nancy Pelosi's decision to step aside. The House Speaker giving her blessing to the new generation running to lead the party.

Also tonight, new tensions on the Korean peninsula after North Korea test launches a new type of long range missile with the potential to reach the mainland United States. We're getting reaction from U.S. national security officials.

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

Let's get right to our top story tonight. A special counsel now taking over the U.S. Justice Department's probes into former President Donald Trump. Our Senior Justice Correspondent Evan Perez is standing by with new information.

Evan, tell us what triggered this appointment by the Attorney General of the United States Merrick Garland?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the simple trigger for this announcement for this decision by the Attorney General was the fact that the former president announced just a couple of days ago that he is running for the presidency once more. And obviously the fact that the -- his potential opponent in 2024 is the sitting president, the person who appointed the Attorney General Merrick Garland to his current office. Now he's going to be overseeing two very big investigations that are in advanced states. One of them is the investigation into the mishandling, the potential mishandling of classified information, documents that were retrieved by the FBI in a search at Mar-a-Lago earlier this -- just earlier this summer. And the second one is the former president's involvement in the efforts to impede the transfer of power after the 2020 election.

Listen to the Attorney General make his announcement just a little while ago.


MERRICK GARLAND, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I'm here today to announce the appointment of a special counsel in connection with two ongoing criminal investigations that have received significant public attention. The first as described in court filings in the District of Columbia, is the investigation into whether any person or entity unlawfully interfered with the transfer of power following the 2020 presidential election or the certification of the Electoral College vote held on or about January 6, 2021. The second is the ongoing investigation involving classified documents and other presidential records, as well as the possible obstruction of that investigation, referenced and described in court filings in a pending manner in the Southern District of Florida.

Based on recent developments, including the former president's announcement that he is a candidate for president in the next election and the sitting President stated intention to be a candidate as well. I have concluded that it is in the public interest to appoint a special counsel. Such an appointment underscores the department's commitment to both independence and accountability in particularly sensitive matters.


PEREZ: So, Wolf -- now, Wolf, you know that the attorney general is trying to insulate the Department of Justice from what we expect, of course, is the -- is a criticism of this investigation, which of course, is now of a declared candidate for the presidency. Of course, we know that given the fact that it is having to do with Donald Trump, that's not exactly how it's going to go.

BLITZER: Good point. What more, Evan, can you tell us about the man named as Special Counsel Jack Smith?

PEREZ: Well, Wolf, he's a former prosecutor here in the building. And most recently, he was a war crimes prosecutor overseeing prosecutions of people involved in potential war crimes in Kosovo in The Hague. That's his most recent assignment. He's taking over now, of course, here at the Justice Department.

Before this, he was a prosecutor going back in New York at the district attorney's office. He also served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Tennessee, and here in the Justice Department working as a public corruption prosecutor.

I'll read you just the part of his statement that he issued today saying, quote, "I intend to conduct the assigned investigations, and any prosecutions that may result from them independently and in the best traditions of the Department of Justice. The pace of these investigations will not pause or flag under my watch. I will exercise independent judgment and will move the investigations forward expeditiously and thoroughly to whatever outcome the facts and the law dictate."


Wolf, the assignment for Jack Smith, of course, is that he is going to lead these two investigations. In the end, of course, any decision that he makes, any prosecution decisions, still answer to Merrick Garland, through the attorney general. And so, of course, as you try to see how the department is trying to separate itself from the politics of this, it's still of course, going to be a part of the discussion. Wolf.

BLITZER: Certainly will be. All right, Evan Perez, thank you very, very much.

We're also right now getting some new reaction from Donald Trump himself to the Special Counsel appointment. CNN's Kristen Holmes has more on that.

Kristen, the former president already, not surprisingly, lashing out at the decision. What are you learning?

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right, Wolf, the former President calling it unfair, and essentially asking the Republican Party to rally behind him and fight on his behalf. In an interview shortly after the announcement of a special counsel, this is what he had to say.

He said, "I have been proven innocent for six years on everything from fake impeachment to Mueller, who found no collusion, and now I have to do it more? It is not acceptable. It is so unfair. It is so political."

He goes on to say, "I am not going to partake in it, I announce and then they appoint a special prosecutor." He then went on to add even further that the Republican Party should stand up and fight. That is particularly interesting, given the fact that we are at a point where we have seen many in the GOP actually start to say that it's time to move on from Donald Trump.

Now, we do know that his legal team was dreading the prospect of this special counsel saying that it could prolong the investigation. But I talked to sources around the campaign who say they were prepared for this, that advisors had said that announcing a candidacy would not necessarily protect him in these investigations. And it is clear from Trump's interview that he is going to double down on this idea that he is a victim of politicization. And that is what we have heard from him since he announced and that is what we're likely to continue to hear from him.

BLITZER: You're absolutely right. Kristen Holmes, thank you very much. I want to bring in our legal and political experts for some more analysis right now. Shan Wu, let me start with you. You previously warned that appointing a special counsel would, in your words, delay justice, maybe forever. So what do you make of the Attorney General's announcement today?

SHAN WU, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: There was no need to appoint the special counsel. A.G. Garland is a man of great integrity, he is falling his own moral compass on this. But as you can already see from the reporting we just heard, Donald Trump and his supporters were going to rail about any type of investigation moving forward, any kind of charging decision. So it absolutely accomplishes nothing in terms of actually insulating the department.

I worked on independent counsel investigation, different set of laws, and the current special counsel, of course, as Evan reported, answers to the attorney general. So, the criticism is still there, and it will cause delay. I don't think it'll derail the investigation, but of course, there's delay. There's a new chief of this investigation, you'll have to get read into it. And even though all the work that's going on certainly won't be lost, probably same agents, same witnesses, same testimony all being used, there is a delay, and there really was no need for it, in my opinion.

BLITZER: Interesting. You know, Katelyn Polantz, the attorney general, you heard him, we all heard him, said he's confident this won't slow things down. What more can you tell us about how this special counsel will pick up the reins of these two separate criminal investigations?

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Wolf, it doesn't mean there's going to be an indictment today or on Monday, it certainly would slow things down maybe in the short term, maybe initially. But this special counsel is going to be walking into investigations that are already fairly far along. I mean, at the beginning of the Mueller investigation, that started there needed to be a ramping up gathering of teams of preparation and figuring out exactly what they were going to be investigating. They know what they're investigating right now at the Justice Department. So much so that there have been searches and seizures of the former president's home in Florida Mar-a-Lago.

There have been searches and seizures of top advisors, top lawyers around the president whose phones were taken, that we know the Justice Department is already going through all that material. And people have been compelled to testify, people that had tried to assert executive privileges, the sort of things that would have dragged out an investigation in its very early stages. So, he really is now not just going to be looking at some of the factual things that he needs to do with special counsel, but what's really going to be confronting the special counsel now is policy decisions. What to do when it really gets to the point of charging. And so, it -- we could see things happen fairly quickly now even if it might put the brakes on movement forward in these cases right at this particular moment.

[17:10:15] BLITZER: We bring David Axelrod into this conversation. David, the Justice Department, as you know, wants to remove even the appearance of any impropriety. But is there any protecting these criminal investigations from Trump's political attacks?

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, no, because Trump's strategy is to use them as a kind of cudgel with Republican voters, as you saw today. And you know, I think to position any charges that might come as politically motivated charges, that was one of the motivations behind his -- announcing his candidacy. He went -- he was on the campaign trail telling people that they are coming after me because they want to deprive you of the choice of me.

But I think, Wolf, what we saw last week in the primary and what is likely to result from this is a Trump fatigue among some Republicans who say this is too much baggage to carry forward. And this is just something that underscores it.

BLITZER: Yes, it does. You know, Governor Kasich, Trump is lashing out already as you just heard, saying this is quote, "so unfair." He says it is so political. What was he expecting when he announced his presidential run?

JOHN KASICH, CNN SENIOR COMMENTATOR: Well, Wolf, I think he was expecting that he was going to get great accolades, and he's just not getting it. I think David said something interesting, which is, people are worn out. I mean, the zealots are still there, but there are a number of people that look at these developments and say, you know, maybe this is what's going to finally stop him, this is -- and I'm talking about Republicans. I mean, I've seen a sea change in attitude with Republicans, who were for him, I mean, they didn't like him, but they like his policies. And now when I listen to those very same people talk, and a great number of them, it's sort of like, can't we just move on?

So, I think we did not see the enthusiasm with that announcement. I think he's going to use this to try to fire up his zealots. I don't expect you're going to see great numbers of Republicans come to his defense because I think that, frankly, I think a lot of people think his time has sort of come and gone. But you never count this guy out.


KASICH: But I think that's where we're headed today.

BLITZER: And you speak as the former Republican governor of Ohio.

Everybody standby, we have more to discuss. We're also getting new reaction to the special counsel appointment from officials over at the White House. We'll share that with you. We'll tell you more about this new special counsel, Jack Smith, right after a quick break.


[17:16:34] BLITZER: More now on our top story, the Attorney General of the United States Merrick Garland's appointment of a special counsel to oversee multiple Trump investigations. CNN's Jeremy diamond is joining us from the White House right now. He's getting new reaction from Biden administration officials to the breaking news.

Jeremy, what is the White House saying about this decision and their involvement?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the White House wants to make very clear that they had absolutely no involvement, no heads up from the Justice Department about this decision to appoint a special counsel in these investigations. That is a red line that they want to stress and emphasize.

And one that they've emphasized in other situations as well, anytime an active criminal investigation is brought up in the White House press briefing, the response is almost always to say it's an ongoing criminal investigation, we are not involved and we will not interfere with the independence of the Justice Department. All of this, of course, is very intentional, given the fact that Biden's predecessor, the former President Trump, that he did interfere and seek to influence various Justice Department investigations. And that is a break that they really wanted to note there.

I actually asked the White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre today for her reaction to the former president calling the appointment of the Special Counsel, political and unfair. She told me that we do not politicize the Department of Justice. And she once again emphasize the fact that the President was not aware of this, as it happened.

In fact, the President walked into a room with business executives and labor leaders today as the news of this appointment of the special counsel was breaking. I and other reporters here at the White House tried to ask the President for his reaction after his remarks, he did not answer. And it also appears, Wolf, that at the time, he did not know. Wolf.

BLITZER: Very interesting. All right, Jeremy Diamond at the White House, thanks very much.

Let's get some more analysis from our legal and political experts right now. And Katelyn Polantz, the choice for special counsel, this career prosecutor Jack Smith, he clearly isn't a household name, how will his approach compared to what we saw, let's say from Robert Mueller or John Durham for that matter?

POLANTZ: Wolf, he's going to have to do a lot of the same things that both of those teams, those special counsel had done. But we should be considering that he is a lot more in line with Robert Muller's investigation than what John Durham was tasked to do. Because make no mistake from this announcement from the Attorney General today, this is about Donald Trump. That was one of the things that Robert Muller investigated.

Now he is less -- Jack Smith is less of a politically known person in Washington. He has worked in Washington before he has dealt with and been in a decision making role in some very significant political investigations, Public Integrity Unit investigations from the Justice Department. I had just been hearing that he was in some of the top meetings whenever there were charging decisions being considered against the former governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell. But really, he has not been operating in Washington in the way that Muller had been as the FBI director, but he will at the end of this have to produce a final report and make very extensive significant decisions in the same way Muller and his team would have had to around what to do with a president in this case, the former president.

BLITZER: Good point. Shan Wu, how much confidence do you have a Jack Smith?

WU: Oh, lots of confidence in the man, very good reputation. Yes, he is walking into a historically unprecedented of the firestorm. I mean, he might want to consider giving his office in the Netherlands, frankly, but he's very competent, very experienced, no question about that.


The only concern really is there is going to be some time taken to get up to speed. And ultimately, you will hear a lot of pundits saying all, oh, this means Trump's definitely going to be indicted. That's not true. The evidence looks very strong, but he is going to make his own independent judgment just as a Garland would have.

BLITZER: Let me follow up with Katelyn once again. Is there any sense, Katelyn, yet of how the timeline will unfold? And then how the Justice Department will approach the incredibly sensitive decision, and possibly filing criminal charges against the former president?

POLANTZ: Well, Wolf, we are already getting a little bit of a sense of what happens next. You get this special counsel appointment. And we have already learned that there were many new subpoenas after the election issued, two witnesses, both for documents and for testimony and related to both the January 6 investigation and the Mar-a-Lago investigation. That's our reporting today.

And some of those people had been contacted before to turn over documents, they're now being given dates to show up for the grand jury in Washington, D.C. and testify. So this is going to move forward at a pretty fast clip. Our own Evan Perez also had some reporting that Jack Smith is going to be opening an office. He has a team of prosecutor's already ready working on both of those cases, but he's going to get an office setup.

And so, we can't predict how long it will take for charges to be decided upon. The Justice Department has a full five years, so many years that they could be looking at this and these issues. But they are ready and going to be in place very quickly. Wolf.

BLITZER: Interesting. You know, Governor Kasich, you're a former Republican member of Congress, as you know, House Republicans, and they will be in the leadership now, they're already planning to investigate the Justice Department for what they charge is bias. How worried are you about the GOP push to continue to politicize the Justice Department and the FBI for that matter?

KASICH: I'm very concerned about that, Wolf. And frankly, you know, they need to get on with an agenda. And if the agenda is just going to be investigations, you know, they're going to fall flat, and they have a very narrow majority, which will then, in my opinion, put their agenda at risk.

What's interesting is Nancy Pelosi has decided she's not going to be leader anymore. You know, the Republicans spend a lot of money demonizing her over the years, she's now gone. And now you have probably Hakeem Jeffries, who's going to be become the Democratic leader. And if both sides just sat down and looked at one another and put the country first, there could be an opportunity for some agreement and some progress.

But if you start off with a whole series of investigations, then you're off on the wrong foot. We're going to have to see how this develops. But there are opportunities for Republicans to be able to do something, perhaps with some Democrats in the House.

BLITZER: Let's see if that happens. David Axelrod, heading into the 2024 presidential race, Trump will be dealing with these criminal investigations and Biden could be dealing with multiple investigations launched by the New House Republican leadership. How do the Democrats navigate this?

AXELROD: Well, look, the -- I wish I shared John Kasich's hope. I share his hope, I don't have much expectation that they're going to stand down and slow these investigations because it's such a small majority that the most strident voices in that Republican caucus have outsized power, the Marjorie Taylor Greene faction, and she's made clear and others have made clear that investigations are going to be primary. And so, I think we're going to see them, I think those will be filtered through a very, very political filter, because of the source of those investigations.

But clearly, if you're in the White House, when I was around the White House during a time when there was a transfer of power, you have to prepare for a fuselage of subpoenas and it is a very different environment than it was for the last two years. Some of them who are there now were veterans of the last transition of this sort, and I'm sure that they are hardening their resources there in order to deal with it.

BLITZER: We shall see. David Axelrod, John Kasich, Katelyn Polantz, Shan Wu, guys, thank you very much.

Up next, we'll talk to a key member of the House Intelligence Committee about the appointment of a special counsel to oversee the criminal investigations of the former President Donald Trump.

Plus, sentencing, just in, in the trial of Elizabeth Holmes convicted of fraud in the Theranos case that rocked Silicon Valley.



BLITZER: Breaking news, sentencing just announced in the trial of Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of the failed blood testing startup Theranos who was convicted of fraud this year. CNN National Correspondent Natasha Chen has been working the story for us. So, Natasha, what's the latest?

NATASHA CHEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, a judge just sentenced Elizabeth Holmes to 11 years, three months in prison, plus another three years of supervised release as well as a $400 fine. Now, she is also on the hook for possible restitution that is going to be handled at a separate event. So, this was just about the prison sentence, again 11 years and three months in prison.

They will set a future date with the parties to determine restitution. She could be on the hook for more than 800 million in that situation. But today, again, just the 11 years three months in prison plus a $400 fine.

Now, there were more than 100 people who wrote in to the judge in support of Elizabeth Holmes. And today in court just before the judge read the sentence, she was allowed to get up and speak. I want to read a couple of quotes to you that were given to us by our colleague, Rachel Metz, who was in the courtroom.

She said, I loved Theranos, it was my life's work. She was emotional and saying that the team meant the world to her. And she said, quote, "The people I tried to get involved with Theranos were the people I loved and respected the most. I am devastated by my failings."

Again, she was at one point, a Silicon Valley darling, an icon at -- with the Theranos company where she claimed that they could use one drop of blood to test a bunch of different things. But it turned out that that technology did not work. And she was indicted for that earlier in January. She was convicted on four counts of fraud for defrauding investors. But it was a bit of a split verdict, because she was not found guilty of defrauding patients.

And there, of course, was a separate trial for the second in command at Theranos, Sunny Balwani that she, Elizabeth Holmes, during her trial alleged, had been abusing her throughout the years that they worked together and were also in a personal relationship together. So a very stunning conclusion to what was once an icon in Silicon Valley of just a very stunning fall. From the top, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, absolutely right. Natasha Chen, thank you very much. Elizabeth Holmes sentenced to more than 11 years in prison. We'll stay on top of this story.

But there's another story we're following right now. As you know, our top story here in THE SITUATION ROOM, the Attorney General of the United States Merrick Garland's decision to appoint a special counsel to oversee two investigations, criminal investigations into the former President Donald Trump. Let's talk about that and more with Democratic Congresswoman Jackie Speier of California, a member of the Intelligence Oversight and Armed Services Committees. She's a busy lady indeed. Congresswoman, thanks so much for joining us. We have a lot to discuss. But do you believe it was the right decision by the Attorney General to go ahead and appoint a special counsel?

REP. JACKIE SPEIER (D), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Absolutely. You know, Merrick Garland is known for being squeaky clean, Eagle Scout, former judge, of course, and I think he did what he had to do. He's sought and received a search warrant of Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago home relative to the documents he took, they were classified and top secret. So having a special counsel come in and handle the case makes all the sense in the world.

BLITZER: The move makes it clear as you know, Congresswoman, that former President Trump is at the center of these two criminal investigations. Based on what you've seen so far, do you expect Trump will ultimately face criminal charges?

SPEIER: Well, I would certainly recommend it if I were in the Attorney General's position. There was something that came out last week that made me think that maybe they were starting to be somewhat reluctant when they said it did not appear like the former president was holding on to these documents for any financial gain. I personally find that hard to believe because I don't know that Donald Trump has ever done anything that wasn't somehow aligned with his personal finances.

BLITZER: Some Republican lawmakers, Congresswoman, are now calling for the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel in the investigation into Hunter Biden, the President's son, since President Biden maybe a Trump 2024 rival. Do you -- do they have a point?

SPEIER: No, they don't have a point because Hunter Biden is not the President of the United States. Donald Trump was the president of the United States. Donald Trump did the various acts, whether it was inciting the insurrection, or taking documents that were not his to take that were highly confidential could put our national security at risk, very different sets of circumstances.

You know, it's interesting to see that the House, not the Senate is going to engage in this activity. And that, in fact, the House has changed its tune because originally it was going to be investigating Hunter Biden. But truly, they don't have a basis on which to investigate Hunter Biden. So now they're saying it's about a President Biden. It is just theatrics at the worst, and we're going to see a lot of that in the coming year.

BLITZER: I suspect you're right. Moving on right now, Congresswoman, after the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's big announcement yesterday, Democrats seem to be united right now in passing the torch to Congressman Hakeem Jeffries and a slate of new younger leaders.


What do you see as the biggest challenges for this new era, for the Democrats? Will it be navigating the Republican majority in the House?

SPEIER: Well, it's going to be a whole series of challenges they're going to have. That certainly is part of it. Although I do think, since the Republicans have such a narrow margin of victory, and a caucus that truly is dysfunctional, many already indicating they're not going to support Kevin McCarthy. I don't know that he can even become the speaker.

But having said that, the new Democratic caucus leadership has a lot to learn from Speaker Pelosi, who for 20 years, has done a remarkable job and will go down in history as the most talented, most powerful, most effective speaker ever to run the House of Representatives. And the fact that she is a woman makes it just that much more remarkable.

BLITZER: Congresswoman Jackie Speier, thanks so much for joining us.

SPEIER: Thank you. Great to be with you.

BLITZER: Thank you.

Just ahead, we'll have more on Merrick Garland's decision to appoint a special counsel to oversee criminal investigations into former President Trump. Plus, Ukrainians right now, they're bracing for a very cold winter as Russian attacks but the country's power grid at risk.



BLITZER: All right, this just in. North Korea just released the first public images of Kim Jong-un's daughter. It's her first confirmed public appearance. She was with her father to witness what the North Koreans just confirmed was the launch of, quote, a new kind of intercontinental ballistic missile. Those are the North Korean words.

I want to bring in CNN's Will Ripley. He's been to North Korea several times for us. So what are these new images show us? What do they suggest, Will?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, they would be, Wolf, the first known images of Kim Jong-un's daughter who we believe to be around nine years old. Although North Korea doesn't release things like birthdays, we still don't know Kim Jong-un's exact birthday. But he's there holding the hand of a girl.

KCNA reporting that his wife and his daughter were in attendance. Depending on the Kim family succession plans, this unveiling could be even more consequential than the missile itself that was launched given that Kim Jong-un's successor very well could be his oldest child, which might be that daughter that we see in those images there.

So we'll certainly stay on top of that and see as she continues to possibly reemerge in North Korean state media just like Kim Jong-un did with his father, Kim Il -- his grandfather Kim Il-sung and then his father Kim Jong-il. This is pretty significant development for sure.

And not to mention, of course, the fact that North Korea has more images of this new missile believed to be the Hwasong-17, that's North Korea's calling it. We have to have experts take a very close look at these pictures to assess whether indeed it is, as North Korea claims a new type of ICBM or if it's just an older missile that they've given a new paint job, which they've been known to do in the past.

But certainly this missile did travel, the United States and Japan believed far enough that theoretically, it could hit any city in the mainland U.S., whether it be Washington or New York or Los Angeles. It traveled almost more than 3,700 miles up into space. And then splashdown in the waters near Japan.

That kind of distance that North Korea was demonstrating even though it didn't travel, it traveled up, you know, basically vertically instead of traveling over to another continent, but had the trajectory been different. This missile could have traveled a very long way, Wolf. And of course, this is the 34th missile launch event that North Korea has conducted this year.

It is unprecedented. They've lost -- on Sundays, they've launched many, many missiles at once. They've claimed to have launched around 50 ballistic missiles so far this year. Brazen violation of U.N. Security Council Resolutions, but despite a condemnation, a strong condemnation from the U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, along with other world leaders here in Bangkok, that does not seem to stop Kim Jong-un from continuing this activity largely because China and Russia have veto power at the United Nations Security Council.

And they are not condemning these launches. They just keep putting out neutral statements calling for all sides to remain calm as the situation on the Korean peninsula continues to escalate, Wolf.

BLITZER: It certainly does. Will Ripley, reporting for us. Thank you, Will, very much.

Other international news we're following right now, millions of Ukrainians are facing a winter of worry as bitter cold sets in right now. And while gas is back on some, for some people, Russian attacks on Ukraine's power grid means it could go out again at any moment. CNN International Diplomatic Editor Nic Robertson has the latest.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR (voice-over): Gas just came back to Kramatorsk, a boon of battlefield games. Maria, a 70-year-old pensioner wasn't expecting it, had bought a wood burning stove.

It was hard without gas, she tells us. And now, thanks to God, we're OK. But for how long?

(on-camera): When the government turned the gas back on here at the beginning of November, they did it without any big announcement because like every other critical service here, gas depends on electricity. And that's what Russia is targeting.

(voice-over): When I met the mayor here three months ago, he was urging residents to leave ahead of winter.

MAYOR OLEKSANDR HONCHARENKO, KRAMATORSK, UKRAINE: We do not have gas gas at all and it's not possible to repair gas lines.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): When we meet now, he tells me the population has actually increased by 30,000 to 35,000 people, over 80,000 total.


Residents returning home even though the situation because Russia is targeting the power grid is much more precarious. Lives, he fears, maybe lost in what he expects to be the harshest winter since independence 30 years ago.

HONCHARENKO (through translation): When the electricity disappears, cities are plunged into darkness. Anything can happen. Boilers can stop, gas distribution networks can stop. It can be left without everything, even without heat.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): Keeping warm is on everyone's minds. This factory making heating logs from sunflower seeds, demand outstripping capacity.

DANILO, WOOD PALLET FACTORY EMPLOYEE (through translation): Our requests have gone up three or fourfold. We don't have enough trucks for deliveries.

ROBERTSON (on-camera): They're working at full capacity here. Everything that's ready, shipped out immediately. But the whole system here extremely vulnerable. The electricity could go off at any moment.

(voice-over): Every log delivered a few hours spared from the cold. Each sack, perhaps a week's peace of mind.

(on-camera): Does he got everything that he ordered?

(voice-over): His answer? Everything, everything. All good. Perfect. I don't have words.

Food is also on people's minds this winter. Mostly pensioners, mostly poor, bundle up against the cold. A free bread distribution, tempting them out of frigid homes.

If they help us like they do here, it will be fine, 84-year-old Yulia tells us. I'm a child of World War II, she says. we were cold, hungry, but we survived.

Across town, another pensioner, 82-year-old Alexandra, shows us the basement she shares with neighbors already stockpiling food for winter. No gas for warmth here, just an old electric heater.

(on-camera): But when there's no electricity, you have no heat. How do you stay warm? So we just have to put on our coats, wrap ourselves in blankets and go to bed, she says. That's how we live. That's how we exist. Born into war, she says, I'll probably die in war.


ROBERTSON: And, of course, it's so many pensioners and the poor as well around the country who really couldn't afford to leave their homes. And they're the ones that are going to be stuck here that were unable to leave the country and become refugees somewhere else.

And that's what the mayor of Kramatorsk was worrying about. And that's what mayors all across the country are worrying about. A humanitarian disaster., that's really going to affect the old and the frail. It's awfully cold here already, it will get colder. And for the old, that is a very, very tough thing to go through, Wolf.

BLITZER: Certainly is. Nic Robertson in Kyiv for us. Thanks very much.

By the way, coming up in our next hour in THE SITUATION ROOM, we'll speak to Ukraine's ambassador to the United States. Also coming up, a deadly snowstorm pummeling western New York facing a potentially historic crisis. We'll go live to Buffalo, which is expecting as much as, get this, 5 feet of snow.

Plus, what we're learning right now about the newly appointed special counsel who will oversee the criminal investigations into the Mar-a- Lago and former President Trump's role in the January 6 insurrection.



BLITZER: Western New York is now bracing for possibly historic snowfall, with my hometown of Buffalo New York expecting as much as 5 feet of snow. And tonight, there are already two deaths being blamed on this storm.

CNN Meteorologist Jennifer Gray is tracking it all for us over the CNN severe weather center. Jennifer, what's the forecast?

JENNIFER GRAY, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, Wolf, this is really going to be unprecedented for portions of western New York and this is a lot of snow even for standards for people that live around the Buffalo area. We still have winter weather advisories, winter storm warnings, lake- effect snow advisories still in effect. And this snow is not stopping anytime soon.

We have reports of almost 5 feet of snow already and you can see not letting up. Right now the bullseye is just to the south of Buffalo, but it's all going to be dependent upon that wind direction. That wind is really going to shift the snow to the north or south. We have had basically a bull's eye right around the Hamburg area just south of Buffalo. Orchard Park, 4.5 feet of snow already.

We could see 2 feet to 3 feet additional of snow around the region, not necessarily in those particular areas. But the winds are definitely steering off of the leg. If we get more of a west-southwest direction, it's going to be, well, south of Buffalo. If the winds shift a little bit more to the north, it's really going to key in on Buffalo. But, Wolf, we still have another day, day and a half to go before the snow is going to lead up.

BLITZER: Yes, very worrisome development. Our Meteorologist Jennifer Gray, thanks very much.

Up next, we're getting new details right now of the U.S. Justice Department's appointment of a special counsel to oversee two criminal investigations into former President Trump. And a quick programming note, be sure to join CNN this Sunday night for the premiere of the CNN film, "Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down."



BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When we heard that Gabby had been shot, we were heartbroken and scared. I already knew Gabby well, knew Mark. And when I visited with Gabby, she was out and uncommunicative.

A few minutes after we left her room and some of her colleagues from Congress were in the room, Gabby opened her eyes for the first time. Gabby opened her eyes for the first time.



OBAMA: Even in darkest most difficult times, there's always that glimmer of hope that we can cling to.



BLITZER: Happening now, former President Trump lashing out tonight after the Attorney General of the United States Merrick Garland named as a special counsel to oversee two federal criminal investigations involving him. Trump now saying he'll make a statement later tonight.