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The Situation Room

Official News Conference On Deadly LGBTQ Nightclub Shooting; LGBTQ Club Shooting Suspect Facing Murder And Hate Crime Charges; Trump's GOP Rivals Tell Top Donors It's Time To Move On; CNN Inside Ukrainian Recon Team Targeting Russian Invaders; Kyrie Irving Returns From Suspension After promoting An Antisemitic Film. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired November 21, 2022 - 18:00   ET



REPORTER: My question is for Mayor Suthers and Chief Vasquez. Mayor Suthers, would you like to see local law enforcement utilize that law to try and prevent future tragedies? And, Chief Vasquez, does this strategy, given the previous interaction the El Paso sheriff's had with this suspected shooter change your perspectives on (INAUDIBLE)?

LT. PAMELA CASTRO, PUBLIC INFORMATION OFFICER, COLORADO SPRINGS POLICE: So, the question was regarding to the red flag law, and the police department not related to this investigation but previously had used that red flag law, and then asking the mayor for his comment regarding the potentiality of using that law. Is that a fair brief?



MAYOR JOHN SUTHERS, COLORADO SPRINGS, COLORADO: My view of the red flag law is that it was passed by the legislature. It's the law in Colorado, and law enforcement agencies in appropriate circumstances should take advantage of it and utilize the law. That's my view of it. I don't run the law enforcement agency but that would be my advice to law enforcement agencies.

I would caution against an assumption that the circumstances of this case would lead to application of the red flag law. We don't know that. I would caution any conclusion either way or not. I -- as the district attorney indicated, hopefully, there will be a time when there can be a specific discussion about any prior interaction with the -- with law enforcement and I think it would -- those circumstances would cause one to be able to make commentary about potential application of the red flag law, but I think it's premature to do so now.

REPORTER: So, you questioned whether somebody calling a bomb threat and blowing themselves up in the house and had a standoff with the police would prompt an extreme risk protection --

SUTHERS: You're assuming that there's credible evidence of all that as opposed to someone reporting it and that the prosecutor had evidence of that, and I would not make assumption to that nature. CHIEF ADRIAN VASQUEZ, COLORADO SPRINGS, COLORADO POLICE: I would just echo the mayor's stance on the red flag law. It is currently a law in Colorado. My stance has not changed on it. If law enforcement has credible information that fits within the parameters of the red flag law, then we should take action on that. That's what the law is and it allows us to do that and we should take those actions.

But as the mayor says, we have to have the right information, the probable cause. We have to have credible information to be able to do that. So, if we do, then, of course, we should act on it.

CASTRO: Yes, ma'am?


CASTRO: The question was is there any other suspects? That's part of the ongoing investigation at this time. We have one identified suspect in custody. Yes, sir?

REPORTER: Our sources tell us there's a long gun that was used. The long gun that was used was a ghost gun. Can you all confirm that? And also, there's another firearm in this that apparently was bought illegally from an unlicensed dealer in Florida (ph). Can you tell me that that's --

CASTRO: So the question was about the information that there was a long gun involved as well as another firearm and the sources of those firearms. That is also part of the ongoing investigation. And at this point in time, it would be inappropriate for us to comment on where those were found and where they were obtained from.


REPORTER: The preliminary charges included bias charges and (INAUDIBLE) community would like to understand the motivation behind this (INAUDIBLE). Can you articulate what (INAUDIBLE) those specific charges were? Can you speak the shooter's motivations here?

CASTRO: Okay. So, the question was twofold, one, about the charges of the bias charges, and then one about the motivation. I can tell you that motivation is obviously a part of every criminal investigation that we do. That is part of the current investigation. I can't speak any further about any motive. And then the second part regarding the charges, I'll hand over to our district attorney, Mr. Allen.

MICHAEL ALLEN, DISTRICT ATTORNEY, EL PASO COUNTY, COLORADO: So, a quirk in criminal law is that we don't have to prove when we go to a court -- we don't have to prove motive, but, obviously, we're all humans and we want to know what caused somebody to go in and do something as horrific as this.


So, that's why we just heard from the PIO that that's being investigated. It's important that if we have enough evidence to support bias- motivated crimes, to charge that. It's important for this community. It's important for the prosecution effort to show why something happened. And if there's enough evidence to support that in this case when we get to the formal filing charges, we will absolutely be including those charges here as well.

But I want to also be clear that the bias-motivated statute in Colorado, the highest level charge that we can get with that charge is a class four felony. We're obviously talking about five people that were killed. Their lives were ended. Those are going to be the top end charges in this case, without a doubt. Those charges will likely carry life in prison without parole, whereas the class four felonies are probation eligible offenses.

So, those do not, in any way, elevate the potential sentence in a case like this, but it is important to let the community know that we do not tolerate bias-motivated crimes in this community, that we support communities that have been maligned, harassed, and intimidated, and abused and that's one way that we can do that, showing that we will put the money where our mouth is essentially and make sure that we try it that way.

So, I hope that answers your question but we're going to absolutely be reviewing it for formal charges along those same lines.

CASTRO: Yes, sir?


CASTRO: So the question is, is the U.S. Attorney's Office going to be charging federal hate crimes?

COLE FINEGAN, U.S. ATTORNEY FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLORADO: Thank you for your question. There's an ongoing investigation and we really can't comment further at this time. But we are reviewing all the facts, we're reviewing all the information that we have and we're working closely with the district attorney's office, with the FBI, with ATF and with Chief Vasquez and his department. I just want to reiterate and reaffirm that the Department of Justice is looking at all aspects of this case. Thank you.

CASTRO: The question was, were there any previous threats to the club? I think we have very clearly said that this club was a safe haven in our community and that's something to be respected and honored. I wanted to be clear that this club, from the police department's perspective, was no issue. We had a good relationship with them. There weren't issues at this club.

As far as if there were prior threats, again, that would be part of any investigation and would be a part of this investigation.


CASTRO: Yes. So, this is similar to the question of past history motive but specific to social media. In this day and age, social media is where everybody is at. So, of course, we're looking at social media in every investigation that we do, whether that'd be from a very basic patrol investigation all the way up to the most significant.


CASTRO: The question is that is the shooter from today or from not today, from the Club Q incident, the same individual as I believe the bomb threat you said, sir? I'm going to let Mr. Allen answer that.

ALLEN: Spencer, good question, but it's a question that we cannot answer at this time for the reasons I gave earlier.

CASTRO: Yes, ma'am?

REPORTER: Being hypothetically, the suspect did have a prior criminal history and those documents were sealed at this time despite (INAUDIBLE). What process will have to be gone through and who would be responsible for getting those documents unsealed and is that something your office is interested in pushing?

CASTRO: The question was if there are -- under Colorado law, if something is sealed, what is the process to unseal them?


ALLEN: So, I'm going to answer this in general terms, not as it relates to this case, and I hope that will satisfy what you're driving at. Generally speaking, if a case gets dismissed and then a person commits a subsequent offense, it's very common that we can look at that prior offense to see if there's some connection to that prior offense to the current offense. We do that in almost every case where somebody has a prior.

Sometimes we will try to use that prior incident in the new case. To do that, we have to file motions, 404b, which is prior bad acts motions. If it's appropriate to do that in a case like this, then we will do that, absolutely.

Too premature to tell what timeline that may or may not be on for the reasons that I stated earlier as it relates to this specific incident and what you're asking about, but it should be available publicly if a motion is filed along the lines that you're describing.

CASTRO: I think you -- no, sorry, right next to you. I think she has her hand up.

REPORTER: Is law enforcement monitoring all (INAUDIBLE)?

CASTRO: I'm sorry, was law enforcement monitoring what? Were we monitoring the suspect? Was that your question?

I think the best way to address that is that, as we've talked about any prior interactions with law enforcement, would be considered as part of this case. Monitoring somebody goes into a lot of different areas, but we only investigate individuals that are accused of crimes. So, monitoring the way you said it almost implies that we monitor people just in general, and that we do not do.


REPORTER: Has the suspect said anything to authorities in his condition right now?

CASTRO: Okay. So, the question was if the suspect has made any statements and the suspect's condition. The condition part of it I can answer for you and that is what we have said from the beginning. There were injuries and that they are being treated at a local hospital. We are not going to share any further details about an individual's medical condition.

For the second part of your question, state that again for me.

REPORTER: Has the suspect said anything to authorities?

CASTRO: Has the suspect said anything or made a statement to authorities? Again, I'll refer to Mr. Allen.

ALLEN: So, one of the principles in our Constitution is that we all have the right to remain silent if we choose to and if a person exercises that right to remain silent, it can't be used against them. For that reason, we are not going to comment on whether the person has made any comments or not made comments in this investigation. That will come out in due time though.

REPORTER: Just follow-up on the condition of the suspect. Can you tell us what condition he was in at the time of the arrest? Was he conscious?

CASTRO: Again, we won't go into the specifics of their injuries.

Black shirt, ma'am, yes.

REPORTER: Can you confirm the ages of the victims?

CASTRO: I do not have that with me but we can look into that to share with everybody.

Was there anybody -- you sir.

REPORTER: Do you know at this point the suspect had ever been in Club Q before the shooting (INAUDIBLE)?

CASTRO: That would be part of our investigation. The question was had the suspect prior -- visited the club prior, again, part of our ongoing investigation.

Somebody who hasn't asked any questions? All right, black jacket. You haven't asked any.

REPORTER: Do law enforcement do a welfare check on his mother in the prior (INAUDIBLE)?

CASTRO: I do not have that information but that would be part of the investigation potentially, but, again, you're asking about somebody who is not identified as the suspect in this investigation.

All right, is any of the other questions that are going up, are they related to something new or something that we've already covered about ten times over? Okay. Yes, sir?

REPORTER: What was security like at Club Q prior to this incident? What was it like the night of the shooting? And also may have been answered already, were the guns acquired legally or not?

CASTRO: Yes. So, the guns question has already been asked and that's part of the investigation. The question about the security, I think, implies that trying to put responsibility somewhere else. Of course, we would look at what they might have as far as surveillance evidence, but we really want to keep the focus on actions, not looking to blame.


Today is about identifying the victims and the heroes in this situation. And that's what we really want our community to know is there were two individuals who acted heroically and we agree to save lives. And then, again, we lost five people and there are families grieving.

So, we really want to stay focused and make sure that that focus truly stays on those victims. They are lost to their families and their importance to them cannot be overstated.

For real questions or I'll give you one more chance. You are going to make or break it if we ask any other questions.

REPORTER: You all ask questions.

CASTRO: Sir, if you're up to see if we have anything new.

REPORTER: Spell the names (INAUDIBLE) even names to stop the shooter. And also if you could provide more clarity as to that confusion of the additional (INAUDIBLE).

CASTRO: Yes. I will get you the spelling of the names. That will be part of when we release the victims as well. We'll get you the spellings of those names.

Okay. hold on one second. Let me answer the second question.

The condition of our victims, again, we have to respect their right to privacy and their injuries. They had varying levels of injuries, as we said in our release. We had 17 -- I'm sorry, yes, 17 people who suffered from gunshot wounds. I have not been shot but I can't imagine being shot anywhere is something that anybody wants to do.

So we again care about our citizens and our victims and won't do that. We do have somebody from Penrose Hospital if they would like to add additional information to that or like make a statement, Mr. Patrick.

Thank you. Good afternoon. I'm Patrick Sharp. I am the CEO of Centura Penrose Hospital. First of all, I just, on behalf of the Centura healthcare system, want to extend our condolences to the victims, the victims' families and all those affected by this senseless tragedy.

PATRICK SHARP, CEO, CENTURA PENROSE HOSPITAL: What I can tell you is we have three patients still at Penrose. They are in stable condition. I'm not going to provide further details other than that. They have support networks with them. And I do want to thank all the healthcare providers, not just at Penrose but across all the healthcare systems that rose to the occasion to help the needs of the people that were coming into our E.R.s again with this tragic event. And also a big thank you to all the first responders that collaborated with the healthcare providers. It's an honor to be part of that in this very sad situation.


CASTRO: Okay, I understand that. At this point, we don't have that information to share.

All right, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming and thank everybody who is out there watching and the goodwill that they are sending out community and our victims. Thank you.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. We want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and indeed around the world. You've been watching a news conference in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where officials just gave an important update on that horrific nightclub shooting that killed 5 people and injured at least 19 people.

Let's get right to CNN National Correspondent Nick Watt. He's on the scene for us. Nick, we're also learning more about the investigation and the suspect in this case. Tell us about that.

NICK WATT, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, we are, Wolf, but this press conference also focused heavily on the victims and heroes here. The victims were all named in public for the first time, Raymond Green Vance, Kelly Loving, Daniel Aston, Derrick Rump, Ashley Paugh. We actually just heard ourselves from Ashley Paugh's family within the past hour or so. They are obviously devastated, unable to speak, but they put out a statement saying she was a loving mother, one daughter, and she worked for an NGO that helped place foster kids. Five people dead.

Now, the heroes who were also mentioned in that press conference, Thomas James and Rich Fierro, they were the two people, the two patrons of that club who subdued this gunman, hit him with his own handgun and officials say saved many lives.

Now, we have also just seen a post on Rich Fierro's.


He owns a brewery with his family and his wife just posted on their site, saying that they were at the club, their friends were shot, their daughter, I believe Cassie, broke her knee as she was trying to run away. Rich himself was injured when he was trying to subdue the shooter. He was covered in blood. Now, Rich Fierro, we understand, has served four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. And he spoke earlier with The New York Times and he said this, I didn't know exactly what I did. I just went into combat mode. I just know I have to kill this guy before he kills us. He said he didn't know if the shooter was actually shooting at the time. I just know I had to take him down.

Now, we also heard in that press conference continuation of the real determination to seek justice to try this suspect here in Colorado Springs where this shooting happened and the D.A. said that no formal charges yet against the suspect. They will begin to be filed when he is released from the hospital. That could happen in a couple of days. He will appear by video link and he will be told of his arrest charges.

The formal charges will come a few days after that and the investigation will go on, he said, maybe even up until the time that a trial starts. The D.A. stressed that he does not want to try this case in the media because he does not want to jeopardize this case in any way whatsoever. He wants a conviction that can withstand any appeal.

Now, of course, federal authorities are also involved here. The Department of Justice is looking at this as well. But a real determination to see justice done in this community and the D.A. said that they will be filing -- if they have the evidence, they will be filing charges of hate crimes, bias crimes, because the D.A. said that is important for this community, and that if that is indeed what drove this gunman that that is seen to be avenged, I suppose. But they are very, very keen to try this suspect here in Colorado Springs. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. Nick Watt, stay with us. I also want to bring in CNN Counterterrorism Analyst Phil Mudd, CNN Law Enforcement Analyst Jonathan Wackrow and CNN Legal Analyst Jennifer Rodgers.

Phil, what are your takeaways from that update we just got from law enforcement?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYSTL: Boy, I think if you're a private citizen watching that, you might be frustrated by the lack of information, but let me tell you something, that was a pro performance by the district attorney. Look, we're less than 48 hours away from the event and the district attorney has everybody lined up in the midst of a complex investigation to say exactly the same thing. That's the mayor, the police chief, the district attorney himself, the U.S. attorney, the public affairs officer, lined up to say exactly the same thing.

Meanwhile, the D.A. is giving us clues, recognizing, I think, that he's going to have to speak eventually about things like motivation, that he'll be speaking soon. For example, he mentioned the charging documents. He talked about red flag laws repeatedly. He used phrases saying, I hope to have or expect to have something else shortly. He knows he can't sustain forever the silence, but I thought very professional.

Final thing I would say, with the FBI involved in the investigation, which they would be anyway and the U.S. attorney there, I think we can look for some serious questions about whether the U.S. attorney and feds bring hate crime charges if in fact that's where this case goes, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. I suspect it will be heading in that direction.

Jonathan, the police say they will remain on the scene for days as they process this crime scene. Just how complex is this investigation?

JONATHAN WACKROW, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT: Well, Wolf, this is a very complex investigation. And what we heard is that law enforcement at the very beginning of this press conference, the public information officer put out that law enforcement is actually seeking any additional information from potential victims. Why are they doing that? Because they need to correlate the witness statements to other pieces of evidentiary value all going toward this investigation and the prosecution of this suspect.

But let's talk about like being on site at this crime scene. What does that actually mean? Well, for law enforcement, that means actually identifying the boundaries of the crime scene. You know, we obviously know that the suspect went inside and started shooting, but were there any precipitating actions, any criminal acts outside of that location that had occurred beforehand? That's going to help set the boundaries for this. They're going to conduct multiple searches. Again, think about like how many rounds, how many victims we have. They actually have to really look for every piece of evidentiary value. Why? Because that all goes towards supporting the prosecution, and in some instances, supporting the application for the arrest warrant.

And, finally, you know, this is, again, you know, as Phil said, they want to keep this potentially this prosecution in Colorado with the district attorney.


So, photos, videos, crime scene analysis, everything takes time. They can't rush this. Everything of evidentiary value has to be cataloged and it has to be a chain of custody of that that leads to that prosecution. So, very dynamic, very complicated crime scene processing right now, but it all has the intent of bringing justice to these victims.

BLITZER: Yes, it does. Jennifer, you're our legal analyst. Authorities confirmed that no charges had been filed, at least not yet, but they're moving forward. Once the suspect is released from the hospital, that's when they say they'll start releasing the charges. Is that typical? How will this process carry out?

JENNIFER RODGERS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, there's a certain amount of time that a suspect can be held without charges but it's not for long, 24, 48 hours, depends on the local laws in Colorado. So, I would expect as soon as he's released from the hospital and taken into law enforcement custody, they'll have to file some sort of charge, at least a complaint within that period of time. And that's usually how it goes. You file your initial complaint and then you have a period of time, usually three to four weeks to take the matter to a grand jury and get an indictment.

So, I would expect authorities to move reasonably quickly, of course, understanding, as Jonathan was just saying, that they still have a lot of evidence collecting and analyzing to do. But with all of these witnesses, they're going to be able, in short order, to at least bring those initial charges.

BLITZER: Nick Watt, you're there in Colorado Springs, on the scene for us. We just have seen some new video just released that appears to show the shooting suspect ranting about police during a 2021 standoff. Let's watch. Watch this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is your boy. I've got the (BLEEP) outside. Look at that. They got a beat on me. You see that right there? (BLEEP) got their (BLEEP) rifles out. If they breach, I'm going to (BLEEP) blow it to holy hell. So, go ahead and come on in, boys. Let's (BLEEP) see it.


BLITZER: So, Nick, what are you learning about this video and this history?

WATT: Well, so, Wolf, this video was from the summer of 2021. And there is another piece of video that was captured by a doorbell camera that actually shows the suspect walking out of the house with his hands up and giving himself up to sheriffs after a lengthy negotiation.

Now, what happens is the suspect's mother had called 911 to say her son was threatening her with a bomb and other weapons. So, that has led to people around here questioning, well, how was he allowed to buy these handguns, -- these -- sorry, this handgun and this rifle? Because we have been told by two law enforcement officials that records show this suspect did purchase these weapons himself. So, people were asking why was there no background check? Why were red flags not raised by this previous interaction?

Well, here is what we just found out. In 2019, the law here in Colorado was changed and no charges were ever pursued against the suspect for that summer of 2021 incident. So, therefore, under Colorado law, if a case is dismissed for whatever reason, those records are sealed. So, that would not have flagged him as a potential problem, as he apparently proved himself to be Saturday night here in the club. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. Stand by. Everybody stand by. Right now, I want to get reaction from Sarah Kate Ellis. She's the head of the LGBTQ advocacy group called GLAAD. Thanks so much for joining us, Sarah. I know this is a horrendous situation, an awful situation for everyone.

Police began their news conference today by reading the names of the five people who lost their lives in this attack. What went through your mind when you heard their names read aloud? SARAH KATE ELLIS, CEO AND PRESIDENT, GLAAD: It just made it more real, I think. And to me, it confirmed what we thought, which is that, you know, there are real people behind these murders and this attack. And it just made it real, you know? I think you just -- you think of people, but you don't know their names. And now you know their names, their pronouns, and it made it just more devastating, honestly.

BLITZER: The sensitivity we're hearing from these law enforcement officials as it relates to these victims clearly stood out to me. I assume it did to you as well. Are you heartened by the level of care you're seeing from officials in the wake of this truly horrific incident?

ELLIS: Absolutely. I have to say I was the president CEO of GLAAD during the Pulse shooting as well. I was down on the ground in Florida and it felt very different, honestly. It felt that the media coverage wasn't including LGBTQ, wasn't talking about a possible hate crime.


I feel like the media coverage has been much more thorough and inclusive this time. And I feel like the team on the ground in Colorado Springs -- I have a team from GLAAD there right now working with everyone on the ground, has been really thoughtful.

I thought what stood out to me, too, was because there has been tension, and continues to be, between law enforcement and the LGBTQ community and she made a really specific point to say that isn't the case here, that there isn't tension between the community and law enforcement. So, that did stand out to me as well, Wolf.

BLITZER: It certainly did stand out to me as well.

How important is it, Sarah, to see this massacre there charged as a hate crime, especially as we're seeing a very concerning rise of hate- fueled violence here in the United States?

ELLIS: It's really important. Even though it doesn't level up necessarily the level of intensity and it, what it does is it names it. And I think what we have been seeing, especially leaders here in the LGBTQ community and in our movement, is we have known there has been an increase in anti-LGBTQ hate crimes, 51 percent year-over-year increase in anti-LGBTQ hate crimes. We know that 71 percent of the LGBTQ community have said that they felt discrimination in the past year. That's up 11 percent from year-over-year, 24 percent from 2020. And we know also at GLAAD, we're about to release a report that says 125 violent attacks or threats against drag events have happened in the past year.

This is all what we've been talking about. This is what we've been telling people and it's being driven by this rhetoric from these politicians, like Lauren Boebert or Ron DeSantis, who are using us to demonize our community. They're using lies to villainize us. They're attacking our bodily autonomy. They're trying to erase us from books.

And it's all coming together now because they've now incited violence through these words, through -- there have been over 300 anti-LGBTQ bills this year. That's ridiculous. How can you even think of things? We don't even have that many rights in this country as LGBTQ people. We have a few protections for employment and the right to marry. Over than that, we're not protected in this country. So, how can we have 300 anti-LGBTQ bills against us in less than a year?

You can see what I'm saying here and the picture that I'm painting. We've known this. This was not a surprise to me on Sunday morning. It was heartbreaking, heartbreaking and it still is, but not a surprise.

BLITZER: Heartbreaking, indeed. Sarah Kate Ellis of GLAAD, thank you so much for joining us. And let me express our deepest, deepest condolences to the families of those five people who were murdered, brutally murdered in Colorado Springs, our deepest condolences, as we say, may their memories be a blessing.

ELLIS: Thank you.

BLITZER: Just ahead, several of Donald Trump's GOP rivals all seem to be lining up to run against him in 2024. Could that actually make his path to the Republican nomination easier? Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: A number of 2024 Republican hopefuls are taking on Donald Trump as they weigh announcing their own presidential bids, but Trump advisers seem to think more opponents makes the former president's path to victory even easier.

Kristen Holmes has the latest.


FMR. GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R-NJ): We keep losing and losing and losing.

Donald Trump has put himself before everybody else.

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Republican leaders and potential 2024 hopefuls signaling they're ready to take on former President Trump.

MIKE POMPEO, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: This loyalty, this work that we must do together is not to a person.

HOLMES: Swinging at Trump during the Republican Jewish Coalition Annual Leadership event.

GOV. CHRIS SUNUNU (R-NH): I got a great policy for the Republican Party. Let's stop supporting crazy, unelectable candidates in our primaries and start getting behind winners that can close the deal in November.

HOLMES: Blaming him for the lackluster midterm results --

GOV. LARRY HOGAN (R-MD): Trump was saying that we'd be winning so much, we'd get tired of winning. Well, I'm sick and tired of our party losing.

HOLMES: -- and a week after Trump launched his third presidential bid, hinting they may challenge him in 2024.

FMR. GOV. NIKKI HALEY (R-SC): I've never lost an election and I'm not going to start now.

HOLMES: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis fresh off a decisive re- election victory never mentioned Trump. Instead, he touted his leadership in Florida as a model for the party going forward.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): We in Florida are the light. Freedom will reign supreme with Florida leading the way.

HOLMES: The event came on the heels of several high-profile donors and one-time allies of the former president voicing reservations about another Trump White House run. Some Republican lawmakers also suggesting it was time to move on.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I mean, I think Trump is kind of a drag on our ticket.

MIKE PENCE, FORMER U.S. VICE PRESIDENT: I honestly believe we're going to have better choices.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We need as a party to move past President Trump.

HOLMES: Trump advisers are welcoming a crowded 2024 field, hoping for a 2016 repeat, when a heavy slate of Republican candidates split the GOP electorate, creating a pathway for Trump to win the nomination.

DONALD TRUMP, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: Breaking the radical Democrats' grip on Congress this month was vital. It was a great thing. But we've always known that 2022 was not the end, only the beginning of the battle to save our country. We have to take back the White House in 2024.


HOLMES (on camera): And while he did launch that third presidential bid last week, we are not expecting a robust presidential campaign until at least or at least earliest January.


Now, as for those other 2024 hopefuls, I've talked to many of their advisers who say that they are in no rush to jump into the ring. They don't want to burn out too soon. So, clearly, this is just the beginning. It is a marathon, not a sprint.

BLITZER: Yes. There's a lot of candidates running. He needs a plurality, not a majority, to get the nomination. So, that's right. Presumably, his aides think a lot of people running good for him. All right, we'll see what happens. Thanks very much, Kristen Holmes reporting.

Let's discuss what's going on with CNN's Eva McKend, former Republican governor of Ohio John Kasich and Biden biographer Evan Osnos.

John, you just heard some prominent Republicans of your party who are expected to be 2024 presidential hopefuls issue some very strong rebukes of the former president. What do you make of that?

JOHN KASICH, CNN SENIOR COMMENTATOR: What makes me kind of chuckle, Wolf, is didn't they see that he had sown the seeds of defeat by what he had been doing? And where were they in the beginning? Nevertheless, if you're going to run for president, Wolf, number one, you've got to be able to raise money all over the country. Number two, you've got to have a message. If you don't have a message, then all the money in the world isn't going to help you. Number three, do you have the magic? And, Wolf, you've watched a lot of politicians and you know what I mean by the magic. You have that spark. You have that special thing. And are you prepared to go the distance, because it is long and it is grueling. And that's what it's going to take to be able to take Trump on and defeat him in a primary and we're just going to have to see who's got those abilities to do all those things that I've just mentioned.

BLITZER: Yes, good point.

Eva, you spent a lot of time out there on the campaign trail in recent weeks and months. Do you share the concerns of these Republicans we just heard from?

EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: Well, I didn't hear Georgia Republicans share this concern publicly but, clearly, it is a concern. You know, in this highly competitive Senate contest between Herschel Walker and Senator Warnock that is in overtime now, still going on, we have the December 6th runoff, but you didn't see the former president come down to campaign for Herschel Walker.

So, to the extent that the former president continues to sort of inject himself, I think, into the conversation, into some of these races, it actually serves as a boost for Democrats. We see that Senator Warnock and the Democratic apparatus is able to sort of fundraise and boost energy among Democrats by tying the former president to Herschel Walker.

But in terms of Republicans expressing concerns about this publicly, about the former president publicly on the campaign trail, I think there is still a little caution there, Wolf, because the former president does still have significant support and they don't want to isolate some of those voters.

BLITZER: Evan, as you know, President Biden turned 80 on Sunday, becoming the first octogenarian to ever serve in the highest office of the United States. Does that milestone actually hurt the president's political future? EVAN OSNOS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, it was a muted celebration. I don't think it's something they were drawing a tremendous amount of attention to. But I can tell you that President Biden has thought a lot about age and vitality and sort of job performance over the years.

I remember once interviewing among the subject of whether he would retire or run again. And what he said was he brought up the subject of his own father. He said he thought he had made a mistake in encouraging his own father to retire too early. He said, I think if you've got the health and you've got ability to do the job, that's what matters. And I think you're hearing him talk about that question. He's trying to sort of push the discussion away from a number and says, as he often says these days, watch me, see what you think of my job performance.

One thing I will say, running against Donald Trump, in some ways, may neutralize the question of age a bit because Donald Trump, after all, previously the oldest U.S. president and also would be 78 if he took office again. So, that would not be as much of an issue as if he was running against a younger candidate.

BLITZER: Yes, good point.

Eva, you mentioned Herschel Walker. He released a new ad targeting transgender athletes. Let's watch this. Watch this.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm Riley Gaines, a 12-time NCAA All-American.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: For more than a decade, I worked so hard, pouring in practices to be the best. But my senior year, I was forced to compete against a biological male.

WALKER: That's unfair and wrong.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A man won the swimming title that belonged to a woman and Senator Warnock voted to let it happen.

WALKER: Warnock is afraid to stand up for female athletes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Herschel Walker stands up for what's right.


BLITZER: So, why is this something he's focusing in on now, Eva?

MCKEND: Well, Wolf, this has actually been core to his election argument for months. He has been talking about transgender athletes. And, you know, this is really prominently featured in this sort of Republican culture war. Trans folks will say, we don't want to be the center of this conversation. Actually being the center is dangerous to us.

But, listen, Wolf, there are limits to this election argument.


This is a play for the base, but it's hard to imagine what new voters he gets continuing to elevate this argument.

BLITZER: All right, guys. Thank you very, very, very much.

Just ahead, we go inside a reconnaissance team targeting Russian invaders on the frontlines in Ukraine. It's a CNN exclusive.


BLITZER: Now, a CNN exclusive. We go inside a reconnaissance team targeting Russian invaders on the front lines in Ukraine.

Here's CNN's senior international correspondent Sam Kiley.


SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Pensive, hyper-vigilant, these foreign volunteers and reconnaissance soldiers reliving weeks of fear, and final victory in the battle for Kherson.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a fuel truck.

KILEY: Many are veterans of the Kurd campaign against ISIS in Syria. Now they work beyond the front lines, deep into enemy territory for Ukraine.

MACER GIFFORD, UKRAINIAN ARMED FORCES: We get so close to the Russians we can hear them talking. We could hear them cooking their food, chopping the wood to build their shelters.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's like observation textbook, where they wrote what's going on.

KILEY: Andrii's military call sign is sneaky. And that's what the eight recon units under his command must be. Getting spotted here during the campaign to catch Kherson has been fatal.

But they make off with a trove of stolen documents in Russian technology, all leading to moments like this, the obliteration of a Russian command center, and the surrender of the Russian senior sergeant, a paratrooper abandoned by his comrades in retreat.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They were shooting with artillery. He's hit and one more guy a captain. Russians take the captain but left him.

KILEY: Is that him?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, platoon commander.

KILEY: He tells them, he's been hiding out for six days. Then he warns Ukrainians that Russian aircraft could attack.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He says, run out from here because aviation is shooting at this place.

KILEY: They've been bombing here a lot he says. He's injured, but now safe.

Russian airstrikes on their abandoned positions were a constant danger for the recon units during the grinding advance on Kherson over the autumn.

Stinger anti-aircraft missiles a mixed blessing, messing with one can attract retribution from the air.

Recon is about gathering intelligence and hunting targets, using drones to fine-tune artillery. For months, bringing in strikes like this, trying to force the Russians to run. And suddenly, across the whole front that's what they did. Run.

In chasing the Russians out, crossings like this have often been hit with artillery, and there are more to gamble. Survival, giggling relief.

But the rewards they say, worth it.

DAMIEN RODRIGUEZ, UKRAINIAN ARMED FORCERS: When I see villagers, they see rick union military for the first time. Who knows eight months, of course you get teary eyed. You see everybody crying and thanking us for their help, for helping liberate their village. Yeah, of course, it gets, you know.


KILEY (on camera): Now, Wolf, the attacks by the Russians are now continuing in Kherson, not just the city but also the wider province from the other side of the Dnipro River. And the big question for the Ukrainians now is do they try to cross that river and press on their attacks all the way, they say, potentially to the Crimea -- Wolf.

BLITZER: CNN's Sam Kiley, thanks very much. We'll be right back.



BLITZER: NBA star Kyrie Irving is back on the court.

CNN's Brian Todd has details.


KYRIE IRVING, NBA PLAYER: Never had a doubt.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): That was Kyrie Irving's response when asked if he ever doubted he'd have a chance to play again. Irving is back on the court for the Brooklyn Nets after serving an eight-game suspension for sharing a link to a movie with anti- Semitic messages on social media.

The suspension lasted 17 days, which Irving called, a learning journey that at times had been painful for him. Asked by the sports network SNY if he's anti-Semitic --

IRVING: No, I'm not anti-Semitic. I never have been. I don't have hate in my heart for the Jewish people or anyone that identifies as a Jew.

TODD: Both NBA commissioner Adam Silver and nets owner Joe Tsai have also come out and said they don't believe Irving is anti-Semitic.

A source with knowledge of the situation tells CNN that the Anti- Defamation League, while not meeting with Irving directly, did meet multiple times with Irving's father and stepmother, and that the meetings were positive.

ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt issuing a statement say, quote, I take Kyrie at his word that he's truly sorry and he's willing to put in the work to educate himself and engage in constructive dialogue. During and after the suspension, Irving has issued several apologies as he did with SNY.

IRVING: I just want to apologize deeply for all my actions throughout the time that it's been since the post was first put up.

TODD: Are his numerous apologies enough?

DAVE ZIRIN, SPORTS COLUMNIST, THE NATION: When we think about the NBA audience, for some people, Kyrie's written and verbal apologies will be enough. And, for other people, it's never going to be enough. Nothing he could say would be enough. Posting that video is a sin that won't be able to be washed away.

TODD: Irving has been criticized for not apologizing and not clarifying that he's not anti-Semitic until after the Nets suspended him.


TODD (on camera): Kyrie Irving was asked if he would file a grievance over his suspension. And he said he would leave that up to his legal team -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting. Thanks very much.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.