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Supreme Court: Trump-Era Border Restrictions Remain In Effect; Thousands More Flights Canceled, Most Of Them Run By Southwest; Buttigieg: This Is An Unacceptable Situation, Their System Has Melted Down; Jan. 6 Cmte Releases Additional Transcript Of Witness Interviews; Emergency Crews Focus On Calls For Help As Buffalo Digs Out; Death Toll From Storm Climbs To 31 In Erie County, New York; Buffalo Police: 8 People Arrested In Connection With Looting After Storm; Russia FM Delivers Ultimatum To Ukraine On Occupied Territories; Ukraine: Situation With Power Outages "Really Difficult"; Ringleader Of Plot To Kidnap MI Gov. Sentence To 16 Years. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired December 27, 2022 - 17:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news. The U.S. Supreme Court has just issued a ruling leaving Trump era immigration restrictions in effect, while legal challenges play out. We'll go live to the border to see how this ruling may impact a growing influx of migrants that's overwhelming resources in El Paso.

Also tonight, airports are jammed with very angry and frustrated Southwest Airline customers. The airline to blame for about 90 percent of the thousands of flights that have been canceled here in the United States today. We'll discuss the holiday air travel meltdown with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. He joins us live this hour.

And we're also breaking down transcripts just released by the January 6 Select Committee, including interviews with key witness Cassidy Hutchinson and other figures in the Trump administration. Stand by for details.

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is CNN Breaking News.

BLITZER: Let's get right to the breaking news. Very significant developments unfolding right now involving the United States Supreme Court's decision and its impact on the migrant surge over at the border. CNN's Priscilla Alvarez is following the story for us. She's here with me in THE SITUATION ROOM. Priscilla, tell us more about this very important ruling.

PRISCILLA ALVAREZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, the Supreme Court saying that Title 42, a restriction that's been in place since March of 2020, will continue to remain in effect while the legal challenges play out. That includes the court hearing arguments beginning in their next session, which is in February of 2023.

Now, this is a five-forward order that is ultimately a victory for Republican led states that wanted to intervene in this case to stop the termination of this authority. And what it means on the ground is that border officials will be able to continue to expel migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, either back to Mexico or their native countries for the next several months.

The administration, as you know, Wolf, has been preparing for this to end. Those preparations will likely continue to happen, but it ultimately won't end anytime soon. Legal learnt the ACLU attorney and lead counsel in this case ultimately called this, quote, deeply disappointing.

BLITZER: So basically, migrants who are coming to the United States seeking asylum, they can be removed, they can be kicked out right away, as was the case during the Trump administration. And the Biden administration wanted to change that.

ALVAREZ: That's exactly right. I mean, remember, the Biden administration was forced to end this from a lower court in November, and they had some lead time to put those preparations in place. But that's exactly right. A pandemic restriction that was put in place at the onset of the pandemic continues to this day, even as we've moved forward from the pandemic to some degree.

BLITZER: Very significant development. Priscilla, thank you very, very much. Priscilla Alvarez reporting.

Let's go to the southern border right now, where tens of thousands of migrants have gathered, hoping the Trump era policy would soon be lifted. CNN's Leyla Santiago is joining us live from El Paso, Texas right now. Leyla, so what does this ruling mean for the unfolding migrant crisis that you're observing?

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, let me share a story with you, Wolf. I actually just spoke to a mother to relay the news. She's the mother of a toddler. And I told her, hey, this is what the Supreme Court has ruled. And this is a mother that earlier today was in tears as she told me about the violence that she was fleeing in Venezuela, was in tears as she told me about not being able to feed her toddler on her journey up here.

She said she tried to cross legally because of Title 42. She was sent back and so she found another way to cross and she just kept repeating the word bad. She just kept saying, this is bad, this is bad. So that is how many of the migrants are feeling out here. I mean, just take a look around.

These are streets in El Paso that are lined with migrants. Some young men, some older men, families with children and toddlers. This area in particular where I am is just outside of a church because the church has been sort of serving as a shelter. And when you talk to a lot of these migrants, they will speak to the fear that they're feeling, not even wanting to get on any sort of bus because they fear where they might end up. So here that's the feeling. I spoke to one of the organizers of one of the shelters. He says that this decision will continue to extend the bottleneck that they're seeing at the border and will put unsustainable pressure is the wording he used on law enforcement. But remember, for the Republican governors and the Republican states that came together to escalate this legal fight, this is a win for them.

So Governor Greg Abbott has already been tweeting about this since this decision was announced. The city of El Paso had been making contingency plans on how they would handle something like this, another surge, if Title 42 were to be lifted. Obviously, that is not the case. So they are now trying to understand the fine print, trying to understand the details, and nuances of what the impact will be.


This shelter as well as the city has told us that they have seen numbers go down over the last few days. But again, much of this is let's wait and see what happens now, because there is clearly a stronger presence of the Texas National Guard that is here too. Also putting up more fencing that we have seen on the border here in El Paso with Juarez.

But the mood here in El Paso, Wolf, is one of uncertainty and fear, especially as I have spoken to these mothers who say they just want a better life for their children and now have a lot of questions as to what will happen next. Wolf?

BLITZER: A lot of questions indeed. Leyla Santiago on the border for us. Thank you very much.

And we'll go live to the White House shortly, getting reaction from the Biden administration to this major U.S. Supreme Court decision. But right now, let's go to the air travel chaos that has developed all across the United States as Southwest Airlines is attempting to explain the failures, enormous failures that forced it to cancel thousands of flights.

CNN's Lucy Kafanov is at Denver for us at one of the hardest hit airports.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Unfortunately, our next available seats for rebooking are on the 31st and beyond.

LUCY KAFANOV, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's another day of travel chaos.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Every flight is canceled, so I don't know when I go back home.

KAFANOV (voice-over): Another day of flight cancelations, delays and frayed nerves.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Phone calls are busy. You couldn't get a hold of anybody. It's awful.

KAFANOV (voice-over): Exhausted passengers braving long lines only to receive more bad news.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because they said even if you go through this line, it might be up to New Year to get a flight.

KAFANOV (voice-over): Travelers on Southwest bearing the brunt of the post-Christmas cancelations, many stranded until the new year.

MANDI ANGELO, SOUTHWEST PASSENGER: The next flight that was offered was in January and they couldn't even get us home back to Pittsburgh.

KAFANOV (voice-over): Southwest CEO Bob Jordan warned of more tough days ahead, according to a transcript of a companywide message CNN has obtained. While Chief Operating Officer Andrew Waterson said the airline systems were unable to match available crews to available aircraft and it had to be done by hand.

LYN MONTGOMERY, SOUTHWEST AIRLINES FLIGHT ATTENDANT UNION REP.: This is a deep failure of management not to have supported its IT infrastructure.

KAFANOV (voice-over): The airline blamed by union leaders for not being better prepared.

MICHAEL SANTORO, VP, SOUTHWEST AIRLINES PILOT ASSOCIATION: Our stopwatch can't keep track of it, so they don't know where we are, they don't know where airplanes are, and it's just -- it's frustrating for the pilots, the flight attendants, and especially our passengers.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So I don't know where my luggage at.

KAFANOV (voice-over): The travel chaos leaving mountains of lost luggage. In Las Vegas, a sea of unclaimed bags. Some passengers told it would be days before they can get their luggage, prompting health concerns.

Denver's Airport leading the nation in terms of delays and cancelations. Passenger Nick Favazza has been stuck here since December 21.

NICK FAVAZZA, SOUTHWEST PASSENGER: I will never fly Southwest Airlines again and I will tell anyone I know never to fly Southwest Airlines again.

KAFANOV (on-camera): Why is that? What do you want to do different?

FAVAZZA: I mean, you just can't leave people stranded for eight days and just say it's the weather when it's not the weather.


KAFANOV: You heard the frustration there, Wolf. And you can see behind me the lines here at Denver Airport at the Southwest ticket check encounter have grown somewhat smaller, but the list of canceled and delayed flights has unfortunately not. Nationwide, we're talking more than 5,000 flights delayed, more than 3,000 flights canceled, 64 percent of those coming from Southwest Airlines.

And this as lawmakers, Wolf, are finally starting to take notice. Democratic lawmakers Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut issuing a letter earlier today calling on Southwest to pay up for what they say were avoidable holiday cancelations. The airline, of course, acknowledging a little bit that some of the failures that led to what happened over the past few days, but that is cold comfort for the many passengers who are stranded.

And I should add, Wolf, while the lines here are a little bit shorter, the cancelations remain. And I think that is likely because a lot of folks aren't waiting at the airport anymore. They are trying to find other ways to get home, if that's even possible for them. Wolf?

BLITZER: If it's possible, Lucy. So what is Southwest Airlines doing to help these desperate passengers who are stuck?

KAFANOV: There has been so many -- have been so many mixed messages here, Wolf. I mean, we've had passengers coming up to us as a TV crew asking us for information because there hasn't been consistent messaging from Southwest.

Yesterday evening, there was an announcement made on the PA system saying no one is going to get compensated because the delays and the cancelations were on account of weather. 20 minutes later, someone went back on the PA to announce that actually everyone will be compensated, but by then a lot of folks had gone home.

Now, I can tell you here at Denver Airport, the airline is a real arranging some buses to take people to Idaho, for example, as well as Steamboat Springs here in Colorado. But that is obviously not enough to get everyone who needs to get home to their destination. Wolf?


BLITZER: Horrible situation, indeed. All right, thanks very much. Lucy Kafanov in Denver for us.

Let's discuss what's going on with the Transportation Secretary, Pete Buttigieg. Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for joining us. I understand you just spoke directly with the CEO of Southwest Airlines. Did you get any explanation at all for this horrendous meltdown of epic proportions?

PETE BUTTIGIEG, TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY: Well, meltdown is the right word. This is an unacceptable situation. You look at the number of passengers who are stranded. You look at how hard it is even to get somebody on the phone to address it. From what I can tell, Southwest is unable to locate even where their own crews are, let alone their own passengers, let alone baggage.

So I conveyed to the CEO our expectation that they are going to go above and beyond to take care of passengers and to address this. They indicated a number of issues that they're having with systems, legacy systems for managing their schedule and where their crews are. But the bottom line is the rest of the aviation system has been on the road to recovery since the worst days of the storm going into Friday of last week.

As of today, as I'm looking at the different airlines, most of them are in the low single digits in terms of cancelation rates, averaging about 5 percent for all of the other airlines. For Southwest right now, we appear to be north of 70 percent. So their system really has completely melted down.

And I've made clear that our department will be holding them accountable for their responsibilities to customers, both to get them through this situation and to make sure that this can't happen again.

BLITZER: Yes, you got to learn the lessons of this disaster. Southwest is not the other major U.S. airlines, it's Southwest Airlines. What more can you tell us, Mr. Secretary, about that conversation which you had with the CEO of Southwest Airlines and what is he doing? What are they doing to correct these major issues?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, over the course of the last year, as you know, we've seen a number of issues with the different airlines, and in the summer in particular, we pressed them to improve their standard of customer service. They provided commitments in writing, including Southwest, that they would go above the previous level of what you would do to take care of customers with things like covering the cost if you get stuck and you need a hotel or a meal in addition to rebooking you to get you on your way.

Now that we have those commitments that were made to us over the summer, we're going to be using that as a tool to hold them accountable. And I made that clear to Southwest leadership. Now, they did -- the CEO pledge to me that they will not only meet, but they will exceed the customer service standards and commitments that they have made to us in the past and that we're in a position to enforce.

I also talked with union leadership from the pilots and from the flight attendants. They've made clear that they have been raising the alarm about these issues in their systems for some time, and that this really has to do with decisions and choices in terms of the investments that this airline has made or has failed to make over the years that seem to be catching up to them now.

Look, we all understand when you have a major historic storm hitting the system and hitting hubs in every part of the country, we know that that's going to have an effect on the aviation system. But what's really concerning here is that while all of the other parts of the aviation system have been moving toward recovery and getting better each day, it's actually been moving the opposite direction with this airline.

BLITZER: So when you say you're going to hold them accountable, the federal government, the Transportation Department, you're the Secretary of Transportation, what does that mean, hold them accountable? BUTTIGIEG: Well, we have enforcement tools that we have been using, especially this year. We saw, for example, a number of airlines that had cancelations. They weren't taking good care of their passengers. Through enforcement actions, we've been able to help get hundreds of thousands of passengers their money back to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

We're also in a position to use enforcement powers and fines to hold airlines to the things that they have now committed to us, pledged us, in writing that they'll do. Those increased customer service commitments that we extracted from them over the summer around things like vouchers. And you ought to know if you're a passenger in this situation right now, first of all, you're entitled to a cash refund if your flight is canceled and you're not traveling.

Another thing you should know is that when you're in this situation and the airline is responsible, which is clearly the case right now, then you can get those kinds of vouchers for hotels, restaurants. But what I talked about with the Southwest CEO is that a passenger shouldn't have to request that. They need to be proactively offering that.

He pledged that they would. And again, we'll be watching to make sure that they follow through.

BLITZER: So what is your advice, Mr. Secretary, to Southwest customers who have been left stranded? They're desperate right now. They're struggling to even reach customer service at Southwest Airlines. What's your advice to them?


BUTTIGIEG: That's right. They are in, again, an unacceptable situation. The difficulty of getting anybody on the phone being in this level of cancelation disruption in the first place, even as we're coming out of a major weather event, isn't acceptable. So there is information that the airline has provided.

They've set up, as I understand it, a website that you can use to -- without having to wait on the phone to get your money back and to put in some of the expenses that you're experiencing. But I want passengers to know we have a website too. And when an airline is failing to meet its customer service commitments, failing to meet the responsibilities that we have in black and white for airlines to live up to, you can let us know and we will follow up.

We have a consumer protection team. They follow through individually on these kinds of complaints and issues. So if you're not getting results with the airline, let us know and we will follow up. We are here to support the flying public, and we have your back.

BLITZER: Is finding Southwest Airlines, Mr. Secretary, on the table, getting some more money from them potentially, the federal government could reimburse these passengers as well?

BUTTIGIEG: Potentially, but it shouldn't have to come to that. I expect the airline to go ahead and directly take care of passengers with reimbursements and whatever else they need to do to compensate these passengers and make them whole. But yes, if they fail to do that, we will use our authorities to make it happen on our side.

BLITZER: How severe will those fines be?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, it's like any kind of enforcement proceeding. It's based on the level of the failure on the part of the airline. But again, the bottom line is this shouldn't be happening in the first place. Obviously, we'll follow through and we will use our authority to issue fines if that's what it takes to get something done.

But the real question is, how do you get to this situation where an airline can't even say where its own personnel are, let alone keep track of passengers and baggage? That's a situation that, again, does not appear to be a system wide situation because we're seeing the cancelation rates with some airlines actually back to what we would consider kind of normal, fair-weather rates.

It is concentrated in the systems and the issues associated with this one airline. And while it's their responsibility as a company to take care of that, obviously, something we as a department are going to be taking a close look at too.

BLITZER: Clearly, there are shortfalls right now with this airline passengers new Bill of Rights, as it was called. What needs to happen, Mr. Secretary, now to ensure that people are compensated for all their troubles and to ensure they could reach a customer service representative in situations like these?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, we have new tools now that didn't exist even just a few months ago in terms of these stepped-up commitments that we were able to extract from the airlines as we push them over what happened over the course of the summer. We're going to be using those tools to make sure that passengers get results.

But again, you have system issues and then you have issues concentrated to an individual company. This is a company that needs to step up, needs to win back the trust of its passengers and its employees. And I want to stress, employees have been put in a terrible situation.

I've talked to representatives of the pilots union and the flight attendants union. They are frustrated. They are often stranded. They themselves are often sleeping in airports. And so you got a company here that's got a lot of cleaning up to do. We'll be watching and using all of the tools in our toolkit to make sure people are made whole.

BLITZER: Do you have confidence, Mr. Secretary, that Southwest Airlines can actually fix all of these problems, because a lot of us have lost confidence in Southwest airlines?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, I'll tell you that's the pledge that they have made to me. I will be watching to see if they follow through on that pledge and holding them accountable if they don't. BLITZER: And once again, holding them accountable means?

BUTTIGIEG: It can mean anything from fines to other enforcement orders, regulatory actions. But again, I'm hoping that airlines do the right thing in situations like this before we even have to get involved.

If you need to, you can turn to us through our customer service consumer protection website, but, you know, this is something that they really need to take care of on the front end. We will get involved if we have to. And obviously, regardless, we will be getting involved in terms of examining how this could have happened to such a big part of our aviation system.

BLITZER: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, thanks so much for joining us.

BUTTIGIEG: Thank you.

BLITZER: Coming up, we'll have much more in all the breaking news emerging right now. The U.S. Supreme court keeping in place Trump era border restrictions while legal challenges play out. We'll get White House reaction, that's coming up. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: We're back with the breaking news right now. The White House just reacting to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision upholding, upholding the Trump era border restrictions at least for now. CNN's Senior White House Correspondent MJ Lee is joining us from the White House. So, MJ, what is the Biden administration saying about this?

MJ LEE, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, we have just gotten in our inbox a statement from the White House, from White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre reacting to the Supreme Court saying that Title 42 for now, will stay in place. Let me read a part of that for you.

She says, "We will, of course, comply with the order and prepare for the court's review. At the same time, we are advancing our preparations to manage the border in a secure, orderly and humane way when Title 42 eventually lifts and will continue expanding legal pathways for immigration. Title 42 is a public health measure, not an immigration enforcement measure, and it should not be extended indefinitely."

She also said that Congress needs to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Look, Wolf, the administration's public position is here in this statement and has been for a while. The Title 42 does need to go away, that it can't be a permanent policy. But as you and I have talked about for a number of days now, it is so much more complicated than that. This is a policy, keep in mind, that has been in place since year 2020. And whenever it eventually expires, it is going to fundamentally change the way that this administration deals with and treats migrants who come to the U.S. border asylum seekers. And that's why this has been so challenging.


And, of course, over the last few weeks, the administration has really gotten just a taste of what that will eventually look like when it has to transition away from Title 42. We have been reporting with our colleagues all along the border on what that surge has looked like even before Title 42 went away, with resources being stretched thin, with border personnel really having to do so much of the work of dealing with such an influx of migrants.

And so, if there is any sense within the administration right now that this once again buys them a little bit more time, the reality is that at some point they do again expect this policy that was put in place during the Trump administration to go away. And that transition is guaranteed to be extremely challenging, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, lots of news going on. MJ Lee at the White House, thank you very much.

Also tonight, we're getting yet another window into the January 6 Select Committee's investigation with the release just now of new interview transcripts. Our Justice Correspondent Jessica Schneider is joining us with details. Jessica, so what are we learning from these just released transcripts?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, still learning a lot as these transcripts continue to drop here. Just released 13 more witnesses their transcripts, and that does include some significant names who had extensive insight and communication with the former president and his allies all around January 6.

So some of those 13 witnesses, they include Ali Alexander. He was the leader of the Stop the Steal group. He helped organize rallies before the Capitol attack. Also Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia Secretary of State, who, of course, had that infamous phone call with Trump where he asked him to find more votes. Raffensperger did testify publicly for the committee this summer.

Also, some new transcripts from then Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. And notably, here two more transcripts from Cassidy Hutchinson. She, of course, was the star witness of that surprise hearing over the summer. She had that insight as the closest aide to Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.

And in this testimony that we're getting from Cassidy Hutchinson, it's from May and June 2022. Interestingly, June 2022 was just eight days before she testified publicly. And in that testimony, behind closed doors, she actually had a new attorney because for the first three appearances before the committee, she was represented by an attorney who was paid for by Trump World. And she talks extensively about how she was so conflicted because she was represented by somebody from Trump World, felt sort of a duty to protect the former president. But in this June 20, 2022 transcript, we're seeing that her new lawyer, who was Jody Hunt, who represented her at that public hearing, he said to the committee that Cassidy Hutchinson wanted to correct some of her previous testimony.

He said, "In some respects, to correct, she wants to be clear about it." And this is important because in the testimony that we've seen from Cassidy Hutchinson, she had repeatedly said to the committee that she was told by her Trump world attorney, Stefan Passantino, to maybe say, I don't recall more often than she was comfortable with.

And, Wolf, she really had some key details to share with the committee. We heard it in the public testimony. You know, she was the one who talked about how she heard the story that Trump lunged at his Secret Service driver because he wanted to go to the Capitol. He also, according to Cassidy Hutchinson, she had heard that he was not concerned about people with weapons at his speech before they stormed the Capitol.

She also told that illuminating story from December 2020, when, right after the Attorney General Bill Barr, had given the interview to The Associated Press, saying that there was no widespread election fraud. Cassidy Hutchinson walked into a dining room after Trump had been there. She said she saw Ketchup up against the wall, and one of the valets had told her that he had thrown his lunch against the wall.

So a lot of illuminating details from Cassidy Hutchinson that, Wolf, initially, she was very reluctant to give, even encouraged not to give a lot of those details. And finally, in this transcript, where our team is reading through now, June 20, 2022, eight days before her public testimony, she was finally spilling all of these details, Wolf.

BLITZER: I know you and your team are going through these just released transcripts. We'll have more coming up later here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Jessica Schneider, thank you very, very much.

Coming up, the challenges and the ongoing danger right now in my hometown, Buffalo, New York, after that epic snowstorm. I'll talk with a top local official about the most urgent concerns right now and the fears of flooding, flooding in the days ahead.



BLITZER: Days into the deadly winter storm that hits so much of the nation, residents of Buffalo, New York, are just now beginning to dig out from more than nine -- more than 50 inches, I should say, of snow. CNN's Athena Jones is joining us live from Buffalo right now. Athena, so what are the biggest challenges residents and officials are facing right now?

ATHENA JONES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. Well, you can see how deserted this street is in downtown Buffalo.


The reason you're not seeing hardly any cars or people out is because there is a driving ban still in place. That is because authorities want to make sure they can get out and clear all of the roads to make sure that the city's emergency response can function correctly, and also to make sure that, you know, stores like grocery stores like Wegmans or Tops are able to get their supplies and trucks can get through.

I want to show you paint over here. These cars in this parking lot here, they're buried in snow. This is relevant because we just learned from the Erie County Executive that the death toll from this storm has now risen by three more to 31. And three of those people were found in vehicles like this.

And so, this is another one of the efforts that authorities weren't even making all over town as they both clear these roads, also check cars and check on people's wellbeing. The sheriff of Erie County said earlier in the storm that more than 400 emergency services calls had to go unanswered because of the fury of that blizzard.

Here's more of what Sheriff John Garcia had to say.


SHERIFF JOHN GARCIA, ERIE COUNTY, NEW YORK: We never thought that it was going to be as bad as it was. I've never seen anything like this before. The zero visibility, the helplessness for first responders to not be able to respond to first aid calls and so forth.


JONES: And local authorities say they're describing a two-day operation. What they want to do is they want to make sure they go all around the city and they're able to clear at least one lane of every road in the city. We came in just about an hour ago. Our road was passable, but along the sides and side streets, not so much. And so, their goal is to make sure that all these roads can be cleared so that the city can function a well, Wolf.

BLITZER: Athena, what are your risks right now? What are you hearing about flooding, the risk of flooding from the meltdown that's about to take place?

JONES: Well, that is something that we also heard from county officials at that press conference today. You know, it was more than 40 -- more than 4 feet, I should say, almost 50 inches of snow fell in the city of Buffalo over the course of two days. And so that snow has really piled up.

On our way in, we saw huge snowdrifts blocking the doors to businesses and shops. And this is the kind of snow that a lot of snow that's going to drain. It's going to melt very quickly as the temperatures rise over the next few days. It's going to be near 50 degrees over the next few days. That is going to lead to a rapid melting.

So that's another reason they want to make sure that they can clear these streets, to make sure that things can drain properly so that they can avoid flooding. Wolf?

BLITZER: Yes, lots of problems in Buffalo. Athena Jones reporting for us. Thank you very much.

Let's discuss what's going on with the Erie County Executive, Mark Poloncarz. Mark, thank you so much for joining us. So you know this better than I do. The death toll apparently has now risen to 31 people, is that right? What more could you tell us about these deaths?

MARK POLONCARZ, ERIE COUNTY EXECUTIVE: That is correct, Wolf. One of the worst things I can do as county executive is announced the deaths of individuals. Unfortunately, we have now 31 in Erie County. I can tell you 17 were found outside in the snow. Three were as a result of cardiac events from snow shoveling, snow blowing.

Seven appear to have been from hypothermia for not having heat in their house due to the loss of power and the lack of heat. Three were in vehicles, as Athena noted, and one appears to have been for an EMS delay. In other words, our emergency responders could not get to the person because of the snow. They were blocked, and by the time they got there, it was too late.

So we've lost 31 residents. The youngest, I believe 22, the oldest in their 90s. And I just have to offer my deepest condolences and sympathies to any individual who lost a loved one from this terrible blizzard.

BLITZER: Yes, horrible situation indeed. One emergency worker, Mark, who was stranded in her ambulance in Erie County for some 14 hours, told the Washington Post, and I just read about it, and I'm quoting her now. She said, "The travel ban should have been put in place a lot earlier." That ban only went into effect Friday morning when many had already set out for work.

Looking back, what, if anything, Mark, would you have done differently?

POLONCARZ: Well, we did talk with the National Weather Service, as well as our partners in New York State and other governments. I mean, in the end, I'm the county executive. The buck stops with me. I'm the one who had to put pen to paper to actually declare the travel ban.

I talked over with our partners. We thought we did it at the right time. It's quite apparent that some of the individuals who perished after, it didn't matter what time of travel ban was put in place, but I'll let others be the judge other than we think we did what was right under the circumstances at the time.

We can look back at it now and say, yes, maybe we wish we had done it an hour or two beforehand. But in the end, as I said, Harry Truman said, the buck stops here, the buck stops with me. And I'm the one who makes the decision in the end for the entire community. And if it wasn't right, then I'm going to have to take responsibility for it.


BLITZER: And with hindsight, all of us are smarter. What can you tell us, Mark, about these arrests for looting right now? I understand eight people have been arrested so far.

POLONCARZ: Yes, they pretty much have all been in the city of Buffalo. Buffalo PD has been working with other law enforcement. As was heard today, New York State is bringing in through the National Guard 100 additional military police as well as New York State troopers to assist not only with keeping people off the streets from driving that shouldn't be there, but also to help prevent looting.

It's not something we are proud of. I'm very, very disappointed. At the same time, we're unfortunately finding bodies on the street and in snowbanks. People of our community, which is known as the City of Good Neighbors, have been involved in looting. It's disgusting.

I hope to throw the book at them, whatever they can get to these people because we need to come together in these situations, not take advantage of them. So I'm very proud of our Buffalo PD for the work that they've done. The Erie County Sheriff's Office, all the local law enforcement. And I know our district attorney John Flynn says they will prosecute these people to the full extent of the law.

BLITZER: As they should. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, thank you once again for joining us. Good luck.

POLONCARZ: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, a new warning about really difficult conditions in Ukraine right now as Russians continue to attack power stations. And the Kremlin's Foreign Minister delivers an ultimatum.



BLITZER: Tonight, Russia is bolstering its forces in eastern Ukraine amid very heavy fighting. Attacks on Ukraine's power grid taking a serious toll as winter sets in. CNN's Will Ripley is on the ground for us in Ukraine.


WILL RIPLEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): So many tears for yet another victim of Russia's war in Ukraine. Mourners in Kyiv, paying their final respects to a fallen Ukrainian soldier, a husband, brother and son. He was reportedly killed near Bakhmut.

Intense fighting has the city almost unrecognizable. Debris litters the streets. Buildings are on fire.

OLEKSANDR, BAKHMUT, UKRAINE, RESIDENT (through translation): Our house is destroyed. There was a shop near a building. Now it's not there anymore.

RIPLEY (voice-over): In this besieged city across the country, millions are still living without power. Ukraine accuses Russia of persistently targeting Ukrainian energy facilities, giving engineers little time to repair the grid before the next strike comes. Ukraine's energy minister describes the situation across his country as really difficult.

Strikes have left Ukraine with a power deficit, unable to meet the basic energy needs of the country. Fears are growing among Ukrainian officials. Moscow could be planning large strikes around New Year's Day. In this small village near Kherson, people are bracing for a bitterly cold winter. A winter without power, collecting firewood and other supplies to protect against plummeting temperatures.

TETYANA KOVALIVA, POSAD-POKROVSKE, UKRAINE, RESIDENT (through translation): We will get through the winter because we fixed the chimney and now we can heat the house. We will get through it. We do not have any other option. Where would we go?

RIPLEY (voice-over): On top of all this, a war of words brewing between Moscow and Kyiv. Russia's Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, issuing an ultimatum. Ukraine must bow to Russia's demands, including giving up occupied Ukrainian territories, or else the Russian army will take matters into its own hands.

Ukraine's President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy says that won't happen. He's vowing to retake all captured Ukrainian ground.

Diplomatic negotiations seem just as gridlocked as the battlefield. Little sign of peace coming this holiday season in a conflict that continues to grind on.


RIPLEY: And we see those funerals happening every single day here. That is the often under reported truth. That's when you hear Ukraine's President describing the situation on the front lines, Wolf, as painful. You know, every family that's losing someone over the holidays in particular, or any day in this war is in such pain.

And this is a sacrifice that people are making over and over. And the lines have not moved. They're staying exactly the same. You have around 9 million people suffering from blackouts right now across this country. And, Wolf, the number of cyberattacks by Russia has increased threefold in the last two years.

From the Ukrainian point of view, they think basically Russia is doing everything the Ukraine it can in its arsenal, except for nuclear at this stage. And it's really horrific to see.

BLITZER: Will Ripley, thanks for your truly excellent reporting.

Coming up, the convicted ringleader of a plot to kidnap Michigan's governor is sentenced to prison but not for as long as prosecutors want it. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


BLITZER: In Michigan today, a federal judge handed down a 16-year prison sentence to the convicted ringleader of a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Jean Casarez is following the story for us. Jean, what could you tell us about this sentence?

JEAN CASAREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, according to federal law, the judge had wide latitude today, a term of years to life imprisonment. And, of course, the U.S. attorneys wanted life in prison defense less than 10, and the result was 16. But in this, I think what worked in the favor, at least in theory, of the U.S. attorneys, were the enhancements, which added years to this sentence that Governor Gretchen Whitmer was an official victim that terrorism.

The acts were intended, the conspiracy was intended to promote terrorism. And also that Adam Fox was a leader. According to federal law, you have to have at least five followers. Well, I think we've got a list and possibly some pictures of those that have already been convicted in all of this.

Now, over half of them were at the state level. So comparing their sentences, you really can't do. But all of them, according to U.S. attorneys, were followers of Adam Fox. And what that did was that created an enhancement of the sentence.

In fact, U.S. attorney said 13 people because you don't have to be convicted, you just have to have knowledge. Now, when the judge pronounced the sentence, he said that he wanted to have a sentence that was necessary under the circumstances, but not too expensive stream to promote the goals.


And Judge Robert Jonker, I think we have a short statement from him, but he was saying that there needs to be deterrence in all of this. The public cannot believe that they can do something like this and that there will be an emotional burden that is held by the Governor Whitmer for many years to come. Wolf?

BLITZER: Significant development. All right, Jean Casarez, thank you very much.

Coming up, the meltdown at Southwest Airlines. When will thousands of stranded travelers be able to get home and find their luggage?


BLITZER: Happening now, Southwest Airlines operations in meltdown, forcing thousands of flights to be canceled.