Return to Transcripts main page
The Situation Room
Special Counsel To Investigate Biden's Handling Of Classified Documents; Rep. George Santos (R-NY) Defiant Amid Growing GOP Calls For Him To Resign Over Lies; Russia Appoints Second War Commander In Three Months; Alabama & Georgia Declare State Of Emergency Amid Tornado Devastation. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired January 12, 2023 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, a special counsel is now set to investigate President Biden's handling of classified material, the U.S. attorney general launching an independent probe after more documents were found this time at the president's home in Delaware.
Also tonight, Congressman George Santos is defiant amid growing calls for him to resign over the many lies he told voters. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is standing by Santos even as he acknowledges a lack of trust.
And we're tracking severe weather right now in the southeast including significant damage from a large and extremely dangerous tornado in Alabama.
Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
We begin with this special counsel investigation that's about to get under way. Amid new revelations about classified documents found at President Biden's home and office. Let's go right to our Chief White House Correspondent Phil Mattingly. Phil, the White House is attempting to defend its response as a new timeline is though raising a lot of questions.
PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. The White House Counsel saying they will fully cooperate with the new special counsel investigation and say they believe that by the time the investigation is over, it will be clear that this was an inadvertent problem, a mistake that was made. But a new timeline detailed by the attorney general as he announced that special counsel certainly raising questions about a process that has been anything transparent for the public.
MERRICK GARLAND, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I'm here today to announce the appointment of Robert Hur as a special counsel.
MATTINGLY (voice over): For President Biden, the dramatic escalation of a perilous moment.
GARLAND: It was in the public interest to appoint a special counsel.
MATTINGLY: Attorney General Merrick Garland appointing former U.S. Attorney Robert Hur special counsel to investigate the possible mishandling of classified documents and revealing a lot more detail about an issue Biden and his lawyers kept quiet for weeks and have desperately tried to manage since the story broke four days ago.
JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: People know I take classified documents and classified materials seriously.
MATTINGLY: The special counsel announcement coming after Biden's second public statement about a second set of classified documents found at a second location.
BIDEN: As part of that process, my lawyers reviewed other places where documents from my time as vice president were stored and they finished the review last night. They discovered a small number of documents with classified markings in storage areas in file cabinets in my home in my personal library.
MATTINGLY: But Garland's detailed timeline underscoring at the time of Biden's first statement on the issue earlier this week --
BIDEN: And were cooperating fully, cooperating fully with the review in which I hope will be finished soon.
MATTINGLY: -- his lawyers had been aware of the second set of documents discovered at his Wilmington home for nearly a month. It's a timeline that started with the November 2nd discovery of ten classified documents in a former think tank office, which led Garland to appoint U.S. Attorney John Lausch to investigate the matter less than two weeks later. On December 20th, more documents discovered.
GARLAND: President Biden's personal counsel informed Mr. Lausch that additional documents bearing classifications markings were identified in the garage of the president's private residents in Wilmington, Delaware.
MATTINGLY: All key factors for what Lausch would recommend to Garland last week.
GARLAND: On January 5th, 2023, Mr. Lausch briefed me on the results of his initial investigation and advised me that further investigation by a special counsel was warranted.
MATTINGLY: The recommendation that came four days before the initial discovery of classified documents leaked and before days of White House statements that intentionally avoided key details or obfuscated key matters all together in part out of an effort to avoid this very moment, sources said, and to follow strict limits set by his lawyers.
BIDEN: I'll get a chance to speak on all this, God willing, soon.
MATTINGLY: As a due diligence search for any more documents was still ongoing.
GARLAND: This morning, President Biden's personal counsel called Mr. Lausch and stated that an additional document bearing classification markings was identified at the president's personal residence in Wilmington, Delaware.
MATTINGLY (on camera): And, Wolf, White House lawyers say that they have cooperated closely with the Justice Department in the review up to this stage. That cooperation will continue going forward. And they also, we have now reported, during that review, they interviewed individuals tied to the then-vice president's time in office, including Kathy Chung, who's now currently at the Department of Defense. She was the president's executive assistant at the time. Again, this was a very fluid period of time in the last weeks of the then-Obama administration, trying to track down all the details in terms of how those documents got to both the think tank and his Wilmington home, Wolf.
BLITZER: Phil Mattingly at the White House for us, thank you very, very much.
Let's break all this down with our correspondents and our analysts. Paula Reid, let me start with you, you're our Senior Legal Affairs Correspondent. I know you're doing a lot of reporting on this, on what's going on behind the scenes. What more can you tell us about this U.S. Justice Department decision by the attorney general to go ahead and appoint a special counsel? It's pretty important.
PAULA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Incredibly important and it has been an ongoing process. Merrick Garland is a former judge, once a judge, always a judge. He believes in the process.
The Justice Department was informed of the discovery of classified information on November 4th. About ten days later he tapped the U.S. attorney in Chicago, a Trump appointee, to review what happened here, and suggests whether or not there should be a special counsel. That's interesting.
Just a few days after that, he tapped Jack Smith to handle the Trump investigation, so it clearly had special counsels on the brain. On January 5th, it is recommended to him by the U.S. attorney that he should indeed appoint a special counsel and within a week he found someone.
It's a very short list of people who are qualified, never mind willing to do this. He found Robert Hur and he appears to be from central casting. I spoke with Rod Rosenstein, his former boss, obviously the former deputy attorney general. He said, look, he was one of my top deputies in the special counsel investigation into Russia, he knows exactly what he's getting into something here.
BLITZER: Yes. Robert Hur seems highly qualified indeed.
Elliot, let's talk a little bit about what's going on. Is this at least in part an opportunity where the Justice Department and the attorney general to appear to be avoiding a double standard, one standard for Trump, another standard for Biden?
ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: And the word, appear, is doing a lot of work in that sentence, Wolf. Because, look, at the end of the day, the Justice Department, I said this to you before, could have investigated this case. I worked there for six years and folks there can investigate matters of people of the same political party, including -- up to and including the boss.
The problem is a conflict is real even if it's perceived under the guidelines. And the fact that there are folks in the public who would regard any action by the Justice Department as being political, the A.G. probably had to go down the road of appointing a special counsel here just to give the appearance of impartiality.
BLITZER: And, Jamie, it's interesting, I noticed that the attorney general, when he was making his statement today, he went beyond what the White House was saying. He provided new information.
JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: So, we have, for the first time, really a sense of the timeline, including that they found one more document this morning. This is not great. You're doing a thorough search and then, whoops, there's one more.
Just to go back to something that Elliot said, there are going to be constant comparisons here with Trump, fair or not. And I think that while nobody wants a special counsel and you don't know where this is going to lead, it was one way to appear evenhanded, impartial. And I am told by sources that Rob Hur has impeccable conservative credentials.
ABBY PHILLIP, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Which is interesting to me that you would have to go to a conservative-leaning person to be perceived as impartial in a special counsel situation.
But I think that you're right, Jamie. I mean, the existence of a special counsel for Trump necessitated that one would need to be in place here because of the perception problems. And I think that there's probably a special counsel for Trump perhaps only because Trump is already a candidate for the next election and could face Biden again. So, that political layer is never going to go away.
I do think right now there are some real questions about this timeline that was laid out by the attorney general and why, in my mind -- I don't understand why the Biden camp didn't do the searches earlier. Why did it take even until December 20th to find that second batch of documents? Why were they finding documents today?
There's a limited universe of places where these documents could be and one could imagine that those searches could have been executed pretty much immediately after the first set of documents were found. So, it's just some of the unanswered questions. You saw the press secretary today basically cueing to this statement that she had written on a piece of paper and saying that they were following the book. But, again, there's just a lack of transparency here on the timeline, information that they certainly could have provided.
GANGEL: For those of us who covered the White House, today was a bad day to be at the podium, whether you're a Republican or a Democratic.
Just one other thing to add, Wolf, we know that they did the right thing when they found that first paper. I mean, cooperation is the key. They immediately reached out to the White House Counsel who said, call the National Archives.
But to Abby's point, this has gone on now for weeks and weeks, now months when -- there's just this mixed bag here of cooperating, trying to do the right thing, but then unanswered questions.
How did these classified documents get there and why have they not been more transparent?
PHILLIP: And to me, it's a tell, they know that this is a political problem for them. Otherwise, I think they would have tried to give at least a more clear timeline of what happened, how many documents there were, et cetera, because they put out a statement this week that had details in them.
But, again, it's not the same thing. They're giving the documents back. They're not trying to hold on to them. That is a key fact. But from a political and perhaps a public relations perspective, they're trying to hold back information because of where we are in the political cycle.
BLITZER: I'm wondering, because I know you're doing reporting on this, Paula, on this. Where does the other special counsel investigation stand right now, Special Counsel Jack Smith investigating Trump and his mishandling of highly classified documents?
REID: What we know from our sources he's been busy. He's two months into the job. We know there was a flurry of activity before Christmas. They gathered a lot of evidence, some of which they had even open. There was another round of subpoenas to Trump associates in recent weeks. So, they have an enormous amount of evidence that they're going through as they decide whether or not to bring charges.
This is a much more complicated investigation now. Not only are they dealing with January 6th, looking into that, they're also looking into Mar-a-Lago, not only the potential mishandling of classified information but also this question of cooperation and potential obstruction.
It is a very complicated investigation. And as we know, Jack Smith was abroad for most of the past two months. He's back in the U.S. getting his office set up. But time is of the essence. There's a lot of concern about how far now both of these investigations will go into the election season. So, there's a lot of pressure to move quickly.
WILLIAMS: Yes. And most importantly, it's important to know the difference between a P.R. issue and a legal one. Right now, one can quickly become the other and something can spiral out of control for the current president's administration.
Now, look, they are doing everything, at least it appears, as they've indicated, to cooperate with the investigation here. But what they have, and as everybody is noted here, is sort of a communications mess, where what it does seem that former President Trump is sitting on is a legal problem, a series of legal problems compounded by his own conduct and that of the attorneys around him that could end in criminal charges. It just doesn't seem to be the case at least right now.
BLITZER: And we know the history of special counsels investigating a sitting president of the United States going back many, many years to Nixon and Reagan and Bill Clinton and others as well. It usually doesn't necessarily work at all that great for the sitting president of the United States.
All right guys, everybody stand by. Just ahead, embattled Congressman George Santos dodging CNN's questions about blatant lies on his resume as a growing chorus of Republicans wants him out of the house.
Plus, we're go live to Ukraine where Russia is fighting for a battlefield win after a string of defeats at a very steep cost to its forces.
BLITZER: Newly elected Republican Congressman George Santos of New York is defiant tonight amid calls for him to resign over multiple lies he's told about his background that have been exposed since he won his House seat.
CNN's Chief Congressional Correspondent Manu Raju has been trying to give Santos a chance to address the controversy. So, Manu, what's the latest?
MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. When I approached George Santos today and asked him to address his widespread lies about his past, he refused to engage, even as more and more Republicans, including members from the New York Republican delegation are calling on him to step aside. Right now six total house Republicans have urged him to resign.
But there's one person who is now -- who's making clear that he's not joining those calls to resign, and that's House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) RAJU (voice over): Freshman Congressman George Santos defiant --
REP. GEORGE SANTOS (R-NY): I will be continuing to hold my office elected by the people.
RAJU: -- facing growing GOP calls for his resignation over his web of lies, but saying he is not going anywhere after winning 142,000 votes last fall.
SANTOS: If 142 people ask for me to resign, I'll resign.
RAJU: Refusing to answer CNN's question about why he fabricated major portions of his life story.
Mr. Santos, why did you lie to your voters about your qualifications, your past, being Jewish, why did you lie to them? Don't the voters deserve an explanation about your widespread lies about your past? How can you be trusted with sensitive security information, Mr. Santos?
Telling a fellow Republican that he has been honest.
SANTOS: Look, I've worked my entire life. I live an honest life. I've never been accused sort of any bad doing.
RAJU: Yet Santos has admitted to lying, including by saying he's Jewish and that his family survived the Holocaust, that he owned 13 properties, that he worked for Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, even saying he graduated from the top of his class at Baruch College and was a star volleyball player. None of which is true.
REP. MIKE LAWLER (R-NY): He's lost the confidence of people in his own community. So, I think he needs to seriously consider whether or not he can actually do his job effectively. And right now, it's pretty clear he can't.
RAJU: So, are you saying that he should resign?
REP. MARC MOLINARO (R-NY): There's no way I believe he can fully fulfill his responsibilities.
REP. ANTHONY D'ESPOSITO (R-NY): The fact he claimed that he was Jewish, that he had family who escaped the Holocaust, that's just not something I can tolerate.
RAJU: He has critical support from Speaker McCarthy who will not call on him to resign.
REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): The voters of his district have elected him. He is seated. He is part of the Republican conference.
RAJU: Some raising national security concerns given Santos is potentially facing fraud charges in Brazil.
MCCARTHY: He's got a long way to go to earn trust. There are concerns with him. So he will go before ethics. If anything is found to be of wrong, he will be held accountable exactly as anybody else in this body would be.
RAJU: If Santos resigned, he'd vacate a district President Biden won by eight points, giving Democrats a chance to cut into McCarthy's razor-thin house majority.
Is this someone who you trust to have access to the nation's secrets?
REP. DON BACON (R-NE): Well, I think we'll still keep looking at this and get the facts.
RAJU (on camera): Now, Santos has also faced questions about $700,000 of money that he put into his campaign. He's faced a complaint from a group that is asking the Federal Election Commission to look into the matter. He was asked about that today by Congressman Matt Gaetz on a podcast and he said that I'll tell you where it did not come from, It didn't come from China, Ukraine, or Burisma, but he did not divulge the source of the campaign cash as he's faced questions and an investigation into those campaign finance disclosures as the scrutiny intensifies on him and everything that he did in the run-up to the campaign.
BLITZER: Yes, the controversy continues. Manu Raju, up on Capitol Hill, thanks very much.
Let's dig deeper right now with our Senior Political Analyst Nia- Malika Henderson and CNN National Politics Reporter Eva McKend.
So, Nia, you heard Congressman Santos claim that he has, quote, lived an honest life. How can he say that when he himself has admitted to multiple lies about his background?
NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. I mean, he can say that because he is someone who fabricates complete identities. So, he's fabricated an identity of somebody who lived an honest life and we know that that is not true. He has fabricated a whole different scenarios and college degrees and jobs as well.
And so I think this is going to be a continuing problem for Republicans. They're going to continue to get questions about him. But if you're George Santos, you have every reason to hold on to this job. He stands to make something like $400,000 over the next two years as a member of Congress, that's a prestigious job. And so it will be up to the voters in two years to see whether or not he continues in this job, but he's going to hang on even as some of these questions hangover him, including Ethics Committee questions at some point.
BLITZER: If he does survive over these next two years, the question is will he face a Republican challenger in a primary in his district out on Long Island?
The chorus of Republicans in out there in Nassau County, elsewhere in Queens, in Long Island, where he represents is growing and growing. How long do you think he can hang on?
EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: So, Wolf, I spent the day actually trying to catch up with some of Santos' constituents out on Long Island. I spoke to a woman who lives in North Hempstead, a former supporter of his actually, a Republican -- she would describe herself as a Republican activist. And she said here are nearly daily meetings amongst community members trying to strategize what to do.
And that is because the Republicans there are really concerned about preserving this seat. It was a huge deal for them to flip the seat and so they are moving on beyond Santos. They are urging him to resign and they're trying to make themselves viable for future elections.
So, a real grassroots movement happening, I think, in his district. And I think that what we see is that the establishment often has to sort of be pushed along by the grassroots efforts. And that is what is under way, I think, in the district. We'll see if McCarthy feels some pressure after so many of his constituents are trying to do just that, put pressure on the establishment.
BLITZER: A lot of Republicans are. How do you -- McCarthy is still with him, at least right now. How long is that going to continue?
HENDERSON: Yes. Listen, McCarthy has a four-seat majority. He can't afford for Santos to not be there, to possibly put this seat back in the hands of a Democrat. The other thing is, I think if you're McCarthy, another political calculation is, okay, so, if you call on George Santos to resign and he doesn't resign, you look like a bit of a weak and feckless leader. So, I think that's also one of the reasons he's saying, listen, the voters have decided. It will be up to make a different decision perhaps in two years. But in the meantime, he's got Santos there and that's a vote for Kevin McCarthy when it comes to anything he wants to do in Congress.
BLITZER: How big of an issue will this be, the whole Santos uproar right now, for the Republican Party, for other Republicans going forward?
MCKEND: Well, I'm curious to see if there ultimately is an ethics investigation. That could change the calculus here. I think about former embattled Congressman Anthony Weiner, and ultimately Speaker Pelosi, she was in the minority then, but she wasn't speaker there, but when she was leading the Democratic caucus, she did at least -- at the very least, I think, push a little further and did call for an ethics investigation of Weiner.
But we know that ultimately he did step aside because he couldn't handle that investigation. He didn't have the money or the resources to withstand that pressure. And maybe Santos might not either. We really don't know how much money he has. This money that he's making now in Congress could be the most that he's ever made in his life. We can't trust any of the past financial disclosures.
BLITZER: Yes. Good point. Nia, two House Democrats have formally filed an ethics complaint now against Santos. Is that going to go anywhere? HENDERSON: Listen, I mean, there will be some sort of ethics investigation. You know, there are some concerns that the sort of ethics and oversight of this Congress has been a little weakened by some of the new rules.
But McCarthy seems to feel like this will be part of the process that will be handled to the extent that it can be by the ethics committee.
And if you're McCarthy, you really want this to go away. You want to be able to say, well, listen, this is going to be handled by ethics, the people of New York have spoken and we'll see what happens in two years. But I think if you think about somebody like Santos who again is a serial fabricator, what else is there to his background? And you know that CNN, New York Times, New York Newsday, all of these publications have sort of missed this story going in are certainly digging into his background. So, what else is there left to be uncovered about George Santos?
BLITZER: We expect there's more. We shall see. Guys, thank you very, very much.
Just ahead, Russia names a new commander for its war on Ukraine, but will that be enough to salvage Moscow's serious losses right now out there on the battlefield?
BLITZER: In Ukraine, Moscow's military shakeup is coming at a pivotal moment for Russian forces, I should say. But it's not clear whether President Putin's decision to appoint a second commander in just three months will be enough to turn the tide of the war.
CNN's Scott McLean has our report from Ukraine.
SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): A major shakeup in the highest ranks of the Russian military. General Valery Gerasimov is the experienced commander Putin has now put in charge of the so-called special military operation. His predecessor was shuffled out barely three months in following setbacks on the battlefield.
But the Kremlin says it is making progress in the small but strategic town of Soledar, where both sides say the fighting has become intense.
The situation is difficult, but stable this Ukrainian soldier says. We are holding back the enemy. Nobody leaves the positions. The positions are being held. We are fighting back.
The Wagner Mercenary Group claimed to have taken full control of the area with Russian forces blockading the city's southern and northern access routes. Kyiv denies the town has been captured despite some indications it's lost considerable ground.
HANNA MALIAR, UKRAINIAN DEPUTY DEFENSE MINISTER: The enemy has high losses. The area outside of the city is covered with the bodies of Putin's troops. Nevertheless, they're moving over their own corpses.
MCLEAN: New satellite images reveal the devastation in Soledar, craters scarring the landscapes, buildings reduced to rubble. Local officials say hundreds of civilians are still there, most of them elderly.
PAVLO KYRYLENKO, DONETSK REGIONAL MILITARY ADMINISTRATIO HEAD: As of now, there are 523 people there. It would be wrong to stay, that they don't want to leave now. We are doing our best to help people to leave.
MCLEAN: For the Russians, victory here would be a morale boost for a stalled campaign. The Kremlin spokesman hailed the enormous effort in Soledar but says the main work is still ahead.
It will only get tougher. For the first time since the war began, Ukraine will soon have tanks, after Poland agreed to send the German- made leopards. Germany and the U.K. are mulling the same decision.
MCLEAN (on camera): And, Wolf, this is pretty remarkable. The Russian mercenary group, Wagner, says not only did they capture all of Soledar, they did it without any help at all from regular Russian troops.
Now, the reality is that the battle may still be raging but, frankly, it is not looking good for the Ukrainians. We've been in touch with one soldier who was in Soledar, who says that his unit feels abandoned. They are pinned down. They have no food. They are running out of water and their window to actually evacuate or withdraw is closing very fast. In fact, it may have closed already. And, Wolf, this is the very same soldier who just two days ago said that Ukrainian withdrawal was only a matter of time.
BLITZER: Scott McLean, thank you very, very much. Scott is in Kyiv for us, in Ukraine. Stay safe over there.
For more on the war in Ukraine right now, let's bring in retired U.S. Army General Wesley Clark, the former NATO supreme allied commander and a CNN Military Analyst. General, thank you so much for joining us.
What do you think? Is Russia about to take this town of Soledar? And if they do, is the win largely symbolic rather than strategic?
GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Wolf, I think that that is purely a tactical discussion. I think it's very possible that they may take the town, but I think we've got to look at a little bit larger picture here.
Putting General Gerasimov in is a sign that the Russian offensive is going to gear up. We can see it building up. We can see the mobilization coming. We can see the use of mass use of conscripts. We can see the positioning of forces in Belarus. We have to anticipate that sometime between now and the 24th of February or maybe on the 24th, you're going to see something much different.
So this is really an effort to bleed Ukraine. And if Wagner group is claiming credit, fine. Maybe Prigozhin wants to challenge the regular military, maybe there's some of that going on here. But, in fact, what this is just a more of the same. What we have to be concerned about is the larger picture. Not this town, but can we get enough supplies in, equipment in to Ukraine that they can hold against this offensive and regain their territory.
And right now, Wolf, it doesn't look good. 50 Bradleys, a few Marder vehicles, discussions about some 1970 vintage Leopard tanks, not so good. That stuff needs to be in there now in bulk, and it isn't. So, I'm concerned.
BLITZER: I want to press you on this decision by Putin to replace the leader of this Ukraine military operation with his top general right now. Just give us a sense of how significant that is.
CLARK: I think it says that for Putin, this is war. And his number two guy, Patrushev, says this is a war against NATO. So, he's not taking this any longer as a special military operation. He knows it's a threat to his control of the regime. He views it as a mortal threat to Russia.
Now, we in the United States, we may prefer to look at China, we're forming special committee in Congress to look at China but this is the war that's going on right now. And if Gerasimov comes in, pulls things together, maybe uses nuclear weapons, tactical nuclear weapons to get a breakthrough in Luhansk, believe me, all eyes are going to be back on Ukraine. And at that point, it's too late to do the big surge of equipment in there to help the Ukrainians.
We need to be really looking at this closely right now. We've got maybe six weeks to get this right or we're going to have an entirely different situation on our hands with NATO.
BLITZER: General, you mentioned these first western-made tanks now being delivered from Poland into Ukraine. Give us a sense of the boost this could give the Ukrainian military.
CLARK: I think it's helpful. This is good German equipment. But if it's the equipment that I think it is, it's got the 105 millimeter gun, not the 120 millimeter gun, it's not the most modern tanks that are available. They are diesel powered, so that's good. Ukrainians are very adept mechanically. They'll quickly take care of it. But how many are we talking about really?
I mean, this is a major military operation. If you put 50 tanks in, that's what we would say in the United States is one-tank battalion. It's not a large force. And it may not even be 50 tanks.
BLITZER: Yes, good point. Retired General Wesley Clark, as usual thank you very, very much.
Just ahead, we'll have more on our top story, the attorney general of the United States, Merrick Garland, appointing a special counsel to carry out the Biden documents investigation right now. We'll be right back.
BLITZER: We're getting more reaction this hour to the new appointment of a special counsel to investigate President Biden's handling of classified documents. We're joined now by a veteran member of the house intelligence committee, Democratic Congressman Jim Himes of Connecticut. Congressman, thanks for joining us.
First of all, do you support the decision by the attorney general, Merrick Garland, to appoint a special counsel to investigate the Biden documents probe?
REP. JIM HIMES (D-CT): Absolutely, Wolf. It was exactly the right move by the attorney general. It's really important that whatever has occurred here with the presence of classified documents in President Biden's possession that it be investigated impartially and fully so that we understand what happened. So it was exactly the right move by Attorney General Garland.
BLITZER: This investigation, for all practical purposes, only just beginning right now with this new special counsel named today.
The White House has been criticized, as you know, Congressman, for what's being described as a series of contradictory statements about these classified documents. Does it concern you that the Biden administration was not forthcoming about any of this until it came out in the news?
HIMES: Well, Wolf, let me say two things that we think are absolutely true. Number one, no classified information of any kind should ever be outside of secured spaces. And it doesn't really matter how classified it is. If it's classified, it means that its disclosure could classify the national security of the United States. So, whether it's in Mar-a- Lago or in Wilmington, Delaware, we've had cases obviously where formerly CIA directors have been found to be mishandling classifies information, that needs to stop. That's not a partisan statement. It needs to stop.
Now, that's -- of course, there's pretty important distinctions between what the White House is dealing with and what the previous president dealt with. You know, the White House, upon the discovery of the documents apparently in the two locations, has handled this precisely right, by disclosing the fact, by saying, we've got this stuff at Mar-a-Lago, not only did they not disclose, but they so resisted the Department of Justice in their attempts to recover that information that ultimately agents had to basically knock down the door to get the stuff. So, there are some pretty substantial differences between the two cases. But the bottom line is classified information should not be outside of secure spaces.
BLITZER: That could damage national security if released. You've served on the House Intelligence Committee and you've reviewed sensitive documents for a long time. You've been on the House Intelligence Committee since 2013. The new GOP chairman of that committee, Congressman Mike Turner, has asked for an immediate review of these, the Biden's documents, the classified documents that have been discovered. Do you think the committee needs to investigate this given the fact there's a special counsel now doing so?
HIMES: Well, we have an important oversight role, Wolf, that is independent of the oversight that is conducted by the Department of Justice, by inspectors general, by special counsels. So, Mike Turner is right.
Now, as you know, we have been asking for a very long time for a damage assessment associated with the documents that were recovered from Mar-a-Lago. We will ask for exactly the same thing with respect to documents that were in these apparently two locations for Biden.
It's really important for us to know what secrets may have been compromised. Now, we don't know they've been compromised, but obviously when they leave a secure space, that's always a possibility. Again, this is not so much a partisan issue though. I will note that an awful lot of my colleagues treated this whole problem one way when it was associated with Donald Trump, you know, excusing the behavior, suggesting that stuff maybe isn't that classified, and now they have a different tune to sing now that they see political advantage with Joe Biden.
But, really, bottom line, Wolf, forget the parties. What's important here is we understand how this happened, that it doesn't happen again and if there's any possibility that that information leaked, we need to understand how that might affect the security of the United States.
BLITZER: Very good point. Congressman Jim Himes, thanks, as usual, for joining us.
Coming up, tornadoes are ravaging Alabama and Georgia right now. More could be coming as millions of Americans are under severe storm threats across the Southeast.
BLITZER: Right now we're getting in lots of brand new video as dangerous tornados menace the Southeast. The governors of Alabama and Georgia declaring states of emergency amid all this devastation.
Let's get right to CNN meteorologist Jennifer Gray. She's over at the CNN weather center for us.
Give us the latest, Jennifer.
JENNIFER GRAY, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Wolf, these storms are still incredibly dangerous. We had several hours of these storms producing tornados and they're still doing that. This tornado watch you can see shaded in red goes for the next hour or two across the Southeast. You can see right around Charlotte, we did have a tornado warning just on the north side of Charlotte, a few moments ago. That has expired. Now we have another one basically in Columbia.
So, anyone basically in the Southeast, on the eastern side of these storms, if you see one of these tornado warnings in your area, you've got to get to your safe place. These storms are moving incredibly fast, about 55 miles per hour, so you'll have very little warning. So consider this your warning there are some very dangerous storms across the Southeast.
You can see these severe thunderstorm warnings. You can see all the way across southern portions of Alabama and Georgia.
Here's your severe weather risk -- the area shaded in orange, that's going to be your highest risk for tornados, damaging winds, large hail. But we really could see showers and storms anywhere in these areas, and they even extend all the way up to the mid-Atlantic and Northeast. So the rain is going to be far reaching.
As we go into the overnight hours the storms should weaken and start to clear out tomorrow. Some very cold air on the backside of this, Wolf. You can see some snow flurries there, but we're also going to see rain accumulations of anywhere from 1 to 2 inches, inside of those individual thunderstorms you can get some higher rates.
But definitely a nasty day across the Southeast, Wolf, and these storms are still ongoing.
BLITZER: Nasty indeed. Our meteorologist Jennifer Gray, thank you very much.
Just ahead as his special counsel launches its probe into President Biden's handling of classified documents, we're going to break down how White House records should be maintained.
BLITZER: More now on our top story, the U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland appointing a special counsel to investigate the Obama era classified documents found at President Biden's home and former private office.
CNN's Brian Todd is working the story for us.
Brian, you're learning more about how the process is really supposed to work. BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We are, Wolf. We've been speaking to
people who handled these documents with the White House before. They tell us there are important laws governing all of this, but the process is not foolproof.
TODD (voice-over): Experts on document preservation tell CNN the sensitive papers from the Obama administration discovered at President Biden's Wilmington, Delaware, home, and at his former think tank simply shouldn't be in those places.
TIM NAFTALI, FORMER DIRECTOR, RICHARD NIXON PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY: Vice President Biden's team didn't do a careful job of segregating his private materials from his public materials, so that's a problem.
THOMAS BLANTON, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL SECURITY ARCHIVE: Even an ex- president can't take documents like this home because they belong to the American government. They belong to the American people. Under the presidential records act.
TODD: All documents from presidents and vice presidents are supposed to be saved for posterity by the National Archives. Experts say the Archives has people dedicated to helping a presidential administration preserve those documents from the beginning of each presidency to the end.
What if a president or vice president wants to take an important document with them when they leave office? Who do they have to clear with the National Archives?
NORM EISEN, FORMER DEPUTY GENERAL COUNSEL, OBAMA-BIDEN TRANSITION: There's a process within. You would work within the White House. There's officials who are there who are in charge of document handling. They consult with the National Archives.
TODD: And experts say it's really up to the staff of a president or a vice president to comb through their documents carefully and coordinate all this with the archives toward the end of each administration because the archives itself doesn't have a list.
NAFTALI: So it's not possible for the National Archives on January 20th of inauguration year to have a checklist and say, okay, we've got them all.
TODD: Anything work related a president or vice president writes, signs, or even jots a little notation on is supposed to be saved for posterity and turned over to the archives.
DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Little posties, a hand written note to somebody, writing on a note card at the national security meeting, these belong to the American public.
TODD: Analysts say the documents found in President Biden's stash marked top secret could compromise national security if they fell into the wrong hands, but they also say this kind of mistake likely isn't unprecedented.
NAFTALI: Given the amount of our paper that our presidents and vice presidents have generated it is always possible that interfiled with unclassified private papers, there might be a classified record or two.
TODD (on camera): Now, is there a way to make the transfer of presidential and vice presidential documents airtight at the end of an administration? Former Nixon Library Director Tim Naftali says one reform that has been discussed is mandate the process of a White House staff working with the archives on documents begin much sooner than it does now, in year three of a presidency so it's not rushed. He says he'd also like to see the archives themselves, add more people to their ranks, people who would have the sole task of helping to preserve White House documents.
Wolf, they've got to find a way to make this more airtight if they can.
BLITZER: They've got to learn the lessons of what has happened to make sure it doesn't happen again.
Brian, excellent report, thank you very, very much.
And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. You can always follow me on Twitter and Instagram @WolfBlitzer. You can always tweet the show @CNNSitRoom.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.