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War Crime On Russia's Attack On Apartment Building In Dnipro; Ukrainians To Train Operating Patriot Missile System; Searching For More Classified Documents On President Biden; McCarthy Says He's Always Had "Questions" About Santos' Resume Despite Refusing To Call For His Resignation; GOP Source: Concerns About Santos' Bio Were Known Before Election; More Than 80,000 People Attend Protest Against Netanyahu Gov't.; American Held In Iran Pleads For Pres. Biden To Do More; Rain And Flooding Concerns Grow As Storms Saturate California. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired January 16, 2023 - 17:00   ET




WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, Ukraine is reeling tonight from one of the deadliest Russian attacks since the invasion. At least 40 people killed in a cruise missile strike on an apartment building right in the center of the Ukrainian city of Dnipro. Dozens more are injured or still missing and officials warn the death toll could climb.

Also tonight, new developments in the classified document scandal looming over the White House now. Sources tell CNN that additional searches are possible and locations connected to President Biden, who sources say is growing increasingly frustrated with the saga.

And we're also following the disaster right now in California, as another round of storms lashes the state. Officials now bracing for more flooding and mudslides, as weeks of violent weather take a deadly toll.

Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. This is a SITUATION ROOM special report.

Our top story tonight, Ukraine counting bodies as it clears the rubble from one of the deadliest Russian attacks since the invasion almost one year ago. CNN's senior international correspondent, Ben Wedeman, is joining us live from the war zone. He's got details. Ben, I understand the Ukrainian president is calling this missile strike a war crime. Give us the latest.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right. In his nightly address, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described it as a war crime. He said that those who are behind this attack that killed 40 people, at least 40 people, there's still 25 people missing, those behind the attack, he said, will be identified and brought to justice. In the meantime, battles continue to rage here in eastern Ukraine. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WEDEMAN (voice-over): Near Bakhmut's front lines, lost souls wander the streets, those who can't leave, won't leave, or have given up caring. I put some food on the fire, I chopped some wood, says Vyetlana (ph) and decided to go out for some fresh air. Dimitro (ph) pays no heat to the shelling. This is my land, he says. I won't leave. The fighting echoes through the fog.

(On camera): As the Russians seem to be gaining control of Soledar north of here, in Bakhmut, the fighting seems to be intensifying. One local resident told us, whereas before mortars were over their heads, now it's bullets.

(Voice-over): Soldiers prepare trenches inside the city, new defensive positions if the Russians push forward. Sandbags with wood on top, says Valentin (ph), and three firing positions. On the ever so slightly safer western side of the city, a makeshift market offers basics. With no electricity or running water, commerce is conducted in the open.

My two shops were destroyed, says Denis (ph), so I'm selling on the street. But this food is only for those who can afford it, and Serhe (ph) isn't one of them. I'm living like an effing animal, he says. Ivan (ph) returns home after collecting firewood, the bitter cold as deadly as the shelling. People have frozen to death in their apartments, he says.

On a bluff overlooking Bakhmut, this artillery officer, nicknamed Pilot (ph), says they're up against troops, many of them convicts with the private military company Wagner. We're fighting against soldiers brought to the slaughter, he says. These Wagner guys have no choice, they're sentenced to death. And, then, the order comes to open fire.



WEDEMAN (on camera): And we are getting some reports that one of the towns to the south of Bakhmut may have been taken by the Russians. This means, Wolf, that perhaps in the near future the city could be surrounded by Russian forces.

BLITZER: Very worrisome developments, indeed. All right, Ben Wedeman, stay safe over there. Thank you very much.

Let's get an update right now on new U.S. efforts to try to help Ukraine fend off this latest Russian assault. Our Pentagon correspondent, Oren Lieberman is joining us right now. Oren, I understand Patriot missile training involving Ukrainian soldiers will begin on U.S. soil this week. Is that right?

OREN LIEBERMAN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. Fort Sill in Oklahoma where the U.S. conducts its own training on Patriots for the U.S. military, as well as for others, has announced that a team of Ukrainians has arrived to begin training on the Patriot missile system, a system that requires 90 to 100 troops to operate fully.

The training expected to take several months, but once that is completed, and the Pentagon is working to accelerate that as much as possible, the Patriot will go to Ukraine to aid in the aerial defense there. So that training is expected to begin any day now with the arrival of the Ukrainians.

And it's part of what we're seeing from the west. Take a look at this list here, announcements of bigger and more powerful weapons going in. The U.K. announced that it would send 12 of its own Challenger 2 tanks. Poland has signaled a willingness to send Leopard tanks. Those are German-made and will require German approval. And of course, the U.S. training on the Patriots to begin.

There is a key question here. Could the Patriot have stopped this attack on the Dnipro apartment, that horrible attack where the death toll is at 40 and expected to still rise? It is a question that can't be answered with certainty, but, yes, a Patriot missile is a long- range aerial defense system meaning its radar could have picked up that incoming missile at a greater range, and its missile perhaps able to shoot it down.

Of course, first that training needs to be completed, but there's also a key question for Ukraine. It's getting one Patriot battery from the U.S. and another from Germany. Ukraine will have to decide where it wants to focus those defensive systems. It can't defend the entire country. Patriot is not capable of that.

So, it will have to decide where to prioritize. Presumably one will defend the capital of Kyiv, and then it's up to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the military on where they want to use that other one. So, it's not a simple cover all system that will defend Ukraine, Wolf. It will certainly help, however.

BLITZER: Yes, indeed. All right, Oren Lieberman at the Pentagon for us. Thank you very much.

Let's get some analysis right now from CNN contributor on Russian affairs, Jill Dougherty and retired U.S. Army General Wesley Clark. He's a CNN military analyst, former NATO supreme allied commander. General Clark, we have a lot to discuss, but first, what does it say to you that Russia used a cruise missile against civilians in an apartment building in what President Zelenskyy says was a war crime?

WESLEY CLARK, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: It's possibly a targeting mistake, because this is not a very accurate missile, but the point is he's using that missile. He knows it's not accurate. And this is a war crime, along with many other war crimes, Wolf. And it's a challenge to the west. We need to take not only Patriots and put them in there, we need to indict Mr. Putin and his team for war crimes.

BLITZER: Will the brutality, Jill, of this latest attack spur western allies to boost support for Ukraine even further?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR, RUSSIAN AFFAIRS: Well, Wolf, this is a very serious moment. I mean, this really -- even in the Russian press, it is being written about and reported on. So, it's a very important moment. It would appear that it would precisely because of the brutality of it however it happened as the general said, with all of these people who were killed and injured. So, you would have to think that there would be more support.

But I think, you know, the terrible arithmetic, you know, the math that the Ukrainians have to do, is in this area. If you have a fight like this, you know, what do you defend, maybe when we were talking about Soledar, the city that's not too far from Bakhmut, these are the things that they have to decide.

How much do you put into the fight? How much do you give up temporarily in order to protect your turf? Because we're all talking about in the spring some type of offensive. Russians actually are talking about it and the Ukrainians definitely are. So, there is a lot -- there are a lot of, I think, very difficult decisions that have to be made by the Ukrainians.

BLITZER: You're absolutely right. General Clark, as you heard, Ukrainian troops are now here in the United States, they're getting ready to train on the Patriot air defense missile system, but it will be months before that makes a difference on the battlefield. Does the U.S. need to provide more Patriots and other weapons to Ukraine right now to help out?


CLARK: The answer is yes. And we need to be training more for more than one Patriot battery, but we don't have those extra batteries, so we're going to be taking it from somewhere else. This battery is coming from the school, Fort Sill. So, we need to really mobilize, Wolf. We need to start producing more.

This is a long-term strategic problem for the United States. Unless Ukraine collapses tomorrow, we're going to be in this position of trying to give them assistance two months from now, four months from now, eight months from now, a year from now. Putin is not relenting on what he's doing. He's mobilizing in Russia.

I think we have to really get serious and understand this is a long- term problem. But we can do more right now. Ten challenger tanks, wonderful. Why not 20, why not 40, why not 60? Fifty Bradley fighting vehicles, why not 200? We're going to have to accept the fact that we can't penny packet this assistance and have it make incisive difference for Ukraine. It's not enough to keep them there and letting them be bloodied by these kinds of assaults. We need to give them what they need to work Russia, push them out of Ukraine.

BLITZER: Very strong words from General Wesley Clark. Thank you so much for joining us. Jill Dougherty, thanks to you as well.

Coming up, new developments in the classified documents saga surrounding President Biden. Sources now tell CNN that additional searches could be needed to ensure all government records are recovered. This is a SITUATION ROOM special report.



BLITZER: We are learning new information tonight about the classified documents saga looming over the White House, including the possibility of additional searches at locations connected to President Biden. Let's get an update right now from our senior justice correspondent, Evan Perez. Evan, first of all, what are you hearing from your sources?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we're hearing that there could be additional searches that are in the offing now that we have a special counsel. The question is, who is going to do those searches. It could be, obviously, the White House, the president's personal legal team that could try to do additional searches.

Now, where would those be? We know that the president had other private offices that he used during the time that, you know, between the time he left the vice presidency and before he became president of the United States. We know he also had a home in Virginia that he rented during a period of time.

So, those could be places that could be searched, you know, could be done by the federal government, could be done by the Justice Department, or it could be done by the president's legal team, which has been doing all these searches. One of the things that I think has really stuck out to us, Wolf, is the timeline, right, that has been presented by the president's legal team.

They find these initial documents in November, they inform the Justice Department that they are going to do additional searches, but it takes about five weeks before they come back with additional documents that have been found on December 20th. And so, the question is, why those five weeks? What took so long? And, really, what additional problems and questions have been generated as a result of that extended timeline?

BLITZER: Everybody stand by. Evans, standby because we have more to discuss. But right now, I want to bring in CNN's Arlette Saenz. She's joining us from the White House right now. She's got some new reporting as well. Arlette, the president is said to be personally frustrated with how all of this is unfolding right now. I know you've got a new information. What else could you tell us?

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, Wolf, there have been so many twists and turns in this classified document saga and CNN has learned that President Biden himself has become frustrated with how this classified document information has overtaken so much of what the White House has been doing.

They have had some positive streaks of news over the course of the past few weeks, but really this conversation about the classified documents is what has been dominating lately. Now, President Biden today returned to the White House from his home in Wilmington, Delaware, and he did not answer questions from reporters, including whether he would possibly sit down for an interview with the special counsel as that investigation proceeds.

Now, this all comes as those five additional pages of classified materials were found at the president's home over the weekend. And you've heard from both the White House counsel here and also from the president's personal lawyers saying that they're going to start referring questions to the special counsel as this investigation gets under way.

Now, in addition to those special counsel investigations, Republicans are also promising to launch probes of their own. The House Oversight chairman, James Comer, one thing that he wants to see is visitor logs from the White House for those people who were coming and going from President Biden's home up in Wilmington, Delaware.

But the White House and Secret Service both say those logs simply don't exist. The White House counsel's office noting that as has been the case with previous presidents, that the president's personal residence is personal. They don't keep tabs of who is coming and going from there.

But this all comes as there are growing questions for this administration, not just about the handling of those classified documents, but also for how they've revealed a lot of this information to the public.

One of the president's top allies, former Alabama senator, Doug Jones, telling our colleagues here, that in many ways it's an unforced error that they were not fully offering a complete picture of what exactly was known as the news came out over the past week. But certainly, these are questions that will continue to face this White House in the coming months.

BLITZER: You're absolutely right. Our White House correspondent, Arlette Saenz, thank you very much. Let's get some reaction right now from CNN legal analyst Norm Eisen and our senior crime and justice reporter, Katelyn Polantz. Evan Perez is still with us as well.

So, Katelyn, I know you're doing a lot of reporting on this as well. Do you get the sense that these additional searches that apparently are about to take place are the result of an abundance of caution right now, or is there a sense that there may be, in fact, classified documents at some of these various locations?

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Wolf, what's happening right now are two things. We know that there is a special counsel investigation around the Biden documents that are being found.


Whatever happens in additional searches will play into that very likely. But the other thing that is taking place is a document recovery operation. It's taking place with the Trump people and their legal team. It's taking place with Joe Biden and his lawyers. And so all -- that is something that they're going to have to really focus on, making sure that there isn't anything out there because whatever happens on the criminal side, that's some legal issues the Justice Department is going to have to face.

But on the national security side, any documents that may be out, they need to make sure they're secure. They're national security information, even if they've been sitting in storage for many years. They need to be in the possession of the intelligence community.

BLITZER: Who should really be handling, Norm, these various searches for classified documents? The president's private attorneys, the special counsel who is now investigating? Presumably you would want individuals who have top secret security clearances if they're looking for this top secret secure -- top secret documents.

NORM EISEN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Wolf, the typical way you would handle it in this kind of a situation is the way it was handled here. When you find the documents, and DOJ agreed to this, or at least they didn't object, when you find the document, the president's personal outside counsel, these are from before his current tenure, they do the searching, they coordinate.

This is the reason, I think, for the five-week delay that Evan was talking about. You have to coordinate with NARA, the National Records Administration. You have to coordinate with their inspector general. You have to coordinate with DOJ. You have to tell them what you're doing, you have to design the search. That's done by the personal lawyers.

Now, of course, we have a special counsel in place, so that individual, Rob Hur, is going to have to be consulted with as they go forward with the additional searches that Katelyn is (inaudible).

PEREZ: I think one of the issues here is that even inside the Justice Department, again, they did not tell the Biden team to do these searches. They left it up to them. They're the ones that initiated this. But everyone was just astounded that it took this long, because, you know, they don't show up again until December 20th saying they found additional documents.

And that period there is what is now going to be an issue for the president because, you know, I think they had a window here to be able to button this up. They had a window in which they could have done -- look, there's a number of private attorneys in the city that have security clearances that they could have hired. This is not a hard thing. You're the president of the United States. You are perfectly capable.

Bob Bower is a very good attorney. Anita Dunn is a very, very capable communications person. Every one of these people knows how to do this. And it's, to me, you know, frankly, been surprising how badly this has been handled.

POLANTZ: And also, not to get out in front of it publicly, I mean, at the time that they knew about the first documents, why not say something at that point in time? Why wait so long for this to come out now and then have round two, round three, of more documents being found? EISEN: Well, in terms of the time that it took, you know, I've dealt

with these issues in the White House as an ambassador, supervising hundreds of people who had access to classified documents, and in 30 years as a white collar -- principally as a white collar --

PEREZ: You've never screwed one up like this.

EISEN: -- five -- well, I think they did it legally by the book, Evan. Five weeks is not a lot of time. I worked on the Enron case. In that case, we took years to gather all the documents. When you think about all the people who had to be consulted, and when you don't want to taint or spoil the search, those five weeks, November 14th when Mr. Mr. Lausch in Chicago --

BLITZER: U.S. attorney.

EISEN: -- U.S. attorney, the Republican holdover, was assigned to December 20th, I don't think that's an unreasonable amount of time. And then they discovered more documents in January. Again, I'm going to answer as a lawyer, right? That is not unusual.

I have been in trial after years of litigation when the government, the same ones who Evan says are a little grumpy about five weeks, the government shows up and says, oh, I forgot a very important document that I have to give you under the Constitution. So, as a legal matter, they've played it by the book. Nobody is saying the P.R. angle is perfect, but the first obligation is to get it right as lawyers.

PEREZ: Keep in mind, we're talking about, you know, around 20 documents in all that we know about. And so that's one of the things, is that because of the handling of this, now, you know, they've lost all the moral high ground that they had in comparison to the Trump documents where we're talking hundreds of --

BLITZER: Eight hundred or so.

PEREZ: You know, and certainly hundreds of classified documents. And so, they've managed to just, you know, squander that opportunity that they had to be able to say, look, there's a big difference here. And you know, again, doing these searches, I'm not buying that five weeks is not that long of a time.


I think, you know, when you're dealing with the president of the United States and you know how this can blow up on you, you can bet that Bob Bower and all these lawyers at the White House know exactly who they could call, people with security clearances who could have done this and done this with alacrity. Certainly, I think it should have been handled a lot faster.

BLITZER: How big of a problem is it that some of the individuals that found these top secret, SCI, very classified documents did not have security clearances? They could go through and read it.

EISEN: Well, they had a protocol in place. When they spotted an indication, that's part of the reason it took some time. That's part of the reason for the bifurcated, the two-part additional discovery this week. If they spotted something that looked classified, shut that down. In the final instance they brought Mr. (inaudible), the special counsel -- same title I had when I was in the White House.

They brought him in because he has a security clearance. He looked more, he found more. From a legal perspective, whatever moral high ground, whatever the public appearance is, from a legal perspective, they have tried not to do things -- if they had spoken too early, Evan, they might have been accused, as Mr. Trump has sometimes been alleged of doing, oh, you're tipping witnesses off, obstruction of justice. So, they chose to remain silent.

They only responded to what was in the media reports. Is it perfect? No. Would we do it differently 2020 hindsight? Certainly. But from a legal perspective of not creating liability, they did it by the book.

BLITZER: Now, we're going to stay on top of this story. And indeed, just important note to our viewers. Coming up, I'll speak live with the House Minority Leader, the new one, Hakeem Jeffries. He's going to be joining us in the next hour.

Plus, why House Speaker Kevin McCarthy still won't call for George Santos to resign, despite questions about the embattled congressman's elaborate web of lies.



BLITZER: House Speaker Kevin McCarthy says he won't join in on calls for embattled Congressman George Santos to resign. But the Republican leader did admit today that he always had questions about Santos's resume.

CNN's Melania Zanona is standing by for us live up on Capitol Hill. She's got details. So Melanie, this was a rather candid acknowledgement from the new speaker.

MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: Yes, candid, indeed, Wolf. This is the first time that Kevin McCarthy has publicly admitted he had any suspicion or concern or apprehension about George Santos resume. In fact, he said he always had those, which means to me that he had those apprehensions before the November election.

And, you know, as more and more revelations have come out about George Santos, one of the big questions has become what did GOP leaders know, and when do they know it? CNN has learned that there were concerns and questions about Santos inside GOP circles as far back as last summer. People were worried that his backstory didn't add up, that there would be a big expose coming out before the November election.

And in fact, sources told our Pam Brown that Dan Conston, the head of the PAC aligned with Speaker Kevin McCarthy, at least felt concerned enough about Santos that he felt the need to reach out and express those concerns to both lawmakers and donors. And so I asked Kevin McCarthy a little bit ago, when did you first learn that something might be amiss with George Santos? Take a listen to that exchange.


ZANONA: When were you first made aware about some of these allegations around Santos, was it before it came out publicly in media? Were you given any indication that there might be something amiss there?


ZANONA: Any of it. His resume, and all the things that he's been accused of.

MCCARTHY: I never know all about his resume or not, but I always had a few questions about it.


ZANONA: Now, Kevin McCarthy was also asked when did he learn that as campaign staffer for Santos was impersonating McCarthy's Chief of Staff, he said he did learn about it after the fact that he spoke with Santos about it. But despite all of this, Wolf, Kevin McCarthy and GOP leaders continue to support George Santos and fundraise for him leading up to November election. And they are continuing to stand by him now. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, good reporting. Melanie, thank you very, very much.

Let's get some more right now from our Chief Investigative Correspondent Pamela Brown and CNN National Political Reporter Eva McKend. Pamela, you're doing a lot of reporting on this. You just heard the new speaker Kevin McCarthy say he always had questions about Santos's resume. So if he always had questions, why didn't he do anything about it?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN ANCHOR & CHIEF INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: Well, that is the big question. And that, of course, is raw politics. If you look at it, if this was a swing district that George Santos was running in, and Republicans by the way, the ones that I've spoken to, they didn't realize it was going to be winnable for George Santos until they were going into the fall. And then they realized, oh, my gosh, this guy can actually win this.

But if if he were to resign, if they actually push that he were to resign, that would call for a special election and a Democrat could win his seat. So it comes down to politics, but it is worth noting on the heels of Melanie's excellent reporting about Kevin McCarthy. He said he always had questions about George Santos's resume.

And I have an invitation right here I'm looking at a fundraising breakfast that McCarthy held for George Santos October 3, so about a month before the election. So here you have Kevin McCarthy saying on record that he always had questions about George Santos and yet he was still holding a fundraising breakfast for him and still standing by him today. BLITZER: Yes, there were a bunch of Republicans who have serious questions about Santos, but apparently, they never really followed up substantively. The Democrats who were challenging him really didn't either.


BLITZER: So those are significant developments. Some of his Republican colleagues, Santos's Republican colleagues, Eva, they're voicing criticism, but they're refusing to go so far as to say he should resign. What are you hearing?


EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: So, Wolf, what we see here in Washington is that political fortunes can change pretty dramatically pretty quickly, right? So who would have thought that Congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida, that he would hold such a powerful position in this Republican conference. He was so integral during the speakership battle, you know, not long ago, he was embroiled in scandal.

And so that is why some of these House Republicans are treading lightly here. It's clear, though, that they aren't out there, you know, in full support of him, they just rather not have this discussion. They -- and most are not calling for him to resign, but most really don't want anything to do with it. And I think it is because they have such a slim majority.

And that, you know, in a couple months from now, this might no longer be the story. What I will say though, it's going to be harder for them, I think, to outrun some of these constituents. You have very savvy voters in this district, some of whom tell me that they are going to be coming to Washington soon and speaking to every House Republican that will listen, in order for an effort to drive Santos out of office.

BLITZER: And you're getting more information. What was going on behind the scenes in the weeks leading up to the election, that Santos clearly won.


BLITZER: That Republicans knew a lot about what was going on. They weren't doing much. Democrats, that opposition research as they call it --


BLITZER: -- was failing, clearly. The media at least in Long Island and Queens, his district failed to really deliver the goods either.

BROWN: Yes. There was a small newspaper --

BLITZER: One small newspaper. BROWN: -- before the election. And look, I think it was a failure all around. But I was talking to Republicans here in Washington, and I'm told that there was a growing chatter about Santos and his resume not adding up and concerns but there was an expectation that the media would come out with some big story.

Clearly, that did not happen. And they did not raise the alarm. Santos went on to win. Another notable part about this story. I've been speaking to a lot of donors to George Santos who only donated because some of the big time Republicans like Kevin McCarthy, or Elise Stefanik were encouraging them to support George Santos.

And they're upset and they want answers and explanation. And that could, of course, impact Republicans down the road. So it's not just about George Santos, it's about the big donors too who have a big influence on Republican politics.

BLITZER: Eva, what are you hearing from his constituents out on Long Island and in Queens?

MCKEND: Yes, so I'm having ongoing conversations with them. One of them told me that they're coming up with a strategic plan, meeting with other residents to really come up with a plan here to get him out of office, and then also putting a lot of pressure on their local officials to put pressure on Kevin McCarthy.

They're showing up at town board meetings. They're meeting with the other members of the Long Island Republican delegation, and really just trying to turn up the heat here, Wolf. And I think after a while, they're going to sort of be impossible to ignore. House Republicans, they want to talk about a number of issues now that they are in leadership.

And what you will see in not too long are these folks roaming the halls knocking on folk's door saying, hey, what are you doing to try to get rid of George Santos?

BLITZER: Eva and Pamela, guys, thank you very, very much.

Just ahead, the House Democratic Leader Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, he will join me live for an in-depth interview on this and more. And another story we're following right now, an American wrongfully detained in Iran for years, takes a drastic step to get President Biden's attention.



BLITZER: Tens of thousands of people turned out for a massive protest against the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the weekend, some going as far as comparing Netanyahu to Vladimir Putin. CNN's Hadas Gold has details.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) HADAS GOLD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In Tel Aviv's Habima Square, a left wing battle cry for democracy. Israel will not be a dictatorship, they chant, as more than 80,000 brief pouring rain to send a message to Benjamin Netanyahu's newly formed right-wing government and his proposed reforms to Israel's judicial system.

Reforms that would give the Israeli parliament the ability to overturn Supreme Court decisions and give politicians control over judicial selection, the most drastic changes to Israel's legal system since the country's founding.

BERNARD ATTALLI, PROTESTER: The government and Benjamin Netanyahu tries to change the system in such a way that there is -- there will be no control of the government decisions. So which is a loss of democracy.

GOLD (on-camera): Now the protesters here telling me that they see these changes as threatening their way of life, threatening the rule of law, threatening minorities. And they also see this proposed changes as a way for Benjamin Netanyahu to ultimately get out of his ongoing corruption trial.

YAEL KATZ, PROTESTER: Our equality and our democracy are in a really situation that it can be no democracy anymore, and that's why I'm afraid.

GOLD (voice-over): But Netanyahu denies the judicial reforms are for his benefit and says these are long needed changes, the will of the people who voted for his right wing government in the November elections, that the parliament will hear all positions before implementing changes.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER (through translation): We are not weakening the judicial system. We are strengthening all our systems, democracy and the rule of law that are all dependent on the correct balance between the three institutions.

GOLD (voice-over): But the President of the Israeli Supreme Court attacked the proposed reforms in an unusually fiery speech.

ESTHER HAYUT, PRESIDENT, ISRAEL SUPREME COURT (through translation): Unfortunately, as the presented program comes into being, Israel 75th year will be remembered as the year the democratic identity of this country was fatally harmed.

GOLD (voice-over): Opponents of these changes say that without a majority in parliament and without a written constitution, the best way of fighting back is a constant drumbeat of public outcry. That they hope will stop what they see as ruin not reform.



GOLD: And, Wolf, this was one of the largest protests on Israeli streets in recent memory, but the big question now is whether this will be big the beginning of some sort of momentum or some sort of movement and whether the same number of people that came out on Saturday night will continue coming out week after week to keep the pressure up.

Now, if recent surveys are correct, there is a majority of the Israeli public who oppose these reforms. So the question will be whether enough of them from enough of a diverse segments of the Israeli society will come out and whether that pressure will be enough to cause Benjamin Netanyahu and his government to change their tact. Wolf?

BLITZER: Thanks, Hadas Gold for that report.

Meanwhile, in American wrongfully detained in Iran for more than seven years, has now launched a hunger strike as he begs President Biden for a meeting. CNN's Kylie Atwood is joining us live from the State Department right now. Tell us about these latest developments, Kylie?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, listen, Siamak Namazi was arrested on charges of cooperating with a hostile government, that would be the United States, that was back in 2015. U.S. government officials say that those charges are bogus and here are his latest efforts to try and get the Biden administration's attention to secure his release.


ATWOOD (voice-over): Siamak Namazi, an American wrongfully detained in Iran for more than seven years, is embarking on a hunger strike today and calling on President Biden to do everything in his power to bring him home.

BABAK NAMAZI, SIAMAK NAMAZI'S BROTHER: Siamak feels desperate and reaching out publicly to the U.S. President underscores that desperation.

ATWOOD (voice-over): Babak Namazi says the goal of his brother's letter to the President is to remind him of what happened seven years ago, when Biden was vice president. Five Americans wrongfully detained in Iran returned home and Siamak was left behind.

NAMAZI: It's just a horrific week, is to think that seven years, you know, seven whole years have gone by which could have been avoided.

ATWOOD (voice-over): In his letter, Siamak pleads for Biden's attention, saying all he wants is, quote, "Just a single minute of your time for each year of my life I lost in Evin prison after the U.S. government could have saved me but didn't. That is all."

Siamak remains in the notorious Evin prison. There are also two other Americans wrongfully detained by the Iranian regime right now. The hardest question for him to answer is how are you doing? He writes to Biden, quote, "How do I explain the devastation my family and I are left with after so many halfhearted prisoner deals crumbled last minute, turning freedom into Chimera? How do I convey the excruciating terror that comes with not knowing when or how this nightmare will end or even what comes next?"

NAMAZI: President Biden, Siamak is begging you, my family is imploring you, please, please take what it takes to make those courageous decisions that we know you're capable of.


ATWOOD: Now, Wolf, a National Security Council spokesperson told us that it's outrageous that the Iranian regime continues to detain Americans as part of an effort to gain political leverage. So that they are working tirelessly to try and secure Siamak's release as well as two other Americans who are wrongfully detained in Iran.

But, of course, we should note that U.S.-Iran relations are at quite a hostile moment right now. Efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal are on the back burner for the Biden administration. And they have been highly critical of the Iranian regime's crackdown on protesters in the country.

BLITZER: Kylie Atwood at the State Department, thank you very much. An important story.

Coming up, yet another storm is battering California as downpours are causing roads to buckle and physically collapse. And the new House Democratic Leader Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, he will join me live. Standby for our wide-ranging interview.



BLITZER: Storm ravaged California is facing another round of torrential rain and brutal winds. Since Christmas week, an onslaught of bad weather has killed 19 people and turn neighborhoods into lakes. CNN's Veronica Miracle is joining us live from Belmont, California right now. Veronica, this storm is having a devastating impact across the state. So where do things go from here?

VERONICA MIRACLE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, what happens next is cleanup and really assessing the damage that has occurred all over the state. There is a storm expected later this week. But it is expected to be weaker and dry days are expected ahead, which is so needed for this state. It has been just weeks of the state getting battered with rain and it has come at an incredible cost.

There has been damage all over, flooding all over. As you said 19 people have been killed including a five-year-old boy who was swept away in floodwaters, rips from his mother's arms. His body still hasn't been recovered. Other people were driving and trees fell on their cars or they were also swept away in floodwaters.

It has been incredibly damaging here and you can see some of the damage that has happened to homes and property right behind me. Look at this home here in Belmont. It is just teetering on the edge of this property. The land has completely given way and fallen here onto this roadway taking out a tree, fencing. Homes on the other side of it have happened red tagged. So this home here is completely unlivable. And it is a perfect example of what has happened here to the properties because the rain has just drenched all of the soil pretty much across the street, the state rather, and it's creating just mud everywhere and causing situations just like this one.

Just in the last two -- a little over two weeks, there have been 500 mudslides recorded across the state, an incredible amount of destruction here more days of just dry weather expected ahead and that is very much needed, Wolf?


BLITZER: Certainly is. All right, let's hope for the best. Veronica Miracle, thank you very, very much.

Coming up, new reporting on the possibility of additional searches for classified documents at various locations linked to President Biden. Also ahead, the new House Minority Leader, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries joins me for a live interview. This is a SITUATION ROOM special report.


BLITZER: Happening, now new behind the scenes reporting on the Biden White House under siege after even more classified documents were found at the President's home. We're learning that additional searches are possible and that the President is frustrated over how this crisis is unfolding.

I'll get reaction from the new House Democratic Leader Congressman Hakeem Jeffries.