Return to Transcripts main page

The Situation Room

Ukraine Just Hours Away From Marking One Year Since Russia's Invasion; NTSB Chair Says, Toxic Train Was 100 Percent Preventable; Alex Murdaugh Testifies In Murder Trial, Admits To Lies, Denies Killing His Wife And Son; More Than 60 Million Hit By Extreme Weather Across The U.S. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired February 23, 2023 - 18:00   ET




WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, CNN is near the tense frontlines in Eastern Ukraine right now with just a few hours to go before Russia's war hits the one-year mark, Ukrainian forces bracing for the possibility of new Russian strikes tonight.

Also this hour, a top safety official declares the toxic train wreck in Ohio was 100 percent, 100 percent preventable, as initial findings in the federal investigation are revealed. The transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, visiting the scene where frustrated residents are growing more and more concerned about their health by the day.

And Alex Murdaugh takes the stand in his murder trial. The disgraced South Carolina lawyer admitting under oath to lying and to stealing while denying he killed his wife and son.

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 a grim milestone for Ukraine and the world, for that matter, a full year since Russia's brutal invasion. Ukrainians bracing for Vladimir Putin's next moves as his war enters a second year just hours from now.

CNN teams are on the ground in Ukraine and in Russia at this very pivotal moment on the battlefield and for the leaders of both countries.

We begin with our Senior International Correspondent Sam Kiley who is near the frontlines in Eastern Ukraine. Sam, so what's happening on the ground on this very significant night?

SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, across the country, Wolf, there have been local authorities have asked children to stay away from school, have warned their populations to be ultra vigilant, to make sure that they heed the air raid sirens and go into bunkers if they sounded. And that is because there's an anticipation that perhaps Russia might go on the offensive. But here in the east of the country, particularly around the town of Bakhmut, a much more of an offensive would be difficult to imagine. This has been the focus of Russian ferocity now for many, many months causing extreme casualties on both sides.

This was the scene at a medical evacuation place that we visited just on the edge of the battle.


KILEY (voice over): Almost walking, this wounded Ukrainian soldier has an obvious injury. Arriving at a casualty evacuation point for the battle of Bakhmut, American medics look for hidden trauma.

CHRIS WRIGHT, VOLUNTEER MEDIC, ROAD TO RELIEF: Tell him I'm going to roll him and I'm going to check his back, one, two, three. And when you get a chance, give his legs a feel for me.


WRIGHT: Can we get his back, shrapnel wound out here as well. It looks minor.

You are going to go ahead and drop some (INAUDIBLE) for me.

KILEY: Chris is from Houston, Texas, he's three kilometer, less than two miles from Russian troops.

WRIGHT: Take his blood pressure for me.

KILEY: And he's only 22. Last year, he took time out from his job to volunteer for Road to Relief, the charity relies on donations to fund and equip frontline ambulances and these teams are unpaid.

ADAM MEYSING, AMBULANCE DRIVER: There's credit cards in my mom and a little bit of prior savings. So, as long as you have enough to scrape by and just buy like the basic goods, things tend to be okay.

KILEY: Hospital and medical staff are regularly targeted by Russia. This location is hidden in trees near a Ukrainian artillery, this firing overhead on Russians just up the road.

WRIGHT: So, it's just, yes, we need more medics, more trucks, it's just that the amount of injured is super high.

Does he have any allergies?

KILEY: Chris is saying privately that one of the reasons there is such a need for foreign volunteers to work as medics is that so many of the Ukrainians have been killed.

The team relies on a former software designer for translation.

Is there anything about this that you can't handle?

[18:05:03] ANNA KOVALCHUK, TRANSLATOR: All those deaths, of course, they are incredibly hard, I don't know, hard to take. Somehow you feel guilty about that.

KILEY: It's a 20-minute run for the ambulance to a field hospital.

WRIGHT: Would you push this slowly for me please?

A mine roughly like, what, was it 20 minutes ago or 30 minutes ago now? Yes, a mine 30 minutes ago.

Careful, please.

KILEY: He's delivered to another secret clinic. Here the wounded pour in. A soldier's lost a leg, in his abandoned uniform, the piece of shrapnel that took it. Medics here say it's relatively quiet. Some days, there are hundreds of patients.

WRIGHT: He doesn't remember losing -- if he lost consciousness or not but pupils were equal and reactive, same size.

KILEY: Blood-soaked stretchers dry in the sun outside and sunset can be busy for medics, soldiers trapped by fighting can be rescued as the light fades. Back at the evacuation point, no wounded, five dead soldiers lie in body bags. They're so fresh from the battlefield, they're unknown. Their I.D.s are checked and they're photographed. Their suffering is over. Their families don't yet know that theirs is about to begin.


KILEY (on camera): Now, Wolf, it's very easy, very frequent rather that there's talk about the level of Russian casualties, and we've seen the leader of the Wagner Mercenary Group posting pictures of his own men dead in the battlefield and part of his demands for more help from the Russian Ministry of Defense.

The Ukrainian are much, much more discreet, frankly, about what sort of casualties they're suffering, but there's no question that, anecdotally, this is a bloody conflict that is taking a very bloody toll on at least two generations of fighting men and women here on the frontline in the east of the country. Wolf?

BLITZER: Sam Kiley, stay safe over there. Thank you very much.

Let's go to Moscow right now where Vladimir Putin has been honoring Russian war dead of the past while trying to project confidence about the conflict his troops are now engaged in.

CNN Senior International Correspondent Fred Pleitgen is joining us now live from the Russian capital.


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Vladimir Putin laying a wreath at Russia's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier commemorating soviet troops killed in World War II while the invasion in Ukraine is taking a heavy toll now.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT: The sacred duty of the state is to take care of those who defend the country.

PLEITGEN: A year after launching the major invasion, Russia's leader has been busy trying to convince his people he has a plan for victory.

PUTIN: We are confident in ourselves, confident in our strength. The truth is on our side.

PLEITGEN: But the truth is also it's been months since the Russians have made any significant progress on the battlefield, smaller gains coming mostly thanks to the mercenaries of the Wagner private military company.

After a recent spat in which he blamed Russia's defense ministry for a high death toll for allegedly not providing enough ammunition, Wagner Boss Yevgeny Prigozhin now sending battlefield greetings from near Bakhmut.

YEVGENY PRIGOZHIN, HEAD OF WAGNER GROUP: You can congratulate all of the guys who are fighting here on the frontlines, in the hospital, the military who are fighting for our motherland, volunteers, those who work hard and make much needed ammunition.

PLEITGEN: But ammunition and weapons remain issues hampering Russia's offensive operations, former Putin Adviser Sergey Markov tells me.

SERGEY MARKOV, FORMER PUTIN ADVISER: Vladimir Putin mobilized (INAUDIBLE) additional 300,000 soldiers, but they have been not used in attacking on the front because they have not been equipped by weaponry and (INAUDIBLE) themselves.

PLEITGEN: On the home front, support from what the Kremlin called its special military operation remains strong, even as only a few streets away boarded up shops show the toll sanctions are taking on Russia's economy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We got ourselves into this ordeal. We have to see it through to the end. It's like in a common street fight. If you give in, you will take the beating.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't think we will see the end of it any time soon. I don't know what this end will look like but I don't think there's anything good for Russia in it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I believe we did the right thing, it's just that we should have hit them stronger from the start.


There's no question that victory will be ours.

PLEITGEN: Vladimir Putin acknowledges that times are tough for many Russians, but claims he had no other choice. MARKOV: For the majority of nation, it's fighting for Russian survival, for existence. We have 1,000 history. If our generation will be responsible for the stopping in Russia, what reason to live?


PLEITGEN (on camera): So, you have the view from Moscow, certainly the view from Vladimir Putin that this is about the very existence, and as he also put it, of Russia as a nation. And one of the other things, of course, that the Russians are trying to put out there as well, Wolf, is they say that while that war is going on in Ukrainian land, they believe that it's essentially a battle of Russia against the west and, of course, the west led specifically by the United States. Wolf?

BLITZER: Fred Pleitgen reporting live from Moscow, thank you very much.

Let's go back to Ukraine right now, where CNN's Chief International Anchor Christiane Amanpour is joining us from the capital of Kyiv. Christiane, given the warnings about potential Russian strikes that are about to begin, what's the mood on the ground in Kyiv where you are just ahead of this very somber milestone?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Wolf, somewhat fatalistic and strangely optimistic. They believe given the developments over this past year that their resistance can win out. They believe that they're getting the help that they need. They see it from the NATO alliance from President Biden and all the other NATO leaders, and they just want, as the Ukrainian officials are now saying, the mantra for the second year will be speed up the weapons. If the mantra for last year was give us weapon, now it is speed it up. Give us more ammunition and we will fight this fight for you.

That powerful piece from Sam Kiley and indeed from Fred show the level of death that is happening and it's very rare to get the level of death and access to the dead and wounded on the Ukrainian side. And we spoke earlier today to the Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland for Political Affairs who says about the deaths and about these reports that this really has to come to an end and the onus is on Russia. Listen to her.


VICTORIA NULAND, UNDERSECRETARY OF STATE FOR POLITICAL AFFAIRS: This is just all so unnecessary and evil. You know, this is all about one man's fantasy of conquest, Vladimir Putin's decision that Ukraine ought to be his rather than a sovereign, free country. And the suffering in Ukraine is unbelievable as you illustrated there, but they are standing tall and they are standing strong because they are fighting for their land and for their future.


AMANPOUR: And, indeed, they reject the language coming from Russia that Russia is fighting on its historical borders for its people. As you heard from Victoria and we've heard from people here, that is not the narrative that plays out here. And they are ready to keep fighting to defend their independence. And it is quite quiet at the moment, although people have been told to take cover, to remain at home tomorrow just in case.

BLITZER: That's wise, be prepared. Christiane Amanpour, stay safe over there. Thank you very, very much.

Just ahead we're breaking down the findings of the federal investigation into the toxic train derailment in Ohio. The National Transportation Safety Board chief leaving no doubt it was preventable.

Stay with us. You're in The Situation Room.



BLITZER: Tonight, federal safety officials are revealing new details on the toxic train wreck in Ohio and the initial conclusion that it was 100 percent preventable.

CNN's Senior National Correspondent Miguel Marquez is following all the new developments for us in Eastern Ohio.


JENNIFER HOMENDY, NTSB CHAIR: This was 100 percent preventable.

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): 100 preventable, says the National Transportation Safety Board, today releasing its initial read on what caused the toxic derailment crippling the small town of East Palestine, Ohio.

HOMENDY: During this deceleration, the wheel bearing failed. Car number 23 derailed.

MARQUEZ: The NTSB saying it was an overheated wheel bearing on a single railcar that eventually set off a sensor alongside the train tracks alerting the conductor to stop the train. In all, 38 cars derailed including several transporting chemicals.

HOMENDY: We have no evidence that the crew did anything wrong.

MARQUEZ: Surveillance video shows sparks and a bright light coming from underneath the train car in Salem, Ohio, about 20 miles from East Palestine. Three trackside detectors picked up increasing heating on the car where the fire eventually started, but it wasn't until a detector indicated heating of 253 degrees Fahrenheit over ambient temperature that the conductor hit the brakes to stop the train.

HOMENDY: Well, look at the temperature thresholds which indicate immediate action once an overheated bearing is detected. Again, spacing and temperature are set by the railroads and vary considerably by railroads.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's essentially where the cars were piled up from here to there, right?

MARQUEZ: Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg visited East Palestine today saying he could have come sooner but didn't want to disrupt the cleanup or investigative work.

PETE BUTTIGIEG, TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY: We're going to be here day in, day out, year in, year out, making our railroads safer and making sure Norfolk Southern meets its responsibilities. That is a promise and one I take very, very seriously.

MARQUEZ: Buttigieg called for stronger federal regulations for trains carrying chemicals through populated areas. In addressing former President Trump criticizing the administration's response to the derailment, both Buttigieg and the NTSB chair called for an end to using East Palestine for scoring political points.

HOMENDY: Enough with the politics. I don't understand why this has gotten so political.


This is a community that is suffering. This is not about politics. This is about addressing their needs, their concerns. That's what this should be about.


MARQUEZ (on camera): So, look, CNN held a town hall here last night, and there was a lot of skepticism, and even anger directed at officials and particular to Norfolk Southern railway.

Today, with the findings so far from the NTSB, the transportation secretary here, he met with the mayor who has been very critical of the Biden administration and their response to this. The mayor saying that he is cautiously optimistic that not only will East Palestine come out of this situation stronger, it will be better than ever. Wolf?

BLITZER: Let's hope. All right, Miguel Marquez, thank you very, very much.

Coming up, Alex Murdaugh taking the stand in his double murder trial and admitting to lying about where he was the night his wife and son were killed. We'll have more on the bombshell testimony. That's next.



BLITZER: Tonight, bombshell testimony in South Carolina where Alex Murdaugh took the stand in his double murder trial, the disgraced lawyer insisting he didn't murder his wife and son, but admitting he lied about where he was minutes before the killings took place.

CNN's Randi Kaye is at the court where these dramatic revelations unfolded. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JIM GRIFFIN, DEFENSE ATTORNEY FOR ALEX MURDAUGH: Did you take this gun or any gun like it and blow your son's brains out on June 7th or any day or any time?


GRIFFIN: Did you shoot a .300 Blackout into her head causing her death?

MURDAUGH: Mr. Griffin, I didn't shoot my wife or my son any time ever.

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Alex Murdaugh proclaiming his innocence and after more than 20 months admitting he lied about one key piece of evidence against him.

GRIFFIN: Mr. Murdaugh, is that you on the kennel video at 8:44 P.M. on June 7th, the night Maggie and Paul were murdered?


KAYE: Over and over, Murdaugh had told investigators he hadn't seen his family since dinner and was not at the dog kennels around the time of the murders. But that video extracted from his son's phone was recorded minutes before prosecutors believe the killings occurred and many witnesses have testified it was Alex Murdaugh's voice on the recording. Murdaugh told the jury he had left the kennels and driven his golf cart to the main house on the property.

MURDAUGH: There's no way that I had high velocity blood spatter on me.

GRIFFIN: Just to be clear, were you anywhere in the vicinity when Paul and Maggie were shot?

MURDAUGH: I was nowhere near Paul and Maggie when they got shot.

KAYE: Regarding the state's GPS data that shows Murdaugh paused briefly in the driveway at his mother's house the night of the murders, he told the jury he was simply trying to locate his phone.

GRIFFIN: Were you during that minute or however long it was, were you disposing of murder weapons, Alex?


GRIFFIN: Were you disposing of bloody clothes?


KAYE: Another key moment, Murdaugh explaining to the jury why evidence shows him wearing different clothes before and after the murders. MURDAUGH: Yes, I mean, I sweated. I was --- you know, I was heavy and taking prescription pills also makes you sweat worse or at least taking an oxycodone makes you sweat more than you normally do.

GRIFFIN: So, was it unusual for you to take a shower when you got back to the house?

MURDAUGH: Not at all.

KAYE: On cross-examination, the prosecution pushed back.

CREIGHTON WATERS, SOUTH CAROLINA SENIOR ASSISTANT DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: You agree that the most important part of your testimony here today is explaining your life for a year-and-a-half that you were never down at those kennels at 8:44? Would you agree with that?

MURDAUGH: I think all of my testimony is important, Mr. Waters.


KAYE (on camera): The state's goal at the end of the day, of course, was to set Alex Murdaugh up as a liar, to show the jury that he can't be trusted. And, Wolf, that's why the prosecution on cross-examination right away went to those alleged financial crimes basically to send the message that the jury that, look, if he can allegedly lie to all these peoples, all these victims, he could look you in the eye as the jury and lie to you as well. Wolf?

BLITZER: He also admitted to stealing a lot of money. Randi Kaye, reporting for us, thank you very, very much.

Let's break down today's explosive testimony with our legal experts. Joining us now, Attorney and Legal Affairs Commentator Areva Martin as well as Defense Attorney and former Federal Prosecutor Shan Wu.

Areva, what stands out to you from the cross-examination so far in those very tense exchanges between Alex Murdaugh and the prosecutor?

AREVA MARTIN, ATTORNEY AND LEGAL AFFAIRS COMMENTATOR: I think, Wolf, it goes to that issue of a lie. I mean that's what I believe motivated this defendant to take the witness stand. There was going to be this lingering question for the jurors as to why is it that ten witnesses came forward and said that they could identify Alex Murdaugh's voice on this videotape but yet he continued to tell the police that he wasn't at the kennel just minutes before the prosecution says his wife and son were killed.

So, I think that exchange, everybody was waiting to see what the prosecution would do with that piece of evidence. And we saw what I think we expected, the prosecution went in hard on Alex Murdaugh about telling that lie, not once, not twice but continuing to tell that lie throughout the entire time period really until he took the witness stand today to try to give us an explanation for why he lied.

[18:30:04] BLITZER: And, Shan, Murdaugh also admitted he lied, and he admitted he was at the scene just before the murders. How big of a gamble is this testimony? Is it a mistake that his attorneys allowed him to go ahead and testify?

SHAN WU, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Well, it's a strategic call. I mean, as I'm sure Areva knows, it's a very difficult choice and you don't want to put a client on the stand because they're really at a great disadvantage there.

This signals to us that they were concerned that that audio evidence is so overwhelmingly incriminatory that they had no choice but to put him on the stand, which causes a whole ripple effect. To put him on stand, he's got to deal with the fact that he lied about it, he's got to deal with the fact that there's financial lies he committed, he defrauded clients.

So, it kind of opens up of this whole cascade of stuff he has to admit to and trying to turn that into, well, he's admitting all these other terrible things, he's an honest guy but he didn't do this one terrible thing, that's a tough road for him. And I don't think -- as a lawyer at least, I didn't think he did a very convincing job today, but you never know with the jury. It only takes one.

BLITZER: Important, indeed. Areva, is the defense strategy to portray Murdaugh as supposedly sympathetic, a sympathetic figure? Is that strategy working?

MARTIN: Well, I think parts of it did work, Wolf, but parts of it were not compelling. He cried a lot on the witness stand. He was teary at times when you expect him to be. He used the nicknames that he had for his wife and his son to show that they were very close and, you know, how he used these terms of endearment to describe them.

I agree that there was a huge gap in the defense's case because of that video, but I still think the prosecution has a problem too, Wolf. They have no gun. They have no murder weapon. They don't have an eyewitness, so all of their evidence is circumstantial, and they want the jurors, so they need the jurors to believe that a man that was that close to his wife and his son would blow his son's brains out simply to distract from his financial problems.

Now, clearly, the man is a liar, he is a thief, so far based on all the evidence that's been, you know, presented, but that's a big leap from I lie and I steal money to I kill a wife and I kill a son, who clearly, from all evidence, he was very close to.

So, I think of their parents on that jury. I'm a parent. You're still going to be scratching your head saying, I don't know. I may not like this guy, I may not think he's the most honorable person but I don't know if he had it in him to blow his son's brains out.

BLITZER: Yes. Murdaugh also testified, Shan, about how his opioid addiction began. What effect do you think that will have?

WU: Well, they're trying to use it for a very positive effect to show that he had a problem. He was sympathetic for trying to wrestle with it and that that may have made him paranoid and caused him to, you know, distrust the police and he is telling this lie about not being there.

A little bit of a double-edged sword, though, and the prosecution doesn't have to raise this point. But if he was that addled by the addiction, he might have been acting very irrationally at the time and the jury might believe that this very opioid addicted person went off into this paranoid frenzy and did slaughter his own family.

So, it's a double-edged sword, but, again, it's something they have to put out there in making this difficult choice to have him take the stand and expose him to the cross-examination.

BLITZER: Yes, we'll find out what happens. Shan Wu, Areva Martin, guys thank you very, very much.

Just ahead, the House speaker, Kevin McCarthy, tries to defend his decision to turn over thousands of hours of security footage from January 6th to Fox News.



BLITZER: House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is responding to the fallout over his handling of security video from January 6th, footage he released to just one friendly host on Fox News.

CNN's Brian Todd is working the story for us. Brian, Speaker McCarthy on the defensive in a new interview.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Kevin McCarthy is walking his familiar tightrope trying to appease hard-line Republicans and GOP moderates. But in giving this footage exclusively to the always controversial Tucker Carlson, McCarthy is risking considerable public backlash.


TODD (voice over): Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy tonight defending his decision to give thousands of hours of security footage of the January 6th attack on the Capitol exclusively to Fox News Host Tucker Carlson, most of the video never seen by the public.

McCarthy telling the New York Times, quote, they do belong to the American public. I think sunshine lets everybody make their own judgment. But media watchers are concerned about how Carlson might handle the footage.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, NPR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: He's giving it to somebody who has been perhaps the chief propagator on Fox and one of the nation's leading propagators of conspiracy theories and baseless claims about what happened on January 6th.

TODD: Carlson has downplayed the seriousness and danger of the January 6th insurrection and made false conspiratorial claims like this on his Fox show.

TUCKER CARLSON, FOX NEWS HOST: FBI operatives were organizing the attack on the Capitol on January 6th, according to government documents.

TODD: Top Democrats are furious over McCarthy's granting of the footage to Carlson. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer telling colleagues in a letter that it, quote, poses grave security risks to members of Congress and everyone who works on Capitol Hill.

But in defending the move, McCarthy also told the Times that he had, quote, promised to release the footage. McCarthy did indeed promise to release the video as part of his contentious bid to become House speaker.

A GOP source tells CNN, conservative Republican Congressman and Trump supporter Matt Gaetz had specifically demanded the footage be released as a condition of supporting McCarthy's speakership bid, but that Gaetz did not demand that the footage be given to Tucker Carlson.


That was decided later.

TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA, WASHINGTON POST WHITE HOUSE BUREAU CHIEF: It's a sign of the speaker's precarious political situation, that he feels that he needs to do this, that he's trying to win over some of the hard right elements of his party while also holding power and holding on to the speakership.

TODD: We reached out to Tucker Carlson and to Fox News and asked how they plan to handle the January 6th footage. We haven't heard back.


TODD (on camera): According to The New York Times, after Tucker Carlson does whatever he does with the January 6th footage, Kevin McCarthy has said he might make the footage more widely available possibly to other media outlets, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, we shall see. Thanks very much, Brian Todd reporting for us.

We're joined now by two former members of Congress who are now CNN Political Commentators, the Republican Adam Kinzinger and Democrat Mondaire Jones.

Adam, let me start with you. As someone who worked on the select committee investigating January 6th, the insurrection, what do you make of Speaker McCarthy outsourcing this video now, very sensitive video, thousands of hours to Fox News?

ADAM KINZINGER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, look, it's one thing Fox News, which would have been wrong, it's another thing Tucker Carlson, Tucker has been the chief of the conspiracy theories, yes, it poses a danger. Secondarily, this can feed conspiracy theories. So, there is an old conspiracy theory where you see a rioter try to open a door, and it's a fire door, they're actually difficult to open and he looks up and gets off camera direction from somebody who had opened a fire door and then he opens the door because they told him how to do it.

That turned into a conspiracy, by the way, that actually he's looking up at some control panel or at some camera where there's some officer at a control panel but then buzzed him in, completely garbage, completely untrue, but that's what you can do when you selectively take pieces of this video.

So, I either expect Tucker Carlson to selectively take pieces that can be -- you can make up questions with it with always just asking questions, or, secondarily, if you don't hear anything from him, of course, it proves that it is exactly what everybody knows January 6th was.

BLITZER: Mondaire, McCarthy said these tapes, and I'm quoting him now, belong to the American public. Is the American public going to get an objective look at these tapes from Tucker Carlson?

MONDAIRE JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Certainly not. And, in fact, The New York Times reported recently that, according to the Dominion lawsuit, that voting machine lawsuit, that Tucker Carlson was sending text messages in which he raised serious doubts about the truthfulness of people like Rudy Giuliani and others who were raising baseless claims about the election in 2020.

We also know that this is someone who immediately after January 6th took place pivoted to conspiracy theories, like Antifa caused it and so many other, again, patently false, you know, theories about what caused it.

So, this is not someone who has an interest in telling the truth. This is someone who is an extension of the Republican Party's propaganda machine when it comes to January 6th and we should expect nothing else coming from this guy than that.

BLITZER: Adam, are there political risks for this move, political risks that this move potentially gets for McCarthy?

KINZINGER: Yes. I mean, he's got his internal political risks. So, I don't think this will take him down because, again, I mean, basically everybody voted for McCarthy. And one of the issues with the moderates and so-called moderates of the GOP, of which I was one, is, you know, a lot of times you like to work as a team, they don't really want to stand up and try to overthrow the speaker like the freedom club often does.

So, there's -- it's like a cumulative risk. So, the more he does this, the more you're going to start seeing people within the so-called moderates outraged about it. Obviously, the American people have got to be looking at this and short of just Tucker Carlson's audience have got to be looking at this going, what in the world was he thinking. And let me say it's going to be one of two things. Either he did make a promise to Tucker Carlson or if as the reporting suggests it was just to release it, then Kevin McCarthy did this politically calculated to both garner favor with Tucker Carlson and/or have him on speed dial. Because I'll tell you, behind the scenes Kevin McCarthy just about every meeting you're in with him talks about someone famous he talked to, and so now if he can have Tucker Carlson's ear, that will impress a lot of Republicans when he's meeting with them.

BLITZER: Interesting. Mondaire, what does it tell you that McCarthy has already been fundraising off of this decision to release these videotapes to Tucker Carlson?

JONES: Kevin McCarthy has gone full MAGA to the extent anyone was under any illusion that Kevin would be able to be a speaker of the House under this Republican majority and have some semblance of reasonableness or integrity for that matter.


Then I think they've been disabused of that time and time again. You know, it was just a few weeks ago that Kevin McCarthy was doing interviews in which he said that he had not made certain concessions to Matt Gaetz and others denying him the speakership. So here we learn that this was one of several things that he promised and he's following through on that promise, he's doing it, by the way, to the detriment of the safety of hundreds of members of Congress and thousands of staff persons who work on the Hill who nearly died on January 6th in 2021 and who now are going to see their lives put at risk again when people who are bad intentioned get access to footage that should not be made public about secret passageways and other things at the Capitol.

BLITZER: You know, those closed circuit cameras up on Capitol Hill, they show a lot of very, very sensitive information out there.

Mondaire Jones, Adam Kinzinger, guys, thanks very much.

Coming up, we'll get the latest on the brutal winter storms hitting coast to coast here in the United States. Parts of California now facing blizzard conditions for the first time in decades.



BLITZER: We're tracking wild weather across the United States tonight from blizzard-like conditions in some locations to record heat in the Southeast.

CNN's Adrienne Broaddus is covering it all for us.


ADRIENNE BROADDUS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): More than 60 million people are now impacted by extreme winter weather. It's causing misery from coast to coast.

Hail and even snow making a rare cameo in the Hollywood Hills and the mountains above Los Angeles.

JENNIFER GRAY, AMS METEOROLOGIST: If that's not wild enough we have blizzard warnings across southern California ahead of our next storm system.

BROADDUS: Several feet of snow expected to fall at record low elevations in southern California today.

JONAH HASKELL, SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA RESIDENT: It's been since I was probably, gosh, 8 years old, 9 years old.


HASKELL: Yeah back in 2010, a long time since we've had snow like this.

BROADDUS: Across the country, more than 1 million customers are braving winter storms without power, some in freezing conditions. But winter storm warnings are also now impacting unlikely areas like parts of Arizona where high winds and heavy snowfall are making travel treacherous.

Even Portland, Oregon, is weathering a whiteout and a winter storm warning making driving potentially disastrous.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's not the way that you want to go down that hill.

BROADDUS: Southern Wyoming is setting records with more than 30 inches of snowfall. In Nevada, high wind gusts are wreaking havoc along the Las Vegas strip.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wow. Well, there's a great example. Holy cow.

BROADDUS: The wind and snow making travel hazardous.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Give yourself plenty of time just because the speed limit says 55 doesn't mean we can go 55.

BROADDUS: More than 1,700 flights were canceled across the country on Wednesday with at least 1,000 more grounded today. Schools now canceled in several states including parts of Minnesota where the National Guard has been called to help rescue stranded drivers. Amid the record winter conditions, high temperatures are hitting the southeastern states including a February record-setting 81 degrees in Atlanta on Wednesday.

GRAY: Numerous high temperature records broken as well as low temperature records broken.

BROADDUS: Causing a 100-degree difference in temperatures across the country.


BROADDUS (on camera): Had to go somewhere and in some parts of the state, it's piling up in areas like this and on sidewalks. The next thing that will fall, the temperatures. The National Weather Service has issued a wind-chill advisory. Some parts of Minnesota will feel like 35 below -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Adrienne Broaddus, thank you very much for that report.

Let's go to our meteorologist Jennifer Gray. She's over at the CNN weather center for us.

Jennifer, how much longer will we see this extreme weather?

GRAY: Well, this extreme weather is exiting the east coast as we speak which is good news. We still have an icing threat for portions of New England, some snow still for interior sections of New England but very frigid temperatures.

We had incredible amounts of ice, almost three-quarters of an inch of ice across portions of Michigan and really coincides with where we're seeing the power outages. Almost a million without power right now on a very cold night ahead, Wolf. We are seeing our next system, though, enter the West Coast, we have blizzard warnings for southern California where we could see several feet of snow for the mountains and while that's getting so much attention, while it is very wild, we're also expected to see two to five inches of rain across southern California and that might be the bigger story when it's all said and done.

We are going to see relentless rain over the next several days pushing into California, snowfall totals piling up as well for the mountains, wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Jennifer, thank you very much. Jennifer Gray reporting for us.

Just ahead, you'll get the first look at an exclusive new CNN interview with the Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Russia's war in Ukraine and how it may end someday.



BLITZER: Tonight, a new U.S. assessment of the situation in Ukraine from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

He spoke exclusively with CNN's Kaitlan Collins.


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF CORRESPONDENT: Are you worried about a stalemate? LLOYD AUSTIN, DEFENSE SECRETARY: I think the things that we're doing,

the capability that we're providing, again, capability, not just a platform, the capabilities that we're providing I think will enable the Ukrainians to begin to change the dynamics on the battlefield. And so, rather than having a stalemate, what you could -- what you'll probably see is Ukrainians shaping this fight so that they can create opportunities for themselves and exploit those opportunities going forward.

COLLINS: What specifically do you think is going to change the dynamics on the battlefield that the U.S. and NATO allies are providing?

AUSTIN: We're training and equipping several brigades of mechanized infantry. That's a pretty substantial capability and in addition to that, additional artillery. And so, they'll have the ability to breach Russian defenses and maneuver and I think that will create a different dynamic.

COLLINS: Do you think this ends with negotiations or does it end on the battlefield?

AUSTIN: Most likely, it'll end with some sort of negotiation. Again, what the Ukrainians are interested in is getting their -- getting the Russians out of their sovereign territory and I think that's probably going to be their going in point, but, you know, I'll let the Ukrainians speak for themselves.


BLITZER: The full interview airs tomorrow on "CNN THIS MORNING" starting at 6:00 a.m. Eastern.

And to our viewers, thanks for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.