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U.S. Warns China Against Providing Lethal Military Aid To Russia; U.S Energy Department Says, COVID Virus Likely Leaked From Chinese Lab; New Legal Filings In Dominion Lawsuit Against Fox News; At least 12 Injured After Tornado Outbreak Pummels Oklahoma. Aired 6- 7p ET

Aired February 27, 2023 - 18:00   ET




WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, new fears that Russia's war against Ukraine is about to get a very serious boost from China. I'll ask key White House National Security Official John Kirby whether Beijing is actively considering sending lethal aid to Putin's forces.

Also tonight, a new assessment on the origins of the COVID pandemic is stirring up major controversy. We'll tell you why the U.S. Energy Department now believes the virus likely emerged from a Chinese lab.

And breaking news, new legal filings in the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit against Fox News, the Fox chairman, Rupert Murdoch, admitting under oath that popular T.V hosts endorsed false claims about the 2020 presidential election.

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 our coverage tonight with the war in Ukraine, the deepening alliance between Russia and China sending chills throughout the U.S. Intelligence Community.

Our Senior National Security Correspondent Alex Marquardt has the latest from the war zone and CNN's Kylie Atwood is working her sources right here in Washington.

First to you, Kylie, over at the State Department, how urgent is this push to deter China from sending lethal aid to Russia?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, the Biden administration's approach to this challenge really indicates that this an urgent problem because it has been all hands on deck, with administration officials warning publicly that China is actually considering sending this lethal aid to Russia and also privately in discussions with Chinese officials warning them of the costs that they would face if they actually move forth with this lethal assistance.

Listen to what CIA Director Bill Burns and U.S. Ambassador to China Nic Burns said on this in recent days. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NICHOLAS BURNS, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO CHINA: We fear they may be contemplating providing lethal assistance to the Russian government for its unjust and brutal war in Ukraine, and that's a direct warning that our president, our secretary of state have made, that I have made, on their behalf to the government here.

WILLIAM BURNS, CIA DIRECTOR: Well, we're confident that the Chinese leadership is considering the provision of lethal equipment. We also don't see that a final decision has been made yet and we don't see evidence of actual shipments of lethal equipment.


ATWOOD: And because a final decision hasn't been made yet, U.S. officials are hoping that they can influence that decision to convince China that it would not be in their best interest to send this lethal weaponry. And, of course, the concern here is prolonging this conflict. If Russia is able to get more lethal weaponry, it could prolong the Ukraine war.

BLITZER: It could. Kylie, what do we know about the types of weapons China may send to Russia and how would the U.S. respond?

ATWOOD: Well, according to U.S. officials familiar with this intelligence, it's drones and ammunition that China is considering sending. Now, U.S. officials have not publicly stated that, but that is according to our sources who are familiar with this intelligence that the U.S. has gathered. And this would be a very substantial escalation from where we have seen China thus far.

It's important to note that there have been some Chinese companies who have provided non-lethal assistance to Russia for this conflict, things like flak jackets and imagery that can be used on the battlefield, but they have not yet gone forth with lethal assistance. And that is where the U.S. focus is on preventing right now. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. Kylie Atwood at the State Department, thank you very much.

Now, let's get the latest on the battlefield in Eastern Ukraine, where that battle is intense. Our Senior National Security Correspondent Alex Marquardt is joining us live from the war zone. Alex, I understand Russian forces are trying to break through the frontlines right now.


What's the latest that you're seeing and hearing on the ground where you are?

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Well, Wolf, it is incredibly intense fighting with heavy losses on both sides, and nowhere more so than the eastern city of Bakhmut where Russian forces do appear to be making gains. Those Russian forces are predominantly from the Wagner Mercenary Group, made up of contractors and convicts. They claim to have taken some territory north of the city. They look like they're trying to encircle the city, very, very intense fighting.

President Zelenskyy saying tonight that the situation is getting more and more challenging, that the Russians are inflicting a huge amount of damage. Wolf, this is very close quarters fighting, street to street, building to building. It's in the trenches.

A Ukrainian commander in Bakhmut saying tonight that the assaults from the Russians are incredibly intense and that they are running out of ammunition, the Ukrainians are. So, the Ukrainians are facing a very tough fight in the east.

Meanwhile, Wolf, as the Russians continue to try to push forward on the ground, they are assaulting Ukraine from the skies. Just a short time ago, we heard from the governor of the Dnipro region, that's actually where we came from today. They say they shot down two of those kamikaze Iranian-made Shahed drones. That comes after 14 of those drones were sent by Russia to Ukrainian cities, Kyiv and Khmelnytskyi. Kyiv, was also today where we saw the treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, offering yet another $1.25 billion of economic aid for Ukraine. Wolf?

BLITZER: Yes. The aid continues. Alex Marquardt, stay safe over the, thank you very much.

So, joining us now from the White House, the National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, John Kirby. John, thanks very much for joining us.

As you know, Russia and China have been negotiating on the price and the scope of lethal weapons. What's the latest assessment that you have right now? How close is China to this major decision and which way are they leaning?

JOHN KIRBY, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATION: No change in our assessment right now, Wolf, that they have not made this decision to move ahead with lethal assistance, and we just don't believe it's in China's interest to do that, to want to be on the side of Vladimir Putin and helping him kill innocent Ukrainian people and get involved even deeper into this particular conflict.

So, we obviously urged China to make the right choice here into not come in on the side of Russia, particularly when it comes to lethal assistance, and, again, we don't believe it's in their interest to do so.

BLITZER: As you know, China has watched this war play out in Ukraine now for a year. Why are they even considering ramping up support for Russia now?

KIRBY: You know, it's difficult to really answer that one, Wolf. I mean, I think that's a question that only Beijing can answer. All we know is that we have picked up these indications that it's something they're considering doing. And, you know, China and Russia have a burgeoning relationship. They do cooperate sometimes in the military sphere, particularly in exercises and that kind of thing in the Indo- Pacific. Both of these countries want to challenge the international rules-based order. China has the capacity to actually carry through on that should they choose to, but, again, it's difficult to know exactly what's in their minds as they continue to think about this.

What we want them to think about is that there will be ramifications should they move forward with some sort of lethal assistance. And, again, we want them to think about what should be in their national interests, their best interest, which would not be to support Mr. Putin.

BLITZER: Let's talk about that. If China were to take this step, lethal weapons to Russia, what would the U.S. response look like? Would this amount to more sanctions, or does the U.S. have other tools to impose consequences?

KIRBY: We have talked to China about this privately, about our concerns about this, and the fact that, you know, this is, again, not in their best interests, and that obviously there would be some consequences. I'd rather leave that in diplomatic conversations and not get ahead of where we are. The thing to remember is that they haven't made this decision. They haven't moved forward yet, and that's where we want them to stay.

BLITZER: But they are considering it, right?

KIRBY: They have not taken off the table the possibility of providing lethal weaponry to Mr. Putin and to Russian armed forces. They have not taken that off the table. But we have not seen them move in that direction.

BLITZER: On the battlefield right now, Ukraine's President Zelenskyy admits it's getting more and more challenging, especially in Bakhmut and Eastern Ukraine. Does there come a point, John, where Ukraine may need to cut its losses in Bakhmut, for example, to better prepare for its own counteroffensive?

KIRBY: Gee, Wolf, I mean, that's certainly decision that only the commander in chief of the Ukrainian armed forces can make, President Zelenskyy. I mean, he's the one that needs to direct the operations of his forces. We're certainly not going to get ahead of his thinking or try to, you know, impact his planning on the battlefield on any tactical basis or, you know, surely on a daily basis.

He has made it clear that Bakhmut matters to him and to the Ukrainian people, and he continues to fight over Bakhmut. As Alex just reported, it's pretty vicious there, and the Ukrainians have not given up on it.


So, I think what we're going to do is make sure that we can make sure he has all the tools and capabilities that he needs to continue that fight, but only President Zelenskyy can determine if and when he's going to change the operational scheme around Bakhmut. BLITZER: On another very sensitive issue, turning now to the possible origins of COVID-19, I know, John, you say there's no consensus on this right now, but clearly something changed the U.S. Energy Department's assessment to say that this most likely came from a lab leak. Is the U.S. getting new intelligence right now, new insight?

KIRBY: I'm not able to confirm in press reporting, Wolf. What I can tell you is that there is no consensus among the intelligence community or elsewhere in the government on exactly how COVID originated. But we want to know. The president wants to know. Because he wants to be able to put us in a position where we can better prevent another pandemic.

And without confirming the reports about labs, clearly, there are labs all over the world that do this kind of important scientific research, and we want to all make sure that that's being done in a safe, secure, and completely transparent manner.

We're still working at this. There is not a consensus inside the U.S. government on what exactly caused COVID to break out. But we want to find out obviously because we want to prevent this from happening again.

BLITZER: Yes, we got to learn all the lessons. John Kirby, as usual, thank you very much for joining us.

KIRBY: My pleasure.

BLITZER: And just ahead, we'll dig deeper into this new report into the origins of the COVID pandemic. Stand by, we have got details.

Plus, there's breaking news were following right now, Rupert Murdoch admits some Fox News hosts endorsed false stolen election claims in 2020. We'll have new details on a major new trove of legal filings in the lawsuit against his company.



BLITZER: There's breaking news we're following right now. CNN is combing through a trove of new legal documents just filed in the $1.6 billion Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit against Fox News.

Right now, I want to bring in our Senior Media Reporter, Oliver Darcy, CNN Legal Analyst Norm Eisen and CNN Media Analyst Sara Fischer. Oliver, so what is revealed in these new fillings?

OLIVER DARCY, CNN SENIOR MEDIA REPORTER: Yes, that's right, Wolf. These are really astonishing new details that we're getting a first glimpse at as part of a new legal filing that was just made public moments ago. And in it, Rupert Murdoch, he acknowledges that some of his top hosts over at Fox News were peddling false election claims. This comes in a deposition that we're seeing as a result of this new legal filing. I want to read to you part of it, Wolf. In it, Rupert Murdoch was asked by Dominion, you were aware now that Fox did more than simply host these guests and give them a platform, correct? And Murdoch goes on and says, in fact, you are now aware that Fox endorsed at times this false notion of a stolen election. Murdoch says not Fox, not Fox, but maybe Lou Dobbs, maybe Maria Bartiromo as commentators. And then it goes on, and they mentioned Jeanine Pirro, a Fox News Host, he says I think she did as well, Lou Dobbs, oh, a lot, Fox Host Sean Hannity, a bit.

And then it goes on to say, as well about Fox endorsing the narrative of a stolen election, correct? Rupert Murdoch answers, no, some of our commentators were endorsing it. And Dominion says, about their endorsements of a stolen election? Rupert Murdoch said, yes, they endorsed.

This also comes as the deposition reveals again the disdain that Rupert Murdoch had for these election lies. He referred to them at one point as B.S. and damaging in an e-mail, and he's also said that he wishes the network did more to tamp down these conspiracy theories. Of course, hindsight, Wolf, is 20/20, and when you're being sued for $1.6 billion, that might result in you whishing it did things a different way.

BLITZER: Absolutely. And, Norm, what else stands out to you in this brand new brief that has just been released and just how serious is the legal threat right now that is available for Fox?

NORM EISEN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Wolf, I think it's quite serious because when you go beyond reporting, Fox defense is, well, we were just reporting. But when you go beyond reporting and your chairman admits there was endorsement, then that opens you up to liability under the actual malice standard.

And, Wolf, it's not just $1.6 billion. If the jury decides that this conduct was egregious enough and much that is in here continues to be shocking, that's bristling, almost 200 pages, every page has a Perry Mason moment, if the jury decides that it was bad enough conduct, they can double or triple that $1.6 billion or go even higher. So, I think there's very serious legal exposure. This is one of the most devastating depositions that I've ever seen.

BLITZER: That's a ton of money, too, potentially at stake for Fox.

Sara, as Oliver just reported, some of Fox's biggest stars are named in this deposition, Maria Bartiromo, Jeanine Pirro, Lou Dobbs, formerly with Fox, Sean Hannity, still with Fox, what kind of an impact is this having on the network?

SARA FISCHER, CNN MEDIA ANALYST: It's having a huge impact, Wolf, because it's a major distraction. I mean, this network is going to have to cover the 2024 election, in which Donald Trump is going to participate. He is still spewing election lies on his own Truth Social platform. And so every time they're going to have to revisit election coverage, this will haunt them. But I think a big finding from today, Wolf, is that, yes, we know that these hosts knew that this was bad. That deposition from last month saw exchanges of text messages in which the Tucker Carlsons of the world conceded this was a problem.

But what's new today is that the top level executives also knew in real-time this was bad, and they did nothing to stop it. In fact, Fox's chief legal and policy officer is quoted in the deposition basically saying that Fox had a responsibility to stop these election lies from being peddled, and it still acted anyway.


BLITZER: So, Oliver, button this up for us. Where does this lawsuit go from here?

DARCY: This lawsuit looks like it's going to trial, Wolf. Next month, it's supposed to start and, you know, Fox, I should note, too, is pushing back against what were reading right now and they're saying that Dominion effectively has a very weak case. But legal experts I have spoken to have suggested complete otherwise and that they have said that this evidence that we're seeing presented now for the first time in these filings is really quite damning.

BLITZER: Well, let me ask, Norm. Is there a strong legal case here?

EISEN: Wolf, I do think it is a powerful legal case. The standard of actual malice that you need to prove that Fox either knew these were lies or recklessly disregarded the truth is very high. In our country, the First Amendment protects the freedom of the press, a broad array of conversations, but here you have the damning admissions, including from the top guy, Rupert Murdoch, himself that he knew these things were not so, and that Fox, he admits they endorsed. I think Fox is facing very serious legal exposure, and Tucker Carlson comes in for damaging reporting in this brief as well.

BLITZER: Sara, how do you see this thing playing out?

FISCHER: I think they go to trial in April, and then I think after that, if it is found that Fox loses this case, your coverage is going to be much different for the next election, Wolf. If Fox doesn't get -- if Fox gets away with this, what's to stop them from pushing further narratives in the future that are completely false, and not just them, other media companies? This case sets a huge precedent for freedom of the press but also for how we police misinformation moving forward for elections to come.

BLITZER: Yes. The stakes clearly are enormous. Sara Fischer, Oliver Darcy, Norm Eisen, guys, thank you very, very much.

Coming up, did a Chinese lab leak spark the COVID-19 pandemic? A new assessment from the U.S. Energy Department is reigniting the debate. We'll share that with you when we come back.



BLITZER: Right now, a new assessment from the U.S. Energy Department is shaking up the debate over the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our Brian Todd is digging into this report for us. Brian, what is the department saying about the possibility that the virus was leaked from a Chinese lab?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the Energy Department is saying that its intelligence indicates that the virus likely came from that lab. But at the same time, the department says its intelligence is far from airtight.


TODD (voice over): The mysteries surrounding the origins of the virus that's killed nearly 7 million people worldwide growing deeper tonight. The U.S. Department of Energy in a newly updated classified intelligence report says the COVID-19 pandemic likely started from an accidental leak from a lab in Wuhan, China. But at the same time, sources tell CNN, the Energy Department said in that report that it has quote, low confidence in that conclusion.

Our Intelligence Analysts Beth Sanner says what that really means is the Energy Department thinks the virus came from that lab but admits it could be wrong.

BETH SANNER, FORMER DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Low confidence means that they have such fragmentary and inconclusive evidence. They don't have a lot of corroboration of reporting. They don't have anybody in the lab itself saying it's definitely happened. It adds up to looking like that, but they can't say definitively it is.

TODD: And this latest report only adds to the divide within the U.S. government over whether the virus began with a lab leak or was started more naturally. Many in the scientific community believe a large outdoor wet market in Wuhan is the most likely place where the virus started, jumping from animals to humans.

DR. PETER HOTEZ, DEAN, NATIONAL SCHOOL OF TROPICAL MEDICINE, BAYLOR COLLEGE OF MEDICINE: For me, the scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports natural origins. We know where the first cases of COVID-19 appeared in this pandemic, and they're all clustered around a specific seafood market in Wuhan.

TODD: The Chinese government also firing back at the idea that the virus came from a lab leak.

MAO NING, SPOKESWOMAN, CHINESE FOREIGN MINISTRY: The relative party should stop stir frying the argument of laboratory leak, stop vilifying China and stop politicizing the issue of origin tracing.

TODD: But analysts say the Chinese government actions are a big part of why the mystery lingers. HOTEZ: The problem is the Chinese are not being transparent. They're not allowing the full outbreak investigation. They destroyed the wet market after the virus emerged there. So, it's going to get harder and harder to trace.

TODD: Also muddying the picture, some Republicans in Congress believe American funding for that Chinese lab, money from the National Institutes of Health, could be tied to coronavirus experiments at the lab.

REP. MICHAEL MCCAUL (R-TX): We need to stop using NIH dollars in experiments in Wuhan at this lab. And I think the people involved in this should be held accountable for what they did.

TODD: Some Republicans have blamed Dr. Anthony Fauci for spearheading the funding of the Chinese lab. Fauci has said this.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES: Maybe there's a lab leak, but it's not with the viruses that the NIH was funding. That's almost certain that that's the case.


TODD (on camera): Now, despite the ongoing intelligence debate over the origins of COVID-19, the U.S. intelligence agencies do seem to have a consensus that at least, as of now, they do not believe there's evidence that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was created deliberately as part of a Chinese biological weapons program. Wolf?

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us, thank you, Brian.

For more on Chinese response now to this new U.S. assessment, let's bring in our Senior International Correspondent Ivan Watson.


He's joining us now live from Hong Kong. Ivan, what more can you tell us about how this is playing out in China? IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, no

surprise, that China is firing back. The Chinese government, as you heard in Brian's report, accusing Washington of trying to smear China, of trying to politicize the origins of the COVID pandemic.

And this is not new. Back in 2020, when Australia called for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19, China effectively punished Australia in proposing tariffs on some Australian goods, blocking some other goods, and it downgraded relations there.

The fact is that COVID was first detected in that city of Wuhan in the end of 2019. China does have a history of problems with transparency where initially it was trying to squelch scientists and medical professionals who are trying to talk about it back in late 2019 as recently as December of last year.

The World Health Organization was criticizing China as COVID was spreading out of control, destroying its zero COVID policy, that they weren't getting enough details about variants and information coming out of there.

This will be added to the already existing list of areas of disagreement between Washington and Beijing, the surveillance balloon of China that went over the U.S., whether or not China will send arms to help Russia in Ukraine.

The U.S. ambassador to Beijing, Nicholas Burns, adding to this when he said that China will have to do more to explain the origins of this. Already, Chinese state media blasting him for those comments. Wolf?

BLITZER: Ivan Watson in Hong Kong for us, thank you very much.

Let's discuss this and more with a key member of the House Intelligence Committee and the ranking member on the select committee on China, Democratic Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi. Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

First of all, how much weight do you give this new intelligence report from the Department of Energy that COVID most likely resulted from a lab leak?

REP. RAJA KRISHNAMOORTHI (D-IL): Well, I think that it was one of eight to ten different assessments, and so it has to be taken seriously, but in context of the others, it did come in as low confidence. All of that being said, I think that the committee that is studying this in depth, which is the special select committee on the coronavirus, which is a subcommittee of the oversight committee, will continue to look into this, and they should, because we need to know the origins of the pandemic to prevent it from happening again.

BLITZER: A million Americans have died already from COVID, and many millions more people around the world have died, so everyone has to learn the origins to make sure it doesn't ever happen again. Do you have insight, Congressman, into what new intelligence or analysis led the Department of Energy to actually change its assessment?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: I'll be looking at the report later. I can't get into classified details. But, obviously, DOE came into more information over the preceding couple of months to arrive at this new conclusion.

BLITZER: So, just to be specific, when are you actually going to have an opportunity to look at this report?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Probably this week.

BLITZER: All right. We'll continue the conversation after that, of course.

You heard the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, Mike McCaul, say he's concerned that the funding from the National Institutes of Health went to this Wuhan lab. He wants accountability. Do you share those concerns?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: I need to know more about the evidence upon which he's basing that conclusion, but, look, I think we have to get to the bottom of exactly what -- if this actually happened at the lab, what was going on there. There have been long-time concerns about the way in which these different labs have conducted their operations.

But all of that being said, unfortunately, you know, the PRC and the Chinese Communist Party are being very opaque, they are not being transparent about this issue, which, by the way, is true of many others, and that's in part why our select committee has been established to deal with some of these challenges and get at the facts behind our concerns.

BLITZER: The chair of this new China select committee in the House says tomorrow's primetime hearing won't focus on COVID origins. You're the ranking member. So, what can we expect tomorrow?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Well, the committee is going to focus really on the technological, military and economic security of the United States, and the challenges that the Chinese Communist Party have posed in those different fields. Long-term, we hope to take next steps to deal with those challenges, hopefully, on a bipartisan basis.


And then with the appropriate committees of jurisdiction, both leader Jeffries and Speaker McCarthy have asked us to try to usher legislation through those appropriate committees to deal with the threats.

BLITZER: The threats are real. Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, thank you so much for joining us.

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Thank you so much.

BLITZER: Just ahead, the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, appears poised to take the plunge into the Republican primary race. Is his new book a preview of a 2024 White House campaign?


BLITZER: Tonight, Ron DeSantis is fueling speculation over a potential 2024 presidential campaign. Many in his party believe a new book from the Florida governor could be the first step in a run for the Republican presidential nomination.

Our Chief National Affairs Correspondent Jeff Zeleny has the latest.



JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Florida Governor Ron DeSantis inching ever closer to a highly anticipated presidential launch with a new campaign-style video.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): Freedom is worth fighting for. ZELENY: And a new book that serves as a roadmap for a potential 2024 Republican primary. In The Courage to Be Free obtained today by CNN, DeSantis plants his flag as a leading alternative to Donald Trump and pushes back against the former president's often made assertion that he alone is responsible for the governor's success.

I do not think Republican primary voters are sheep who simply follow an endorsement from a politician they'd like without any individual analysis. But I do believe that a major endorsement can put a candidate on the radar of GOP voters in a way that boosts a good candidate's prospects.

DESANTIS: And I stood for what I believe was right.

ZELENY: He said it was his debate performance in his 2018 race that led to his come-from-behind victory.

As the Republican presidential field takes shape, DeSantis is making an early splash.

DESASNTIS: Florida is where woke goes to die.

ZELENY: Holding up his Florida record as a blueprint for a national platform, like the Parental Rights in Education Act, which critics have dubbed the don't say gay bill that led to his feud with the Disney corporation.

DESANTIS: Today, the corporate kingdom finally comes to an end. There's a new sheriff in town and accountability will be the order of the day.

ZELENY: The governor went to Walt Disney World's backyard to sign a law today effectively punishing the entertainment giant for speaking out against the DeSantis agenda. He uses that fight to bolster his view that big business, a long time ally of the GOP, has become too woke, in his characterization, and should be called out by a new class of Republican leaders.

Corporate America has become a protagonist in battles over American politics and culture. The battle lines almost invariably find large, publicly-traded corporations lining up behind leftist causes, he writes, adding old guard corporate Republicanism is not up to the task at hand.

As Florida governor, he's become a combative figure in the culture wars, for which he offers no apologies.

DESANTIS: It's always be on offense. Because if you're not on offense, you're basically a sitting duck, and you let these people come and take pops at you all the time.


ZELENY: Now, a formal announcement is not coming, I'm told, until either May or June. That's after the Florida legislative session is over. Of course by then, he hopes he will have even more laws in Florida to sell to the rest of the country, really going after that Republican base.

Wolf, we should, of course, point out, it's far too early to say this is a two-man contest between the Florida governor and the former president. That is among the interesting things in this book, their relationship. But leafing for a copy of this today, Wolf, the bumper sticker message, if there is a campaign, is to make America Florida. That's what this governor is trying to do. Wolf?

BLITZER: Jeff Zeleny reporting for us, thank you very much.

Let's discuss with our Political Commentator Michael Smerconish and former Democratic Congressman Mondaire Jones, he's also a CNN political commentator.

Michael, I'll start with you. This is perhaps the clearest indication yet of what a DeSantis 2024 presidential campaign would look like. So, what do you think?

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I thought that the end of Jeff's report was the most significant, that the announcement is not anticipated to come until May or June. Wolf, he could control the release date of this book. So, why release it now? And I think the answer is to freeze the field, establish himself as the number two in competition to Donald Trump, make it impossible for Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, et cetera, to go out and raise money while the donor class looks at DeSantis as the alternative.

BLITZER: Mondaire, DeSantis said your party, the Democratic Party, is floundering as he criticized Democratic economic, immigration and COVID policies. How do you respond?

MONDAIRE JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Where does one begin in response to such a bad faith attack? The fact is that inflation has been a global phenomenon and the United States has weathered that storm far better than its peers, and it's why so much of the economic legislation Democrats passed these past two years, and why Joe Biden is so popular, it has been effective at lowering prices for working families.

But immigration obviously is something that both parties need to come together on. It used to be a time when even George W. Bush was in support of comprehensive immigration reform. That's not the Republican Party today. And so I think you'll continue to see them use that as a wedge issue but not be serious about solving it in a comprehensive way.

BLITZER: Mondaire, on the Democratic side, our Arlette Saenz sat down with the first lady, Jill Biden, and asked about the president's plan for 2024.


I want you and our viewers to listen to their exchange. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JILL BIDEN, FIRST LADY: It's Joe's decision, and we support whatever he wants to do. If he's in or there. If he wants to do something else, we're there too.

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Is there any chance at this point that he's not going to run?

BIDEN: Not in my book.

SAENZ: You're all for it?

BIDEN: I'm all for it, of course.


BLITZER: So, Mondaire, are you confident that Democratic voters are all for it, too?

MONDAIRE: I think if Joe Biden is the Democratic nominee, Democratic voters are going to vote for him in the general election, and they'll vote for him in the primary as well.

And so, you know, to some extent, whether people would prefer another Democratic nominee is moot, if he decides to seek reelection, which I expect he will. A lot of folks were waiting on what Jill Biden, Dr. Biden would say, and if she's for it, I think that kind of, you know, ties any loose ends up.

BLITZER: Yeah, looks like it's a done deal.

Michael, what do you think?

SMERCONISH: I think that Donald Trump getting into the race on the Republican side drove up the odds of the president, President Biden, running for reelection. Six months ago, I had my doubts as to whether he was getting in. Today it seems like there's no issue whatsoever.

BLITZER: Yeah, as I said, I think it's a done deal.

Michael Smerconish, Mondaire Jones, thank you very much.

Coming up, we're going to bring you the latest on the Alex Murdaugh murder trial, where the defense has just rested their case.



BLITZER: New developments in the Alex Murdaugh trial. The defense has rested their case after a day of dramatic testimony including the defendant's own brother taking the stand.

CNN's Randi Kaye is joining us from right outside the courthouse right now.

Randi, Murdoch's team is introducing new testimony to cast doubt on the idea that he murdered his wife and son.

Give us the latest.

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, Wolf, this was a forensic scientist who testified today, one of the last witnesses presented by the defense team. And he came out in support in providing evidence of the defense theory that was floated much earlier on in the trial, suggesting that there were two shooters. We know there were two weapons. Maggie murder was shot in a rifle. And Paul Murdaugh was shot with a shotgun.

But he said this would have been so harmful to the person who killed Paul Murdaugh. It was such a violent shooting. His brain, as we know, was blown out of his head. So we know that, according to this witness, that there would have been blood on this person, possibly bone, brain matter. He said blood in their eyes even. So they wouldn't have been able to recover so quickly in order to then go on and kill Maggie Murdaugh. They do believe Paul Murdaugh was shot first. So, that was part of it as well.

Also he said there were two guns, a shotgun and a rifle. That's a lot for one person to handle.

Following him, John Marvin Murdaugh, who is one of the brothers of Alex Murdaugh, testified. He was the last witness of the day, the last defense witness. He told the jury that he made a promise to Paul Murdaugh that he would find out who killed him and his mother. He said he hasn't found that person yet.

He also described in very emotionally what it was like to go to the scene, the feed room where Paul Murdaugh was killed. Watch this.


JOHN MARVIN MURDAUGH, ALEX MURDAUGH'S BROTHER: I walked over to the feed room, and y'all have heard the descriptions, y'all saw it. I've never seen pictures and I've told him before coming to this court that I was not going to see pictures. But y'all can imagine what I experienced. It had not been cleaned up. I saw blood, I saw brains, I saw pieces of skull.

And when I say brains, it could just be tissue. I don't know. It was terrible. And, for some reason, I thought it was something that I needed to do for Paul to clean it up. It felt like it was the right thing to do. I felt like I owed him. And I started cleaning.

And I promise you no mother or father or aunt or uncle should ever have to see and do what I did that day.


KAYE: And tomorrow in court, we do expect to hear from some reply witnesses from the state. They expect to have four or five witnesses. And following that, likely Wednesday morning, the jury is going to go to the crime scene, that 1,700 acre property where the murders happened. It's known as Moselle. It's about 30 minutes from here. They will look at the feed room. They will look at the trees. They will look at the distance from the house, how long it took to get around where this all happened.

The defense put this request in, the state was opposed to it, but the judge granted it, Wolf.

BLITZER: Randi Kaye on the scene for us -- Randi, thank you very much.

Just ahead, severe weather threatening the Midwest right now after causing major damage in Kansas and Oklahoma last night. We'll be right back.



BLITZER: Right now, Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia are on high alert for tornados after a dangerous storm system tore across the Great Plains last night.

Our senior national correspondent Ed Lavandera is joining us now from Norman, Oklahoma.

Ed, show us what the storm left behind and what this could look like for other areas.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: well, it's been a day of cleanup here in Norman, Oklahoma, and in many other spots across the state.

This particular neighborhood was hit by, according to the National Weather Service, an EF2 tornado. Winds around 75, 80 miles an hour, perhaps higher in the heart of this storm. But that's what wind speeds were averaging at in many places as this storm line moved across Oklahoma ravaging the state over several hours Sunday night, the destruction is, in this particular area, in the isolated areas where tornados like this hit, very intense destruction, as we've seen. People described being inside their homes feeling everything just shaking violently as the tornado quickly ripped through here. Several homes shifted off of their foundation.

But unbelievably, Wolf, only 12 people injured, none of them critically here in the area. And there were no fatalities associated with this storm system as it moved across the state on Sunday night. Really stunning, especially when you consider the wind speeds that we saw.

When this storm originated in the Texas Panhandle, there was a small town in the panhandle there called Memphis, Texas, that recorded a wind gust of 114 miles per hour. That is the kind of wind speed in storms that we see covering hurricanes, not necessarily in a storm system cutting across the Central Plains of the United States. So some really dramatic moments in this storm as people were dealing with this Sunday night -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ed Lavandera, thank you very much.

And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

I'll see you later again tonight 9:00 p.m. Eastern for a special edition of THE SITUATION ROOM.

Until then, thanks very much for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.