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Former Trump National Security Advisers Among Witnesses Testifying At House Hearing On China; Supreme Court Weighs Fate Of Student Loan Relief For Millions; New Questions After Fox Chief Admits Hosts Endorsed Election Lies; DeSantis Defends Move To Tighten Control Over Disney World; U.S. Aviation Officials Investigating Close Call At Boston Airport. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired February 28, 2023 - 18:00   ET




WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now a high profile hearing on China's threat to America begins soon. A new House panel convening as global tensions are rising amid the war in Ukraine and fears that China will provide lethal support to Russian forces.

Also this hour debt relief for millions of Americans with student loans is on the line at the U.S. Supreme Court. We're following the protests and the stakes as the nine justices weigh challenges to President Biden's loan forgiveness program.

And Fox News is facing even more scrutiny and questions tonight after the Chairman Rupert Murdoch admitted under oath that some of the network's hosts endorsed lies about the 2020 presidential election.

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

Tonight, Congress is putting the spotlight on deteriorating U.S. relations with China and the growing threat that the communist regime poses to the United States. The first hearing of the new House select committee on China begins in the next hour.

Let's bring in CNN's Jessica Dean. She's up on Capitol Hill for us. Also let's bring in CNN's David Culver who has reported from China for years. Jessica, I'll start with you. Tell us what to expect at tonight's hearing.

JESSICA DEAN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this is the first primetime hearing for a GOP-led committee since they took over the majority in January. So, this is high-stakes stuff. And it's worth noting this is a very bipartisan committee and enjoys a tremendous amount of bipartisan support. So that's kind of the tone and tenor as we head into this evening's primetime hearing.

We're expecting them to tackle four key issues. Among them, the spy balloon, the Chinese spy balloon, COVID-19, China's support of Russia in its fight against Ukraine, and then also the future of TikTok. There's also going to be a host of witnesses that will be testifying in tonight's hearing, and among those will Matthew Pottinger, he's the former deputy national security adviser and also widely renowned Chinese expert. We're told that he's going to play a video that is aimed at dispelling any questions about the ambitions of the Chinese government.

We're also expected to hear from former National Security Adviser under former President Donald Trump H.R. McMaster on this issue as well. And both of these men widely respected across the aisle. So, we will anticipate they will walk people through and walk the members of Congress through what threats America faces right now.

And, Wolf, one more thing that worth nothing today, just to kind of set the stage is that the Biden administration warned today that anyone, any Chinese firm or person that provides lethal aid to Russia in its fight against Ukraine will be targeted by the U.S. government. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Jessica, standby. David, you're now in Washington but you're a veteran of covering China over these years. What your take on this hearing tonight and its significance?

DAVID CULVER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this shifts the attention on to the Chinese Communist Party in particular rather than China as a whole. And this likely is going to call out the party's actions within China, especially with regards to human rights.

Now, among the most sensitive issues is the widespread allegations of human rights abuses against the weaker, the ethnic Muslim minority. And we've actually traveled to Xinjiang. We've reported on that first- hand. The party also faces criticism for its harsh crackdown on dissent, including any pro-democracy movements. We saw that with Hong Kong.

Now the Chinese government will fire back at that criticism. They point to issues with race or police brutality in the U.S. and they tell American politicians, hey, mind your business. But it's precisely because of that business that we need to care about this.

The U.S. companies with either a supply chain or a massive consumer base in China have and they're going to continue to be challenged with having to place these moral decisions above profits. It is a really tricky balance. And you anger China, you risk financial loss. You go against the U.S., you face potentially being alienated here at home.

Wolf, this committee is going to no doubt be focused on any alleged atrocity committed by the party and put that pressure on American companies doing business in China. And that's where most of us here could feel that trickledown effect, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much. David Culver, Jessica Dean, guys, appreciated very much.

Let's go to Ukraine right now. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is warning that fighting in the key eastern city of Bakhmut is growing more and more challenging right now.

CNN's Alex Marquart is joining us live from Eastern Ukraine. Alex, so what are you seeing on the ground, what are you hearing from Ukrainian forces about the situation in the east?


ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, such fierce fighting here in Eastern Ukraine with so much of that focus on the battle for Bakhmut that has been raging for the past several months.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is saying tonight that that is the most difficult fight. The Ukrainian forces are coming under increased intense assaults that Russian forces are showing little regards for their men and suffering huge casualties.

Wolf, CNN did reach out and speak with a soldier, a Ukrainian soldier in Bakhmut, earlier today who said that the situation is so tough that it is 100 percent more difficult than Ukrainian officials are willing to admit. But the same soldier saying that they're not going to surrender, they're not going to give up this city without a fight.

In the meantime, Russia appears to be making some gains. The Russian force has been primarily made up in and around Bakhmut with those mercenaries and convicts from the Wagner Group. They have been backed up by the Russian regular military. They do appear to have taken some territory north of Bakhmut as they try to encircle the city.

Ukraine does appear to be on its heels but resisting those intense assaults by the Russians. This fight has been in such close quarters in and around the city, in the tranches, street to street, house to house. Russian forces pounding Ukrainian defensive positions not only with artillery but at night with combat jets -- combat aircraft to the point where one Ukrainian commander says that the Russians are trying to pound the city of Bakhmut into molecules. Wolf?

BLITZER: Alex Marquardt, be careful over there. We'll stay in close touch with you. Thank you very much.

As this war in Ukraine rages on Vladimir Putin is making a rare admission of battlefield losses. CNN's Matthew Chance is joining us. He has the latest on that. Tell us, Matthew, more about Putin's speech to his own security service today.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, this is an important speech because Vladimir Putin, of course, was the head of this agency, the FSB, the former KGB. And so what he says to them is usually very frank and direct. Only a proportion of it was in the public sphere, the rest was behind closed doors.

And, basically, this was Vladimir Putin, essentially instructing the FSB, the main security service inside Russia, to up its game when it comes to counterintelligence inside Russia in the face of what he said was increased Ukrainian and western, including the United States, efforts to carry out espionage and sabotage activities inside the country.

Putin talking about the need for secrecy around particular areas, like the defense industry, like personal data, like the command control systems of the Russian military. He didn't point to any particular intelligence failures, but the fact that he was talking about these things sort of, you know, point to a certain concern about vulnerabilities inside the country.

Now, since Russia invaded Ukraine over a year ago now, it has been subject, remember, to numerous attacks inside the country. There has been, you know, drone attacks, attacks on railway infrastructure, recruitment offices for the military have been burned down, there have been cyber attacks as well. So, it may be a reference to that sort of thing.

There was also this rare reference to the fact that the FSB has been taken part in what Russia calls its special military operation and suffered casualties as well. Take a listen to what Vladimir Putin had to say.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT: Unfortunately, there are losses in our ranks. The leadership of FSB must do everything to provide additional support to the families of our fallen comrades.


CHANCE: Yes. So, losses in the ranks, that's what Vladimir Putin said. It's, again, a rare admission there were any casualties at all but it certainly stops far short of the admission of the tens of thousands of casualties that's estimated by U.S. officials and others that Russia has actually suffered in this war so far, Wolf.

BLITZER: And those estimates probably are low. They're probably a lot higher than that. Matthew Chance, thank you very, very much.

Let's get more on tonight's very high profile hearing on the threat from China. We're joined by Congressman Ro Khanna. He's a Democrat who serves on the newly created House select committee on China. Congressman, thank you so much for joining us.

I know this hearing is supposed to begin in the next hour. Amid heightened tensions over potential Chinese support for Putin's war, the Chinese spy balloon, COVID origins and a lot more, what do you see as the top priority in tonight's hearing?

REP. RO KHANNA (D-CA): Wolf, two things. One, we need to ambulance our economic relationship. Our manufacturing jobs left for China, we need to bring them back. Second, I just got back from Taiwan. We need to make sure that Taiwan has the defense capability to have strong deterrence from China ever having a military invasion there.

BLITZER: One of the witnesses who will testify tonight, Matthew Pottinger, we heard in Jessica Dean's report, is expected to play a video using Chinese President Xi Jinping's own words to warn that China wants to spread autocracy and upend the international order. Is that how you view the threat as well?


KHANNA: I believe that Xi Jinping has escalated the tensions, but I do think that if we have defense capability enhancement in Taiwan and continue to engage, that we can avoid war. One of the things we have to be aware of is Xi Jinping has met Putin 30 times in the last ten years, more than any other foreign leader. He's said Putin is his best friend. So, we need to figure out how do we separate Putin and Xi Jinping's alliance.

BLITZER: Your new committee chairman, Republican Mike Gallagher, this new select committee on China, says tonight's hearing won't focus on the origins of COVID after the U.S. Energy Department assessed it likely emerged from a lab leak. What questions, Congressman, do you have about that report and when can we expect a hearing on that issue?

KHANNA: Well, I want to know what the full truth is. One thing we do know is we shouldn't be censoring people who did say that it could have leaked accidentally from a lab. Obviously, that seems a plausible theory. Right now, we have different theories from different agencies. We need to get briefed as Congress and there needs to be one consensus view of the administration of what happened.

BLITZER: When it comes to Taiwan, and you recently visited Taiwan, I know you want to maintain the status quo. But is that really possible considering, one, U.S. military support to Taiwan and China's own ambitions to control the island?

KHANNA: Well, it is possible as long as we're beefing up defense. When we met with the president of Taiwan, Xi has increased conscription from four months to one year. So, every 18-year-old in Taiwan is now going to serve for one year. That's supported by all parties. Xi very much wants the $18 billion of anti-aircraft, anti- ship missiles. We have a backlog. We need to get it to them. But at the same time, Xi, and all the parties emphasize that we need to continue to engage China to avoid a war. Deterrence plus some form of engagement, I think, will avoid conflict.

BLITZER: The House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman is fast- tracking legislation that would make it easier for the United States to ban TikTok over concerns about its Chinese parent company. Is that something, Congressman, you would support?

KHANNA: I support a fast sale, a force sale. I don't think you can ban millions of users for using the app. You've have a mutiny of young people in this country but it should be an American company or an American ownership. It shouldn't be controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.

BLITZER: Congressman Ro Khanna, thanks so much for joining us. We'll be watching that hearing later and see what happens. I appreciate it very much.

KHANNA: Thank you, Wolf. BLITZER: Just ahead, the fate of one of President Biden's signature domestic programs is now in the hands of the United States Supreme Court.

Plus, Fox News facing new questions tonight after court filings revealed a stunning admission by the network's Chairman, Rupert Murdoch.



BLITZER: The fate of President Biden's plan to relieve student debt for millions of Americans is now in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court. The court's conservative majority potentially poise to deal another blow to the president's domestic agenda.

CNN Justice Correspondent Jessica Schneider has our report.


JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Big stakes for more than 40 million student loan borrowers as the Supreme Court decides whether a program eliminating up to $20,000 in debt per borrower can go into effect.

ELIZABETH PRELOGAR, U.S. SOLICITOR GENERAL: To provide a measure of loan forgiveness to ensure that this unprecedented pandemic does not leave borrowers worse off in relation to their student loans.

SCHNEIDER: The Biden administration is defending their student loan forgiveness program, arguing that it is necessary in the wake of the COVID pandemic. But the conservative justices repeatedly zeroed in on the program's $400 billion-plus price tag, to question whether the president, by way of his education secretary, has the power to enact this kind of relief.

CHIEF JUSTICE JOHN ROBERTS, U.S. SUPREME COURT: I think most casual observers would say if you're going to give up that much amount of money, if you're going to affect the obligations of that many Americans on a subject that's of great controversy, they would think that's something for Congress to act on.

SCHNEIDER: The solicitor general responded that federal law allows for the education secretary to waive or modify loan obligations in the wake of an emergency, and the ongoing financial effects of the pandemic justifies the administration stepping inch.

PRELOGAR: Without this critical relief for debtors, we're going to have a wave of default across the country with all of the negative consequences that has for borrowers. I think it is precisely the type of context where the executive should be able to implement those emergency powers.

SCHNEIDER: The Supreme Court has repeatedly struck down programs implemented by the Biden administration under COVID, including the eviction moratorium and testing or vaccine mandate for large employers. This student debt program uses the pandemic to justify forgiving $10,000 in federal loans for people making under $125,000, or $20,000 in loan for those with Pell Grants. About 20 million borrowers could see their remaining balances entirely wiped out. But Justice Neil Gorsuch asked whether that undermines basic fairness.

JUSTICE NEIL GORSUCH, U.S. SUPREME COURT: What I think they argue that is missing is cost to other persons in terms of fairness, for example, people who have paid their loans, people who have planned their lives around not seeking loans and people who are not eligible for loans in the first place, and that a half a trillion dollars is being diverted to one group of favored persons over others.


SCHNEIDER (on camera): So, tonight a lot is on the line for millions of borrowers. Now, if the Supreme Court upholds this program, debt cancelation could come pretty quickly. That's because the Biden administration has approved 16 million applications. But, Wolf, as the questioning from this conservative court showed, it is very likely that they could strike down this program and that would end the hopes of any debt relief at least for now for millions of Americans. Wolf?

BLITZER: And I take it, we won't get a final decision from the Supreme Court until about the end of June. Is that right?

SCHNEIDER: That's about right. That's when they end their term and hand down the most consequential decision. So, probably sometime in June. Wolf?


BLITZER: Okay. Jessica Schneider, thank you very, very much. We'll watch this unfold.

Coming up the fallout after newly revealed testimony by Fox Chairman Rupert Murdoch admitting the network aired lies about the 2020 presidential election.


BLITZER: Tonight Fox News is facing questions about its election coverage going forward after Fox Chairman Rupert Murdoch admitted to the network's role in spreading Donald Trump's false claims about the 2020 presidential vote.

Our Brian Todd is taking a closer look at all this. Brian, Murdoch's testimony in a lawsuit is shedding new light on his own discomfort with the promotion of election lies on his own network.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right, Wolf. In this deposition, Murdoch, says his on-air people should have denounced those lies but court documents show that Murdoch, despite his misgivings was all too willing to let those lies continue on Fox News to preserve ratings and profit.


TODD: From the chairman of Fox Corporation jarring admissions how far his news network was willing to go to carry Donald Trump's water after the 2020 election. In a deposition, Rupert Murdoch acknowledged some Fox News hosts promoted the falsehood that the election was stolen from Trump, quote, some of our commentators were endorsing it, Murdoch said of Trump's election lies. I would have liked us to be stronger in denouncing it, in hindsight.

Murdoch denied that Fox News as a whole endorsed the lies, instead pinning it on Hosts Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro, Maria Bartiromo and now former Fox Host Lou Dobbs.

LOU DOBBS, FOX BUSINESS NETWORK HOST: This is the culmination of what has been over a four year effort to over throw this president.

TODD: Murdoch's deposition made public in a legal filing from Dominion Voting Systems' $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox. That same deposition revealed Murdoch called Trump's election lies, quote, bullshit and damaging in an email. And still --

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, MEDIA CORRESPONDENT, NPR: And at no point do we decide we have got to pull them from air or we've got to prevent this from happening. And he essentially acknowledged at a certain point that this was a strategy to win back voters who had been alienated by Fox News' call on projection on election night of Arizona for Joe Biden.

ERIK WEMPLE, WASHINGTON POST MEDIA CRITIC: There was enormous panic going on inside Fox News. These people were freaked out about the possibility that their most extreme viewers or even their core viewers would move to Newsmax.

TODD: Newsmax, a smaller conservative channel that constantly pushed election denial, is believed by media analysts to have siphoned off viewers from Fox after Fox called Arizona for Joe Biden. And at that time, Fox kept allowing election deniers like MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell on their air.

MIKE LINDELL, CEO, MYPILLOW: Actual machine, new machine election fraud, I re-tweeted it, and they took my Twitter down.

TODD: In the new deposition, Murdoch said it was, quote, wrong for Host Tucker Carlson to allow Lindell to make election fraud claims on his show. So, why did Murdoch allow it? Quote, the man is on every night, pays us a lot of money, Murdoch said. At first, you think it's common and then you get bored and irritated.

FOLKENFLIK: Rupert Murdoch thought it was more important to keep the profit machine going than to interrupt its flow.

TODD: According to court documents, Paul Ryan, former Republican House speaker and now a member of Fox corporation's board, told Murdoch and his son, Lachlan, after the election that, quote, Fox News should not be spreading conspiracy theories. The documents say Murdoch agreed with Ryan.

Responding to Dominion's lawsuit, Fox says it shouldn't be held liable for the assertions of hosts and guests on its air, says the lawsuit is violation of their First Amendment rights and an attempt to, quote, publicly smear Fox for covering Trump's election claims.


TODD (on camera): According to documents from the lawsuit the day before the January 6th attack on the Capitol, Murdoch and a top Fox executive discussed having the network's primetime stars go on the air and make it clear to viewers that Trump won the election, but they didn't want to anger Fox viewers so that never happen. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. Brian Todd, reporting for us, Brian, thanks very much.

Let's bring in our legal and political experts. Norm Eisen, I'll start with you. As we learn about Murdoch's bombshell deposition, just how strong is Dominion's $1.6 billion case against Fox?

NORM EISEN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Wolf, I think it's strong. The Constitution protects speech. We need that for the press. But there are limits. If you put on news when you know it's false or you're behaving recklessly, you can be held liable. And by admitting that Fox didn't just report, they endorsed, Murdoch has helped Dominion make its case. And it's not just $1.6 billion, Wolf. That's just the lost profits and the enterprise value that's lost. That could be multiplied several times over for punitive damages. That's a possibility.

BLITZER: Adam Kinzinger, do you, as a Republican who challenged all those election lies, feel vindicated by Murdoch's own admissions in this deposition?

ADAM KINZINGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I guess vindicated to an extent, but I'm just even more disappointed because I know this is not going to affect the viewership of Fox. A lot of these people maybe knew they were being lied to but it made them feel good.

And, look, this is -- we as Americans have got to sit back and say is there a limit to getting on television as an authority and making a complete and utter lie that not only could lead to violence, did lead to violence. Look, Wolf, Ashley Babbitt who was killed at the Capitol, never would have been there had these lies not been repeatedly said over and over.


The law enforcement officers that were injured or those that took their own lives, they never would have had to engage in that had these lies not gone over and over. This is the equivalent I've heard people compare to like when big tobacco admitted secretly that they knew this was killing people. This was the equivalent of that. Eventually, people will listen, I hope, it's soon.

BLITZER: Let me bring Maggie Haberman into this conversation. Maggie, as you know, this raises some serious questions about Fox's role as a media organization, especially as the next presidential election approaches. Do you think there will be or should be, for that matter, consequences in terms of Fox's journalistic access?

MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I mean, I think the range of what consequences means, Wolf, depends on who is doing the evaluating here. I think in the eyes of Dominion, they obviously would like to see a lawsuit settled in their favor. But there is no, as you know, sort of grander hand that can arbitrate how Fox conducts itself.

But to your question in terms of how it conducted itself, it is not normal for a news outlet to put out information that it clearly believes to be false. And so even if they want to suggest these are opinion folks, that is going to raise all kinds of questions that this is now in this deposition and it sounds like in other aspects of this lawsuit that they have information, Dominion folks have information that Fox, you know, officials and Rupert Murdoch were questioning -- actually more than questioning, did not believe the veracity of this information.

There's a bit in the suit about Murdoch saying that Sean Hannity had been privately disgusted with Trump for weeks but was going ahead with this anyway. That is going to raise all kinds of questions going forward. Is it going to change how Fox operates? I think certainly not while this lawsuit is going on because that could become a problem in their lawsuit, but whether it does after that remains to be seen.

BLITZER: Adam, let me turn to the Speaker Kevin McCarthy's decision to give Fox Host Tucker Carlson early access to Capitol security footage he is releasing involving the January 6th defendants. Let's listen to the speaker's explanation listen to this.


MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Are you concerned about the fact that Carlson's may downplay this attack? You thought it was a very serious attack in the Capitol. Why give to someone who has downplayed it.

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): Because I think sunshine matters. So, I don't care what side of the issue you are on. That's why I think putting it out to the American public, you can see the truth, see exactly what transpired that day.


BLITZER: So, how can McCarthy say this is about transparency, Adam, when so far he's only giving access to Tucker Carlson and the January 6th defendants who have been charged?

KINZINGER: I mean, look, Kevin McCarthy is doing the best he can to spin his decision. When he says, I don't care what side of the issue you're on, you probably should care because you're the speaker of an institution that was attacked.

Secondarily, you think it's sunshine to give it? It's even one thing if he gave it to Fox News writ large. He gave it to Tucker Carlson, who had recently aired, I think it was last year, put out a video basically saying that the government did this and all these rioters are heroes.

But Kevin McCarthy has confused me probably more than anybody I've known in my life. He used to be somebody I thought was very much committed to what his truth was, what he believed. He has completely shed that for power. It's disturbing and frankly other news agency ought to have the exact same stuff that he gave to Tucker Friggin Carlson, who's the biggest conspiracy theorist that out there.

BLITZER: Norm, how will McCarthy's decision to give the accused rioters access to this footage impact the legal process here?

EISEN: Well, it will enable the lawyers for the accused rioters to say they have a new source of information, they need more time. They already have an enormous amount of disinformation, Wolf. And I'm concerned about the security aspects of both the Tucker Carlson and the other selective releases of this. There's a reason that some of this footage has not been seen before because it reveals sensitive security information about the Congress. So, it's a bad decision. It has legal implications and ethical ones. I think it's wrong.

BLITZER: Maggie, what will the political fallout be for McCarthy's decision about this footage?

HABERMAN: I think it's too soon to say, Wolf, because we don't know what's going to be shown and what's on there. I agree with the congressman that if he was interested in sunshine, he would just put this on a website and then people could evaluate it for themselves. It wouldn't be through a filter when he derides filters when it's through other news outlets. It would just be up there.

I think it depends on what's on it and I think it depends on what the reactions are. I think there are very few people in this country who don't have an opinion already of what took place on January 6th, but I think McCarthy is very focused on protecting his speakership and he believes that this helps him with that.


BLITZER: All right, guys, thank you very, very much. We'll stay on top of this story for sure.

And just ahead we'll have the latest developments in the Alex Murdaugh trial. Prosecutors resting their rebuttal today as both sides prepare for closing arguments.


BLITZER: Just into CNN, prosecutors have now rested their rebuttal case against Alex Murdaugh as his murder trial nears an end. CNN's Randi Kaye is joining us now from just outside the courthouse in Walterboro, South Carolina. Randi, what can you tell us about the prosecution's strategy today? RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the strategy was certainly to try and dispute some of the defense testimony that we heard over the last week or so. And they brought in a couple of rebuttal witnesses, about a handful of rebuttal witnesses to do so, but two really key witnesses.


One was a Pathologist named Dr. Reimer, and she testified to dispute a defense witness' claim that Paul Murdaugh's fatal shot was a downward- facing contact wound, which means the barrel of the shotgun was up against his head. She said that would have been impossible because his whole head would have been shutter. His eyes were still in place, his face was still in place. So, that's why that didn't make sense to her.

They also brought in Dr. Kenneth Kinsey. He is an expert in crime scene recreation. And he also disputed the defense witness' claim. That defense witness had said that someone much shorter than Alex Murdaugh likely committed these murders. Alex Murdaugh is about 6'4 or 6'5 and that defense witness said that could not have been the case. Here's the exchange with the Dr. Kinsey in court today.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you exclude a 6'4" defendant like Alex Murdaugh or anyone for that matter at that height from shooting that shotgun at that angle?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When a defense expert says that a shooter has to be between 5'2" and 5'4", do you disagree with that?

KINSEY: I do disagree with that wholeheartedly. I just think it's an unknown.

Unless you've got a video of that or someone tells you how they held a weapon, I think the notion that being able to look at this evidence and determine that is unscientific.


KAYE: The state also brought in as another rebuttal witness today a man named Mark Ball. He's a long time friend of Alex Murdaugh's, a fellow law partner, and he said that there were some inconsistencies in Alex Murdaugh's story about the night that he says he found his wife and son dead. He said that Alex Murdaugh had told him first he had checked his wife, Maggie, and then Paul, and another time he told him he checked Paul and then Maggie.

He also told him, he said that he called 911 first. But we know from GPS data, Wolf, that he arrived at that house, according to GPS data, just 20 seconds before he made that 911 call. So, did he even have time to check all his wife and son before calling 911 in just 20 seconds? But tomorrow, Wolf, now that both sides have fully rested, the jury in the morning is going to go to Moselle. That's the crime scene, the 1,700 hunting acre hunting property where the murders took place. They'll take a look at the dog kennels. They'll see where the murders happened. They'll see the feed room where Paul Murdaugh was killed. And then they'll come back here to the courthouse and we'll have a closing arguments and, Wolf, they will then start to deliberate.

BLITZER: We'll see what happens. Randi Kaye, thank you very, very much for all your excellent reporting over these many weeks.

Let's get some reaction right now from CNN Legal Analyst Joey Jackson. Joey, this jury is hearing competing theories from experts about how many shooters there were and the height of the shooter. So what does it take for expert testimony to actually resonate with a jury?

JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, Wolf, great question. I think it's the collective, not just the experts. But I think it's the basis of all the testimony.

And if you evaluate the case, Wolf, I think you'd do it in three ways. The first is motivation. They're really trying to get the ground of whether there was motivation to do this or not. What am I speaking about? The prosecution is suggesting that Alex Murdaugh had the motivation because of his financial crimes, because they look closing in upon him, because he feared there would be this revelation. Defense saying, it makes no sense as to that motive. He's a loving husband and father who would never do this.

Number two, timeline, the prosecution saying in the short timeline that it took, he certainly was at the scene, they demonstrated that, used cellphone footage, they demonstrated that through the card data, they demonstrated that to a video that he was speaking on. He, of course, denied initially he was at the scene. But the timeline is critical, defense trying to expand the timeline.

And then finally, to your point, you have this notion from the defense that it could have been two shooters. The shooter could have been 5'2". It could have an issue with respect of people not liking Murdaugh because of his pill addiction and him being involved in unsavory characters, his son and the boating accident and threats against his son, it could have been someone else, and, of course, the defense saying that, of course, is not true, that it was him and the evidence points with only being him.

So, it's not only the experts in evaluating, a lot of times they cancel each other out, it's about the collective weight to the evidence, but those are the three pillars I think the jury will -- and finally rendering a conclusion.

BLITZER: And interestingly the jury will actually visit the crime scene tomorrow before the closing arguments get under way. Can a visit like that, Joey, sway a juror?

JACKSON: I really think so. I mean, when you evaluate a case, what are cases about, Wolf? They're about bringing a jury to the actual crime scene. And, generally, that's done through photographs. It's done through surveillance. It's done through piecing together the evidence that was collected there. This you're actually going.

And so I think it allows that jury, Wolf, to put the matters in context. If the defense is suggesting that he, of course, did not do this and the timeline should be expanded, it did not happen sometime about 8:49 or 8:47, it happened much later, that would mean, hey, guess what, it wasn't him.


If it happened closer in time, the prosecution would say it can only be him. I think the jury wants to evaluate and would be helpful to see where things are positioned, where they're located, did he have the opportunity.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, boy, a visit to the actual crime screen, I think would be priceless. So I think it's a good bet the jury goes and evaluate and makes a determination on all the evidence on what they saw and heard in the courtroom and what they'll see in the actual kennels and at his home tomorrow.

BLITZER: It could be very significant indeed.

Joey Jackson, thanks as usual for joining us.

Coming up, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is now promoting a new book and laying groundwork for his widely expected 2024 presidential campaign. Is he feeling the heat as some fellow Republicans criticize this crack down on Disney World?



BLITZER: Tonight, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is setting the stage for his potential 2024 presidential bid. He's out there promoting a new book.

Let's discuss with CNN's chief national affairs correspondent Jeff Zelenskyy and our chief White House correspondent Phil Mattingly.

Jeff, Governor DeSantis is now addressing criticism from some fellow Republicans accusing him of government overreach after he punished Disney. Watch this and listen.


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R), FLORIDA: Some of these Republicans acting like that if you take away their special government status that somehow that is not free market, that is insane to be saying that. Having the business have its government is not a free market. That is massive, massive subsidies.


BLITZER: Does Governor DeSantis realize he's politically vulnerable on this as he makes moves towards a potential 2024 run?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I think he does. That's why the governor was talking about it today as he was launching his book tour. He could have chosen to talk about his biography, other things. But he was talking about that law he signed about the Disney Corporation.

And it's been really interesting. We are seeing the early stages here of a dividing line inside this Republican primary campaign about the role of government, the role of business, and of course on funding for Ukraine and other matters.

But on this in particular, this is something that, of course, the governor has been coming under significant criticism from potential rivals like New Hampshire Governor John Sununu, former Vice President Mike Pence talking about limited government and is it really conservative for a governor to sign a law directed specifically at a corporation like Disney. So these are many things that will be litigated throughout the course of this Republican primary.

Governor DeSantis is on his book tour today. I'm told that he'll be going to Iowa to campaign at some point in March. So he is in his soft-launch period. But there are certainly going to be some tough moments for him trying to explain really the evolution of this Republican Party in the Trump era. And it's changed dramatically from the Tea Party age where she grew in, to this populist moment we're in now.

BLITZER: We're told he's also going to go to South Carolina and Iowa to early states as well.

Phil, how does President Biden's team, and I know you've been doing some reporting on this view of possible 2024 matchup with Governor DeSantis?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: You know, Wolf, it's interesting. When you talk to the president's advisers, what they make very clear is he has to get through a primary first. And while that seems both obvious and somewhat simplistic, I think it underscores the view that Ron DeSantis, despite his very clear statewide success in Florida, has not been on the national stage, and has not faced the type of attack, the type of intensity of a primary challenge.

And the president seemed to allude to that late last year when he was asked about DeSantis and a potential challenge, and he said it would be fun watching DeSantis and Trump go at one another. He has attacked DeSantis in the past, calling him a Trump incarnate making clear that in his view Trump and DeSantis are mostly interchangeable, which is a not so subtle effort on the political side of things.

But I think the biggest way that you will see the president target DeSantis, the governor of Florida, is in the policy space. He was down in Florida a couple weeks ago and was talking about Medicaid expansion. Those are the elements, whether it's Medicaid expansion, Medicare and Social Security, places where they feel like on the policy side of things, they have very clear benefits in terms of a contrast, in terms of a debate.

But, more broadly, I think, to some degree, he talked to Biden advisers and other Democrats. They'll not sure he'll get out of a primary. We think he's a glass jaw, Wolf.

BLITZER: Interesting.

Jeff, what impact do these latest moves from Governor DeSantis have on the rest of the potential GOP field and their thinking, for that matter?

ZELENY: Wolf, briefly, it's freezing the field of donors. That is the most important thing at this point, getting eyeballs and checks in the mail. And, yes, he is not getting in until at least May, I'm told, perhaps June.

But by announcing his book tour right now, he's essentially trying to throw himself in the race and become a player in it right now. For the others who are running -- and this is not a two-man race at all -- it's complicating their effort to be introduced to America.

BLITZER: It's only just beginning.

Jeff Zeleny, Phil Mattingly, guys, thank you very, very much.

Just ahead, we're learning about another close call involving a commercial airliner at a U.S. airport.

Stay with us.



BLITZER: All right. Just in, federal authorities are now looking into yet another close call at an American airport.

Let's get an update from CNN aviation correspondent Pete Muntean.

Pete, this is, what, the fifth incident involving a commercial airliner this year. Give us the details.

PETE MUNTEAN, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: The fifth this year, Wolf. We're talking JFK, Austin, Burbank, Honolulu, and now in Boston last night as this jet blue flight 206 was coming in for landing at the airport, and the FAA says a private jet was taking off on the intersecting runway in front of it.

The latest data from Flight Radar 24, now, this is preliminary data, says the two planes came within 565 feet of colliding. That is very, very close. Worse yet, the FAA says that private Learjet did not have clearance to take off. The FAA saying in a statement, quote, the Learjet pilot read back the instructions clearly but began a takeoff role instead. That plane was supposed to wait on the runway for that other airplane to land. The FAA says the pilot of the jet blue aircraft took evasive action

and initiated a climb-out as the Learjet crossed the intersection. This is a huge deal, Wolf, because like you mentioned, this is happening time and time again this year, five times in 2023. The FAA is investigating here, it says it will determine, finally, how close these airplanes came. The NTSB not investigating this just yet, although it has investigated those other four incidents -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Very disturbing indeed.

Pete Muntean, thank you very much for that update.

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

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.