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Michigan A.G. Among Jewish State Officials Targeted With Death Threats; Blinken Meets Russian Counterpart For First Time Since Ukraine Conflict; Rep. Seth Moulton, (D-MA), Is Interviewed About Meeting Between Blinken And Lavrov, F-16, China; Closing Arguments Wrap, Murdaugh Jury Now In Deliberations; Prosecutor: "You Don't Lie And Misremember" Being At Murder Scene; House Ethics Committee To Investigate Rep. George Santos; Dueling Events Highlight Divide Within GOP Ahead Of 2024; Pence won't Commit To Supporting Trump If He's GOP Nominee. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired March 02, 2023 - 17:00   ET




WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, threats to kill the Michigan Attorney General and other Jewish elected officials in the state. We're learning more about the suspect, his arrest and the chilling messages he posted.

Also tonight, Russian mercenaries make key advances on the key city of Bakhmut while Ukrainians fight to hold their ground. This as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets face to face with Moscow's top diplomat for the first time since Russia's invasion.

And significant turbulence rocks of flight from Texas. What caused the plane to plunge, terrifying passengers and sending seven to the hospital?

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 this hour with a death threats against Jewish elected officials in Michigan. This comes at a very, very dangerous moment following a dramatic rise in anti-semitic attacks across the country, as well as threats to government leaders. Let's bring in our Senior Justice Correspondent Evan Perez.

Evan, what more, first of all, are you uncovering about this alleged plot in the state of Michigan?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, this is part of an alarming and dangerous trend that we see across the country, in this case, this man by the name of Jack Eugene Carpenter, is charged with making interstate threats against a number of Jewish officials in Michigan, including Dana Nessel, who is the attorney general in that state. According to the information from the FBI, the charges that are filed there in the -- in Detroit, he is said to have owned a number of weapons, he made threats, saying that he was ready to travel back from Texas to carry out these attacks on Jewish elected officials in the state of Michigan.

And a number of things that jumped out to the FBI investigators as they were looking at this, he appeared to have this sovereign citizen ideology, which is something that we've seen in a number of these cases around the country. He claimed that there was a nine mile radius around some Michigan address that he was going to declare as a state of New Israel. He said really just a one of the threats that the FBI cited in the criminal complaint against him, he said, "I'm heading back to Michigan now threatening to carry out the punishment of death to anyone that is Jewish in the Michigan government." Again, a very concerning threat, something that we've seen around the country. He's due in court, Wolf, on these charges on Friday.

BLITZER: You know, this is adding to this list of anti-semitic crimes across the country. How is the U.S. Justice Department here in Washington responding?

PEREZ: Yes, you hear from -- certainly from the Justice Department and from the FBI that this is -- this is one of the top things that they're most concerned about as far as the domestic extremism threat in this country, Wolf. There's a number of recent incidents, including attack on our synagogue in New Jersey, attacks on Jewish people in the Los Angeles area recently.

We also know that according to the anti-Defamation League that the number of anti-semitic threats are up about 34 percent just -- you can see the graphic there between 2012 and 2021. So, this is something that is extremely -- is viewed very extremely seriously by the FBI and the Justice Department. And it's something they are very, very concerned about, Wolf.

BLITZER: They should be, indeed. All right, Evan, thank you very, very much. Evan Perez reporting.

Let's bring in CNN's Chief Law Enforcement and Intelligence Analyst John Miller, along with our Senior Law Enforcement Analyst, the former FBI Deputy Director, Andrew McCabe.

John, I'll start with you. What more, first of all, can you tell us about this suspect in Michigan?

JOHN MILLER, CNN CHIEF LAW ENFORCEMENT AND INTELLIGENCE ANALYST: Well, he fits into a profile of, you know, where you've seen Michigan militias. He's a sovereign citizen. As Evan told us, you know, he has declared a nation state and a nine mile radius around -- a rundown house that he lives in next to a lake up in Michigan.

But you know, his history gives us -- he's arrested for an assault in 2022, that apparently involves a girlfriend. Then there's a order of protection in 2023. We know he has a gun registered to him. A girlfriend accused him of stealing a gun from her which was under investigation by the Michigan State Police when these threats came in. And of course when he was taken into custody he's got three handguns, a shotgun, a couple of rifles. [17:05:13]

So when you have someone who says, I'm coming back to Michigan and I am going to start killing Jewish government officials, and in the -- and the discussions with the FBI, he allegedly make statements as to which officials and then they have to go warn those people, including the attorney general of the state. This is one of those stories that could have been very different, had it not been interdicted.

BLITZER: Yes. Fortunately, it was.

You know, Andrew, this man, as we just noted, was arrested with about a half a dozen firearms and lots of ammunition after threatening to kill, and I'm quoting him now, "anyone that is Jewish in the Michigan government." How serious of a threat do you see this?

ANDREW MCCABE, CNN SENIOR LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, I think it's very serious, Wolf. And I think it's interesting, as John mentioned, you know, 10, 20 years ago, we would have thought of this person as a -- what we would call a sovereign citizen extremist. And in those days, sovereign citizens really restrained themselves to paper crimes, filing harassing liens against the property of government officials, refusing to put license plates on their cars, things like that, they just rejected the authority of local or federal government.

Today, what we have is a very different situation, you have people with those sorts of leanings who also take on, you know, violent, in this case, anti-semitic beliefs or anti-Black, anti-immigrant beliefs. And of course, all of this is turbocharged by the availability of all of these people to easily become heavily armed. So, we're living in a period where these threats really cross and people exhibit grievances and ideologies common to very different groups and it makes a very toxic mixture that can easily lead to violence.

BLITZER: Certainly does.

John, as we know, the sort of echoes that thwarted plot that we all reported about, not that long ago against the Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. What do authorities think is behind this awful trend that we're now seeing?

MILLER: Well, Wolf, there is nothing new about anti-semitism, but it has become kind of a go to dish at the salad bar of gripes, you know, that include white supremacist accelerationist who want to topple the government, people who are trying to take down the power grid, as we saw a few weeks ago, people who have it against the media, anti- vaxxers. So, you've got all of those. But including, you know, QAnon conspiracy theories, almost 100 percent of them have that thread of anti-semitism running through them.

And while that's always been there, under the surface, where people who would find like-minded anti-Semites that the problem that has brought it to the surface is in these chat rooms, in social media in places like telegram where they can find each other in large numbers, it has now become normalized in a way we haven't seen at anytime before. And if you talk to groups like the ADL, they'll verify that, if you look at the hate crime numbers, they're going up. So, this is something of significant concern.

BLITZER: So Andrew, how are law enforcement agencies trying to keep up with this new threat of extreme domestic extremism, shall we say, in this dangerous, increased anti-semitism that's going around?

MCCABE: I mean, in a word, Wolf, its resources. You've seen that from the FBI and from the Department of Justice putting more of their agents and analysts and prosecutors and DOJ onto these issues of domestic violent extremism. They're creating domestic extremism task forces in different places around the country. So you're going to have more folks focusing on the problem, which gives us a better opportunity to mitigate these threats as they pop up.

BLITZER: Andrew McCabe and John Miller, guys, thank you very, very much.

Next hour, by the way, I'll speak to Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO and National Director of the ADL on this dramatic rise of anti-semitic crimes across the country.

Coming up, amid intense fighting in eastern Ukraine, the Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets face to face with his Russian counterpart for the first time since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Plus, the Alex Murdaugh jury now in deliberations after closing arguments wrap up.



BLITZER: Tonight, the battle for Bakhmut is reaching a critical point. Defenders of the key Ukrainian city say the Russians are edging closer and closer to the center and where Putin's troops could use it potentially as a springboard if they take control. CNN Senior National Security Correspondent Alex Marquardt is in eastern Ukraine with our report.


ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): In the fierce defensive Bakhmut, the neighboring town of Chasiv Yar has become a busy thoroughfare. The main supply route for Ukrainian troops desperately hanging on to the eastern city.

(on camera): Cars, military vehicles, bombing up and down this road going to and from the front. You see this armored vehicle right here. The V sign for victory.

We are so close to the front that as one resident who is still here said you can walk to the Russian positions.

(voice-over): In the town center, we meet in artillery unit, they've been fighting for two months. loud booms echoing every few seconds from their Ukrainian colleagues firing on Russian positions.

The problem is not just Russia taking Bakhmut, Hottabich says, they will not stop and will keep destroying the next cities. We need to wait for reinforcements to come and then kick them out.

Whether Ukrainian reinforcements are indeed coming to save Bakhmut remains to be seen, but so far there is no Ukrainian retreat. Ukraine's military admits they're being battered by Wagner mercenaries that have made gains as they press ahead in and around the city.


Rocha (ph) street to street fighting has left many dead on both sides as the Wagner troops along with Russian soldiers trying to encircle Bakhmut. Chasiv Yar has been regularly hit in recent days as well. Now, fresh trenches are being dug fighting positions that Ukraine may soon have to use.

Amid all the blasts, some pile into a van to evacuate others who feel they can't or simply won't leave, gather in the center, waiting at a bus stop for a water delivery, which never comes.

Rockets are flying overhead from both sides, Valentina quietly tells us. Everywhere is covered with grad rockets. The house we want it to move into got bombed.

They walk away with piles of white tarp to protect their homes. They know the war is getting closer. But right now it's anyone's guess who will prevail in Bakhmut.

Nobody knows that, Mykola says. We will stand our ground and defend every meter of our land.


MARQUARDT: So, Wolf, Ukraine is standing firm as Russia does appear to be making advances. We did get an update earlier tonight from Russia -- from the Ukrainian military general staff. There was no mention of withdrawing. They said that Ukraine was managing to repel Russian attacks as they tried to encircle the city and push north deeper into eastern Ukraine towards other cities in Donbass.

Wolf, we also heard from the White House earlier today, they said that they will be rolling out another Ukraine military aid package that will include more ammunition for HIMARS systems and artillery systems. That will be very welcome news at the frontlines here, Wolf.

BLITZER: Certainly will be. Alex Marquardt in the war zone in eastern Ukraine, thank you very much. Stay safe over there, please.

Now let's go to the extraordinary face to face meeting today between the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the first since the conflict in Ukraine began more than a year ago. Our Senior International Correspondent Fred Pleitgen is joining us from Moscow right now.

Fred, Secretary Blinken initiated this meeting. How was it received?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, first of all, you're absolutely right, it was an extraordinary meeting, Wolf. And I was in touch with the Russian side with the spokesman for Russia's foreign ministry and she made exactly that point saying it was the American side who initiated this meeting. And the Russians are very keen to point out that this was an informal meeting, that this was not something that was pre planned and it really only happened on the sidelines of that G20 meeting. They also say it only took about 10 minutes.

However, it seems as though in that -- in those 10 minutes, in that very short period of time, Secretary of State Blinken did make some very important points for the U.S. side, number one, pertaining to Paul Whelan, who the U.S. of course says is wrongfully detained here in Russia. The U.S. side saying that Secretary of State Blinken made clear that there is a serious proposal to try and get Paul Whelan out of Russian custody on the table. And he urged Russia's Foreign Minister to take up that offer and release Paul Whelan.

The other one, of course, is the New START Treaty, that the Russians have suspended their participation. And the US also making clear that they strongly urge the Russians to get back into compliance with that treaty.

And finally, of course, the war in Ukraine. And here's what Secretary State Blinken had to say to that, Wolf.


ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: I told the Foreign Minister, what I and so many others said last week at the United Nations and what so many G20 foreign minister said today, end this war of aggression, engage in meaningful diplomacy that can produce a just and durable peace.


PLEITGEN: That's the Secretary of State there talking about what he told the Russian Foreign Minister. Of course, one of the things that didn't happen at that G20 meeting, Wolf, is there wasn't a final statement that all sides could agree on. The Russians once again blaming the U.S. side for that. But the U.S. does say that at that G20 feeding -- meeting, they do believe that both -- most countries that were there, that were present, were on the side of the United States, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Fred Pleitgen in Moscow for us, thank you very much.

Let's discuss all this and more with a key member of the House Armed Services Committee, Democratic Congressman Seth Moulton.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us. How important you believe it was for the Secretary of State to deliver his message to his Russian counterpart face to face today?

REP. SETH MOULTON (D-MA): Face to face diplomacy is always important. And as a Marine veteran myself, like most veterans, I'm a huge believer in diplomacy because I understand the costs of war when diplomacy fails. And you just can't substitute going face to face. We have to talk with our adversaries. That's exactly what Blinken is doing.

BLITZER: You say that by ruling out F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine at least for now, President Biden is signaling to Russia that he doesn't want this war to escalate. But by not providing fighter jets, is the U.S. essentially allowing Putin to draw a red line?


MOULTON: No, I don't think he is. You have to be careful about that. That's certainly a risk. But this administration all along has been walking the line between getting Ukraine what they need to win and not escalating this into a Russia on NATO war.

And I think Biden is doing the right thing by continuing to signal to the Russians that we're going to support the Ukrainians a lot, we're going to support them enough to win. That's clearly our policy. But that doesn't mean that we're going to give them everything.

And actually, F-16s are actually a really smart place to draw the line, in my opinion, because it's not really what the Ukrainians need. They're going to ask for the world. Of course, they're going to ask, they're going to ask for everything that they can get, I would too, if I were in their position, but what they really need right now are more tanks, artillery ammunition, small arms ammunition, the things that you need on the ground to take back territory from the Russians, a few fancy fighter jets are not going to win this war.

BLITZER: And on that point, Congressman, as we just heard, the White House will announce yet another major round of military aid to Ukraine tomorrow. But it's -- I think, significant that Republicans, at least some of -- some Republicans, including some members of your Armed Services Committee, are growing critical of all this ongoing U.S, military support for Ukraine? How worried are you that Putin could wait out the U.S. commitment to Ukraine?

MOULTON: We all want this war to end this as quickly as possible. And let's not lose sight of the fact that with all the back and forth political support, waxing and waning debates about who's winning on the ground, and where this is all going, there's one simple way for this to end, and that's for Putin to pull out of Ukraine.

But I'm not as concerned as most people are about American political support, because behind the scenes in Congress, when you talk to fellow members of the Armed Services Committee, it's very bipartisan. There is a fringe group of Republicans represented by some extremists like Marjorie Taylor Greene, who want to cut off support for Ukraine, but it really is a fringe group of extremists. The risk, the danger, is that, you know, people like Fox News personality Tucker Carlson are taking their rhetoric and getting more Americans behind this fringe group of Republicans.

And so, Republicans throughout the caucus are feeling pressure from their constituents. But when they talk to me, they're fully supportive of this. We need to win this war, we need to send a message to Putin that he's not going to go any further than this. And by winning this war in Europe, we're also sending a message to Xi Jinping in China that he better not start a war in the Pacific.

BLITZER: I know you're a member of this New House to China Select Committee, so I asked you this question, do you expect China to start taking steps of providing lethal weapons to Russia?

MOULTON: Well, this is another place where the Biden administration is being incredibly savvy, because they have made the bold choice to disclose the intelligence they have that China is considering this. And I think it's put China on their heels. They do not want to be seen as allies to Putin and his ruthless and illegal invasion. I think they were taken aback by the invasion.

But of course, they do see the U.S. as a common enemy. What we need to do is keep them on the right side of history.

You know, Xi Jinping thinks that China is going to be a world superpower, I disagree with him. But if he wants to be a world superpower, that he has to do the right thing, he has to set an example for other nations. And that means following the rule of law. He doesn't want to be in a club of autocrats and dictators, essentially war criminals like Vladimir Putin, who are losing their war. And that's what Xi Jinping will do if he gets a closer partnership with Vladimir Putin.

So, the pressure from the U.S. is having the right effect. It's making the Chinese have second thoughts.

BLITZER: Congressman Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, thanks so much for joining us.

MOULTON: Good to see you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Up next, we'll go live to Walterboro, South Carolina where jury deliberations are finally underway in the Alex Murdaugh murder trial. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: Happening now, jury deliberations are finally underway in the Alex Murdaugh murder trial. Both sides making one final pitch today before jurors headed behind closed doors to decide his fate. CNN National Correspondent Dianne Gallagher has our report from Walterboro, South Carolina.


JIM GRIFFIN, ALEX MURDAUGH'S DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Soon you will have the most powerful voice in this courtroom.

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The fate of ALEC Murdoch now in the hands of the jury in his double murder trial.

JUDGE CLIFTON NEWMAN: Once you begin deliberations, you will deliberate until you have reached a verdict.

GALLAGHER (voice-over): Defense Attorney Jim Griffin emotional as he wrapped closing arguments

GRIFFIN: On behalf of Alex, on behalf of Buster, on behalf of Maggie, on behalf of my friend Paul, I respectfully request that you do not compound a family tragedy with another.

GALLAGHER (voice-over): Attempting one last time to poke holes in the state's case.

GRIFFIN: Their theory is that he slaughter his wife and son to distract from a impending financial investigation. But he puts himself in the middle of a murder investigation and he puts himself in the spotlight of a media firestorm.


GALLAGHER (voice-over): And as the defense has for nearly six weeks, slamming the investigation itself.

GRIFFIN: We believe that we've shown conclusively that sled failed miserably in investigating this case.

GALLAGHER (voice-over): While focusing intently on casting reasonable doubt.

GRIFFIN: Alex would not have killed the people he loved the most in the world. There's no evidence that he would do that. Prosecution wants you to view the evidence, see the diabolical monster lambs that they've tried to paint.

GALLAGHER (voice-over): Reasonable doubt also key in the state's final rebuttal.

JOHN MEADOWS, PROSECUTOR: He did it. Nobody else could have done it. Nobody else did do it. We'll get to that. And that's how we prove beyond, I want to say all now, but our burdens only reasonable.

GALLAGHER (voice-over): Prosecutor John Meadows, passionately reminding the jury of the state's position. Alex Murdaugh can't be trusted.

MEADOWS: For the only thing that corroborated for you throughout the investigation, throughout (INAUDIBLE), throughout Mr. Waterspouts (ph) examination that he's a liar.

GALLAGHER (voice-over): Those final arguments coming after Judge Clifton Newman dismissed a juror Thursday morning for discussing the case with at least three other people.

JUDGE CLIFTON NEWMAN: I received a complaint from a member of the public indicating that a juror had engaged in improper conversations with parties not associated with the case.

GALLAGHER (voice-over): He selected an alternate to join the panel now tasked with determining whether Alex Murdaugh murdered his wife and son.

NEWMAN: Will be in recess waiting for the verdict.


GALLAGHER: And we continue to wait for that, Wolf, as the jury deliberates right now as we speak. Now, we're told at this moment they are not sequestered and that they will be allowed to deliberate tonight until about 10 p.m. Currently, there are no plans to order them dinner or anything. Although they do have snacks and coffee and tea and soda right now. We don't anticipate to get any real updates on the progress of the jury unless they have a question or, of course, a verdict. Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: All right Dianne, thank you very much. Dianne Gallagher on the scene for us.

Let's discuss and get some analysis right now from Attorney and Legal Affairs Commentator Areva Martin.

Areva, thanks for joining us. So we all just heard part of the defense's emotional closing argument. Do you think that actually resonated with the jury?

AREVA MARTIN, ATTORNEY & LEGAL AFFAIRS COMMENTATOR: What I think, Wolf, that -- what I think was the most important argument that defense made is, look, if he was trying -- Alex was trying to distract from anything, whether it was his financial issues, whether it was the allegations of financial crimes, he would have done what he subsequently tried to do, which was to have someone try to kill him so that his son Buster could recover insurance proceeds. I think that's a very powerful argument for any jurors sitting there having a hard time believing that this man is so monstrous that he would kill his wife and his son.

Here's an alternative theory, yes, he may have done something crazy, but that crazy was to try to kill himself, hire a hitman who turned out to be like a distant cousin to try to kill himself rather than kill the people that he loved the most. So I think that's a powerful argument that some jurors are going to have to wrestle with.

BLITZER: In their closing rebuttal, the prosecution argued, you don't lie and misremember being at the scene of a murder. Does a statement like that actually carry a lot of weight with a jury?

MARTIN: Well, the prosecution put on a really comprehensive case, given that they didn't have direct evidence, given that they didn't have the murder weapon, they didn't have the bloody clothes, so they had circumstantial evidence. But I think the very powerful three, four hour closing argument, and yes, again, very common sense, and prosecutors told these jurors, look, this is a simple case of common sense. Use your common sense. Someone who loves their wife and their son doesn't lie about being at the murder scene, someone who loves their wife and their son doesn't obstruct an investigation that's being done to find out who did kill them. So, powerful arguments by both the prosecutor. But I think, again, the defendant gave those jurors that don't want to find, you know, Paul -- Alex guilty, they gave them an alternative. And this alternative is, yes, he may be a bad person, he may be a liar, he may be a drug user, but look what he did to himself. And this is more likely to be the conduct of someone who's trying to distract or trying to get out of a very difficult situation.

So, we'll have to see what happens, Wolf, but this has been a case with lots of twists and turns, including this juror who was removed at the 11th hour.

BLITZER: And jurors are now deliberating after, what, devoting six weeks to this trial. How long do you expect it will take them to actually reach a verdict?

MARTIN: I'd be surprised if they came back quickly. And that's because there's a lot of cell phone evidence, there's a lot of data that, GPS data. So there's a lot to go through for I think before this jury is going to feel comfortable reaching an ultimate conclusion. So I don't expect anything tonight, I could be wrong, but I think they're going to be out for a while.


BLITZER: Areva Martin, thanks very much. We will stay in close touch with you.

Just ahead, the House Ethics Committee announces that investigation into Republican Congressman George Santos. What it could mean for his already embattled career.


BLITZER: Just in to CNN, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein has been hospitalized in California with shingles. According to a statement from the senator, she was diagnosed with the virus late last month and expects to make a full recovery. The 89 year old Feinstein announced this year she is not planning to seek reelection in 2024 but does intend to serve the remainder of her term.

The House Ethics Committee has announced an investigation into Congressman George Santos. The embattled Republican is already facing legal issues and calls to resign for excessively lying about his resume. Our political experts are here to discuss.


Let's start with you Manu Raju, you're up on Capitol Hill, what are you learning first of all about this new investigation into Congressman Santos?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, this is a very serious one because the Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, has pointed to the house ethics investigation that hasn't been long expected is something that he would look at if they were to find something that could be untoward or very damaging, that potentially this could spell the end of George Santos's career in the House. Now there is still some time about how this will have to play out. They just announced today opening an investigation which appears to be a rather sweeping one with a pretty wide scope looking at everything from alleged unlawful activity with respect to his 2022 congressional campaign failing to properly disclose required information with the House, as well as looking for alleged federal conflict of interest in connection with a role with a firm that provided fiduciary services, as well as engaging in sexual misconduct with someone who had sought employment at his office, though he has denied some of those allegations, a lot of which he denied as well. But this committee was a bipartisan one and voted to open this investigation.

And if it were to find something that potentially Republican leadership could not live with that, then we could we could possibly see the House move forward with any action to remove him from office. And so all along, George Santos has said he will not resign. He said he has been elected by 142,000 voters in his district.

But to expel him would require two thirds of the House to do just that. Republican leadership is not there. But can this ethics investigation changed their approach to him? That's what we'll see in the weeks and months ahead, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Manu Raju up on Capitol Hill, thank you very much.

David Chalian, you're a political director, Santos told CNN last month that he was not concerned about a House Ethics probe. But should he be?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, I don't know of a member of Congress who is the subject of an ethics probe who doesn't have some concerns. So, sure he should be.

I think what Manu got out there that is so important is the scope of what has been put forth of what is being investigated. That alone should give him pause.

Now, we've seen for months now, George Santos seems almost impervious to public pressure around any kind of decision to abandon his post or leave the House, Wolf. We have seen in the past other members do face mounting pressure when they are in the midst of an ethics probe that may cause them to make different decisions about their future. We don't know if Santos will choose that or not. But when this is wrapped up, and we learn more about what the ethics investigation finds, perhaps, then I do think as Manu noted, there's going to be a lot of pressure on Kevin McCarthy on whether or not that requires additional action.

BLITZER: Jeff Zeleny, I see you're over at CPAC right now, one of two high profile Republican gatherings taking place this week. What does the list of speakers reveal to you about this growing rift we're sensing within the Republican Party?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, you know, CPAC is an annual event, but certainly every four years right before the presidential election, it's a rite of passage for Republican hopefuls to stop by CPAC to meet these conservative activists from across the country. This year, it is an entirely different field. There's no leadership of the Republican Party here. Unlike years before, there are no Senate Republican leaders here, no House Republican leaders as well, but it is the presidential candidates so different.

This essentially has become the Trump show. You walk through the hallways here, so much paraphernalia and other supporters of former President Donald Trump. While other presidential candidates, other Republican hopefuls are actually going to Florida this weekend, skipping this annual CPAC conference as it's known to speak at a Club for Growth conference, the Club for Growth, of course, a very influential anti-Tax Group here in Washington. They decided to host a competing event that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and several other leading Republican governors and others are appearing out.

So, Wolf, in a nutshell what it shows us, there's a simply as a dividing line in the Republican Party, Donald Trump at the middle of that between those who want to send him back to office and those who are looking for a fresh start. So, unusual compared to many years here. There is a pretty empty crowd and a shortlist of speakers going into this weekend, Wolf.

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting, David, let me go back to you, the former Vice President Mike Pence, he spoke with CBS News. I want you to listen to what he said when asked if he would support Donald Trump if he's the Republican presidential nominee.


MIKE PENCE, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I think we'll have better choices and I really trust Republican voters to sort it out.


BLITZER: That's clearly not a yes, is it?

CHALIAN: It clearly isn't. This is a line that Mike Pence developed with the rollout of his book last fall. He said the same thing to our very own Jake Tapper when he did the town hall on CNN.

Listen, at some point, if indeed Mike Pence runs and becomes a candidate and wants to get on the debate stage, it sounds like from the RNC Chairwoman Ronna, Romney McDaniel, that there's going to be a requirement for all the candidates to sign a pledge that they'll support whoever the nominee is at the end of the day as a requirement to get on the debate stage. That's not finalized yet, Wolf, but Mike Pence, if he does want on the debate stage, and that is a requirement, may have to sort of amend that statement there.


BLITZER: We shall see. All right, David Chalian, thank you. Jeff Zeleny, thanks to you as well. An important note to our viewers, tonight, don't miss a CNN special primetime conversation with First Lady Jill Biden. She sat down for a wide ranging interview with CNN's Arlette Saenz during her five day visit to Africa. Here's a preview.


ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRSPONDENT: I know you said that you are not the President's advisor, you're his spouse, but you do hold a lot of influence. What are the areas you do offer him advice on?

JILL BIDEN, FIRST LADY: Well, certainly, I tell him stories and things that I've seen and things that people want and where their challenges are. So, it's not that I'm like weighing in, it's like, let me tell you what I saw or what I heard or what people are saying to me. And so it's in that context, because I'm out every day, I'm in the classroom, I'm out you know, somewhere in the United States. And so, I think it's a good balance, really.

SAENZ: And I think there's a lot of focus on the role and the impact that you have on him. But how does he help you?

BIDEN: Well, sometimes I don't -- I may not see things from his perspective. Let's just put it that way. And so, he offers both sides. I'm always a little bit better, like this person feels this way. You know, he's very good at that, understanding why people feel the way they do.


BLITZER: And you can catch the full interview during a CNN special later tonight 9 p.m. Eastern.

Coming up, passengers are hospitalized after a flight hit significant turbulence. And now, the FAA is investigating what happened. Plus, a triple threat of severe weather for the southern United States. We're tracking a new tornado watch in the CNN weather center.



BLITZER: The FAA is now investigating after a flight from the United States to Germany hit severe turbulence last night injuring passengers and causing the pilots to divert to Washington Dulles Airport. CNn's Pete Muntean has the details.


PETE MUNTEAN, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The in-flight thrashing came without warning. Wednesday night, German Airline Lufthansa flight 469 was in route to Frankfurt from Austin, Texas. Federal investigators say as the flight flew over Tennessee at an altitude of 37,000 feet, the crew reported encountering severe turbulence. The result, according to passengers, like unexpectedly free falling for five seconds off the top of a roller coaster, plates and glassware were up at the ceiling.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: An airbus 330 15 miles east of Memphis reported severe turbulence flight level 370 plus or minus 400 feet.

MUNTEAN (voice-over): The flight diverted to Washington Dulles International Airport outside D.C. where first responders met the flight at the gate. The airport says in all seven people were taken to nearby hospitals.


MUNTEAN (voice-over): National Transportation Safety Board Chair, Jennifer Homendy, says this is the latest incident of severe turbulence on board a commercial airliner. In December 25 people were injured when this Hawaiian Airlines flight encountered turbulence on descent into Honolulu.

HOMENDY: It's the most common issue experienced on airliners. And it can be very dangerous especially if you're not belted in.

MUNTEAN (voice-over): Lufthansa attributes the incident to clear air turbulence. The FAA says it occurs without visual cues to warn pilots of the hazard.

In 115 page study of turbulence incidents on commercial airliners, NTSB findings were simple, wearing a seatbelt reduces the risk of serious injury.

HOMENDY: I wouldn't be afraid. But at the same time you do have to be prepared for any type of injury and make sure you buckle up.


MUNTEAN: Like in this latest case, turbulence often comes with little or no warning. The NTSB says between 2009 and 2018, the flight crew was taken by surprise 28 percent of the time. This is an especially big problem for flight attendants. The head of the NTSB says they are often the most at risk of getting hurt. Wolf.

BLITZER: Pete Muntean reporting for us. Pete, thanks very, very much.

Right now, a tornado warning is in place for portions of Texas and Oklahoma areas also at risk for heavy rains and baseball sized hail tonight. Our Meteorologist Jennifer Gray is joining us from the CNN weather center.

So, how does it look so far, Jennifer?

JENNIFER GRAY, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, Wolf, the threat of severe storms are increasing as we speak. We are seeing very strong storms across East Texas into Oklahoma.

Here's a look at the big picture and you can see that line of storms that's trying to form west of Dallas. Here is our tornado watch box that's in effect right now for Texas and portions of Oklahoma. These bright pink boxes right now are active tornado warnings, meaning a tornado could be in progress in these locations. And these storms are going to continue to track to the east throughout the overnight hours.

As it gets dark outside, we roll up on the evening hours in Central Time, we are going to see the storms continue during the overnight hours. Here are your main threats, tornadoes, some of those could be strong, widespread, damaging winds and large hail. The main threat areas are going to be in those polygons shaded in orange and red.

This is your greatest plus probability of a strong tornado right here where these black lines are. Ten percent chance of a strong tornado. But your biggest risk tonight is going to be very large hail. We could see baseball sized hail across East Texas on into Oklahoma and that will extend into the Ark-La-Tex.


As we move through tonight into early tomorrow morning, we will have a major flooding threat on our hands where we could see up to six inches of rain across the Mississippi River Valley and the Ohio valleys walk. So this is going to extend on into tomorrow, not only with the flooding but the severe threat as well.

BLITZER: We just learned, Jennifer, that there has been a ground stop that has now been imposed over at the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport because of the weather. Jennifer Gray, thanks very much for that report.

Coming up, the alleged anti-semitic plot to kill elected officials in Michigan, including the state's attorney general. Plus, a surprise meeting between the Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart, key White House National Security Official John Kirby is standing by with new reaction.