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Murdaugh Sentenced to Life as Judge Slams, Monster You've Become; Trump's Grip on GOP Base Tested at High-Profile Conservative Event; Russia Edging Closer to Capturing Key Ukrainian City of Bakhmut; Dems Angry & Divided Over Biden Siding with GOP on DC Crime Measure. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired March 03, 2023 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: And conservative activists are meeting tonight in a high-profile event where Donald Trump's grip on the GOP is being tested. We're going to look at whose attending CPAC and who is not, and what that says about the 2024 presidential race.
Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Brianna Keilar and you are in The Situation Room.
Let's go right to Ukraine, as we follow the pivotal battle for Bakhmut and growing concerns that it could fall to the Russians very soon. CNN's Melissa Bell has our report from the war zone.
MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Bakhmut still stands, says the Ukrainian military, but only just.
VSEVOLOD KOZHEMYAKO, KHARTIA BATTALION: It looks really hellish.
BELL: The bridge along the last possible supply route in and out destroyed overnight, leaving out a reach and nearly encircled around 4,500 civilians, including 48 children.
The ghosts of Bakhmut entirely out of sight, any sign of life driven underground. What is life like then in Bakhmut today for the civilians, for the soldiers?
KOZHEMYAKO: What life? What life? You know, the soldiers are doing their work, which is quite hard and civilians are trying to survive. There is no water, there is no electricity.
BELL: This was Bakhmut in August when the siege had just begun. This is Bakhmut seven months on. The city is empty, people are afraid to go out, everyday new destruction, it's better not to go outside, writes Dr. Elena Molchanova from inside the town. CNN met her and other nurses on Christmas Eve, not quite happier times, but certainly less desperate ones. Now, the constant artillery prevents her from leaving the basement of her hospital. The Ukrainian military says civilians are now trapped. The head of the Wagner Mercenary Group urging Ukrainians nonetheless to try to leave Bakhmut as his men close in.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The pincers are tightening. The Ukrainian soldiers are fighting but their lives near Bakhmut are short, a day or two. Give them a chance to leave the city. It is, in fact, surrounded.
BELL: Ukraine dismissing those comments as a disinformation campaign designed to spread panic. For now, Ukrainian soldiers continue to fight.
KOZHEMYAKO: Almost all the outskirts ruined, absolutely. Almost every house has these holes have these marks of shelling. The streets are empty. The picture is quite sad.
BELL: But inside, life, as best it can, goes on. Elena helping those who come with what drugs are left and she sends us this. Spring is coming, she says, even to Bakhmut, and that means there's hope.
BELL (on camera): And yet at this stage, Brianna, there is precious little of that left. And, of course, Ukraine has lost and then regained enough town sadly to know what likely fate -- what fate is likely to befall the civilians, with the lack of tenderness of which Russians have tended to treat them in the past.
And which is why the visit today to Ukraine of Merrick Garland was so timely. It was an unannounced visit to Lviv, where he met with Ukraine's prosecutor general, also meeting with President Zelenskyy, and vowing to work with them to help hold Russia accountable for war crimes, what he described as an unjust and unprovoked war. Brianna?
KEILAR: All right. Melissa Bell, live for us from Kyiv, thank you for that report.
Here in Washington, the U.S. unveiled a new aid package for Ukraine as President Biden discussed the war with the leader of Germany.
Our Chief White House Correspondent Phil Mattingly is covering this for us. So, Phil, tell us about the president's talks with the German chancellor.
PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORREPONDENT: Brianna, the last time German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was here at the White House, it was shortly before the Russian invasion and the scale, just how dramatic the shifts in Germany's defense policies and its energy policy and the scale of the entire international western alliance over the course of the last 13 months is almost tough to think about when it actually gets put into play.
And it was something that the president wanted to underscore. There's a very clear understanding here at the White House that Chancellor Scholz faces very real domestic pressures, very real economic pressures and that the coalition that has been so reliant, so steadfast over the course of the last 13 months faces its own potential for fractures in the months ahead.
And that is exactly why the president and the chancellor, while there's no pomp and circumstance, no state dinner, no joint press conference, they wanted to have a business meeting. The president beforehand, wanted underscore his appreciation for his German counterpart.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He stepped up and provided critical military support. And I would argue that beyond the military support, the moral support you gave to the Ukrainians are profound, it has been profound. And you've driven historic changes at home and, you know, I increased the defense spending, and diversifying away from Russian energy sources. I know that's not been easy. It's very difficult for you.
OLAF SCHOLZ, GERMAN CHANCELLOR: At this time, I think it's very important that we give the message that we will continue to do so as long as it takes and as long as it is necessary.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTINGLY: And, Brianna, while the chancellor's message right there has certainly been consistent it certainly echoes what President Biden has said, the reiteration of that message given the no end in sight moment that this war is currently facing right now is critical and one that as the alliance trying to stick together in the months ahead in support of Ukraine underscores just how critical the bilateral relationship is between these two leaders.
While there are very clearly have the intentions over the course of the last several months, in terms of what Germany is willing to provide, in terms of the negotiations and discussions about the capabilities that the alliance has put together, the relationship between the two leaders themselves, officials say, is very warm, very substantive, very candid, Brianna.
KEILAR: And, Phil, there's also some new information tonight about the cancerous lesion that was detected during the president's annual physical. What can you tell us?
MATTINGLY: Yes. We were told by the president's physician that it was basal cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer. It was removed. The wound itself has healed nicely. But most importantly, the cancer was believed to be removed entirely. There is no further treatment that is expected. While the president will continue to be monitored on this issue going forward, at least at this point, they believe they got all of the cancerous lesion removed and nothing further at this moment in term of treatment, Brianna.
KEILAR: All right, that is some good news. Phil, thank you for that report, live for us from the White house.
Let's get more now on all of this with our military and diplomatic experts, Ambassador Bill Taylor with us. So how critical is it for these allies, the U.S. and Germany, to remain in lockstep on Ukraine, because, clearly, Ambassador, one of the calculations of Vladimir Putin has been to try to outlast them?
WILLIAM TAYLOR, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE: And, Brianna, Putin must be disappointed, because they have stuck together, the allies have stuck together, the Biden administration, to its credit, has really pulled off a major accomplishment by keeping the alliance together. And not just NATO, I mean, it's all the rest of Europe. It's Japan, South Korea, Australia. It's been a broad effort and they have stuck together, which is why the Ukrainians are so pleased with this.
KEILAR: And, Evelyn Farkas, the U.S. just announced this military package, another one, with much needed ammunition. The White House though said F-16s were not a key part of the agenda today. Do you see that shifting at any point soon?
EVELYN FARKAS, FORMER DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE FOR RUSSIA/UKRAINE/EURASIA: I do, Brianna. I don't know about soon, but there are reports that we have been training Ukrainian pilots on F- 16s, and it follows the pattern, as you know, where the administration is cautious, is not certain whether they should approve a certain weapons system. But once they discuss it with their allies, and that might have been under discussion today, they do end up proceeding.
KEILAR: Yes, we see that time and again. We certainly do. And they're pressing for that from Ukraine.
Colonel Leighton, as we're looking to the battlefield and we're seeing Bakhmut really as the focus right now, the situation there very grim, what is this going to mean for the fight if Russia does capture this city?
COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, Brianna, if Russia does capture Bakhmut, then, of course, there's certainly a moral factor involved in this. But what will probably happen is the Ukrainians will pull back to the villages and the towns to the west of Bakhmut. They will try to form a defensive line to prevent the Russians from really taking advantage of any type ground that they would have gained by capturing Bakhmut.
So, to me, it will look like an empiric victory, I think, if the Russians do this. Of course, there are always chances that things could go wrong for the Ukrainian side as well. But the key thing to remember is that the Russians are really limited in the supplies that they have as well. So, they may gain incrementally but it won't be a permanent gain at this point in time, at least.
KEILAR: Ambassador, what are you looking for in this new offensive? What concerns do you have? And we should also mention that we have spring upon us, which could change the nature of this fight.
[18:10:03] TAYLOR: Brianna, you're exactly right. And I'm looking for Ukrainians to mount this offensive that they have been preparing. What we may be seeing right now is the Russian offensive. And if so, it's not that offensive. Exactly as the colonel said, they've got some real problems themselves. And Ukrainians are preparing for their offensive.
Ukrainians know that they need to win soon. And so tying up all these Russian forces up around Bakhmut could be part of their strategy, could be part of their attempt to pull the Russians out of where the Ukrainian offensive can come. The Ukrainian offensive can be successful this summer.
KEILAR: Certainly, we'll be looking towards that.
And, Evelyn, just a big reminder of how Russia has treated Ukraine and the possibility for holding them accountable. We saw U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland making this trip to Western Ukraine today, to Lviv. He met President Zelenskyy on holding Russia to account. What is the impact there?
FARKAS: I think that's huge, because Ukrainians really are counting on deterring Russia, not just militarily but through accountability, through legal measures. They don't want Russia to come back in another decade or two, or in 100 years, to try this again. And there's a long history, unfortunately, of Russia, whether it was a Soviet Union or the Russian Empire, essentially trying to rub out the Ukrainian identity.
And so the Ukrainians really want to put this to rest, and I think they also see they have a responsibility on behalf of the people in Syria and other places in the world where, you know, this kind of genocide has been attempted. So, they see their place in history and I think it's great that the attorney general went there to shore up their -- shore up support for them.
KEILAR: Thank you all for the conversations this evening at this critical point in this conflict. We do appreciate it.
And just ahead, we're going to take you inside of the South Carolina courtroom as Alex Murdaugh was sentenced to life in prison, some really tough remarks from the judge, who calls the trial one of the most troubling cases that he's ever seen.
KEILAR: One day after a jury convicted him of murdering his wife and son, Alex Murdaugh is heading to state prison for the rest of his life. The judge chastising the disgraced attorney as he handed down the sentence.
CNN's Randi Kaye has a look at all of the dramatic developments inside the courtroom.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) JUDGE CLIFTON NEWMAN, SOUTH CAROLINA CIRCUIT COURT: I sentence you for a term of the rest of your natural life.
RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Alex Murdaugh today given two life sentences for the murder of his wife and son.
NEWMAN: I know you have to see Paul and Maggie during the night times when you're attempt to go to sleep. I'm sure they come and visit you.
ALEX MURDAUGH, CONVICTED MURDERER: All day and every night.
KAYE: After more than a month in the courtroom, jurors took about three hours Thursday to convict Murdaugh of murder for his wife, Maggie, and 22-year-old son, Paul, who were found fatally shot on the family's property in June 2021.
A juror told ABC --
CRAIG MOYER, JUROR IN ALEX MURDAUGH TRIAL: I didn't see any true remorse.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How did you know he wasn't crying?
MOYER: Because I saw his eyes. I was as close to him.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So, it took basically 45 minutes before you guys to come to a decision?
MOYER: Probably about 45, maybe an hour.
KAYE: Murdaugh, once a prominent lawyer in the area, took the stand last week in his own emotional defense, maintaining he found the bodies after returning from a brief visit to his mother that night, despite cell phone video placing him at the scene.
NEWMAN: Remind me of the expression that you there on the witness stand, was it on what tangled web we weave, what did you mean by that?
MURDAUGH: When I lie, I continue to lie.
KAYE: The defense relied heavily on Murdaugh's opioid addiction to account for his deception and lies about his whereabouts, something the judge and jury didn't buy.
NEWMAN: They've concluded that you continued to lie and lie throughout your testimony, not credible, not believable.
KAYE: Despite all the circumstantial evidence against him, Murdaugh maintained he was not guilty.
MURDAUGH: I'm innocent. I would never, under any circumstances, hurt my wife, Maggie, and I would never, under any circumstances, hurt my son, Paw-Paw.
NEWMAN: And it might not have been you. It might have been the monster you become when you take 15, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 opioid pills. KAYE: Still, Murdaugh's defense team says they wouldn't have done anything differently.
DICK HARPOOTLIAN, ALEX MURDAUGH'S DEFENSE ATTORNEY: He's a liar and he's a thief and he admitted that. He's not a murderer. We saw the relationship between Paul and Alex. It's just inexplicable that he would execute his son and his wife in that fashion.
CREIGHTON WATERS, LEAD PROSECUTOR: No one who thought they were close to this man knew who he really was, and, your honor, that's chilling.
KAYE (on camera): And when I spoke with Alex Murdaugh's defense lawyers, Brianna, they told me that they do plan to appeal. They have ten days to do so. And they plan to appeal on the grounds of all of these alleged financial crimes being introduced. They felt it was going to be much more focused, the alleged crimes happening and then being exposed just around the time of the murders, not going back years, as the prosecution did. And they told me that that's when they feel they lost the jury when all of these financials crimes were brought into the trial. Brianna?
KEILAR: Yes. And so interesting to hear what that juror said about what the moment was, because it wasn't that one, but we'll see how that goes. Randi Kaye, thank you for that report.
Let's get more now from CNN Legal Analyst Elliot Williams, we're also joined by Attorney and Legal Affairs Commentator Areva Martin.
Elliot, how powerful were those remarks from Judge Newman as he sentenced Alex Murdaugh to two life sentences in the murders of his wife of son?
ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: You know, Brianna, when we think about what crimes are, there's a reason why the prosecution is the state versus Alex Murdaugh or whomever else, it's because crime is treated as, in the eyes of the law, a violation against society, right?
And the judge in his remarks was saying, you are a member of this community. I remember your grandfather, or I've appeared in this court, I know you through the community, and you've wronged brought not just ending the life of two of your family members, you've wronged all of us. And so it was almost a personalized plea. And I've seen that sometimes from judges where they speak about the community and the world they live in, and how it was sort of upended by a defendant.
KEILAR: Yes. Areva, I mean, we were just talking with Randi there. She said this appeal would be on that financial transgressions, whether they should have been introduced, but it seems like that video that put Alex Murdaugh at the scene of the murders right before they occurred, at a time when he initially said that he was not there, that that really may have been the smoking gun. AREVA MARTIN, ATTORNEY AND LEGAL AFFAIRS COMMENTATOR: Absolutely, Brianna. We always know that it's very risky for defendant to take the witness stand in his own defense, particularly in a double murder case and particularly when you have lied consistently to law enforcement.
So, Alex Murdaugh, very experienced attorney, he knew that he would be under really, really intense cross-examination on that issue of whether he was at the kennel just minutes before Maggie and Paul were killed. He took a calculated risk. I'm sure his attorney went over with him over and over and over again telling him about the risk. But being a skilled attorney, I think he thought he could outsmart the jurors.
You heard one of the jurors who's given an interview say he thought he was a good liar but he wasn't good enough. And jurors just didn't believe his alibi, they didn't believe the story, and they heard his voice, and they heard two people came into that courtroom say that is his voice. So, that was very powerful and persuasive evidence to try to overcome.
KEILAR: Yes, just person after person saying that was him on there. He had no choice but to address it.
And, Elliot, I wonder what you think of his defense attorneys and how they saying they're going to appeal. Do they have a good shot here?
WILLIAMS: I don't know if they have a good shot, but it's not foolish. Here's the thing. In order to establish motive, which prosecutors don't have to do but it helps them get closer to a conviction, to establish motive, like you said, they have to lay out these financial crimes. That is very, very risky legally because you start stepping up to the line of saying, because he committed crimes in the past and because he's lied in the past, therefore, it's more likely that he committed this crime. That's called prejudicial in the eyes of the law.
So, you know, a court could find that that strategy probably tested the bounds or went too far, but at the end of the day, this was a conviction in which the evidence was relatively clear, and like what we were talking about a moment ago, lying about where you were at the moment a crime was committed is something that jurors don't look very kindly on.
KEILAR: No, they don't. And just in, we actually have a picture of Alex Murdaugh in his new mug shot, whereas you can see he appears to have shaved his head or had his head shaved of all of his hair there. So, he has a different look obviously than he did earlier in the court. But this is the new manage shot of him as he is beginning that two consecutive life sentences there.
Areva, when you look at -- I mean, this isn't the end of things, right? Because you have the other charges of financial crimes, so many victims, there are potential victims, and then these looming questions about other suspicious deaths surrounding the Murdaugh family. Where do those stand? MARTIN: Yes. We know that there're some investigations that are taking place with respect to those suspicious deaths and we also know, in addition to those financial crimes, Brianna, he is facing serious civil lawsuits as well. We've heard from the attorney that's representing the young woman who was killed in that boat accident, in which Paul was involved in. That lawsuit is moving forward. That was the attorney that was trying to get financial information disclosed, part of what the prosecution said was the reason that Alex came up with this, you know -- decided to kill his wife and his son, was to avoid giving those documents away. So, civil lawsuits and criminal prosecutions still remain for this now convicted murderer.
KEILAR: Yes, we have not heard the last of this. Areva, Elliot, thank you to you both.
And coming up, Republicans with presidential ambitions testing their message to conservatives and their strategy against Donald Trump.
KEILAR: Former President Donald Trump is facing a new test of his 2024 campaign on the eve of his remarks to an influential conservative group. Some of Trump's competitors made their appeals today.
CNN's Jeff Zeleny has more on CPAC and the Republican divisions on display there.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's long been a command performance for Republicans harboring White House ambitions.
NIKKI HALEY, REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's great to be back at CPAC.
ZELENY: But at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington, the parade of potential presidential hopefuls is far shorter this year. Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley --
HALEY: If you're tired of losing, put your trust in a new generation. And if you want to win not just as a party but as a country, then stand with me.
ZELENY: -- and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gently called for a new direction.
MIKE POMPEO, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: We shouldn't look for the larger than life personalities but rather we should find power in the rooms, like this one.
ZELENY: But the long-running three-day gathering called CPAC is now seen as the Trump show.
DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: These are my people. This is beautiful.
ZELENY: The former president is set to appear Saturday, joining a sea of loyal supporters, and members of his own family.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Your president, President Donald Trump, will be here.
ZELENY: Who are rallying to return him to office, but other big-name contenders who many Republicans see as the party's future, had other plans. Last year Florida Governor Ron DeSantis took to the stage as a rising star.
GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): CPAC.
ZELENY: But as he inches closer to declaring a presidential bid, he attended a gathering of donors in Florida hosted by Club for Growth, an anti-tax group, urging the party to moved on from Trump. Several potential rivals also skipped CPAC and headed to Florida, including former Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem and New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu.
But adoration for Trump was on full display at CPAC where Evie Phillips took a seat at a replica resolute desk against the backdrop of a faux oval office.
EVIE PHILLIPS, CPAC ATTENDEE: Trump first, and then DeSantis, let's do that in 2028.
ZELENY: Colleen Hoffman is from Jacksonville, Florida. She wore a DeSantis hat even as she sported a Trump sticker. She said she's torn but believes Trump is the stronger choice for 2024.
COLLEEN HOFFMAN, CPAC ATTENDEE: I really love this hat because it's like, let us alone, I love it. But as of right now I'm going to go for Donald Trump.
ZELENY: At the early stage of the campaign, it's hardly a two-man contest, as Vivek Ramaswamy, an Ohio businessman who jump into the race last month, made clear on the CPAC stage.
VIVEK RAMASWAMY REPPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: When we rally behind the cry to make America great again, we did not just hunger for a single man, we hungered for the unapologetic pursuit of excellence. That is what it means to be an American.
ZELENY: Yet even as the Republican field grows, the conversations at CPAC and the comparisons between candidates always came back to Trump.
KRISTEN FORBES, CPAC ATTENDEE: I think Governor DeSantis is wonderful. I think he is amazing. I just don't think it's his time quite yet. I think if he could just give it four years, I think he would be a great successor to Trump. (END VIDEOTAPE)
ZELENY (on camera): So, in the middle of all this celebration of the former president, Donald Trump, these gentle calls to turn to a new generation, not met with a lot of applause here today, Brianna. Clearly, there's a respect for these candidates, but there is a love for Donald Trump. So, when he arrives here tomorrow, the question, what does he do? Does he try distinguishing himself from some of his rivals? His aides say, count on it. Brianna?
KEILAR: Yes, it's going to be tough. This really shows us the divide there.
Jeff, stay with us, if you would. I want to bring in CNN's Audie Cornish to the conversation. Audie, I mean, we look at CPAC, how much does this illustrate the challenge ahead for any possible Trump challenger?
AUDIE CORNISH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well I think CPAC has become a home for more and more kind of right-wing voices and at this point is sort of fully ideologically captured by the sort of Trump family and Trump politics, this is where you do kind of have a testing ground for these messages. I don't think it's an accident that Nikki Haley is there trying out her argument. Unfortunately, her argument to a room full of people is that Republicans have been losing, and now it's time to be a winner. I mean, you don't say that to a bunch of people who probably believe President Trump's kind of election lies.
So, there's still this kind of -- it's not clear what that message is, if you are an alternative to Trump, how to make that message safely to his base of supporters.
KEILAR: Yes. And, Jeff, you're talking to voters there at CPAC. What are they saying to you?
ZELENY: Well, this is a sea of true believers. I mean, the merchandise on display, every type of Trump 45, of course, he was the 45th president, trying to be the 47th, is on display. So, this is his crowd.
But if you talk a little bit deeper to them, there is a sense of, you know, is he the future of the party? That, of course, is his burden to show that he can be the future of the party as well.
But one thing that is so different at this CPAC, and we've covered so many of them, is when there's a Democrat in the White House, this is the year, the year before the presidential election, it is supposed to be the testing ground, the proving ground for Republican candidates to talk about conservative policies, conservative ideas, much less talk about conservative policies, the debt and other things, then a cult of personality around the former president. That's why this event is so different.
Certainly, it's not the harbinger of what's to come in the broader sense of the Republican primary. This is just one sort of stop along the way. The actual, you know, real Republican voters and others out there will certainly make this decision, but this is essentially a Trump rally spread over three days in a hotel here just outside Washington. So, not necessarily a broader sample of what some Republicans are looking for.
KEILAR: Yes. Audie, and you make such a good point, Audie, when you say that Nikki Haley is saying to a group of people who may think that Trump won, hey, if you're tired of losing, they don't think that he lost necessarily, but she still has to convince them that she can win.
And I wonder if she has a winning lane here, considering this divide.
CORNISH: And another question is how many other people are going to be in that lane. I mean, technically Mike Pompeo would be in that lane, even the former vice president, Pence, would be in that lane, the alternative to Trump lane that maybe is still kind of aligned or connected to what would be considered kind of establishment Republican values or people who are making the argument that they could perform much better in a general election.
I think that's still a hard sell in these early days, however I want to add one other thing. The fact that so many other potentials are sort of courting the donors, courting the Club for Growth crowd, means that they do see some sort of other path for support in the party. And it will be interesting to see who comes out of that money race, so to speak, in a couple months.
KEILAR: Yes. It's a crowded field, Jeff. It's very crowded. It will be is our expectation.
ZELENY: It is. And, of course, every new face, the larger the field, the more it benefits the former president, no doubt about it. That's how he came to win the nomination back in 2016 after that very large 2015 primary run. So, that actually is the bigger point here.
The donor event down in Florida, some donors are trying to get behind Governor DeSantis or others trying to keep this field small. That is going to be the thing to keep an eye on that we'll be going to talking about for the days to come, how many candidates will be on that debate stage in August at the first Republican debate. A crowded field certainly benefits the former president. Brianna?
KEILAR: Yes, it sure does. Jeff and Audie, thank you so much. And be sure to catch Audie's podcast, The Assignment with Audie Cornish, available wherever you get your podcasts.
Just ahead, a Michigan man accused of plotting to murder Jewish lawmakers appearing in court for the first time since his arrest. Stay with us. You're in The Situation Room.
KEILAR: New developments out of Michigan, the suspect in a plot to kill Jewish state officials making his first appearance in court this afternoon.
CNN's Omar Jimenez is joining us from outside of the courthouse. Omar, what more did we learn about the suspect and what is he accused of?
OMAR JIMENEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, in this hearing in particular, he consented to continue his detention here, but he did, through his attorney, distribute a letter challenging the personal jurisdiction of the court. And that may be in part because the FBI says he does not believe that law enforcement or the government has jurisdiction over him. Nonetheless, he remains in federal custody, where he is accused -- or the message is he's accused of sending allegedly began out of state when he sent those.
And, basically, he -- when he posted these letters on social media, this is where he said he was coming back to Michigan threatening to kill Jewish members of the Michigan government. And later adding, any attempt to subdue me will be met with deadly force in self-defense.
Now, he was eventually arrested, but Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel confirmed what a law enforcement source had told CNN, that she was the targets or among the targets of this alleged plot. But also a state representative here in Michigan came forward to say she was one of the targets of this alleged plot as well, but also that, to her, this wasn't so much a surprise. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SAMANTHA STECKLOFF (D), MICHIGAN STATEHOUSE: We've soon a rise in anti-Semitism pretty form since the Charlottesville. When President Trump came in 2016, we saw this rise and wave of this Christian national group, and it really, really, really hit the fire when Kanye West said he was going to go DEFCON 3 on all the Jews back in October- November.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
JIMENEZ: Now, as for this particular suspect, he's accused of violating interstate communications when it comes to threats. We haven't gotten a plea just yet, but when I approached his public defender after the hearing today, he didn't have an additional comment, Brianna.
KEILAR: And, Omar, the complaint mentions that he posted a declaration of sovereignty. What can tell us about that?
JIMENEZ: Yes. So, that declaration is known to be part of the Sovereign Citizens Movement, as it's known. And the FBI has been looking at this for a long time now and it's even classified it as a form of domestic terrorism. But that classification hasn't necessarily translated over to these particular charges, though they have seen it as a growing threat over the past decade.
So, again, while it doesn't seem to affect the legal implications to this, socially, this is something the FBI has been looking at for a while now.
KEILAR: All right. Omar Jimenez, thank you for that, live for us from Detroit.
And coming up, Democrats divided, why a Washington D.C. crime law is splitting the president from many in his party.
KEILAR: Democrats are angry and divided right now over President Biden's decision to side with Republicans on a controversial D.C. crime bill.
Our Brian Todd is working this story for us.
So, Brian, the GOP put the president and his party in a tough spot here?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They really did, Brianna, but the president also put himself into this jab by again trying to walk a tightrope between party loyalty, and being tough on crime.
REPORTER: Mr. President, what do you plan to do on the D.C. crime bill? We understand you will not veto?
TODD (voice-over): President Biden caught tonight between wanting to be seen as tough on crime and wanting to support Washington, D.C.'s right to govern itself. The president now supporting a move by Republicans in Congress, to rescind a controversial new D.C. crime law. A law that would take measures like lowering the penalties for carjackings.
Just last month, the president was in favor of that D.C. law. His administration saying, quote, Congress should respect the District of Columbia's autonomy to govern its own local affairs.
So, why did the president just changed his mind?
TAMARA KEITH, NPR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That is a real soft point for Democrats because they're constantly criticized for being soft on crime.
TODD: A theme Donald Trump jumped on in recent months.
DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT: One of the worst of most sinister aspects of the Biden administration, is the complete and total corruption of our justice system, and the rule of law.
TODD: If President Biden had supported the D.C. law, Republicans could have attacked him for backing a city council, that wanted to lessen punishment in a city where violent crime is a serious problem. D.C. police say that as of today, in 2023 alone, there have been 38 homicides. 95 carjackings, and 215 assaults with dangerous weapons in the city.
Biden also may not have wanted to be perceived as being to the left of D.C.'s Democratic mayor, Muriel Bowser, who herself opposed the crime law passed by the city council.
MAYOR MURIEL BOWSER (D), WASHINGTON, D.C.: They were weakening of penalties that should not happen.
TODD: Analysts say some big mayoral races were crime was a huge issue could also have shaped President Biden's strategy.
KEITH: It comes in the context of a New York mayor's race that was very much about crime, with the election of Eric Adams, and then Joe Biden hugging him close after that, and then the loss of Lori Lightfoot in Chicago, where crime again was a huge issue.
TODD: But now that he sides with Republicans on that D.C. crime law. Progressive Democrats are feeling betrayed by the president. New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeting, quote, plenty of places passed laws the president may disagree with. He should respect the people's government of D.C., just as he does elsewhere.
The White House now trying to patch things up with that wing of the president's party, saying he's committed to the idea of D.C. becoming a state.
KARINE JEAN-PIERRE, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: If Congress sends a bill making D.C. a state, he'll also always, always be sure to sign. And he's been talking about that for the last two decades.
TODD: Still, the Democrats in the House who had already voted in favor of that D.C. law before President Biden changed his mind on it are fuming. They're complaining that the White House didn't communicate adequately with them on the president changing direction on this. And that the Senate is expected to vote on the Republican bill to rescind the D.C. law next week -- Brianna.
KEILAR: All right. Brian Todd, thank you for that.
I want to discuss this now with CNN political commentator and former Democratic congressman, Mondaire Jones.
What do you think, did the president make the right move here?
MONDAIRE JONES, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPOONDENT: Well, look, let me start by clarifying that this is not a debate between the progressive wing of the party and the White House. This is a debate Senate between the overwhelming majority of Democrats in Congress and the White House. There's a reason why the overwhelming majority that were in the House, for example, voted not to override the decision of a newly-and popularly elected city council.
I don't think the White House is going to get the kind of benefit that it thinks from this. The president is still going to be attacked by people in bad faith, on the issue of crime. What's ironic about this, is that Joe Biden perhaps more than the vast majority of Democrats has really distinguished a shot of being tough on crime. I mean, the man literally author the '94 crime bill, every chance he gets he make sure to support law enforcement and several State of the Union against what he called on Congress to make sure to fund law enforcement.
So, I don't think there's any risk by just respecting the will of the city council, in a municipality frankly that has said deserves statehood. And that does have merits, the population for example of being larger than the states of Wyoming, and Vermont. I don't think he's -- I think he's going to get attacked in bad faith regardless, so he should do the right thing, something that's not in conflict of what he said, which is that the city of D.C. deserve statehood, and should not have to suffer the indignity of having Congress substitute its own judgment, even if it disagrees with what the city council does.
KEILAR: No doubt politically this is tough, but he's also got the mayor, right, who oppose this bill. I mean, yes, if she's overridden by the council, sure, but that is something to consider, right? There are some Democrats including ones who very much have the best interest of D.C. at heart, who do side with him, even as some don't.
JONES: So, Mayor Bowser actually lobbied to Congress not to overrule the 12 to 1 vote of the city council on the theory that sure, I veto this legislation initially but who are you to substitute your own judgment for my city council, and she used the word indignity in that statement. That it was an ongoing indignity that Congress would even gain to substitute its own judgment in this way.
And, you know, I think that the racial politics of this and the racial realities of this should not go unaddressed. It's a city that's overwhelmingly Black. It's a city that's again that's population which suggests that the largeness of the population which suggests that they deserve statehood, in a way that so many other states in this union do. And it has no representation in Congress that can vote. The city of D.C. has not a House representative, or a Senate represented with the ability to cast a vote that counts. And that's an ongoing travesty.
KEILAR: I'm a D.C. resident, and as a D.C. resident, when you explain that to people, they scratch their heads. They're sort of surprised by it but that's the case.
Congressman, thank you so much for being with us.
JONES: Thank you.
Just ahead, President Biden awards a Medal of Honor decades in the making.
We'll be right back.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: At the White House today, President Biden bestowed the U.S. military's highest declaration on a man who risked everything to save lives. The Medal of Honor awarded to retired Army Colonel Paris Davis, a Vietnam veteran who braved bullets and grenades to rescue his fellow soldiers, even as he suffered multiple gunshot wounds from enemy forces.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Paris, you are everything that this medal means. I mean everything this medal means. And look, you're everything that our generation aspired to be. You're everything our nation is at our best -- brave and big hearted, determined and devoted, selfless and steadfast. American. American.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KEILAR: This was an award decades in making for Colonel Davis. At the time of the battle in 1965, he was one of the first African-American officers in the Special Forces. And some of the soldiers who served with him believe that his race played a part in the delay. But despite all of that, Colonel Davis says he's not going to spend the next 50 years thinking about the medal that never was.
Congratulations to Colonel Davis on the well-deserved honor.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.