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The Situation Room
Iowans Getting A Taste Of Potential DeSantis Vs. Trump Showdown; Trump To Huddle With Legal Team In Mar-A-Lago This Weekend As He Weighs Options In Hush Money Probe; Biden On Jobs Report, U.S. Economy Headed In The Right Direction; String Of Derailments Put Norfolk Southern On Hot Seat; 2 Dead, Evacuation Orders Issued As California Floods Intensify. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired March 10, 2023 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Voters in the key battleground state getting a preview of the potential DeSantis/Trump primary showdown as the former president is about to visit the state as well.
Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.
First up this hour, we could be very close to learning Donald Trump's fate in the Stormy Daniels hush money probe.
CNN Justice Correspondent Jessica Schneider has the latest.
JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT (voice over): In what would be a historic case, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg one step closer to bringing criminal charges against former President Donald Trump in a long-running investigation.
ALVIN BRAGG, MANHATTAN DISTRICT ATTORNEY: We're going to look at the facts and the law and let the investigation and justice and what justice requires will dictate how much time we take.
SCHNEIDER: Prosecutors are now giving Trump the chance to testify before a grand jury investigating his alleged role in that $130,000 hush money payout to adult film star Stormy Daniels days before the 2016 election to cover up their alleged affair a decade early. Since potential defendants in New York are required by law to be invited to appear in front of a grand jury, it all indicates a decision on whether to charge Trump could come soon.
MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER TRUMP LAWYER: It's one thing to turn around and to lie on your untruth social. It's another thing to turn around and lie before a grand jury, which all I don't suspect that he is going to be coming.
SCHNEIDER: Trump's former attorney, Michael Cohen, meeting with prosecutors again Friday. He was sentenced to three years in prison in part for his role paying off Stormy Daniels and then getting reimbursed by the Trump Organization. That reimbursement would be at the heart of any case brought against Trump.
Prosecutors could charge Trump with falsifying business records, for improperly recording his repayment to Cohen. That would be a misdemeanor. Prosecutors could also charge Trump with a felony for falsifying business records in connection with violating campaign finance laws. It could be a risky case to proceed with.
NICK AKERMAN, FORMER WATERGATE PROSECUTOR: If the prosecutor's plan is to rest their case on Michael Cohen, that's a big gamble.
SCHNEIDER: Though some argue it's straight forward.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's pretty simple. I mean, he paid money to keep her quiet. They took the money. They laundered it and hid it in the papers of the Trump Organization. And, ultimately, it meant that the Trump Organization paid tax on something and filed an income tax return that was false.
In New York State law, no, that's a felony.
SCHNEIDER: Several key people have already testified before the grand jury, including former Top White House Aides Kellyanne Conway and Hope Hicks. Trump has repeatedly denied any affair with Stormy Daniels or any involvement in the payoff.
REPORTER: Mr. President, did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?
DONALD TRUMP, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: No, no.
SCHNEIDER: And a spokesman blasted the D.A.'s investigation saying the Manhattan district attorney's threat to indict President Trump is simply insane. For the past five years, the D.A.'s office has been on a witch hunt, investigating every aspect of President Trump's life. And they have come up empty at every turn and now this.
SCHNEIDER (on camera): Now, former President Trump will meet with his legal team at Mar-a-Lago this weekend to consider his options and make the decision about whether he will appear before the New York grand jury. That's what a person familiar is telling our Kara Scannell.
It's not clear when Trump needs to make a decision about whether he will appear or if there's a firm deadline. And, Wolf, the D.A.'s office right now is not commenting but potentially a lot to come. Wolf?
BLITZER: It certainly is. All right Jessica Schneider, thank you very much.
Let's bring in our political and legal experts for some serious analysis right now. And, Carrie Cordero, let me start with you. What does Trump's legal team need to consider as they prepare to huddle this weekend down at Mar-a-Lago? CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, they need to consider the risk to him legally both in this case and in light of all the other investigations that are out there of him both federal and at the state level in another state and whether the risk of him potentially testifying outweighs anything else. And I just have a very hard time believing that they would advice him to actually testify under oath in this case.
BLITZER: Yes. A lot of people agree with you. Alyssa Farah Griffin, what do you think those discussions in the coming days down at Mar-a- Lago in Florida will actually look like?
ALYSSA FARAH GRIFFIN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: So, what I have been hearing from Trump world is that they want to come out swinging. And I think you saw in the statement from his spokesperson, which is going to be they're going to say it's a witch hunt. They're going to say this is a liberal D.A.'s effort to undo or delegitimize the 2016 election by saying, you know, there were the hush money payment, there were campaign finance violations, but they are concerned.
And, you know, you can't look at this in a bubble of just this investigation. He is facing half a dozen right now. This probably faces -- has the least serious legal consequences, even if it goes forward with an indictment.
But they are concerned about it. And they are worried also about, of course, the political dynamics at happening at the time when Ron DeSantis is testing the water and gaining steam. So, they are ready to fight it. They are going to call it a witch hunt as expected.
BLITZER: Kaitlan, you covered the Trump administration. Trump has said he wouldn't think about leaving the 2024 presidential race even if he is charged with some sort of crime. But what sort of impact could that potentially have?
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR AND CHIEF CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I'm told that that statement was more of a message to Jack Smith, who is the special counsel that's investigating Trump's role on January 6th and the classified document situation.
But when you talk to people who speak to Trump regularly, they have said lately that this is a case here in New York that he has been very preoccupied with. And the reason for that is that he thinks the district attorney, Alvin Bragg, hates him. That is the word that he uses when he uses when he speaking with other people. And so he has a level of concern that -- essentially that they are very committed to this and that is why I think it's a really serious discussion.
They are actually going to be talking about whether or not he should go before them. I think it's possible he goes before them. I think when you talk to people who are having these conversations, they say it's not probable.
But there is one thing to consider here, and that is that Trump has had this mentality. He had it during the Mueller investigation, and I am told that he has it now, which is that if he actually got before the grand jury, that he could potentially successfully change their minds about the role he played or his level of responsibility in this.
Obviously, whether or not that ultimately is something that he could do remains to be seen. It's not something a lot of his attorneys think is a good idea. But it is certainly something where -- Alyssa is right, maybe it's not the most legal exposure. This case would still be incredibly challenging for prosecutors. But it is something that has been at the top of the list of things that Trump has been worried about in recent weeks and months, Wolf.
BLITZER: And, Shan Wu, you are our legal analyst. What do you make of the timing of all of this? And what hurdles would the Manhattan prosecutors actually face if they choose to file criminal charges against Trump?
SHAN WU, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: The timing is a little surprising, Wolf. It's as though Alvin Bragg has suddenly sort of found his prosecutorial verb. I mean, he had pretty much tanked any case against Trump personally, previously on the financial crimes. So, this is surprising, this revived this way.
Factually, very straightforward case, easy to put on. The complexities are in the legal challenges his team is going to have to face. Trump's lawyers are going to argue a number of things, some of them may carry no weight, but they will still argue them. They may argue pre-emption. They may try to remove it to federal court as it's an old case.
I'm less concerned about Michael Cohen as a witness because cooperators with baggage they're used every day to secure conviction. So, any good prosecutor should get to handle that.
But I am concerned that if there's a haste makes waste kind of concern here, if he suddenly changed his mind, I mean, maybe because of Pomerantz's book, maybe because he wants to win the race against Fani in Georgia, I don't know, but the complexities are high in terms of what challenges are going to arise, even if factually it is not. So, hopefully his team -- where he has given his team enough time to prepare for that.
BLITZER: You know, Carrie, I want to get back to you, because you mentioned this is just one of several ongoing criminal investigations into Trump's orbit. Where do you see the most legal jeopardy?
CORDERO: Well, amongst all the investigations, this one factually is straightforward. I tend to look at the federal cases. As a national security lawyer, I've been most interested in the classified documents case and the potential angle as to whether or not there really was obstruction of that classified documents investigation.
I think the discovery of classified documents in other former senior government officials' places, including President Biden, former Vice President Mike Pence, complicates a prosecution on the actual mishandling of classified information. But I do think that whether there was obstruction of that investigation really does still at the federal level present potential complications for the former president.
The January 6th investigation is so complex, and I really do wonder whether they will eventually be able to develop facts that would reach the former president himself as opposed to all of the other individuals who were one step removed from him.
COLLINS: Yes. Can I just add, Wolf, they have definitely been concerned about the Jack Smith one. That has been kind of -- I think because Jack Smith is a special counsel and what Trump associates in his mind with a special counsel is Robert Mueller. That is the one that he has been so preoccupied with.
But it's kind of hard to overstate what an extraordinary situation we are in. We are having the former president run and launch a third presidential campaign. He is facing a real indictment. Whether or not it leads to a conviction, we don't know.
But he is in a situation where he is meeting with attorneys. He is paying a lot of money to these attorneys. He is very frustrated by the fact that it's public how much money is going to legal fees right now for him. And so I do think there's a level of concern when it comes to Jack Smith's investigations.
Because he has been so aggressive in his move, subpoenaing people like Mark Meadows, Mike Pence, all of these situations here.
I think Georgia is also a top concern for them because they do feel like that could potentially be something where they are not totally sure what that's going to look like if those indictments come out.
BLITZER: And, Shan, what's the risk of going ahead and prosecuting Trump but not getting a conviction?
WU: Well, I think that's a risk any prosecutor takes, and Bragg and others, Jack Smith, shouldn't be worried about it. If they think they have the evidence, they should proceed.
The risk is really a public relations question. It may make people politically feel like it's a witch hunt. There's no evidence there. If the states go first, because DOJ is like really slow on this train track here, if they go first, and they ran into a problem, it may make Merrick Garland and the senior leadership there more hesitant about it. But, legally, it doesn't mean anything if they lose. It happens all the time.
BLITZER: All right. Shan Wu, Carrie Cordero, Alyssa Farah Griffin, Kaitlan Collins, guys, thank you very, very much.
An important note to our viewers right now, Kaitlan will host CNN's State of the Union this Sunday morning at both 9:00 A.M. and noon Eastern. Among her guests, Republican Congresswoman Nancy Mace. We will be watching.
Just ahead, the Biden administration's response to a historic bank failure, as the president is trying to spread the world about a stronger than expected jobs report. The White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, will join us live. That's next.
BLITZER: Tonight, President Biden says a new expectations-defying jobs report shows the U.S. economy is indeed headed in the right direction. But that upbeat outlook may be tempered by ongoing concerns about inflation as well as a new bank collapse here in the United States.
Let's bring in our Chief White House Correspondent Phil Mattingly. Phil, first of all, tell us more about the numbers and how the president hopes to capitalize on these new jobs numbers.
MATTINGLY: Yes. Wolf, the president wasted little time touting 311,000 jobs added last month, and yet another sign of the resilience and durability of the U.S. economy and the recovery the president has overseen over the course of the last two-plus years. But he also made very clear to use that job report, use that beating of expectations to channel into the fight that's very much ongoing right now, between the White House, between Washington Democrats and the House Republican majority. And where that's going to lead going forward?
The president on the same week he put out his budget making clear there are very clear contrasts here and the jobs number in the broader economy should underscore that Democrats are on the right side. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: Our plan is stark contrast of the MAGA Republican plan in Congress where they are doubling down on the same failed policies of the past that would give special tax breaks to the wealthy, keep the tax breaks that were put in place by the last president, wealthy tax breaks for big oil, tax breaks for pharma at the expense of seniors and families.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTINGLY: And, Wolf, clearly, those jobs numbers something the president wanted to talk about, certainly moves into the battle that's ongoing and will continue for the months ahead.
Obviously, there still remains a concern that an economy that is a little too hot will only draw more rate increases from the Federal Reserve. White House officials are very cautious not to weigh in at all as it relates to the Fed. Democrats on Capitol Hill, though, very clear they don't want the Fed to move too fast, too quickly. However, clearly, they are happy with where the economy sits more broadly, Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, more than 300,000 jobs created last month, that's very, very significant. How concerned, Phil, is the White House though about this bank failure today? We are talking about the Silicon Valley Bank out in California. It's the second biggest bank failure ever here in the United States and the bank taken over now by the federal government.
MATTINGLY: They are keeping a very close eye at. There's no question about that. This is being led by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, having a previously unscheduled convening of regulators. That FTC, the Office of the Currency as well as the Federal Reserve, making clear that they are watching this closely. They believe that the regulators both did the right thing here with the FTC putting this back into -- closing the bank and putting it into receivership is right, and that they have the tools going forward to deal with whatever comes from this failure.
Now, it's worth noting when you talk to both administration officials and regulators, they make clear this is a different moment on several levels from what we saw in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis in large part because of the laws that were put in place to deal with that going forward. They believe they have the tools at this moment but watching very closely for a busy weekend ahead, Wolf.
BLITZER: It certainly is. Let's hope the tools are available. Phil Mattingly at the White House, thank you very much.
Let's discussion what's going on right now with the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre. Karine, thank you so much for joining us. And I want to begin with the sudden collapse of this Silicon Valley Bank our in California. How concerned is the Biden administration that more banks, God forbid, more banks could fail in the coming weeks and months?
KARINE JEAN-PIERRE, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Hey, Wolf, thank you so much for having me. So, I just want to be very mindful here. I just heard Phil give a pretty good lay down of what's going on. But we here are going to be really mindful. I know Secretary Yellen put out -- her team put out a note about this, kind of an update on what's occurring. They are clearly watching this very closely and working with the regulators. I'm just not going to get ahead of what Secretary Yellen and Treasury Department are doing on this today.
BLITZER: Because as you point out, the treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, is expressing what she calls full confidence in banking regulators out there. But as we witness now this second largest shutdown of a bank in U.S. history, how can the Biden administration remain all that confident in the U.S. banking system?
JEAN-PIERRE: I'm just going to repeat what the secretary said. She knows well, she knows -- she understands this process very well, being the secretary of treasury. And I'm just going to let her statements stand and not going to get ahead of what she's trying to do.
I know she's bringing together the regulators, she did that earlier today, and just let them handle this process, where it is appropriate for them to speak to this. I'm just not going to comment further from here, as you can understand. BLITZER: Yes, of course.
And a very, very different note, Karine, the president is understandably touting the very strong February jobs numbers here in the United States. But can you really celebrate this jobs report when this is contributing to Americans being confronted with higher inflation and serious fears of more aggressive rate hikes, interest rate hikes to come?
JEAN-PIERRE: So, those are two things there, Wolf. I just want to be very clear on this as well, when it comes to the Fed. The president has been very clear, the Fed is independent. They are going to make monetary decisions as it relates to rates and anything related to inflation. And so we're going to give them that independence. I'm not going to comment from here. We are going to be pretty consistent, as we have been for the last almost two years on this issue or on the Fed specifically.
But what I will say about the job reports, look, you saw that 300,000 jobs were created in the last month. I know that Phil was just talking about this. And, look, the way that we see this is more jobs, more opportunities for Americans. And this is really incredibly important. We have seen wages grow up.
And as you look at the inflation, over -- inflation has moderated, gone down the past seven months, if you look where it was this summer. And so that's important. The way our economists see the data and the jobs report and where we are currently with inflation is that the president's economic plan is working.
This is a president that took -- he got into the Oval Office, pardon me, and had to deal with an economy that was shutting down. And he got that economy back up on its feet. Now, we see an economy that's growing and it's growing from the bottom up, middle out and it's growing for everyone, not leaving anybody behind.
And that's what we are seeing with increased wages. That's what's you're seeing with more than 12 million jobs creating. Let's not forget small businesses, there's applications up in the 10 millions. That's important from where we started off when the president walked in into this administration.
BLITZER: So, what do you say, Karine, to Americans who are already deeply concerned, as you know, about inflation here in the United States and are maybe now even more concerned about their financial future tonight?
JEAN-PIERRE: And we understand. And the president always says this as well as he talks about the economy. We understand there's always more work to do.
But if you look at what I was talking about the president's inflation -- I'm sorry, the president's economic plan working, if you think about that, if you think about the Inflation Reduction Act, which is going to lower costs on energy costs, right, when you talk about Medicare, being able to actually deal with these big pharma to lower costs for Americans across the country, that's the work that this president has done, the lowering of gas prices. All of those things are the work that this president is doing to make sure that he meets the Americans where they are.
And we understand that things are too high. So, we are doing the work, putting forth -- putting forward pieces of policy, legislation to lower this cost.
When you think about the insulin, right, we just heard from Eli Lilly not too long ago that says they are going to cap insulin at $35, you think about how much it costs to make insulin less than $10, and they were charging -- you see big Pharma charging folks hundreds of dollars, it was because of what the president said at the state of the union, calling on big pharma to do the right thing. They did the right thing. And you see that in the Inflation Reduction Act as well as it relates to Medicare.
So, look, the president put out his budget plan. He was very clear on how he sees being fiscally responsible and moving forward, lowering costs, fighting for the American people, fighting for Medicare and social security. So, what we say to Republicans who are -- Republicans in the House, we say to them, look, what's your plan? What are you going to put forward? How do you see us moving forward, you guys see moving forward when it comes to being fiscally responsible? Right now, they don't want -- they want to cut benefits on Medicare and social security.
BLITZER: The White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, thank you very much for joining us. I know how busy you are over there. I appreciate it very, very much.
JEAN-PIERRE: Thank you so much, Wolf.
Coming up, Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis making his first appearance in the State of Iowa, bringing his expected White House bid one step closer to reality.
Stay with us. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: This hour, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is testing the waters in Iowa on his first visit to the key battleground state. He is not the only Republican with Iowa on their mind as the GOP field begins to take shape.
CNN's Steve Contorno is joining us live from Des Moines right now, Steve, DeSantis is holding an event where you are right now. How significant is his visit?
STEVE CONTORNO, CNN REPORTER: Wolf, that first trip to Iowa is always significant for a presidential contender. It's a chance for the caucus voters here to really get a chance to size a candidate up, hear from him for the first time. And DeSantis has never been to Iowa before and he has got a very big crowd right now listening to him speak, standing room only here.
He has focused a lot on the culture wars that have made him a rising figure in the Republican Party, talking about the divisive war on woke that he has waged in his state. But he has also drawn some subtle contrast with President Trump, who is obviously already running and is going to be here on Monday.
Take a listen to what he said earlier today about how his administration differs from a President Trump White House.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): We made very clear people working in the administration, you are not going to be leaking, you are not going to be doing this.
If you have any other agenda but doing the business of the people of Florida, pack your bags right now, and we did that. And the one thing I could say, if you talk to Floridians, there's no drama in our administration. There's no palace (ph) intrigue. They basically just sit back and say, okay, what's the governor going to do next? And we roll out and we execute.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CONTORNO: Now, DeSantis is not just in Iowa to talk to voters, though, he's doing that in two cities today. He has also been meeting with legislators here. We're told he had a two-hour meeting in the state capital today where he talked with some Republican lawmakers about what he has done in Florida and sort of laying the groundwork for a potential campaign. He has also been taking calls with operatives here. So, doing the work for if he decides to run for president, a decision we expect as early as May or June.
BLITZER: Very interesting. Steve Contorno in Des Moines for us, thank you very much.
Let's bring in our political commentators right now. Michael Smerconish, he's joining us, he's the host of CNN Smerconish, and former Democratic Congressman Mondaire Jones is with us as well.
Michael, let me start with your assessment of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis' first visit to this key 2024 battleground state of Iowa. How do you think he is doing?
MICHAEL SMECONISH, CNN HOST: It seems bigger than a book tour, doesn't it? I mean, there are places, Wolf, with a new manuscript that you can go and sell it. To choose to go and sell it in Iowa, I think, tells us of what the real plan is here.
I take note of the fact that just today the Des Moines Register released a brand new poll and it shows that Donald Trump remains generally well liked among Republicans but there's been erosion and Ron DeSantis starts at a very strong point. So, I think, so far, DeSantis is doing what he needs to do to position himself to really be the competitor to Donald Trump.
BLITZER: And as we just heard, he has got a nice audience over there at that event that he is doing right now. Mondaire, DeSantis is in Iowa today. Donald Trump is set to travel to the state on Monday. How closely is your party, we're talking about the Democrats, watching this for signs of who might eventually become the Republican presidential nominee?
MONDAIRE JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, first of all, Donald Trump is going to lose his mind more than usual I think after this visit because it is the clearest indication that we have got thus far that Ron DeSantis will be a candidate for president in a Republican primary in 2024.
Donald Trump obviously credits himself for the success of Ron DeSantis, so I think this is going to become personal quite quickly. And so I'm looking and I think others are looking very closely at what is the content of the speech he is going to deliver in Iowa, how hard is he going to hit Ron DeSantis.
And, of course, it remains the case that Donald Trump is still the favorite to capture the nomination. Because it's not just Ron DeSantis who is about to enter this Republican primary, there are multiple Republican candidates already. And in a crowded field, Donald Trump, I think, cleans up with 30 to 40 percent of the vote.
BLITZER: And, Michael, it's not just Trump and DeSantis, as you know, Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley is also in Iowa. Is she making a big enough splash in these early campaign events?
SMERCONISH: Well, I agree with Mondaire in so far as the larger the field, the better it is for Donald Trump. And right now, I see two lanes. There's the Trump lane and the non-Trump lane. And in that non- Trump lane, the blocker for Nikki Haley and anyone else who chooses to get in is DeSantis. Because DeSantis enters this position, I think, with more of the vote than you would have anticipated.
And I think what they are all really wondering, those who are still on the sideline, what will be the impact of Alvin Bragg, should there be an indictment of Donald Trump, what about the other investigations? I think they are secretly hoping that a lot of their dirty work gets done by prosecutors and then it opens up to several lanes.
BLITZER: Yes, potentially. Mondaire, do you think it's a mistake that President Biden has yet to make a formal official public announcement that he will seek reelection? His likely Republican rivals are clearly enjoying a lot of attention right now.
JONES: Look, I think the president enjoys attention because he is the president of the United States and he's got that bully pulpit. He is presumed to be running for reelection. His wife more recently, the first lady, mentioned that he is presumptively going to be running for re-election. She phased it sort of interestingly.
I think that so long as no one else is entering the fray, no one of significance anyway, that he is not got an issue here. He has a few months before he has to announce. And certainly other people have already started to raise money for his re-election bid.
BLITZER: What do you think, Michael?
SMERCONISH: I don't think the president has to be in any rush because I don't think there's any challenge coming from a more progressive candidate in his own party. He is well-positioned. He has got the rose garden going for him.
On the other hand, I wonder if DeSantis will speed up his clock a little bit so as to cement his position as the alternative to Donald Trump. That wouldn't surprise me. I know everyone is saying May or June, but maybe it will be sooner.
BLITZER: We will see. Michael Smerconish, Mondaire Jones, guys, thank you very, very much. And to our viewers, be sure to join Michael tomorrow and every Saturday 9:00 A.M. Eastern for his show, which is excellent, Smerconish.
And just ahead, fierce battles in eastern Ukraine after a barrage of, get this, 95 Russian missiles rained down on the country.
BLITZER: Tonight, Ukrainians are keeping a very watchful eye on the sky after a very large scale Russian missile barrage. This as the ground war rages on with fierce fighting on the eastern frontline including the embattled city of Bakhmut.
CNN's Ivan Watson reports on one of the many casualties of the war, whose death has struck a nerve with so many Ukrainians.
IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Funeral for a fallen warrior, an honor guard, and thousands of mourners gathered to remember Junior Lieutenant Dmytro Kutsiubalyo better known by his code name Da Vinci.
He was the youngest battalion commander in the Ukrainian army killed this week in the battle for Bakhmut, a months-long deadly test of wills between the Russian and Ukrainian militaries over a small city of questionable strategic value.
This is how Ukraine is honoring one of its fallen heroes and also proof of the terrible cost that the Ukrainian military is paying in the battle for Bakhmut. In 2021, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy officially declared Da Vinci a hero of Ukraine. On Friday, the president paid his respects to Da Vinci's surviving family members accompanied by the prime minister of Finland. Mourners gathered on their knees around Da Vinci's coffin in the Maidan, the square in central Kyiv where, in 2014, Da Vinci, then just a teenager, joined thousands of demonstrators in a bloody battle against Ukrainian security forces. They ultimately sent the country's pro-Russian president fleeing to Russia.
Soon after, Da Vinci joined a nationalist militia and fought for years against pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas region before formally joining the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Many of the people attending Da Vinci's memorial never met the young commander face-to-face.
SERGIY IVANNIKOV, KYIV RESIDENT: He lost his life for us, for me, for my children, for my family, and we want to live good life. And I am here to celebrate his life and to say final respects to him.
WATSON: What did Da Vinci fight for?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: For Ukraine, for freedom, for us.
WATSON: This woman knows the stakes all too well.
Your husband is fighting in Bakhmut right now.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.
WATSON: There's a price for freedom, she says. One life dies so that other lives may be born.
Though only 27, Da Vinci knew the risks he was taking. I'm ready to go to victory with you, he told his troops, and if need be, to give up my life for you.
Nearly everyone in Ukraine has lost something since Russia's invasion one year ago, a war in which for too many have may the ultimate sacrifice.
WATSON (on camera): And, Wolf, another grim reminder of the enormous cost that this country is paying in this war.
Also here in Kyiv, there was a memorial for Oleg and Mykyta Khomyuk. They are a father and son, both soldiers who were killed together also around that battle of Bakhmut.
The leader of the Russian mercenary group, Wagner, he has claimed that his forces captured another village to the north of that city. We have not been able to independently confirm that. In the meantime, the Ukrainian military says that Bakhmut is still the hottest spot on the entire frontline in this terrible war. Wolf?
BLITZER: Ivan Watson reporting for us, Ivan stay safe over there, thank you very much.
Let's bring in CNN Military Analyst, Retired Colonel Cedric Leighton. Colonel Leighton, thanks for joining us. As we just saw Ukrainians are clearly mourning the loss of this hero, Ukraine's youngest commander. Does this speak to the emotional toll of more than a year of war?
COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: It most certainly does, Wolf. And people like Da Vinci, people who are charismatic and who are able to lead troops in battle like he was are clearly the flower of a nation like Ukraine. And the fact that he has lost his life and the mourning for him was so profound and at such a high national level really does show exactly how much Ukraine has put into this war.
Every single person in Ukraine has felt this in one way or another. And the very fact that the president himself along with a foreign leader, the Finnish prime minister, came to pay their respects, that shows this is not just a war that is fought by strategists but it's a war that's fought by real people.
BLITZER: And amid this latest barrage of Russian missiles hitting all sorts of targets, civilian targets in Ukraine, all over the country right now, what more can the west do to boost Ukraine's air defense systems?
LEIGHTON: Well, one thing would be, Wolf, is to bring in as many air defense air defense systems as possible to protect the Ukrainian infrastructure and especially critical areas like the capital and major cities. We have one Patriot system on the way from the U.S., another from Germany. Those systems are part of an effort to be able to protect Ukraine.
But they're not going to be sufficient to do it by themselves. You need far more than a couple of systems, the Patriot system.
LEIGHTON: This requires not only an air defense system but also air cover of some type, either through F-16s or other fighters that can do something like this, and right now, we don't have that for the Ukrainians.
BLITZER: Yeah, they need a lot of help.
Colonel Cedric Leighton, thank you very much.
Coming up, yet another train wreck puts the spotlight on Norfolk Southern once again. Will it lead to a crackdown from Congress?
We'll be right back.
[18:50:21] BLITZER: Tonight, yet another Norfolk Southern derailment is putting the embattled rail company under a microscope. The latest train wreck this time in Alabama comes as lawmakers are vowing to crack down on safety violations.
Brian Todd is on the story for us.
Brian, this derailment couldn't come at a worse time for Norfolk Southern.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It really couldn't, wolf. That company's been involved in three derailments recently that have experts concerned about systemic problems in the rail industry.
TODD (voice-over): The derailment of a Norfolk southern train in Alabama occurred just as the railroad's CEO was defending the railroad's record at a Senate hearing. More than 30 cars jumped the tracks in Alabama. At least two of them Norfolk Southern said were carrying what they called residue hazardous materials.
CONNOR SPIELMAKER, NORFOLK SOUTHERN SENIOR COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER: Which means it previously carried a hazardous material as described by the DOT. Those were residue car because they do not have a load in them.
TODD: There were no injuries, and Norfolk Southern says no hazardous material was leaked. But it came on the heels of two other derailments which caused concern.
On March 4th, a Norfolk Southern train derailed in Springfield, Ohio, knocking out power in the area, 28 cars came off the tracks. Four of them carried residue of a diesel exhaust fluid and an additive used in wastewater treatment. Investigators determined that nothing spilled.
But Norfolk Southern found loose wheels could've caused the derailment. And according to a memo from the Association of American Railroads obtained by CNN, railroad officials believe there are nearly 700 rail cars across the U.S. with a similar loose-wheel flaw.
PETER GOELZ, FORMER NTSB MANAGING DIRECTOR: The idea of a manufacturing flaw is all too common.
TODD: That's a slightly different problem from the one which may have caused the Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, in early February, an issue called wheel bearing overheat. Surveillance video shows sparks coming from that train and that the engineers started to slow the train dramatically after they saw the first signs of wheel bearing overheat. What exactly is that?
GOELZ: There are bearings inside the axils of each of the wheel sets. And they need to be lubricated, they need to be maintained. And if the temperatures start to go up above a certain level, the engineer is required to stop the train. TODD: Norfolk Southern claims it spends a billion dollars a year on
maintenance, new tracks, and repairs. But experts say the broader problem and not just with Norfolk Southern is that the railroad industry, for decades, has resisted new, tougher regulations on safety, because it would cost too much to implement.
And one expert says Congress is also to blame.
SARAH FEINBERG, FORMER ACTING ADMINISTRATOR, FEDERAL RAILROAD ADMINISTRATION: We'd be safer if Congress would stop watering down regulations, if the industry didn't fight every single common sense safety regulation tooth and nail.
TODD (on camera): Former NTSB official says he doesn't think there's an increased risk of a catastrophic multi-casualty rail accident in the near future. But he says the industry does have to step up safety measures like putting more detectors along railways that measure hazardous materials and isolating hazardous materials better on the trains themselves -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us -- Brian, thank you.
And we'll have more news just ahead, including new evacuation orders just issued in California as severe storms threaten millions who are still recovering from ferocious snowfall.
WATT: At least two people have died as a result of the ongoing storm inundating California right now, and now, nearly 10,000 residents are under evacuation orders as flooding begins to intensify.
CNN's Nick Watt reports.
NICK WATT, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Water everywhere causing chaos across Central California. Some 25 million are under flood warnings.
The current river usually runs at about 6 feet. It's up over 17. Snow is the issue up at altitude.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was a bit slick. We lost control, but I caught that bad boy.
WATT: Springville's Pleasant Valley Road now anything but. In my 40 years, never seen it like that, said the man who shot these images.
A major artery in Oakland closed at rush hour, nearby a Pete's coffee warehouse roof collapsed, killing one.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A longtime blow, beloved by everyone.
WATT: Around 25 times the volume of water that flows in the Mississippi is flowing through the air. And this is the tenth so- called atmospheric river to hit California this winter. Low pressure from the north meets moist air near Hawaii. They call it a Pineapple Express. Sounds fun, it's not. Essentially, a fire hose aimed at the state, usually famed for its sunshine.
Throw in a couple of other winter storms that dumped a couple of years worth of snow on some upland areas, and this is the result. Today's storm is a warm one. So along with all this rain, some of that snow is melting. The residents of Felton flooded in January, once more told to evacuate here and elsewhere, yet more upheaval.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Now we have to go home, pack our stuff and leave once again when we were just able to come back a couple weeks ago.
WATT: Good news, all the water this winter is significantly rolling back the years' long drought we've suffered in the west. Bad news, yet another atmospheric river is forecast to hit this state early next week.
WATT (on camera): And right now, we are in Watsonville, a small farming valley southeast of Santa Cruz. Some have seen more than a foot of water dumped on them so far. Here in Watsonville, about 6 inches. And look at the damage that it's caused. And the rain here is not going to stop until the middle of next week -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Nick Watt reporting for us, thank you very much.
And to our viewers, thanks for watching.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.