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The Situation Room

White House Slams Reckless Russia After Its Jet Forced Down a U.S. Drone; Source Says, Justice Department Opens Probe Of Silicon Valley Bank Failure; CNN Poll Shows Trump, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) Lead Among Potential GOP Voters; Biden Grapples With Gun Reform As Mass Shootings Surge In U.S.; GOP Rep. Santos Signals Intent To Run For Re-Election Despite Multiple Federal Probes Into His Web Of Lies. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired March 14, 2023 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Also tonight, a U.S. Justice Department investigation is now underway into the historic collapse of Silicon Valley Bank. This as a top U.S. credit rating firm is downgrading the outlook for the U.S. banking system to negative.

And an exclusive new CNN poll of Republicans shows Donald Trump narrowly leading Ron DeSantis ahead of their expected 2024 primary showdown. The early presidential race heating up right now as Trump escalates his attacks on DeSantis and other potential opponents.

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

Let's get right to the very dramatic developments over the black sea today. A Russian fighter jet forcing down a U.S. drone during an incident the U.S. Air Force is calling reckless and unprofessional.

CNN Pentagon Correspondent Oren Liebermann is joining us. Oren, so how did all of this unfold and how are U.S. officials responding tonight?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: This all plays out early Tuesday morning of international waters over the Black Sea where a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 drone, a spy or surveillance drone, was operating, as we have seen it do since the beginning of this war and even earlier than that.

What's different is how this played out next. According to the Pentagon, for 30 or 40 minutes over international waters, two Russian SU-22 fighter jets flew right near the drone, cutting it off, flying in front of it, even dumping fuel in front of it. Then the Pentagon says and U.S.-European Command says one of those jets struck the drone in such a way as to damage the propeller. The U.S. viewing this with severity. Here is Pentagon Press Secretary Brigadier General Pat Ryder.


BRIG. GEN. PATRICK RYDER, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: On the actions of the Russian pilots, it's clear that it was unsafe, unprofessional.

What we saw, again, were fighter aircraft dumping fuel in front of this UAV and then getting so close to the aircraft that it actually damaged the propeller on the MQ-9. We assess that it likely caused some damage to the Russian aircraft as well.


LIEBERMANN: A very different story from the Russian side. Russia releasing a statement saying that the Russian jets did not shoot at the drone and there was no contact with the drone, accusing the U.S., in fact, of being in airspace it had designated for its special military operation in Ukraine. Although it's unclear how or to whom that designation was made.

At this point, the State Department summoned the Russian ambassador to the U.S. for a meeting, that meeting last at just over 30 minutes at the State Department. Afterwards the Russian ambassador came out and said Russia was not looking for any confrontation with the U.S. at this point and that's where it stands right now. Certainly a tense time and a very tense situation, the Pentagon viewing this with severity and saying this is potentially escalatory but right now keeping that response in the diplomatic lane, Wolf.

BLITZER: Is there any concern, Oren, about this surveillance drone now falling into enemy hands?

LIEBERMANN: So, this is a crucial point. After the jet struck the drone and damaged the propeller, the U.S. brought the drone down in international waters over the Black Sea, it has not yet been recovered and it's also worth noting there are no U.S. Navy ships in the Black Sea that would be able to quickly attempt to try to carry out a recovery effort.

The Pentagon hasn't indicated any level of concern here or whether they are or not seeing Russia try to make a move on this drone that was downed in the Black Sea, but that's certainly a space we'll be watching now that that possibility seems to be out there at this moment.

BLITZER: Oren Liebermann, stay with us. We'll get back with you shortly.

I also want to bring in the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia and Ukraine and Eurasia, Evelyn Farkas, she's with us, and our Military Analyst, retired General Wesley Clark, he's also a consultant for the drone company called Hush Aerospace.

General Clark, this is the first time that I know of that Russian and U.S. military aircraft had actually come into direct contact since Putin invaded Ukraine just more than a year ago. How alarming is this Russian aggression?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Look, this is -- there are different ways to interpret this, Wolf. I mean, the most benign is a couple of Russian pilots played cowboy at it and tried to screw it up, or it was directed to try to interfere with its collection, or most damaging would be deliberate ploy to bring it down, recover it, get the secret intelligence assets that are inside the drone.

Now, we have been very, very careful with these drones. We don't want the Ukrainians to have them. We say they're really full of classified information. We don't know what this one has in it exactly. But, presumably, we can self-destruct that stuff that's in there. I hope we did.

BLITZER: Yes, I think that sounds like a good plan.


Evelyn, the administration is clearly, and you just heard, slamming this as unsafe and reckless actions by the Russians and they summoned the Russian ambassador to the United States to come over to the state department. They read him the Right Act, I assume. What is the risk of an incident like this escalating or leading to a very serious miscalculation?

EVELYN FARKAS, FORMER DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE FOR RUSSIA/UKRAINE/EURASIA: Well, in this case, Wolf, it sounds like the United States is not going to let this escalate. But we do need to make sure that we aren't deterred from exercising our right to free navigation of the international airspace over Ukraine -- I'm sorry, over the Black Sea.

And so it's going to be important for us to get back in there, send another drone back in there. So, that does, of course -- you know, it does entail some risk, but it's not escalatory. It's sort of is resetting things. I don't think that our government wants to escalate anything.

BLITZER: General Clark, how critical are these drones to actually gathering intelligence and monitoring the battlefield in Ukraine.

CLARK: Well, the drones are one of the systems we're using. We're also using manned aircraft over the Black Sea. We get a lot of different things we're get stuff out of satellites. But if you had to stop one system, could you totally compensate for the loss of collection? Probably not without putting other assets in, manned aircraft and so forth. So, I would say it's important.

Look, we've been able to manage the conflict, to support the Ukrainians, avoid escalation, and hopefully wear out Putin's forces without direct confrontation. And we've done it because we have superior intelligence. So, this drone is part of that intelligence superiority. As Evelyn said, we don't want to be deterred from putting other drones and other assets into the region. It's really important.

BLITZER: You know, Oren, this MQ-9 reaper drone, it's not a small little aircraft. It's pretty large, almost as big as a regular warplane, if you will. So, what is the Pentagon's next move here?

LIEBERMANN: Well, the Pentagon, in this case, through the National Security Council, has made clear it will do what Evelyn and General Clark are suggesting, that is keep flying reaper drones and other intelligence gathering assets over the Black Sea and in international air space as the U.S. and, frankly, Russia have the right to do. The National Security Council said earlier today that's absolutely the plan, they'll keep doing it as they are entitled to, and Russia can keep flying there as well because it's international airspace.

Right now, the Pentagon doesn't seem to have indicated there will be a military response of any sort. The response seems to be in a diplomatic lane and it looks like that's where the Biden administration is trying to keep this response.

BLITZER: We shall see. Oren Liebermann, Evelyn Farkas, General Wesley Clark, guys, thank you very, very much.

Turning now to the war zone in Ukraine and a devastating new Russian attack on a residential area not far from the frontlines.

CNN Senior International Correspondent Ivan Watson has our report.


IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Just hours after what Ukrainian authorities say was a deadly Russian strike on this apartment block, ordinary people are already hard at work with the cleanup. There are no tears here, there are no complaints, even though at least one person was killed and several people injured.

When it exploded, boom, I was knocked on the floor and blood came down my forehead, 76-year-old, Simeon (ph) tells me. But I was lucky. These two pieces of shrapnel hit the wall and just missed my head.

It is simply part of life in this eastern Ukrainian city. It is located some 25 kilometers, about 15 miles away from a very active frontline. And Kramatorsk has been the repeated target of deadly Russian missiles and rockets.

The blast shattered nearly all of the windows across the courtyard from the main impact point here at kindergarten number 49. You can see that there are a lot of volunteers, a lot of school teachers who are here hard at work, cleaning up the glass shards, putting up plywood that's been donated by the administration here.

The director of the school tells me she says that she was knocked to the ground by the force of the blast this morning. Thankfully, mercifully, there were no children in this school when this explosion took place. The director says that the school has basically been closed for some six months now and that the children have all been evacuated to safer places.

This is yet another grim reminder of the terrible dangers, the hazards that people are living with every day here in Eastern Ukraine.


Ivan Watson, CNN, Kramatorsk, Ukraine. (END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Ivan, thank you very, very much.

Just ahead, a new federal investigation into the bank collapse that's rattled the financial industry and bank customers. Were crimes committed? We're breaking down the economic and legal implications.


BLITZER: Tonight, federal authorities have opened a preliminary investigation of the Silicon Valley Bank collapse. The U.S. Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission, they're assessing whether there was any criminal misconduct.

CNN's Chief White House Correspondent Phil Mattingly has the latest on the bank failure and the fallout.


PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Tonight, the Justice Department launching an investigation into the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank --

SHEILA BAIR, FORMER BANKING REGULATOR: It was rapid growth. It was poorly manage. It had this very close net group of depositors that all talk to each other and ran at the same time. That is unique.

MATTINGLY: -- as financial markets and the banking sector slowly shifted away from the precipice of crisis.


REP. JOSH GOTTHEIMER (D-NJ): I think you're seeing better news today than the last couple of days.

MATTINGLY: The federal investigation said to be in its early stages marking a clear escalation and following pledges from President Biden, financial regulators and lawmakers to hold those responsible for the collapse accountable.

JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: In my administration, no one is above the law.

MATTINGLY: But as those investigations dig into the root causes, Biden administration officials still closely watching the markets for signs their dramatic emergency efforts are taking hold.

GOTTHEIMER: We have to make sure people know that if they put money in their bank, in the deposit, it will be there in the morning for them. Otherwise, you're going to have runs across the country and systemic risk obviously to the whole system, which is what the feds stepped in and took action on Sunday night about.

MATTINGLY: Regional banks, which had been hammered in equity markets on Monday, shifting rapidly into positive territory today with senior treasury officials continuing to see positive signs about dissipating deposit outflows from the most at-risk banks.

BAIR: Regional bank are fine. They're important for the banking economy and let's not worry about the (INAUDIBLE).

MATTINGLY: But as market step back from the brink, the political backlash has clearly started to escalate.

SEN. TIM SCOTT (R-SC): Remember, the average household has around $5,000 to $10,000 in their average bank account. They're now going to have to subsidize people who had up to $5 million in their accounts. That is corporate cronyism at its worst.

MATTINGLY: With some congressional Republicans attacking the dramatic actions from the administration, and a growing number of presidential candidates, or likely candidates, taking their own shots at the move to backstop all deposits at Silicon Valley and Signature Banks, even those above the $250,000 threshold.

White House officials continuing to maintain taxpayers will not be on the hook for any loses from the actions.

BIDEN: And this is an important point, no losses will be borne by the taxpayers.

MATTINGLY: Echoing Biden's emphatic and politically deliberate point from a day ago.

BIDEN: Let me repeat that, no losses will be borne by the taxpayers.

MATTINGLY: And as Biden continued a three day West Coast trip, his economic team in Washington, buoyed by good news on inflation, as the consumer price index showed annual price increases declined year over year for an eighth straight month, with Biden in a statement noting the challenges in the banking sector are an example that economic setbacks are likely, but the U.S. faces, quote, these challenges from a position of strength.


MATTINGLY (on camera): And, Wolf, as investigators look into what actually happened with these banks and lawmakers start to look forward as to what happens next, there's also all eyes that will be on the Federal Reserve. Just one week from tomorrow, they will meet to consider more rate increases and the idea of inflation, and what we have seen just over the course of the last several days, all converging together.

The expectations for another rapid and significant increase from the Federal Reserve now a little bit in question, as they try to get their arms around what all of Washington, frankly, all of the country is trying to grapple with right now, what transpired in the banking system over the course of the last six days, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Phil, thank you very much, Phil Mattingly over at the White House. Let's bring in our economic and legal experts. And, Christine Romans, I'll start with you. There seemed to me at least some sense of relief today, but Moody's cut its outlook for the entire U.S. banking sector and put six banks on watch for potential downgrade, as it's called. We're not out of the woods yet, are we?

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: No. Things have stabilized today and I think that's really important. A lot of those regional banks found their footing after massive selling yesterday that was really, really troubling.

But you have got moody's, the ratings agency, saying that we should be prepared for more pressure on the entire banking system and putting these six regional banks on watch for a potential downgrade here.

Look, they are looking at what is on the books of these banks. A lot of them have these long term treasury holdings that are very, very safe. But if they have an outflow of customer deposits, they might have to sell them at a loss. And that is what exactly what happened to SVB and caused all of those problems.

So Moody's pointing out the underlying health of the banking system is strong. This is not 2008. Your money will be in your bank, America, but we should be looking for potentially more pressure for some of these banks as the highest interest rates environment really starts to bite here.

BLITZER: Yes, good point. I want to bring in Rahel Solomon, our business correspondent. Rahel, when it comes to inflation, do today's new numbers show potentially a light at the end of the tunnel?

RAHEL SOLOMON, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I do think it's yet another indication that the worst is behind us, right, but it was also a mixed bag. It wasn't all good news. So, annual inflation coming in at 6 percent, which is certainly a lot better than what we have seen before, as Phil Mattingly pointed out in his report, but we still saw increases in categories, like shelter, rent prices. Anyone who is renting knows that rent prices are very expensive these days. Furniture prices continue to increase, Airfares also continue to increase.

That said, it was the eighth consecutive month of declines. So, psychologically, it's also important to see that CPI and headline inflation is lowering. But what I think what we are really starting to come to terms with, Wolf, is the pace of inflation lowering, right?


It is coming down at a gradual pace, really taking its time getting down to the Fed's hopeful target of 2 percent. So, certainly, some good news, investors clearly like if you look at the markets today but really coming down in a very slow and measured fashion.

BLITZER: Mark Zandi, I'm glad you're with us as well. You're the chief economist over at Moody's Analytics. What do today's developments say to you about the overall health of the U.S. economy? MARK ZANDI, CHIEF ECONOMIST, MOODY'S ANALYTICS: Well, Wolf, I'm encouraged. I think the banking system is on solid ground and particularly given the very aggressive response by the government, the Fed, the FDIC, the treasury stepping up and guaranteeing deposits and the Fed setting up facility to provide liquidity to the bank so that they can pay their depositors. That's all good. I mean, the government is saying with clarity that it's got the banking system's back, and that's very encouraging. That's why you saw the green on your screen today, you know, out of the stock market.

Inflation statistics, that Rahel is talking about, also I think they're pretty good. They're moving in the right direction. I mean, if you go back to last summer, June of last year, to be precise. We're at 9 percent CPI, way too high, still way too high, but we're moving in the right direction.

And if you look into the kind of under the hood, the components of what the drive overall the inflation, there are a lot of things there to be encouraged about. So, I would say all in all, I'm feeling pretty good about where the economy is, you know, given everything that's been going on.

BLITZER: Yes. The price of a gallon of gas is a lot less now than it was a year ago.

Carrie Cordero, the U.S. Justice Department, as you know, is now investigating the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank. What do you think prosecutors will actually hone in on?

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, so, first of all, this investigation is going to be in its very preliminary stages. The decline of this bank happened so quickly that I think, Wolf, one of the things that prosecutors and investigators, both at the Justice Department and at the SEC will be looking at is the speed with which it happened. From those of us on the public end, it seems to have just been within a couple of days, and yet what they'll want to know is whether there were executives or others who had inside information, knew about things earlier and took steps potentially in their own interests.

There are some reports regarding individuals selling their own stock in the bank, whether that was according to SEC rules and all above board, or whether there was any information indicating that people acted in their own interest as opposed to this their customer's interest.

But, again, the investigations will be at the very preliminary stages and the SEC will be looking at whether there are potential rules violations and they'll work closely with the Justice Department both in the criminal division as well in the local U.S. attorney's office as to whether or not there is any criminal exposure for those involved.

BLITZER: Christine, you've been doing a lot of reporting on this. What more are you learning about how SVB collapsed? Was this a modern version of an old fashioned bank run? ROMANS: Absolutely, Wolf. It was a text message, social media, digital banking bank run. In 2008, when Washington Mutual, the biggest bank failure in American history, went down, it took ten days for people to withdraw $16.7 billion before that bank collapsed. In this case, it was 24 hours and $42 billion.

And the reason is because these venture capital owners were calling their startups that they invested and saying, hey, they're trying to raise money over there at the parent company at this bank and their having some trouble, you need to get out of the bank.

And it spread like wildfire. And people were sitting there on their phones and on their desktops, moving their money out as fast as they could. That's the first time we've seen something like that and I think that contagion, that fear is what got the federal government to work so quickly.

BLITZER: Yes. Guys, thank you very, very much. Thanks to all of you.

Coming up, Donald Trump on the attack against Ron DeSantis. We'll share an exclusive new CNN poll on the potential matchup between the two men, and we'll do that right after a quick break.



BLITZER: Tonight, CNN's exclusive new poll of Republicans shows Donald Trump is leading the GOP field as the 2024 race begins to take shape with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis nipping at his heels.

CNN's Kristen Holmes has more on the Trump/DeSantis rivalry and how it played out during the former president's campaign stop in Iowa.


KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): As the 2024 Republican field takes shape, former President Donald Trump on the trail in Iowa.

DONALD TRUMP, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: We don't even know if he's running, but I might as well tell you.

HOLMES: Sending a clear signal about who he sees as his top rival.

TRUMP: Ron DeSantis strongly opposed ethanol.

And he also fought against social security. He wanted to decimate it.

He voted to severely cut Medicare. I will not be cutting Medicare and I will not be cutting social security. We'll live in the age where it is.

HOLMES: Trump's focus on Florida Governor Ron DeSantis coming as a new CNN poll shows the two leading the field of GOP contenders at this early stain of the race, with 40 percent of Republican and Republican- leaning independents saying they would most likely back former President Trump, and 36 percent supporting DeSantis, who has yet to formally announce a White House bid. No other GOP hopeful reached double digits among a list of nine potential candidates.

DENISE VASQUEZ, TRUMP SUPPORTER: True Trump voters are going to stay with Trump. He's already proven himself.


So, we know what he's capable of doing.

HOLMES: While many Republican voters remain up for grabs, the poll finds most Trump supporters say they're locked in.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No one else but Trump, Trump or death.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Trump's my president. That's it.

HOLMES: Among those backing Trump, 76 percent say they'll definitely support him compared with the 59 percent for DeSantis and 29 percent for the rest of the field.

CATHI FRANK, REPUBLICAN VOTER: I would lean more towards Ron DeSantis just because of his personality. I think he kind of appeals to more people.

HOLMES: As Trump aims to portray DeSantis as part of the Republican establishment --

TRUMP: Ron was a disciple of Paul Ryan, who currently is destroying Fox and would constantly vote against entitlements.

HOLMES: DeSantis is aligning himself with Trump on the issue of Ukraine, telling Fox Host Tucker Carlson in a statement, quote, while the U.S. has many vital national interests, becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them. That stands at odds with other potential 2024 hopefuls who called for the U.S. to adopt a forceful role in supporting Ukraine against Russia.

MIKE PENCE, FORMER U.S. VICE PRESIDENT: There can be no room in the leadership of the Republican Party for apologists for Putin. There can only be room for champions of freedom.

NIKKI HALEY, REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We had no better ally at the United Nations than Ukraine.


HOLMES (on camera): And, Wolf, one thing he did say on that stage but he did tell a small group of reporters who is traveling on the plane with him to Iowa is that he regretted endorsing DeSantis for governor back in 2018 in his primary, and that's according to The Washington Post.

Now, in the past, Trump has said that he believes it's disloyal of DeSantis to even considerate presidential run given the fact that Trump had endorsed him in that race but clearly now taking it a step further. Wolf?

BLITZER: Kristen Holmes, thank you very much.

Let's talk more about 2024 and CNN's exclusive new poll. Joining us now CNN Political Director David Chalian, CNN Senior Political Analyst Nia-Malika Henderson and CNN Senior Political Commentator, the former Republican Congressman, Adam Kinzinger.

David, Kristen mentioned the results of our new CNN poll, you know the poll results well, showing Trump holds a lead among potential Republican contenders. Ron DeSantis is the only other person in double digits, as you well know. What does this tell you?

ADAM KINZINGER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. I mean, it tells you that this sort of starting line of the 2024 Republican presidential nomination race that there are two heavy hitters in the field, here Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, and then there's everybody else.

And so there's clearly room for that to change. First of all, there's tons of time. We're at very beginning of this process. But it does sort of suggest that if you're not named Trump or DeSantis, and you're either thinking about getting into this or you're Nikki Haley and you're in this, you are going to have to change the calculus here with some speed.

BLITZER: Nia, look what happens to the numbers in this new CNN poll among Republican when we factor in education. Among those with no college degree, 48 percent choose Trump, 34 percent picked DeSantis. But among those with a college degree, it flips, 41 percent favor DeSantis to Trump's 23 percent. What does that say to you?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, listen, I think it says what we know from 2016, which is that Trump has really kind of remade the Republican Party. His strength is amongst sort of blue collar Republicans, and in 2016, you saw sort of the more standard issue Chamber of Commerce Republicans split the vote between all of those other Republicans that were on stage.

If you see in that poll, for instance, Pence and Haley are also doing well with college graduates. The question is do other people get into the race, do they split that more. But I think if you're DeSantis, you feel pretty good that you're doing good with college graduates. Can you grow that?

It doesn't seem like if you are Donald Trump, you have much more room to grow if you are a college graduate. You've obviously witnessed the Trump candidacy in 2016, his presidency. It's not clear to me that he has much more room to grow with those college graduates but he certainly has a monopoly and a really strong showing among those non- college Republicans. I mean, you heard the gentleman there said it's Trump or die. So, if you are DeSantis, there's a real challenge, I think, that you have in trying to eat into that base of Republican voters that are strongly for Donald Trump. BLITZER: Adam, it's interesting, and this new poll also shows that your fellow Republicans are more interested in a nominee who shares their positions rather than someone they think will beat Joe Biden. As a Republican, does that concern you?

KINZINGER: Well, I mean, it depends. I think, right now, the majority of Republicans, for instance, support Ukraine. That number changes because they don't hear from Republican leaders who support Ukraine because they're, for some reason, scared to talk about it with a few exceptions.


They're only hearing from Tucker Carlson, from Donald Trump and now Ron DeSantis who says, we don't need to get involved in territorial disputes. So, that makes me question now what's his position on Taiwan and China for things like that.

So, I think DeSantis' advantage right now is he's kind of like anybody that is ready to move on from Trump. He kind of gives people an out to be like, yes, I'm still cool, I want to own the libs, but it's time to move on from Trump. The problem is I don't think DeSantis has the personality that Trump has. And as they start batting head and going head to head, I really expect that Donald Trump will start kind of wiping the floor with Ron DeSantis in terms of that.

But I think there's a real lane here for somebody that wants to be kind of a traditional conservative Republican, if you will. But, unfortunately, somebody like a Ron DeSantis is just trying to be Trump-like.

BLITZER: David, while traveling to Iowa yesterday, Trump actually said he might regret endorsing DeSantis' gubernatorial campaign in Florida, telling Politico, DeSantis had been and I'm quoting him now dead as a door nail. Does Trump have himself to blame for DeSantis' popularity now?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Certainly, Ron DeSantis' popularity inside the Republican nomination race is directly tied to the fact that there is a chunk of the party, as Adam was just saying, looking for an alternative to Donald Trump and they're sort of hanging out around Ron DeSantis right now in large numbers.

Yes, did Donald Trump come in and help Ron DeSantis at a moment that he needed it in the Republican primary for governor in 2018? There's no doubt about it.

But at this moment, that's not the popularity DeSantis is experiencing or that Donald Trump is talking about. At this moment, his popularity is based on a dissatisfaction with Trump at a new level inside the Republican Party, even though, as our poll shows, he remains the clear frontrunner in this case.

BLITZER: David Chalian, Nia-Malika Henderson, Adam Kinzinger, guys, thank you very much. Just ahead, a massive nor'easter buries parts of New England right now under nearly, get this, three feet of snow, as California is hit with hurricane-force wind gusts. We'll have live reports right after the break.



BLITZER: Tonight, intense winter weather is pummeling the United States on both coasts, flood-ravaged California getting drenched right now again, another atmospheric river under way. And here on the East Coast, a massive storm is burying parts of New England under nearly three feet of snow.

CNN's Derek Van Dam is joining us now from Worcester, Massachusetts, very hard hit Massachusetts right now. Derek, what is the latest where you are?

DEREK VAN DAM, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yes, Wolf, it took an entire winter season to give our first nor'easter of the year, and, boy, did it deliver. But what it produce was very heavy, wet snow that caused havoc not only on the roadways but at the airports as well. Take a listen.


VAN DAM (voice over): An intense nor'easter is bringing heavy snow, winds and coastal flooding across the northeast.

JAY FINK, WORCESTER PUBLIC WORKS AND PARKS DEPARTMENT COMMISSIONER: We do expect that it's going to come back with a vengeance, as the front comes through and pushes everything out, that wind is going to picked up.

CRAIG HALLSTROM, PRESIDENT, REGIONAL ELECTRIC OPERATIONS, CT AND MA: We have about two to three inches falling every hour.

VAN DAM: Parts of New York and New Jersey both under a state of emergency.

ERIC BATISTA, CITY MANAGER, WORCESTER, MASSACHUSETTS: This could be a foot of snow. So, this is a meaningful storm.

VAN DAM: The New York State Department of Transportation doing what it can to keep the roads clear.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: First of all, keep an eye on the rudder. Don't drive if you don't have to. When there's weather, you have got to give yourself time.

VAN DAM: A Delta Airlines airbus partially, quote, exited off a taxiway at Syracuse Airport, according to the company. Delta did not confirm if the incidents was storm related. However, winter weather did cause a ground delay at La Guardia Airport through the day.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So, one delay after another. Hopefully we're not stuck overnight.

VAN DAM: Hundreds of thousands of people are without power across the northeast, according to

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Certainly never drive over a downed wire. Respect the crews and their work areas.

VAN DAM: The winter weather forcing school district in Nashua New Hampshire and Worcester Massachusetts to close.

HALLSTROM: The biggest concern for residents is to make sure to stay home and to stay safe.

VAN DAM: The nor'easter is forecast to continue over parts of the northeast into Wednesday.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just get enough food to last a couple of days, dig out maybe the next two days and then go from there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm alive in spirit and I love the snow. I love all the weather. I live in New England. Come on.


VAN DAM (on camera): I love the snow, as well, just as much as that gentleman.

Listen, because of the high sun angle this time of year and the relatively warm ocean waters off the coast of Massachusetts, this snow was very heavy, very dense. And now the real trouble comes in tonight when the winds start to pick up behind the system, because all the snow that you see creating the winter wonderland behind me is going to cause the potential for breaking of tree limbs and taking down electric wires as well. So, we've got a long night ahead of us still even into the day tomorrow. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. Derek, stay safe over there, Derek Van Dam in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Let's go live to the West Coast right now for an update on the flood disaster as yet another atmospheric river takes aim.

CNN's Veronica Miracle is standing by in Pajaro, California, for us. Veronica, what are residents there facing? What are the residents in California facing indeed across the state?

VERONICA MIRACLE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The state has just been battered this winter, Wolf. This is the 11th atmospheric river to hit California this winter. About 30 million people remain under a flood watch tonight.


As you mentioned, we are Pajaro, California, in one of the hardest hit communities in terms of flooding over the last few days. Thousands of people have been impacted, and actually, the flooding has receded an incredible amount over the last 24 hours.

This is the main street here. It could only be navigated by boat yesterday. And the flood waters were incredibly high.

A lot of that water has moved out to the ocean. It is taking some of the pressure off of this community. These homes around the area are full of contaminated water. It could be months before they are livable again, according to the Monterey County sheriff.

Here's what she had to say.


SHERIFF TINA NIETO, MONTEREY COUNTY, CALIFORNIA: There is approximately 2,000 plus people we have evacuated, including one school, two mobile home parks and 800 homes. We are still using high water vehicles to do rescues for people that are wanting to leave their homes in different areas, mostly the Pajaro area. Pajaro at this time, we've done over 239 rescues in Pajaro.


MIRACLE: The wind is really picking up here, and it is a huge concern across the state. It is causing flight cancellations in San Francisco International Airport. In terms of the rain, that moves in south now, there are a lot of evacuation orders, about 27,000 people across the state under evacuation orders -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Veronica Miracles, thank you very, very much.

Coming up, President Biden announcing new plans to curb gun violence in a California city still grieving from a horrific mass shooting.



BURNETT: President Biden is in California, turning his focus to gun violence, announcing new executive action to improve background checks.

CNN's Brian Todd is digging deeper into White House's gun reform efforts underway right now.

Brian, the president is fighting an uphill battle to stem the tide of mass shootings across the country.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, he's been fighting battle since he took office and tonight, he's chipping away again at making gun laws in America a little tougher while still trying for even stricter gun measures that observers say may not be realistic


TODD (voice-over): President Biden meeting with victims of mass shooting in Monterey Park, California, where 11 people were killed and nine wounded in a dance hall in January, amid the push to reduce gun violence in America.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Enough. Do something. Remember and mourn the day but I'm here with you today to act.

TODD: The president marks the moment by announcing a new executive order. Among other steps, it will attempt to increase background checks by clarifying and enforcing which gun sellers need to do them.

BIDEN: Accelerate and intensify this work to save more lives, more quickly.

TODD: But the president still not been able to press into law some of the gun measures he's most passionate about. Like universal background checks.

As for his other ambitious goals?

BIDEN: I'm determined once again to ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines.

TODD: Analysts say there's no really chance with a Republican-led House of Representatives

ALEX BURNS, POLITICO: When it comes to assault style weapons, public opinion is clearly on the president's side. But what's not on his side is the numbers on Capitol Hill and increasingly, it looks like the judiciary probably isn't on his side either.

TODD: Last year, in the wake of the Uvalde, Texas, mass school shooting, the president signed in law the comprehensive law in almost three decades, providing incentives for states to enact red flag laws which allow courts temporarily deny guns for people perceived big threats to themselves and others and imposing enhanced background checks for gun buyers between 18 and 21.

But many including Biden himself saw that law as just a tiny step. And since the beginning of this year, there have been at least 110 mass shootings in the U.S., leaving more than 150 dead. Gun violence is now the leading cause of death among children and teens and getting worse. During a surge of child mortality in America over last two years, a new study says, gun violence is a central factor responsible for nearly half the jump in 2020.

JENNIFER MASCIA, THE TRACE: I think there's a certain numbness developed. We've been dealing with this at least two decades just mass shootings, public shootings, school shootings. At the same time, 456 million guns produced for this market, this domestic market since 1899.


TODD (on camera): Now, while the politics continues to play out over stronger gun measures, some of the nation's top law enforcement figures have been weighing in, pleading with lawmakers to take stronger action on guns. In one recent Senate hearing. retired Phoenix Police Chief Jerry Williams said, quote, we're outgunned, we're outmanned, we're out-staffed, we need more responsible gun legislation -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us -- Brian, thank you very much.

Just ahead, Congressman George Santos taking a major step towards seeking reelection in the face of multiple investigations and demands for his resignation.



BLITZER: Tonight, embattled Congressman George Santos has filed to formally declare his candidacy for reelection in 2024, despite ongoing federal investigations into his convoluted web of lies.

CNN congressional correspondent Jessica Dean is working the story for us.

Give us the latest, Jessica.

JESSICA DEAN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you're exactly right. He formally declared this today that he could run in 2024, but there's nuance here, he doesn't have to run the back story to all of this is the Federal Election Commission demanded that he announce his intentions boy today because he cross add fund-raising threshold. You got to make up your mind because you raised this much money, you're going to have to make a decision.

So, he has formally declared that. Now, interesting the he is allowed by House Ethics rules generally to use that money to pay for legal fees. So, that could come in handy he's under local and federal investigations. He's lied about his resume, his background, his family.

They're also looking into exactly where all this money came from. Remember he had that $700,000 personal loan and then it was questionable, did it come from him? Did it come from somewhere else? Where did it come from? That's what some investigations are looking into.

And then separately, there's also this House ethics investigation that's looking into a number of issues including his finances but also we learned today, Wolf, we already knew that they would be looking into allegations of sexual harassment from a potential staff member, we learned today they're moving forward with that, collecting evidence.

So, this is an ongoing situation. The bottom line here, though, Wolf, he is set up to run if he chooses to in 2024.

BLITZER: Jessica Dean, thank you very much for that update.

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

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.