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The Situation Room

Now, Tornado Outbreak Tears Across Midwest And South; Sources Say, Trump Expected To Be Arraigned Around 2:15 P.M. ET Tuesday; Manhattan D.A. Makes History With Criminal Charges Against Trump; Confirmed Tornadoes In Arkansas, Illinois And Iowa, Millions Under Alert Right Now. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired March 31, 2023 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Chad, this is an especially dangerous situation for millions and millions of Americans. Give us the latest.

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, big cities in a way. I mean, not just Iowa but Chicago. You're about to see some pretty big weather. We have tornadoes on the ground right now in Iowa, tornadoes on the ground in Arkansas right now, all part of this red zone, which all tornado watches that go to a variety of times throughout the evening hours. These storms are moving quickly, 50, 60 miles per hour.

If you get a tornado warning where you are, you may only have minutes to get to a safe place, like Earle, Arkansas, just to the west of Memphis, a new tornado emergency for you. That storm right there is on the ground producing damage. We do know that it is a large and damaging tornado right now that just moved through Winnie and parts of Arkansas, just to the north west of Memphis, likely misses Memphis, but we'll keep watching that.

Iowa City, big storm just to your northwest, was rotating for a while, tornado was on the ground. That thing just went on the ground since Ottumwa, Iowa, a long path. So, this area here from Chicago through Davenport all the way down to Louisiana and Mississippi, all part of the same system with EF-2, EF-3s and larger likely with this.

Now, by tomorrow, this thing even gets to some of the big cities, not EF-2 and EF-3s, but watch. This is hour by hour. I set this up because I know you all don't live in parts of Arkansas, but hour by hour, as we roll this through the Ohio valley down through Tennessee, we go from 7:00 to 9:00 in advance, again, back into the evening hours. Now, we're well after dark, but these storms are still red. These storms are still firing and likely still rotating.

By tomorrow morning, they're losing all of their power but they still could produce some wind damage as they work their way through the northeast, Wolf. A violent night tonight, you need to really be weather aware if you live through the Midwest, a large part of the Midwest.

BLITZER: Good advice. Chad Myers, stay close. We're staying on top of the breaking news. Right now, though, I want to go to the historic indictment of Donald Trump. We're told a tentative time has now been set for the unprecedented spectacle in New York on Tuesday when the former president appears in court as a criminal defendant.

CNN Justice Correspondent Jessica Schneider has all the new details on the Trump indictment.


JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT (voice over): A historic court date set for President Donald Trump on Tuesday in Manhattan, where District Attorney Alvin Bragg has brought an indictment against him.

Trump is planning to leave his Mar-a-Lago estate on Monday for New York, and then on Tuesday, authorities will take his mug shots and fingerprints before escorting him to his arraignment, NYPD and Secret Service already working together to bolster security at the courthouse as they track any threats and possible protests.

The indictment still under seal, styled the people of the state of New York against Donald J. Trump. CNN learning the grand jury voted to charge him with more than 30 counts related to business fraud after hearing from an unidentified witness for about 30 minutes, Thursday.

MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER TRUMP LAWYER: I am a convicted felon. I am a disbarred lawyer, but I also brought the documents. There's plenty of testimony, corroborating testimony to go around.

SCHNEIDER: Former Trump Fixer Michael Cohen met with prosecutors and testified to the grand jury on multiple occasions in this years' long investigation. Cohen was convicted on federal charges and sentenced to three years in prison in part for his role paying off porn star Stormy Daniels to keep her quiet in the lead up to the 2016 election about her alleged affair with Donald Trump.

CLARK BREWSTER, STORMY DANIELS ATTORNEY: It's a fight against his rejection of truth and his manufacturing of stories that really motivated her to try to cooperate in any way certainly to get the truth out.

SCHNEIDER: Trump denies the affair and any wrongdoing

REPORTER: Mr. President, did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels.


REPORTER: Why did Michael Cohen make this if there was no truth to her allegations?

TRUMP: So, you have to ask Michael Cohen, Michael's my attorney, and you'll have to ask Michael Cohen.

SCHNEIDER: Cohen, though, admits to writing the $130,000 check and claims he was reimbursed by the Trump Organization. That reimbursement and the way Trump accounted for it appears to be at the heart of the case against Trump.

COHEN: For Donald, since we're talking about convicted felons, see you on Tuesday, pal.

SCHNEIDER: Sources tell CNN the grand jury also heard testimony about a catch and kill scheme to bury a story about another alleged Trump affair with former Playboy Playmate of the Year Karen McDougal, Trump's longtime friend and then chairman of The National Enquirer's parent company, David Pecker, is believed to have orchestrated that $150,000 payment. Pecker testified before the grand jury Monday. Trump also denies any affair with McDougal.

Trump's lawyers are now vowing to fight, saying they will move to get all charges dismissed before any trial.


JOE TACOPINA, TRUMP DEFENSE ATTORNEY: There's no crime. I don't know if it's going to make the trial because we have substantial legal challenges that we have to front before we get to that point.


SCHNEIDER (on camera): And CNN has been digging into exactly who this last mystery witness was on Thursday before the grand jury voted to indict Trump. A lot more that could become clear as this case progresses, and we will also see just how strong this case might be after the indictment is unsealed likely Tuesday at the arraignment.

And in the meantime, Wolf, former Attorney General Bill Barr is the latest now speaking out, joining that chorus of Republicans, saying that this is a political hit job and a weak case. But, notably, Wolf, no one has seen the exact charges or evidence in this case, so we shall see.

BLITZER: We shall see, indeed. Jessica Schneider, thanks for that report.

Let's go to New York and CNN's Paula Reid right now. She's just outside the courthouse where Trump will be arraigned on Tuesday. Paula, there's new reaction from Stormy Daniels to Trump's indictment. What are we hearing?

PAULA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. Stormy Daniels, the woman who received the hush money at the center of this criminal investigation, speaking out today, she calls this indictment, quote, epic. But says, for her, it's bittersweet. She believes that he has done, quote, much worse to other people and should have been taken down sooner.

She also described how she has been facing violent threats since this indictment. Let's take a listen to how she describes her experience.


STORMY DANIELS, ADULT FILM ACTRESS: The number of the intensity is the same as it was the first time around, like the number and like it was a lot of aggression the first time. But this time, it's straight- up violent. You know, like the first time it was like gold digger, sluts, whore, you know, liar, whatever. And this time, it's like I'm going to murder you.


REID: She went on to say that she's upset that it is the former president himself who this time is encouraging and inciting that kind of violence. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. Paula, I want you to stay with us. I also want to bring in our legal law enforcement and political experts into the conversation? Elliot Williams, I'll start with you. Does the fact that we've learned Trump is facing more than 30 counts tell you anything about the strength of the case that the prosecutors have built?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: No, Wolf. I don't think it says anything about the strength of the case that prosecutors have built. Now, the way prosecutors often get to multiple counts in an indictment is by stacking, in effect, charges. So, for instance, while using the example of hush money payments if there were 10 or 11 payments, those may serve as the basis for multiple different charges in an indictment, and that's how they add up, and that's how you can sometimes find dozens and dozens of charges in a case. We don't know how strong they are.

Now, certainly, there's been reporting and Michael Cohen commented as to some of the questions he may or may not have answered, but until we see what's actually included in the indictment, I think it's really impossible to weigh in on the strength of the case.

BLITZER: And, John Miller, how is this going to play out on Tuesday when Donald Trump is arraigned in New York City?

JOHN MILLER, CNN CHIEF LAW ENFORCEMENT AND INTELLIGENCE ANALYST: He's going to be brought from Trump Tower to the courthouse. The time has been set for his arrival. Today, they did a meeting about coordinating, how they would get through traffic, which entrance they would use. But also they did a walkthrough, basically a dry run where they said, you know, he will be booked here in this office. We will then take this elevator to this floor, cross over to this private hallway, come out here into the public hallway and walk into the courtroom. So, they've run all the routes.

The mystery here, Wolf, is on the backend, which is does Donald Trump go to Trump Tower and hold a press conference before returning to Palm Beach? Does he do that outside the courthouse? That's something that's really up to Donald Trump and the Trump camp and no word on that yet.

BLITZER: Yes, we'll find out on Tuesday. David Chalian, will Trump and his supporters be able to use this time leading up to the arraignment on Tuesday and his appearance over at the courthouse in New York to his advantage politically?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, there's certainly using the time already to try and help him politically by sending out fundraising appeal after fundraising appeal, by constantly creating political attacks against Alvin Bragg, the prosecutor, as an effort to fortify support among his supporters and rally Republicans to his cause here. So, there is no doubt that Donald Trump and his team are going to continue to use the time between now and the arraignment to try and get the most political advantage out of this moment possible.

That being said, we should be clear. This is not a development that Donald Trump wanted to have happen and it may not be a development that serves him well politically in the long run but they are going to try to milk it for all they can.

BLITZER: Paula, what does all this mean for the other investigations into Trump that are still underway right now?

REID: It's a great question, Wolf. But I don't think that this indictment really has any impact on those other investigations because those really deal with other issues.


For example, Special Counsel Jack Smith in Washington, he's looking into efforts to interfere with the 2020 election and the efforts leading up to the Capitol attack on January 6th. He's also looking into the possible mishandling of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago and any effort to obstruct that probe.

Now, down in Georgia, they're also looking down there, the local prosecutor, at efforts to obstruct the results of the Georgia election. So, there are very different issues that investigators are looking at but it's a good reminder that even though the New York case is certainly the most imminent legal threat, it is arguably not the most consequential issue.

BLITZER: Elliot, what do you think?

WILLIAMS: I would agree with that, Wolf, and because, look, these are different sovereigns, to use the legal term, that are governed by different laws. The laws of New York and the laws of Georgia are different on far more things than anyone would imagine. Some of them are federal. Some of them are state. And even the notion that they may sort of -- you know, I think many people have used the expression that they're colluding or talking to each other, and even that sort of fuels this idea that law enforcement is working in concert across the country to take down former President Donald Trump, that's simply not the case. They all operate independently.

Now, there may come a day down the road if they if one of them has to go to trial at some point, they would have to coordinate with other jurisdictions to make sure that, well, if he's in trial in New York, he can't show up for his hearing in Atlanta, Georgia. But, certainly, they don't play into each other given, just like Paula said, the vast differences in these different cases between documents in elections and potentially financial fraud.

BLITZER: Yes, that's a good point. But, John Miller, I assume the prosecutors, whether in Washington or in Georgia right now, looking at these other allegations are taking notes right now, watching very closely how all of this is unfolding in New York.

MILLER: Well, there's a couple of ways they have to think about each other. One is, you know, if you're the prosecutor in Georgia, New York City or the Manhattan district attorney has taken a lot of pressure off you. If and when you bring your case, you won't be the first to indict a sitting or former president. You will just be the second case.

But they also have the logistics, which is if there's an indictment in New York, which there is, if one comes in Georgia, if the special counsel bring charges, all of these could go to trial within a period of a year of those charges being brought. That may involve the same defense lawyers, other defense lawyers. They're really going to have to coordinate the timing on in terms of trials and hearings, who goes first and in what order, and that's a process that could stretch out for years.

BLITZER: Yes, good point indeed. All right, everybody stand by. We're staying on top of this story.

Coming up, we'll discuss how Republicans are coming to Trump's defense and what it says about the party and the 2024 presidential race.

And we'll also have an update on the tornado outbreak threatening millions of Americans right in the middle of the country right now. The breaking news just ahead.



BLITZER: Tonight, the 2024 presidential race is in unchartered territory after Donald Trump's criminal indictment. Trump and Republicans already are fundraising, though, off the charges.

CNN's Chief Congressional Correspondent Manu Raju is joining us from Capitol Hill. He has more.


MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): It didn't take long for many Republicans to rush to Donald Trump's defense.

REP. JAMES COMER (R-KY): I've said from day one, this is a political stunt.

RAJU: Even before seeing the evidence, attacking Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg's case against the former president.

MIKE PENCE, FORMER U.S. VICE PRESIDENT: I think the unprecedented indictment of a former president of the United States on a campaign finance issue is an outrage. The message that this sends to the wider world is a terrible message about the American justice system. RAJU: And the speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, warning that Bragg would be held to account. Today, Bragg's offense defended the probe, sending a scathing letter to three House Republican chairman who have sought his testimony and internal records, accusing them of doing Trump's bidding, and writing, as committee chairman, you could use the stature of your office to denounce these attacks and urge respect for the fairness of our justice system and for the work of the impartial grand jury.

Sources say Trump is expected to be accused of falsifying business records to cover up 2016 payments to adult film actress Stormy Daniels, to keep quiet allegations of an extramarital affair before the election.

Does that underlying conduct concern you?


RAJU: I'm indeed, one Congressman claimed that the prosecutor could have indicted the ham sandwiches he was handing out on Capitol Hill.

MOORE: So, I know how to spot a pile of garbage, and this thing looks like a pile of garbage.

RAJU: Even without seeing the evidence, you're certain he's innocent?

MOORE: I'm not certain of anything except this. This is the first time in the history of the country we've indicted a president. And I think that's a concern.

RAJU: Top Republicans agree despite not seeing the charges.

But you don't know what the charges are against the former --

REP. JIM JORDAN (R-OH): No. What you guys have told us, I mean, that's all have been reported.

RAJU: Are you jumping to conclusions? I mean, he might have broken the law. Does that concern you?

JORDAN: We don't think we don't think President Trump broke the law at all.

RAJU: But there has been silenced from Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell and his number two, John Thune, underscoring the party's divisions over Trump. Thune told CNN earlier there were legitimate questions about Bragg but he would not align himself with the House GOP.

Do you support House Republican efforts to call Alvin Bragg up here and get him to testify?

SEN. JOHN THUNE (R-SD): I'm not going to get into what the House is doing there.

(END VIDEOTAPE) RAJU (on camera): And, similarly, Mike Pence, the former vice president, also saying that Congress should not -- should be careful in his probe of Alvin Bragg, urging members, saying that they have the right to ask every question they want, but saying earlier this afternoon that they need to be careful about how they pursue an investigation into the Manhattan D.A.

And also one Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski, issued a statement today saying there should not be a rush to judgment and to look at all the evidence before members of Congress decide how they view this case, even as we've seen, Wolf, many members making their opinions known without seeing all the evidence.


BLITZER: Manu, I want you to stay with us. I also want to bring back David Chalian, our political director, right now. In addition, I want to go to CNN's Kristen Holmes. She's over in West Palm Beach, Florida, very close to Mar-a-Lago.

Kristen you're down there near Mar-a-Lago. What more are you learning right now about the Trump team's immediate response to this criminal indictment?

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I think that what we've heard from a number of sources is that they were relatively surprised. They were caught off guard. They had read those media reports that said that the grand jury was going to be on hiatus, that they weren't going to be hearing this case before they went on hiatus, which led many of them to believe that this case was either, one, falling apart or that there was a significant amount of time before this indictment.

But they had spent two weeks preparing for this looming indictment and they immediately pivoted to attack mode. And we have seen former President Trump in that mode ever since. He has continued to go after Alvin Bragg. He has gone after the judge, who is expected to appear in front of on Tuesday. He is painting this as a political witch hunt, and he's trying to craft his own narrative, Wolf.

BLITZER: Interesting. You know, David Chalian, you just heard -- we all heard the former vice president tell me last night that this is an outrage, his word, outrage. What does that forceful reaction reveal to you?

CHALIAN: Well, it reveals that Mike Pence is fine with one piece of this, which is to go after Bragg, to attack this prosecution as political, the way that Donald Trump and his allies are portraying it. But I also thought in the interview, Wolf, what was really interesting is that when you talked about Donald Trump's postings to social media about calling people to protest if he's indicted or about raising the possibility that there would be death and destruction, Mike Pence said that kind of rhetoric was out of bounds, was unacceptable, did not belong in this conversation.

So, this wasn't someone, and you know there have been a falling out here between Trump and Pence and he is potentially going to run against him for the Republican nomination, but Pence was embracing a piece of the Trump argument but clearly not all of it.

BLITZER: Yes, good point. Manu, many Republican senators are rushing to Trump's defense, including Lindsey Graham, who went as far as urging his supporters to donate to help Trump fight this criminal indictment. So, what does that tell you about Trump's grip on at least this part of the party?

RAJU: Well, the Republicans, many of them, viewed the safe place to be at the moment is to criticize the prosecutor, defend Donald Trump and question the motivations of Alvin Bragg, even though many Republicans, in talking to them in the House and the Senate, are not yet embracing his 2024 bid for the presidency. And talking to even some of Trump's closest allies on Capitol Hill, people who are part of the House Freedom Caucus, for instance, many of them simply are just not willing to say that they endorse Donald Trump and will back him once again for the presidency. They want to see the full field form.

And then you have on the other side and some of the more establishment members of the party, particularly in the leadership on the Senate side, or even the speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, yet to endorse or embrace former President Trump's re-election bid, knowing that potentially this could be detrimental for their party given Donald Trump's performance in the last several election cycle, especially in the last midterm elections, when many top Republicans blamed Trump and his appearance on the campaign trail for costing them control of the United States Senate.

So, Wolf, while they may be defending him now, will they side, back him in the run for the presidency, that's a different question.

BLITZER: Yes, we will find out.

David, Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene says she will actually travel to New York City to protest this indictment. Does the former president, does Trump welcome that type of spectacle? Does he think this helps him?

CHALIAN: Well Donald Trump is a fan of spectacle. We know we know that, Wolf. You know, I don't know that Donald Trump wants some out of control scenario and we don't know that that is going to happen. We know security officials in New York are monitoring all this kind of chatter online. They have put plans in place to be on top of this. Obviously, a high profile member of Congress like Marjorie Taylor Greene saying she's going to be there to protest will get their attention and see if anything forms around that.

Donald Trump does want fealty. He wants to see a lot of support. There's no doubt about that, Wolf.

BLITZER: You're absolutely right. All right, guys, thank you very, very much.

Coming up, a behind the scenes look at the unprecedented security preparations for the Trump arraignment. The former homeland security secretary, Jeh Johnson, will join us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We will also get an update on the very dangerous tornado outbreak threatening millions of Americans tonight.



BLITZER: The breaking news we're following, at least 21 people in Arkansas have already been injured, five of them critically during the tornado outbreak tearing across the United States right now.

Let's get some more from CNN Meteorologist Derek Van Dam. He's joining us from Memphis right now, where this line of severe weather is heading next. Derek, what's the latest?

DEREK VAN DAM, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yes. Wolf, just moments ago, we heard the tornado sirens for the tornado warned storm that literally slid just to our north. What you're looking at behind me is the Mississippi River that separates Western Tennessee and Arkansas.


And this storm was just a matter of miles from impacting us here. We are still very much at play and very much at threat with the tornadoes that are building to our west, quite frankly. But talking about what is happening and what has already taken place in Central Arkansas, in Little Rock, that Baptist Hospital reporting 21 injuries, 21 patients, 5 of them critically injured, as we speak.

But I want you to see my graphics because we need to focus in on just a larger scale and then get really hyper critical because this is important stuff, 12 states right now under tornado watches, some of them particularly dangerous situation. That is worrying that the National Weather Service reserves for very specific moments when tornadoes are threatening and are particularly severe.

So, we're going in to the tornado warned storm. This is a tornado emergency. It has got a specific tag to it. Again, a rare terminology used by the National Weather Service. And that storm just to our north prompted the sirens we heard just moments ago.

And what's concerning me is that this has got a classic, what we call a super cell structure. It's got an inflow. I've kind of drawn an arrow on the screen there to show you what's happening. We're getting this air wrapped into the inside of it. It's causing that spin. And we have a large confirmed destructive tornado on the ground that the National Weather Service is saying is producing EF-2 winds. That's over 110 miles per hour at the bare minimum.

And that's not the end of it. We know we have tornadoes warning across the Chicago suburbs and into Central Illinois as well, so a very active period ongoing. Wolf?

BLITZER: Very active indeed, we will stay on top of it. Derek, stay safe over there. Thank you very much. Let's go now to the historic security preparations underway in New York for former President Trump's arraignment. Our Senior Crime and Justice Correspondent Shimon Prokupecz has more on the extensive operation.


SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT (voice over): With an unprecedented indictment comes immense security challenges. The NYPD along with court officers, U.S. Marshals and the United States Secret Service are running through logistics of how Tuesday's historic arraignment of the former president will go down.

Tonight, law enforcement sources telling CNN officials are conducting a dry run of Trump's movements, including his motorcade route to the courthouse in Downtown Manhattan where he is expected to be arraigned Tuesday afternoon. How he will get inside the courtroom flanked by Secret Service. And what will the arrest process look like? Will he be treated like any other defendant? The former president expected to be fingerprinted and photographed for a mug shot.

It's a massive effort starting when Trump arrives by plane Monday, securing Trump Tower, the court and the motorcade route.

KENNETH COREY, FORMER NYPD CHIEF OF DEPARTMENT: In this case, though, where you have a former president, and certainly a president with as larger following as former President Trump, there's a lot of unique concerns that are going to come into play. I think that the bigger unknown here is going to come in the form of protests or potential protests.

PROKUPECZ: Officials are also bracing for protests after Trump urged his supporters to protest his arrest when news of the indictment reportedly neared. So far, the mayor's office says there are no credible threats to the city. And out of an abundance of caution, every member of the NYPD, some 35,000 officers, are reporting for duty in uniform and prepared for mobilization.

COREY: So, the challenge for the NYPD is going to be protecting everybody's First Amendment right, allowing everybody to have their voice heard, and to do so in a way that keeps the peace.

PROKUPECZ: The big question, will the public see images of Trump as he enters the court, where many of his associates have already passed.


PROKUPECZ (on camera): And, Wolf, we've just learned that actually they will be allowing a camera onto the floor, onto the courtroom, that 15th floor, which is now closed off to the public, to watch some of the former president's movements.

But outside of court, Wolf, we are seeing this immense security, these barricades all across the building. You have court officers that are standing guard. You have the NYPD here, which is standing guard outside the district attorney's office. This, Wolf, actually could be the location where Donald Trump walks into on Tuesday afternoon to surrender. So, certainly, there will be a lot of activity here as we await the arraignment and as we await the surrender of the former president.

BLITZER: Yes, they're clearly getting ready. Shimon Prokupecz, thank you very, very much.

Let's get some more on this. Joining us now, the former homeland security secretary, Jeh Johnson. Mr. Secretary, thanks so much, thanks so much for joining us.

As the former homeland security secretary, you oversaw the U.S. Secret Service, which is now meeting with New York Police to walk through former President Trump's expected surrender.


Just how complex is this security operation?

JEH JOHNSON, FORMER HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: Wolf, it's multifaceted. It involves a cooperation and a discussion between the United States Secret Service, the New York City Police Department, the court officers who are responsible for the security of the building, Trump's lawyers, the D.A.'s office and now the judge. Apparently, a judge has been assigned to this arraignment. And the judge will be able to dictate what goes on in his or her courtroom, whether there are cameras in the courtroom or not.

And there's something of a conflict of interest at work here, too, Wolf. The U.S. Secret Service, they are part of DHS, as you pointed out, I was a protectee of the Secret Service as well, the Secret Service is responsible for the protectee's physical security. That is their sole focus. And so the Secret Service, if they had their way, Mr. Trump would enter through a back entrance. He would be escorted quickly into the courthouse for the basics of the arraignment and then he'd be escorted back out the backdoor again and go back up to Trump Tower.

I suspect that former President Trump himself wants a much larger spectacle. He probably wants to be led through the front door. He wants to be able to be seen by the cameras, to be seen by his supporters, however many there are there. And so a lot of this is going to have to be between him and his own protection detail.

And it will be a complex exercise. But I noted you had John Miller and Bill Bratton on earlier, former top leaders of the NYPD. The New York City Police Department and the Secret Service know how to do this kind of thing in Manhattan Island.

This particular event is unprecedented, involving a former president, but we know how to handle U.N. General Assemblies. As you've noted, the NYPD knows how to handle high-profile defendants who are arraigned at 100 Centre Street. So, I'm confident that this will be a well- orchestrated, well-organized event with lots of security.

BLITZER: Big picture, Mr. Secretary, what goes through your mind as you reflect on this truly unprecedented moment in our country's history.

JOHNSON: What goes through my mind, Wolf, frankly, is something more on a national level. I'm very concerned about the former president's rhetoric right now, phrases like death and destruction, referring to the Manhattan D.A. as an animal. His rhetoric has abandoned all sorts of moderation.

And we've kind of seen this before in the run up to January, 6th. No mention of peaceful demonstrations, if anyone is inclined to come out and demonstrate on his behalf, and I'm very concerned that some form of violence someplace could be inevitable as a result of this. His base may be shrinking but it only takes one or two, as you know.

And so this type of rhetoric makes behavior acceptable, that shouldn't be acceptable, and for the deranged among us, violence inevitable.

BLITZER: Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for joining us, the former homeland security secretary, Jeh Johnson, I always appreciate your being here.

Just ahead, Fox News is going to trial as a judge refuses to declare an early winner in the historic defamation lawsuit against the network.

Plus, more tornadoes are now confirmed as severe weather hits parts of the Midwest and south.



BLITZER: All right. Just into CNN, the historic defamation case against Fox News is heading to a high-stakes jury trial next month. We're learning more about the judge's ruling today and what it means for the Dominion Voting Systems' $1.6 billion lawsuit against Fox.

Let's bring in our Senior Media Reporter Oliver Darcy and CNN Legal Analyst Norm Eisen.

Oliver, the judge just ruled against some of Fox News' key defenses. Tell us more about that.

OLIVER DARCY, CNN SENIOR MEDIA REPORTER: That's right, Wolf. This is really not a good ruling if you're Fox News. Not only did the judge not grant Fox News, they're asked, which was that they be declared the winner ahead of a trial, but the judge is actually dismantling some of Fox's legal arguments in this 130-page decision.

One of those arguments is that what was broadcast on Fox was opinion, so it's protected under the First Amendment. The judge says, no, no, no, no, no. He says -- he writes in his opinion, he says, the contact supports the position that the statements were not pure opinion where they were made by newscasters holding themselves out to be sources of accurate information. He rules that there were factual assertions or mixed opinion, which is a real blow to Fox News. But he even takes it a step further, Wolf, and he says that even if this was opinion, it's still not protected under the First Amendment because there was an allegation of a criminal conspiracy against Dominion. He writes in his opinion, he says, the statements also seem to charge Dominion with the serious crime of election fraud, accusations of criminal activity, even in the form of opinion, are not constitutionally protected.

And I should note here, Wolf, that Fox has fought tooth and nail over the past couple of years to avoid this moment, to avoid going to trial, a judge now saying that this will go to trial in mid-April.

BLITZER: Very interesting. The judge also said, Norm, that it was, quote, crystal clear, crystal clear that none of the statements Fox aired about Dominion were true.


Does that give Dominion the upper hand going into this upcoming trial?

NORM EISEN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think it does, Wolf. They are no longer going to have to argue or prove to the jury that Fox was publishing false statements about them. Instead, the jury is going to be instructed that they were false.

And to give you a sense of how strongly the judge felt about it, Wolf, I don't know when I've seen this in a judicial opinion, he put crystal in all caps in italics and in bold, he basically shouted it. That portion of the opinion is really historic together with the January 6th Committee report or that special grand jury report in Georgia, both also saying that the former president's claims were utterly false and ungrounded. The judge has really put down a marker on this for history.

BLITZER: Norm Eisen and Oliver Darcy, guys, thank you very much.

Coming up, how the Manhattan district attorney got to where he is today as the first and only prosecutor to oversee the indictment of someone who served as U.S. president.

And we're getting new reports of damage as a tornado outbreak hits the Midwest and parts of the south. We'll check back with the CNN severe weather center that's coming up.



BLITZER: Tonight, as former President Donald Trump prepares for his arraignment in criminal court, all eyes are on the Manhattan district attorney overseeing the historic indictment.

Brian Todd is taking a closer look now at the D.A. Alvin Bragg.

Brian, what prepared Bragg to do what no prosecutor has done before? BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Alvin Bragg has done legal battle with Donald Trump before. He has been criticized by the police union for some of his decisions. But observers agree they don't believe he's ever faced more public pressure that he does at this moment.


REPORTER: Mr. Bragg, is there any significance in yesterday's indictment?

TODD (voice-over): Alvin Bragg keeps his eyes straight ahead, focused on the task at hand, which now happens to involve a significant amount of history surrounding the 49-year-old prosecutor.

SHAN WU, FORMER COUNSEL TO U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Not only is he the first ever prosecutor that bring charges against the former president of the United States, he's also the first Black prosecutors to lead the Manhattan D.A.'s office.

TODD: In February, Bragg, spoke to CNN about his approach to the Trump hush money case.

ALVIN BRAGG, MANHATTAN DISTRICT ATTORNEY: The same type of rigor and professionalism, ethics that was on display in that public courtroom is at work, you know, behind the scenes.

TODD: Former President Donald Trump and his supporters are now attacking Bragg at a blistering pace.

DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT: Prosecutorial misconduct is their new tool.

TODD: But Bragg's weathered Trump's storms before, successfully getting convictions in a major tax fraud case last year against the Trump Organization. He's also claimed to have helped sue the Trump administration more than 100 times, but one former prosecutor who worked with Bragg says his judgment will not be clouded.

DANYA PERRY, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR, WORKED WITH ALVIN BRAGG: I Imagine Alvin to be putting his head down and just looking very carefully and methodically at all the facts in the case.

TODD: Alvin Bragg graduated from Harvard law school, worked as a federal prosecutor in New York and as a civil rights attorney. He represented the family of Eric Garner, who died after being placed in an unauthorized chokehold by New York City police in 2014.

But what Bragg seems to be very in touch with is his upbringing in Harlem, where he recently spoke at an event.

BRAGG: Not too far from here, ducking from gun bullets.

TODD: In a victory speech after he was elected, Bragg said, quote, I think I'll probably be the first district attorney who's had police point a gun at him. What kind of pressure is Bragg under now?

WU: For Bragg, personally, this is really a tremendous amount of pressure for him, because in that office where I interned once, the day to day work is just crushing. And he's already taken a lot of flak by being labeled more of a progressive prosecutor.


TODD (on camera): One example of the pressure Alvin Bragg is facing, sources have told CNN, the New York police and the FBI have been focusing on the possibility of increased threats to brag and his staff in the wake of the Trump indictment. Bragg told his staff recently, his office will not tolerate attempts to intimidate them or threaten the rule of law -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Very important, Brian. Thank you very, very much. Brian Todd reporting.

And this note to our viewers, coming up on "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT", right after THE SITUATION ROOM, Erin talks to Donald Trump's attorney, Jim Trusty. That's at 7:00 p.m. Eastern, right at the top of the hour.

Just ahead, we'll get back to the breaking news of the tornadoes hitting parts of the U.S. right now, and where they may strike next.



BLITZER: Right now, tornadoes are swarming the Central and Southern United States, putting millions of Americans at risk. One major city under threat right now, Memphis, Tennessee, where CNN meteorologist Derek Van Dam is standing by for us.

Derek, there could be some dangerous weather heading your way. What can you tell us?

DEREK VAN DAM, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yeah, it was only about 20 minutes ago, Wolf, where we heard the sirens from what is called a tornado emergency. It was a tornado warned storm that slid just to our north. We watched the dark skies very ominous past just to our north.

You're looking towards Arkansas. Actually, that's the Mississippi River behind me and Interstate 40. That brings you right over to Little Rock. And I know everybody has seen the damage photos and videos coming out of that area.

I want to show you my graphics because we have a large and very significant tornado outbreak that's unfolding across the central us as we speak, and I want to bring it right in 12 states right now. Currently, having these tornado watches, with some of them considered potentially dangerous, and that tornado warned storm north of Memphis is what I'm concerned about.

But the National Weather Service just issuing this information that downstream from this storm. Is conducive for more long tracked intense, significant tornadoes, and I'm looking at you. If you're in Nashville, Tennessee, they included that within this mesoscale discussion that meteorologists look to for information so getting into kind of a detail. This is the storm that we heard the sirens prompted a few minutes ago just north of Memphis, and it is this classic super cell structure that actually gets meteorologist fearful to see because what it's doing is this drawing into the environment and really tapping into just a very, very unstable atmosphere.

We currently have eight tornado warnings with this widespread tornado outbreak that's unfolding. So taking you further north towards Chicago, line of thunderstorms for you, none of them warned. But just to your west, this is where it gets dangerous.

This is where it gets serious. Every pink box you see is a tornado warning. So heads up Davenport, into the Millersburg region as well, as just to the north and west of West Point.

These storms are dangerous, and they continue to roll in a northeasterly direction, so we still have several more hours of severe weather with the potential for these dangerous and violent tornadoes that we've already seen the damage from them already -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Derek Van Dam, stay safe over there. Thank you very, very much.

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

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.