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Republican Respond To Biden Launch With AI-Generated Attack; Rape Allegation Civil Trial Against Trump Begins In New York; WHO Warns Of 'Huge Risk' After Sudan Forces Occupy Bio Lab; CNN On Ukraine's Southern Front As Counteroffensive Looms; Biden Threatens To Veto "Reckless" GOP Debt Deal; Singer, Actor, Activist Harry Belafonte Dead At Age 96. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired April 25, 2023 - 17:00   ET



BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN SENIOR GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: You can follow me on Twitter @biannagolodryga or tweet the show @theleadcnn. And if you ever miss an episode of "THE LEAD", you can listen to the show wherever you get your podcasts.

Our coverage continues now with Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks for watching.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, President Biden's reelection campaign is officially underway. He's promising to, quote, "finish the job" as he works to win over unenthusiastic Democrats. And he's taking digs at his former and potentially future opponent, Donald Trump.

Also tonight, a rape allegation lawsuit against Trump goes to trial with opening statements in New York. We'll have the latest on E. Jean Carroll's civil case against the former president and Trump's defense.

And in war toward Sudan right now, Americans are part of an urgent race to flee the country as bursts of violence mar a fragile U.S. brokered ceasefire. This, amid new fears of a biological nightmare after paramilitary forces seize a public health lab.

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

The 2024 race for the White House is taking shape in a big way tonight with President Biden's official campaign launch. His announcement video driving home team Biden's strategy if a historic rematch with Donald Trump actually becomes a reality. Let's begin our coverage this hour with our Chief White House Correspondent, Phil Mattingly.

Phil, the President clearly facing some headwinds as he jumps into this presidential race. How is he making the case to voters?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, four years to the day after President Biden's 2020 announcement, a race that he went on to win, defeating incumbent and then President Donald Trump, the President announcing that he has more work to do, but he wants to finish the job. And in doing so, he will seek reelection.

And in his announcement video, much like he did back in 2019, laying out his theory of the case, connecting the line from that campaign announcement, campaign in his first two plus years in office to what he wants to do in the years ahead, but also the stakes, the stakes of this moment, a moment where he made clear that his initial line and initial campaign promise for the ballot of the soul of the nation was something that was still ongoing. And because of that fact, he decided he needed to run again.

Now, it is very clear, Wolf, and as you noted, the President facing underwhelming poll numbers when it comes to his approval, facing general apathy, not just among the broader electorate, but amongst some Democrats about running for reelection, particularly as the oldest president in U.S. history. And that's where the window that the President and his team gave today with that announcement video is critical. They view this as a choice election, an election where contrast will mean everything, not necessarily how people feel just about the President but how they feel about who he'll be running against. And that, more than anything else, was what that initial campaign video laid out. Take a look.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The question we're facing is whether in the years ahead we have more freedom or less freedom, more rights are fewer, I know what I want the answer to be, and I think you do, too. This is not a time to be complacent. That's why I'm running for reelection.


MATTINGLY: And Wolf, it was a split screen kind of day in terms of what the strategy that will be rolled out over the course of the coming months will actually entail. Very clear the campaign is going to hammer home attacks on Republicans, attacks on former President Donald Trump, currently the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. But also the President, just a few hours later, going to some of his closest allies, union members here in Washington at a legislative conference and detailing his legislative successes of those first two years. Sweeping agenda items that are now being implemented. Something he'll be talking about over and over again in the next couple of weeks and months.

It's worth noting, Wolf, it's not a dramatic shift from where the President has been the last several months. To some degree, his campaign strategy, from the personal sense, has been hiding in plain sight, something advisors say he will continue in the months ahead as they build the campaign towards that critical 2024 year and the general election. One thing is also clear, though, the campaign is moving very quickly, not only to build out their staff, build out their infrastructure, but also to raise money, expected to raise as much as $2 billion over the course of the next year and a half between the campaign and their outside groups, underscoring just how complicated and difficult the battle will be ahead. But very clearly, at least at the moment, laying out a message of contrast, a message they believe, despite the President's age, despite his current approval numbers, will win the day come November 2024, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. His message, let's finish the job. That's what he keeps on saying. Phil Mattingly at the White House, thank you very much.

Let's go to the GOP response right now to President Biden's announcement. Our Chief National Affairs Correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, is here with me in THE SITUATION ROOM.


Jeff, so how are Republicans countering President Biden's message?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, in a fairly predictable way, we've heard much of the critique, of course, over the first two years of the Biden presidency and in fact, in the last reelection as well. But there is no doubt that former President Donald Trump was talking about the weak economy, inflation. But we also saw something we have not seen yet before, an advertisement spaced in fiction. Artificial intelligence from the Republican National Committee simulating a newscast looking into the future. Let's take a look.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This morning, an emboldened China invades Taiwan.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Financial markets are in free fall as 500 regional banks have shuttered their doors.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Border agents were overrun by a surge of 80,000 illegals yesterday evening.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Officials closed the city of San Francisco this morning, citing the escalating crime and fentanyl crisis.


ZELENY: So again, this is based on artificial intelligence. It's looking into the future, but it's also looking into what future campaigns, in fact, this campaign may look like really taking steps never before done. The reality here is they could have gone after his age, they could have talked about inflation, the economy, the war in Afghanistan, so many substantive criticisms, but instead, the Republican National Committee used this new technology to really cross a line that we've not seen before. But I suspect it is the beginning of a new tactic we'll see a lot.

BLITZER: I'm sure we will. All right, Jeff, stay with us. I also want to bring in CNN Senior Political Analyst Gloria Borger and CNN Contributor and Biden Biographer, Evan Osnos.

So, Gloria, the President is arguing this is still a battle for the soul of the nation.


BLITZER: So you think this is going to work a second time?

BORGER: Well, Joe Biden is equal now. Still a battle for the soul of the nation. Look, he's going to argue that he pulled the country back from the precipice. He's going to remind people what the country was like when he became president, that there was COVID, it was deadly, it was a bad economy that he will say is getting better.

And most of all, I think he will say that this is a democracy that was threatened and still continues to be threatened, as he has said time and time again by MAGA Republicans. And you're going to continue to hear him talk about what will essentially be, I believe, a good versus evil campaign, saying that he is good and the MAGA Republicans are evil, they're going to take away your freedoms, they're going to change your life, they're going to give tax cuts to the rich, they don't care about ordinary Americans. And we've heard that from him already and you're going to continue to hear more of it during the campaign.

BLITZER: One of the problems he's clearly got, Evan, is his approval, job approval rating right now, not necessarily all that good.

EVAN OSNOS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes. No, it's a problem for him. And you know, interestingly enough, the White House says that we look beyond the polls. I'm giving you a sense of how they think about it. When you talk to them, they say, look, in this day and age, in a heavy polarized country like this, and just a polarized time in which we live, people don't tend to reward sitting politicians with high numbers.

In fact, if you look at the G7, actually Joe Biden has some of the highest approval numbers of any leader there. So, now look, that is not an argument for complacency. And if they take it as such, then they are running into real political trouble.

Their argument would be, I think, to Gloria's point, that they're going to try to wrest the language of freedom back from conservatives. They're going to say, look, this is a moment in which Democrats feel as if the rights that they've come to believe are settled law are being pulled away from them. They think they have a strong case to make.

BLITZER: You know, Jeff, I want you and our viewers to listen to how the President, President Biden, is going after what he calls the MAGA extremists. Listen to this.


BIDEN: Around the country, MAGA extremists are lining up to take on those bedrock freedoms. Cutting Social Security that you paid for your entire life while cutting taxes for the very wealthy, dictating what health care decisions women can make, banning books and telling people who they can love, all while making it more difficult for you to be able to vote.


BLITZER: This Biden strongest message going into 2024?

ZELENY: Without a doubt. I mean, drawing a contrast with his opponents is the message and the hope of any incumbent president. Of course, this will be a conversation about his record, without a doubt. But if he can make this a choice against his administration versus the former administration, he will have a gift that very few incumbent American presidents have had to return directly to his predecessor, which really, in some respects, it feels like the Trump administration has never ended. This has been an ongoing sort of drumbeat. So he is trying to seize on that and continue going forward on that.

The challenge is if Donald Trump is not the nominee. And we do not know if he will be the nominee, this is the very early part of the Republican primary campaign as well, then it becomes a generational contrast and that could be a different playbook and challenge for this President. But for now, they are trying to unify Democrats in a way that works more than anyone else. That's through Donald Trump.

BORGER: You know, it's interesting in this ad, and you just showed that clip when Biden talked about MAGA Republicans, the picture was not of Donald Trump, but the picture was of DeSantis, because it's clear that they're hedging their bets here a little bit and they can't make it only about Donald Trump, they want to make it about the entire Republican primary field.


BLITZER: Evan, I want to get your reaction to a rather odd moment that occurred at today's White House press briefing. Watch this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do the president plan to serve all eight years?

KARINE JEAN-PIERRE, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I'm not -- I'm just not going to get ahead of the President. That's something for him to decide.


BLITZER: And now after the press briefing, Jean-Pierre clarified in a tweet saying this, "I can confirm that if reelected, President Biden would serve all eight years." But there's a lot of concern out there about the President's age.

OSNOS: Yes, look, I mean, that is -- that should be a slam dunk question with an easy answer. And in some ways, this does underscore the concern out there. And I think you have to recognize the White House knows that this is not an issue that you can walk away from for a very long time. In fact, you had Congressman Jim Clyburn, one of the President's closest allies, say there will come a time when he's going to have to talk very bluntly about age. And what the language you're likely to hear is that age is a synonym for experience. And in some ways, the things that people are looking to the President for legislative wins, fighting the big fights on rights, that those don't come easily and that somebody's had a few laps around the track may be able to do it, but it's a case they will have to make. They can't just let it be made by themselves.

ZELENY: I think, without a doubt, but he always says, watch me.

BORGER: Always.

ZELENY: That is, in fact, what voters will do for the next 19 months. They will watch him. So, it is a high wire act, without question. You talk to Democrats who respect Joe Biden without a doubt, they admire his record. But they also wonder, are we putting all the eggs in our basket here?

But we should also mention the vice president. She was pictured again and again and again, some 15 times or so in that three minute ad this morning. Make no mistake, he is interlocked with her. Republicans that I talked today said one message they will be using is that President Harris, you're really voting for President Harris, that he will not finish out the term. I'm not sure that works or not, but age, as Evan said, is something that is hanging over this.

But look, he was 76 when he was elected, 78, actually, when he was elected the first time. So this isn't a surprise to America.

BORGER: Well --

ZELENY: It's a contrast.

BORGER: It's also not an issue that you can pivot from, it is what it is, as they say. But let's also understand that Donald Trump is not a youngster.

ZELENY: If he's the nominee, right.

BORGER: Right. Now, of course, if DeSantis or somebody younger is the nominee, that's a different picture. That's a young family, he's, you know, in his 40s. But if it is Donald Trump, it is an issue that I think, and particularly if Donald Trump tries to use it against Joe Biden, it's an issue that they'll be able to figure out a way to sort of get around and try and talk about Donald Trump's temperament, for example, as opposed perhaps his age.

So, I don't think -- you know, Joe Biden has said to aides, do you think I'm not aware of how old I am? He is aware of the age issue, correct?


BORGER: So, he's got to figure out a way to be as vibrant as he can. And in that video, again, they had him kind of running at an event, but it's not easy for any candidate to show their vibrancy all the time with the kind of schedules that they're going to have to run. It isn't a COVID campaign anymore.

OSNOS: You know, there was that moment at the state of the union in February --

BORGER: Yes. OSNOS: -- where he had real vigor. And I think the response to it was a recognition that when he is on and when people see that in the kind of cut and thrust with Republicans, they like it. And so, he's going to have moments like that. He's going to have to dip into the reservoir of energy to get that.

BLITZER: Yes, the state of union address was very impressive indeed.

All right, guys, everybody stand by.

Coming up, a rape allegation lawsuit against former President Trump gets underway in Manhattan. We have details from the opening statements today.

Plus, all the fallout from the stunning split between Fox News and Tucker Carlson. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: Former president Trump's legal troubles are once again playing out today in Manhattan in a courtroom there. This time as part of a civil trial over a rape allegation. Our Kara Scannell is standing by outside the courthouse for us.

Kara, so how is each side framing this case in their respective opening statements?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, opening statements just wrapped up, and lawyers for E. Jean Carroll were describing her encounter, her allegations that they started off with a jokey engagement in Bergdorf Goodman department store in mid 1990s, and then that turned into a violent raper. Carroll alleges that Trump pushed her up the wall of a dressing room and then raped her.

Now, they said that this was part of Trump's M.O., and they pointed to two other women who have come forward who they say will testify at this trial. And they say that this was a pattern where there's something started out kind of jokey, and then as they said, three women, one clear pattern, pounce, kiss, grab, grope, when you're a star, you can do anything. And that is quoting from the former president who was caught on that hot mic in an interview with Access Hollywood, would have become known as the Access Hollywood tape.

Now, Carroll's attorneys also said, remember, they accused Trump of battery and defamation. They said that part of Trump's pattern is when you speak up, humiliate them, call them liars, say they are too ugly to assault. They said that he did that in each of these three examples.

Now, Trump's attorney, Joe Tacopina, punching back directly at Carroll's credibility, saying that this is an unbelievable story because it's just not true. He said that Carroll is motivated here by financial motivation, by a political animus against Trump, and also a desire to be in the spotlight. He told the jury, you can hate Donald Trump, but the place to do that is the ballot box, not in a court of law.

He also called out Carroll saying that, you know, she was -- that essentially she never took notes of this. She has nothing in her diary, that she's just made up this story for financial gain. And he told the jury that the one thing to put aside all the distractions the other women, the other allegations, and say the main question here for them to decide is whether they believe Carroll. And he's telling them that it's an unbelievable story that they can't believe. Wolf.


BLITZER: Kara, will jurors hear directly from Trump, at least in some form, during the course of this trial?

SCANNELL: You know, the judge was really pressing the attorney after the jury left for the day on this very point, and he said he couldn't definitively answer that question. But the jury will hear from Donald Trump in the form of a video deposition. This was a deposition that he gave in October. And on the deposition, Trump is adamant that this assault never took place. And even his attorney telling the jury that Trump got, as he put it, snarly on the deposition because he said he became angry because Carroll is accusing him of raping her, calling him a rapist.

So, we will hear from Trump in that form, but the lawyer could not commit as far as to whether the former president would appear in court. The judge pressing him, saying he needs to know this week if the former president will testify. And he said he understood that some clients don't want to make that decision, but the judge is pressing him to come forward with answer by the end of the week. Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Kara, I want you to stay with us. I also want to bring in Defense Attorney Shan Wu for some analysis as well.

Shan, how effective were each side's opening statements and who might now have the upper hand with the jurors?

SHAN WU, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: I would say I'd give a nod to the plaintiff, Ms. Carroll's team, on the opening statements because they are focusing very much on the facts, and importantly, corroboration of this. The pattern evidence that they have alluded to is very, very powerful damaging evidence to a defendant in a sexual abuse case. It requires careful handling by the judge to make sure that it doesn't cause inappropriate inferences to be made. But if it comes in and can withstand judicial scrutiny, that is going to be very difficult for the Trump team to overcome.

And in contrast, Trump's legal team seems to really be relying on kind of a blustery defense. Trump not being there, I think, is a poor visual optic because it makes his lawyer Tacopino look like his stand in. He's a very blustery style of attorney. And so, it really becomes more a question of looking like Trump's just very bullying and dismissive towards the charges, not even taking it seriously enough to be there. I think that by itself is a really poor choice, strategically. BLITZER: Kara, how is Carroll's team approaching the fact that this alleged assault happened, what, three decades or so ago without eyewitnesses?

SCANNELL: Well, so they said that they're going to call two friends of Carroll, whose Carroll said that she confided in immediately after the assault, calling one just as she fled the department store while she was still on the streets of Manhattan. And those women, they say, will corroborate her story, one of them advising her to go to the police and the other saying Trump is too powerful to take on. At the time, he was a fixture of the New York tabloids, he was the big real estate developer. And they said, you know, he will take her down. He's too powerful.

They also say that they're going to call two witnesses from Bergdorf Goodman. Now, these witnesses do not have any eyewitness accounts. They can't say anything about the alleged assault. But Carroll's attorney say they want to call them to back up Carroll's description of the department store, of the dressing room. How it was so quiet.

How people were there on a Thursday night that's the night, the one night a week where Bergdorf Goodman stayed openly, but that it was generally empty. So they are calling them to try to set the scene and back up Carroll's description of the scene because one of the issues is, how is this able to happen in a public department store? And Carroll's lawyer saying that it happened because it was -- there was no one there. It was just an empty department store on the 6th floor in the lingerie department and so there were no witnesses. So they're trying to buttress her claims with both the real time people that she confided in as well as setting up the scene of the store.

But of course, that is something that Trump's lawyers are already attacking by saying that she never went to the police, that she didn't write it in her diary. She was an avid diary keeper, they said, and she never noted this. They're also suggesting that she never even told one of these friends until years later, only when she decided to write a book. So there's going to be a lot coming down to the credibility. But her attorneys here are focusing on any real time conversations she may have had that could set the scene in the '90s and those Bergdorf Goodman employees who can describe what the dressing room was like and how it was quiet on that floor. Wolf.

BLITZER: In the past, Shan, Trump has denied these allegations by saying Carroll wasn't his type and has denied even knowing her despite being photographed together on an earlier occasion. How much of a liability is that for his defense?

WU: That's a big liability, Wolf. I mean, saying you don't know someone and then, you know, it turns out that there are pictures of you with them. And in particular, the -- I mean, the offensive statement he makes that she's not my type, that's just not a very helpful defense to what happened. Because, actually, what that sounds like today to people if you say something like that, I didn't assault this person because they're not the type of person I will want to assault is really damaging to him and makes it clear that he has a perspective towards women that has to do with if he's attracted to them, that he can do what he wants, which is, of course, the Access Hollywood tape. So I think all that is a really poor look for him and very damaging, and I expect Carroll's attorneys to really use that to their advantage.


BLITZER: Yes, I suspect you're right. Shan Wu and Kara Scannell, guys, thank you very, very much.

Not all the fallout from the stunning departure of Tucker Carlson over at Fox News. Let's get the latest from our Senior Media Reporter Oliver Darcy.

Oliver, what it's been more than 24 hours now, and we still haven't heard Tucker Carlson's side of the story, have we?

OLIVER DARCY, CNN SENIOR MEDIA REPORTER: More than 24 hours, Wolf, and we haven't heard a word from Tucker Carlson. His firing from Fox News, his shock firing, still very much remains enshrined in mystery. But what's not a mystery is that Fox News viewers are, to some extent at least last night, reacting.

The ratings in the 08:00 p.m. hour which he had hosted for the past several years, they noticeably softened. I mean, it was still the highest rated hour by a smidgen over on Fox News, but much softer than when Tucker Carlson hosted that hour. And notably Fox News's smaller rival and right wing talk television Newsmax, they saw a very big boost in their viewership. So it looks like some of Tucker Carlson's fan base may have migrated over that channel and sampled some of their programming over there.

Now, of course, the Murdochs, Rupert Murdoch and Lachlan Murdoch, they're betting that in the long run, Fox News is much bigger than Tucker Carlson, that Tucker Carlson is not bigger than the big brand they've built over the last couple of decades. And they have some evidence to suggest that's the case. I mean, they have rid their channel of people like Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, Megyn Kelly left, and those people, they've never been bigger than the Fox News brand. I mean, if you look at the platforms they've had since leaving Fox News, they've been noticeably smaller than when they were on that primetime perch over on Fox News.

And so, I think the Murdochs are making a bet that, yes, maybe in the short term we'll take a little bit of a ratings hit. They're still, you know, doing pretty well in the ratings. But in the long term, they're betting that they make the stars and not the other way around. Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Oliver, thank you very much. Oliver Darcy reporting.

Up next, the race to get out of Sudan before time runs out on a very fragile three day ceasefire. Now we'll have a report from the southern front of the war in Ukraine about the potential start of a critical counter offensive.



BLITZER: Tonight, the race to flee Sudan is growing more urgent as the clock ticks at a 72-hour ceasefire that's been marred by reports of violence. CNN Pentagon Correspondent Oren Liebermann is joining us right now. He's following the crisis and the fate of Americans. Thousands of Americans still in Sudan. Oren, what's the latest?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the U.N. Secretary General's Special Representative for Sudan says this 72 hours ceasefire appears to be holding in most places, but the question, is that enough? With residents telling CNN of shortages of food in and near the capital and a question of, can this violence spiral out of control again quickly?


LIEBERMANN (voice-over): In the absence of people, the streets of Sudan are filled with the scars of war. The death toll climbing toward 500 with the fighting into its second week. Now a new threat with the paramilitary RSF seizing the National Public Health Laboratory, threatening to turn a humanitarian disaster into a biological nightmare.

NIMA SAEED ABID, WHO REPRESENTATIVE IN SUDAN: That is extremely, extremely dangerous because we have polio isolates in the lab. We have measles isolates on the lab. We have cholera isolates in the lab. So there is a huge biological risk associated with the occupation of the Central Public Health lab in Khartoum by one of the fighting parties.

LIEBERMANN (voice-over): The United States announced a 72-hour ceasefire that started Tuesday, but eyewitness reports heavy clashes between the warring factions near the Sudanese capital.

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: It's my hope that the determined work of our diplomats and some regional leaders will produce an enduring ceasefire and then allow a negotiated renewal of the movement towards a civilian government.

LIEBERMANN (voice-over): The U.S. released these images of its weekend evacuation, showing diplomats and their family members arriving in Djibouti after the operation. The Biden administration said it's too dangerous right now for a full evacuation of American citizens. The latest U.S. security alert for Sudan said it's not currently safe to undertake a U.S. government coordinated evacuation of private U.S. citizens.

Meanwhile, countries from all over the world conducting evacuations of their citizens from Sudan and including several Americans. The U.S. facing questions about why it's not doing the same.

VEDANT PATEL, STATE DEPARTMENT DEPUTY SPOKESPERSON: I think what I will point to is what National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said yesterday, which is that it is not standard practice for the U.S. to send U.S. military into war zones to extract U.S. citizens. The U.S. has sent in troops to evacuate U.S. citizens multiple times in the past, including in 2006 when the U.S. evacuated 15,000 American citizens from Lebanon after war broke out. And evacuation operations are one of the critical missions for a Marine expeditionary unit. The U.S. says it has drones watching evacuation routes from above and a Navy ship in the waters of Sudan, with two more on the way.


KARINE JEAN-PIERRE, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We're moving naval assets within the region to assist with potential contingency off the coast of port of Sudan. I don't have anything else to share beyond what our National Security Adviser shared, but clearly this is important to us and important to the President.


LIEBERMANN: There are some 16,000 or more U.S. citizens in Sudan, many of them dual nationals, so Sudanese-American. Right now, U.S. officials have said they have indications that dozens or so, several dozen would like to leave the country. But if the situation stays this bad or gets worse, that number could rise quickly, Wolf, forcing or compelling the U.S. to consider other options perhaps.

BLITZER: Certainly could. Oren Liebermann at the Pentagon. Thank you very much from the Pentagon.

Let's head over to Ukraine and growing speculation about the timing of a critical counteroffensive against Russian forces there. CNN's Nick Paton Walsh reports from the southern front.


NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR (voice-over): Change is in the air, but here in Vuhledar, Russia is the same. And its intensity and clumsiness of bombing. It's not clear if this tiny town is a launch pad for Ukraine's counteroffensive, but Moscow pounds it just to be sure.

A similar story here too, on a riverbank near Kherson that reportedly Ukrainian forces may be crossing into occupied areas. Their officials claiming, quote, impressive results. On Tuesday, a Russian airstrike hits, even though it's unclear what they struck.

Ukraine's otherwise kept quiet about its big assault, despite some opaque social media videos suggesting movement. Russian troops are, according to one Ukrainian official from the occupy town of Melitopol, definitely on the move.

MAYOR IVAN FEDEROV, MELITOPOL, UKRAINE: Now we see that they are relocated. They make two great big bases for Russian troops. All of this base is located on a seaside of Azov Sea, more than 100 kilometers from the front line.

WALSH (voice-over): He joked about how common accidents are there for Russians. One overturning this launcher, especially on the railway, vital for military supplies.

FEDEROV: Maybe three weeks, there is no electricity on the railway and they use old diesel trains. And a few days ago something happened with diesel trains and it was a great fire. And now there is no this diesel.

WALSH (on-camera): When you say something happened, you mean there was an explosion and, you know, something about that.

FEDEROV: Something happened.

WALSH (voice-over): We spoke to one local man who fled the city four days ago.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Proper Russian troops aren't there yet. It's just the newly mobilized who would not fight if they weren't threatened by being shot for ill-discipline. Everyone, local suspects, everyone else of something, even people who you would drink vodka with, you can't talk to now.

WALSH (voice-over): Still, Moscow keeps up with what it calls evacuations. This another episode of Ukrainian children being sent to what Russia calls safety. Here, 43 from an area right in the path of the counter offensive, packed off to Moscow's ally, Belarus, for a two-week break. Others in the past were offered a similar trip, but held for months.

Ukraine has said 20,000 have been deported already, and it's led to a war crimes indictment against Russian President Vladimir Putin. It's unclear what comes next for them and the town in the crosshairs they leave behind.


WALSH: Wolf, you might be able to hear the air raid sirens behind me here. Very common in Zaporizhzhia, real tension and anxiety growing here and a sense possibly, that things in Ukraine's long awaited counteroffensive may beginning. Are we seeing the prelude to that beginning in the activity on the eastern bank of Kherson on the Dnipro River? We don't know, but clearly a sense that things are moving, Wolf.

BLITZER: Nick Paton Walsh, stay safe over there. Thank you very, very much.

I'll be speaking, by the way, with the mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko. That's coming up in the next hour here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Just ahead, we'll go live to Capitol Hill for an update on the debt ceiling showdown as Speaker McCarthy struggles to unite Republicans behind his plan. Also ahead, new questions over the relationship between Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and a Republican megadonor. Did Harlan Crow have business before the U.S. Supreme Court while Justice Thomas was on the bench?



BLITZER: There is deep uncertainty on Capitol Hill tonight over Speaker McCarthy's plan to raise the nation's debt limit. The White House issuing a scathing veto threat as Republicans struggle to find a majority. Let's get an update from our Chief Congressional Correspondent Manu Raju. He's up on the Hill. Manu, what can you tell us about the veto threat and whether McCarthy actually has the votes?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, the veto threat was made by the White House, but that means that the vote legislation would actually have to get to the President's desk. That will not happen because the Democratic led Senate has no plans to take this up. It does not have the votes to get out of the Senate. But the focus right now is in the House.

Kevin McCarthy is scrambling behind the scenes to lock down the votes he needs in order to get this passed. 218 votes is what he needs, meaning he cannot lose more than four Republicans. If more than four Republicans vote no because all Democrats are expected to vote no, that will be enough to sink the measure, which is why behind the scenes, they're trying to assuage concerns that a number of members had -- have over some of the key issues in here.

One of them has come up as rescinding tax breaks for ethanol that has been pushed where there resistance from members of the Iowa Republican delegation. There are four members who are raising concerns about that.


And also some members who are concerned on the far right of the House Republican Conference over the proposed work requirements that they are trying to push forward with the Social Safety Net program, Medicaid. They want to make those even stricter. The House Republican leaders don't want to change the bill at all. They're trying to pressure their members to fall in line, saying they need to get this done in order to bolster their standing in this fight with the White House and try to force Joe Biden to the negotiating table.

And when I caught up with Speaker McCarthy earlier today about whether he would change the bill or whether he has the votes for this measure, he didn't say.


RAJU: Do we have to change the bill to get 218 votes?

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: I will let you know.

RAJU: Are you -- do you have 218 votes on this?

MCCARTHY: You're the first person I'm going to call when the vote could happen.


RAJU: So still no word from the Speaker about whether they do, in fact, have the votes, but there is still optimism among Republican leaders that they will eventually get there. It will take some time, exactly how much time is uncertain. But McCarthy does want to have the vote this week, which is why they are having all of these meetings behind the scenes.

One happening behind me right now, another one happening in the Speaker's office trying to get the conference in line over this huge fight, Wolf, because as you know, without a deal, without legislation to raise the national debt limit, then we could experience the first ever default in the United States as early as June without any such bipartisan deal, Wolf.

BLITZER: So, Manu, what is Speaker McCarthy's next step?

RAJU: Well, Wolf, the hope is to get this out of the House, and then after that, the question is, what's next? No one knows the answer to that because Democrats in the Senate are simply saying, raise the debt limit without any conditions whatsoever. And McCarthy opposes that democratic demand. So, Wolf, a lot of questions about what this means for the U.S. economy and how they get out of this log jam.

BLITZER: Yes, lots at stake right now. Manu Raju, thank you very much.

Coming up, we'll have more in our top story. President Biden making his official entry into the 2024 race. How will his reelection bid be received by the public?

And we're remembering also the monumental life and legacy of Harry Belafonte, the iconic singer, actor, and civil rights activist.



BLITZER: Tonight, the world is mourning the loss of singer, actor and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte. CNN's Stephanie Elam has more on the icon's barrier breaking role in the music industry and the advocacy he made central to his career.



STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The Banana Boat song opening line "Day-O" put Harlemborn Harry Belafonte on the map. The son of Caribbean immigrants worked hard to pull himself out of poverty through music and education.

HARRY BELAFONTE, SINGER, ACTOR: I and my brothers and sisters were the first to be educated.

ELAM (voice-over): Belafonte's humble and sometimes rough beginnings in New York City helped shape the man who later would have a major impact on American music and drama.

BELAFONTE: I went to school here, drama school. My classmates were Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur.

ELAM (voice-over): Belafonte burst onto the entertainment scene in the early 1950s. He was dubbed the King of Calypso because of the Jamaican folk music he made popular.

BELAFONTE: Cut that out.

ELAM (voice-over): At around the same time, he won Rave reviews for his role in the movie "Carmen Jones." It was one of the first films with an all-black cast to garner box office success.

The man with the uniquely husky voice went on to make more than 40 albums, including original recordings and compilations, and starred in more than 10 movies spanning more than five decades. Belafonte won several Grammy Awards for his records in the early 1960s and was one of the first black performers to win a Tony Award for the Broadway Hit "John Murray Anderson's Almanac."

In his later years, his big screen projects dealt with the larger societal issues of race and class, like 1995's "White Man Burden".

BELAFONTE: Kind of just grew up and got away from me and --

ELAM (voice-over): Although Belafonte's career kept him busy, he always made time for his family. He was the father of four children from two marriages. His daughter, Sherry Belafonte followed in his footsteps to become an actress in her own right.

Although his music and movies gained him fame Belafonte also made his mark as a political activist. In the 60s, he stood up for the civil rights of blacks in America and stood side by side with the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And Bobby Kennedy, both later assassinated. Two decades later, he turned his attention to the poor and powerless abroad, especially in Africa.

In 1985, Belafonte initiated the U.S. for Africa recording of "We Are the World" with some of the world's most famous entertainers. The song raised over $63 million for African relief. And for his humanitarianism, the artist received numerous awards from the Kennedy Center, the ACLU, the American National Medal of the Arts and the Thurgood Martial Lifetime Achievement Award.


ELAM (voice-over): Later in life, Belafonte further sealed his legacy starting his own foundation "Sankofa" focused on social justice. In the documentary, Harry Belafonte "Sing Your Song", he contemplated his life of accomplishment and the work that lay ahead.


BELAFONTE: I try to envision playing out the rest of my life almost exclusively devoted to reflection. But there's this too much of the world to be done.

My social activism, things that I believed in politically and although I took a lot of heat for what I did, then not taking heat again for some of the things I say and do, but if history is any with any measure, then I'd probably wind up on the right side of the equation.


BLITZER: Our deepest, deepest condolences to his family. May he rest in peace and may his memory be a blessing.

Coming up, the latest on our top story, President Biden officially launching his bid to hold the White House in 2024 as questions swirl over his age and whether his own party wants him to run. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Happening now, President Biden officially jumps into the 2024 race for the White House and tees up a potential rematch with Donald Trump.