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The Situation Room

Now, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) At White House For Debt Talks With Biden; E. Jean Carroll Seeking Further Damages From Trump; Russia Claims Victory In Bakhmut After Grueling Fight; Sources: Trump Attorney Took Notes Saying Former President Wanted To Fight Subpoena For Classified Documents; Detained American Paul Whelan Speaks To CNN. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired May 22, 2023 - 18:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: And that lawsuit is turned into the hands of a lower court judge.

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Our coverage continues now with Wolf Blitzer and The Situation Room. See you tomorrow.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, tense negotiations underway at the White House right now as the clock ticks toward a potentially catastrophic debt default, this as the treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, issues a new warning to Congress saying it is now highly likely the United States won't be able to pay its bills by early June.

Also tonight, breaking news, Trump accuser E. Jean Carroll is seeking further damages from the former president for disparaging comments he made about her during a CNN town hall.

And in Ukraine, after months of brutal fighting, it now appears Bakhmut has finally fallen to Russia, but Ukrainian forces say they still hold a small portion of the totally ruined city. I'll get reaction from the former Ukrainian defense minister.

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 straight to our top story right now. The Speaker McCarthy and President Biden, they are diving into another round of debt limit negotiations as the treasury secretary issues her starkest warning yet, that default is now just a few days away.

We're covering the story from every angle over at the White House up on Capitol Hill. Let's begin over at the White House with CNN's Jeremy Diamond. Jeremy, very high-stakes talks are under way behind you out in there in the Oval Office with just, what, days to spare. Give us the latest.

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly right, Wolf. And it comes after a pretty turbulent weekend of sputtering talks between sides of these debt ceiling negotiations. But right now, President Biden is sitting in the Oval Office with the speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy. And just moments ago, both sides reiterating that they had a productive conversation yesterday and talking about the need to reach a bipartisan agreement.

But, really, we have to underscore how big the divide is between these two sides, and we're not just talking about a few different sticking points here. We're really talking about major differences on the central parts of this potential deal.

Everything from the length of a potential debt ceiling deal in terms of the length of spending caps, how long those spending caps will last and for -- at what level they should be, whether we're talking about defense or non-defense spending and also the more policy-oriented issues, such as work requirements for safety net programs, permitting reform, unspent COVID relief funds.

So, really, with just ten days to go until this potential default, the gap between these two sides is very big. But we are looking at a potential inflexion point with these two men sitting together.

You notice there that the other congressional leaders, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, and the House Democratic leader, Hakeem Jefferies, they are not in the room. That is a reflection of the state of these negotiations and the fact that this is a deal that is going to come down to these two men.

But that warning from the treasury secretary being reiterated that in just ten days, we could potentially hit default. She says in a letter to the congressional leaders, quote, we estimate that it is highly likely that treasury will no longer be able to satisfy all of the obligations if Congress has not acted to raise or suspend the debt limit by early June and potentially as early as June 1st.

Previously, she said it was likely that in terms of that timeline, now she is saying it is highly likely a stepped-up warning for Congress with just very little time to act. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. Let's go over to Capitol Hill right now, where CNN's Melanie Zanona is standing by with more information. Melanie, the speaker, McCarthy, he went into this meeting keenly aware that a deal needs to happen this week to avoid default. If a deal is reached, can McCarthy get his members onboard?

MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: Well, Wolf, Kevin McCarthy is going to have to sell this deal potential to his members, and he knows that. That's why he's holding the line on so many Republican demands, like cutting spending, imposing tougher work requirements for social safety net programs, and members of the hard line House Freedom Caucus are already calling for an end to bipartisan talks. They're already warning that they don't want to support anything that falls short of what House Republicans already passed in the House. Now, Kevin McCarthy doesn't need all of their votes in order to pass a bipartisan deal. That's because, presumable, in that scenario, you would have Democrats supporting that deal, as well, but Kevin McCarthy does need their support in order to hold on to his speakership. And another complicating factor here is, during the speaker's race, Kevin McCarthy promised that he would give his members 72 hours to read any bill before they come to the House floor.


And I caught up with a number of conservatives earlier today who said, they are indeed expecting that rule to hold, that they have received public assurances from Kevin McCarthy that he will abide by that rule even though they did let it slide for other bills in the past. And that is another reason why there's such a sense of urgency right now with this timeline. Take a listen to what Kevin McCarthy said in terms of the timeline.


MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You need to have a deal tonight to avoid a default.

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): I thought it would be better to have a deal sooner. I think we can get a deal tonight, we get a deal tomorrow, but you have got to get something done this week to be able to pass it and move it to the Senate.


ZANONA: So, again, just to recap, if and when they get a deal, they still need to actually put it into the legislative text, which is a complicated and potentially time-consuming process, then they need to give members 72 hours to read it in the House before they can vote on it, and it still needs to go to the Senate, where any single senator can hold things up. So, there is a lot of work to do and not a lot of time to get it done, Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll see if they can. Melanie Zanona and Jeremy Diamond, guys, thank you very much.

If the U.S. does default on its debt, everything, Social Security checks to food stamps, could potentially be in jeopardy.

CNN's Brian Todd has a closer look right now on how the economy and everyday Americans would be affected.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Among the first people who could be impacted by the default, Social Security Recipients.

PAULA CUNNINGHAM, DIRECTOR, AARP MICHIGAN: I can't even begin to imagine what people will feel for not getting what they budgeted for, what they retired and knew they were going to have coming in every single month. TODD: What happens to the Social Security payments of more than 65 million Americans if the U.S. defaults on its debt?

MARK ZANDI, CHIEF ECONOMIST, MOODY'S ANALYTICS: They'll ultimately get a check but it will be late. And the longer the default goes on, the later that check will get. And then what? They can't pay the rent, they can't put food on the table.

TODD: A default could also affect payments to food stamps recipients, American military veterans who receive disability payments and active duty military personnel.

LARRY SUMMER, FORMER TREASURY SECRETARY: It could mean that we have people fighting in dangerous environments overseas who don't get their pay on time.

TODD: According to Moody's, if a default lasts about a week, close to a million American jobs will be lost, and if it drags on for six week, 7 million jobs. How? Analysts say the payments withheld to Social Security recipients and others would trickle into other sectors of the economy.

DAVID WILCOX, PETERSON INSTITUTE FOR INTERNATIONAL ECONOMICS: Suddenly, Social Security retirees, military people who get paid by the federal government, civilian employees wouldn't be able to go out to restaurant as much as they normally would. Social Security recipients who may be living from month-to-month on their benefit payment would themselves have to back up their payment to all the people that they owe money to.

TODD: Analysts say the stock market could also take a dive during the default. Americans' 401(k)s and other savings would see substantial losses. Even if a deal to avoid default is reached at the last minute, experts say, cutting it that close could hurt those accounts.

WILCOX: Financial market participants don't like uncertainty. In the face of uncertainty, they seize up and grow more risk-averse and that tends to send prices down.


TODD (on camera): So, how can the average American prepare for a possible default? Analyst David Wilcox says, for Social Security recipients, some government employees and others who rely on those payments for most, if not all of their income, now is the time to hold back on discretionary spending. Avoid the extra restaurant meal, try to build a buffer of savings and not to get overextended. Wolf?

BLITZER: Important advice, indeed. Brian Todd, thank you very much.

Let's get reaction right now from Democratic Congressman Jeff Jackson from North Carolina. Congressman, thanks for joining us. Do President Biden and Speaker McCarthy need to reach a deal tonight? You say Congress is basically out of time.

REP. JEFF JACKSON (D-NC): They do. They need to reach a deal tonight or within the next 24 hours because of the 72-hour waiting period that was part of the reforms during the speaker fight if we are going to pass a bill this week, and we really need to out of the House, then we need an announcement within the next 24 hours.

BLITZER: Let's see if that happens. Speaker McCarthy today wouldn't call work requirements a red line, something he said previously. How do you read that?

JACKSON: I read that as he's sensing a lot of the opposition to it. I think one of the concerns with work requirements historically has been they never really worked as intended. That said, there are a lot of different ways they can be written.

So, I think the specifics are going to be very important for myself personally. It will be very simple. If the bill is a net positive, I'll vote for it. If it's a net negative, I'll vote against it.

BLITZER: Speaker McCarthy predicts the majority of House Republicans will support a deal. But if President Biden makes too many concessions, does that risk Democratic votes like yours?

JACKSON: It's possible, yes. And we're going to have to see the contours of the deal. I think one of the major concerns here is what is the right flank going to do. Are they going to try and use every bit of leverage that they have because they have an enormous amount?


I know a lot of people see this whole thing as a negotiation between Republicans and Democrats but there's a less visible piece of it. That's really a negotiation between Speaker McCarthy and his right flank.

BLITZER: But how much are Americans going to suffer if President Biden and Congress can't reach a deal?

JACKSON: Look, there's just no overstating this. I think people have heard this from a lot of people, but it is just plain truth. This would be a generational, economic, self-inflicted wound. We cannot allow a default.

BLITZER: On the calls for President Biden to invoke the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, you've said it's not enough time to leave it to the courts because no one knows what the outcome would be. Should that option, the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, be off the table for the president?

JACKSON: I think at this point, it has to be. There's just not enough time to really execute on that with a high level of confidence. You can make the argument that under the 14th Amendment, debt ceiling itself is unconstitutional. That is a valid and plausible legal theory. But the time to test that theory was in January, not late May. If we pull that report now, there's a decent chance that we hit the ground before the parachute opens.

BLITZER: Congressman Jeff Jackson, thanks so much for joining us. JACKSON: Thank you.

BLITZER: Just ahead, E. Jean Carroll seeks new damages from Donald Trump. We're going to tell you why she says the former president owes her even more money.

Stay with us. You're in The Situation Room.



BLITZER: All right. Just in, Trump accuser E. Jean Carroll is seeking new damagers under her lawsuit against the former president after he repeated misstatements about her in a CNN town hall.

Let's get some more right now from CNN's Katelyn Polantz. Katelyn, what more can you tell us about Carroll's latest request?

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Wolf, remember that E. Jean Carroll, that columnist, that she had had that major lawsuit that she won against Donald Trump where she was able to convince the jury he should be liable for sexual abuse and for defaming her about an interaction in the department store years ago. That lawsuit is over, and she got a big award out of it, a $5 million award from that jury that Donald Trump will have to pay her.

This is about a very similar case that's still in the court system. It's about similar things he was saying about E. Jean Carroll during the time he was president. So, it's still going through the court system and what E. Jean Carroll's lawyers are doing right now is they're going to court and they're saying, we want to beef up our case against him because of how Donald Trump responded to E. Jean Carroll after that jury verdict.

So, here is one of the things that Donald Trump said just a day after the jury in New York decided to award her many, many millions of dollars about what she was able to say he should be liable for. Here's Trump at a town hall with CNN.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: They said he didn't rape her, and I didn't do anything else either, you know what, because I have no idea who the hell she is. I don't know who this woman is.

They said sir, don't do it. This is a fake story and you don't want to give it credibility, and that's why I didn't go.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: One thing you did do in this --

TRUMP: And I swear -- and I've never done that, and I swear -- I have no idea who the hell -- she's a whack job.

COLLINS: Mr. President --


POLANTZ: So, Wolf, this is an ongoing case where it's not just that that Trump was saying to Kaitlan Collins on CNN. He was also posting on Truth Social about E. Jean Carroll just the day after that jury verdict in New York in the complaint that she had won.

But this other civil lawsuit, it's another thing that E. Jean Carroll is clearly still pushing in court and trying to really twist the knife and trying to convince the judge that not only should she win another defamation case about Donald Trump about all of the things he has said about her, that he has demeaned her, she says, that he is denying abusing her still, but also that maybe it should be considered what he was saying after that jury verdict because maybe he should be punished even more if the jury finds in her favor, if the judge finds in her favor. Wolf?

BLITZER: Katelyn, I want you to stay with us. I also want to bring in our legal experts for more analysis right now. I'll start with Shan Wu.

You just heard that reminder of Trump's comments, Shan. How do you assess E. Jean Carroll's latest case here?

SHAN WU, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: I think those comments help a lot. It's particularly telling that they were made obviously when he's not the president anymore, and it really tees up a difficult issue for the Justice Department because they've taken this position that this lawsuit involving comments he made when he was president that they feel they should be defending him because those may have been the actions taken during his presidency.

I think that's a very embarrassing position for them to be in. I think it's weak, but they still have that position at the moment. And it will be interesting to see if the verdict as well as these comments that are clearly not when he's president, how that factors in to where the DOJ wants to maintain that position or not.

BLITZER: Nancy Erica Smith is with us as well. How notable, Nancy, is the timing here that these comments came exactly a day after a jury found Trump liable for sexual abuse and for defamation?

NANCY ERIKA SMITH, CIVIL RIGHTS ATTORNEY: It's really shocking the level of lawlessness and disregard for the rule of law, juries, judges. E. Jean Carroll and her lawyers may actually more to end Trump lawlessness than the entire Justice Department and Merrick Garland together.

It is important to note, as was just mentioned, that Trump is saying that the taxpayers have to defend him. The Department of Justice, which he impugns on a daily basis, should defend him because he defamed somebody while he was the president.

I agree that's a weak argument. I think it just got weaker because the law means nothing to him, and he keeps defaming her. I don't think she wants to twist the knife as much as stop him from defaming her, and he has no respect for the law. BLITZER: Katelyn, you're doing a lot of reporting on this. What will E. Jean Carroll's process of seeking additional damages actually look like?

POLANTZ: Well, she is just asking to amend the complaint right you in. So, that just is making what she would have to prove in court or bring to court, argue in court a little bit longer and adding in some of these things that happened after Trump was president and after that jury verdict.


But this is still an issue that is going through the courts on whether Trump can even be held liable for this. And like Shan mentioned, whether there is a situation where the Justice Department can substitute in for him, as he was serving as president, where the this main piece of what this lawsuit is about covers.

So, that's where it is really being look at right now in the courts on whether or not Donald Trump, as president, has some sort of protection. And that is going to have to get figured out before any of this other stuff will be considered.

BLITZER: And, Shan, how do you think the Trump legal team will good of defend the former president?

WU: Well, I think, first of all, they're really honing in on this point that Katelyn just made about this legal defense, saying that it's really DOJ that should speak to him because he has some kind of protection for his comment as president.

Secondly, I think, I mean, they'll likely take the same tactic that they did originally. Defamation, I mean, the truth is the defense type of thing, so they're really going to have to re-try, re-litigate all of the facts of that case.

I do think there's a big difference here, again, mounting pressure on DOJ. The deposition that was used released during the Carroll trial that just happened, that does not help Trump's argument that he was doing something as president. I mean, there's nothing about that deposition in the case. This is some sort of policy thing that he's consulting anyone. It just sounds like he's just plain out insulting her.

BLITZER: We'll see what happens in this front. Guys, thank you very much.

Coming up, Russia is now claiming victory in Bakhmut after months of bloody battles for the Eastern Ukrainian city. I'll get reaction from the former Ukrainian defense minister. That's coming up.



BLITZER: In Ukraine tonight, Russia is claiming victory in Bakhmut after a grueling month-long battle for the city. Ukrainian officials say their forces still hold a small piece of territory on the western outskirts of the city and claim they're in good position eventually to encircle the Russians.

Let's check in with CNN's Nic Robertson. He's joining us live from the war zone right now. So, Nic, where does the battle go from here if Russia has indeed captured Bakhmut?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Well, Wolf, I can tell you standing here right now, you can hear the shelling going on the frontlines around Bakhmut, something we've been hearing over recent nights, actually picking up with intensity. It doesn't mean it is getting closer to us. I don't think so.

Where the Russians are and where the Ukrainians are, the Russians have all, but perhaps the last tiny bit of Bakhmut and the Ukrainians have the fields, the villages and nearby towns all around it. They've been pushing forward recently, maybe a mile-and-a-half here forward, two miles somewhere else.

But they've really become pinned down even with those advances. And they made those advances when the Russians were rotating troops, a moment of weakness. The Russians regrouped, they came back in force, they've been shelling more heavily.

So, where does it stand? What does it mean? Well, towns like Slovyansk and Kramatorsk would be the next towns on Russia's agenda. And if it can continue to edge forward and remembering the reason it took so long to fight for Bachmut was because it was a heavily built-up urban environment, the next areas that Russia might push through would be easier to push through, countryside, smaller towns and villages.

Ukraine is deploying the forces. There are a lot of forces around here and old equipment and new equipment and beaten and battered equipment, but they're here in force and numbers. So, Ukraine is not giving in and Russia's advances have been very slow. And I think, at best, until the big counter offensive, Ukraine plans to hold them off from getting further to the bigger cities.

BLITZER: What are you learning, Nic, about this latest report of an attack on Russian territory?

ROBERTSON: It's something I don't think many people had expected to see Russians aligned with the Ukrainian military driving Ukrainian armored vehicles over the border into Russia. It begs the question, Russia is at war with Ukraine, although it calls it a military operation, yet there are border areas that are clearly open to Ukrainians driving straight into Russia.

And three villages on the border were disrupted by these forces. There were explosions, there were people injured. The mayor of one of those local towns was besieged by the town's people, asking why you can't give us safety.

Ukraine has a strategy at the moment to try to weaken the Russians in places where it has offenses to try to get and to shift troops to those areas so that it can see weaknesses elsewhere in the frontline.

This has all the appearances of what people call a shaping operation, whereby the Ukrainians on this border are trying to create a situation that Russia has to move troops to defend this border area and the other hundreds of tiny border crossings like it, and, therefore, deplete their resources inside Ukraine. That's what Ukraine, I believe, at this moment is looking for.

BLITZER: Nic Robertson in the war zone in Eastern Ukraine for us, Nic, stay safe, thank you very much.

And joining us now, the former Ukrainian minister, Andriy Zagorodnyuk. Andriy, thank you so much for joining us.

When I interviewed President Zelenskyy back in March, he told me Bakhmut could be a stepping stone for Russia to go to Kramatorsk or to Slovyansk.


How does Ukraine prevent that?

ANDRIY ZAGORODNYUK, FORMER UKRAINIAN DEFENSE MINISTER: Well, first of all, basically, we will get it back. Secondly, we deny Russians' inability to fully exploit their position in Bakhmut. They cannot control the city and we control around the areas around the city, and so they will not be able to exercise their control. So, even if there are troops and particularly the Wagner troops are present on the streets, I mean, it doesn't mean that they can fully benefit from it.

BLITZER: It appears, Andriy, that attacks on Russian soil are escalating right now. Is there any military or psychological advantage worth the risk of undermining the support potentially, at least, of Ukraine's allies?

ZAGORODNYUK: No, we don't think so. We obviously think that -- first of all, the people who are there are Russian citizens, and they have a full right to fight against the dictator and the tyrant, who Putin is. Secondly, no, we believe that this will provide a certain distraction for Russian troops because they currently have been in a complete assurance that, you know, the borders are intact and they are absolutely safe and so on.

But Ukrainian Armed Forces are focusing on the counteroffensive. We are focusing on our territory. Our job is to liberate the territory of Ukraine.

ZAGORODNYUK: In a major shift, as you know, Andriy, the allies plan to help Ukraine secure F-16 fighter jets. What are the biggest hurdles in getting pilots, Ukrainian pilots trained and actually getting the planes into battle?

ZAGORODNYUK: It just takes time and a certain effort to train the pilots and train the mechanics and the supportive -- all the supportive personnel and put up the systems, because, of course, those pieces of equipment are very difficult to maintain, to prepare for the battle, to service and so on. And, of course, all those processes and procedures are very different from the old Soviet jets, which Ukraine had been using.

We have very good mechanics. We have very good electricians. We have amazing pilots. So, I'm sure that actually training pilots wouldn't be the longest, and especially since some pilots already started training and they already are working on international aircrafts.

So, I think that putting all together the system of that capability being ready to work in Ukraine, that would take a bit of time and, of course, also some effort.

BLITZER: Andriy Zagorodnyuk, thank you so much for joining us. Good luck to you. Good luck to all of the people of Ukraine.

ZAGORODNYUK: Thank you very much. Thank you.

BLITZER: And just ahead, Republican Senator Tim Scott announcing his presidential run in his home state of South Carolina. We're breaking down the impact on the 2024 GOP race right after this.


BLITZER: Tonight, Republican Senator Tim Scott is officially a 2024 presidential candidate, announcing his bid in his home state of South Carolina.

CNN's Eva McKend has more on the Senator's pitch to voters and how he fits in to the already crowded GOP field.


EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER (voice over): South Carolina Senator Tim Scott officially jumping into the 2024 presidential race.

SEN. TIM SCOTT (R-SC): We live in the land where it is absolutely possible for a kid raised in poverty, in a single-parent household, in a small apartment to one day serve in the people's House, and maybe even the White House.

MCKEND: The only black Republican in the Senate, Scott emphasizing his personal story.

SCOTT: I'm a living proof that America is the land of opportunity and not a land of oppression.

MCKEND: Pitching himself to Republican voters as a formidable challenger to President Joe Biden.

SCOTT: Our nation, our values and our people are strong, but our president is weak.

MCKEND: And appealing directly to the GOP base on border security.

SCOTT: If our southern border is unsafe and insecure, it's not our country.

MCKEND: And over culture wars.

SCOTT: I will be the president who destroys the liberal lie that America is an evil country.

MCKEND: Scott joins a growing field of GOP hopefuls, including former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who appointed Scott to the Senate in 2012, and former president Donald Trump, who congratulated Scott, writing, Tim is a big step up from Ron DeSanctimonious, who is totally unelectable, choosing instead to go after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is expected to announce his bid in the coming days.

SCOTT: Our party and our nation are standing at a time for choosing.

MCKEND: Scott striking a more optimistic message, setting up a contrast with Trump and DeSantis.

SCOTT: Victimhood or victory?

EVERYONE: Victory.

SCOTT: Grievance or greatness?

EVERYONE: Greatness.

SCOTT: I choose freedom and hope and opportunity. Will you choose it with me?


MCKEND (on camera): Scott will continue to make his pitch to voters this week in Iowa and New Hampshire. You know, Wolf, as I was making my way through the crowd talking to his supporters, they told me that they are eager for the rest of America to get to know him like they know him.


And Scott will have the benefit of a lot of money, $6 million he'll spend in ads to do just that, to introduce himself to voters in these pivotal early states. Expectedly, Democrats responding to his candidacy by dismissing him as yet another MAGA Republican. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. Eva, thanks very much, Eva McKend on the scene for us.

Let's discuss with our political experts. Nia-Malika Henderson, I'll start with you. Senator Scott is polling right now at least at 1 percent. Will his platform as the most prominent black Republican be enough to raise his profile?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, listen, I think he is really running in this go-round as the faith candidate. In presidential contest fields, in the GOP field, we've often seen candidates like this who go to Iowa. I think that's probably a place where he's going to be able to connect with evangelical voters in a way that other candidates won't be able to.

In his speech, he sort of had a pastoral vibe. It was an amen corner really in the back of him. He kept saying amen to some of the things he was saying and he quoted the bible even in his rollout. He was sitting in a church pew. He had a bible in that rollout video announcing that he was exploring the idea of running for president.

So, I think that's going to be his identity as well as this idea of just being an optimistic candidate, like channeling Reaganism, talking about a time of our choosing. I think he had some quote in there about a new sunrise for America, and it's going to be brighter and better than ever.

So, I think that is going to be his line. He's going to have some competition there. Donald Trump is a very much favorite of evangelicals, too. We'll see what Mike Pence does if he gets in there, and then Ron DeSantis obviously pitching himself to evangelicals, as well. But I think and his identity as a man of faith, as a Christian, some who can quote the bible and say 2 Corinthians, for instance, and really know the bible, I think that's going to be his identity.

BLITZER: Yes, I think you're probably right. Scott Jennings, let me get your thoughts. Trump is clearly steering clear of attacking Senator Scott and even wishing him good luck today. How do you see the senator's position in this race?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, he's going to stand out because he's the most optimistic person in the race. He's got the best personal narrative, in my opinion, and he's the best storyteller.

I mean, Tim Scott has got a lot of great political skills and I think they're actually going to be put to good use here especially when you consider that he's bringing $22 million from his Senate campaign right into his presidential race. So, he's got the story, he's got the skills and he's got the money.

The reason Donald Trump doesn't attack Tim Scott or anyone else, except for Ron DeSantis, is because they view Ron DeSantis as their one and only true obstacle to getting the nomination. When all these other candidates get in, he welcomes them.

He says, good luck. Hey says, you're a good person. But with Ron DeSantis, even today when Tim Scott got in, he used it as an opportunity to attack DeSantis. That gives you a little window into where the Trump strategists see the race.

But I've got to tell you, I'm happy about Tim Scott. This whole conversation, Wolf, about personal responsibility versus a culture of victimhood, that's a conversation this country and our party needs to have.

BLITZER: Let me get David Axelrod into this conversation. David, what do you make of Senator Scott focusing his speech directly today on attacking President Biden and progressive Democrats, in addition, of course, to talking about his own personal story? DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, look, I think that is table stakes for a candidate for the nomination on the Republican side in a year when Joe Biden is the incumbent and it's to be expected.

But I just want to echo something that Scott said. Mario Cuomo said famously years ago that you campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Tim Scott is a poet, he's a storyteller. That is a big advantage in a presidential race. And he knows how to weave his bio into that story and make it foundational to what he believes. And that authenticates his story, and he does have the money to compete.

But right now, this is being cast by conventional wisdom and by polling as kind of a two-person race between Trump and DeSantis. That was DeSantis' message to his supporters, his funders last, that it's me or Trump and I'm the only one who can beat Biden.

Scott is going to have to disrupt that narrative. And the way he disrupts it is by winning the Iowa caucuses. That is, to me, the barrier that he has to cross and he's hoping that those evangelical voters will flow to him in this race.

As to Trump saying kind words about him today, first of all, Trump wants as many people in as possible because that makes his base all the more formidable. But I guarantee you this. If Tim Scott wins the Iowa caucuses, I don't think that Trump will be sending him flowers.

BLITZER: Yes, you're right. And, Scott Jennings, how much will Florida Governor Ron DeSantis' expected official entry into the race this week overshadow this particular moment?


JENNINGS: Well, it's going to be the biggest thing to happen to this campaign since Donald Trump got into it. Ron DeSantis is in a different universe in terms of his personal image and popularity among Republicans than every other candidate. There's been a lot of scrutiny of his activities up until now.

So, not only is it the biggest moment in terms of a challenger to Trump, there's a lot of pressure on him, a lot of folks are saying he's not been doing such a hot job lately. This is his chance to turn the narrative around, and can he do it? I think he's going to have a good week and I'm certain we're not going to hear Donald Trump playing nice with Ron DeSantis the way he did with Tim Scott today.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Nia, let me get a final thought from you. Go ahead.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yeah, listen, I think in some ways, Tim Scott is sort of a threat to Ron DeSantis. They're going to both be zeroing in on Iowa. Ron DeSantis is going to figure where he's going to win those states.

So I think this kind of juxtaposition of Tim Scott as well as Ron DeSantis, particularly when it comes to evangelical voters, will be interesting. We'll see what kind of pitch he makes later this week.

BLITZER: Yeah, the political season clearly heating up.

Guys, thank you very much.

Coming up, we have some new reporting right now in the Trump classified documents investigation. Could notes taken by one of the former president's attorneys become a key piece of evidence against him?



BLITZER: We're learning new details tonight about the Justice Department special counsel's criminal investigation of Donald Trump. Attorney notes now in Jack Smith's possession could become key evidence in the case.

CNN's Sara Murray has more for us.

Sara, what do these detailed notes reveal, and how do they fit into the special counsel's criminal investigation of Trump?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we are learning more about Trump's thinking and actions at a key time in this Mar-a- Lago documents probe, which is May of 2022, after the Trump team gets this subpoena.

And we've learned from sources familiar with the matter, our team here at CNN, that Trump inquired about whether they could push back on this subpoena where the government was demanding the return of any documents marked classified.

And this notion, this desire to try to push back is memorialized in notes that his attorney, Evan Corcoran, took, and the prosecutor as you said, Jack Smith, has dozens of pages of these notes that Evan Corcoran wrote down memorializing his interactions with Trump and the search that he would go on to try to respond to this subpoena.

There are people close to Trump that said he was merely kicking around with his attorney his options for how to respond to this, but, of course, we know that Donald Trump has put forward a lot of shifting explanations for why it took him so long to return these documents marked classified. He said in CNN town hall that hit was his right to take him when he left the White House, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yeah, it's interesting, Sara. This new reporting marks what, just a snippet of the notes the special counsel has access to. Is this what the Department of Justice was looking for when they initially sought out these documents?

MURRAY: Right. So, we know only a portion of what is in Evan Corcoran's notes. We know that the Justice Department has been looking at whether the former president obstructed their investigation into his classified documents, and there was an extraordinary court fight that played out behind closed doors, where DOJ was able to force Evan Corcoran to hand these notes over, because they convinced a judge that there was sufficient evidence that Donald Trump used his lawyer in furtherance of a crime.

So, to that, you can bet that there is more in these notes that we don't know about. We don't know if it fits that Justice Department's narrative that the former president might have obstructed this investigation because, again, we're getting only a narrow window into what was included in these notes, Wolf.

BLITZER: Very interesting, indeed. So, Sara Murray, thank you.

And this note to our viewers, coming up on "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT", right after THE SITUATION ROOM, an interview with a key adviser to the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. That's coming up 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

And we'll have more news just ahead right here in THE SITUATION ROOM. CNN speaking exclusively to detained American Paul Whelan from a Russian prison camp. Why he is newly optimistic right now about his prospects to be free. That's coming up next.



BLITZER: Now to a CNN exclusive, wrongfully detained American Paul Whelan is speaking out from a Russian prison camp.

CNN's Kylie Atwood has more on Whelan's message to President Biden, his newfound optimism he'll be released and his fears that he could potentially be left behind again.


KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Paul Whelan, an American who has been wrongfully detained in Russia, for more than four years speaking exclusively to CNN from a Russian prison.

PAUL WHELAN, AMERICAN DETAINED IN RUSSIA: I remain positive and confidence on a daily basis that the wheels are turning. I just wish they would turn a little bit more quickly.

ATWOOD: The Biden administration tonight reacting to Whelan's comments.

MATTHEW MILLER, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESPERSON: I can assure him, and I can assure his family met birds that we have no other higher priority than to return him safely home to the United States, and the secretary continues to work on it.

ATWOOD: The last time Whelan spoke with CNN's Jennifer Hansler by phone was in December, shortly after the release of WNBA star Brittney, the result of a second prisoner swap between the U.S. and Russia, that didn't include Whelan. Today, he fears the possibility of being left again, but his tone is

more optimistic.

P. WHELAN: I'm more confident now. You know, I feel that my life shouldn't be considered less valuable or important than others who have been previously traded.

ATWOOD: His brother, David Whelan, welcome to the positivity in his voice.

DAVID WHELAN, BROTHER OF PAUL WHLELAN: I think we are worried about his mental health and morale, and his ability to keep going day-to-day until something is resolved. So, all of that sounded very positive.

ATWOOD: Evan Gershkovich is a "Wall Street Journal" reporter who was detained by Russian authorities almost two months ago. Just like Whelan, he has been charged with espionage.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Evan wanted to report in Russia to shed light on the darkness.

ATWOOD: U.S. officials are scouring the globe for options that could draw Russia to the negotiating table, and secure the release of both men.

Paul's sister Elizabeth Whelan took a bold step when she appeared at the United Nations Security Council meeting attended by Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov last month, calling on the country to release her brother.

ELIZABETH WHELAN, SISTER OF PAUL WHELAN: Paul was a corporate security director. He had a job he loved, a home, a life of hope and opportunity. All of that has been taken away from him by Russia, a country that revels in its culture of lies. It's tradition of hostage diplomacy.

ATWOOD: And his message to President Biden is simple.

P. WHELAN: Freedom is not free, it comes at a price. The loss of freedom is even more costly. I pay that crossed every day Russia holds me. Please follow through with your promise and commitment, truly make my life a priority and get me home.

ATWOOD: Kylie Atwood, CNN, New York.


BLITZER: Let's hope he gets home soon.

Thanks very much, Kylie, for that report.

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

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.