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Washington Post Reports, Trump Employees Moved Boxes of Papers a Day Before FBI Retrieved Documents at Mar-a-Lago; Oath Keepers Leader Sentenced to 18 Years for Actions Around Jan. 6; Anti-Putin Russian Fighters Boast About Cross-Border Raids; DeSantis Brushes Off Glitchy Campaign Launch, Takes Aim at Trump; Biden Lays Out First Ever National Strategy to Fight Antisemitism. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired May 25, 2023 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: According to the -- classified top secret documents.

Also tonight, a federal judge just handed down the longest sentence yet for a January 6th defendant. Oath Keepers Leader Stewart Rhodes will spend 18 years, 18 years in prison for his role in the riot, the judge calling Rhodes an ongoing threat to democracy.

And in Ukraine, CNN is speaking with the anti-Putin Russian fighters claiming responsibility for cross border attacks. They say they're using American military vehicles during the raids. We'll get reaction from a key White House official, John Kirby.

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 begin with new developments in the special counsel's criminal investigation into Donald Trump's handling of classified documents. Josh Dawsey of The Washington Post helped break the story, he's joining us now. Josh, tell us what you and your colleagues are now learning.

JOSH DAWSEY, POLITICAL INVESTIGATIONS REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Right, Wolf. So, what we're learning is that one day before federal authorities came to Mar-a-Lago last June to pick up classified documents in return for a subpoena that video camera footage shows two Trump employees, two employees of the former president in Mar-a-Lago, (INAUDIBLE) boys moving boxes back into the storage room.

As you remember, when the feds arrived at Mar-a-Lago, Trump's team said, come with us to the storage room. That's where the documents are. You can do a search. They would not let them in the boxes. What we reported is the boxes were previously moved after the subpoena arrived and then the night before federal officials came to Mar-a- Lago, they were put-back into the storage room.

We're also reporting that federal investigators probing the classified documents handling of former President Trump have multiple witnesses who have told them he displayed classified information to visitors, left it out and showed it to others. And we're also reporting that before this time where they did not give the documents back, they went through what was called an apparent dress rehearsal, according to a federal judge, when the National Archives asked for the documents back before. So, out of the same playbook on how not to give the documents back was what they did with the National Archives as well.

BLITZER: So, Josh, how could this inform possible criminal charges?

DAWSEY: Well, Wolf, what we're reporting is that the investigation is in its final stages, at least right now, that the grand jury meeting to understand what happened and whether to seek any indictments has not met in several weeks. Most key witnesses have been interviewed. And what we see now is that a lot of the investigation is not about the former president taking the documents originally but is about efforts to get them back, how those efforts were potentially obstructed, why the former president did not want to give the documents back and whether or not at Mar-a-Lago the documents were mishandled.

If you remember correctly, the former president and his team had previously said, you know, these were just boxes in a storage room. But what we're learning now is that it was a lot more than that. And there was a comprehensive effort behind the scenes to keep a lot of these documents and some of these documents were not just in a storage room, they were being showed to visitors at the Florida resort at home of the former president.

BLITZER: Yes, that's a very, very serious development indeed. Josh, I want you to stay with us. I also want to bring in our legal analyst to discuss, and, Laura Coates, I'll start with you. How do prosecutors view the timing of all of this, moving boxes of documents the day before the FBI came to Mar-a-Lago to retrieve these top secret classified documents?

LAURA COATES, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: With an eye towards prosecution. One of the most complicated things you have to do as a prosecutor is try to get into the mind of the person who might be the target of your investigation to prove intent. You have to really do so with circumstantial evidence, with contextual clues and beyond.

But if you actually have some evidence, direct evidence that the person was aware that you wanted something that you were entitled to have and went through specific steps to actually prevent you from having that, that's definitional obstruction. And so it gets to the meat of the matter of intent. The idea of doing a practice run also buttresses the prosecutorial eye in this case.

And, remember, the attorney for Donald Trump had already had his attorney-client privilege pierced because they thought it was entitled to do so under the crime fraud exception.


And he may have been directed to somehow lie to the people who wanted the documents that they had the right to have and also to direct others to do the same. And so this is really forming a substantive case of intent you otherwise would not be able to get if you had to hypothesize or opine what possibly this person was thinking.

BLITZER: And, Norm Eisen, on this so-called dress rehearsal where Trump allegedly reviewed the contents of some of these boxes, how much does that speak to intent, intent, which is very important in your view?

NORM EISEN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, in addition to the words of Donald Trump himself to illuminate his intent, you look to actions. And to have a dress rehearsal that prosecutors may well characterize as a dress rehearsal for obstruction is just such damning evidence. And to be able to present that to the jury, it brings the case to life. Donald Trump was already in a tremendous amount of trouble before these latest revelations, but they have deepened that peril even more.

BLITZER: And, Paula Reid, what will the special counsel and the Justice Department, for that matter, need to weigh here considering whether to bring obstruction charges, for example?

PAULA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: There are a lot of questions here, right? We know the day before that this Justice Department visit that one of his attorneys, Evan Corcoran, who folks have already referenced, he was searching for classified documents. And they need to know, why were these moving? Were they moving because they needed to get out of the way during this search? Was this normal part of looking for classified documents or was this intentional? If it was intentional, well, who directed them to be moved? Why were they directed to be moved? Where did they go? A lot of questions, again, about intent, why these boxes were moving in and out if it wasn't a normal course of trying to search through the storage room.

But even if prosecutors come to the decision that they do want to pursue potential charges of obstruction, what we've seen with this Justice Department is the attorney general, again, he doesn't make the first decision here, Jack Smith will, but this attorney general has not shown an interest in pursuing cases that are just about obstruction of justice without another underlying crime. So, even if they find evidence of obstruction, the next question is whether they find evidence of any other potential underlying crimes because that's the way so far we've seen in other high profile investigations that this Justice Department has preferred to advance.

BLITZER: Interesting. Josh, I want you and our viewers to listen and watch what former President Trump told our Kaitlan Collins at CNN's recent town hall.


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: When it comes to your documents, did you ever show those classified documents to anyone?

DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Not really. I would have the right to. By the way, they were declassify after --

COLLINS: What do you mean not really?

TRUMP: Not that I can think of.


BLITZER: So, let me get your thoughts on that. That doesn't seem to line up or does it line up with what you're reporting? It seems to line up.

DAWSEY: I didn't hear a no there. Did you?


DAWSEY: That sounded not really and not that I recall, but I would have the right to do that. I mean, that was a very interesting answer. And what federal prosecutors have learned from other witnesses is that he did show classified documents and that he did keep some out in his office. So, his answer to Kaitlan there was non-committal and I think there might be reason for that.

BLITZER: So, Laura, what does that say about where the Special Counsel Jack Smith's criminal investigation stands?

COATES: Well, they were likely salivating through that answer, as we discussed that very night. The idea that somebody would be giving a jigsaw piece puzzle, a puzzle piece right to the hands of the special counsel on potentially an area they were not clear on.

But what they are likely to be crystal clear on is the Presidential Records Act and who the documents belong to and what the requirement is to declassify documents. It's not just the waving of a wand, as he went on to talk about, and the idea he can declassify with a snap of a finger, of course I'm paraphrasing, but it also is about the substance of the information.

I remind the viewers, we still do not, sitting here, know the full breadth, scope and underlying content of all of the documents. We are talking about thousands, though, that contrast with what they originally handed over, what the attorney said that they had finished the handing over and what ultimately, they recovered from a duly executed search warrant of the Mar-a-Lago estate.

And so you've got some unanswered parts here but you have the connective tissue once again of somebody directly stating what they did.

BLITZER: So, Norm, what do you expect in the coming weeks and months for that matter?

EISEN: Well, it does seem by every external indication that the Mar-a- Lago documents case is coming to closure. The evidence is powerful. It is not just the obstruction evidence. Part of the reason that this indication that Trump was showing these documents to others, leaving them in sight, it gives you companion charges.

[18:10:03] Unlawful disclosure of classified information is a violation of the Espionage Act, for example.

So, I expect that one, two punch. You know, predictions are always risky in the law, Wolf, but there is a great likelihood of charges for Donald Trump.

BLITZER: Yes, there certainly is. All right, guys, thank you very, very much.

Just ahead, the leaders of the Oath Keepers militia will spend 18 years. The leader will spend 18 years in prison for his role in the January 6th insurrection. Why the federal judge who handed down the sentence today believes he still poses a threat to democracy here in the United States. That's next.


BLITZER: In Washington today, a federal judge handed down the toughest steps yet for a January 6th defendant, 18 years in prison for Oath Keepers Founder Stewart Rhodes. His deputy, Kelly Meggs, also receiving a sentence of 12 years.

CNN's Senior Crime and Justice Reporter Katelyn Polantz is just outside the courthouse here in Washington with details. Katelyn, tell us what happened inside the court today and what's next for these two men.


KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Wolf, it was quite a significant day for these two men, Stewart Rhodes, the founder and leader of the Oath Keepers, and Kelly Meggs, the person acting as his deputy, also a member of the Oath Keepers, who was assisting on January 6th with the organization and making sure that there were guns positioned around Washington, D.C., in case the Oath Keepers felt they needed to use them and bring them to the Capitol.

But these significant sentences, Rhodes, at the very first, he is the largest -- he received the largest, longest sentence of any January 6th Capitol rioter to date, 18 years. Kelly Meggs receives 12 years in prison from Judge Amit Mehta today. But these two men represent two different aspects of the Capitol riot.

Now, whenever Rhodes spoke to the judge today, he expressed no remorse, said that he believed the election was still illegal in 2020, that the Biden regime is -- that was his word -- he believed that was also still illegal. And the judge said that he believed Rhodes was an ongoing threat to American democracy.

Now, Kelly Meggs, the deputy in the Oath Keepers unit, that was a different situation today. He expressed remorse before the judge and the judge remarked that it was astonishing to him how average Americans somehow transformed into criminals in the weeks before and on January 6th. Now, after the sentences were handed down today by the judge, Stewart Rhodes' attorneys left the courthouse and spoke about the First Amendment and that they were ready to appeal. Here's a little bit more about what they said.


JAMES LEE BRIGHT, ATTORNEY FOR STEWART RHODES: As I was listening to Judge Mehta speak and then take that extra step and say that at no point during his career in sentencing has he ever had the opportunity to look at any defendant and say, I consider you a future danger to the future of the country. And when I heard that, not only did I feel disdained (ph), I anticipated expected much higher than an 18-year sentence.

ED TARPLEY, ATTORNEY FOR STEWART RHODES: We think we have a good appeal coming on this. We look forward to the appeal.


POLANTZ: But, Wolf, the last word today should really go to the attorney general, Merrick Garland. He released a statement today and this was such a significant moment for the Justice Department in these prosecutions, not only winning these seditious conspiracy cases, getting major sentences, long sentences for crimes amounting to domestic terrorism. And Attorney General Garland said that the sentence reflects the grave threat the actions of these defendants posed to our democratic institutions. Wolf?

BLITZER: Very important development, indeed. Katelyn Polantz, thank you.

Let's get some more analysis right now from Defense Attorney Shan Wu and our Senior National Correspondent Sara Sidner, who's done a lot of reporting on all of this.

Shan, let me start with you. Were these sentences, do you believe, in line with what you were expecting, particularly Stewart Rhodes' historic 18-year prison sentence?

SHAN WU, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: I was actually a little surprised that the judge was not harsher with Rhodes in light of what he said. I mean, without going to the courtroom and hearing Judge Mehta's opinion on it, you wouldn't necessarily expect him to go to the top end. The Justice Department was asking for 25 years. But in light of what he said and his belief, as one of Rhodes' attorneys emphasized that Rhodes would continue to be a danger, I would have actually expected him to be more closer to the department's request for the 25 years.

The other defendant expressed remorse. Remorse goes a long way in reducing the sentence. Here buys him six less years. Rhodes being such a mastermind and his extraordinarily reckless doubling down on the lies and how he still thinks that the Biden administration is illegitimate, I would have expected as a defense counsel, as a prosecutor, that I think the judge would have gone more in line with DOJ. BLITZER: And, Sara, you've covered the Oath Keepers very, very closely and done amazing reporting. How revealing is it that Rhodes' defiant message and clear lack of remorse in court, how revealing was it today?

SARA SIDNER, CNN ANCHOR AND SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's who he has always been from my conversations with him, both before he was charged and after he was charged. He carries around with him sort of a chip on his shoulder, an air of superiority. He did go to Yale Law School. He was a good student there. He studied constitutional law. And he was in the military for a time. And he sort of used those two things as a way to boost his importance around those who followed some of his ideas and some of those of who followed him right into Capitol.

He himself did not go into the Capitol but the jury determined that from all of the messaging and all of the things that he had done that he was the person that was helping to plot and plan this, which is what the conspiracy was all about.


What he doesn't talk about often is the fact that he actually had his law license revoked, and then back in 1993, he mishandled a handgun and shot himself in the face and so he's wearing that patch now. But he strikes you as a guy who thinks he can talk himself out of anything, and in this case he talked, texted, messaged his way right into prison for that seditious conspiracy conviction.

BLITZER: As you saw, a Yale Law School graduate. Sara, beyond that, beyond the legal ramifications, what kind of deterrence effect do these sentences have on extremist groups, like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys? And you've covered them closely.

SIDNER: Yes. I mean, once you see that there are these major consequences, 18 years in prison is no small amount of time even though it's less than a lot of people thought he might get, because there were several charges, not just seditious conspiracy that he was convicted of, but when you see those charges, it will make people think twice.

And you can talk to those who sort of look at these groups and it started to fall apart with some of the local groups pulling away from the national Oath Keepers organization. Wolf?

BLITZER: Interesting, indeed. Sara Sidner, thank you. Shan Wu, thanks to you as well.

Coming up, Democrats growing frustrated with President Biden's handling of debt limit negotiations. They say their support for a deal is not, I repeat, not guaranteed. I'll get reaction from a key progressive Democratic lawmaker, Congressman Ro Khanna, right after a quick break.


[18:25:00] BLITZER: Right now, there's growing frustration among many Democrats over President Biden's handling of debt ceiling negotiations. Progressives are angry that Republicans are controlling the narrative and worried they'll be forced to vote for a bad deal.

CNN's Melanie Zanona is joining us from Capitol Hill right now. Melanie, what are you hearing from your sources?

MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: Well, Wolf, there are two main reasons for the frustrations in the Democratic Party right now. The first one is there's a lot of concern over the frustration of these talks and that Biden might be accomplishing too much Republicans in the name of a deal. In fact, this was discussed at a closed door meeting earlier today where members said they should not be taken for granted that it is no guarantee that they are just going to support whatever deal that Biden cuts.

And then on the other side of this, you have frustrations because Democrats are really worried Biden is not out there in a more public facing way and really using his bully pulpit to try to frame the stakes of this debate and try to push back on Republican talking points.

Take a listen to a little bit more at what Democrats told me earlier today.


REP. STEVEN HORSFORD (D-NV): We just need the president to continue to hold firm, to make sure that any final deal doesn't sell out the American people because there are going to be votes that are going to be required by House Democrats and we can't vote for something that goes against our constituents and their interests.

ZANONA: Kevin McCarthy is assuming that Democrats are going to be able to provide the rest of the votes to make up the difference, is that a miscalculation on the Republican side?


REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D-NY): I do believe that the nation would benefit from hearing the president speak from the Oval Office or from any other -- in any other --

REPORTER: Do you feel --

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): -- Republicans to deliver the vote. Ask them if they have the votes for whatever they agree to.


ZANONA: Now, White House sources say there's a reason for Biden laying low. These negotiations are really delicate and it could really interrupt things and derail things if you are out there publicly.

But Democrats aren't the only ones who are feeling angst in their party. There is a group of hard line Republicans earlier today who put out a letter laying out some new demands that they think Speaker McCarthy should make and warning that this is important for GOP unity, that they, quote, hold the line in these debt ceiling talks.

And so the big picture here, Wolf, is that there are warning signs in both parties and that there are still going to be speed bumps ahead if and when they agree to a deal.

BLITZER: Yes. The stakes clearly are enormous. Melanie, thank you very much.

Let's bring in a key Democratic lawmaker, Congressman Ro Khanna from California. Congressman, thanks, as usual, for joining us.

A source tells CNN some Democrats are worried right now about potentially having to vote for what they would consider to be a bad deal. Is that how you feel?

REP. RO KHANNA (D-CA): Wolf, no. First of all, it's the Republicans who have manufactured this crisis. They are the ones who were bragging about holding the country hostage for the president to do what he was instructed to do by past Congress, which is pay the bills. The president has an obligation to keep the country afloat, to keep the economy working. He's the only one who has that responsibility. Members of Congress can come to CNN, go on the floor. He feels that burden and that's why I think he's trying to work a good solution.

BLITZER: Are you a no, Congressman, if this deal includes work requirements for various social safety net programs?

KHANNA: I don't think it will include the work requirements.

BLITZER: But if it does, what if it does?

KHANNA: It should not be there. And I believe that the final deal will not have them. The Democrats have been clear, not just progressives, the Democrats, that we cannot increase work requirements. Remember, we already have work requirements. What they're talking about is more requirements that would deny benefits to veterans, to those who are the most vulnerable.

BLITZER: The speaker, Kevin McCarthy, just told reporters, and I'm quoting him now, we do not have a deal. That's a direct quote. Do you want to see President Biden address the American people and counter the regular updates from Speaker McCarthy?

KHANNA: It would be great for the president to address the American people and here's what he should say. He has been instructed by past Congresses elected by the American people to spend a certain amount of money.


All he's doing is following his constitutional authority to do that. He believes we do need to reduce the deficit and we should talk about reducing the deficit but you shouldn't hold this country hostage in paying our bills and keeping our work to do that.

BLITZER: The chair of the progressive caucus, Pramila Jayapal, a woman you know, says if the U.S. defaults, there's only one person to blame and it's Speaker McCarthy. That's a direct quote. Aren't Democrats, though, also to blame for missing a chance to raise the debt limit in the lame duck session and then pushing off negotiations until now, the last minute?

KHANNA: Well, we didn't think that the Republicans would hold the country hostage in the way that they are. I mean, they have increased the debt ceiling three times under Donald Trump. And the Republicans are the ones who are basically holding the government from paying our obligations because of this procedural tactic. It is just wrong. And so I do believe that in this case, it is the Republicans to blame.

Now, I don't think it's just Speaker McCarthy. He has got people on his extreme that, unfortunately, he's beholden to. I've known Speaker McCarthy for many years. And my sense is he probably wants to cut a deal. He understands that that's what you have to do, but he's got extremes on his party. I almost feel bad for him.

BLITZER: Interesting. The White House says both sides agree default is not an option, but, procedurally, have you actually run out of time?

KHANNA: No, we have not. The president of the United States is not going to let the economy default. I mean, Wolf, here are the stakes. The stakes are that we will lose our credibility to the world. We will be giving China an advantage. Working families are going to get hurt. Veterans will get hurt. People who are the most vulnerable will get hurt. The stock market could be -- go down dramatically.

And the president of the United States has a solemn obligation to stand up for the country. He will not let it default. And it's a shame that other people are taking advantage of his patriotism and his duty to try to get radical policies enacted.

BLITZER: Congressman Ro Khanna of California, thank you very much for joining us.

KHANNA: Thank you.

BLITZER: Just ahead, we'll get a live report from the war zone in Eastern Ukraine as well as from the White House, where key national security official, John Kirby, is standing by live to take questions.

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



BLITZER: Let's get an update right now on the war in Ukraine where anti-Putin fighters are boasting about cross border attacks on Russian soil.

Our Senior International Correspondent Sam Kiley has more for us. He's joining us from the war zone in Eastern Ukraine. Sam, I understand you spoke to one of these Russian fighters. What did he tell you?

SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf. We spoke to a significant group of them, actually. They conducted a very spectacular raid, frankly. These are two groups of Russian nationals fighting inside the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

Now, rather controversially in some quarters, they crossed into Russia at the beginning of this week, conducted a number of raids on a number of villages, penetrated quite deeply into Russia, I mean, relative to a small group of people. We're guessing that there were about 50 to 70 sort of company strength, and then we spoke to them just after they came back. This is what the leader of one of the groups said.


KILEY: What do you hope will be the effect of this raid?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Effect of this raid was amazing. It was information shell, information bomb blowing about two days, the whole internet blowing up.

KILEY: The vehicles that you took included some of the American MRAPs, is that right, that you were using?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We used Humvee also, yes. We buy them in international shops, war shops.

KILEY: So, you bought these vehicles on the open market?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, of course. Everyone who have some money can do it.


KILEY: Now, these are soldiers who are normally fighting on the frontlines. They're part of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Some of them have very far right links but all of them are dedicated to overthrowing Vladimir Putin.

I think one of the key things about this raid, Wolf, is all about keeping the Russians off balance, trying to provoke responses from the Russians, probe their weaknesses ahead of what is developing into a summer offensive by the Ukrainians, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Sam Kiley, stay safe over there. Thank you very much.

Joining us now, the National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, John Kirby. John, thanks for joining us.

How do you respond to that Russian fighter telling CNN they used American-made vehicles they say bought on the open market in their attack on Russia?

JOHN KIRBY, COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: I certainly can't confirm those reports, Wolf, that they bought these things on the open market. What I can confirm is that we've made it clear to the Ukrainians that we don't want to see U.S.-made, U.S.-supplied equipment used on Russian soil to attack Russia. What we are providing is a lot of equipment, tools, training, capabilities, including weapons systems to be used to defend Ukrainian soil. And, again, we've made that clear. In fact, we've had that discussion with Ukrainians as recently over just the last day or so.

BLITZER: Interesting. Sources tell CNN the U.S. assesses right now that a Ukrainian group may have been behind that drone attack on the Kremlin earlier this month. Is Ukraine ignoring U.S. warnings against attacking Russian territory?

KIRBY: We have, again, made it very clear to the Ukrainians what our expectations are about attacking Russia. We don't want to encourage or enable that. We certainly don't want any U.S.-made equipment used to attack Russian soil and we have gotten assurances from the Ukrainians that they will respect those wishes.

Now, what groups are operating on their own and whether or not they are tied to the Ukrainian government, we just can't say. And we certainly can't confirm the reports in that New York Times piece about that particular attack on the Kremlin.

Now, we have been very clear that we want Ukraine to be able to defend its own soil, its own territory. They have been attacked. They have been invaded. They have a right to defend themselves. But we've also been clear, Wolf, that we don't want to see the war escalate beyond the devastation and the violence that it's already visited on the Ukrainian people. And I think we can all agree that a war that escalates, particularly involving more than just Ukraine and Russia, that would be bad for not only the Ukrainian people but for the entire continent.

BLITZER: So, what can you tell us, John, about these most recent conversations the U.S. had with the Ukrainians, conversations you just mentioned? Did you outline potential consequences?

KIRBY: It wasn't really about outlining consequences. It was simply a reaffirmation, Wolf, of what we have said before, that we just don't want to see U.S.-supplied equipment used to attack Russian soil. And, you know, look, they recognize that. They appreciate that -- our concerns and, again, they've given us assurances that they won't do that.

BLITZER: The infamous Wagner mercenary group is handing control of Bakhmut to regular Russian troops. Does that provide a window for Ukraine in its expected counteroffensive?

KIRBY: Well, I want to be clear here not to speak to future operations for the Ukrainians. I'll let them do that. But as we've said all along, even before the Russians claim they had Bakhmut, getting Bakhmut was going to be a little strategic value to the Russians. There's no strategic value on that fron around Donbas. It doesn't really give the Russians much in terms of leeway or more flexibility. The Ukrainians will respond and they'll respond appropriately. They'll conduct this counteroffensive on their own terms. When, where, how they'll strike, they'll make their own decisions.

What we're focused on is making sure that as they make those decisions and as they conduct those operations, they've got all the tools and capabilities and the training that they need. And we have been in lock step with the Ukrainians for months making sure that they have everything that they need if and when they want to launch a counteroffensive. And that includes, Wolf, packages of security assistance that just got announced last week in Hiroshima. And I fully anticipate you'll see additional security assistance packages coming in the coming weeks and months.

BLITZER: John Kirby joining us from the White House, John, thank you very much.

Coming up, the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, coming out swinging against Donald Trump after a glitch-ridden start to his 2024 presidential campaign. We're going to break down DeSantis's strategy just ahead of his blitz across battleground states. That's next.



WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis's presidential campaign is now in full force after its glitchy start with renewed attacks on top rival Donald Trump. DeSantis saying he doesn't know what happened to Trump and that he's -- and I'm quoting him now, he's a different guy than when he first ran.

Let's discuss with our political experts.

And, Jeff Zeleny, DeSantis is in Miami today calling donors. What more can you tell us about DeSantis's moves to turn his just-launched campaign around?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, he's trying to regroup, project strength and get down to the matter at hand and that is confronting Donald Trump. We saw him today in the first 24 hours of his campaign doing something he has rarely done over the last several months and that is directly draw a contrast with the former president. In policy, in some respects, trying to say he is the true conservative in this race. We're getting some hints there might be some ideological differences and actually a debate in this primary session.

And he's also just going after what he's been saying for a while, the culture of losing. He's trying to implore the importance to Republicans of winning back the White House. He makes the case he is the most electable. But, Wolf, the challenges of last evening on that failed launch on Twitter are still hanging over him. Of course, he was mocked by the former president throughout the day and certainly was not a good beginning, but he was trying to hit the ground running.

And this morning, before sun up he announced they are going to do some actual campaigning, spend a couple days in Iowa next week, and then on to New Hampshire and South Carolina. So, last night, certainly was not what they expected even though they tried to spin it. They made the case they are going to do some campaigning now. Going after Trump today was something we have not seen him do much before.

BLITZER: Yeah, big deal indeed.

So, Alice Stewart. How does DeSantis walk this line of attacking Trump directly without potentially alienating the MAGA base?

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Very carefully. He's certainly off to a good start with regard to that and going after him on policy. What we heard him say today in many interviews is that specifically with regard to COVID, saying that the former president put millions of lives at risk for putting Dr. Fauci in charge of COVID. And that is a policy issue that DeSantis can look at what he did in Florida as a successful handling of COVID. Also blaming Trump for ballooning the nation's deficit.

These are issues he can go after Trump on. More importantly, Wolf, I think the way he can show contrast with Trump, as Jeff mentioned, the culture of losing that surrounds Donald Trump. And DeSantis has made this quite clear. He clearly won re-election by a resounding margin but also he has pointed out, look, Donald Trump has lost repeatedly and certainly has made losses in Congress.


But more importantly, governing is not about Donald Trump building a brand and virtue signaling on social media as well as calling out your enemies. It is about winning and it is about proving results and going out there doing retail politics and doing just that. While he tripped out of the gate with the launch, they have one chance to make a first impression. They have eight months to make a lasting impression before the Iowa caucus.

BLITZER: Interesting.

And, Ron Brownstein, DeSantis was asked if today, I though this was significant, if he would pardon January 6th rioters and possibly Trump. Listen to his response. Listen to this.


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The DOJ and FBI have been weaponized. On day one, I will have folks that will get together and look at all these cases who people are victims of weaponization or political targeting. And we will be aggressive in issuing pardons.


BLITZER: He also said, Ron, he would fire the FBI Director Christopher Wray on day one.

So, what can the picture is emerging about what a DeSantis presidency might look like? RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yeah. And, Wolf, this

is the fundamental contradiction of the DeSantis campaign, as I've written. You know, as Alice noted, his strongest argument is the idea that Donald Trump can't deliver the policies that Donald Trump advocates because he's not going to win again. There is a culture of losing and that I am more electable than him.

The problem is that he's mostly tied himself to Trump on issues and when he has differentiated himself from Trump, it's mostly been to move to his right, on abortion, on other questions, and today kind of signaling again that, you know, he used the January 6 investigation as an overreaction.

The problem with that strategy, either Trump moving to the right is that he can undermine the ability to be more effective in the general election which is in the end the strongest argument against the former president.

BLITZER: Ron Brownstein, Alice Stewart, Jeff Zeleny, guys, thank you very much.

This note to our viewers, coming up on "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT," Minnesota Governor Tim Walz talks about a recent string of Democratic wins in his state, most that have been under the radar. That's coming up right at the top of the hour, at 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

Just ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, the White House launches the first ever national strategy to tackle antisemitism here in the United States.

We'll be right back.



BLITZER: For the first time ever, the White House is now rolling out a comprehensive strategy to fight antisemitism here in the United States.

Brian Todd is on the story for us.

Brian, President Biden says it's going to take a whole of society effort to bring down the rising tide of hatred.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. The White House clearly viewed reports from the Anti-Defamation League and others on the rise of antisemitic violence in the U.S. and the president and his team know this is a huge problem in this country, a problem that has really spiked in recent years.


TODD (voice-over): October 2018, a lone gunman kills 11 people, wounds six others at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the deadliest attack ever on the Jewish community in the U.S. Six months later, on the last day of Passover, a gunman enters a synagogue just north of San Diego, with an AR-15 style rifle, kills one woman and injures three others, part of a rash of violence against Jewish communities in America in recent years.

Tonight, President Biden and his team are out with a new plan to combat antisemitism in the U.S.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Evil will not win. Hate will not prevail. The venom in violence and anti-Semitism will not be the story of our time.

TODD: The new White House plan has four components, increasing awareness of anti-Semitism, improving safety and security for Jewish communities, countering discrimination by building solidarity across communities, and reversing what's known as normalization of antisemitism.

How has it been normalized?

JONATHAN GREENBLATT, ANTI-DEFAMATION LEAGUE: We see elected officials, political candidates, campus activists, public figures like celebrities and athletes and so on using antisemitic tropes.

TODD: Like when rapper Kanye West now known as Ye tweeted last October he was, quote, going death con three on Jewish people.

GREENBLATT: We found evidence that people after Kanye West's comments were more likely to spew antisemitism online.

TODD: The new White House plan against antisemitism comes the same week as a teenager was arrested after ramming a U-Haul truck into a White House security barrier, then emerging from the vehicle, police say with, a swastika flag. And it comes less than three weeks after a gunman who investigators believe supported Nazi ideology killed eight people at a Texas outlet mall, both incidents where Jewish communities were not the targets but where they were associated with antisemitism.

Also this week, one homeland security official told CNN that online forums, there's been a recent increase in calls for violence based on a neo-Nazi and white nationalist theme. One analyst who monitors extremism says many people who are antisemitic also target LGBTQ people, Muslims and others.

PROF. MIA BLOOM, STUDIES VIOLENT EXTREMISM: When we're looking at the root of antisemitism, we are looking at the root of this horrible tree that is basically providing the basis for a lot of the hate for other groups.


TODD (on camera): Part of the new White House campaign includes working with professional sports leagues like the NBA, NFL and others to use their powerful platforms to combat antisemitism -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Very important what happened today. Brian Todd, thank you very much.

Finally, tonight, historic moment as President Biden announced his nominee for joint chiefs chairman. Air Force General Charles Q. Brown, while standing alongside Vice President Harris and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

If confirmed by Congress, General Brown will become the second African American to hold the job.

Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.