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New Treasury Estimate, Default Possible on June 5; Two More Oath Keepers Receive Lengthy Prison Sentences; Man Arrested After Allegedly Opening Plane Door Midflight; DeSantis Leans Into Culture Wars As He Makes Presidential Bid. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired May 26, 2023 - 18:00   ET




WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, the U.S. Treasury sets a new potential default deadline, June 5th. But major obstacles still stand in the way of a debt ceiling deal. And it's not clear if the extra time will be enough to avoid economic catastrophe here in the U.S.

Plus, two additional Oath Keepers received lengthy prison sentences for their roles in the January 6th insurrection, the judge sending a very strong message from the courtroom one day after sentencing the militia's founder to 18 years in prison.

And we're getting terrifying new video of the moment a man allegedly opened the cabin door of a South Korean airliner while the plane was in midflight. Authorities are sharing new details tonight about the suspect.

Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in The Situation Room.

All right. Let's get straight to the new developments on the debt ceiling. The U.S. Treasury now offering negotiators a slightly longer timeline before a default unleashes economic catastrophe. Last hour right here in The Situation Room, I got reaction from the house minority leader, Democratic Congressman Hakeem Jeffries.


BLITZER: Can you guarantee that House Democrats -- and you're the leader of the Democrats -- will deliver the votes needed to pass any deal that's negotiated?

REP. HAKEEM JEFFRIES (D-NY): Well, one of the challenges that we confront is that it's unclear how many votes House Republicans can produce because they have had a variety of different individuals increasingly with intensity over the last few days who have said they're not planning on supporting anything unless it's consistent with the Default on America Act, which would painfully cut investments in veterans and Medicaid recipients and for public safety, for education, for nutrition assistance, and things of that nature. And so we have to have some visibility into how many votes the House Republicans are going to produce in terms of the ultimate resolution and then we can speak with some specificity, Wolf, about how many votes are going to be needed on the Democratic side.


BLITZER: CNN journalists are covering every angle of this critically important story. First, let's go to Jeremy Diamond. He's over at the White House for us. Jeremy, this new deadline is buying the country some much-needed extra time, a few more days. Is the president helping push along these talks?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I'm told that President Biden is getting regularly updated on the state of the negotiations. And today negotiators have been going back and forth mostly over the phone, despite a brief interaction today at the White House between the Office of the Director of Management and Budget and one Kevin McCarthy's chief negotiators.

But there is this new deadline now that offers a pretty firm sense of the timeline that negotiators are now working under, and they have been racing under the clock of this potential early June date. But now they have this specific date of June 5th.

And this is what the treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, said in her letter to Speaker Kevin McCarthy. She says, based on the most recent available data, we now estimate that Treasury will have insufficient resources to satisfy the government's obligations if Congress has not raised or suspended the debt limit by June 5th.

And we know that the Treasury Department has about $130 billion in payments to make next week but that the week after, they will simply not have enough money in their coffers to be able to make additional payment.

Now, I spoke this evening with a senior White House official who said that this June 5th deadline doesn't fundamentally change the timeline for negotiations, but it certainly adds an additional sense of urgency for what they need to do. Nonetheless, this official said that as these talks continue, they believe they are in the final stages of those negotiations, and they believe they're on track to avoid a June 5th default. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. Jeremy, stand by. I want to go to our Chief Congressional Correspondent Manu Raju, he's up on Capitol Hill for us. Manu, any sign this new deadline could help solidify a deal among Republicans?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's giving them a little bit more breathing room. Negotiators have been working under the assumption they only had until June 1st and they were not going to meet that June 1st deadline. Now, they have a few more days, but still not much time left in the room. They still need to hammer out an agreement, draft that agreement, sell it to the broader House and Senate Democratic and Republican caucuses, get the votes, get it through both chambers and get it done by June 5th. That is not an easy task. And it's still uncertain whether they can do that.

Now, behind closed doors, there have been intense negotiations all day. One of the chief sticking points is the Republican demand to add work requirements as part of key social safety net programs, including food stamps.


That's something Republicans are demanding, Democrats are resisting. But the Republicans indicated that that must be part of the final negotiation, including what Congressman Garret Graves, one of the key negotiators, told me earlier today that that must be part of the deal and Republicans would not drop that from their list of demands.


REP. GARRET GRAVES (R-LA): If you're really going to fall on a sword for that versus actually negotiating something that changes the trajectory of the country for spending, that's crazy to me that we're even having this debate?

RAJU: Are you willing to drop the work requirement and they disagree on that --

GRAVES: Hell no, not a chance.

REP. PATRICK MCHENRY (R-NC): We're waiting for the White House to come to terms and there are tough things that remain.

RAJU: How much deal is still not within reach at this point?

MCHENRY: The deal is within reach. It just has to be agreed to. And we're waiting for the White House to understand the current set of terms we're dealing with.


RAJU: So, that last comment coming from Patrick McHenry, one of the other negotiators in the room. That happened just moments ago, saying that the deal can be within reach but saying that the White House needs to come to the terms that the Republicans have laid out here.

So, he is uncertain about when exactly these talks could wrap up if a deal can be reached today. I asked, do you think a deal could be reached today. He shrugged his shoulder. The expectation is that talks could run into the weekend. And can they actually get there? That is still the big question in Congress, Wolf.

BLITZER: Manu Raju up on Capitol Hill. Thank you very much.

I also want to get reaction now from CNN's Richard Quest. Richard, if these talks fail, this could seriously have major catastrophic consequences. What should our viewers be bracing for?

RICHAR QUEST, CNN BUSINESS EDITOR-AT-LARGE: Well, what you got today from Janet Yellen is the financial plumbing. She basically did the -- she told us the robbing Peter to pay Paul. You saw the money being moved around. And on June the 5th, she essentially can no longer pay everyone.

At the moment she's just about paying everybody. But overall, what will happen on June 5th is she'll have to prioritize. So, then it becomes a question, do you pay Social Security? Do you pay bond holders? Do you pay -- which debts do you pay? And that's what happens post-June 5th.

I think what we're now going to see is the markets getting very serious about it once we go into next week. And, Wolf, as I've said before, when this happens, when the markets do give their reaction, it will be fast. It will be brutal, and it will be nasty because it's going to happen somewhere in the financial plumbing that eventually they will realize that a deal is not on the table, cannot be done, and there could be a technical default.

BLITZER: Richard Quest, thank you very much. Let's hope none of that happens.

I want to get reaction right now from a key Democratic lawmaker, Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois. Congressman, thank you very much for joining us.

President Biden and Speaker McCarthy still have not reached a deal, as you well know. There's just ten days left before the U.S. runs out of money. According to the treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, and in her new letter today, is there enough time, do you believe, to avoid default?

REP. RAJA KRISHNAMOORTHI (D-IL): Absolutely. I think at this point we have to do everything we can to reach a deal as soon as tonight. And if we have to vote this weekend, let's do it. But let's not waste a moment, and let's not pause because, you know, Secretary Yellen found a few more dollars in the seat cushions at the Treasury to pay our bills. We just have to avoid any possibility of this disastrous default.

BLITZER: Are you committed, Congressman, to voting for any deal that President Biden reaches with Speaker McCarthy to avoid default, even if it includes some provisions you may not necessarily like?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Possibly. I have to look at the merits and look at the details of the bill. But, you know, I think that at this point, we have to let the hostages go. I tell my friends on the other side this all the time. They have to let the hostages go, namely our seniors who would be delayed in receiving their Social Security checks starting apparently on June 5th, military veterans who might not get their payments, and, of course, all those people with retirement savings and the stock market, who would see their value tank as well. So, at this point, we have to avoid a default, and we have to come to terms.

BLITZER: Republican Senator Mike Lee says he will use, and I'm quoting him now, every procedural tool to delay a debt ceiling deal if it doesn't contain what he calls substantial cuts. In the Senate, as you know, a single senator has a lot of power to delay things. So, how does these potentially complicate efforts to get a bill to President Biden as quickly as possible?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: I don't know. I don't know the arcane rules of the Senate that well. But what I do know is that, you know, Mitch McConnell, working with Chuck Schumer, need to expeditiously consider anything that comes out of the House.


Again, as your previous reporter had mentioned, the markets will be punishing very quickly if we don't come to terms and get a deal passed in time to avoid default.

BLITZER: A number of your Democratic colleagues, Congressman, have criticized the president for not using the bully pulpit in these negotiations. Do you think President Biden needs to address the American people about the very dire situation the country is facing right now?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Possibly. I think the White House should be more vocal about its position and the principles that support its bargaining position, so to speak, and what should undergird a final deal. But on the other hand, as I was reminded earlier today, today, I guess, is John Wayne's birthday, and he's very famous for that saying, a big mouth don't make a big man.

And so I just don't think that President Biden should be out there all the time as often as Kevin McCarthy is, you know, commenting on the negotiations, which obviously are very delicate. Instead, we should be getting to a deal ASAP and then getting to a vote ASAP.

BLITZER: Critically important. Democratic Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, thank you very much for joining us.

Just ahead here in The Situation Room, a federal judge hands down two more lengthy sentences to members of the Oath Keepers militia. What the judge said, as he handed down his decision.

Plus, a man is under arrest after allegedly opening the cabin door on a passenger plane midflight. We'll share new video of the truly horrifying ordeal.



BLITZER: A federal judge is handing down more tough prison sentences for members of the Oath Keepers. The rulings come one day after the militia's founder, Stewart Rhodes, was given 18 years in prison for his role in the January 6th riot.

CNN's Katelyn Polantz is on the story for us. Katelyn, what message is the judge, this federal judge, sending with these sentences?

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Wolf, this judge has to determine how serious the punishment should be for the people who took part in very serious crimes on January 6. And these aren't just any January 6 cases. These are the cases about the people who were tried with the Oath Keepers militia group, the people who assisted Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers, and who was convicted of seditious conspiracy.

So, the two people who were sentenced today, they were not convicted of seditious conspiracy like Rhodes, but the judge pointed out that these people are more than foot soldiers. And so he needed to give them pretty serious amounts of time.

Jessica Watkins there, she got eight-and-a-half years in prison. One of the things she was doing on January 6th, she was in the stack formation marching with people into the Capitol. She also was a person who was in touch with Rhodes and was recruiting members of the Oath Keepers to come to Washington, D.C., on January 6th.

The other person sentenced today, Kenneth Harrelson, he received four years for his sentence in prison. He was not convicted of the larger conspiracies. But what he was sentenced for included being in touch with Rhodes, also videotaping himself shouting, treason, inside the Capitol, moving with the Oath Keepers. So, those were serious crimes.

And the judge did speak to each of these people individually and assess what they individually did. He said to Jessica Watkins, your role that day was more aggressive, more assaultive, more purposeful than perhaps others, and you led others to fulfill your purposes.

So, Wolf, now, we're going to have four more people part of the Oath Keepers case who are going to be sentenced by the same judge, Amit Mehta, in D.C. next week. And each of these people is a different portrait of the political extremism on that day each. Each will be assessed differently, given individual sentences.

And even these two today had a stark difference between them. Kenneth Harrelson said he doesn't even care about politics. He was just told to show up on January 6th. He did. And then Jessica Watkins, she recognized whenever she spoke to the judge that her presence as an Oath Keeper inspired others on that day, and she recognized that that was wrong. Wolf?

BLITZER: Katelyn Polantz, thank you very much for that update. I want to bring in our Senior Legal Analyst Elie Honig right now to help us break this all down, a former assistant U.S. attorney. How do you interpret these two new sentences, Elie?

ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, these sentences sent a message, just like yesterday's sentences did. The main purpose of sentencing, of course, is punishment. And the judge realized that these offenses of seditious conspiracy are extraordinarily serious and extraordinary rare. Nobody has actually been convicted and sentenced federally for seditious conspiracy for more than 25 years, going back to the mid 1990s. And so the judge said these were momentous crimes, and so I have to sentence you accordingly.

The other major purpose of sentencing is deterrence, trying to send a message to the individual defendant who's being sentenced and to public at large that these acts are entirely unacceptable and will be punished severely.

BLITZER: So, what do you think? How much of a deterrence do you think all of this will have?

HONIG: Well, I believe in the system, and I think people do pay attention to the sentences that are given. And I think an 18-year sentence in the case of Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers, that is a long, long time. And I think anyone who is paying attention has to take notice of that, and, hopefully, it will deter a future conduct like this.

BLITZER: As you know, the federal judge in this case has found these Oath Keepers engaged in what he calls domestic terrorism and bumped up their sentences for it. Are we seeing a blueprint right now for the sentences still to come against other Oath Keepers and Proud Boy members?

HONIG: I think we are, Wolf. I think this sentence set for Stewart Rhodes will set the high bar for the Oath Keepers, and I think we can look for a similar sentence when the leader of the Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio, is sentenced in the upcoming weeks.

There's an interesting sort of flaw in our law around domestic terrorism.


Federal law defines domestic terrorism, meaning an act of violence that's intended to influence politics through fear. But there's no actual crime of domestic terrorism. There have been bills suggested in Congress, but they haven't passed. However, the sentencing guidelines do allow the judge if the judge finds that this was an act of terrorism, to increase the sentence. The judge did that here, and I think that's going to set a precedent.

BLITZER: Very interesting. As you know, the Republican presidential candidate, Ron DeSantis, is already signaling he might pardon January 6th rioters if he's elected, a position Trump has openly taken as well. How serious is the concern that a future Republican president could undo the justice delivered in these cases?

HONIG: That absolutely could happen, Wolf. The president, whoever the next president is, will have absolute pardon power. And I take Donald Trump and everyone should take Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis very seriously when they say they would seriously consider or grant pardons to January 6th defendants.

And I think this judge is aware of that because he has gone out of his way to say, you are not the victims of political prosecution or persecution. You have been convicted and you are being sentenced purely because of your conduct on the ground. There's nothing a judge can do to stop a pardon, but I think a judge is trying to set the record straight in anticipation of that.

BLITZER: Very interesting, indeed. Elie Honig, thank you very much. Coming up, the terrifying moment a man allegedly opened the cabin door on a passenger flight. We're getting new video that's coming into The Situation Room.

Plus, Memorial Day weekend airline travel is already setting a post- pandemic record. What you need to know before you head to the airport.



BLITZER: Travelers here in the United States are returning to the skies in huge numbers this holiday weekend, setting a post-pandemic record. The surge is putting a major strain on the U.S. aviation system, which has already been struggling to staff air traffic controllers.

CNN's Pete Muntean has a closer look.


PETE MUNTEAN, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT (voice over): A summer of tests for air travel is already off to a record-setting start. From Atlanta --


MUNTEAN: -- to Los Angeles --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We are looking at a very busy weekend here at LAX.

MUNTEAN: -- with the transportation security administration screening 2.66 million people at airports nationwide on Thursday, the highest number since before the pandemic.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I just try to prepare as much as I could with what I can control.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, the airport is really busy, but otherwise, no, it has been easy, relatively easy.

MUNTEAN: A smooth start after airlines canceled 2,700 flights last Memorial Day weekend, kicking off a summer of more than 55,000 cancelations.

PETE BUTTIGIEG, TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY: This weekend will be a test of the system.

MUNTEAN: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is putting pressure on airlines, which insist they are now right-sized and right-staffed, hiring 48,000 workers in the last year, according to a CNN analysis.

BUTTIGIEG: We're doing everything we can to press airlines to deliver that good service. And if there is an issue, we have your back. MUNTEAN: Though airlines worry delays could come from the federal government, which is short 3,000 air traffic controllers. This week, back-to-back staffing issues in Denver forced the FAA to slow flights. United Airlines Ceo Scott Kirby calls air traffic control shortages his number one concern.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That doesn't just impact those flights. That bleeds over to the whole system for the rest of the day.

MUNTEAN: For now, the FAA has opened up 169 new, more efficient flight routes up and down the East Coast. From its command center in Virginia, the agency is monitoring storms in Florida, warning of delays in Tampa, Orlando, Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As far as the risk to the Memorial Day weekend, it's looking pretty good.


MUNTEAN (on camera): Still pretty busy here at Reagan National Airport, and despite all of this demand, travel site Hopper says the average domestic round trip has dropped by 26 percent compared to last year. The average round trip ticket, according to Hopper, $273. But get this, an international round trip ticket has jumped to $1,300, a 50 percent increase in the last year.

The big tip from travel experts, try to book the first flight out if you can. That minimizes your chance of cancelations or delays. Wolf?

BLITZER: Good advice. Pete Muntean, thank you.

Now to a truly harrowing moment aboard a South Korean passenger jet, when a man allegedly opened the cabin door midflight.

CNN's Paula Hancocks has more.


PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Terrifying moments for hundreds of air passengers, as an emergency door opens while the airplane is still in the air. Asiana Airlines says two to three minutes before landing, while the aircraft was still about 700 feet from the ground, a man in his 30s sitting in the emergency seat opened the door. A less than one-hour-long flight from Jeju to Daegu in South Korea turned into a nightmare for 200 passengers and crew.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Maybe the men tried to get off the plane. A flight attendant said, help, help, and about ten passengers stood up and pulled him in.

HANCOCKS: Police arrested the man, saying he confessed to opening the door, but gave no reason.

KIM JONG-CHAN, DAEGU POLICE OFFICER: We weren't able to talk properly with him. He was not in a good mental state. He could not even hold himself up. HANCOCKS: Jeju's Education Office says 48 students were also on board traveling to a junior sports festival. But for aviation experts, the most pressing question is how is it even possible for the door to open while still in flight.

GEOFFREY THOMAS, AIRLINERATINGS.COM: It seems implausible that the door could be opened in the first place, and then against the airstream, technically impossible. But somehow, rather, it has happened.


HANCOCKS: Airbus said in a statement, we are looking into the circumstances of this incident. Aircraft doors can usually only be opened upon touchdown. Asiana says the cabin was automatically depressurized before landing. 12 people were treated for hyperventilation, nine of them in hospital. Officials say all injuries were minor, a relatively benign outcome considering the obvious danger.


HANCOCKS (on camera): Now, one thing you notice from that footage is that none of the oxygen masks dropped down within the cabin or at least didn't appear to. Now, what we're being told by Asiana is at that point, just before landing, the pressure inside the cabin and outside the aircraft were the same. And that is something that investigators are going to be looking at very closely when trying to figure out how it was even possible for this man to allegedly open that door. Wolf?

BLITZER: Very scary, indeed. Paula Hancocks, thank you.

Just ahead, a deadly Russian strike on a medical complex in Eastern Ukraine that Kyiv says was a deliberate Russian attack on Ukrainian civilians. We'll go live to the war zone. That's next.



BLITZER: Tonight, we're following a deadly and gruesome Russian strike on a medical facility in Eastern Ukraine that Ukraine says was a deliberate attack on its civilians. CNN's Sam Kiley is in the city of Dnipro, where this attack unfolded. Sam, what could explain Russia striking a civilian medical facility?

SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Well ,this, Wolf, at 10:30 in the morning, this morning, was a medical facility. It not any medical facility, it's a psychiatric facility. It was attacked with a missile.

Now, local authorities here saying, Wolf, that they believe, in their words, nothing short of a miracle that more people weren't killed. But the reason for that is there was a crossover in terms of shifts of the medical staff, meaning that in terms of medical staff, and, therefore, patients, the building was less full than it might otherwise have been. Nonetheless, eight doctors were among the 31 injured. Two people killed in this missile strike.

And Wolf, there has been, and there's no denying this, a pattern of Russian attacks on medical facilities in Ukraine, just as there was previously and indeed continues to be in Syria, where medical facilities, particularly hospitals, have been systemically attacked. Here, according to the World Health Organization, more than 950 medical facilities and medical workers and other facilities as part of the medical health system here have been attacked since Russia invaded just over a year ago.

In this case, it was in a residential area. The president here, Zelenskyy, is calling this an act of terrorism. And the French government has said that they believe that this is another incident of the Russians committing a war crime, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, indeed. Sam Kiley in Dnipro for usm Sam, stay safe over there. Thank you very much.

Let's discuss this latest strike and the state of play in the battlefield right now with CNN Military Analyst, retired General Wesley Clark, the former NATO supreme allied commander. General Clark, what's Russia's actual strategic objective in striking civilians over at a medical complex?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: It's simply to terrorize the Ukrainian people, put pressure on the government and Kyiv to surrender or start negotiations, and to show that Russia is not able to be stopped militarily.

BLITZER: Let me also get your -- yes, finish, go ahead, General.

CLARK: It's a demonstration of Russian power. And in the Russian mindset, the power to hurt people, that's the critical power. Even though we would say it has no military objective, from their point of view, that is the objective, is to show that they can punish and hurt.

BLITZER: Yes. But as the French and so many others say, it's a war crime as well.

Let me also get your reaction, General, to reports of a strike on the Russian-held city of Mariupol. The Russian-backed mayor of the city says Ukraine was behind the attack. How significant is this?

CLARK: I think it is significant. It's part of a pattern of efforts, Wolf, to go after targets that are deep, to discombobulate the Russian defense, to throw them off balance, to cause them to look left and right and deep and so forth and be insecure. And the target probably has military significance. So, it's probably a headquarters, logistics points, staging area, maybe some equipment storage. We don't know exactly what they hit.

But they're not just striking civilian targets, not the Ukrainians. They don't have enough weapons. And they are trying to set the conditions for a successful counteroffensive sometime in the coming weeks. And that means they've got to strike deep. They've got to take out the Russians' ability to maneuver, understand the battlefield, to react to the Ukrainian efforts. This is part of that.

BLITZER: Retired General Wesley Clark, thanks, as usual, for joining us.

CLARK: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Coming up, why President Biden now says he's optimistic about the status of debt ceiling negotiations. We'll go live to the White House for a report. That's coming up.



BLITZER: All right. This just in to CNN, President Biden just weighed in on the debt ceiling negotiations, the critical debt ceiling negotiations.

Let's go straight to our Jeremy Diamond, who's over at the White House to get an update. Jeremy, I understand the president is now sounding pretty optimistic.

DIAMOND: Yes, Wolf. Not only is the president sounding optimistic about the status of the negotiations and the prospects for a deal, but he even said that he believes that by tonight they may have a clearer sense of whether they can get a deal. Listen.


JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: With regard to the debt limit, things are looking good. I'm very optimistic. I hope we'll have some clearer evidence tonight before the clock strikes 12:00 that we have a deal. But it's very close, and I'm optimistic.

Negotiations going on, I'm hopeful we'll know by tonight whether we are going to be able to have a deal.


DIAMOND: And this comes as, of course, we're learning of this new timeline, a June 5th deadline for lawmakers and the president to get a deal together and get it to the president's desk. A senior White House official told me earlier this evening that they are in the final stages of negotiation and that they do believe that they are on track to get a deal by then. So, the president's comments certainly track with that.

We know that one of the major sticking points in the final stages of negotiations has been this issue of work requirements.


And on that, I asked the president, what does he say to Democrats who don't want him to bow to McCarthy on that issue. And he said, I don't bow to anyone. Wolf?

BLITZER: Jeremy Diamond over at the White House, let's hope there is a deal.

Meanwhile, the Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, now officially a Republican candidate for president, is sharpening his attacks against Donald Trump, and arguing he'd make a more effective leader than the former president.

Let's discuss with our political experts.

And, Ron Brownstein, I'll start with you.

DeSantis has leaned heavily into a slew of rather hot button cultural issues in the last few months, in addition to his ongoing fight with Disney, for example, he signed a six-week abortion ban. He signed a law allowing concealed carry of firearms without a permit. He's implements new restrictions on access to transgender treatments, and he's cracking down on undocumented immigrants. Do you see this as a winning strategy in a Republican primary, let alone a general election?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yeah, you know, Wolf, the fundamental question, I think, for the DeSantis campaign is whether they think he has a better chance of convincing Republican voters that Donald Trump is insufficiently conservative or insufficiently electable, because those two goals are in conflict. As you know, DeSantis has compiled an extremely conservative record on a whole range of cultural hot button issues as governor.

As a candidate, he has signaled when he is differentiating himself from Trump, it is mostly going to be from his right, making cases on COVID or abortion that conservative voters can't really trust Trump to stand with him. The challenge I think is a stronger argument against Trump in a Republican primary may be that he can't win another election and deliver the policies that he's promised. And to the extent, DeSantis is kind of painting himself into this far-right corner again and again, it is already causing Republicans who are focused on electability to question whether he would be any better position than Trump to win back the voters in suburban Philadelphia or Detroit or Atlanta that have hurt the GOP so much in the last few elections.

So, he's got to choose a path. I think there's a fundamental contradiction to the way he's approaching it so far.

BLITZER: Yeah. Good point.

Scott Jennings in a series of interviews on conservative friendly outfit since his announcement, DeSantis has been making the argument he can defeat Donald Trump. Listen to this.


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He understands that I've got a good chance to beat him because he doesn't criticize anybody else now. It's only me. They know that I'm more likely to win the election. I mean, for him to say that we're not winning in Florida, no one has taken a state from being a swing state four and a half years ago, to now being a red state in such a dramatic fashion.


BLITZER: So, Scott, is he right? How do you see it?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, it is true that when every other Republican presidential candidate has gotten into the race, Donald Trump has said something nice. Welcomed them in. Hey, welcome. Good luck to you.

With Ron DeSantis, it is a string of invective and insults and just a constant hum of stuff that's being flung against the wall. So, DeSantis is right. It's obvious that he's the one Trump is worried about. And if you look at DeSantis' numbers among Republicans, he is in a different universe than everybody else given his image, his favorability. And to Ron's point, I'm not sure how much more he has to prove to Republican voters.

I tend to agree with Ron that the electability argument for him could be the right one because Donald Trump got fewer votes than the Democrats in two elections, is widely believed to have cost Republicans in two different midterms, got a lower percentage of the vote than Mitt Romney did back in 2012 twice.

So, if I'm Ron DeSantis, I'm saying, you may think that Donald Trump is great, you may think that he's persecuted, but you cannot deny he has failed when it comes to getting more votes than Democrats, something I have repeatedly done in Florida.

BLITZER: And, Van -- Van Jones is with us as well. Van, as you know, Ron DeSantis today said he would repeal Trump's first step back, calling it a jailbreak bill. This is a bill you were involved in helping shape and pass. What's your reaction to that?

VAN JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, it's just pathetic because it's the opposite of that. That was a bill that 87 U.S. senators -- would have been 88 if Lindsey Graham had gotten off the plane in time -- got together, everybody from Nancy Pelosi to Jared Kushner supporting reforming the prison system so people could earn their way home.

And 25,000 people have earned their way home. They have not committed crimes in any larger number than anybody else coming home from prison. But it actually saved a bunch of money and showed you can do it the right way when it's bipartisan.

So, he's not just taking on Donald Trump. He's taking on the common sense of both parties and a bunch of people, including Lindsey Graham and his own party, who supported it. He's just trying to do anything to make himself look tougher than Donald Trump because he's not tougher than Donald Trump.

And so, he's puffing his chest out. He's attacking Mickey Mouse. He's attacking people coming home from prison.


It shows desperation on his part, but it also shows he does not know what he's talking about when it comes to federal legislation.

BLITZER: Scott, do you agree?

JENNINGS: Well, crime has become a rising hot button issue for Republicans. I understand the political tactic here to try to paint Donald Trump as somehow beholden to non-conservative special interest. I mean, that's the whole play is that when this guy was president, he can tell you what he will do now. Why did he do these things when he was president or why didn't he do certain things?

So, he is trying to set up a contrast saying you can't trust Donald Trump because of this record. The issue of crime has just become a massive talking point for virtually every Republican in the country, including Ron DeSantis.

So, I would expect, Van, and Wolf, and Ron, this is going to be a big topic because of the -- every survey from just about every jurisdiction for Republicans, crime is up at the top of the list.

BLITZER: Yeah, certainly is.

JONES: What I will say is that there's no study that shows the First Step Act added, in fact, that particular bill points in the opposite direction in terms of results. Facts may not matter to Ron DeSantis, but I think it should matter to actual voters.

BLITZER: And, Ron, let me wrap up with you. In a new CNN poll, as you know, 66 percent of Americans think a Biden win would be a disaster or a setback. How concerned should Democrats be about that?

BROWNSTEIN: Normally, Democrats would be looking at all the numbers on Biden. (INAUDIBLE) run again, the low approval rating numbers like that, Nearly 60 percent don't believe his policies have helped them, and all of that would be red lights blinking on the dashboard.

The only reason Democrats are not freaking out more with numbers like this is that many of them were evident in 2022 as well. And Democrats did surprisingly well because a historically large number of votes who were dissatisfied with Biden still voted for Democrats because the alterative was too extreme and that's the dynamic they're hoping for again in 2024.

BLITZER: Guys, thanks very much to all of you.

Coming up, by the way, on "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" right after THE SITUATION ROOM, China is cracking down on comedians and performers after one comedian joked about the communist party. The government is even reportedly asking performers to turn in scripts for approval. That's coming up, 7:00 p.m. Eastern, right after our show.

And just ahead right here in THE SITUATION ROOM, we will have the latest on the shark danger facing swimmers at many U.S. beaches this holiday weekend.

But, first, the 2010s was one of the most consequential decades in recent history, with political, social and technological upheaval that redefined American culture. This week, the CNN original series "THE 2020S" is back with an all new episode examining Donald Trump's rise to the presidency back in 2016 and the polarizing legacy he left behind. Here is a preview.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT: I am calling on Congress to work with us to save Americans from this imploding Obamacare disaster.

JOHN HEILEMANN, HOST, THE CIRCUS: Donald Trump could not have cared less about Obamacare, but he knew it was something Republicans cared about.

MIKE PENCE, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT: The first order of business is to repeal and replace Obamacare.

HEILEMANN: So, he basically went to the congressional Republicans and said, I really don't know what I'm doing here. I'm going to let you run my legislative agenda.

SEN. RAND PAUL (R-KY): We are united on repeal but divided on replacement.




BLITZER: Memorial Day is the unofficial beginning of summer, and for many beachgoers, shark season. Officials are now warning swimmers to be on the lookout this holiday weekend after a series of attacks.

CNN's Miguel Marquez has our report.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A tiger shark rammed me.

MARQUEZ: A close call in Hawaii. Shark attacks happening any time, any time.

MAGGIE DROZDOWSKI, NEW JERSEY SHARK ATTACK VICTIM: I realized my foot was in its mouth. I was shaking my foot as hard as I could.

MARQUEZ: Maggie Drozdowski was surfing in southern New Jersey when she was attacked. In the Turks and Caicos, a 22-year-old woman was snorkeling beyond the

reef when a shark attack taking her leg.

She was saved by a fast acting captain from a nearby tour boat.

ANDY CASAGRANDE, FILMMAKER & HOST, DISCOVERY'S SHARK WEEK: There's a number of reasons why sharks will occasionally bite people. Sometimes eat people. And mistaken identity is one of these big factor.

ELLA REED, FLORIDA SHARK ATTACK VICTIM: It was like right there, right in the white water.

MARQUEZ: In an attack in Fort Pierce, Florida, a teen was sitting in shallow water near the shore.

REED: It slipped in and got my finger and my arm. It got my leg.

MARQUEZ: New York state is staking no chances this summer, increasing the number of drones and patrol boats.

How much respect do you have if this is their front and backyard?

CLARANCE "TOBY" TOBIAS, SURFER: Oh, 100 percent, 100 percent. I'm playing in their home. So, I'm playing by their rules.

MARQUEZ: Toby Tobias has surfed for 35 years. His closest contact with a shark, right here in NYC.

TOBIAS: I look to my side. I saw a fin. He came straight to me and make a big splash and turn away.

MARQUEZ: Just this morning, a suspected thresher shark spotted by this frequent surfer.

NICK SZWARC, SURFER: It looked pretty big. It was the size of my surf board.

MARQUEZ: You are not going to mess with it?

SZWARC: Yeah, I paddled in.


MARQUEZ (on camera): So, here we are at Rockaway Beach. Surfers have been out all day. It's going to get busier now that the starting gun for summer is about to be sounded on Memorial Day weekend.

But, look, getting bit by a shark or attacked is extremely rare. Officials here in New York say there's a couple ways to protect yourself. If you see seals or schools of fish, birds going in the water, stay away from those. You do not want to get mistaken for a shark meal -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Miguel Marquez, thank you.

And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. I want everyone to have a safe holiday weekend.

Let's not forget, Memorial Day remembers all the Americans who've died while serving this country. We remember them and we thank them for their sacrifice.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.