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Shooter In Deadliest Antisemitic Attack In U.S. History Found Guilty, Could Get Death Sentence; DOJ: Minneapolis PD was 6.5 times More Likely To Use Force Against Black In Traffic Stops Than Whites; Special Counsel Seeks Court Order To Ensure Trump And Lawyer Don't Go Public With Info Shared In Discovery; RNC Refuses To Drop Debate Requirement That Candidates Vow To Back GOP Nominee. Aired 5-6p ET
Aired June 16, 2023 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: CNN's Danny Freeman is outside the courthouse in Pittsburgh for us.
Danny, it was a rather emotional moment inside the courtroom when jurors found the defendant guilty on all 63 counts.
DANNY FREEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it really was an emotional moment. You know, we've been hearing from some members of the Jewish community here in Pittsburgh who said that they did feel a lot of relief when that conviction came down. But I have to say, just to describe the tone inside of the courtroom at that moment, it was also silent as they were reading those first charges and those first guilty verdicts. It just goes to show you how intently this community has been paying attention to this trial and to this case really for the past four and a half years, since October 27, 2018.
Wolf, I just want touch on these charges that Robert Bowers was found guilty of today, 63 federal charges, guilty on all counts, and also guilty on 22 of the capital offenses. And the primary capital offense here was the obstruction of the free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death. Basically, the jury said that Robert Bowers killed 11 Jewish worshippers while they were in the middle of exercising their religious freedoms as Jewish people. But as I said, the perspective is this has been a longtime company that a lot of folks have been waiting for and a hard trial to listen to over the past three weeks.
I'll just bring up one testimony that we heard. We heard from Carol Black. She was a survivor of the shooting back in October of 2018. She described hiding in a closet while bullets were ringing out in the floors above her. She saw and watched her friend Mel Wax be killed. And let's read a quote from her.
She testified, "He immediately went down on the ground on his back and was dying. He didn't say anything, he made a garbling kind of sound and then just a grunt and then silence. His head was just inches away from my feet." That's the kind of testimony, Wolf, that we've been hearing for the past three weeks. And that's the compelling testimony that ultimately led to this conviction.
Today we heard from the president, one of the co-presidents, I should say, of the New Light Congregation, one of the three congregations impacted that day from just a little while ago. Take a listen to what he had to say about this verdict.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
STEPHEN COHEN, CO-PRESIDENT, NEW LIGHT CONGREGATION: It's difficult to say the emotions we feel right now. One of relief, obviously, that the jury returned a full verdict of guilty to all 63 counts. But there's also a degree of trepidation because this is just the first third of the trial. And in a sense it was the least complicated part.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
FREEMAN: So you can see there, Wolf, there are some mixed emotion here. It's obviously relief because of this verdict, but that death penalty phase at this point is still looming large in the minds of the Jewish community here in Pittsburgh. Wolf.
BLITZER: And Danny, as you know, the guilty verdict clearly means that the trial now will move into that penalty phase. What do we expect in the coming weeks?
FREEMAN: Well, Wolf, the death penalty phase is expected to kick off in a little over a week on June 26. And it's really interesting because in this guilt phase, the prosecution brought 60 witnesses. The defense called zero witnesses and did not even dispute that Robert Bowers was the man who shot and killed these worshippers. So, we're expecting to see more of a fight from the defense, basically to save and -- try and save, I should say, Robert Bower's life in this case.
Judy Clark, the main defense attorney on Robert Bower's side, she's known for taking a lot of these high profile federal death penalty cases. She didn't comment us when we asked her thoughts on the verdict today, but I think you can really expect to see more activity on the defense side in the weeks to come. Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, we will watch it together with you. Danny Freeman, thank you very much.
Joining us now, the Chief Executive Officer of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Carole Zawatsky.
Carole, thanks so much for joining us. I know this has been a rather emotional trial for all the survivors, the loved ones of the victims as well. How is the community doing after hearing this verdict today?
CAROL ZAWATSKY, TREE OF LIFE CEO: Well, Wolf, the community, I think, feels a sense of relief that, as we've heard, he was convicted on all 63 counts. There's a sense of relief that this portion of the trial is over and that people can begin slowly to move forward and begin to heal. It's been a long four and a half years.
BLITZER: Certainly has been an awful situation. The same jury will now have to decide, Carole, whether the gunman should get the death penalty. Does that bring up complicated emotions where you are?
ZAWATSKY: Of course, the death penalty brings up some complex emotions. And what we all hope for is that justice is served. What we hope for is that the families feel that justice have been served and that this person is held accountable for his actions.
BLITZER: You've said, Carole, that antisemitism is not a Jewish problem, it's everybody's problem. What lessons do you hope people will take from what has happened in Pittsburgh and Squirrel Hill where you are, and apply to their lives to combat antisemitism?
ZAWATSKY: I'm so glad that you asked me that question in particular, because I think today what America has seen is that hate and antisemitism will not be allowed to prevail. We know what happens in countries where hate is allowed to flourish. And we've seen a justice system today and a jury that said America will not stand for hate.
BLITZER: The Tree of Life synagogue -- yes, go ahead, finish your thought.
ZAWATSKY: I'm sorry. I believe that when we see antisemitism, when we work toward ending antisemitism, we work toward ending all forms of hate.
BLITZER: You're absolutely right. Tree of life's Rabbi, Jeffrey Myers, survived this brutal attack. He said today he could think of no better response than practicing his Jewish faith. That's a quote. What does healing look like for Pittsburgh's Jewish community?
ZAWATSKY: You know, as I think about the verdict today, I feel particularly blessed to light Sabbath candles this evening. And I am sure that I'm joined by many Jews in the Pittsburgh community who usher in a Shabbat of peace, of finally getting to this verdict. For us, we are building a new institution. I am truly honored to be the CEO of this new institution, which will house a memorial to each of the 11 murdered victims, a museum that examines antisemitism, and how every one of us can learn to be an upstander, a space of education, and to move from this darkness into light.
BLITZER: And as we look at those 11 victims, we always say, may their memories be a blessing.
Carole Zawastky, thank you so much for joining us. And as we also say, Shabbat Shalom to you.
ZAWATSKY: Shabbat Shalom, Wolf. Thank you.
BLITZER: Now to a damning new report by the U.S. Justice Department accusing the Minneapolis Police Department of systematic acts of violence and injustice. The investigation prompted by the murder of George Floyd after a police officer kneeled on his neck three years ago. Our Senior Justice Correspondent Evan Perez is here with details.
Evan, tell us more about the Justice Department, what they found and what happens now.
EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we were expecting a very tough report, and this report is escaping about what the practices were of this police department in the years prior to Derek Chauvin murdering George Floyd. One of the things that we found from the Justice Department's report, they said they reviewed 20 -- I'm sorry, 19 police shootings between 2016 and 2022. And they found repeatedly excessive use of force against people who, in some cases, posed no danger to police officers. In one case, they described a woman who had called 911 to report a sexual assault in a nearby alley. She ended up being shot by a police officer who reported that he had been spooked by her present that when she appeared next to him.
One of the things that the Justice Department report found, Wolf, was that African Americans and Native Americans were far more likely to be stopped and have encounters with police than white people. You can look at this graphic right here. In the case of African Americans, 6.5 times more likely to be stopped than white people, white people in that community. And Native Americans 7.9 times more likely to be stopped than white people. The Attorney General, Merrick Garland, was there in Minneapolis.
It tells you the importance of this report and the work going forward. Here's how he described the findings.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MERRICK GARLAND, ATTORNEY GENERAL: We found that the Minneapolis Police Department routinely uses excessive force, often when no force is necessary, including unjust deadly force and unreasonable use of Tasers. MPD officers discharge firearms at people without assessing whether the person presents any threat, let alone a threat that would justify deadly force.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
PEREZ: And, Wolf, going forward, the solution here is for the city and the Justice Department to come to terms on a consent decree, which will be a court ordered monitoring system. This is going to take a look at the training that the police department has, you know, for new officers and for the existing officers. It is true, the Justice Department said that there have already been some changes, but more changes will have to be made going forward. Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, it was so disturbing earlier in the day listening to Merrick Garland, the attorney General, read the results of this long investigation. Very disturbing indeed.
Evan, thank you very much.
Joining us now, the attorney for George Floyd's family, Benjamin Crump.
Ben, thanks so much for joining us. What goes through your mind hearing these horrific findings from the U.S. Justice Department more than three years after the death of George Floyd?
BEN CRUMP, ATTORNEY FOR THE FAMILIES OF GEORGE FLOYD AND AMIR LOCKE: Well, Wolf, I heard Evan define them escaping, but as a civil rights attorney and a black man in America, it is factual. It's what we deal with on a regular basis. So we're very thankful to the Attorney General for doing an exhaustive report. And General Clarke, his assistant over the Civil Rights Division, being thorough in confirming what black people in Minneapolis and people who saw that video of George Floyd being tortured to death suspected and knew all along that there is a pattern and practice of excessive force. And the report also found that the police routinely engaged in an unlawful discrimination against black and brown people.
BLITZER: On that last point you just made, the U.S. Justice Department did say that Minneapolis police used force against black people in Minneapolis at nine times the rate it did against white people. So how revealing is that?
CRUMP: It's very revealing. To some, they may find it shocking, but to others, we have long been articulating this, and now hopefully, this report will provide greater documentation of what black people often say that we are treated differently. And I think the report even goes to that, Wolf, when it talked about the police patrolled and police communities differently, that's something that not only has been said in Minneapolis, but with Tyre Nichols, it has been said in Memphis, Tennessee, and certainly with Brionna Taylor, and, no not once we talk about that in Louisville, Kentucky. So, this report told us and confirmed to us what we long suspected. And we're cautiously optimistic that the consent decree will hopefully prevent some of the senseless unnecessary deaths of black people at the hands of police.
However, we remember Amir Locke was killed about a year and a half late after George Floyd when they said they were going to ban no not once in the city of Minneapolis, but they did not follow their policy.
BLITZER: Do the reforms have been laid out by the U.S. Justice Department today go far enough to address what's clearly a systemic policing problem, not just in Minneapolis, but indeed in many parts of the country?
CRUMP: You know, Wolf, it remains to be seen. We continue to fight for the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act to give the federal government more teeth, to be able to challenge bias and bigoted policing. But as you know, with the political gridlock in Washington, D.C. and the United States Congress, it is going to have to be innovative how the federal government tries to deal with these clear patterns and practices of how black and brown people are treated and denied their constitutional rights.
I mean, just look at that report, Wolf. When they said many times when black people said, I can't breathe from chokeholds, they would often say, where if you're talking, you can breathe. And isn't that the very thing they said on the torture video that led to George Floyd's death?
BLITZER: Yes. Very, very horrendous situation. Benjamin Crump, thanks as usual, for joining us. CRUMP: Thank you, Wolf Blitzer.
BLITZER: Coming up, we'll get the latest developments from the front lines in Ukraine as Vladimir Putin makes ominous new nuclear threats. Stay with us. Lots of news today. You're in the Situation Room.
BLITZER: In Ukraine tonight, brutal fighting along the front lines as Kyiv's counter offensive grinds out hard fought gains against heavily fortified Russian positions in Ukraine, Russian airstrikes and artillery attacks are going on, reportedly slowing the Ukrainian advance, at least for now. Our Senior International Correspondent, Fred Pleitgen, is joining us with all the latest from the war zone.
(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)
FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Ukraine's army continuing to take the fight to the Russians on the southern front. This video shows the 128th Territorial Defense Battalion clearing trenches after ousting Vladimir Putin's army, the unit says.
One of the soldiers, nicknamed the "Octopus," telling me the fighting remains fierce. We're currently launching an assault, he says. Our frontline is moving forward. We've already advanced a lot more than two km, so now we're only moving forward.
Even after returning from the front line, the troops continue to train, assaulting enemy positions so important for Ukraine's ongoing major counteroffensive.
(on camera): The guys here say that the battles that they've had with the Russians have been extremely tough. They've had to fight for every yard, and yet they are confident, they say, that they can make this counteroffensive a success.
(voice-over): Troops we spoke to say the biggest threat to them is Russian air power. This video released by the Russian Defense Ministry purporting to show a Russian attack helicopter hitting a Ukrainian armored vehicle. The 128th deputy commander acknowledges choppers, planes and drones are making his forces advance tougher.
They work continuously, he says, all day long, either with helicopters or with planes. It's hard to advance like that, but we retake territory. We do not allow them to hit the columns.
And the unit says they've managed to capture not only territory, but also hardware from the Russian, including this infantry fighting vehicle. Mechanics now fixing it up to use against the Russians. An angry Russian president complaining about Kyiv's offensive and claiming that Russia is beating back Ukraine's forces.
They've suffered large losses, Vladimir Putin says, 10 times more than the Russian army, and that is a fact.
The Ukrainians do acknowledge some losses, but also say they've taken out a lot of Russian assets. And these troops vowed to press on and take more vehicles from Moscow's troops as they advance.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
PLEITGEN: As you can see there, Wolf, some serious fighting going on the southern front line. I have to say, though, the forces that we spoke today, they were pretty upbeat about the situation. Upbeat, the Ukrainians also about the situation in the east of the country. In fact, they're saying that they're making some pretty big gains around the area of Bakhmut.
They also say that the Russians are now bringing some combat ready forces into that area as well to try and hold the Ukrainians up. But the Ukrainians are saying they are making some real gains around Bakhmut. Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Fred Pleitgen in Zaporizhzhia in the war zone in Ukraine for us. Thank you. Stay safe.
For a closer look right now at Vladimir Putin's remarks earlier today, let's bring in our Senior International Correspondent Matthew Chance. He's joining us now live from Moscow.
Matthew, what more is Putin saying?
MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, he made some very wide ranging remarks today at the economic conference that he was addressing in St. Petersburg. He pushed back on some of those Ukrainian claims of advances on the battlefield, saying that, in fact, Russia, since the count offensive had begun, had destroyed 187 Ukrainian tanks and hundreds more armored vehicles. Of course, there's no way of us independently verifying that.
But you know, throughout this counter offensive, in particular, the Russians have been trying to spin this as them resisting very effectively the forces of the Ukrainian military. Putin also confirmed for the first time today that the first batch of tactical nuclear missiles that had promised to the neighboring country of Belarus have now been delivered, a delivery that's going to be completed, we're told, by the end of the summer. It's obviously designed as an attempt to saber rattle and to warn the United States and the west and NATO and indeed Ukraine of the threat that Russia poses. Well, again, speaking at that conference, I suppose Putin tried to allay concerns in the audience by saying the weapons would not be used unless Russia was threatened. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PRES. VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIA (through translator): The use of nuclear weapons undoubtedly is theoretically possible for Russia. For Russia, it is possible if there is a threat to our territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty to the existence of the Russian state.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CHANCE: Well, the U.S. authorities, in the form of Secretary of State Blinken, have said they don't see any indication that Putin is preparing to use nuclear weapons. But obviously, these remarks, as this counter offensive is underway, really raising concerns in the region, Wolf.
BLITZER: Understandably so. Matthew Chance in Moscow for us, thank you.
Joining us now, the Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova.
Ambassador, thank you so much for joining us. How do you respond to those nuclear threats that we're hearing now directly from Vladimir Putin?
OKSANA MARKAROVA, UKRAINIAN AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED STATES: Good evening, Wolf, and thank you for having me. Well, we have to just remind ourselves that it is Ukraine that got rid of a third nuclear arsenal in 1994. It is Ukraine that was always peaceful, and it's Russia that continuously is a threat of risk, not only militarily in Ukraine and in the region, but food security, energy security. And at this point, you know, again, as we said before, we should remind an indicted war criminal, Mr. Putin, that instead of continuing threatening peaceful nations, he should focus on actually getting out from Ukraine where his troops performed miserably. And he only conducted a number of war crimes, including massive shelling of Kyiv and Kyiv Oblast, today Kherson, blowing up Kakhovka Dam and all the atrocities that they have committed.
So, yes, it's (inaudible) to threaten all of us so that we stop in defending democracy, freedom, and the values that we all share. And we will not stop. We will continue liberating Ukraine and I'm positive our friends will also not stop in supporting Ukraine.
BLITZER: As Ukraine ambassador makes what are being described as incremental advances in this new counter offensive, what would you say to some western allies when waiting to see what they want to see, namely major gains out there on the battlefield?
MARKAROVA: We all knew that it's going to be very difficult. You know, we, the front is very long south east of Ukraine. Plus again, the fact that Russians blew up the dam and flooded the whole area in Kherson not only devastating dozens of villages and affecting people, but also making it difficult, you know. But again, regardless of how hard it is, we have heard President Zelenskyy loud and clear and all the commanders, we are making progress, we will make progress. Of course, all of us would like it to be as fast as possible because it's our people who are suffering under occupation there.
And we, we have very high trust in our commanders and our brave defenders. Regardless how hard it is, we will liberate all Ukraine. BLITZER: Ambassador, CNN has learned, and I assume you know this, that President Biden is now willing to drop one hurdle in Ukraine's push to become a NATO member. Is that small step enough to deter Russia? What do you think?
MARKAROVA: I will only say that, you know, Ukraine has made our civilizational choice. We would like to be a member of the European Union and we're already candidate country and we would like to be a member of NATO. It's in our hearts, it's in our constitution, it's something that not only the majority of Ukrainians share and believe in but also it's -- we believe that Ukraine has a lot to add to NATO.
Now, how it will happen? It's for us and all the NATO members to decide. But I think, you know, not only that Ukraine is ready and willing to be part of, you know, this family of civilized countries, countries that share the same values, but we have done a lot of reforms and have a lot to add. But you know, again, as we all are preparing for the summit, of course we will not go ahead and say, you know, the expectations, but we work a lot with our friends and partners, and we really believe in NATO.
BLITZER: Ambassador Oksana Markarova, good luck to you, as I always tell you and good luck to all the people of Ukraine. Thanks so much for joining us.
MARKAROVA: Thank you very much.
BLITZER: Up next, there's new movement right now in the Trump classified documents case. We're going to tell you who's seeking a protective order and why.
BLITZER: Tonight, there's a new filing in the U.S. Justice Department in the Trump classified documents criminal case. This as the former President's legal team is talking to the Department of Justice just days after his arrest and arraignment. CNN justice correspondent Jessica Schneider is joining me. She's with me here in the Situation Room. Tell us about this filing and what it means, Jessica.
JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, so as we're moving into the discovery phase of this prosecution, the Justice Department wants to ensure that the material that they're handing over, the non-classified material as part of this case. They want to ensure that it remains private. So that's why they filed this motion for a protective order, which would guarantee several things that they're asking for.
First, they want to prohibit Trump and Walt Nauta, his co-defendant, from sharing any of this information that they're handed over with anyone other than anyone involved in the case. They also want to stop them. They want them to only have direct access to this material with the direct supervision of their attorneys. Also, they can take notes, but their notes actually must be secured by their attorneys and kept in a private place, and then they cannot share anything on social media.
So these sorts of protective orders are pretty standard in these criminal cases. The DOJ is saying that Trump and his co-defendant and their attorneys have already agreed to it. All parties must sign it. The DOJ is saying it's important for this reason, saying that it contains information pertaining to ongoing investigations, the disclosure of which could compromise those investigations and identify uncharged individuals.
Because, remember, the special counsel still has other ongoing investigations aside from the classified documents case. They're obviously looking into January 6th, whether Trump and his allies work to plot to overturn the 2020 election. So there's a lot of sensitive information, potentially, that they're handing over to Trump. And then one other thing I'll note, Wolf, today, trump's two attorneys that he has in the classified documents case, Chris Kise and also Todd Blanche.
They did confirm with Judge Aileen Cannon, who's going to be running this case, that they are working with DOJ to get the necessary security clearances to move forward.
BLITZER: Yes, it's really, really important. Speaking of Trump lawyers, we're learning now about yet another Trump lawyer who's leaving. It seems to be a major development all the time. Trump lawyers unraveling what's going on?
SCHNEIDER: Yes, this -- is Jim Trusty. Of course, we saw Jim Trusty leaving Trump's case, the classified documents case, late last week. Now we see his motion to withdraw from another case. This is actually a civil suit, a defamation case against, actually, our company, CNN. So Jim Trusty has filed this motion, basically saying he can no longer serve as the lawyer in this case because of irreconcilable differences and being unable to effectively and properly represent Donald Trump.
So this is a defamation case that Donald Trump has filed, accusing CNN of a campaign of dissuasion in the form of libel and slander. He's seeking $475 million. But it continues to show the unraveling of the relationship between Jim Trusty, Trump's former respected lawyer that he's worked with for a long time, who has now withdrawn from the classified documents case, and now this defamation case as well. The defamation case will continue to go on. Trump is still represented by other attorneys in Florida in the civil matter.
BLITZER: Yes, always interesting to see his relationship with his own lawyers. All right, Jessica, thank you very much. Jessica Schneider reporting. Let's bring in our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger and our senior law enforcement analyst, Andrew McCabe. Andrew, what stands out to you from the U.S. Justice Department's latest request?
ANDREW MCCABE, CNN SENIOR LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, Wolf, this is a very standard request that you would do in really any criminal case in which you expect to be going to trial. And it's for the reasons that Jessica laid out. This is the prosecution's efforts to protect information that they have to turn over to the Trump team in discovery. So they're trying to limit what the Trump team can do with that, how they can communicate about it, those sorts of things.
It is notable, though, that this only covers the unclassified discovery. There is another hornet's nest of issues they'll have to resolve around the classified materials that are involved in this case. The documents that underlie the 31 counts of retention of national defense information, you will see the same sort of protective orders entered discussing that classified material very specifically. But that's a different process because it has to be done under the Classified Information Procedures Act, much more complicated and likely to be more contentious.
BLITZER: What does it say, Gloria, that Trump's facing these challenges with his own legal team?
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it says that he's not a good client to have. And, you know, it's very rare that an attorney would cite irreconcilable differences. It sounds like a divorce proceeding rather than an attorney leaving a client. And I've talked to a couple of former Trump attorneys. There are a bunch of them out there now.
And one of them said to me that he has found that this client is insensitive to almost every aspect of the rule of law. And he said that's why people leave. He also doesn't take their advice, and he also has a habit of turning his attorneys into witnesses, as we saw with Evan Corcoran.
BLITZER: Yes, it's almost a routine development. Andrew, we're also getting some new reporting just in to CNN that the U.S. Justice Department is now telling the House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, they can't give him information that could compromise their ongoing probes of Trump. So what does that emphasize? Does that emphasize the sensitivity of the information in this case?
MCCABE: Well, of course the information in the case is sensitive, but it really gets back to a fundamental kind of bedrock principle of the Department of Justice, and I should say one that's been observed and abided to by many administrations and politicians on Capitol Hill from both sides of the aisle for many years until this point. And that is that the Justice Department does not share information about ongoing investigations.
They don't share with the White House. They don't share it with Capitol Hill. So I think they're maintaining a consistent position here. Remains to be seen how much respect Jim Jordan will have for this long accepted norm.
BORGER: Look, I think Jim Jordan knows exactly what he's doing. He knows that the Justice Department is not going to give him what he has outlined. He understands that, and he's doing it to continue the fight with the Justice Department, because that's the big enemy right now. It's the Justice Department who's weaponized the system of justice in the country. It's the FBI who's been -- that's been weaponized as well. And I think, you know, this is part of the ongoing fight that Republicans want to have because they know it's popular with the Republican Party. According to a recent Ipsos poll, 81 percent of Republicans believe that the charges against Donald Trump are politically motivated. And that's what Jim Jordan is playing to.
BLITZER: Important point indeed. Gloria Borger, Andrew McCabe, guys, thank you very much. We'll stay on top of this story.
Just ahead, the Republican National Committee says it won't change its loyalty pledge rule for the Republican presidential debates, even if Trump is a convicted felon. Republican presidential candidate Asa Hutchinson, who pushed for the change, joins me next. He'll respond.
BLITZER: The Republican National Committee says it will not alter its loyalty pledge, which forces presidential candidates who want to participate in the upcoming debates to commit to supporting the party's eventual nominee, even if the winner is a convicted felon.
Joining us now, Republican presidential candidate, the former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson. Governor, thanks so much for joining us. I want to read part of a statement from the Republican National Committee that was released earlier today. Let me read it. Candidates who are complaining about this to the press should seriously reconsider their priorities and whether they should even be running. I know, Governor, you've said you won't vote for Trump if he's a convicted felon. So how do you respond to this latest directive, this statement from the RNC?
ASA HUTCHINSON (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, clearly the RNC, Republican National Committee, has taken a shot at me. And I fought the establishment a long time in Arkansas, but the establishment was the Democratic machine, and we actually prevailed because we worked hard and we stood for our principles. And now I feel like I'm fighting the Republican establishment just to be on the debate stage.
And one of the things I've always believed in my life is that we didn't need to have party loyalty oaths. I criticized the Democratic Party in Arkansas because they had a party loyalty oath. I stood against that. And now I see a Republican Party that's trying to not just protect their principles, which I support, but they're trying to protect a particular person and say that the Trump Party is dominating. And I think we're about our principles and about the party itself, the Republican Party. And so I want to be on the debate.
I expect to be on the debate stage. But this is challenging. And, Wolf, if I might add, I've handled these kind of cases before, and I know how long it's going to take and ordinarily you might have this case against Donald Trump tried next June, but I suspect that it's going to be ongoing. And so we're going to be far into the year and not know the outcome of that trial. And so they're asking us to pledge support across the board for candidates that we don't know what's going to be the outcome. And that's clearly mishandled and has been alleged to mishandle classified information.
BLITZER: Are you reconsidering a governor participating in the RNC debates if you are ultimately forced to make this pledge?
HUTCHINSON: Well, let's just wait and see how it develops. They're holding firm, and I understand that they're going to control the rules of the debate, but I want to see exactly what the pledge is. I want to see how the facts develop between now and then. But first of all, there's going to be some, it sounds like signs of the pledge, and it's going to take Trump's approach. That doesn't really mean anything. My word does mean something to me, and we can probably all justify it that I'm going to be the nominee so I can support the nominee of the party. But I want to be straightforward about it. I want to look at what the language is. It is important for me to be on that debate stage because --
BLITZER: That first debate, as you know, in August -- this coming August in Milwaukee.
HUTCHINSON: Well, it is. It's going to be August in Milwaukee, and the Republican voters want to hear that. They're going to pay attention to see how the candidates react to each other, the issues they raise, what's the differences, and they're going to start making decisions during that debate time. So now it's still early, but I want to be on that debate stage. I expect to be on it.
We just got to navigate through this and make sure that we don't hurt the Republican Party's chances of bringing independents and suburban voters in the fall because we take this strident position that you've got to support the nominee of the party when at least one of them is under investigation for serious felony violations. And that's going to play out probably between June and the fall election next year. And it puts our party in a very awkward position.
BLITZER: Awkward indeed, the Republican presidential candidate, Asa Hutchinson. Thanks so much for joining us.
HUTCHINSON: Yes. Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: This programming note to our viewers Kaitlan Collins will interview Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel later tonight on CNN primetime. That's at 9:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN.
And coming up here in the Situation Room, deadly tornadoes tear across the south, killing three in Texas and leveling, completely leveling a small town. CNN is on the scene. We'll be right back.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: All right, just into CNN. The governor of Texas has just issued a disaster declaration after a string of deadly storms and tornadoes. We're following the horrifying developments in Texas where a small panhandle town has nearly been wiped off the map by a tornado. CNN's Lucy Kafanov has our report.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have major damage in town. Oh, my God.
LUCY KAFANOV, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Terrifying video of a deadly tornado captured by storm chasers.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, my God.
KAFANOV (voice-over): As the powerful twister leveled much of the small town of Peraton, Texas, killing at least three, sending up to 100 people to the hospital.
JAMIE JAMES, PERRYTON RESIDENT: It was just barely sprinkling, and all of a sudden the tornado formed and it just dropped on us. It came out of nowhere. When there was no sirens, no time to get to a shelter. There was a time where I thought that I was going to die.
KAFANOV (voice-over): Jamie James's home is still standing, but nearly everything around it is destroyed. The community of roughly 8,000 residents is left in shambles.
(on camera): And this was an immensely powerful tornado. Take a look over there. That vehicle was flipped completely on its roof, slammed into the building.
(voice-over): From the brick structures on Main Street to mobile homes completely flattened.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Total devastation.
KAFANOV (voice-over): This cell phone tower snapped in half. Transmission lines have sustained damage and many power lines are down in the town. The energy company says.
BRIAN EMFINGER, STORMCHASER: I kind of feel like it was almost a worst case scenario.
KAFANOV (voice-over): The weather service gives notice as quickly as it can, but one storm chaser on the ground said this storm didn't look particularly dangerous at first.
EMFINGER: I never heard sirens, and the reason why is when they issued the tornado warning, the tornado was already in town doing damage, and the power had obviously been cut to the town.
KAFANOV (voice-over): Xcel Energy says the city's power facilities were shut off for safety purposes. Residents begin to pick up the pieces. The Red Cross is mobilizing teams to offer support on the ground. And the local high school is opening its doors to help. [17:55:11]
COLE UNDERWOOD, ATHLETIC DIRECTOR, PERRYTON HIGH SCHOOL: We moved pretty quickly to try to make this safe haven for people to get to. The loss is unthinkable. I don't think you can put it really into words.
KAFANOV (voice-over): Jamie James tells us one of the women who lost her life in the storm would have been out here helping in the recovery.
JAMES: She would always help me carry the groceries out, and she would give me a big old hug. She served people friendly, hugging people like me who needed it so bad, so many good people in this town.
KAFANOV: And Wolf. The crews have been hard at work all day clearing this debris. But of course, in this close knit community, with hundreds who have lost their homes, dozens injured and at least three dead, including, we're now learning, an eleven year old boy. The emotional scars are going to take a lot longer to heal.0
BLITZER: So heartbreaking. Indeed. Lucy Kafanov on the scene for us, thank you.
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