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Supreme Court Guts Affirmative Action In College Entry; Supreme Court Expected To Rule On Student Loans Tomorrow; Documents Suggest Top Russian General Was Secret VIP Member Of Wagner Group Since 2018; Sources: Ongoing Trump Docs Probe Includes Continued Grand Jury Activity In Florida; Sources: Biden's Iran Envoy On Leave Amid Probe Into Handling Of Classified Material; Question Swirl Around Top Russian General Not Seen In Public Since The Wagner Mutiny. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired June 29, 2023 - 17:00   ET


ABBY PHILLIP, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: And I'm Abby Phillip, in for Jake Tapper today. Our coverage continues now with Wolf Blitzer over in THE SITUATION ROOM.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, the United States Supreme Court delivers a huge blow to affirmative action ruling that race cannot be a specific basis for college admissions in this country. The Education Secretary, Miguel Cardona, joins us live this hour to discuss what this means for higher learning in America.

Also tonight, breaking news out of Moscow, CNN has exclusive new reporting on the top Russian general who appears to be missing after the mutiny. Documents indicating he was a secret VIP member of the Wagner mercenary group behind the rebellion.

And the former school deputy who failed to confront the Parkland mass shooter is found not guilty on all counts. Scott Peterson breaking down in tears as the verdict was read.

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

Let's get right to our top story. The United States Supreme Court ruling that -- United States Supreme Court ruling gutting affirmative action and college admissions. The conservative majority once again upending precedent and prompting a fiery dissent by liberal justices on the court. CNN Senior Supreme Court Analyst Joan Biskupic is joining us right now.

Joan, how did the conservative majority reach this decision and what are the real world impacts of it?

JOAN BISKUPIC, CNN SENIOR SUPREME COURT ANALYST: Well, I'll tell you, Wolf, in the courtroom, it was only the dissenters who talked about the real world impact. Chief Justice John Roberts takes the bench, he's been trying to get rid of race conscious admissions for so long, and he announces that the time has come. He goes through all the problems and prior decisions in how the equal protection guarantee had been interpreted, saying that the equal protection guarantee in the Constitution does not allow classifications based on race, for better or for worse. Obviously, these are the kinds of programs that have helped Hispanics and Blacks get a leg up.

And the Chief said in the past, maybe this was allowed, but there have been time limits to it. And let me just tell you what he said at one point when he's assessing the programs, "Because Harvard's and UNC's admissions programs lack sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race, unavoidably employ race in a negative manner, involve racial stereotyping, and lack meaningful endpoints, those admissions programs cannot be reconciled with the guarantee of the Equal Protection Clause." He said essentially that university officials were saying, trust us, we're able to do this. You should defer to us. And he said, no more, we're not. And the Chief read excerpts of his opinion from the bench, which is a very common thing that happens.

But what doesn't happen, as you may know, is that the justices who've written separate opinions rarely read their own excerpts. But first, Clarence Thomas, who was with the majority court second African American justice in history, talked about how he agreed with the majority decision and how these racial classifications have hurt Blacks and Hispanics and the Asian Americans who brought the claim. And then probably the most dramatic point came when Justice Sonia Sotomayor read on behalf of dissenters. As you know, she was the country's first Hispanic justice on the court.

And let me tell you some of what she said, "The devastating impact of this decision cannot be overstated. The majority's vision of race neutrality will entrench racial segregation in higher education because racial inequality will persist so long as it is ignored." This is a key point. She kept saying that the majority was blind to what's going on in the country. "This supposed recognition that universities can, in some situations, consider race in application essays is nothing but an attempt to put lipstick on a pig."

What she was referring to is the fact that the chief had said, well, you know, they can't give their race in classification boxes that you check off normally on applications, but a student could maybe refer to race and any racial difficulties in the essay. But even then, the chief said in his opinion that it couldn't be -- he suggested it couldn't be contrived. Race would have to be woven into an essay to really show how that was part of a meaningful experience of someone. He stressed that he didn't think that colleges and universities should try to indirectly get around something that they had directly been doing before. A really momentous decision from the Supreme Court.


BLITZER: Yes, very, very historic indeed.


BLITZER: I know you were there in the room as it was being read -- BISKUPIC: Right.

BLITZER: -- in fact. And we'll discuss that. Stay with us. Don't go too far away.


BLITZER: We've got more to discuss in just a few minutes. Let's go to the White House right now and get President Biden's reaction to this historic ruling. CNN's Jeremy Diamond is joining us with more on that.

Jeremy, tell us what the President is saying and what CNN is learning about White House preparations for this decision.

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, President Biden certainly didn't mince any words, calling this decision a severe disappointment. And the President saying that he strongly disagrees with this ruling, which he argued overturns decades of precedent, just the latest example, the President said, of this conservative majority overturning precedent. But the President argued that this ruling doesn't mean that racial discrimination doesn't exist in this country. And he also said it shouldn't end efforts, including by colleges and universities, to try and expand opportunity and build out more diverse classes.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We cannot let this decision be the last word. While the Court can render a decision, it cannot change what America stands for. America is an idea, an idea, unique in the world, an idea of hope, an opportunity of possibilities, of giving everyone a fair shot of leaving no one behind. We've never fully lived up to it, but we've never walked away from it either. We will not walk away from it now.


DIAMOND: Now, even as President Biden late last year expressed optimism that the Supreme Court wouldn't rule this way, White House officials for months now have been preparing for the possibility of this outcome. And today we heard at least one of those directives that the President issuing in reaction to this, urging the Department of Education to essentially begin compiling a list of best practices for how colleges and universities can still ensure that they have diverse classes through admissions. And the President today explaining that he believes that new standard that is now required is talking about adversity, looking at financial means, geographic location of some of these students and other standards like that. But the President made very clear in response to a question from our colleague Arlette Saenz that he doesn't believe this is a, quote, "normal Supreme Court." And the President, in a subsequent interview, expanded on that, further saying that he believes this court has done more to unravel basic rights than any other Supreme Court.

Nonetheless, Wolf, the President effectively closing the door once again on this idea that many liberals favor of expanding the Supreme Court. The President saying he believes doing so would be a mistake, that it would politicize the court effectively in an irreversible way. Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, significant words indeed. Jeremy diamond at the White House, thank you.

Joining us now, the U.S. Education Secretary, Miguel Cardona. Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for joining us. As you heard, President Biden is slamming the court for this decision. I know you released earlier in the day a statement saying it takes the country back, in your words, decades. How far reaching is this action from the U.S. Supreme Court?

MIGUEL CARDONA, EDUCATION SECRETARY: Well, thank you for having me on, Wolf. It is a disappointing decision. It prevents our higher education institutions from using a tool that helps promote diversity on campus and address what we know historically has been the case that race and place are still determining factors of student success. So the Supreme Court took us backwards in preventing us from using that tool. But what it didn't do is weaken our resolve to make sure that we're doing everything in our power to make sure that our college campuses are as diverse as our nation.

BLITZER: In this majority opinion, Mr. Secretary, the Chief Justice, John Roberts, wrote this, and I'm quoting him now, "Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant's discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise." How do you respond to the Chief Justice?

CARDONA: Well, look, I think Justice Sotomayor said it best. What we're going to focus on at the Department of Education is working very closely with our higher education institutions to make sure they have clarity around what the Supreme Court decision does and does not say. We are scouring through the 200 pages today to make sure that within 45 days they have guidance, they have tools, they have resources. Wolf, we're convening within weeks here at the Department of Education a national summit on educational opportunity in response to this SCOTUS decision. And then we're going to produce by September and publish best practices around college, admission practices to ensure across the country that our students know that this administration is behind them and we support them taking it to college.


BLITZER: The Supreme Court will rule on the Biden student loan forgiveness plan perhaps as soon as tomorrow. Are you optimistic that will be upheld? And if it isn't, how will that impact borrowers?

CARDONA: Yes, it's a big decision that we're expecting there. We feel confident we have the best case forward, and we feel confident that the 43 million borrowers who need a little bit of support right now to get back on their feet after the pandemic deserve the support. You know, 90 percent of the resources going to this go to people making less than $75,000 a year. These are people that need it. Since day one, though, Wolf, the President has charged us at the Department of Education to put students first and to take care of borrowers so that college affordability doesn't become a life sentence of debt.

BLITZER: We'll see what the Supreme Court decides, and we're expecting that decision tomorrow. Secretary Cardona, thanks so much for joining us.

CARDONA: Thank you, Wolf. Good to see you.

BLITZER: Let's break all this down with our legal, political and Supreme Court experts. Elliot Williams, I'll start with you. This decision gutting affirmative action certainly was expected by a lot of court watchers, what do you see as the immediate impact on minority students applying for college admissions?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think -- well, it's not the impact of minority students applying, it's certainly the impact of how universities will handle what happens when minority students apply. And Wolf, to use an example, and the Secretary just talked about this, this question of someone can still write something in an essay and identify what their race is. How does that even work in application? Imagine the hypothetical of a black student athlete, a black student child of a donor, or a black student legacy to a university puts in an essay, this is how my blackness has affected me. The university has that and might make a decision on that basis or might not, but are they now subject to being sued for consideration of that student's race? And so, certainly the court has ruled in a clear voice that racial preferences have to end. But how that will actually work in practice, based on the wording of this opinion, I think remains to be seen over the coming years.

BLITZER: Yes, there's certainly a lot that remains to be seen. Abby Phillip is with us as well.

Abby, the case overturning Roe v. Wade certainly was a motivator for a lot of Democrats in the midterm elections. How do you think this decision today will have a political impact?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Look, I think that this decision is a little bit different in the sense that I think the country is far more closely divided on this issue of race conscious admissions and college in higher education. On the other hand, what's going to happen, I think, in the political space is that Republicans are going to really double down on what they've already been doing, which is trying to dismantle diversity programs, attack concepts like critical race theory, which really go to the heart of institutional racism, whether it exists. The question is whether those efforts on the Republican side will prompt people in the middle, Independents and Democrats, to say, wait a second, this is going too far. That will be dependent on how much the Democratic Party wants to wrap their arms around this issue. We'll see whether they're able to do that.

But I don't think it will be solely on the basis of affirmative action, but it'll be about what comes next, which is not just affirmative action, but all kinds of other forms of diversity in public life and how we address civil rights issues in 2023.

BLITZER: Yes, good point, indeed. Joan, let me get back to you. Joan Biskupic --


BLITZER: -- is with us. This is the latest example of the Supreme Court overturning long standing precedent, yet the Chief Justice, as you well know, you were there, he doesn't admit, John Roberts, that in his opinion, that's what happened. What do you make of that?

BISKUPIC: Well, I have to tell you, in that courtroom, he made very clear that what they were doing was big and different. So he might be hedging a little bit in his writing, but he knows full well that this decision changes so much for America. And the other thing is, Justice Sotomayor said, not only does it change things for America, it calls attention to the court's integrity, for the way the court has cast this decision and the way the court is rolling back precedent. So, I don't think there's any sugar coating this.

There's going to be plenty of litigation, as there should be, and I think a lot of groups are going to try to test what colleges and universities can still do, because colleges and universities value campus diversity. But I think that what he wants to do is close the door to any race conscious policies across the board.

BLITZER: You know, Abby, in that recent Quinnipiac University poll, as you know, the Supreme Court's approval number was down at only about 30 percent right now. How do you think this latest decision today that was announced is going to impact public opinion as far as the Supreme Court is concerned?

PHILLIP: It's just one more big polarizing ruling coming down from this court, and they're not finished yet. I mean, we still have more to come. This is a court that has chosen to take on these big societal issues that get to the heart of American culture and the post civil rights era, and they're going to have to live with the consequences of what that means.


I do think that this is only going to make this problem worse, where this court, which is conservative, is going to be seen as carrying out a conservative agenda, and that's their prerogative. They're sitting on the court, but the American people, I think, are reacting to that, plus a number of other, let's call them scandals, that have really put the court at the center of this question of are they accountable to the American people and do they have to uphold a certain degree of ethics with their lifetime appointment.

BLITZER: Elections clearly have consequences, including on the makeup of the Supreme Court. Guys, thank you very much.

Coming up, CNN's exclusive reporting on the Russian general who's missing now after the Wagner mutiny and his secret membership in that mercenary group. And we're also getting new information about who was shown classified information by Donald Trump at his New Jersey golf club. Stand by for details on this breaking story. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Now to an exclusive report on a top Russian general whose whereabouts remain unknown since the Wagner rebellion. Our Senior International Correspondent Matthew chance, is joining us live from Moscow right now with details.


Matthew, what are you learning about this General Sergey Surovikin?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we know those connections are strong. General Surovikin has worked closely with Wagner mercenaries in Ukraine and before that, in Syria as well. But what's new tonight is evidence that this prominent Russian commander may be much closer to the Wagner mercenaries than previously known.


CHANCE (voice-over): This is the last time we saw General Surovikin on Saturday looking nervous, imploring Wagner mercenaries to end their brief rebellion.

SERGEY SUROVIKIN, COMMANDER OF THE RUSSIAN AIR FORCE (through translator): We had victories together. We are the same. But you must do this before it's too late.

CHANCE (voice-over): There was clearly pressure for his words to make a difference.

It's well known that Surovikin, nicknamed General Armageddon for his ruthless tactics bombing cities in Syria, was very close to Wagner. But just how close is only now becoming clear. Documents shared exclusively with CNN suggest he was, since 2018, a secret VIP member of the group with a personal Wagner registration number. The documents obtained by the Russian investigative Dossier Center list Surovikin, along with at least 30 other senior Russian military and intelligence officials the Dossier Center says are also VIP Wagner members.

Wagner hasn't answered CNN's request for a response. It's unclear what VIP membership entails, like, if there's any financial benefit, but it does imply an overly close relationship between the Russian military and the mercenaries, they failed to prevent from staging a military uprising at the weekend, even allowing Wagner fighters to take over an entire Russian city with virtually no resistance. It all raises suspicions in the Kremlin of divided loyalty.

But General Surovikin, whose whereabouts remain unknown, he's one of Russia's most capable, highly decorated commanders. What's unclear is if the Kremlin still trusts him.


CHANCE: Well, Wolf, what certainly has lost the trust of the Kremlin at the moment is Wagner and its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and anything associated with it. And tonight there's been a development that a social media organization which is linked with Prigozhin and which says it has about 11 million users, announced that it's going out of business as well, because as well as being a warlord, of course, Yevgeny Prigozhin has significant media interest in Russia. And you know, because of the situation now, and because the fact that he has fallen from grace, that could have very negative consequences for those businesses here as well.

BLITZER: Good point. Matthew Chance in Moscow, thank you.

Let's get some more right now from our Chief International Security Correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh. He's in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.

Nick, what more, first of all, can you tell us about General Surovikin's relationship with the head of the Wagner group, whose whereabouts are also murky tonight?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: Yes, I mean, as you say, we don't know where he is. He hasn't been seen in public since that video you just saw on Friday where he appealed to Wagner mercenaries to turn around and not advance, continue their advance towards Moscow. There have been some media reports suggesting that he may indeed have been detained, some suggesting he may indeed have been arrested. But a Russian official with severe knowledge of the pretrial detention prison system says that he's not in that system. So, a lot of uncertainty as to exactly whether he has been interrogated and let go or quite where he is.

What's pretty clear is he's not going to be happy to hear about reports of being a VIP member of Wagner, whatever that means, it's something you apply for or get given unilaterally. But also Prigozhin himself, frankly, was the only commander in the Russian military he spoke highly of or complimentary of was indeed Surovikin. So clearly the men were relatively close. And Prigozhin's Wagner sort of rose to the ascendency while Surovikin was running the Ukraine war. But really, above all of this, Wolf, whatever the truth of the matter of all these bits of compromising information being given out about the Russian top brass, it just speaks to the utter disunity that they'll be currently taking place within side the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Kremlin.


They are clearly on a bit of a witch hunt now, trying to work out who knew in advance, who didn't do enough to stop what Prigozhin called the march of justice towards Moscow. And that is exactly what here in Kyiv, they are keen to see expand, but also what a country in a disastrous war like Russia does not need. They're going to have to make some difficult choices on the battlefield soon, but it seems right now they're far too busy pointing the finger at each other, while Putin himself appears to be less and less calling the shots. Wolf.

BLITZER: Nick, stick around. I'll get back to you in a few moments.

I also want to bring in retired U.S. General "Spider" Marks. He's a CNN Military Analyst.

General, let me get your reaction, first of all to this exclusive new reporting from Matthew Chance, documents suggesting General Surovikin was a secret member of the Wagner mercenary group.

MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Wolf, you know what that tells me is that there's this -- what we've suspected all along, this cancer of corruption within -- minimally within the ministry of defense, but clearly throughout all those elements of governance within the Russian Federation. I mean, how can a professional soldier, a professional soldier also have a relationship, obviously a fiduciary relationship with a paramilitary group? If nothing else, it talks about really lousy trade craft. I mean, if you're going to try to have a secretive relationship, don't sign up for a membership card, which is exactly what he did.

It really speaks to the fragility, as Nick Paton Walsh just indicated, the real fragility within the ministry of defense in terms of what other heads are going to fall, who truly is in charge, and who's going to step up in order to advance what Russia sees as a legitimate effort on their part in Ukraine.

BLITZER: Let me get back to Nick. Nick, Putin may be looking for scapegoats right now after that mutiny, but are there risks to making Prigozhin and Surovikin, for that matter, into martyrs?

PATON WALSH: Well, that was ultimately, I think, what was in the background as we saw this sort of extraordinary lack of military and political opposition to Prigozhin as he marched on the weekend up towards Moscow. I think most people interpreted that as perhaps the Kremlin simply not being sure that if they really went for Prigozhin and his men that they had the strength to take them on, but also, too, that they might actually find that essentially improve their position because they would be asking the Russian military to turn on Wagner, who'd done so much of the fierce fighting on the Ukrainian front line, very brutal as they are over the past year or so. So, enormous question, frankly, as to what this residual support potentially for both men may be within the military. Surovikin was a man who was respected, I think it's fair to say, inside the military in many of Russia's key battlefields, including Syria over the past years. And Prigozhin, despite being, I think it's fair to say, pretty mouthy, pretty bombastic, certainly too led a group which held Bakhmut, fought for Bakhmut.

And so I think ultimately, what Putin is left dealing with now is a military that's divided, a military that may be questioning quite what his motivations are, and a military, too, that may be looking at some of their top brass like Surovikin, people like Prigozhin and seeing them possibly being persecuted. Prigozhin almost certainly and wondering what that says about Putin's own motivation. Remember, he chose to fight this war, an invasion of choice. It's gone pretty catastrophically wrong and tens of thousands of Russians have lost their lives. That's going to be making a mark on the personal lives of many Russian families.

And so, I think we're at an inflection point, certainly in the days ahead to see quite how this plays out. So Russian -- Putin's grip on the military, on the Kremlin, and that, of course, here in Ukraine is what they are relishing what they're waiting for, and may explain why we haven't seen a sudden surge in Ukrainian forces on the battlefield. They're just watching this play out because each day it seems that the military are turning on each other rather than fighting harder here. Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, it's very dramatic indeed. Nick Paton Walsh, Retired General Marks, guys, thank you very much.

Up next, what a top Trump campaign official told the special counsel's investigators about the classified document the former president allegedly showed her. We're going to bring you these new developments right after this.


BLITZER: Tonight, new developments in the classified documents case against former President Trump. One of Trump's closest campaign advisers meeting with investigators several times, we've now learned. CNN senior justice and crime reporter Katelyn Polantz has the very latest for us. She's with me here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Katelyn, who is this campaign official and why is she significant to this case?

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE AND CRIME REPORTER: Well, let's start with why she's significant, Wolf. So, if you remember that indictment against Donald Trump and his co-defendant, Walt Nauta, there are two episodes where Trump is accused of showing classified material to other people. One of them is showing a map at Bedminster in August or September of 2021 to a representative of his political action committee. A map, a classified map, related to a military operation. Well, we now are able to confirm through our reporting, as well as other outlets, too, have been able to say that this is a top campaign adviser still advising to Donald Trump, a woman named Susie Wiles.

And Susie Wiles has spoken to the federal investigators new numerous times. Clearly, she became part of this significant investigation. Now, Donald Trump's campaign said through a spokesperson that prosecutors are just attacking his political efforts. But what appears to have happened here is quite a thorough piece of the investigation, nailing down how Donald Trump may have been so cavalier with these documents, even showing this military map to someone without a security clearance in his political orbit.


BLITZER: Yes. Very significant, indeed. Three weeks after Trump's indictment, in this particular case, you have new information, new reporting that the grand jury in Florida and looking into all of this is still revving up its investigation. Tell us what you're learning.

POLANTZ: It's doing something. We know now that the grand jury did return that indictment a few weeks ago, and yet there is still activity coming out of the grand jury in Miami. And there are witnesses at the special counsel's office, the very prosecutors who are bringing that case against Donald Trump, taking him to trial, people that they want to talk to, still information they still want to nail down.

Now, that indictment against Trump and Walt Nauta, it is very focused. It is very contained in the timeline that it lays out until June, when the boxes are being moved, and then June into the search of Mar-a-Lago last August. And so there's lots of questions of what exactly might they still be investigating. But they clearly are still doing some work that could potentially result in some additional legal risks for either Trump himself or potentially others.

BLITZER: Yes, this is by no means over, by no means at all. Katelyn, stay with us. I also want to bring in our legal analysts, Norm Eisen and Carrie Cordero, to discuss the breaking news. And, Carrie, just how crucial is this interaction with this top campaign aid to the special counsel's case?

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYS: Well, I thought all along, Wolf, that one of the reasons the Justice Department really had to bring this case was, aside from the fact of the high level of the classification of documents, was the fact that they discovered evidence that the former president had shown them to people who were unauthorized to have it, the national defense information, the highly classified information that he actually communicated it, according to their investigation, to individuals without a clearance.

If you just would have had the documents, even though they're so sensitive and would cause harm to national security if released, if he would have returned those, I think he would have been a very different position. But the fact that they had evidence that he showed them to people who had no right to see them, who had no security clearance at all, demonstrates the recklessness that he was engaged in, and anybody else would have been charged with a crime, given that type of activity.

BLITZER: This campaign aide, Susan Wiles, how potentially important as a witness would she be?

NORM EISEN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, she's very important because you want to build a case. It's persuasive to a jury. If you have those who are actually close to the defendant, who have every incentive to support the defendant, and yet they have to tell the truth. And to Carrie's point, to bring this to life for a jury, you don't simply want it to be about documents in a room as terrible as it is.

Carrie and I both had our nation's highest security clearances, as inconceivable as it is, as boxes of these documents stored in ballrooms and bathrooms. But showing them to people, the drama of that illustrates the damage here to our national security critically important witness in front of us.

BLITZER: So you think she could potentially testify at a trial?

EISEN: I undoubtedly. The reason that they're having repeated contacts with her is to put her forward. I think, these two issues at Bedminster July, the conversation about the Iran attack plans, Trump now says it's bravado nonsense. You read the transcript. You can see there are actual plans that he's brandishing. And now this classified map. We know it's Susie Wiles, his top campaign aide, she's running the campaign, Wolf, that is going to be powerful evidence. Both of those will before the jury.

POLANTZ: But that might not actually mean that she wants to help the investigators. It might just mean a situation where she's not signing up as a cooperator willingly, but just telling the truth when she's asked that that is really all you need some of these witnesses to do. They may be still aligned with Donald Trump politically and get called, and when they're under oath, just have to say what they want.

BLITZER: It certainly underscores that politics bleeding into this criminal case.

POLANTZ: It very much does sound like politics is something that the Trump team has wanted to bring into this criminal case. But at the end of the day, the facts are the facts of what happened after Donald Trump left office. It just so happens that many of the people that are witnesses in this case are still, in his political circles, working for him, his co-defendant is traveling with him, is still in aid.

Many of them have their legal bills being paid by Donald Trump and his Save America PAC. But that doesn't necessarily mean that those people can't be witnesses, because they witness things, and they have text message and they have photos of the documents in the bathroom, the documents in the storage room, and they will be called to testify and be told ask questions on the stand where they can't lie.


CORDERO: Well, and from the Justice Department's perspective, it doesn't matter that she was a political person. It matters that she's a person not authorized to receive the information. So whether that is a writer or a reporter or some other person in his inner circle or political, in this particular case, from the prosecutor's perspective, that's not going to matter. What matters that it was someone who shouldn't have had access to that.

BLITZER: Right. They're going to show someone highly classified information, that person has to have top secret security clearances. Clearly that's so important. Guys, thank you very much.

Just ahead, there's breaking news just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM on a top American diplomat. What we're learning about why one envoy is now on leave, with his security clearances now suspended. Stay with us.



BLITZER: Some breaking news just into CNN. A top U.S. diplomat has been placed on leave, omitted investigation into his possible mishandling of classified information. CNN's Kylie Atwood is standing by for us over at the State Department. She has details. What are you learning, Kylie?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes, well, Wolf, what we're learning is that Rob Malley, Special Envoy for Iran at the State Department, his security clearance was suspended earlier this year due to an ongoing investigation into the possible mishandling of classified documents.

Now, the reason that is significant is because he is the top official here handling all matters related to the United States and Iran. And he said to CNN when we asked him about this quote, I've been informed that my security clearance is under review. I have not been provided any further information, but I expect the investigation to be resolved favorably and soon. In the meantime, I am on leave.

And we also heard from State Department spokesperson Matt Miller saying that Rob Malley is on leave and Abram Paley is serving as acting Special Envoy for Iran and leading the department's work in this area. Now, Wolf, it's significant to note that this information was not widely shared within the department.

When you talk to folks here, there weren't many who knew that Rob Malley's security clearance had been suspended. Folks thought that there had been personal reasons for him being on leave. But when it comes to U.S.-Iran relations, he was the lead official when it came to trying to put controls on the Iran nuclear program. That is now a portfolio that has been handed over to Brett McGurk, a senior official at the National Security Council, because, of course, that involves handling classified material.

And then the other portfolio, of course, is trying to secure the release of Americans who are wrongfully detained in Iran. Our understanding is that, of course, Rob Malley had been the lead on that, but he is still somewhat involved in that portfolio. According to sources familiar with the matter, he has actually talked to some of the families of Americans who are wrongfully detained in Iran as recently as this week.

Now, he has been placed on leave. We're told that just this afternoon he was placed on unpaid leave from the department. So we'll continue to track where this goes and which other officials, of course, step up to try and make sure that both of these portfolios are widely covered for those Americans who are wrongfully detained in Iran. And of course, when it comes to putting controls on Iran's nuclear program, Wolf?

BLITZER: He's a veteran U.S. diplomat with a lot of experience. Kylie, thank you very much for that report. Kylie's over at the State Department.

Coming up, we'll have a closer look at a top Russian general who hasn't been seen in public since the short lived Wagner rebellion. Questions swirling around his possible whereabouts and whether he had advanced knowledge of the mutiny.



BLITZER: There are new questions tonight about a top Russian general who hasn't been seen in public since the Wagner group's short lived weekend rebellion. CNN's Brian Todd is on the story for us. Brian, it's unclear where General Sergey Surovikin is right now and whether he had any advanced knowledge of this mutiny.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Much of that is unclear tonight, Wolf. This is the kind of palace intrigue that the Kremlin and the Russian military are notorious for, a pit of snakes where, by many accounts, General Sergey Surovikin feels right at home.


TODD (voice-over): Clouds of mystery tonight surrounding one of Russia's most feared commanders, the fate and whereabouts of General Sergey Surovikin unknown. He was last seen looking unshaven in a video appealing to Wagner boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, to end his revolt.

GEN. SERGEY SUROVIKIN, COMMANDER, RUSSIAN AIR FORCE (through translator): The necessary thing to do is to obey the will and the orders of the popularly elected President of the Russian Federation.

TODD (voice-over): A report in the Moscow Times says General Surovikin has been arrested, but some Russian commentators and reportedly Surovikin's own daughter say he's not in custody.

EVELYN FARKAS, FORMER DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE FOR RUSSIA, UKRAINE, EURASIA: It reminds me a lot of the Cold War when we talked about Kremlinology. You know, clearly, there's a lot going on. We only see part of it on the surface.

TODD (voice-over): This comes after "The New York Times" reported that Surovikin had advanced knowledge of Prigozhin's mutiny last weekend. The 56-year-old commander known as General Armageddon for his cold eyed brutality.

ANDREA KENDALL-TAYLOR, FORMER DEPUTY NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE OFFICER: This guy's not a nice guy. According to open sources in Russian language, he is a proponent of these types of ruthless attacks on civilian centers.

TODD (voice-over): Surovikin was named the overall Russian commander in Ukraine in October, then was replaced in January, but is said to still hold significant influence as the leader of Russia's air force and is popular among soldiers. He had previously led Russian forces in Syria. For that campaign, he was awarded the title of Hero of the Russian Federation. But his units were accused of a vicious offensive on the city of Aleppo, where barrel bombs and other munitions targeted densely populated neighborhoods, causing widespread civilian casualties. Syrian and Russian officials have repeatedly denied these accusations.

FARKAS: The bombings of the Syrian civilians in their apartment buildings and their hospitals, that was all deliberate. He was the engineer of that kind of brutality. TODD (voice-over): Surovikin's penchant for cruelty was also seen in 2004 when, according to Russian media accounts and at least two think tanks, he berated a subordinate so severely that the subordinate fatally shot himself. A book by the think tank the Jamestown Foundation says during the unsuccessful coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991, soldiers under Surovikin's command killed three protesters, leading to Surovikin spending at least six months in prison. The Jamestown Foundation also says Surovikin once received a suspended sentence for illegal arms dealing, a conviction that was later overturned.

FARKAS: We believe that there is a lot of corruption in the Russian military. Most of it doesn't come to the surface. So the fact that his came to the surface within his system and he was punished for it tells me that it must have been pretty egregious.



TODD: If Vladimir Putin has indeed purged General Surovikin, Putin may not yet be done. "The New York Times" reports that U.S. Officials say there are signs that other Russian generals may have also supported Yevgeny Prigozhin's mutiny. "The Times" citing U.S. Officials as saying Prigozhin would not have launched that upright rising unless he believed that other powerful people would come to his side. Wolf?

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us. Brian, thank you very much.

Coming up, we're going to have much more on the U.S. Supreme Court decision gutting affirmative action in college admissions. The president of Howard University will share his thoughts on the ruling and how it will impact higher education in America, including over at historically black colleges and universities.