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Ukraine Takes Credit For Attack On Crimea-Russia Bridge; Judge Says, Will Discuss Trump Trial Date At Hearing Tomorrow; Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) Walks Back Claim Israel Is A Racist State; DeSantis Courts Evangelical Voters; Police Search Suspect's Long Island Home for Evidence. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired July 17, 2023 - 18:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Tomorrow on The Lead, don't miss my exclusive sit down with Republican Presidential Candidate, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, from the campaign trail in South Carolina. That's only on The Lead at 4:00 P.M. Eastern.

Our coverage continues now with one Mr. Wolf Blitzer in The Situation Room. I'll see you tomorrow.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, Ukraine is claiming responsibility for an attack on a bridge linking Crimea to Russia, a vital supply line for Vladimir Putin's war. I'll ask key White House Official John Kirby about the strike and Putin's vow to retaliate for what he's calling a terrorist attack.

Also tonight, the federal judge in the Trump classified documents case is now looking to push the ball forward on actually setting a trial date. We're getting new information about tomorrow's leadoff hearing in the criminal prosecution of the former president.

And under fire from fellow Democrats, Representative Pramila Jayapal is attempting to walk back her remark that Israel is a, quote, racist state. But Republican house speaker Kevin McCarthy wants more, demanding that Jayapal's party take action against her.

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

We begin this hour with the war in Ukraine and the impact of that bridge attack by Ukrainian forces. CNN's Senior National Security Correspondent Alex Marquardt is joining us live from Odessa right now. Alex, a Ukrainian official now says the bridge was blown up by naval drones. You're getting more information. Tell us more.

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. Tonight, both Russia and Ukraine are saying that it was Ukrainian sea or naval drones that carried out this extraordinary attack on this highly controversial, highly symbolic bridge that links illegally annexed Crimea with the Russian mainland. We also have this very rare admission of responsibility from the Ukrainian side, which we almost never hear after these brazen attacks.

Now, Russian President Vladimir Putin is calling this a terrorist act. He says that he wants work to begin immediately to get the bridge back up and running. But Russian officials are warning that it could be up to three and a half months before it is fully restored.


MARQUARDT (voice over): A brazen strike on Russia's bridge that links it to the illegally annexed Crimean Peninsula. The roadway a mangled mess after Ukrainian sea drones targeted it just before dawn. At least two people, Russian parents of a small girl, were killed in the attack, according to Russian officials. The child was injured. Traffic on the critical highway grinding to a halt, the trains temporarily stopped.

Tonight, Russian President Vladimir Putin called it a terrorist attack, vowing there will be a response and that the Russian military is preparing options.

New satellite imagery shows extensive damage from the blast, a section of the bridge knocked out. Russian authorities now say it won't be fully functional until November.

Ukraine quickly claimed that it was behind the secret operation, a rare admission, saying it was a joint operation by Ukraine's navy and security services, which cryptically tweeted the bridge was sleeping again. A reference to a huge explosion in October last year, as a fuel truck exploded on the 12-mile, 19-kilometer long bridge igniting a passing train.

Putin then called it an act of sabotage appearing on the bridge when it was reopened two months later, a direct strike on his nearly $4 billion project, connecting Russia to Crimea that he personally inaugurated in 2018. It has become a vital supply route for both the Crimean population and the Russian military's fight in Southern Ukraine. Ukraine sees the bridge not just as a ripe, but highly symbolic target.

Hours after the blast, Russia announced it is pull out of the international agreement that allows Ukraine to ship grain to the world.

ANTONIO GUTERRES, SECRETARY-GENERAL, UNITED NATIONS: Today's decision by the Russian Federation will strike a blow to people in need everywhere. But it will not stop our efforts to facilitate the unimpeded access to global markets for food products and fertilizers from both Ukraine and the Russian Federation.

MARQUARDT: Russia claims the deal only benefitted Ukraine while its own food and fertilizer have been blocked. The decision was not connected, Russia said, to the bridge attack. The last grain ship sailed from Odessa's port on Sunday.


A United Nations official tells CNN that Russia's announcement appears final.


MARQUARDT (on camera): And, Wolf, the grain deal expired an hour ago at midnight here. There has been global condemnation of Russia for pulling out of this deal. The U.S. secretary of state, Antony Blinken, calling it unconscionable. He went on to say that Russia is responsible for denying food to the people who desperately need it.

We did hear from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tonight who says this Black Sea grain initiative must be preserved and he accused Russia of weaponizing hunger. Wolf?

BLITZER: Alex Marquardt in Odessa, Ukraine, thank you very much.

And let's get some more on all of this with key White House Official John Kirby. He's the National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications. John, thanks for joining us.

I know you say this bridge attack likely won't have a dramatic impact on Russia's ability to wage war in Ukraine. Why not? What was accomplished in this attack?

JOHN KIRBY, COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: Well, just looking at the damage itself, Wolf, it doesn't look to be so extensive that there isn't still at least one span that isn't operational, that's number one. But, again, we don't know exactly what the damage was. It doesn't appear to be catastrophic.

Number two, I think it's important to remember this bridge has great symbolic value to Mr. Putin, but as a logistical source of supporting their troops in the field, it hasn't been a major player. I mean, they have a long border with Ukraine. They're able to sustain, provide capabilities to their troops in Ukraine through many, many other methods.

So, it does have great symbolic, and in that case, potentially strategic value to Mr. Putin, but is it really going to affect the battlefield in any practical way? It's very difficult to see that it will.

BLITZER: A source tells CNN, John, that this was a joint operation by Ukraine's security services and its navy. Does that line up with the U.S. assessment?

KIRBY: Well, we're still monitoring report of this bridge strike, Wolf, and I haven't seen anything that confirms for us definitively what the attribution is. We did see obviously Ukrainian forces struck the bridge at a previous time. So, again, we'll have to see how this comes out. The Ukrainians themselves have not acknowledged who is responsible, so we're just going to keep monitoring this and watching it.

BLITZER: On another very sensitive issue, by terminating the grain deal, John, what message is Vladimir Putin actually sending to the world?

KIRBY: Let me tell you, the message he's sending to the world, particularly developing nations in Asia, in Africa, in Latin America, these are poor countries that are having trouble already feeding their citizens, he's telling them I don't care. I am more interested in fighting this war in Ukraine than I am in trying to help alleviate food scarcity around the world.

And that's a message that they all hope -- I hope they all understand is coming right from the Kremlin. He needs to reverse this decision, he needs to get back into the grain deal and he needs to allow that grain and food stuffs to reach people who are in need, because it's going to have a dramatic impact on families, on lives, on livelihoods.

BLITZER: Yes, it will. I want to turn to Israel while I have you, John. President Biden has now invited Prime Minister Netanyahu to the United States. What changed to merit this invitation when the prime minister is still pushing ahead with plans to weaken Israel's judiciary?

KIRBY: Well, they agreed to meet sometime before the end of the year. Date is uncertain. Location is uncertain. We don't know what that's going to look like. That wasn't the main reason for the call. The call was to continue to caulk through our mutual concerns in the region, particularly what Iran is doing, the destabilizing behavior in the Persian Gulf in particular, but also, of course, for the president to reiterate and reaffirm our concerns over these judicial reforms and to try to strike a balance here that seeks the best possible consensus and that represents the strong democracy that we know that Israel is.

And the president believes that you don't solve bad problems by not talking about them. And so that was really the basis of this call.

BLITZER: Can you say definitively if the prime minister will actually be invited to the White House, to the Oval Office?

KIRBY: At this point, what I can tell you is that the two leaders agreed to meet in person in the fall, somewhere in the United States, and we're still working our way through that.

BLITZER: On a different issue, the United States is now, and this is significant, deploying a destroyer and fighter jets in response to Iran's harassing merchant ships in the Strait of Hormuz. How much does this actually threaten U.S. and global interests?

KIRBY: It threatens U.S. and global interests quite a bit. I mean, we have seen a real increase now in their attempted attacks or in some cases, sadly, successful attacks on maritime shipping in and around the Strait of Hormuz, whether it's outside the gulf or inside the gulf. And this is activity that we've seen spike from the Iranians before, certainly spiking now.

And we're sending a strong message not just to Iran, but to our allies and partners that we take this seriously because so much, particularly oil, so much of that flows through the Strait of Hormuz. That's a choke point for the Middle East that has global trade implications. [18:10:01]

We've got to make sure we can defend our interests and the interests of our allies is and partners. That's what these deployments, that's what they're all about.

BLITZER: Yes, this is a big deal, indeed.

Before I let you go, John, Secretary Blinken today said Senator Rand Paul's block on State Department nominees undermines U.S. national security. This, of course, mirrors Senator Tuberville's block on Pentagon nominees. Would President Biden consider meeting with these senators to try to find a way forward?

KIRBY: I think, as the president said when he was asked about this with respect to Senator Tuberville, if he thought that a meeting and a conversation would have a positive impact and would lift these holds, then he certainly would be willing to consider that.

So, I'll just leave it there. It shouldn't take a phone call or a meeting with the president of the United States to do the right thing for national security and to allow these nominees and these flag and general officers to move forward to the next assignments.

We're talking about all the things that you and I have been talking about in this interview. I mean, around the world, from the Middle East to Ukraine, obviously to the Indo-Pacific. There is a bevy of national security challenges at our feet and we need trained, qualified leaders that are Senate-confirmed to be in these assignments, to lead and problem-solve and to try to get us through these challenges.

BLITZER: John Kirby, thanks so much for joining us.

KIRBY: My pleasure.

BLITZER: And this important programming note, tomorrow right here in The Situation Room, I'll speak exclusively with Israel's President Isaac Herzog following his meeting with President Biden over at the White House.

And just ahead, there's breaking news we're following on Donald Trump's bid to try to shut down the Georgia investigation of election interference. We have new details. That's coming up next.



BLITZER: There's breaking news out of Georgia right now, a new state Supreme Court ruling on Donald Trump's bid to shut down the investigation of the 2020 election interference in Georgia.

CNN's Senior Justice Correspondent Evan Perez is here with me in The Situation Room. Evan, what are you learning? EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this is a unanimous ruling from the Georgia Supreme Court, a conservative court to begin with. This was probably the former president's best chance. It was a Hail Mary pass that he was doing here where he was asking the state Supreme Court, and he's also got another one with the Fulton County Superior Court, asking them to throw out the work of this special purpose grand jury in Fulton County, the one that recommended essentially charges against a number of people, and which, of course, we expect that Fani Willis, the district attorney there, is going to be making a decision soon on seeking potential charges against a former president and others who are trying to overturn the 2020 election result in Georgia.

If you remember, one of the things that he wrote, his lawyers wrote in their filing, they said that the work of this special purpose grand jury was a violation of his fundamental constitutional rights. He cited the fact that he's running for election in the 2024 presidential election as, again, one reason why he believes that this special purpose grand jury exceeded its authority and had no reason to exist and that essentially the court should throw it all out.

BLITZER: In addition to all of this, I understand there are also some new filings right now on the Trump classified documents investigation. That's also a criminal investigation.

PEREZ: Right.

BLITZER: What is the government asking Judge Cannon, who's presiding over all of this for, in today's filing and what should we be looking for tomorrow? It's going to be important.

PEREZ: Right. Tomorrow is a very important hearing. It's the first time we're going to see the two sides come before Judge Aileen Cannon, the Trump-appointed judge, who's going to be overseeing this case. And today, the Justice Department asked for a protective order to govern essentially the way any classified information, anything being handed over as part of the discovery process, all of the evidence that the Trump Team is going to get.

They say that they approached the Trump Team back in mid-July asking for a phone call to discuss the issues surrounding this protective order, and they say that the Trump Team raised some objections, but didn't specify exactly what they were objecting to.

And so that's the reason why you can see that there's a little bit of frustration on the part of Jack Smith and his team because they can see what the Trump team is trying to do. They want to delay this trial. The government has said that they could be ready for trial in December. But the Trump team says they don't want a trial date at all.

So, tomorrow, what we're expecting to see for the first time is Judge Cannon weigh in on this. She has asked them to come ready to discuss potential trial dates. Of course, we know that the former president is looking to delay this beyond the 2024 election. And, of course, if he wins, he can try to wipe all of this away. Wolf?

BLITZER: Yes, a key point if he wins. All right, Evan, thank you very, very much.

I want to bring in our legal experts, Carrie Cordero and Shan Wu. Shan, Trump's bid in Georgia was clearly a long shot, last ditch effort. But how big of a blow is it for the former president for this case to be unanimously shut down?

SHAN WU, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: I think it's a significant message to his team, that even a conservative court is not going to listen to any frivolous claims, and that's really what that was. It was his effort to completely wholesale, say, you're just not allowed to investigate or to charge me. So, I think it's a strong message.

BLITZER: It certainly is. Carrie, what do you make of this decision by the Georgia Supreme Court?

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think it's significant that it was unanimous. Because what the special purpose grand jury is a little bit unusual, not every state has it, but it is something specific to Georgia law. And so that's the way it works there. The Georgia Supreme Court is the court positioned to best interpret Georgia law and what the contours are of that special purpose grand jury.

So, I think the fact that it was unanimous really just demonstrates the legitimacy of what that grand jury has done and the futility of the former president's arguments to try to quash it.

BLITZER: Yes, good point. Shan, let's get back to the classified documents case. What does this move to discuss a trial date suggest to you about Judge Cannon's thinking?


WU: Well, I think Judge Cannon, quite sensibly, is saying she's not going to side on Trump's request that there should be zero trial date. She wants both sides to make their points, to make some suggestions. And I think, you know, for Jack Smith's case, as Evan was saying, they may be feeling a bit frustrated. I mean, you know, get ready for a lot more frustration because there's going to be a lot more delay tactics, and some of it is legitimate delay. I mean, these sorts of questions about scheduling trial dates, they happen in every case. And, of course, I'm sure as Carrie can opine one, the national security issues with the way they're going to handle the classified documents, that takes a lot of time to figure out.

BLITZER: Yes, it does. Kari, both the Justice Department and the Trump team, they are dug in on when they want this to go to trial. So, how will a discussion over set ago date actually go? What's your assessment?

CORDERO: Well, I think a lot is going to depend on how they resolve the use of classified information. So, the motion that was filed is a motion that's under what's called the Classified Information Procedures Act, CIPA. And that is the statutory framework that governors how prosecutors can turn over and use in their case to prove a case against the defendant classified information. And it involves an extensive whole other process separate from the regular way that evidence would be presented because they have to actually negotiate over all the different ways that the information can be presented, and the judge has to approve it. And they have to also adhere to security procedures for the information.

So, there's a lot that has to be done and the defense counsel can extend this process out for a long time just on these classified documents issues.

BLITZER: All right. Carrie Cordero, Shan Wu, guys, thank you very much.

Coming up, the fallout for the chair of the Progressive Caucus in the House, Representative Pramila Jayapal, fellow Democrats now blasting her controversial remark accusing the state of Israel of being, and I'm quoting her now, racist. Will her new apology ease the outrage?



BLITZER: Tonight, a key House progressive is trying to ease the controversy over her comment that Israel is a, quote, racist state, Representative Pramila Jayapal responding to a major backlash within her own party.

CNN's Chief Congressional Correspondent Manu Raju is working this story.


REP. PRAMILA JAYAPAL (D-WA): Hey, guys. Can I say something?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Progressive Leader Pramila Jayapal tonight trying to contain the fallout after comments labeling Israel as a racist state.

At a weekend event in Chicago, interrupted by pro-Palestinian activists, Jayapal said --

JAYAPAL: We have been fighting to make it clear that Israel is a racist state, that the Palestinian people deserve self-determination and autonomy.

RAJU: The remark ricocheted across the political spectrum, and forced Democratic leaders to issue a rare rebuke of her comments on Sunday evening. A group of House Democrats circulated a letter expressing deep concern and calling the comments unacceptable.

Apologizing to those she offended, Jayapal said in a statement, I attempted to diffuse a tense situation, during a panel where fellow members of Congress were being protested. I do not believe the idea of Israel as a nation is racist.

REP. BRAD SCHNEIDER (D-IL): I spoke to her several times yesterday. I think she understands that she misspoke. Israel is not a racist state.

RAJU: The controversy comes amid growing tension amid progressives over the actions taken by the Israeli government and sympathy for the Palestinian cause. Speaking to CNN on Friday, Jayapal laid out her concerns.

JAYAPAL: The violence, the settler violence that's happening in Israel, in the West Bank, the annexation of settlements that have been happening over the last several years, Netanyahu's collaboration with extreme right elements of Israel and the fact that we are getting further and further away from the ability to actually legitimately talk about a two-state solution.

RAJU: The rift comes as Israeli President Isaac Herzog prepares to address Congress on Wednesday. While Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries supports the visit, Jayapal told CNN she might attend as some liberals have promised to skip it.

So, should the speaker not have invited him?

JAYAPAL: I think this is not a good time for that to happen, yes.

RAJU: The GOP trying to drive a wedge between Democrats and support for Israel.

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): I think if the Democrats want to believe that they do not have a conference, that continues to make anti- Semitic remarks, they need to do something about it.


RAJU (on camera): Now, Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries declined to comment about whether or not there's any additional action that would be taken against Jayapal, saying that his statement that he issued last night speaks for itself.

As far as his statement is a concern, 43 House Democrats just put one out, saying that Jayapal's comments were, quote, unacceptable. They say that we appreciate her retraction, but not all Democrats have signed onto that, Wolf. One of them who's been critical of Israel, Rashida Tlaib, I asked her about all this controversy, about Jayapal's comments and the like, she declined to comment. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. Manu Raju on Capitol Hill, thank you.

Let's get some reaction, we're joined by Democratic Congressman Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey. He's the co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus in the House. Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

I know you and dozens of fellow Democrats have released this letter calling Congresswoman Jayapal's comments unacceptable. Have you actually spoken with the congresswoman, and do you accept her apology?

[18:30:01] REP. JOSH GOTTHEIMER (D-NJ): Well, our group -- there's a group of us who authored the statement. We've been in touch with her the last couple of days. You know, I wish she was more unequivocal in her statement, you know, both about walking back the comments about what she said about Israel, and, of course, wish she was more unequivocal in her apology.

But, Wolf, what's most important this week, as far as I'm concerned, is that we're moving forward. You've got the president of Israel coming on Wednesday, as you know. I think what you'll see in this chamber is strong bipartisan support for the fact that U.S./Israel relationship is critically important. It's historic. It's critical to America's national security. And I think that will be the focus of the week here.

BLITZER: Do you want to see any further discipline for Congresswoman Jayapal?

GOTTHEIMER: I think we've made the point here that statements like that are unacceptable, that we, as a Democratic Party and, of course, as a country, need to stand strong behind the U.S.'s relationship. It's critical both to our defense relationship. It's critical to our intelligence relationship, our economic relationship.

And I think what you'll see here with President Herzog this week is strong support for that relationship. And when there's errant comments made, I think it's critically important that we speak out.

BLITZER: In her statement, Congresswoman Jayapal says she does believe there are what she calls extreme racists in the current Israeli government. Do those fringe figures undermine U.S./Israel relations?

GOTTHEIMER: No, I don't believe so. I mean, listen, I think when fringe comments are made, and they're made in our government too, you've got to stand up and speak out against them. And I think that's what's critically important. If you look at the totality of the relationship, how critical it is in the fight against terror, against Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Jihad, standing up to Iran, all those things speak to our relationship.

And there's no -- as you know, Israel is a vital democracy. Look at their issue and their history with women serving at the highest levels of the military, Arab-Israelis in the Knesset, their long, inclusive record on LGBTQ and others. I mean, Israel is the democracy in the region. And I think what's important is that we make sure nothing gets between the U.S./Israel relationship.

BLITZER: Congressman, what message does it send for some of your progressive Democratic colleagues not to attend the Israeli president's address to Congress this week?

GOTTHEIMER: I think it's a fringe element of people who are going to do that. I think what you saw our leader, Hakeem Jeffries, say is that not only is Israel not racist, but how vital the U.S./Israel relationship is. And I think he speaks strongly for our caucus. There's no one better in our leadership or across our caucus than Hakeem in terms of speaking out for the importance of the U.S./Israel relationship. I was just recently in Israel with Leader Jeffries and I think he speaks for where we are.

BLITZER: Congressman Josh Gottheimer, thanks so much for joining us.

A quick note to our viewers, we invited Congresswoman Jayapal to join us here in The Situation Room tonight. We did not hear back from her or her staff.

Just ahead, temperatures are soaring across the United States with new heat records being set almost daily, and wildfires putting tens of millions of people under air quality alerts.



BLITZER: More than 80 million people are under heat alerts across the United States right now, mainly in the west and southwest as hundreds of new high temperature records have been broken so far this month.

CNN's Rafael Romo has the story.


RAFAEL ROMO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): 116 degrees in Las Vegas, 118 in Phoenix, Arizona, and in one of the hottest places on the planet, Death Valley, California, they've hit a staggering 128 degrees.

MATT LAMAR, PARK RANGER, DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK: Tomorrow, we're going to be around 129 degrees, maybe even pushing into 130.

ROMO: Around 80 million Americans are now facing heat alerts and heat records are now being shattered across the Western U.S. and throughout the south, including Texas. In El Paso, the thermometer has risen past 100 for 32 days. The state is now avoiding outages thanks to wind and solar energy.

But in Phoenix, even hotter temperatures have been unrelenting, the city surpassing 110 degrees for 18 days.

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: These warnings for much above normal temperatures have been out for days, and in some places, for weeks. And that's not going to change this week, and looking ahead, it's not going to change next week either.

ROMO: Florida is also feeling the heat all the way into the Atlantic Ocean. Sea surface temperatures there have reached unprecedented levels threatening coral reefs. And in Southern California, three wildfires are burning as temperatures continue to rise. Still, tourists are braving the west's hot spots, like Nevada's Hoover Dam.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It feels like you're actually on fire after you're out here for a while. ROMO: Experts advise an abundance of caution to beat the heat by minimizing time outdoors, hydrating frequently, and finding places to cool down.

LAMAR: Most people probably aren't acclimated to this extreme heat that we're seeing across the United States. And so you're just not going to have time to acclimate in a day or two.

ROMO: Across northern and Midwestern states, smoky skies are making even breathing more difficult. Wildfires raging across Canada are pushing smoke back across the border again after a record nearly 25 million acres have burned there.

In the northeast, a different extreme, heavy rain causing floods in Connecticut and New England, even Pennsylvania, where five people died amid rapidly rising waters.

CHIEF TIM BREWER, UPPER MAKEFIELD, PENNSYLVANIA FIRE DEPARTMENT: These people did not drive into high water. They were caught. This was a flashflood.

ROMO: Several cars were swept in the deluge, a two-year-old and a nine-month-old are still missing.

SCOTT ELLIS, FAMILY REPRESENTATIVE: As you can imagine, we are utterly devastated by the incredible loss our family has suffered.



ROMO (on camera): And, Wolf, an excessive heat warning that will set to set to expire Tuesday night here in Las Vegas has been extended until Saturday. The warning from the National Weather Service also includes most of Southern Nevada. Wolf, this heat wave will still continue to affect a large portion of the country. Back to you.

BLITZER: Rafael Romo, thank you very much.

Coming up, a state judge has just weighed in on Iowa's new law banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. That decision, that's coming up next.


BLITZER: There is breaking news out of Iowa. A state judge has temporarily blocked a new ban on abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy signed by the Iowa governor just last week. That means abortions in Iowa will remain legal up to 22 weeks, at least for now. We'll continue to monitor this story and we'll get reaction.


Also tonight, the Presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis front and center at an evangelical conference today touting new policies.

CNN's Kristen Holmes has more on the Florida governor's fight to keep up with Donald Trump.


KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Florida Governor Ron DeSantis among a handful of 2024 GOP hopefuls aiming to woo evangelical voters outside Washington, D.C. Monday.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We will never waiver in our defense of Israel.

HOLMES: As candidates work to pitch themselves as an alternative to frontrunner, former President Donald Trump.

DESANTIS: So many people run for office and they promise big things and then they underdeliver on their promises. That's not what we do in Florida. In Florida, we do make bold promises but we overdeliver on our promises.

HOLMES: As the race to win the Republican nomination heats up, with presidential hopefuls hitting the campaign trail --

DESANTIS: As commander in chief, on day one, we rip out the political agenda out of the military.

HOLMES: -- and the airwaves this weekend.

DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT: And so, you're leading people by 50 and 60 points and you say, why would you be doing a debate?

CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He should show up at the debates and defend his record.

HOLMES: Some candidates including Trump speaking to young conservatives at the Turning Point Action Conference in Florida, taking aim at top rival Ron DeSantis who skipped the home state event.

TRUMP: I don't know why he's not here this couple of days. But he should be here. He should be here representing himself.

HOLMES: The Florida governor campaigning in Iowa and Tennessee and downplaying Trump's lead in the polls.

DESANTIS: At the end of the day, the Bragg indictment just elevated him, there was a lot of sympathy but I think just dominating the media coverage. I had gotten a lot of coverage in the aftermath of the midterm election. We always knew what these national polls, that was a sugar high.

HOLMES: And the money race coming into focus as candidates file their latest campaign finance reports.

DeSantis report showing his campaign burning through cash at a rapid rate, raising $20 million but already spending nearly $8 million, including $1 million each on travel and payroll and another $800,000 on digital fundraising consulting.

DeSantis contrasting his haul with Trump's.

DESANTIS: We raised more money than Donald Trump did into his campaign who, of course, was the former president.

HOLMES: The former president's report showing his campaign raised $17.7 million in the second quarter, leaving it with $22.5 million cash on hand at the end of June. South Carolina Senator Tim Scott just behind him with $21.1 million after raising nearly $6 million over the last three months.

After announcing his White House bid last month, former Vice President Mike Pence getting off to a slow start, bringing in less than $1.2 million, placing him near the back of the pack.


HOLMES: And, Wolf, Republicans aren't the only ones making 2024 news. Democratic senator of West Virginia, Joe Manchin, was openly flirting with a third-party presidential bid tonight at a campaign style event in New Hampshire. It was a town hall held by No Labels, which is a bipartisan nonprofit group that is considering putting forward a, quote, unity ticket to give Americans a third option outside of your traditional Democratic and Republican nominee.

Now, Manchin insisted that he hadn't made a decision yet, but did not rule out that he would have a run -- that he would run, that he would be part of this third-party ticket. I talked to an adviser just moments ago, a Democratic adviser who said this made them very uncomfortable, despite the fact that Manchin had not yet decided, they said that this would take away votes from President Joe Biden and even the consideration around that was making him very nervous.

BLITZER: Kristen Holmes reporting for us, thank you.

I want to bring in our political commentators right now to discuss, Scott Jennings and Ashley Allison are joining us.

Ashley, how much should Democrats actually be concerned by Senator Manchin's flirting with a No Labels third-party bid?

ASHLEY ALLISON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I mean, if he's just thinking about the idea as Democrats I don't think we should get overly concerned. But if he actually jumps into the race, we know historically if you look back at a Ralph Nader or a Jill Stein (AUDIO GAP) favorably in the Democratic Party's favor. So I would be concerned if he actually jumps in the race.

The conversation of it, I mean, I understand why they think they need to have a No Labels third-party ticket, but right now they aren't actually on a lot of ballots, and so thinking about it (INAUDIBLE) but if they jump in, I would be concerned as Democrats.

BLITZER: Yeah. It would take away votes, no doubt about that.

Scott, in the GOP primary, DeSantis is touting a bigger fund-raising haul than Trump or Biden, for that matter. But his campaign is burning through cash big time, maxing out donors and laying off staff. So, how should we read these numbers?


SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think I would look at the candidates that are going to have enough money to operate and be in the race for a long time versus the candidates in their finance reports that look like they may not be able to make it until the end of the year. Obviously, on the lower end of the Republican scale, Mike Pence, Asa Hutchinson, and some others, they had a really tough time.

Ron DeSantis, yes, he did burn through a lot of cash. But between what he has left, what he can raise, and then what's in his super PAC, it's obvious that he and Tim Scott and probably Nikki Haley and certainly Donald Trump, they're going to have plenty of money to operate, at least through Iowa, and beyond. The question for the Republicans, wolf, is do they want to do Trump or not. And once we clear that threshold, who's left to take on Trump? DeSantis will have the money to be in that conversation.

BLITZER: Ashley, by contrast, President Biden has spent just over a million dollars so far, and only has four staffers on his campaign payroll. Should he be stepping up his campaign by now?

ALLISON: No, I think what the Biden campaign is doing right now is pretty on par with most re-elections do for the presidency. They're getting their infrastructure together in the summer, having their top leadership in place, focusing on fundraising earlier on rather than building the larger infrastructure. But surely before the beginning of 2024, you will start to see staff in states building that grassroots infrastructure, and then definitely a more robust national committee.

But right now, the Biden administration is more focused on governing as the campaign just began to put its initial infrastructure in place.

BLITZER: You know, Scott, DeSantis is shifting his strategy to mainstream media tour about policies starting with our own Jake Tapper tomorrow. But one political expert says -- and I'm quoting now -- the race is not about who has the best tax plan, the race is Trump, yes or no? Is that true?

JENNINGS: Yeah, I do -- I do think there's a lot of truth in that. I mean, if the Republican Party or more than half of it wants to do Donald Trump again, it really won't matter what Ron DeSantis or anybody else does, because obviously he's going to march to the nomination rather easily. A lot of Republicans say they want to consider other people, but when you look at the surveys right now, Donald Trump is still dominating.

So I think Ron DeSantis is doing what he needs to do to keep himself as the principal alternative in the event that Trump becomes too toxic for most Republicans. That hasn't happened yet, but there's a lot of runway between now and Iowa.

BLITZER: Scott Jennings and Ashley Allison -- guys, thank you both very much. Just ahead, authorities discover an arsenal containing hundreds of

firearms inside the basement of a suspected serial killer. We'll have the latest in the unfolding investigation out on long island.

And coming up on "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT," after THE SITUATION ROOM, a one-on-one interview with the Suffolk County Police Commissioner.

We'll be right back.



BLITZER: We're learning some disturbing new details about a suspected serial killer who was arrested last week. New York architect Rex Heuermann has been charged in connection with the deaths of three women in Long Island and is the prime suspect in the death of a fourth.

Brian Todd is covering this story for us.

Brian, what's the latest?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, a spokesperson for the Suffolk County sheriff's office just told CNN that Rex Heuermann is now on suicide watch at the Suffolk County jail where he's currently being held. Tonight, we have new information on the case which could be on the verge of expanding.


TODD (voice-over): Tonight, the investigation of Gilgo Beach, New York, serial-killing suspect Rex Heuermann intensified. Officials found more than 200 firearms in a walled-off vault behind a locked metal door in the basement of Heuermann's Massapequa Park, Long Island home. And investigators were still removing the guns this afternoon. None of the women Heuermann is charged with killing were gunshot victims. But authorities have also searched a storage facility nearby, a source telling CNN they're trying to pinpoint whether Heuermann kept any souvenirs, items belonging to the victims.

JOHN MILLER, CNN CHIEF LAW ENFORCEMENT AND INTELLIGENCE ANALYST: In these serial killer cases, what we see as characteristics is that they keep things from victims so that they can use them to relive the murders, to fantasize about it again.

TODD: The Gilgo Four was a group of four women whose remains were found near Long Island's Gilgo Beach in 2010. The case went cold, but using surveillance, DNA technology, and combing through phone records, investigators zeroed in recently on Heuermann, and arrested him on Thursday. He's charged with murder in the killings of Melissa Barthelemy, Amber Waterman and Amber Costello. And court records say he's the prime suspect in the death of a fourth woman.

RAYMOND A. TIERNEY, SUFFOLK COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY: That investigation is continuing with regard to Maureen Brainard-Barnes. And we feel confident that we're going to eventually be able to charge that murder, but we're not going to put timeframe on it.

TODD: But those four women are among 11 sets of human remains that were found scattered across the south shore of Long Island between 2010 and 2011.

CASEY JORDAN, CRIMINOLOGIST AND BEHAVIORAL ANALYST: Can they link him to the other seven? I think that, short of a confession maybe through let's make a deal, it's very unlikely that they would be able to link those to him forensically. It's too much time.

TODD: Prosecutors say Heuermann has led a double life.

REX HEUERMANN, GILGO BEACH SUSPECT: Rex Heuermann, an architect, I'm an architectural consultant. I'm a troubleshooter, born and raised on Long Island.

TODD: In addition to owning and running an architecture firm, the 59- year-old is married and has two children.

JORDAN: The only way they can keep this trajectory of successful killing going is to have a double life or otherwise just move around constantly.


TODD (on camera): Authorities say Heuermann's wife and two children were out of state during the times those three women who he's charged with killing died. They say his wife and children are cooperating with investigators. Heuermann has pleaded not guilty to the three murders that he has been charged with so far -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Brian, thank you very much for that update. And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Please be sure to join us tomorrow for my exclusive interview with the Israeli President Isaac Herzog.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.