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New Evidence Of Trump Praising The 202 Election Security And Documents From Bernie Kerik; Israel Passes Controversial Law; World Heritage Sites In Odesa, Ukraine Destroyed By Russian Missiles; DOJ Sues Texas Gov. Over Floating Barriers At Border; Seven Republican Candidates Meet Polling Criteria For First GOP Primary Debate; Police Still Searching Gilgo Beach Murder Suspect's Home. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired July 24, 2023 - 17:00   ET



BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN HOST: Our coverage continues now with Wolf Blitzer in "The Situation Room."

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news, new exclusive CNN reporting on an Oval Office meeting in which then-President Trump highly praised 2020 election security months before he falsely claimed the November presidential vote was rigged. It's now a focus of the special counsel as the January 6th grand jury is set to reconvene tomorrow amid growing anticipation that Trump will be indicted.

Also tonight, mass protests in Israel as Parliament passes a divisive law to strip the nation's highest court of critical oversight powers. CNN of course is in Jerusalem where the backlash against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his plan are clearly intensifying.

And here in the United States there's more breaking news. The U.S. Justice Department just filed a lawsuit against Texas Governor Greg Abbott after the Republican defied a request to remove floating border barriers designed to keep migrants out. Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer, you're in "The Situation Room."

And let's get right to the breaking news. On a newly revealed focus of Special Counsel Jack Smith and his investigation of 2020 election interference. CNN senior legal affairs correspondent Paula Reid is here with me in "The Situation Room" along with CNN national security and justice reporter Zachary Cohen. Zachary first to you, tell us more about this Trump Oval Office meeting back in February 2020 and why it's now all of a sudden becoming a focus of this criminal investigation.

ZACHARY COHEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY & JUSTICE REPORTER: Yeah, well, remember, this is right at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. And you know, Trump is in the Oval Office with several of his top national security officials who are walking him through how they plan to protect the 2020 election from widespread fraud, all the things that Trump would later go on to baselessly claim were happening.

But, you know, at the time, Trump was so impressed with what he was hearing from his top officials that he suggested that the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI hold a press conference in parts so he could take credit for the work they were doing. Now, sources tell us, you know, a few months later, Trump obviously took a very different approach publicly.

He was basically claiming that mail-in voting was a source of widespread fraud, that, you know, things like Venezuela was hacking voting machines. All these things that his officials two months later, or previously had told him, were not happening. So, multiple officials, former officials have been asked about this February 2020 meeting where Trump takes a very starkly different perspective on election security than he did throughout the later parts of 2020 and into 2021.

BLITZER: Excellent reporting, Zachary. Thank you very much. Now, Paula, you have some new reporting as well. First here on CNN about the Rudy Giuliani team that was trying to find what they believed to be election fraud and clearly there was no election fraud.

PAULA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Exactly. In the days after the 2020 election, Rudy Giuliani was tasked with putting together a team to try to find fraud related to the election. Now, one of the people on this team was former New York police commissioner Bernie Kerik and his lawyer just handed over all of the work product from that team. And that's significant, Wolf. Much of this has never been seen by investigators because up until now they've tried to assert privilege over this.

They've argued that Bernie and others, they were working as part of a legal team so it should be privileged. They kept it from the January 6th committee but it's a little different when Special Counsel Jack Smith comes a calling. He's been in talks with Bernie Kerik to sit down for an interview and as part of those talks, they agreed that they would get the Trump campaign to waive privilege and they handed over, I'm told its thousands of documents. This includes witness statements, research that they did.

Now, in addition to these previously undisclosed documents, I'm told that Bernie Kerik has finally scheduled an interview with the special counsel. That'll happen in the next two weeks. But it's a reminder that even if there is an indictment of former President Trump this week, the special counsel's work will continue well into the summer.

BLITZER: Clearly will. All right, guys, stand by. We have more legal experts joining us right now. Shan Wu and Norm Eisen. And Shan, let me start with you. We know prosecutors are honing in right now on this Trump meeting back in February of 2020 in which he insisted, at least to his closest associates there, there was no election fraud or anything along those lines. Why do you think this has all of a sudden become a focus of the special counsel's investigation?

SHAN WU, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Well, I think it adds, Wolf, to this notion of whether or not Trump knew that his position was illegal. That's what they're trying to prove, meaning he already understood that there was good security in the election and that he was actually happy with it, bragging to people about it, maybe even wanted to publicize that. The issue is no matter how much evidence of that is exists, he can always say, well, I changed my mind later or in my heart I really didn't trust that. So, I think the key for prosecutors is going to be showing his intent as to committing the illegal actions.


Someone might believe that, you know, someone's walking down the street is actually possessed, doesn't give him the right to kill them. So, ultimately that subjective belief of his can be overcome by showing he deliberately was taking actions that were illegal.

BLITZER: Yes, good point. You know, Norm, Trump seems to have a history, as you know, of switching between praising and criticizing election security right now. The prosecutors, they want to parse through to determine what his state of mind?

NORM EISEN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, it does go to his state of mind and both this earlier meeting and also the evidence that Mr. Kerik and Giuliani and the team found no evidence of wrongdoing. They're both building blocks. Shan is right. What happened earlier in the year is not dispositive. But it is one element of showing the president thought there was no problem then. He was told that his team learned of no actionable significant fraud and so you assemble piece by piece in a mosaic the defendant's culpable state of mind.

COHEN: Until that point, we know for a fact that months later several top officials were telling Trump in another Oval Office meeting that there was still no evidence of voter fraud to do things like seizing voting machines. So, as Norm said, you know putting together those pieces from February to December 2020, we know Trump's top officials were telling him the same thing over and over again and prosecutors wanted to know what -- how did Trump interpret this information from his advisors? How was he listening to them and what was -- how did that impact his decision making?

BLITZER: Yeah, those are critically important questions, Shan, how significant are these latest troves of documents from Bernie Kerik that the special counsel and his team are going through right now?

WU: Well, they could be very significant going to what he actually learned about the absence of any fraud. I think the confusing point to me looking at it is why they're being turned over right now. It's not Kerik's privilege. I mean, it's Trump's. And his attorney, you know, is doing the right thing, checking with the Trump campaign.

Curious to me, he's checking with the campaign versus another Trump personal lawyer on the team. I think that does indicate to me how blurry that distinction has become between the campaign and his legal defense. It's like all the same now. But his attorney cleared it. I kind of doubt there's anything too damaging in there, otherwise they wouldn't have cleared it.

BLITZER: You know, and it's important. And Norm, Giuliani, as we know, he testified for, what, eight hours before that federal grand jury. Kerik is set to testify in a couple weeks. This could be potentially very significant, all of this testimony.

EISEN: Indeed, both for the former president, but also for other individuals. Giuliani himself may have exposure as a result of this. I don't expect that whatever Jack Smith's timetable is for charging Donald Trump, coming out of that target letter, that this huge trove of documents and this additional testimony is going to slow him down or speed him up. But it's important and of course, he can use it as he prosecutes the case whenever he may charge.

BLITZER: Yeah, I think it's all significant indeed. What can you tell us about the timeline, Paula, from this grand jury, because there's got to be another grand jury vote and meeting before there's an additional indictment.

REID: That's right. And this grand jury usually meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We know last Thursday was the deadline for former President Trump to appear. He passed on that opportunity. So now a potential indictment can come any day. But even if we see an indictment of former President Trump this week, I think we definitely expect that this investigation will continue, likely for months.

We have some pretty significant witnesses and they're not coming in for several weeks now. We also saw this in Mar-a-Lago. They indicted the former president and Walt Nauta, but then their investigation continued. So, if the former president is indicted this week, it may not be the final indictment in this case.

BLITZER: Yeah. And Zachary, what do you think about the timing? Because you're doing a lot of reporting on this.

COHEN: Yeah, absolutely. You know, it remains to be seen how this might impact a potential indictment. If that, you know, changes the trajectory of what we've been seeing from Jack Smith. What Paula said, you know, these are significant witnesses that have not yet come in and spoken to the grand jury or to the special counsel. So, you know, we'll have to see if that does impact the timing.

BLITZER: You think another indictment, Norm, is imminent or could it be weeks away?

EISEN: Well, Fani Willis, the Fulton County D.A., famously said indictment was imminent months ago. What imminent means in the criminal justice system is sometimes a little different. I do think that we're talking about days or weeks, not months. Typically, when you get a target letter, indictment follows on. We'll be looking for signs of acceleration, Wolf, like when Trump's lawyers are seen going into the Justice Department, as happened with Mar-a-Lago. That's a sign, hey, start the countdown. But I think it's soon.

BLITZER: I suspect you're right. All right, guys, thank you very much. Coming up, a historic house of worship in ruins in Ukraine right now blasted by a Russian missile strike. We'll have the latest on the destruction.

[17:10:03] And the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, defies mass protests and passes a law putting controversial new limits on the nation's highest court. I'll speak with a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who is calling this, and I'm quoting him now, "a dark day."


BLITZER: Turning now to dramatic developments in Israel and a newly passed law that is stoking major division and outrage throughout the country. The Knesset approving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's judicial overhaul that limits the Israeli Supreme Court's power to check Netanyahu's power. CNN's senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen is joining us live from Jerusalem right now. Fred, give us the latest on the backlash and is very dramatic, after this very controversial vote.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, very controversial is absolutely right and certainly pivotal things happening inside the Knesset today. But I can tell you outside the Knesset and certainly in this entire area, especially around the Israeli Supreme Court, there were big protests that happened here. There were crowds that were out here on the streets the entire day. And it was during the evening then that thing became ugly here on the streets when the police moved in with water cannon trucks. Here's what happened.



PLEITGEN (voice-over): A country very much divided. With many angry Israelis saying they feel the very foundation of the state of Israel is at risk.

UNKNOWN: We were trying to do our best in order to protect democracy in our country.

PLEITGEN (voice-over): After Israel's parliament passed a law that would severely curve the Supreme Court's ability to check the government's powers.

UNKNOWN: I think it adds an impact to the world (ph) to see that we are not going down slowly and lightly.

PLEITGEN: Many of the people that we've been speaking to here say they feel a sense of duty to come out here on the street and protest. Now, a lot of them say they're not sure whether or not this in the end is going to make a difference, but they also say right now at this point in Israel's history staying at home simply isn't an option.

(Voice-over): The act of the reasonableness bill passed the Knesset after more than 26 hours of debate. All opposition members of the Knesset walked out in protest as the right-wing and far-right members passed the bill put forward by Ben Netanyahu's coalition. Netanyahu moving full speed ahead, not missing a beat despite getting a pacemaker fitted just hours before the vote. BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, PRIME MINISTER OF ISRAEL (through translation):

Today we performed a democratic need. According to most people of Israel, this is the essence of democracy, to do what the majority wish.

PLEITGEN (voice-over): Moderate and left-wing groups have been protesting every weekend for the past 29 weeks, and now more than 10,000 military reservists say they will refuse to serve if the judicial overhaul limiting the Supreme Court's powers is enacted. They fear Israel's democracy will be shattered.

UNKNOWN: I've been out for years now, I think for six years, I've been protesting against this government. And it's not about this government, it's about one person. It's about Bibi Netanyahu.

PLEITGEN (voice): And many vow to stay out in the streets of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and other cities if the government refuses to abandon the judicial overhaul.


(On camera): And Wolf, that's one of the things that we have to keep in mind, is that the bill that was passed today by the Knesset is only one of many measures that the government wants to overtake to overhaul the judiciary, not just, of course, curbing the powers of the Supreme Court, but also, for instance, making it easier for the government to appoint justices in the Supreme Court as well. And again, the protesters here are saying they are going to keep coming out unless those measures are abandoned. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. Fred Pleitgen reporting from Jerusalem. Fred, thank you very much. Joining us now, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk. Martin, thanks for joining us. I know you've called this a dark day for Israel, your words, a dark day for Israel. Tell us why and what does this new law actually do?

MARTIN INDYK, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO ISRAEL: Well, in the 75 years of Israel's existence There's never been the sort of division that we are now witnessing that your viewers have just seen on television that is unprecedented. There have certainly been demonstrations and differences. You, of course, have come with (ph) them in the past, but nothing like this.

There's a wide chasm dividing the people of Israel between those who are ultra-nationalist or ultra-religious and want to rob the court, Supreme Court of its ability to check the government and those in the center and left liberal Democrats who fear the impact of robbing the judiciary of its independence and ability to check the government. And despite the efforts of compromise, the government decided to push this through now.

Massive demonstrations against it. They had the opportunity to pause it. They decided to go for it. And in doing so, they've unleashed a huge amount of anger from a good half of Israel's citizens who find this an unacceptable trampling of Israel's democracy.

BLITZER: Does this clear the way, Martin, for Prime Minister Netanyahu to potentially fire Israel's attorney general?

INDYK: Yes, that is one of the things that this unreasonable, reasonable law, that's what they call it, the "Reasonability Law," could do. It would free up the government to make appointments or dismiss civil servants or appointees at will without any oversight by the Supreme Court to judge whether this was a reasonable thing to do.

So, the expectation is that people that are inconvenient to the government, like the attorney general, who has been a thorn in the side of this far-right government, curbing what it can do.


Together with the appointment of cronies and other people who will serve the interests of the government, but not necessarily the interests of the people. And I think that that's what's causing so much concern and aggravation. And it's just the thin end of the wedge, because the government has a whole list of legislation that would get the Supreme Court and make it possible for the government to stack the court with its own people.

BLITZER: Prime Minister Netanyahu, as you know Martin, says this law fulfills the will of the voters and restores, in his words, balance. How do you respond to that?

INDYK: Well, he has a point if he argues that he has a majority. That's the way they were able to pass a law. They have a four-seat majority. But there's such a thing as majoritarian rule, which disrespects the rights of the minority. And that is what he is doing and that is not democratic.

Rather than listen to the protest and find a way to build consensus, as President Biden has repeatedly urged him to do, and President Herzog of Israel has tried to broker, he is now -- he is ignoring that and pushing ahead, using his majority to change the nature of the checks and balances in the Israeli system.

That's an institutional change which puts Israel on the track towards illiberal democracies like Poland, Hungary, Turkey, where the first thing they did was to go after the Supreme Court when they decided to bolster their authoritarian rule.

BLITZER: And that's why you're calling it a dark day in Israel indeed. Former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, thank you very much for joining us.

INDYK: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: In Ukraine tonight, the Russian bombardment of Odessa has damaged more than two dozen architectural monuments, beautiful monuments, and the mayor there warning a historic cathedral, also very beautiful, hit by a Russian missile could actually collapse. CNN senior national security correspondent Alex Marquardt is on the ground for us in Odessa right now. Alex, how devastating are these latest Russian attacks in the south where you are? ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, these

strikes have been relentless, both here in the city of Odessa, but also in the surrounding region. Some of the worst damage that we've seen has been in the city center of Odessa, that historic city center that is in fact a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You mentioned more than two dozen. There are some 25, we understand, architectural monuments that have been damaged to some degree. The worst, probably the Transfiguration Cathedral, which we spent several hours in.

And tonight, the mayor is warning that it may collapse. There was just extraordinary damage there. We also saw today a strike by Russian drones to the west of here, right up against the border with Romania. They hit a grain storage site. So, not only are the Russians continuing to go after these food facilities, but this was extremely close to the Romanian border. This was, in fact, we believe, the closest strike using Russian weaponry to a NATO country since this war began.

Now, Wolf, we're also seeing Ukraine responding. Today, Ukrainian drones striking Crimea, hitting an ammunition depot. That was the fifth Ukrainian strike on Crimea in just the past week. And then a very brazen attack on the Russian capital. Two Ukrainian drones flying into Moscow. They hit what the Russian authorities called non- residential buildings. We believe that they were taken down by Russia using electronic means.

The Russian authorities saying that they were suppressed. But one of those drones hit in a very sensitive area where there is a Ministry of Defense complex that houses a number of military offices. Wolf?

BLITZER: Alex, I know you had an extensive interview, a very important interview with Ukraine's Defense Minister Reznikov. What did he tell you?

MARQUARDT: A number of things, Wolf. It was a wide-ranging interview. He did admit that the counteroffensive is going slower than they would like, that it is behind schedule. He did give us a specific date when he thinks that Ukraine might join NATO in a year's time at the NATO summit in Washington, D.C. next year. But, Wolf, I did ask him what the turmoil that we're seeing inside Russia, and particularly inside the Russian military, means for Vladimir Putin. Here's what Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov had to say. Take a listen.


OLEKSII REZNIKOV, DEFENSE MINISTER OF UKRAINE: I think that, again, just my personal opinion, that transition period, transition moment of authority or power in Russia started. So, we will see who will be next steerman. You're seeing people starting to jockey for position as we say, to replace Putin?

MARQUARDT: Yes, yes. Yes.


[17:25:00] MAQUARDT: And Wolf, I also asked Reznikov whether he's happy that Wagner is now off the battlefield. He says he is always happy when there is chaos inside Russia. He said that chaos is Ukraine's ally. Wolf?

BLITZER: Very important interview indeed. Alex Marquardt, thank you very much. Stay safe over there.

Up next, Republican Senator Mitt Romney is now calling on donors to help push non-viable presidential candidates out of the 2024 race in order to defeat Donald Trump. Republican presidential candidate Asa Hutchinson joins me next. I'll get his response when we come back.



BLITZER: There's breaking news we're following right now. The U.S. Justice Department has just filed a lawsuit to force Texas to remove floating barriers in the Rio Grande, which federal officials now say are endangering migrants and Border Patrol agents. CNN's Priscilla Alvarez is joining us live from the White House. Priscilla, you've been doing a wonderful reporting on what's going on along the border. Walk us through this Department of Justice lawsuit. And is there action from the White House?

PRISCILLA ALVAREZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Wolf, this is a significant development and really escalates the feud between President Biden and Texas Governor Greg Abbott with the Justice Department moving forward on its lawsuit against those floating barriers in the Rio Grande.

Now, this lawsuit really focuses on a clause in the law about navigating waters, and so there is not mention of migrants and the concern it poses to their safety. But in a statement from Vanita Gupta, they say this floating barrier poses threats to navigation and public safety and presents humanitarian concerns.

Now, Wolf, this is the outcome of Texas Governor Greg Abbott defying a request by the Justice Department to remove these barriers on his own. He said instead today that he would see President Biden in court. Now, the White House has also weighed in on this, calling the Texas Governor's actions on the border, quote, dangerous and unlawful.

And to give you some context here, Abbott launched an operation on the U.S.-Mexico border in 2021. And over the last two years, officials within the Biden administration were watching what he was doing, including, for example, sending migrants to Democratic led cities without coordination, as well as having more Texas National Guard and Texas troopers along the Texas-Mexico border.

But this really came to a head over the last week when there were concerns about the mistreatment of migrants. And the Justice Department went on to say that there would be an ongoing assessment about that mistreatment. Now that is separate from today's lawsuit, but what it goes to show is that this feud is just continuing to escalate over this very delicate political issue of the handling of the U.S.-Mexico border.

And Wolf, I got to tell you, when I talk to officials, it's not just about the mistreatment of migrants that they're concerned about, it's also about interference and federal government operations. Agents over the last month have been sending more and more reports to headquarters about what they were seeing on the border and observing with Texas, which they have historically worked well with when it comes to operations along the Texas-Mexico border.

So this political feud, Wolf, really coming to a head in the courts, and we'll see all of that play out over the next few weeks and months when it comes to what happens next with these floating barriers.

BLITZER: Yes, very dramatic developments indeed. Priscilla Alvarez at the White House, thank you.

Meanwhile, top advisors to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis met with key donors and fundraisers over the weekend, promising a new direction to try to jumpstart his fledgling White House bid. This comes as the campaign is also acknowledging it needs to cut costs as fundraising fell short, way short of expectations and expenses have piled up. CNN's Jessica Dean is following all of this for us. So what are you hearing about this new direction, Jessica, for the DeSantis campaign?

JESSICA DEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're hearing leaner and meaner, Wolf. That's what we're hearing from the campaign. And according to one source, this was kind of part mea culpa and part rallying cry over the weekend where they were really trying to go to these donors, go to these fundraisers and acknowledge what they believe has not gone the way they wanted it to. And that's with fundraising and messaging. And then try to put together a strategic plan to move forward.

So that's what they're talking to donors about. What we're going to see externally and on the road, I'm headed to Iowa later this week where the governor is going to now go on a bus tour. He's committed to seeing all 99 counties there in Iowa. They want him, they're kind of the new messaging is DeSantis is everywhere. They want him in front of small groups. They want him talking to people that traditional retail politics that they really have come to expect in these early states like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina.

And all of this is happening as we got some new state polling from "Fox Business" yesterday that really gives us a nice snapshot of where things are. And if you take a look in Iowa, former President Donald Trump is just up there very high, leading the pack. And then some 30 points behind is Governor Ron DeSantis and the others. It's a similar situation in South Carolina. And what this tells us, Wolf, is that these candidates have got to find a way to break through. And so far, that's not happening.

When you look at that polling, a lot of them looking to that debate stage, we're now about one month out from that first Republican debate where they think they can break through.

BLITZER: What do we know about for that first debate less than a month away now, what do we know about who's qualified to be on that debate stage, at least so far?

DEAN: Right. So we know the RNC set these requirements up to determine who's going to be on that debate stage. So today we know that seven candidates reach the polling requirements. So there's fundraising requirements, polling requirements. Because of those polls I just talked about that came out yesterday, seven candidates have reached that threshold. It's Trump, DeSantis, Pence, Haley, Scott, Ramaswamy, and Christie.

Now, they're also going to have to cover those fundraising numbers that have been put in place, that fundraising criteria. And of those, all of them have done so except the former Vice President Mike Pence. He hasn't done that yet. But the North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum has done the fundraising piece of it. So we're starting to see what that debate stage might look like take shape. One big question that everyone's wondering about is will former President Donald Trump be taking part? We don't know yet.


BLITZER: He keeps saying no, no, no. But we shall see what happens over the next few weeks. Jessica Dean, thank you very much.

Joining us now, Republican presidential candidate and former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson. Governor, thanks so much for joining us. As you well know, seven Republicans have now qualified for the first debate stage set near the end of August. As Jessica just reported, you're not among them. How confident are you, Governor, that you will be on the stage in Milwaukee?

ASA HUTCHINSON (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Actually, a growing confidence because some momentum has shifted our director, you know, you've had the "Fox Business" poll. And we also had additional poll that came out today, the Rasmussen poll. And it's my understanding that that actually will put us as qualifying for the debate in terms of the polling numbers, and that was a significant boost for us.

We still have to meet the objective of the donor qualification, which is 40,000 unique donors. We're not there yet. I fully expect to be there. We're working every strategy to make sure we have those individual donors for that debate stage. And of course, Asa 2024 is where you go to make sure that we can qualify.

BLITZER: In these new "Fox Business" polls and I'll put them up on the screen surveying Republican voters in key early states in Iowa and New Hampshire. We got -- there you see the numbers there. You see Trump way, way ahead. You're polling at 1 percent in both of those states, far behind the front runner, clearly Donald Trump, who's at 50 percent. How do you turn your campaign around and raise those numbers?

HUTCHINSON: Well, of course, the debate is an important part of the equation because, you know, people are waiting to see the candidates in contrast to each other, both their positions, but also how they conduct themselves. Can they lead the country in the right direction? So the debate is important, but there'll be multiple debates. So this is six months out to the Iowa caucus, so there's time there. It is a state that I'll be at the fair. You know, I'll make sure that we're doing the retail politicking. It's a state very similar to Arkansas in terms of the importance of small communities, the importance of the agricultural community. I relate there. I look forward to campaigning there. But you got to work at it every day. And of course, again, focus getting on the debate and showing the experience that I have in terms of head of the DEA, undersecretary of Homeland Security, handling border issues and be able to bring our country together to address those significant issues we face.

BLITZER: The Utah Republican senator Mitt Romney, himself a former Republican presidential candidate, has a new op-ed in "The Wall Street Journal." I don't know if you saw it, but it calls on GOP donors to help urge non-viable candidates to get out of the race. He writes in part, and I'm quoting him now, left to their own inclinations, expect several of the contenders to stay in the race for a long time. They will split the non-Trump vote, giving him the prize.

Romney says candidates should get out after the first four states in order to coalesce behind a single Trump challenger. What's your response to Romney?

HUTCHINSON: Well, of course, I have great respect for Senator Romney, and he's been through it, so he's in a position to understand the challenge ahead. But the interesting part to me is that he wants candidates to drop out before you get to Super Tuesday, which covers many of the Southern states.

And so, you know, being from Arkansas, having strength in the Southern states, I can be competitive here. My goal has always been to be strong through that Super Tuesday. So I would hate to think that you're going to cut out the Super Tuesday states as terms of a voice in selecting our nominee and hopefully the next President of the United States. So what's critical is that we do self-evaluation. And if you don't have the money to compete, if you don't have good numbers in some of those early states, you've got to evaluate.

But don't set criteria this far in advance for what is, in my judgment, the most unpredictable political year in my lifetime. And so there's a lot that's going to happen between now and then. Let's don't set these criteria that if you're not at a certain point, you've got to drop out. Let's see where we are at that particular point in time.


BLITZER: Your Republican 2024 rival, Governor Ron DeSantis is overhauling his campaign amid his lagging poll numbers as we all know. His team says they're embracing his position as an underdog candidate. Let me get your reaction. What do you make of that?

HUTCHINSON: Well, my reaction is that, you know, when you've raised the kind of money that he has, when he's got the name recognition that he has, I would be the insurgent. I would be going against the establishment. But the fact is that he has dropped significantly into the double digits, and most of the other candidates, including myself, are in single digits.

And so, you know, it is a test of resilience. It's a test of adjusting as you need to. But I'll compete when it comes to the ideas of how we can present a balanced budget in Washington. We can enhance freedom. We can solve the border crisis. And we can do it in a way that does not create chaos. And that, to me, is what my candidacy represents. So we'll see what works. And we're all going to come together in the end. But we have competing messages, and clearly his has faltered in the last couple of months. We think we've got some momentum, and we ought to be able to continue that.

BLITZER: All right, we will continue our conversations. Republican presidential candidate Ace Hutchinson, thanks so much for joining us.

HUTCHINSON: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, police continue searching the Long Island home of a suspected serial killer. We'll have an update on the investigation. Stay with us. You're in the Situation Room.


BLITZER: Tonight, police are searching the property of suspected serial killer Rex Heuermann as they gather more evidence in the Gilgo Beach murders investigation. CNN's Jean Casarez reports from the scene just outside his Long Island home.



JEAN CASAREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Police confirming that they have been using ground penetrating radar technology and a backhoe to dig outside the home of serial killing suspect Rex Heuermann to see if they can find anything of forensic value underneath that ground. Perhaps more evidence of human remains.

RODNEY HARRISON, SUFFOLK COUNTY POLICE COMMISSIONER: It is a different type of technology, but it will help us be able to identify anything in that backyard that we need to take into our possession.

CASAREZ (voice-over): Authorities not ruling out today that Heuermann might be linked to more victims than the three murders he is currently charged with.

HARRISON: It's hard to say. Once again, this person's been at large for a long period of time. We'll see if there's any other victims on Ocean Parkway or anywhere else throughout Long Island.

CASAREZ (voice-over): Police will continue searching the home for at least one or two more days, the police commissioner told reporters. And investigators also note the importance of searching through the garage and attic as well, a law enforcement source confirmed to CNN.

BONNIE BEAUFORD, LONG ISLAND RESIDENT: I hope that they don't find something, but at the same token, I feel like it's just going to be more evidence on top of evidence will decide.

CASAREZ (voice-over): Bonnie Beauford said Heuermann has been to a local grocery store she works at in the past.

BEAUFORD: That's what made me get intrigued with the whole storyline, because I'm like, dang, I really seen him so. But I didn't suspect that he was doing that. But he looked like he could be up to something.

CASAREZ (voice-over): Investigators not ruling out other suspects in the killings.

ERROL TOULON, SHERIFF OF SUFFOLK COUNTY: I think that this investigation is going to last as long as it takes to make sure that every piece of evidence is gathered, every suspect, or if it's just Mr. Heuermann, will be excluded or precluded from this investigation or possibly being a suspect.

CASAREZ (voice-over): The investigation spanning beyond New York to three other states, something the sheriff says was unexpected. The sheriff also noting that Heuermann has been stoic during his interactions in jail.

TOULON: If you think about someone that two weeks ago was walking around freely, he seemed very comfortable inside of the cell.


CASAREZ: The police commissioner says they cannot confirm at this point that victims were murdered inside the house, but they have taken numerous items of potential evidence. And now, of course, there'll have to be more sophisticated testing. They also say that they will not leave any nook or cranny untouched as they process this home. Wolf?


BLITZER: All right, Jean, thank you. Jean Casarez reporting for us. And we'll be right back.


BLITZER: The U.S. State Department now says it has not yet heard from North Korea in response to its messages about Private Travis King, the U.S. Army soldier who crossed the border into North Korea last week, where he is assumed to be in custody right now. For more, I'm joined by CNN senior international correspondent Will Ripley. What do we know, Will, about the latest efforts to get through to the North Korean regime about this U.S. soldier?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I was able to speak with the deputy commander of the United Nations Command here in Seoul. And what I was told is that there is a line of communication that is open, but the communication itself, well, they're not giving us any details. They can't tell us Travis Scott -- Travis King's condition. They can't even tell us if he's alive. Frankly, all they can say is that the North Koreans acknowledged receipt of communications, but that's all that they're saying, which raises a lot of questions. One week on the condition of this American soldier who made that desperate dash across the demilitarized zone, the joint security area where he was on a tour one week ago today. It's Tuesday morning here in Seoul, and we don't really know anything about his status, his whereabouts, or what his condition is right now, Wolf.

So obviously, that's very concerning for the family of this soldier who apparently made a premeditated and unauthorized dash across the joint security area dividing line, the military demarcation line, into North Korean custody. And it might be quite some time based on the lack of responsiveness from the North Koreans to this situation, Wolf.

BLITZER: As you know, Will, this comes amid a series of missile launches from North Korea. How do those fit into this picture?

RIPLEY: Well, there's a nuclear submarine, a ballistic missile capable, nuclear submarine that is parked here on the Korean Peninsula from the United States, Wolf. And the North Koreans have essentially said that might actually fit their criteria for a first strike nuclear attack. The North Koreans take very seriously the deployment of nuclear weapons to the peninsula. Of course, they're testing their own nuclear capable missiles at a very dizzying pace. So they launch ballistic missiles and cruise missiles just in the span of about a week.

And they have warned the United States that they will not take any provocations, you know, anything less than what they say, potentially a declaration of war. Of course, this is rhetoric that we've heard from the North Koreans before, but it certainly does complicate the situation when you have an American soldier now in North Korean custody. You have tensions on the Korean peninsula really ratcheting up to some of the highest levels that we've seen in recent years.


BLITZER: Yes, good point. Will Ripley in Seoul, South Korea for us. Will, thank you very much.

Coming up right now, we're digging deeper into CNN's exclusive new reporting on an Oval Office meeting under scrutiny by the Special Counsel Jack Smith, and what it could mean for a potential indictment of Donald Trump in the probe of 2020 election interference.


BLITZER: Happening now, new reaction to CNN's exclusive new reporting at an Oval Office meeting where former President Trump praised 2020 election security only months before his bogus claims of voter fraud. The special counsel Jack Smith's team is asking questions about the meeting as the new grand jury indictment of Trump could be coming soon.