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Judge Sets Friday Hearing In Trump Election Subversion Case; Western Hopes Fade As Ukraine's Counteroffensive Stalls; Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) Replaces Campaign Manager In Ongoing Shakeup; Three White Men Charged In Alabama Dock Brawl; Ohio Voters Deciding Whether To Make It Harder To Amend State Constitution Ahead Of Abortion Vote. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired August 08, 2023 - 18:00 ET
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Our coverage continues now with Wolf Blitzer in The Situation Room.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news. The judge in the Trump election subversion case just scheduled a key hearing for this Friday, denying the former president's request for a delay. This as the federal grand jury that indicted Trump was back at work today. Could charges against Trump's alleged co-conspirators be in the works?
Also tonight, we're learning that western hopes for Ukraine's counteroffensive are fading right now as officials receive very sobering updates on the fight to retake territory from Russia. I'll get reaction from key White House official John Kirby.
And in the presidential race, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis boots his campaign manager in an ongoing shakeup, replacing her with a trusted adviser, as his bid for the GOP nomination keeps on struggling.
We want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in The Situation Room.
All right, let's get right to the breaking news on a key hearing in the January 6th criminal prosecution of Donald Trump. We're joined by our Senior Legal Affairs Correspondent Paula Reid. Paula, so, what are we hearing tonight from the judge who's overseeing this critically important case?
PAULA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the rocket docket continues here in D.C. The judge who will oversee the January 6th prosecution of former President Trump, her name is Tanya Chutkan. And she is scheduled this hearing for Friday. She made it clear to both sides she wanted to do this hearing about how sensitive evidence in this case will be handled. She wanted to do it this week.
But the Trump lawyers asked if they could push it until next week. Of course, Wolf, we know part of the overall Trump legal strategy is to delay, delay, delay, hoping to push both special counsel trials until after the election. But they also have another hearing on Thursday down in Florida related to the Mar-a-Lago documents case. Special counsel prosecutors said that they'd be available any time this week. The hearing is now scheduled for Friday. It's just another example of how she wants to move this case along quickly.
And all eyes will be on Judge Chutkan on Friday because this will be her first time overseeing a hearing in this case and the former president, though, does not have to attend.
BLITZER: And, Paula, are there more signs right now that the special counsel's work is continuing?
REID: Yes. Today, we saw the grand jury. They were back in. They typically meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays. So, it was notable that they returned to work today, though our Casey Gannon for us, she said she did not see any witnesses go before the grand jury. That's notable.
We know from our reporting yesterday that the special counsel back at their office, they spoke with someone who could be a really helpful witness for them. That's Bernie Kerik. He's the former New York City Police commissioner, a close associate of Rudy Giuliani. We're told investigators had a lot of questions about Giuliani. And it's unclear today exactly what the grand jury was doing if prosecutors were reading in the answers from Bernie Kerik or if they were up to something else.
At this point, it's unclear if anyone else will be indicted, but it does seem likely.
BLITZER: It certainly does. All right, stay with us. I don't want you to go too far away. I also want to bring in CNN Legal Analysts Elie Honig and Norm Eisen.
Elie, what do you make of the judge's decision here? Is it a loss for the Trump team that she glossed over their request to delay?
ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Wolf, I think it's a perfectly reasonable compromise position. The judge and DOJ said let's get it done this week. Trump's team said we need until Monday or Tuesday. And the judge said we're doing it Friday.
And, Wolf, I think this previews a back and forth that we're going to see repeated many, many times in this case. Donald Trump's team, yes, their goal, clearly, is to delay. Everyone understands that. But they also do have a reasonable right to be accommodated to prepare for hearings, and, of course, ultimately the trial. On the other side, it's clear the prosecutors and the judge want to push this as quickly as they can. And so the judge's trick is going to be to find a fair and reasonable midpoint, and I think she's done that here.
BLITZER: Norm, how do you see it?
NORM EISEN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, this is the opening round of what is going to be a 12-round heavyweight championship. And both sides have been fighting fast and furious. DOJ wanted its order to be entered without any back and forth, without a hearing. The judge didn't do that. She gave Trump a chance to respond. The briefs were substantial on both sides. Both sides have good points.
I think DOJ has the better of the argument here, Wolf.
The question is how broadly Trump can use these discovery materials. He's going to get a mountain of information as soon as this order is entered. He wants to use it very freely. He wants to use it on social media to try the case in the press and in the public. No, that's not going to happen. But DOJ, on the other hand, wants it very narrow. They're going to have to stretch a little. The judge is going to split the baby but more on the side of the government, in my view.
BLITZER: Let me bring back Paula. Paula, as you pointed out correctly, this will be the first hearing before Judge Chutkan. What do you expect we'll see on Friday?
REID: All eyes are going to be on Judge Chutkan. As you know, Wolf, these two Trump trials, these are the biggest cases in the world. And the judges overseeing these, they are under an enormous amount of scrutiny. They know that. There's a big media presence. Every question, every intonation will be reported.
So, she's an experienced judge. She's been on the bench for approximately a decade. She's overseen dozens of January 6th-related cases. She is going to be under a lot of scrutiny, though, for how she fields the arguments from both sides. Both sides are going to have opportunity to make their case for how they believe the evidence in this case should be handled.
I know when we were in Florida with Judge Cannon, it was clear that she had thought through her questions and at least wanted to give the appearance of being fair to both sides, being tough on both sides. She's going to be under an enormous amount of scrutiny. But one thing I think is clear so far from Judge Chutkan is she wants to move this along.
BLITZER: She certainly does. It's interesting, Norm, you know Judge Chutkan well. How do you expect her to approach this case going forward?
EISEN: Wolf, it's a fascinating draw, randomly selected on the wheel, to get Judge Tanya Chutkan. Like me, her background is as a defense lawyer. And she was known as a ferocious advocate for defendants in criminal cases at the D.C. Public Defenders Service, which is our nation's premiere public defenders. And so she is attuned. She didn't just give the government what they wanted. She's very attuned to the needs of the defense. I think she'll decide the issues fairly. She'll have tough questions for both sides.
But in this case, when you get down to the substance, there is no First Amendment right of a criminal defendant, as Donald Trump wants to argue, to use this discovery material. It's normal to have a protective order. So, more than half a loaf is going to go DOJ most likely on Friday.
BLITZER: Good point. Elie, Friday's hearing will come one day -- classified documents case down in Florida, which Trump's team cited in his request to delay what's going on here in Washington. How will his team keep up as these many hearings and many trials continue to pile on?
HONIG: It's a real challenge, Wolf. We now have three indictments on the books. And I think we're likely to see a fourth soon. And his legal team can only handle so much. But the big question that the judge is going to have to decide, and now we're talking about the Florida case, Mar-a-Lago, different judge, Judge Cannon, is, will she move back that trial date?
As it stands right now, the trial is set for May of 2024. But since the judge set that date, DOJ has come in and superseded. They added a third defendant and they added three new charges against Donald Trump.
Now, as a prosecutor, when you supersede, you fully understand that you're taking a real risk that a judge is going to say, okay, new facts, new charges here, this date needs to move back. It doesn't always, as a matter of rule, for sure, but you're always taking that -- Judge Cannon down in Florida does, in fact, keep this date from May 2024 or moves it back.
BLITZER: Good point. Norm, I also want to get your thoughts on the grand jury meeting today here in Washington for the first time since indicting Trump for election interference. Could we see more charges soon and who could be the target?
EISEN: Well, we know, Wolf, that there are those six co-conspirators who are very precisely identified, although not named. We've been able to ascertain who five of them are, still speculation about the sixth. Any of them could be the recipients of charges.
You could also have a superseding indictment with new charges against Donald Trump, as happened in Florida. That is probably less likely than charges against others because Jack Smith has signaled that he wants to move this case quickly.
Elie quite properly points out, whenever you supersede, you run the risk of slowing down. I think the defense thought of that. So, probably not Trump. They've got a judge who's moving quickly. They're not going to want to do anything to slow it down, but others could face charges sooner or later in D.C.
BLITZER: Good point. All right, guys, thank you very, very much.
We're going to have more on the breaking news coming up. We'll get reaction from a key witness in the January 6th investigation. The former chief of staff to then-Vice President Mike Pence, Marc Short, is standing by. We'll be right back.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Once again, we're following the breaking news on a Friday hearing that was just set by the federal judge in the Trump elections subversion case. Right now, we're joined by someone who testified before the January 6th federal grand jury, Marc Short, the former chief of staff to then-Vice President Mike Pence is here with me in The Situation Room. Marc, thanks very much for joining us.
MARC SHORT, FORMER CHIEF OF STAFF TO VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Wolf, thanks for having me.
BLITZER: So, let me get your thoughts on this Friday hearing that the judge has now set this coming Friday. She's obviously concerned, according to her document, that Trump's social media posts, his social media posts could have what the -- what is called a harmful, chilling effect on witnesses. This is the prosecutor's argument that Trump's social media posts could have a harmful, chilling effect on witnesses. That presumably would include your former boss, the former vice president.
SHORT: Perhaps, though, Wolf. I think, you know -- I'm not so sure that there would be a chilling impact. I think that when you've had a mob descend upon you in the Capitol when you uphold your oath to the Constitution, probably not too worried about any social media posts at this point.
BLITZER: Trump continues to rail against what's going on right now, the potential restrictions that are being imposed, he believes, on Truth Social, his social media site. He wrote that that would make him, quote, and quoting him now, the only politician in American history not allowed to speak. What do you make of this free speech argument he's putting out?
SHORT: Well, I think it's interesting. Because it seems to me there's two arguments, and it's got to be one or the other, whereas the former president makes the argument the selection was stolen, I never had a chance to present my evidence, but his chief lawyer has been out on T.V. shows saying, look, it's a First Amendment right to mislead the American people. If you're going to prosecute my client, you're going to have to prosecute all sorts of congressmen who mislead the American people constantly.
And so I think then the question, well, which is it? Is it that he has First Amendment protection to misrepresent events to the American people or is it, no, it really was stolen and everything I have evidence to prove it and I'm going to present that in court?
BLITZER: I want you to listen to what he said just a little while ago out on the campaign trail. This is Trump on the campaign trail in New Hampshire. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: I'm sorry, I won't be able to go to Iowa today. I won't be able to go to New Hampshire today, because I'm sitting in a courtroom on bullshit because his attorney general charged me with something.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: What's your reaction to that?
SHORT: Well, Wolf, I'm somewhat sympathetic to it. I do think that there is a question of whether or not, even his own lawyer this weekend said that it wasn't criminal, what it was was a technical violation of the Constitution. Well, what do you call a technical violation of the Constitution, Wolf? I call it unconstitutional.
And so, basically --
BLITZER: But there are restrictions on free speech, as you know.
SHORT: If the chief lawyer for the president is more or less acknowledging that his request of the vice president was unconstitutional, and I think that's an incredible breakthrough that they're acknowledging at this point. And so, look, I think that there are First Amendment protections, but I think when you're making the argument, hey, look, it was an unconstitutional act but it's not a criminal one, I think it's one that I think even the vice president has made the case to say, I don't know that it was criminal, I just know it was wrong.
BLITZER: The former vice president, and you worked for him, you know him well, he presumably will testify if subpoenaed, right?
SHORT: I think he's mentioned that he's always complied with the law, and if compelled by law, then he will follow the law.
BLITZER: I want you to listen to what one of Trump's attorneys is now describing as that possibility. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JESSE BINNALL, TRUMP ATTORNEY: If you look at Mike Pence's words and what he's said time and time again, it actually supports Donald Trump. It's actually, I think -- Mike Pence, if this ever goes to trial, and I don't think it should go to trial, I think it should be dismissed. But if it ever does make to it trial, Mike Pence is going to be a star witness for Donald Trump.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Do you think he's right, that Mike Pence will be a star witness for Donald Trump?
SHORT: Well, again, I think that there's -- they've been saying two different things. Because the president himself this weekend refuted the notion that he ever said that Mike Pence was too honest and more or less castigated him as misrepresenting the facts, yet his attorneys are saying Mike Pence will be a great witness because he's honest and he chronicled everything that transpired around January 6th. So, it seems they're continuing to have messages that are conflicting. BLITZER: You know, I thought it was interesting, because Pence says he will sign the debate loyalty pledge to support the eventual Republican presidential nominee. But I want you to listen to something that the former vice president told our Dana Bash last Sunday. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MIKE PENCE, FORMER U.S. VICE PRESIDENT: The American people deserve to know that President Trump asked me to put him over my oath to the Constitution. But I kept my oath, and I always will. And I'm running for president in part because I think anyone who puts themselves over the Constitution should never be president of the United States.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: So, how does he justify a loyalty pledge to support the Republican presidential nominee, and by all accounts, Trump is way, way ahead?
SHORT: Well, I think throughout Mike Pence's professional career, he's been a Republican, unlike Donald Trump. And so I think that he's always been loyal to the Republican Party. I think he's acknowledging he'll sign that pledge, but I think it's important to understand, he's running for president against Donald Trump because he thinks he would be a better presidential candidate and a better president of the United States.
BLITZER: But he said, and I'm quoting him, anyone who puts themselves over the Constitution should never be president of the United States. And he says Trump keeps putting himself over the Constitution.
SHORT: It's partly why he's running for president as well as --
BLITZER: How could he possibly support if he's the nominee?
SHORT: (INAUDIBLE) that Donald Trump has walked away from so many conservative policies that are part of the legacy, whether or not that's on life or spending or foreign policy, Wolf.
BLITZER: I want you to also listen to what retired General Keith Kellogg.
As you know, he served as Pence's national security adviser, and just put out in a statement. Let me read a couple of sentences from this statement. You know him well, Keith Kellogg. Pence has often chosen the passive route, avoiding confrontation. This lack of assertiveness combined with an overreliance on failed political consultants, like Marc Short, has demonstrated a laissez faire leadership style unworthy of the presidency. What's your reaction to Kellogg?
SHORT: Well, Wolf, I'm saddened to read that. I don't want to denigrate anybody who has served our country in uniform, in combat, like Keith has. But at the same time, I think Keith has just recently boasted that he nominated Mike Pence for the presidential Medal of Freedom, which I don't think is consistent with his comments of him lacking leadership skills.
I also know there are a lot of young men and women on our staff who stood at their posts on January 6th. Unfortunately, Keith was not one of them. Keith was at the rally at the time the United States Secret Service had evacuated the vice president. The vice president's national security adviser was down on the rally encouraging people to march on the Capitol. So, he did not stand his post.
And I did bring a receipt tonight because this is an email that I got from Keith on January 6th, in the evening of January 6th. In which he said, the president is up in the residence. I recommend you stay on the Hill and finish the Electoral College issue tonight. I responded, that's our plan. And he said, that's not a good plan, that's a great plan, close this thing out tonight.
So, on January 6th, Keith was clearly supporting the vice president's actions. I know that he's still on Donald Trump's payroll and perhaps that's why he's saying something different today.
BLITZER: That's pretty serious charge you're making right now.
SHORT: I think that his comments, you know, are very inconsistent with everything he's said about Mike Pence, and also in private to Mike Pence in the two years since January 6th.
BLITZER: All right. We'll follow up with General Kellogg, see what else he has to say. Thanks very much, Marc Short, for joining us, Marc Short, the former chief of staff to the then-vice president.
Just ahead, western officials are growing increasingly pessimistic right now about Ukraine's counteroffensive. Coming up, I'll speak with the White House National Security Council official, John Kirby.
Much more of our news right after this.
BLITZER: Western officials tell CNN their intelligence assessments of Ukraine's counteroffensive are growing increasingly grim as Kyiv's push to retake territory runs into very stiff Russian resistance.
Our Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto is breaking it all down for us. Jim, what are your sources telling you?
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Sobering is the word, Wolf. I've been speaking to officials on both sides of the Atlantic here since the start of this counteroffensive, and for many of them, their assessment of Ukraine's chances has changed markedly in recent weeks, and this is for a couple of reasons. One, it's Russia's defenses. Three defensive bands here, defensive lines, marked by tens of thousands of landmines proving highly deadly for Ukrainian forces as they come through, extremely difficult to move but also highly complex trench lines, networks of trenches, which has been really difficult to get through and to make progress and to gain land. But the other issue, I'm told, is training. In very short order, the attempt has been made here to train up Ukrainian forces on complex weapons systems, like the Abrams tanks, which is going in soon, or the German Leopard tank, and, in effect, turn Ukrainian forces into mechanized fighting units, sometimes with only eight weeks of training. And that has proven perhaps not sufficient to get them up to the grade necessary to break through these lines quickly.
The final piece here, Wolf, is time. You have a weather change coming as the fall approaches. That means the fighting changes. That is seen as applying pressure. And then you have political pressure. You have some sense from Ukraine's allies that they need to see results, increasing pressure over time. Well, if we're not getting results here, then perhaps Ukraine wants to think about another plan, even some pushing for the possibility of land concessions for peace, something that, of course, Ukrainian officials have understandably resisted, as have many of their western allies.
So, the combination of Russian defenses, a lack of sufficient training and time pressure has really changed a lot of these assessments to being more pessimistic, including many folks who are very optimistic, Wolf, at the start of this counteroffensive.
BLITZER: Excellent reporting, Jim Sciutto, thank you very, very much.
Let's get reaction right now from the National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, retired Admiral John Kirby. John, thanks very much for joining us.
You just heard Jim Sciutto's excellent reporting, as I call it. I know the White House is practicing patience, but do you acknowledge that significant gains in Ukraine's counteroffensive right now seem to be highly unlikely?
JOHN KIRBY, COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: Well, look, even the Ukrainians, Wolf, including President Zelenskyy, has said that they're not going as far as or as fast as he would like, that while they are may making progress, and they are, it's incremental and it's slow and it's not without its difficulties. But they keep trying. They're still at it. In fact, as you and I are talking here, there is active fighting along that front. They are definitely trying to push forward.
Now, whether how far they'll get and where that will be what kind of breakthrough they might be able to achieve, I don't think anybody can say right now. But we've got to make sure that we're staying behind them and supporting them.
And you're going to see continued security assistance packages coming from this administration, including probably later this week to help them break through some of those defenses that Jim described.
BLITZER: What are they going to get later this week? KIRBY: Well, again, I think I'll just -- we'll wait until we're ready to announce it, but I think you're going to see another security assistance package coming very, very soon. And I think what you'll see in that package, Wolf, is very much similar capabilities to what we've been providing the last five, six, seven packages, mine-clearing equipment, artillery ammunition, HIMARS for the rocket systems, I mean, all those kinds of things that we know that they're going to need to be more successful.
BLITZER: As you point out, John, Ukraine was trained specifically on western combat tactics and weaponry. How much responsibility does the U.S. bear for Ukraine's struggling counteroffensive right now?
KIRBY: Look, I think every ally, every partner, every nation, and there's more than 50 of them, including, of course, the United States, that are involved in supporting Ukraine, feels responsible for helping Ukraine be successful on the battlefield. Nobody wants to see them struggle. And like I said, even they admit that they're struggling and they're not doing as well as they'd like.
So, we're all going to be dedicated to continuing to help them get what they need. And if that means more training, then more training it will be. If that means more capabilities, then more capabilities it will be. We're all in this together. We all want to see them succeed.
BLITZER: Let me also get your reaction, John, while I have you, to Russia's deadly so-called double tap strike in Eastern Ukraine right now, where it waited for the first responders to actually arrive on the scene to then deliberately strike once again. How concerning is it that Russia is targeting civilians with this much precision?
KIRBY: That's a level of perniciousness that I have to say, you know, is even striking for the Russians. And, of course, the Russians have been going after civilian targets almost since the beginning of the war. And they have really stepped up their attacks on civilian infrastructure, residential complexes, homes, schools, hospitals, in recent months because they're trying to terrorize the Ukrainian people. They're trying to break their will. They're trying to break their back and force public opinion against this war. It's not going to work, hasn't worked before, it's not going to work now.
But this idea of going after first responders after they've already hit a target, I mean, that does show a level of perniciousness that, again, we haven't seen, yet we shouldn't be surprised that Mr. Putin would resort to even more desperate, even more evil tactics to try to get at the Ukrainian people's will.
BLITZER: While I have you, John, I want to turn to some news just coming in to The Situation Room right now. The FBI says the Air National Guardsman accused of leaking classified documents online, Jack Teixeira, shared classified information with at least one person living in a foreign country. How serious are the implications of that for U.S. national security?
KIRBY: Well, I'm just learning this, listening to you. I was not aware of that report. So, I'd have to go back and take a look at this. But, look, we have taken this issue seriously since the very beginning. This disclosure of classified information through social media networks clearly did have an effect on our ability to continue to collect information.
So, we want to make sure that we can button that up. And if there was, in fact, any sharing of this information outside of the country, obviously, that's going to be something we'll equally take serious already. But, again, I don't know enough about this to comment specifically.
BLITZER: All right. We'll stay in touch with you on that. John Kirby, thank you very much for joining us.
KIRBY: You bet. My pleasure.
BLITZER: All right. Coming up, Republican Ron DeSantis keeps shaking up his struggling presidential bid, ousting a top campaign official. What does it say about the fight for the GOP nomination right now?
BLITZER: Tonight, a new attempt by Ron DeSantis to try to bolster his very struggling fight for the GOP presidential nomination, the Florida governor replacing his campaign manager.
CNN's Steve Contorno is in Florida with more on this ongoing shakeup. Steve, first of all, what are you learning about why DeSantis is making this change now?
STEVE CONTORNO, CNN REPORTER: Well, Wolf, you don't change your quarterback in the middle of a game that you're winning. And what I'm hearing from Republicans close to his campaign is that there is an acknowledgement that things are not going well for the DeSantis campaign right now.
They have tried to do more modest shakeups of the campaign, cutting staff, changing which states they're focusing on, cutting their spending. But now this change at the very top of the campaign signals that they are aware that they have bigger troubles ahead.
Generra Peck is out as campaign manager. This is someone who has led his campaign going back to his 2022 re-election, and now he is putting on top his chief of staff, James Uthmeier. And DeSantis actually recently spoke about his philosophy when making some of these campaign changes in a recent interview with Fox News. Here's what he said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): I'm not a political operative. I'm not a campaign professional. You know, you set out the vision and you execute on it. And if it's not being executed, you just make the course correction.
(END VIDEO CLIP) CONTORNO: Now, the course correction here is interesting, because he is putting in place a chief of staff who has been the architect of many of the cultural battles and controversial actions that he has taken as governor. And DeSantis is facing a lot of criticism from the donor class about his ability to attract voters and moderate himself as he tries to win over the GOP electorate.
In fact, one of his biggest donors and biggest supporters so far, Robert Bigelow, this is a businessman, an entrepreneur out in Nevada. He has said he's going to pause donations to DeSantis' political efforts right now because he said, quote, he does need to shift to get moderates. He'll lose if he doesn't. Extremism isn't going to get you elected.
So, Wolf, it will be interesting to see how this change in leadership at the top affects the message of a candidate who so far has been running to the right of former President Donald Trump, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. Steve Contorno in Florida for us, thank you.
I want to bring in our political commentators right now, Scott Jennings and Bakari Sellers are joining us. Scott, other campaigns certainly have made staff changes during the summer. They actually went on to win the nomination. This is historic. But given how far behind DeSantis is in this race right now, and I'll put up on the screen, you can see a recent New York Times/Siena poll, has Trump at 54 percent to DeSantis' 17 percent. And this is among Republican or likely Republican voters. How do you assess the state of the DeSantis campaign right now?
SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think they're in a little bit better shape in the individual states, for instance, in Iowa, than they are in the national polls. That's number one. And I think the problem they've had from the beginning is that, for the roughly half of the Republican Party that wants to do something other than Trump, the fragmentation is just not going away. What DeSantis has not been able to do is scare or convince anyone else to get out of this race and allow any kind of consolidation.
At the same time, Trump has had some rallying from Republicans who think he's under unfair legal attacks from the Biden administration and other jurisdictions. And so a combination of those things has really prevented DeSantis from rising. I don't know if a staff change is going to help. But right now, there's no question, Trump's in the dominant position in this primary, although there's a debate coming up and a lot more legal stuff to come up as well, I guess, which could change the emotions of some voters.
BLITZER: Yes. We'll see if it does. Bakari, Politico's Jonathan Martin made this observation on Twitter about the turmoil right now in the DeSantis campaign. He said this. Inviting a month of summer process stories by staggering three separate staff changes, that's a candidate issue, not a staff issue, unquote. Is that ultimately how you see it as well? BAKARI SELLERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think so. I think that a lot of Republicans had some faith that maybe Ron DeSantis was the next coming of Ronald Reagan or had the talent of Barack Obama, and that's just not the case. He's more Tim Pawlenty and Scott Walker than anything else.
I think what you're seeing is someone as they go out on the campaign trail, has a very, very awkward way in which he communicates with voters. And the more voters meet him, the less they like him. I mean, they like him on paper a little bit but they just don't like him when they meet him.
One of the things has to be said about this direction of the campaign, like you're not going to out-racism or out-xenophobia Donald Trump. And a lot of his ultra-conservative, far, far right-leaning policies that he's trying to put forth, these culture wars, you're just simply not going to outdo Donald Trump. He has that part of the market cornered. And so now he's left flailing. I don't see him making it to the University of Florida/Florida State football game in November in the fall. November, December.
So, I think this campaign is seeing its last legs and that's what Jonathan Martin was talking about.
BLITZER: Interesting. Scott, an anti-Trump Republican super PAC is out with a new ad highlighting the mounting legal problems for the former president. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think for 2024, Trump is not the most electable candidate. He probably doesn't wake up without 50 emails from his attorneys about current or possible indictments. That's every day of his life now. And it kind of hurts me to say, because I had Trump flags up in my house, had one in my front yard, like I was that guy. Not this time.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: So, do you see this as a defective message to convince Trump voters not to support him again?
JENNINGS: Well, I can only go by what I'm seeing in the polls, and polls right now show that Republicans still think Donald Trump is the most electable candidate, if you can believe it, despite the fact that he's lost the national popular vote twice, and that was before January 6th and before all the indictments and before all the trials that we have to come.
So, none of the other Republican campaigns and this ad campaign, which I think this is their second ad, have been able to convince Republicans that electability is actually a problem for Donald Trump. They think Donald Trump is the most electable candidate. I think they're wrong.
I think Donald Trump in a general election is going to have a very difficult time with the kinds of voters who win presidential campaigns, which are not far right or far left but sort of center cut independents around major suburban areas. But right now, Republicans are not buying these arguments. And, again, even if they are, they're fragmented among so many other candidates, Wolf, that there's just no ability to consolidate behind someone who might agree with the guy in the ad you just played.
BLITZER: Yes. Scott Jennings, Bakari Sellers, guys, thank you very much.
Just ahead, police announced charges in connection with a dock brawl that took place in Alabama. We're going to update you with the latest developments when we come back.
BLITZER: Police in Montgomery, Alabama, have announced charges in connection with a racially tinged dock brawl, which took social media by storm and more charges might be coming.
Brian Todd is covering this story for us.
Brian, what's the latest?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is video we're going to show you here, video that has gone viral, which has led to some very serious scrutiny of this case and led to assault charges being filed against three white men. Tonight, we have new details which seem to break down along racial lines.
We have to warn viewers, some of you might find some of this video in this story disturbing.
TODD (voice-over): Tonight, three people charged so far as police give new accounts of a brawl where the video has gone viral. Footage showing several white people beating a black man on a dock in Montgomery, Alabama. Three white men, one his 40s, the other two in their 20s have been charged with third-degree assault.
The fight seemed to break down along racial lines. The Montgomery police chief says the police, FBI, and prosecutors looked into whether there was enough information to charge for a hate crime or inciting a riot but he says the actions did not meet that criteria.
JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: As they continue to evaluate the video, speak to witnesses, that may very well change because that may give him a sense of the state of mind of the parties involved.
TODD: The incident occurred this past Saturday evening at a riverside dock in Montgomery. Police say it started when a group of white boaters in a small pontoon boat refused to move their boat so that the riverboat cruise vessel the Harriet II, with more than 200 on board, could dock at its designated space. Police say the co-captain of the Harriett II, a Black man identified as Damien Pickett was ferried to the dock and tried to get the pontoon boaters to move their vessel. This video shows picket arguing with the white men.
CHIEF DARRYL ALBERT, MONTGOMERY POLICE: The owners of the boat confronted him in a very hostile manner, and there was words exchanged, and then it turned into a fist encounter that you've all seen. So, the co-captain was doing his job.
TODD: The video shows as picket is arguing with that white man, another white man, shirtless, rushes in and hits Pickett in the face. Then several other white people join in. Pickett is pinned to the ground as they're seen beating on him.
ALBERT: The co-captain did receive treatment at a local hospital the night of the event. That's the only knowledge that we have of anybody receiving any injuries.
TODD: At one point, a man from the cruise boat is seen swimming toward the dock. Moments later, according to witnesses, the brawl expanded when the Harriett II docked. People who were on board the Harriet II started engaging with the people on the pontoon boat.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I knew once that boat hit that dock, like, excuse my language, but all hell was going to break loose. I already knew it was going to be handled.
TODD: One Black man who police say swung a folded chair at the people from the pontoon boat is being asked to contact police.
TODD (on camera): The Montgomery police chief says the investigation is ongoing, and more charges are likely. Wolf, an ugly incident from beginning to end.
BLITZER: Very ugly indeed. All right, Brian. Thank you very much.
This note to our viewers, coming up on "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT," right after THE SITUATION ROOM, the sheriff in the Gilgo Beach murders case on new details about efforts to get the suspected killer's DNA. That's coming up right after THE SITUATION ROOM at the top of the hour.
Coming up here next in THE SITUATION ROOM, polls are about to close in Ohio where voters are deciding on a referendum that could make it far more difficult to enshrine the right to an abortion in the state's constitution.
Stay with us.
[18:56:35] BLITZER: In Ohio tonight, polls are closing in about an hour on a referendum that could make it much tougher to enshrine the right to an abortion in the state's constitution.
CNN's Jeff Zeleny has our report.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A summer showdown over abortion rights and democracy coming to a boil tonight in a special election in Ohio. Voters went to the polls today to cast their ballots to decide the rules for a November election, seeking to enshrine abortion rights in the state's constitution. Call it an election two-step, designed by Republican leaders to raise the bar for passing the abortion measure this fall.
WENDY PANERO, OHIO VOTER: I think initially, it caught people by surprise, but people started seeing through it.
ZELENY: Wendy Panero told us she voted against Issue One, which seeks to raise the threshold for changing the state's constitution from a simple majority to a supermajority of 60 percent.
PANERO: It's fairly transparent attempt to take over the will of people in the state.
ZELENY: A year after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and returned the issue back to the states, Ohio has emerged as the latest battleground on abortion rights in. July, supporters submitted enough signatures to put the question on the November ballot, regardless of the outcome of tonight's election.
FRANK LAROSE (R), OHIO SECRETARY OF STATE: Issue One is quite simply about protecting the Ohio constitution.
ZELENY: Secretary of State Frank LaRose has been a leading proponent of issue one. He dismissed critic who's say the August special election was scheduled when many Ohioans may not be paying close attention to politics.
LAROSE: This idea that it was going to be some sort of low-turnout election was foolish idea. People in Ohio are well aware that there's an important issue on the ballot, and they have every ample opportunity to participate.
ZELENY: LaRose who's also locked in a crowded Republican Senate primary here has been at the center of withering criticism for his role in the special election.
Going into Election Day, about 700,000 people had already voted early after a flood of dueling TV ads with outside groups on both sides pouring in more than $26 million.
AD ANNOUNCER: Don't be silenced on August 8. Both no on Issue One. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We raised that bar to 60 percent. It protects our foundational document here in the state of Ohio to protect our constitution. Vote yes for Issue One.
ZELENY: While abortion was not formally on the ballot, the outcome of this special election will determine the political potency of the issue heading into the 2024 campaign in Ohio and across the country.
ZELENY (on camera): And a year after that landmark Dobbs decision, abortion does remain so pivotal. We have a new CNN national poll tonight underscoring those findings, 64 percent of all Americans say they still disapprove of that Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe versus Wade.
But back here in Ohio tonight, Wolf, regardless of the outcome of the Issue One vote tonight, there is going to be the abortion question on the November ballot. The only question if it will take a simple majority or a super majority to pass it -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. Jeff Zeleny in Ohio for us, thank you.
Finally tonight, we're celebrating a milestone here in THE SITUATION ROOM, 18 years on the air.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: I'm Wolf Blitzer and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM where news and information --
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BLITZER: That was our debut on August 8, 2005. Since then, we're proud and humbled to have covered so many important stories, remembering as CNN founder Ted Turner always just say to me, the news comes first.
Thanks to all the talented journalists who put us on the air then and now, and we especially want to thank you our viewers for watching.
Thanks to all the talented journalists who put us on the air then and now, and we especially want to thank you our viewers for watching.
Thanks very much for watching tonight. Of course, I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.